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Saturday morning quotes 8.21: More on Context

July 24, 2021

Our last post posed contrasting points of view concerning musical performance, highlighting musical content versus performances that attempt to place music in its context. For obvious reasons, musical content is and should be the performer’s primary focus when offering obscure, unique or unfamiliar music to an audience. But placing music in its historical context can be an effective way of benevolently guiding or influencing the listeners’ experience of a concert—or contrariwise it can be an excuse for performers to indulge in a narcissistic circus side-show.

As early music specialists, we have presented many lecture-recitals in academic settings across the US, replete with visual materials employed to add context or to reinforce an important point. And as performers we have occasionally dabbled in providing visual materials to illustrate the links between art, politics, religion, literature, poetry and music. But where do we draw the line between concerts that present thoughtful, informed interpretations of intimate historical music, or performances that seem more like a day at the circus? At what point do performers cross the line and put more energy into creating a visual spectacle than they put into refining and presenting convincing interpretations of music informed by diligent research into historical context? And at what point are performers simply inventing a cool but entirely unhistorical visual spectacle just because it’s fun to put on a show?

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990

“…I think most historians would doubt that medieval Europe was in the thrall of a half-dozen professional touring ensembles, each consisting of a handful of attractive, literate and well-nourished men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, with all their teeth intact.”

– Benjamin Bagby, “What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

“For performances of historical music to be convincing in the present – for them to create an aura of authenticity, historical or otherwise, for both performers and audiences – the sounds and styles used must be perceived as timeless.”

– Elizabeth Upton, “Concepts of Authenticity in Early Music and Popular Music Communities”, Ethnomusicology Review, Volume 17 (2012)

“…Few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.”

“One [motive for performing historical music] is competition for attention and status in a field that is increasingly crowded. If great performers have already fully explored the mainstream style and repertory, one way to make one’s mark is to stake out new and unconquered musical territory either in repertory or in performance style.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed.”

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in Musical Performance

While we enjoy a good show from time to time, our philosophical approach and our entire mode of musical performance is based upon the act of drawing our audience into a sound-world that we as performers create; a sound-world that is based upon our own thoughtful and thorough research into the original context of historical music. We don’t present a spectacle laying out the materials of our research as a distraction to our audiences, rather we present the interpretive results of our research through effective performances of our music.

We are keenly aware that ancient musicians who originally performed our chosen repertory lived balanced lives that integrated a strong spiritual element. That spiritual element is not only conspicuously absent today but is often ridiculed by modern performers themselves as they attempt to cover their contempt for the mores of the past with fanciful big-screen illustrations of knights, damsels and unicorns; images more informed by nineteenth-century romanticism than by a broad and deep understanding and acceptance of the actual context of the ancient past. Sadly, many of these modern performers hold academic positions that allow them a privileged platform from which to impart this insufficiently-informed approach to impressionable students. And woe betide the thinking person who dares to question the received approach in academe. It’s no wonder there is such universal diminishing trust in our institutions today, where messaging is primary and content is rendered inconsequential.

“[In academia] we’re dealing with the word of fragile human beings who have their own egos and their own careers to pursue, and who may pursue mistaken lines. And, unfortunately, these are the people we have entrusted with interpreting our past to us, and if they’ve got our past wrong, then it’s only us, through our own actions, who are going to perhaps put it right.”

Graham Hancock

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