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Saturday morning quotes 8.10: Authenticity 2021

January 22, 2021

Authenticity.  The Early Music community has bandied the term about for several years, with some performers at first claiming that their particular approach faithfully recreated sounds of the past, then later abandoning the term altogether when challenged to present a defensible case.  By now we have all come to realize that most of the early music we hear in concert halls and on mainstream recordings possesses no verisimilitude and has nearly nothing to do with the historical context of a given repertory.  The unvarnished truth is that, without placing the music in its proper context, it represents nothing more than a modern invention.

So what is authenticity as applies to early music?  An informative answer arises from an article by Bernard D. Sherman found in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

“Musical performance before the late eighteenth century typically focused on new compositions, about which posterity was not expected to care…During the nineteenth century, however, public concerts centered increasingly on music by earlier composers. One reason for this trend was the era’s new awareness of history, which helped bring forth the idea of a canon of masterpieces in music, with Beethoven and a few other composers holding classic status. Other crucial developments included: an unprecedented rise in prosperity…, sufficient to support widespread participation in art music; the growing significance of art music for the expanding middle classes; and the fragmentation of the musical public into diverse “taste groups”…, with one group focused on respectful experience of the music of the classic masters. This group eventually, in the later part of the century, defined the culture of classical-music performance.”

Today, the public at large treats music as a consumer good, and “classical” music is a component of a cultural brand.  We are subjected to a constant barrage of sound and imagery and sales talk that has been carefully crafted to tell us what to think about music and, more to the point, what music we should buy that will provide entry to an established elite cultural norm. 

Now more than ever, it is essential to question the motives behind every bit of information that flickers by on our screens, a necessary response that sadly feeds a wary distrust in our institutions, our news media, and our neighbors.  This sorry state of affairs that can only be overcome by the free and cooperative exchange of ideas and experiences, the act of sharing our joy and sorrow—an act that is ultimately diminished and seems less immediate when we are separated by distance and electronic cables and plastic screens.   We can hope to regain our authentic lives someday soon, but the more time that lapses, the more political maneuvering will come into play as the elites think of yet another way to capitalize on crisis.

But back to the point: How do we cut through the fantasy world that has created today’s Early Music, Inc?  How do we cancel out the marketing BS that puts an artificial sheen on our shared musical heritage?  How do we add authenticity to our experience of music of the past that was composed to serve an actual function and elicit an actual emotional response?  And how do we as musicians present music that actually deserves to be called Early Music? The answer: Engage and learn from the past.  Authenticity is not represented by the use of a particular brand of reconstructed instrument, nor is it achieved by holding that instrument in a particular manner seen in one or two paintings from the past.  It turns out that, in virtually any sort of music, authenticity can be measured by whether a performer can elicit an intended response from the listener.

We tend to listen for authentic interpretations from different genres of music.  Below find a few exceptional examples.

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