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Saturday morning quotes 8.39: Context again

April 2, 2022

Regular readers will discern that our essays continually harp on the importance of context in our interpretations of early music. What exactly do we mean by this?

“…Contextual music history: a style of history that locates the conception, production, transmission, and consumption of music firmly within a social, religious, economic and political context.”

– Michael Talbot in a review of Tim Carter, Music in Renaissance and early Baroque Italy, from Early Music, Vol. XXI, No. 1, February 1993, p. 111.

Clear enough? The primary reason we think context is important is because we met singing the Latin Mass in a small schola, an experience that relates directly to the lives of historical musicians in our area of specialty. When performing functional music in its original context, the experienced musician is guided by practical considerations that conservatory students will never comprehend in the classroom, and this important consideration has been a guiding principle throughout our partnership as a duo.

It has been our observation that, at least in the US, most performers who wish to specialize in early music prioritize connections with gatekeepers, teachers, patrons and organizational sponsors. Today, a successful performing career in such a specialized niche market depends upon solid financial support, because gaining an audience the time-honored way is a long and difficult process that most enterprising performers don’t have time for. Instead, installing a wealthy board of directors, buying mailing lists, and buying social media optimization appears to be the path most young performers follow. This in fact is the well-trodden path that many notable performers have followed over the past 40 years of the early music revival, and many of these performers have wholeheartedly embraced the role of gatekeepers, who are thankfully now finally retiring.

To return to context, there are some young musicians who countenance the idea that context may be valorized—something presented in multimedia performances that include special staging and visual projections of art and poetry for an audience who likes to have everything spelled out. On the other hand, we think the difficult work of absorbing contextual information is the performer’s responsibility; presenting a fully-informed program of music that convinces the audience on its own merits. We respect the intelligence of our audience and trust them to engage with the words and music we are performing. Here is a sample from last year’s release: https://mignarda.bandcamp.com/track/author-of-light

So what is the outlook for working-class musicians who love old music, perform it well and receive positive feedback for their efforts? Not so good. The hard work of winning over an audience one person at a time may be arduous and time-consuming, but it is authentic.

“Aloysius—Perhaps the hope of future riches and possessions induces you to choose this life? If this is the case, believe me you must change your mind; not Plutus but Apollo rules Parnassus. Whoever wants riches must take another path.”

– Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum

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