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Saturday morning quotes 8.38: Revisionism

March 26, 2022

“Keepers of books—collectors and librarians—prefer to buy books in good condition, rather than well-worn, heavily marked-up exemplars. On top of this is the seemingly banal fact that the least-used books survive the longest.”

– Susan Forscher Weiss, “Vandals, Students, or Scholars? Handwritten Clues in Renaissance Music Textbooks”, in  Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J. Cyrus, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010, p. 213.

The astute observer of the human condition can see an unsettling uptick in the revision of historical information on many fronts. Historical revisionism is not necessarily a bad thing—updated factual information can help clarify mistaken perceptions and point toward a better understanding of historical context and motivation. But it is far too easy to take a collection of surviving books, for instance, as a representative example of historical preference in any given subject area. As implied in the quotation above, the books that survive intact may very well indicate they were books that simply were not used—and perhaps not even taken seriously.

As we know, the surviving historical printed music only represents a small fraction of music that was actually played, so as performers of early music we are therefore not following historical principles if we are not improvising in an historical style. And what of the “historical” instruments we play today?

“Most surviving lute soundboards are quite thin, often about 1.5mm. However there is some support for the view that the very earliest from c. 1540 may have been rather thicker, and that soundboards were made progressively thinner as the number of the supporting bars was increased.”

– David Van Edwards, “Structure of the Western Lute

Modern lutes that are presumably built on historical models also suffer from revisionist ideals that have more to do with modern sensibilities; ideals that may have entirely missed the mark.  Several of our most talented modern luthiers made the pilgrimage to European (and American) museums in order to measure original instruments, and they faithfully reconstructed lutes to match the dimensions they measured.  But wood has a cellular structure that changes over time, and the more astute among modern luthiers realized that 500 year-old wood most certainly lost mass over half a millennium: Dimensions of a new lute that replicate those of a 500 year-old instrument do not reflect dimensions of the original instrument when it was new.  Thus, the hypersensitive lute of today may very well not have been the sort of instrument played in the 16th century, further confirming the observations of Richard Taruskin, who famously wrote.

“…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

The scales fall from our eyes and we step back—secure in our footing—and now clearly see (and hear) that the brilliant chirpy sound of today’s lutes played with crisp-sounding synthetic strings and recorded in a contrived cathedral acoustic really has no historical basis. Today’s listening audience has been sold a bill of goods contrived by marketing professionals in the late 20th century. But we are here to present an historically-informed alternative.

While historical revisionism may have actual cause or merit, historical negationism has neither. Negationism is a term conceived by historian Henry Rousso, and the term appears in his important book The Vichy Syndrome. Negationism is revision of history using false or improper historical method to support a particular view or otherwise misrepresent the actual substance or events of the past. Historian James M. McPherson described such revisionist history as “a consciously-falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present…”

“There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself, some positive, some negative, some healthy and some not healthy. I think that one job of the historian is to try to cut through some of those myths and get closer to some kind of reality. So that people can face their current situation realistically, rather than mythically. I guess that’s my sense of what a historian ought to do.”

- James M. McPherson, from David Walsh,“An exchange with a Civil War historian”, International Workers Bulletin, June 19, 1995. 

We live in interesting times, and individuals with open eyes and agile minds observe that we are running headlong in a direction of increasing authoritarianism and diminishing individual freedom. Indications of this trend are the disturbing instances of rewriting history to serve a political purpose. For instance, astute individuals noticed at the onset of the current world health situation, the Wikipedia page on the historical Spanish Influenza epidemic was mysteriously altered to show a significant reduction in the devastating severity of the historical disease over a century ago. Absent clear and convincing reasons for the revision of historical data, we can only assume that the numbers were altered for the sole reason of pumping up the perceived severity of the current situation as much worse, indicating a coordinated effort on the part of health authorities. It is the job of the historian to preserve and present historical fact in any arena.

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