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Saturday morning quotes 7.1: Authenticity redux

March 24, 2018

stilllifewithsockmonkeyrosesWe finally reemerge with our series of Saturday morning quotes after more than a year of hiatus.  Those faithful readers who have followed our series will know the general thrust of our approach, which remains unchanged and as committed as ever.  But for new readers, we will say that our series of quotes past and present will focus on the following:

  • The nature and status of the early music revival from the perspective of committed performers
  • The lute, both as an historical emblem of musical aesthetic of the past and a viable, if  very sensitive, instrument of the present
  • Mignarda, as a duo specializing in polyphonic music for voice and lute, and as our now expanded vocal and instrumental ensemble


Today’s post revisits the theme of authenticity with a retrospective selection of quotations drawn from a variety of sources and distilled in past postings on Unquiet Thoughts. The first is from a pioneer of the early music revival, Michael Morrow, who elucidates the essentials of communication with the audience of today.

“…[W]e must never forget that in any age the artist is addressing himself to his contemporaries, and his language is composed of a system of familiar conventions — musical, visual or literary. If we don’t or can’t learn these languages, the conventions will be as meaningless to us as the hand gestures of an Indian dancer are to the average western audience.”

– Michael Morrow (1929 – 1994), Early Music, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1978.

Richard Taruskin pointed out the inconvenient truth that simply performing on early instruments does not mean that performers are recreating the past.

“Old instruments and old performance practices are in themselves of no aesthetic value. The claim of self-evidence for the value of old instruments, like the claim of self-evidence for the virtue of adhering to a composer’s ‘intentions’, is really nothing but a mystique, and more often than one can tell, that is the only justification offered. Consequently, though he is happily less in evidence than before, the naked emperor still parades through the halls where ‘authentic’ performances are heard.”

– Richard Taruskin, from “The authenticity movement can become a positivistic purgatory, literalistic and dehumanizing”, Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 1, Feb., 1984, p. 7

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

– Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990.

Anthony Rooley, now retired from performing, has had an active career as a scholar, performer, and an insightful researcher into the aesthetics of early music.

“There are two ways of looking at authenticity. The first is pragmatic—where you try to recreate the sound the composer actually heard, using original instruments in the original setting. This is only the first step. The second way is to examine exactly what authenticity meant to the composers themselves. In asking this we may hope to capture the spirit of the music. This is anathema to the modern scholar and to the majority of performers because the terms are so ill-defined—it frightens people. You talk about the spirit, the power, the energy of something and you’re into a language which becomes poetic, almost divine. It’s a threat to the pragmatic mind; but renaissance man was infinitely more interested in the quasi-divine than in pragmatic data.”

– Anthony Rooley, as interviewed by Peter Phillips, “Approaches to Performance: The Lutenists’ View”, Early Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 225-235.

Bernard D. Sherman authored an enlightening book, Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers, Oxford University Press, 1997.  More to the point, Sherman is also the author of an important article on Authenticity in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.

“…Few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed.”

“The most important legacy of the historical performance movement may be those performances that attain authenticity in the senses more often used in the arts: those of conviction, self-knowledge, spontaneity, and emotional honesty.“

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in Musical Performance” The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, four volumes).

When we get to the heart of the matter and distill the convoluted descriptive verbiage, authenticity in the performance of early music has much more to do with the intent, integrity and the musicianship of the performer than, for instance, the type of strings one uses.

One of our very favorite ensembles consists of the lute duo of Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula, who specialize in virtuoso arrangements of baroque lute music, at times creating dazzling new renditions of Bach’s keyboard works that sound much more appealing and aesthetically pleasing than the keyboard originals.  In a bold display of authentic spirit, they describe their recording of sonatas by Silvius Leopold Weiss as an homage to the early music revival.  We heartily applaud this approach.

The current program features works by the most prominent Master of lute composition, Silvius Leopold Weiss. Weiss composed during the Baroque era, which saw the peak of the lute`s development. Here Weiss` works are performed by XXI century musicians, whose musical influences have been shaped by a colorful array of later voices: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Dave Brubeck, and Pink Floyd among others. Many great musicians developed their skills by being rooted in the music of the past, while inspiring millions who play and compose the music of the present. We hope that the music of Silvius Leopold Weiss will be an inspiration to you as it has been to us.”

“While working on this recording, we wanted to recreate the atmosphere and feeling musicians had when recording lute in the time of the XX century early music revival. We desired to recreate that atmosphere, when albums that made us dream of playing the lute were created. Therefore, we turned to the analog medium and worked with Tascam reel-to-reel recorders during sessions and the post production process. This CD represents an AAD recording.”

“The Pyramid strings on our instruments were widely used towards the end of the XX century, and are still among the most respected of brands. It was a great experience to combine historical instruments, traditional tape machines, and strings that were crucial in the revival of the lute.”

Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula

What could be more authentic?

One Comment
  1. Dmitry Medvedev permalink

    Taruskin’s entire article in “Early Music” is absolutely magnificent. Thank you so much for this reference!

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