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Saturday morning quotes 7.47: Old is New

July 4, 2020

Ecce homo restoration

…And not necessarily improved. The botched painting restoration depicted here is an interesting example of what can result when careless or ill-informed individuals decide to reinterpret the rich legacy of our shared past.  Or, as the case may be, reinvent the past entirely to conform to our modern wishes, needs or resources.  This is a theme we have visited in the past, and astute musicologist Richard Taruskin, has stated his case convincingly:

The whole trouble with Early Music as a “movement”… is the way it has uncritically accepted the post-Romantic work concept and imposed it anachronistically on pre-Romantic repertories. What is troubling, of course, is not the anachronism but the uncritical acceptance – and the imposition. A movement that might, in the name of history, have shown the way back to a truly creative performance practice has only furthered the stifling of creativity in the name of normative controls. Here Early Music actively colludes with the so-called “mainstream” it externally impugns.

– Richard Taruskin,  Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, Introduction.

In a somewhat earlier article, Taruskin clarified his observations:

“I have suggested that the ancients and moderns ought to change labels.  What is usually called ‘modern performance’ is in fact an ancient style, and what is usually called ‘historically authentic performance’ is in fact a modern style.”

“Regarding the movement itself I have always held that, as a symptomatically modern phenomenon, it is not historical but is authentic.  It is a message I have had great difficulty in getting across to musicians, because so many have invested so heavily in the false belief that authenticity can derive only from historical correctness.  To deny the latter necessarily implies to them a denial of the former.”

– Richard Taruskin, “Tradition and authority”, Early Music, Vol. XX, No. 2, May, 1992, p. 311.

Applying this concept to the painting restoration, the result did represent an authentic effort on the part of the restorer, but lacked the skill and sensitivity of an artist who is completely immersed in the style and context of the historical model.  In short, applying a modern standard of knowledge and skill only converted a historical masterpiece, tattered though it may be, into an absurdity that effectively erased the meaning, nuance, and dimension of the original.

In music, there are artists who constantly borrow from the past and claim it as their own invention, usually in response to the profit motive.  A perfect example of absconding the past to monetize the present: The very famous theme for the NPR “All Things Considered” program, which made tons of cash for music industry insider B. J. Leiderman, is reminiscent of a theme heard in the score to the 1945 movie “Murder, He Says,” starring Fred MacMurray, with music composed by Robert E. Dolan. But Leiderman more likely cribbed the melodic bit from a duo by Ignaz Pleyel: Six Petits Duos pour deux violins de I. Pleyel, Op. 8. The familar purloined theme appears in duo No.2, first violin part, Rondo movement, measure 24.

Those of us who perform early music professionally must eventually face the fact that intimate repertory was never meant to be foisted upon the stage of a large concert hall and follow the norms of the Victorian model of a public concert established in the 19th century.

“The years 1890 to 1930 saw a major change in American society from a Victorian culture based on thrift to one more consumer-oriented and ready to spend.  Musical life benefited from that shift, with growing investment in musical instruction, growing opportunity for amateur vocal and instrumental performance, and at the professional end, the establishment of permanent orchestras…”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 581.

When early music is plugged as just another consumer good by modern marketing professionals, it becomes the equivalent of the botched restoration depicted above.  The alternative is to work not just on the historical instrumental technique and repertory, but rather to work to understand the original context and retain the original intimacy of the music.  An interesting challenge in 2020.

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