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Saturday morning quotes 6.8: Variety

July 9, 2016

Marx bros Tu ba or not tu ba“…The Art of Fugue is invariably presented in ‘complete’ performances which strike one rather as exercises in musical sado-masochism.”

– Howard Schott, in a review of Bach, edited by Charles Rosen, Early Music, Vol. V, No. 3, 1977, p. 415.

What is with our obsession to buy box-set recordings of “the complete works” of a composer?  Or to attend or produce concert programs that focus on music from a single source?  Or, as alluded to above, promoting the artistic indulgence of sitting through all 30 of the so-called Goldberg Variations?

This entirely anachronistic practice is among the worst of the many, many modernisms we foist upon early music when producing concerts or recordings.  And, like so many, many modernisms, it is done for purely commercial reasons—to more conveniently package a product for the marketplace.  Or it is done for arcane academic reasons—to satisfy the requirements of one of our artificially-contrived categories imposed upon an historical era, developed primarily for the ease of teaching a seminar course.

What today’s audiences want is what audiences have always wanted: Variety.  And as it turns out, a pleasing variety in a concert program is actually an historically accurate representation of entertainment of days gone by, domestic or public.  If we examine some of the circa 1600 commonplace manuscript books containing English lute music, there is a great deal of variety in the forms and styles of music for domestic use, ranging from psalm settings, to lively dances, to heady arrangements of vocal polyphony, and to downright bawdy songs.

Variety was the theme and, of the surviving published works of music from the same time and place, Robert Dowland’s two 1610 publications are the best known among today’s lute oriented populaton.  The title to the collection of songs says it all: A MVSICALL BANQVET – Furnished with a varietie of delicious Ayres, Collected out of the best Authors in English, French, Spanish and Italian.  And variety was so important that Dowland’s collection of lute solos was titled thus:  Varietie of Lute-lessons viz. Fantasies, Pauins, Galliards, Almaines, Corantoes, and Volts: Selected out of the best approued AVTHORS, as well beyond the Seas as of our owne Country.  The program notes to Nigel North’s excellent recording of music from this collection reinforce the importance of our theme:

“One of the many aspects of this collection which I love is the true ‘varietie’ of the music; the astonishing way that each lutenist-composer uses the instrument in such unique personal ways. Compare, for example,the exuberant broken-chord division style in Batchelar’s ‘Monsiuers Almaine’; the wonderfully melodic style of John Dowland; the chromatic writing with wild changes of mood and pace which we find in the fantasie of Diomedes Cato; the perfect counterpoint of Morley and the wonderful sonorities of the Prince of Hessen’s Pavan.”

– Nigel North, from the CD booklet to A Varietie of Lute Lessons, Linn Records BKD 097

Domestic entertainment of some sort was a staple of each and every household, from the wheeze of bagpipes, fiddles and mouth-music, to music sampled from a well-stocked library and employing a full chest of viols.  But the notion of public concerts seriously took root in late 17th century London—a bit after the protolithic Ukip Trump troop occupation had finally run its course.

“The theatres, closed during the greater part of the Commonwealth period, flourished once again, and in 1672 John Banister established a series of public concerts at Whitefriars which became the model for many similar ventures, at York Buildings and elsewhere. At Banister’s concerts the performers were ‘mercenary teachers, chiefly forreiners’, and indeed foreign musicians, for whom the King had already shewn an open preference both in his chapel music and in the band of violins, were not slow to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the early development of concert-giving in this country. Writing some time later, Roger North tells us that they soon found out ‘the Grand secret, that the English would follow Musick & drop their pence freely, of which some advantage hath bin since made’.”

And for concert repertory, variety was the watchword.

“Nearly all these early concerts consisted of ‘vocal and instrumental music’—the recital by a single performer was then unknown. As a rule the number of performers was probably quite small, since promoters seemed to regard thirty or more executants as a special attraction to be mentioned in the advertisement. The vocal music, particularly in the case of odes and feast-songs, is often specified exactly, but similar details of the instrumental music, for the most part chamber music, are rarely given. The programmes were often arranged very haphazardly: North, writing of York Buildings, says, ‘Here was consorts, fuges, solos, lutes, Hautbois, trumpets, kettledrums, and what Not but all disjoynted and incoherent for while ye masters were shuffling out & in of places to take their parts there was a totall cessation, and None knew what would come next; all this was utterly against the true Model of an entertainment, which [for] want of unity is allway spoiled’.” Elsewhere he suggests that the ‘thoroughbass should never cease but play continuously’ throughout the concert, which should not last more than an hour,” though even then they frequently lasted three hours or more.”

– Michael Tilmouth, “Some Early London Concerts and Music Clubs, 1670-1720”,
Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 84th Sess. (1957 – 1958), pp. 13-26.

Constituting one of the first large-scale early music revivals, the better-organized Concert of Antient Music was established in 1776 with the guiding rule that they would feature no music that had been composed within the previous twenty years.  These public concert programs did not abrade the ears of the audience with, for instance, Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638, performed in its entirety, but rather catered to a discerning audience with a pleasing variety.

From the original A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by George Grove, “Ancient Concerts”, by Charles Mackeson:

“The earlier programmes included an overture (usually one of Handel’s), two or three concertos by Handel, Martini, Corelli, Avison, or Geminiani, several choruses and solos from Handel’s oratorios, and an anthem, glee, or madrigal; but occasionally an entire work, such as the Dettingen ‘Te Deum,’ was given as the first part of the concert.”

So much for our obsession with programmatic unity based only upon silly categorical constraints.  If we really care about historical performance practice, we’ll stop already with staging an entire concert of lute works by Al the Ripper, or Louie Milan, or Sly “the somnambulist” Weiss.  It’s no wonder the poor unsuspecting lute has gained an undeserved reputation today as yawn-inducing; an instrument seldom seen and hardly heard on the concert platform. Our best concert artistes appear to be doing their level best to eradicate the last vestiges of an appreciative audience by boring them to death with academic essays.

It is in fact possible to arrange a satisfying concert program that represents good music in an historically-accurate manner.  It does not have to be a choice between the integrity of one’s scholarship and a satisfying listening experience.  We’ll save the winning formula for a later post.

3 Comments
  1. What I always miss when coming across the complete works of a composer – apart from being bored and struck to death by the amount of programmatic unity – is the individual approach of the interpreters, which is an issue of variety as well. Their personal selection and order serve as a guideline for the listener. Why am I supposed to buy this recording or attend this concert and not another one? What do the artists want to tell me? Will it touch me, will I learn anything? Will their performance just pass me by, or will I cherish the memory of this experience forever? An historically accurate and individually shaped variety is an essential aspect of attraction.

    • Thank you for your insightful remarks. We also enjoy indulging in how different composers might set the same text. A case in point is the text, “Pour un plaisir que si peu dure”, for which we include three different settings on our Au pres de vous CD (Sermisy, Crecquillon and Philip Van Wilder). All three settings seem perfectly sympathetic with the text, but display vastly different interpretations that are quite representative of each composer’s style. Vive la différence.

      • And that’s exactly what I as listener like to learn from artists as experts in their field…

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