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Saturday morning quotes 7.9: Authenticity redux II

August 10, 2018


With a minimum of fanfare we breathe a puff of air on the faint embers of our series of quotations and rekindle the flame with words of wisdom from Gustav Leonhardt (1928 – 2012), drawn from his essay “On the Use of Original Instruments” found on a seminal recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.  When this recording was made in 1977, the term “authenticity” was bandied handily about, mostly by enthusiastic new converts in reaction to lush romantic performances of early works by modern performers on modern instruments employing 20th-century interpretive ideas and instrumental techniques. This reaction against the status quo represents the true foundation of the modern early music revival.

When Leonhardt refers to “original instruments”, it turns out that he meant it.  Nearly all of the stringed instruments used for the Bach recording were in fact historical instruments restored to good playing condition.  Understanding how the sound of old instruments defined the shape of historical music was a crucial step towards intelligent interpretation.  But probing deeply beneath the surface, Leonhardt prepared the path that led to an understanding of the aesthetics of historical music, and we constantly echo his sentiments here on this forum.

“If one is convincing, what is offered will leave an authentic impression.  If one strives to be authentic, it will never be convincing.  It is only by trying to penetrate the world of ideas of a great mind and of his age that a performer—speaking quite generally— can, if he has acquired sufficient technique and himself has the secret of talent, give the impression of presenting something true and genuine.”

“The rendering of a piece of music can, however, never be authentic, since the music itself refused to be tied down.  Music is not the written notes, but the sounds.  Even the composer gives a new authenticity to every performance of his work.”

“It seems to me that the conflict between authentic and unauthentic (who could possibly judge?) is less important than the question of artistic quality, which is hard to put into words (le cœur a ses raisons…), on this point one can only leave the public to judge— though the public, like musicians, will change.  (Some shortcomings must occasionally be attributed to the fact that this change is not synchronized—and it is not always the musicians who take the lead…!)”

– Gustav Leonhardt (English translation by Robert Jordan), notes to Johann Sebastian Bach, The Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046 – 1051, Seon Musikfilm, 1977.

Leonhardt’s approach to authenticity can be directly applied to the lute revival; a world unto itself where perfectionists congregate and argue with certainty all the details of “authentic” performance.  But it seems the loudest voices confine themselves to details concerning the physical attributes of the instrument, its stringing, and the disposition of the hands in play.  Since my first contact with the lute, I (RA) have been baffled by the cult of correctness in the physical disposition of the instrument (which surely was never standard) among revivalists, yet very few are actually interested in exploring the ample historical contextual information that describes the frame of mind necessary to embrace the surviving music for the lute.

A case in point may be found in Thomas Robinson’s The School of Musicke, perfectly teaching the true fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Violl de Gamba, with most infallible generall rules, both easie and dellightfull. London, 1603.  As the title promises, there is abundant information for applying fingers to strings, as well as an interesting collection of “lessons” that both highlight aspects of technique and please the ear.  But Robinson begins his dialogue with important information that describes the frame of mind essential to approaching the lute.

Like other contemporary instruction books, Robinson casts his information “Dialogue wise, betwixt a Knight, (who hath children to be taught) and Timotheus, that should teach them.”  The Knight expresses that “In mine opinion, I think it impossible to be a good Musition except a man be seene in all the seauen liberall Sciences,” to which Timotheus responds at length on the qualities of a person who would be a good musician.

“Timotheus…First he must bee a diuine, that is, he must be diuinelie giuen, he must aboue all things serue God, that God may blesse him, in all his good indeuoures; hee must read the scriptures, for it is the fountaine of all knowledge, & it teacheth the diuine harmonie of the soule of man: for Musicke is none other then a perfect harmonie…”

– Thomas Robinson, 1603

This is important historical contextual information that many, in this ardently secular age, will choose to lightly consider or file away as a curiosity.  But it is in fact poor scholarship to ignore important historical contextual information because it may not fit with a modern sensibility.  Without proselytizing, it is plain as day that music had (and has) a significant spiritual dimension, and in order to experience the depth of music as the old ones did, it is necessary to embrace that spiritual dimension.  If we choose to disregard this important contextual information, how can we possibly deliver a convincing performance?

Robinson’s dialogue also touches on what he thinks is not necessary to make a good musician, telling us there is no need for doctors when music has such curative powers.

“And thus…I conclude the necessitie of diuinitie in a Musition.  Now that a Musition should bee a [Physician], I see no such necessitie, But that Musicke is Phisical, it is plainlie seene by those maladies it cureth.  As it cureth melancholie; it much preuaileth against madnesse; If a man be in paines of the gout, of any wound, or of the head, it much mittigateth the furie thereof: and it is said, that Musicke hath a salue for every sore.”

– Thomas Robinson, 1603




One Comment
  1. Chlovena Byrd permalink

    Still following…welcome back!!!

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