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Saturday morning quotes 7.8: Tied score

July 14, 2018

1002-egyptian-scroll-028Our last two posts featured tracks from one of two upcoming CD releases we have planned for this year.  But occasionally we pause and ask ourselves a few meaningful questions concerning the early music racket: Why do we bother with a re-creative art like early music?  What exactly is our motivation?  What do we hope to gain by indulging in an art form that fits so uncomfortably with today’s prevailing modern cynical sensibility?

Regardless of genre, style or focus, modern day musicians must view old music through a telescope that extends from the present into the past. While the lens may briefly register notable events as it expands along its prescribed path to the past, the narrow tube effectively shuts out all contextual elements the viewer does not wish to observe.  In this manner, early music revivalists have managed to re-create a modified past as they wish to see it, picking and choosing all the traits that happen to fit their desired description.  This reformed concept of history invariably finds its way onto the modern concert stage, and today’s audiences are sold a brand of early music that never really existed, with modes of performance that our ancestors surely never experienced.

Sixteenth-century musicians approached music quite differently from modern early music revivalists.  For the professional, music was not a pastime that filled the spare hours and offered a pleasant diversion, but instead music was seen as an essential element in daily life.  Work as a musician performing functional music did not typically bring recognition, nor did it result in exceptional remuneration for most of the rank and file.  A musician was trained first in singing and composing, and then directed this informed attention to instrumental music.

Modern day musicians who specialize in early music must countenance the fact that participation in a re-creative art requires extraordinary insight into the contextual details of the particular era if he or she wishes to capture the true spirit of the music.  And effective performance demands an understanding of how music, culture, and events from ensuing centuries have crept into our consciousness and influence our perceptions.  A very tall order.

Today’s quotes are from Anne Smith, The Performance of 16th-Century Music: Learning From The Theorists, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, from the chapter entitled “Part-book Versus Score Culture.”

“I think that it is very difficult for us to imagine what it was like without readily available printed material.  Just as a small example, I can recall a time when photocopying was not a particularly attractive alternative to making excerpts by hand: The copies were expensive, they faded when exposed to light, and were on paper that smelled funny.  You only copied what was absolutely necessary and did everything else by hand.  And in some way I do regret that this era has passed because I know I learned a lot from the process of writing things out by hand and implanted them in a different way in my memory.  How much greater the difference then between having the possibility of mass-producing music—even if the printings were comparatively small by today’s standards—and exclusively limited to what one could notate by hand.”

“At the same time I am convinced that we will not get to the heart of the music if we do not approach it in the same way, from the individual parts, allowing their flowing together, their confluence to create the whole.  To do so means we have to start playing from the parts, often probably even memorizing them.  Experience has shown that the product is consistently of a higher quality.”

– Anne Smith, p. 18.

While hobbyists amass terabytes of music scores to store on their ipads, even playing from the strangely glowing backlit screens, those of us who care deeply about the aesthetics of historical music know that an effective and moving performance that honors the past demands our participation in the tactile experience of the music.

One Comment
  1. David Hill permalink

    In the early 1980s, working on lute songs with Robert Spencer, I discovered that there were (and still are) no modern ‘Urtexts’ of Dowland, which include the text of the later verses beneath the vocal stave, such as one expects in editions of Lieder and other strophic songs – even Broadway. I therefore spend two weeks writing out, by hand, all the songs of Dowland (and later Rosseter and Danyel), fully underlaid. This was one of the most important learning experiences I ever underwent, forcing me to make tough decisions concerning underlay, and evolve solutions to the problems – often requiring cross-reference with other songs of the time, other poetry and other material. Although I only ever made 2 copies, for me and then lutenist, other singers also clamoured for it once they realised what it did, so copies of this now-embarrasing document may still be circulating. Although now I would only ever use annotated facsimiles of the originals, there is still a pressing need for a better Dowland edition for students to be created and published, but I would always urge students to try to do this work for themselves as part of the process of understanding the songs.

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