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Saturday morning quotes 7.20: What we know

December 29, 2018

William Morris AngelWe return after yet another brief hiatus to cap off the calendar year with a bit of commentary on the state of early music and what sort of changes we anticipate in the coming year.

In many ways 2018 was a year that deserves to be viewed retrospectively with a reproving look, and we draw ourselves up with frown and with furrowed brow to say that things of a public nature are simply not measuring up to the standard we should expect after centuries of an evolving civilization (allegedly).  One indicates disappointment.  One registers scorn.

How did we arrive at this distasteful point?  Was the train of progress deliberately derailed or surreptitiously switched to the wrong track?  Who is to blame for this mess?  The easy answer is to say we are all culpable for participating in an economic system that places profit over the public weal and makes no apology for employing blatant deception as standard operating procedure.  Or we are all to blame for allowing ourselves to be manipulated by social media monopolies that deliberately exploit the dopamine highs humans crave when someone encourages displays of inanity by clicking “like”.

But we as individuals are really not to blame, because we’re merely participating in the modern lifestyle and communicating using tools currently available.  And we are likewise only responding to the uniquely targeted information with which we are constantly bombarded; information meant to cause us to desire and consume material goods and distract us from important matters.  Like the lessons of history.  If we are culpable at all, our guilt lies in believing the message and allowing ourselves to be deceived.

There is hope, and we only need look back to a time when a cultural movement was spawned in reaction to an increasingly industrialized and impersonal world. The 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement began with the dramatic change when the rural market economy morphed to a heavily industrialized and urbanized environment in the span of a few decades.  William Morris (1834 – 1896), whose fanciful stained glass angel is depicted at the top of this page, was the most recognizable exponent and he devoted his life to cultivating an appreciation of handmade items in the rapidly industrialized 19th century.

The early music revival arose from the same sentiment as the Arts and Crafts movement, and there are definite links in crossover figures like folklorist Cecil Sharp (1859 – 1924), who became both a Socialist and a vegetarian after attending lectures by William Morris.  More to the point, Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940) produced in 1896 the first harpsichord made in England since the turn of the previous century, and the Green Harpsichord, with its design and ornamentation reflecting the Morris interpretation of the aesthetics of the past, was displayed at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society that same year.

“At a time when many in the musical establishment saw early music as little more than a curiosity, the enthusiastic support from Herbert Horne, William Morris, and others within the Arts and Crafts community did much to validate Dolmetsch’s efforts, not only by providing him with spaces to perform and exhibit, but also by promoting an aesthetic ideal that was particularly well-matched to his work.”

– Edmond Johnson, “Arnold Dolmetsch’s “Green Harpsichord” and the Musical Arts and Crafts”, Keyboard Perspectives: Yearbook of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, Vol X/2017, p. 145.

Dolmetsch found his way across the pond and worked for Boston keyboard manufacturer Chickering & Sons between 1905 and 1910, supervising construction of harpischords and clavichords to meet a growing American market for instruments of early music, a demand encouraged by US adherents to the Arts and Crafts movement.  In many ways, Arnold Dolmetsch left as much a direct and distinct mark on early music in the US as elsewhere, and it’s at this point we step back and view how the early music revival took on a unique character in America.

Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016) devoted a segment of his enormous output of essays to making particular study of historical aesthetics and their curious clash with modern culture.  Informed by his specialist knowledge of art and beauty in the Middle Ages and a keen eye for the absurdities of modern life, Eco offered a wry assessment of the American desire to recreate a past it never had through examples such as the (now defunct) Palace of Living Arts in Buena Park, Los Angeles, which produced wax replicas of iconic bits of historical European art, including fanciful extrapolations of paintings like Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa rendered in three dimensions.

“[The wax rendering of Michelangelo’s] David is a rough type with black curls, slingshot, and a green leaf against his pink belly.  The printed text informs us that the wax-work portrays the model as he must have been when Michelangelo copied him.  Not far off is the Venus de Milo, leaning on an Ionic column against the background of a wall with figures painted in red.  I say “leaning,” and in fact this polychrome unfortunate has arms.  The legend explains: “Venus de Milo brought to life as she was in the days when she posed for the unknown Greek sculptor, in approximately 200 B.C.”

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, English translation by William Weaver, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986, p. 20.

Eco encountered a particularly desperate sort of American excess born of a desire to create a past it never had displayed at San Simeon, the California castle of William Randolph Hearst (1863 – 1951), the newspaper magnate memorialized in Orson Welles’ film, Citizen Kane.

“…Hearst bought, in bits or whole, palaces, abbeys, and convents in Europe, had them dismantled brick by numbered brick, packaged and shipped across the ocean, to be reconstructed on the enchanted hill, in the midst of free-ranging wild animals.  Since he wanted not a museum but a Renaissance house, he complemented the original pieces with bold imitations, not bothering to distinguish the genuine from the copy.  An incontinent collectionism, the bad taste of the nouveau riche, and a thirst for prestige led him to bring the past down to the level of today’s life; but he conceived of today as worth living only if guaranteed to be “just like the past”.”

Umberto Eco, p. 22.

Although specifically referencing objects of visual art, Eco eloquently described precisely the sort of dynamic that drew American audiences to indulge in the revival of historical European music.  While the revival was certainly not exclusively an American phenomenon, it was subjected to a particularly American market analysis and given a particularly American treatment.  From the sparse ranks of early music performers a few stars were designated and promoted through the consensus of self-appointed academics, record labels, and reviewers, and a well-oiled Public Relations machine shifted into overdrive in the 1980s and remained in place until the overtaxed machinery began to fatigue and audiences grew weary of the hype.

There is a distinct difference between the revival of European historical music in Europe, where concert attendance by the public at large was cultivated long ago and maintains an unbroken link, and the American approach to historical music, which is in essence a revival of a past it never had.  In the attempt to add zest and “fire” to historical music, American ensembles are prone to forsake the grace and elegance of early music in favor of gimmicks like fast tempi and exaggerated dynamics.

But all is not sourness and ruin.  Many of us embrace the aesthetics of early music and integrate that historical grace and elegance into our personal approach.  The bad news is that the early music revival is over.  The good news is that some of us perform early music in an informed manner and as though it were as natural as any other music one would hear today.  We have from the beginning.  The good news is that the early music revival is over.

“The Early Music Revival is completed. Early Music is now an independent and major current with its own institutions, alongside Symphony, Chamber Music, Opera, and all we consider as part of Classical Music. The Revival is over.”

– Robert Commanday, “A Millennium in 50 Years: The Discovery of Early Music – A lecture by Robert Commanday.



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