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Saturday morning quotes 5.1: Too much information

After a slight pause to reboot, we begin our fifth year of quotations with a loosely-themed sampling.

“Our hunger for knowledge…can distract us or keep us engaged in a lifelong quest for deep learning and understanding.  Some learning enhances our lives, some is irrelevant and simply distracts us.”

– Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind, The Penguin Group, New York, 2014, p. 33.

Distraction indeed.  With a tremendous glut of information available on the internet it is now more challenging than ever to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, making a focused pursuit of specific knowledge an exercise in organization, and requiring more time wasted in learning and troubleshooting search terms, software, keystrokes and menus.

In the not so distant past, knowledge was gained from visits to the library and reading books.  And wisdom was the result of testing knowledge through practical real-world experience. The epidemic of information overload began when television came on the scene:

“…I  believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.  We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”

– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.

Television offered every household a portal through which to view the world at large, replacing domestic interactions – like making music – with a constant barrage of information and influence disguised as entertainment.  And entertainment disguised as news.  Television refined the act of targeted persuasion and set the tone for our currently over-commercialized view of the world.

“…The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America…Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian.  It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously.  But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.”

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1985, pp. 139-141.

Of course, such ideas are not new.

“All liberties are interrelated and are equally dangerous. Freedom in music entails freedom to feel, freedom to feel means freedom to act, and freedom to act means the ruin of states.”

–  Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783), La Liberté de la musique (1759), in Oeuvres de d’Alembert, v. 1, Slatkine, Geneva, 1967, p. 520.

Looking backwards just a few years, things were a little less complicated and music was not such a highly politicized medium. In describing the elements of good taste in harpsichord playing, François Couperin justly makes mention of les choses luthees (the things of the lute) as worthy of imitation.  But he goes further in requiring more than playing what is on the page.

“Just as there is a great distance between grammar and Eloquence, there is the same infinity between notated music and music played well…”

– François Couperin, L‘Art de toucher le clavecin, 1717

Freedom of expression in music was not bold and daring, it was expected.  As we look ahead to our fifth year of weekly quotations, the themes will touch on how musicians of the past were taught to use music as a natural means of expressive communication.


Saturday morning quotes 4.52: Variety

Every Saturday for the past four years, we have posted quotations that help us make sense of this modern world – words that advise, amuse, interest, inspire, define, dismay, pique, perturb, and otherwise help us grieve and come to terms with the death of friends and the downfall of quiet subtle music.

When we began this series in 2010, a prime motivation was to share our avid interest in the deeper meaning one might discover by emulating musicians of the past.  Throughout our period of interest, roughly 1450 – 1620, music was functional and necessary, and instruments and music books were an expensive and rare commodity. In the realm of domestic music, you can bet that the part books or lute manuscripts in a small household’s library were used on a regular basis and the same music was played or sung again and again.  In fact, examining lute tablatures in manuscript books, one encounters hash marks or rubrics next to the beginnings of pieces, probably indicating that the piece was finally committed to memory.

In 2015, the message is that variety is good and change is essential.  Most people who are fortunate enough to experience historical music tend to listen to or play through music spanning a millennium and encompassing a broad range of styles. Our message to amateur and professional musicians alike is that a  passing acquaintance with a particular song is simply not enough.  In fact, living intimately with a particular song over the span of several years is an important aspect of historical context and performance practice.

“Chuse one Lesson thy selfe according to thy capacitie, which giue not ouer by looking ouer others, or straggling from one to another, till thou haue got it reasonably perfect, and doe not onely beginne it by going through it to the end at first sight, but examine each part of it diligently, and stay vpon any one point so long (though thou play it ouer a thousand times) till thou get it in some sort.”

– John or Robert Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610

The result of this sort of dedicated and focused work is complete familiarity with all the bits that make up the sum of the piece.  The rewards are significant and bring us just a little closer the context of the original aesthetic.  Which brings us full circle to our original message. We would all do well to slow down and observe the aesthetics of the past.  We would all do well to allow mere knowledge to be converted over time to wisdom.  We would all do well to restore quiet, intricate music to our lives, amateurs and professionals.

As an example of our living with a song for several years, we draw your attention to our performance of Dowland’s Sweete stay a while, why will you rise? from his last book of published songs.  And we close the lid on our fourth year with a farewell message to amateurs and professionals from the man himself:

“Take this for a farewell: that this diuine Art, which at this time is by so great men followed, ought to be vsed by thee with that great gracefulnesse which is fit for learned men to vse, and with a kinde of maiestie: yea, so that thou haue any skill in it be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610


Saturday morning quotes 4.50: Who played what?

We all have our own ideas and images that spring to mind when considering the sound picture of early music.  For some, it’s the sound of recorders or other wind instruments played in consort.  For others, it’s the costumes and the “Renaissance Fayre” modern mishmash of old tunes and not so old tunes played on instruments that go bang in the night. For many, it’s the sound of lute songs from the era of Shakespeare sung by a (bargain) countertenor.  In terms of economics, for many, the renaissance was just a blip in time before the higher-profile baroque music revival demonstrated that elegance be damned, and instrumentalists must develop an attention-grabbing stance and singers working with a modern technique pull faces and belt or warble with impunity. These images all confirm Richard Taruskin’s premise that early music today is merely a modern re-creation based upon late 20th-century ideals and economics.

As usual, we find that the surviving sources paint a very different picture of both sound and presentation.  This week’s post examines just what sort of instrumental music was performed in polite company in late 16th-century Italy, drawing upon a very interesting article by Timothy A. Collins, “Musica Secreta Strumentali: The Aesthetics and Practice of Private Solo Instrumental Performance in the Age of Monody (Ca. 1580 – Ca. 1610),” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jun., 2004), pp. 47-62 (Published by the Croatian Musicological Society).

Collins first describes several accounts of virtuoso instrumentalists and singers who were highly regarded at the time in the realm of public music, but there is little evidence that they played loud instruments in small chambers among the noble amateurs, professional musicians, composers and theorists who were the Florentine Camerata.  He quotes that Castiglione (1528)

…gave high regard to singing to the accompaniment of the lute because it is “most delightful and gives the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.” But [Castiglione] cautions that it should only be done as a pastime…”[and] not in the presence of persons of low birth or where there is a crowd.”

Of course, this is not new information, but it helps to remind ourselves that the lute was never intended to be played before large audiences in capacious concert halls, which sadly encourages inauthentic instruments and playing techniques just so the thing can be heard.  The public lute concert performed in large halls is a modernism that we must either accept or reject: Concertizing is the only way for a professional lutenist to sustain him or herself, but it is most inauthentic.  The option of repeated performances for fewer people in smaller venues is a solution that strikes a balance between modern economics and original performance practice.

As for the dulcet sound of the recorder consort, Collins reports:

Wind instruments, on the other hand were wholly unsuitable for gentlemanly gatherings, presumably because of the impolite and unnatural contortions that were necessary to produce sounds on them, as well as their perceived offensive”nature” or “proportion.” Recorders, which were primarily consort instruments, are virtually never encountered in accounts of solo chamber music, though there is a modest number of iconographic examples that show its use in such settings and didactic material intended to develop virtuoso solo technique.

Again, we are focused on a particular era in late 16th-century Italy, the gentlemen being those of the Florentine Camerata.  But evidence is evidence and we must acquaint ourselves with the facts before we choose what to ignore.

As for loud wind instruments, we turn to Vincenzo Galilei, quoted from Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Venice, 1581).

Cornetti and trombones were invented and introduced into musical concerts rather through the need for sopranos and basses, or let us say in order to provide more substance and noise in these [concerts], or else for both reasons, than because of some good, necessary effect which they make there.  In order to prove that this is true, observe that these instruments are not ordinarily heard elsewhere except where it is necessary for such voices…They will indeed be heard many times in masquerades, in the theaters, upon the balconies of the public squares for the satisfaction of the plebians and the [common] people, and against every propriety in choruses and in organ lofts of sacred temples for the solemn feasts…Since the trombone possesses a sound quite similar to the bellowing of bulls…and since it is consequently formidable, it would be more appropriate in forests in order to chase the wild beasts from their homes and lairs…

Galilei then clearly explains the need for harmonic instruments – lutes and keyboards:

One could not or should not, for various reasons, compare such professors as these [wind players] to any of the reputed players of the lute and of keyboard instruments, first because of the great facility of the latter and the great difficulty of the former, and also because [wind instruments] play only one part…In addition, only one of these is not worth a thing in the world, since four to six are needed (according to the usage of today) for the perfection of the harmony, and since in tradition their professors are unable to speak, let alone discourse while they are playing them. In addition the one playing them can very easily remain…without knowledge and practice of counterpoint and theory…

While Collins’ article mentions several instrumental virtuosi who played wind and bowed instruments and created a fleeting appreciation among the susceptible, in the end, Galilei makes the point that prevails.  Among the cognoscenti, the lute held and still holds pride of place as the more refined instrument capable of playing many parts as a solo instrument or in consort.  Because its delicacy of sound causes the sensitive singer, the instrumental companion, or the listener with refined ears to focus, judiciously balance volume, and take notice of the detail, the lute’s intimacy is its greatest quality.

Saturday morning quotes 4.51: Class again

For the penultimate post of four full year’s worth of weekly Saturday quotes, we reflect a bit upon why we bother to continue what feels at times a fool’s errand.  We have faithfully posted items of interest—the results of our own reading and research—every week these past four years, not because we have the luxury of leisure and the financial resources to squander time and effort, but because we take seriously our responsibility of reminding readers of the vital importance of our connection with the aesthetics of old music.

“… He who does honor and reverence to music is commonly a man of worth, sound of soul, by nature loving things lofty, philosophy, the conduct of affairs of State, the tasks of war, and in brief, in all honorable offices he ever shows the sparks of his virtue.”

Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585)

While our quotations and contextual essays are always aimed at reinforcing the importance of preserving access to the aesthetics of early music as a source of quiet, calm, engaging and mindful meaning in our out-of-control modern lives, regular readers of our quotes will notice a few recurring themes that, when it comes down to it, pertain to access to real music performed by people who are involved for the right reasons.

Our focus is on small-scale music of the late 15th through the early 17th century, sacred and secular, that features the transparent and intricate combination of solo voice and lute.  Every source from the period tells us that the music should be performed in appropriate spaces with a quiet dignity and with emotional engagement, sung in a natural voice and balanced with the lute paying particular attention to the details of rhythmic phrasing.

With some dismay, we have to agree with Richard Taruskin’s premise that much of what is called “early music” today represents a late 20th century aesthetic.  This premise is increasingly confirmed by performers who now look back on their careers and admit that they chose to ignore performance practice from early sources in favor of their more conventional conservatory training: Many early music vocalists and instrumentalists, performers and teachers, have chosen modern ideas of volume and projection over historical sources that describe sensitivity and subtlety.

“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

We utterly reject the hype one sees when promoters of early music tap into modern sales gimmickry; claiming a close connection with faux high-art status of “classical” music, aiming for the same sort of deep-pocket audience, using fan mag techniques to focus on personalities and distracting modes of presentation, and titling both recordings and concert programs with fanciful strings of keywords with the bald-faced intention of increasing clicks for advertisers. Instead, we aim to introduce the aesthetics of early music, as described by surviving historical source materials, to modern audiences without gimmickry and in appropriate settings.

If one steps back and views the evolution of the revival of early music it has become highly commercialized and, just like any other commercial enterprise in the US, monopolized.  Sponsorship of academic institutions, conformity to feedback based on marketing research, musical choices that are modeled on modern classical music norms, and promotional materials aimed at the monied elite all emerge as characteristics of the more successful performers—in lieu of convincing performances of subtle historical music that challenges the listener to participate in a rare moment of quiet repose.

We see early music as something that transcends barriers and divisions of class. We find that young people with no money are interested in our music for the same reasons as the traditional classical audiences—to experience music that is quiet, textured, transparent and elegant. As a duo specializing in 16th-century music, we both managed to overcome the constraints of a class system that limits access to the arts to those from a financially-challenged background and found our own ways to discover and refine our musical abilities.  Yes, there is a definite class structure in the US, despite the utter absence of what can be considered refinement demonstrated by the elite, who seem hell-bent on promoting consumerism and ignorance.

“If the current level of ignorance and illiteracy persists, in about two or three hundred years a merchandising nostalgia for this era will occur and guess what music they’ll play! (They’ll still play it wrong, of course, and you won’t get any money for having written it, but what the hey?)”

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)

Saturday morning quotes 4.49: Inspired Birds

When the snow finally melts away and the forest begins its eventual but cautious return to life, in our world the birds engage heartily with their work as the true heralds of Spring.  We have an interesting relationship with the surprising variety of birds in our forest home in that they appear to return our appreciation of (most) of their songs by listening as closely to our music as we do to theirs. Before the age of Spotify and when we were still able to feed ourselves on our musician’s pittance, our bird feeder was always kept well stocked and was a popular spot for chickadees, finches golden and purple, song sparrows, titmice, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and many others.  Our favorites were the thrushes, which kept their distance and only sang in the gentle early morning hours or mournfully just before twilight.

A few years back, we had a daily rehearsal routine that allowed us to face a tall cylindrical bird feeder just outside a window that offered a pleasant and inspiring view of the forest hillside.  We were rehearsing our arrangement of a piece by Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) with a text that requires a flexible, plaintive, engaged and emotional delivery, but also demands complete control in order to maintain the strict canon between the singing part and the tenor line, with the lute playing all three lower parts.  After finally having achieved the desired musical result, we glanced up to see the entire bird feeder—as well as the length of the window sill— lined wing-to-wing with one of the most attentive audiences we have ever had.  And they were quietly listening to our music instead of their usual routine of chatter while voraciously tucking into the buffet of bird seed.

The piece we were playing was “Comment peult avoir joye,” a four-part chanson that was set by Josquin, probably circa 1480, but published in Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, Canti B (1502).  The tune is also known in German sources as “Wohlauf, Gesell, von hinnen,” and was the basis for two Mass settings by Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 – 1517), one in 4 parts and one in six 6 parts, in which the strict canonic imitation appears throughout. The piece is also found in Francesco Spinacino’s, Intabulatura de Lauto / Libro secondo (1507, f. 19v) as “Coment peult auoir Joye,” in which all four parts are arranged for solo lute, a challenging version that is very sensitively recorded by Jacob Heringman.

But the one of the more interesting related settings is the Missa Coment peult avoir joye attributed to Pierrequin de Therache, and mentioned in the archives of the Cathedral of Cambrai. This Mass also featured an abundance of strict canonic imitation, creating something of a challenge for the choir, as pointed out in the article by Craig Wright, “Performance Practices at the Cathedral of Cambrai 1475-1550″, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 295-328.  Wright cites the following archival document:

December 9, 1517. From the music books should be deleted the Mass written on the song Comment poeult avoir joye [and] it should no longer be sung in this church. [Doc. 3g]

Wright speculates that the Mass may have been withdrawn because of an increasingly intolerant attitude towards the use and incorporation of secular tunes as the basis for liturgical music.  But 1517 was several years before the Councils of Trent (1545 – 1563), and there survive several wonderful Masses crafted by some of the finest 16th-century composers in the interim, using secular themes. Wright offers the alternative and very realistic suggestion that the piece was simply too difficult for the choirs to manage. It turns out that the choristers were not uniformly capable,

December 9, 1535. The vicars of the left side of the choir should be admonished to observe and be attentive to the harmony of the singers of the right side. [Doc. 2c]

Nor were they particularly well-behaved. Wright explains both the logistics and the antics:

Cambrai was divided in two equal parts and each half installed in either the right or left side of the choir of the church. An entry in the capitulary acts of February 4, 1473, shows that on only three days of the year did the singers come together to perform in the middle of the aisle: Maundy Thursday, Holy Saturday, and Pentecost…On all other days, they sang from either side, each half grouped around its own lectern, and performing from its own music book. A bizarre confirmation of the existing space between the two sides comes from an entry of September 9, 1493, that reprimands the lesser vicars for throwing meat and bones from one side of the choir to the other during the divine service (Doc. lb).

This is why we must  keep a watchful eye on those lesser vicars in our choir lofts.

Our recording of Josquin’s “Comment peult avoir joye” for solo voice and lute is featured on our CD La Rota Fortuna: Chansons & lute solos in honor of Francesco Spinacino, fl. 1507.  We invite you to listen and imagine what may have inspired the birds outside our window to still themselves and attend to the music of Josquin.  Perhaps they were keen to learn a new tune.

Saturday morning quotes 4.48: Class resumes

Today’s post is intended to draw deserved attention to an article that raises several questions about the nature and origins of “traditional” music, in particular Irish traditional music.  The article discusses some important aspects of licensing for public performance and copyright, a vexing problem for those restricted from participation in sharing what amounts to a cultural heritage.  We don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the public performance licensing question in Ireland and the UK, but find ourselves in sympathy with the idea of a common ownership of music in the public domain.

The article is “Playing, paying and preying: cultural clash and paradox in the traditional music commonage,” by Fintan Vallely, published in Community Development Journal,  (2014) 49 (suppl 1): i53-i67.

Vallely defines and describes traditional music and states his purpose:

“This essay uses aspects of the music’s practices to show that traditional music is by evolution an artistic and cultural commons, a factor which has driven the impetus of its 1950s-on revival and (ultimately) has underpinned State recognition in both the arts and education. The idea of such a ‘ commons’ has, however, been challenged in the later twentieth century by the pressure to have all forms of music licensed for performance in public spaces as well as for public broadcast. The morality—if not the legality—of such with regard to the traditional is questioned, not just because it has been enforced via State support, but because it amounts to an annexation of sites of performance of traditional music by the commerce of copyright.”

Just as we have discovered researching the origins of many American “traditional” songs and tunes, Vallely points out that a significant amount of the music entered the tradition long ago through antique published versions, were memorized from sheet music and passed on by ear:

“Some of the music classified as ‘traditional’ can actually be found in print not only in older Irish collections of tunes with no composer noted, but also in tune-books accredited to particular Scottish composers such as Neil Gow. Indeed it is clear from Irish collections that a significant amount of music that had been ‘collected’ in the field passed back into oral/aural tradition and transmission and was then re-collected by subsequent collectors.”

Amusingly related, the idea of Morris dancing and English “country dancing” in general was cultivated and perpetuated by a wealthy class of urbanites, as pointed out in one our previous posts quoting from articles by John Ward.

“Aside from the traditional morris tune, the “Bacca Pipes,” and “The Buffoon,” the rest of the morris repertoire dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most if not all of it taken from the popular music of the city, especially the country dance, which, despite its name, was an urban product.”

– From “The Morris Tune” John M. Ward, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), p. 320

Vallely finds that much of the same class-crossover is true of traditional Irish music.

“The true commonage of old Irish music seems more likely to have always been the intellectual property of a range of classes. Evidence from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first centuries shows that the music was created, cared for and contributed to by those who had need or occasion to perform it and/or to participate in it…and/or had the necessary interest or passion, leisure time and intellectual training to productively pursue it.”

“Each social group’s music-savvy people had access to, and occasions to hear at least the spill-over of the music of the other. Based on the orally passed-on dance music – the popular music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the more common music had many characteristics of, and contained melodies or themes found also in, the more ‘court’ or ‘art’ music…”

Vallely goes on to address the opportunistic copyrighting of traditional tunes for the sake of royalties and licensing fees for broadcast or public performance.  Again, we are removed from these issues but are a bit sensitive to the pillaging of the common property of traditional music and the restrictions placed on public performance, particularly by musicians who are accustomed to freely sharing a tune and a pint in a public house.  And raspberries to the class of people today who would encourage the State to hold out their grasping hand and engage in such shenanigans.

Saturday morning quotes 4.47: Class in session

Let’s not mince words: Early music bears NO ancestral relationship to what today’s historians and hype-merchants market as “classical” music. 

Early music was always functional music of some sort, whether composed for devotional or liturgical purposes, social dancing, entertainment for wealthy patrons, as a domestic pastime, as a theoretical exercise, or as the common indulgence in the craft of converting clever poetry into song.  Most music from as late as the mid-16th century survives only in handwritten manuscript form. Naturally, when the printing press and moveable type made published music available to a larger audience, the printed music was costly and only available to the very wealthy elite.  Astute composers and ambitious publishers began to take advantage of the potential for financial gain through sales to the nobility and the nouveau riche. But composers invariably sold their rights to the publishers for a pittance and made very little from the sale of the always relatively small print runs of their music.  And, when reading through the the prefaces and deferential dedicatory remarks, nearly all our composers mention that the music was written during idle hours and only meant for private consumption.

What we know as “Classical” music was always composed with marketing in mind. From the 18th century onward, church music became something quite grand, and both Protestant services and the Catholic Mass were celebrated with rather large orchestras and choruses, with obbligato instrumentation and including motets with highly ornamented vocal passaggi.  In the world of secular entertainment, large-scale theatrical productions and public concerts were produced on a regular basis in hopes of financial success in the form of ticket sales. Even in the realm of domestic chamber music, etudes, sonatas, and small-scale instrumental ensemble works were composed, published and blatantly distributed widely for financial remuneration.

Even though what we have come to call classical music was originally created by primarily young and mostly starving composers, at least in the US, today’s classical audiences are not exactly drawn from the ranks of what you might call the working class.  Audiences for classical music pride themselves on participating in an art form that caters to an elitist upper class.

“Why shouldn’t we be elitist…Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.”

– Norman Lebrecht, from Reframing the Classical Music Experience, keynote address at the Dutch Classical Music Meeting, Oct. 2011

Despite the fact that many early music performers, including Frans Brüggen, began their careers deliberately thumbing their noses at the entrenched world of classical music, today’s early music promoters have somehow morphed their PR materials to emulate their once maligned models, opting to target the same old white elite upper class audience, resulting in a depiction of early music as low-calorie classical music that is really something better than it sounds.

As for attracting young working-class audiences with less disposable income, generic classical music has become a weapon of class disruption, with recordings of Mozart’s greatest hits blasted loudly in public spaces in order to discourage loitering youth:

Classical music has thus been seized upon by Transport for London and a host of other business and government leaders, not as a positive moralising force, but rather as a marker of space: a kind of “aural fence” or sonic wall, signalling “inclusion to some and exclusion to others” through its culturally conditioned associations: white, old, rich, elite.

This amounts to an orchestrated campaign of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “symbolic violence”: the use of cultural forms by the powerful to at once assert and legitimise their domination. As one commentator notes, the dangerous message this sends to young people is: “1: You are scum; 2: Classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it is a repellent against anti-social behaviour”.

from – Theo Kindynis, “Weaponising Classical Music: waging class-warfare beneath our cities’ streets,” Ceasefire, Saturday September 29, 2012

When early music experienced a 20th-century renaissance, it was revived by curious historians and creative composers who saw something of interest in older music, which was nearly always considered to be a mere precursor of the later monumental works, or perhaps a source of inspiration for something new and more elaborately developed.  Musicians who embraced the early music revival were, for instance, conservatory-trained violinists who did not possess the chops to play the Tchaikovsky concerto (see introductory remarks by Ernst Meyer, in Early English Chamber Music, 2nd rev. edn. ed. Diana Poulton), but they approached the music as a simpler, undeveloped subset of classical music.

The fact remains that, in functional terms, early music bears a closer ancestral lineage to 20th-century popular music by Gershwin, Kern, Straythorn – much of it conceived as either good musical settings of poetry or as functional dance music – than it does with Mendelssohn or Mahler.  Early music is more akin to the music of top singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, or instrumentalists like George Van Eps, than to the aural assaults composed by Wagner, or the dripping, vibrato-laden romantic music favored by some of our more famous violinists.  And how many of our more prominent lutenists who started on classical guitar play with a plodding technical precision, replete with Segovia-like gestures, rather than placing emphasis on shaping the lines like the vocal polyphony that inspired much of the best lute music?

Classical music seems to have annexed early music as a sub-category, or rather ingested the genre like a whale tucking into so much plankton; or the way Home Depot took over the local hardware shops where one might find something unique on the shelf rather than packaged in shrink-wrap.  Or the way Walmart displaced the local grocery where one could chat with the grocer and buy three slices of a different type of cheese.

Conservatories with early music programs are missing the point by teaching using the same format and structure as classical repertory.  Historically appropriate early music courses should teach improvisation, transposition and playing and singing by ear with a natural voice:

“For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice…”

– attributed to Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.

Early music courses should embrace the traditions from which the music originally evolved, not through the conventional coursework of the conservatory.  And if early music is to survive as a genre worth preserving, it will be because it has inspired musicians young and old who empathize with the oral-aural tradition.  It will be because of the music’s honesty, its intimacy and its directness, and not because it is marketed towards the deep pockets of ageing elitist classical music audiences indulging in a low-brow lark.


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