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Saturday morning quotes 6.12: Grace, dignity and truth

August 6, 2016

Not van wilderOne of the most attractive qualities of early music is the calm sense of grace the music is meant to convey.  Sure, one can find plenty of sets of florid divisions or bawdy songs one might sing in the month of May.  And from the 17th century forward, a great deal of music showcases a frivolous and hollow virtuosity that seems to pander to the lowest common denominator.  But the best composers of earlier music conveyed in notes and well-chosen song texts a sound world informed by the depth of what was in their minds, hearts and souls—not simply what was in their fingers.  As we repeat often, John Dowland had very sharp words for those who considered themselves musicians but whose skill only resided in their fingers’ ends.

For revivalists to truly understand the aesthetics of early music, more than a passing familiarity with the literary sources and song texts from a given period is essential—Richard Barnfield nailed it when he described music and poetry as the sister and the brother.  An open-eyed exploration of the treasure trove of historical music and poetry leads revivalists to the beginning of an understanding of just what music meant to our ancestors and how it served a daily function to foster and sustain a calm sense of grace.

“Just as grace is the expression of a beautiful soul, dignity is the expression of a noble disposition of mind.  It is, indeed, the person’s task to establish an intimate accord between his two natures, always to be a harmonizing whole, and act with his full-voiced entire humanity. “

– Friedrich Schiller, “On Grace and Dignity”,  New Thalia, 1793

As a duo, we strive to promote the calm sense of grace that we draw from our exploration of the repertory. And as we delve more deeply into historical aesthetics, we are affected by the inherent calm sense of grace in the music, and we find ourselves simply stepping back from our own personal ideas and just allowing the music to speak on its own terms.  Without apology, we consider that to be an arrival at a very important station prominently situated well down the track that leads to informed artistic interpretive authority.

We are committed to sharing our very well-informed interpretations of historical music in this forum and on the concert stage because we are firm in the belief that the world needs exposure to more of the calm sense of grace drawn from historical examples.  Now more than ever, the world suffers from an epidemic of blustering personalities and rash words—an unfortunate trend seen across the globe but particularly emanating from the US at present. We find this distasteful in the extreme and we are not above contributing calm, respectful commentary as a means in some small way to counter the embarrassing image of the blustering narcissistic American who, with fistfuls of cash, buys his way to prominent notice.

The plays of [Ben] Jonson deal with the impact of self-assertive egoism on an ordered society.   But Jonson makes little attempt to understand his monsters; he regards them as instruments of evil, whether horrible or ludicrous, who destroy civilization…

– Wilfrid Mellers, Harmonious Meeting: A Study of the Relationship between English Music, Poetry and Theatre, c. 1600-1900, Dobson Books, London, 1965, p. 18

What can an independent musician do to counter this trend?  Speak the truth. As an illustrative example of the morally ambiguous things an independent musician must do sometimes, several years ago I was contacted by a well-known physician with a medical degree from the most highly regarded school in the US.  He had ceased his practice and instead created a very lucrative franchise in a specialized field of health care.  But like many “successful” personalities he wanted more.

Initially, I was asked to give his wife mandolin lessons and I successfully taught her how to play a few pieces by rote.  I was then asked to give him guitar lessons and teach them how to play and sing together.  Again, as a competent teacher, I patiently instructed them with a successful result, and they were able to play and sing a few simple pieces together.  And as unpleasant as I may have found the task, I bit the bullet and graciously taught them the music they requested despite my aversion to the Grateful Dead.

But when dealing with acutely narcissistic personalities, such encouragement can easily create a monster. It was not long before the couple asked me to produce a studio recording of their playing that they could then distribute to the people involved in their worldwide franchise (meaning forcing them to buy it).  Independent musicians require income and, with moral misgivings, I agreed to help them with this project.  Needless to say, there was an enormous amount of very expensive post-session editing, time-shifting and auto-tuning in the studio and, perhaps most disturbingly, the very capable engineer was quite accustomed to the phenomenon and produced an acceptable if marginal result.

We have produced 10 CDs of Mignarda’s music for voice and lute and we say unashamedly that not one of them cost more than $3000 to produce including recording, editing, mastering, design and artwork, manufacture  and shipping of the first run of each CD title.  Our recordings are minimalist and our audiences respond to this honesty.

The couple then announced that they were going to begin teaching others to play music based on what they had learned from their experience with my teaching.  In theory, I thought it not a bad idea to foster an appreciation for playing music no matter at what level.  But the couple were patently delusional about their abilities, and were frankly incapable of ever reproducing a live performance of what was on the recording, even at the most rudimentary level.

I felt morally obliged to convey face to face, in kind and respectful terms, the cold, hard truth that, while sharing music for fun is a good thing, they needed quite a bit more personal work before embarking on a career in teaching music.  This seemed to displease the couple, who were accustomed to a filtered reality colored by their monetary wealth and, sadly, reinforced by the hordes of fawning hangers-on who lived in hope of some of that wealth trickling down to them.

“The greatest fools are those that do not know their folly; the next are those that cannot hide their folly.”

– Mary Burwell’s lute tutor, c. 1660

Encouraging such personalities at some point boils down to perpetrating falsehood and fraud.  Donald Trump achieved a public platform by buying his way to prominence in this manner.  We feel a moral obligation to mention the fact that the Emperor is naked, and it’s an embarrassing sight.  We’ll say nothing more about the alternative embarrassment who sports the pantsuits, other than she sometimes looks like Captain Kangaroo.

We received a comment on another forum regarding a previous blog post that quoted an article by Maria Schneider on the subject of artists’ rights and the enormous amount of piracy that appears to be encouraged by Youtube.  The comment included the following:

“So, you have claimed on your blog to be the ultimate arbiter of HIP performance, what should be played and in what order, who is qualified to play it, how society should reimburse for it, what modern rep is acceptable to play and now good vs evil. Since you like to bring politics into your blog posts, this sounds like one of the current US candidates for president (hint: the one that doesn’t wear pantsuits (in public)).”

Pot, kettle, black. We provide informed, well-researched, carefully documented and respectfully presented commentary on early music and related matters, conveyed with grace and dignity.  We offer our insights with frequent regularity to an international audience of appreciative readers, and we can see how our success and productivity may chafe among those associated with the corporate early music establishment in the US. [The unnamed source of the quote is a board member of Early Music America.]

And, yes, we speak the truth.

As for the rest that would faine informe men, they know something by their generall dislike of euerie thing; I will not so much as desire them to be silent [lest] I should thereby teach them at least how they might seeme wise.

– Robert Jones, The Second Booke of Songe and Ayres, 1601, To the Reader.

One Comment
  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    Early music doesn’t just convey grace, dignity, and peacefulness… Music, for instance William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, translates me out of this shaky world and into Heaven. Some call Palestrina’s compositions “music of the angels”. And, of course, there is nothing more glorious than the lute. Thank you so much for your comments.


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