DORIAN KOMANOFF BANDY - The Two Faces of Early Music

DORIAN KOMANOFF BANDY - The Two Faces of Early Music

Nearly 35 years have elapsed since Richard Taruskin first blew the whistle on authenticity (I forget: is one allowed to use the word without inverted commas?), and the musical community still cannot decide whether historical performance is about instruments, about outlook, or a mix of both. Search YouTube for ‘Rachel Podger’; the first result shows her playing 17th-century music on an 18th-century-model bow with a 19th-century screw-nut mechanism, and the fifth shows her teaching a masterclass for modern students, explaining to them that a great Bach performance has very little to do with how old the violin is. Meanwhile, Sir András Schiff recently recorded some Schubert on a period piano, but replicated the tempi and phrasing from his Bösndorfer recording of the same music.

I like to think of myself as having a relatively limited capacity for cognitive dissonance, but last month I willingly participated in the same hypocrisy that all too often grips the early music industry. I became a visiting lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland -- not as part of the Historical Performance department, but for their 'Contextual Studies' programme. My brief: to introduce early music and performance practice to an audience of 120 modern-instrument-playing BMus students from all departments across the RCS. I've done quite a lot of work with postgrad students who specialize in historical performance, and I've done a lot of lecturing to broad, lay audiences about the importance (as I see it) of using period instruments. But this was my first time trying to get a large group of young, modern players excited about historical performance.

For my first lecture, I hit the topics we historical performers often use to plead our case: the unreliability of stylistic heritage; ever-changing musical tastes and techniques; the fact that modern and period instruments sound and feel so unlike each other. I answered various well-worn objections: yes, one can try to make a flailing, desperate case that Bach and Beethoven 'would have liked' the modern piano, but that doesn't change the historical fact that it isn't the instrument they wrote for. Among my suggested sources of HIP knowledge were all the usual suspects: treatises, iconography, suggestive notation, letters, etc. I gave my students a fundamentally optimistic view of historical performance. I argued that we can know how things were done, and that playing with such knowledge is (for so many reasons) the best thing to do.

The problem, of course, is that neither I nor my early-musicking colleagues actually believe any of this. We know that truly ‘historical’ performance is an impossibility. Some of us go farther, arguing not just that historical performance is impossible, but that it is undesirable. Recall that the ‘Eroica’ Symphony was premiered by a group of semi-amateurs after a single rehearsal. Is the resulting performance-level something anyone reading this would aspire to? I certainly have no desire to watch an orchestra sight-read the Don Giovanni Overture, or hear musicians raised on late 18th-century minuets bash their way through a Beethoven symphony -- even if we know that it happened that way under the composer's supervision.

Of course, this is familiar terrain; Taruskin, Bruce Haynes, Peter Kivy, and others have ably identified the many problems of authenticity. The irony now is that although we act as though the problems have been solved, nobody seems to know which solution is correct. A gaping ideological gulf separates how we HIP professionals talk about our work to ourselves and how we talk about it to others. To discuss treatises with my colleagues is to rehearse the ways in which the sources fall short. When I ask my violin-playing friends (for example) why they don't hold their instruments below the collarbone, I am only rarely told that they want to but don't have time to learn how. Overwhelmingly more often, I hear, 'Well, we just don't know for sure that everybody did it like that,' or, 'There were as many different ways of doing it back then as there were violinists.' And it is a small (if fallacious) step indeed from 'there were lots of different ways' to 'all ways are therefore valid.' And yet, as soon as we're around members of the public, or modern-instrument colleagues, we change the story. Thus, recently, an American early-music conductor (I won't name names) claimed to an unsuspecting, lay crowd that he would deliver a performance of music 'as [the composer] heard it' (!). An English conductor interviewed on Radio 3 this week said that he wants listeners to know ‘how it felt’ to hear Bach himself perform (!). These were not PR-crews speaking – they were the musicians themselves. We may raise at least one eyebrow, but on this point I'm not above blame: I spent last Monday morning telling a bunch of innocent students that reading treatises brings us closer to the music as it used to be played. I then spent the afternoon writing a chapter of my dissertation about how little the sources actually tell us.

The discrepancy between these two ways of seeing the same thing is distressing because I and so many others of my generation like to think of ourselves as being post-ideological performers. On the whole, we neither bother too much with piety before the historical sources, nor worry about questions of postmodernism or motives. With the exception of a few over-thinking renegades (and I do proudly admit that I am often among them), we pretty much just get on with it and play. And yet, for all our innocence, such a gap -- historicism as panacea on one hand, and as an impossibility not even worth aiming for on the other -- is an integral feature of ideology as defined by many philosophers of the last two centuries. Marx (to take a celebrated, if extreme, example), held that a 'commodity' is a combination of the actual, physical object (in this case, historical performance as we really do it) and the invisible, almost transcendent hype that surrounds it (historical performance as we tell others about it), and that the difference between the two is ideology. (And if you think Marx a random choice, or removed from the early music world, just remember all those musician-run period orchestras…)

Am I making too much of this ‘ideological gap’? One recent interlocutor suggested that a similar discrepancy between the professional and lay points of view will characterise pretty much every field. Take science, she said: the distinction between 'hypothesis', 'theory' and 'fact' depends to some extent on your affiliation with the discipline. To the most serious philosophers of science, nothing is ever really confirmed: thus, it can never be more than a ‘mere hypothesis’ that it's currently raining in London and that the chair I'm sitting on exists. And then of course there are the 'mere theories' -- for example, heliocentrism, the round Earth, and evolution -- which a real scientist knows are just waiting to be falsified and replaced. Unlike professional scientists, however, we of the general public have a very different relationship with uncertainty. To us, it is a fact that it's currently raining in London, and that my chair exists. (Knowing that I am a sun-orbiting product of evolution is perhaps less practically useful, but nonetheless equally factual in this everyday sense.)

This comparison may seem prima facie okay, but I’m not sure it survives scrutiny. In science, the two descriptions of reality are both simultaneously true: they describe different levels of, and different ways of looking at, the same phenomena. In other words, it is true that any number of scientific theories can be falsified and it is also true that we can and should proceed with our lives as though the theories are confirmed. (Thus, Newtonian physics has been replaced, but gravity still works.) The same does not apply to early music: getting closer to how things used to sound can't really be simultaneously possible and impossible. Even less can it be simultaneously desirable and undesirable. The truth (such as it is) may be difficult to arrive at, but it cannot simply be both.

Returning to the main question, is it a problem if our ideas about early music change depending on whom we're talking to? Yes, I think it is, to the extent that we're lying to somebody -- either ourselves, or our listeners. Closing the gap can only be a good thing. In the past, as so many of my colleagues know, I would have argued passionately on the side of the sources, but at this point I don’t mind which attitude prevails. If, on one hand, there's no need for all the historicist rhetoric, getting rid of it might clear the way for more nuanced and worthwhile conversations with listeners. On the other hand, if the rhetoric does have value -- that is, if silencing it would somehow strip the excitement and magic from the HIP endeavour -- then perhaps recognising that might help inspire the ‘historically-apathetic performers’ among us to embrace the sources, and adopt a more rigorous, inquisitive mindset.

I don't for a moment think that I have any answers, but these do seem to be pressing questions. Fortunately, my current series of RCS lectures is over, and when I return for more, I'll be talking only about baroque and classical opera: no treatises, no performance practice -- and no ideology.

 

UK-based American musician Dorian Komanoff Bandy maintains an active career as a conductor, baroque violinist, and historical keyboardist. In addition to his work as a performer, he is writing a PhD on Melodic Ornamentation in Mozart. His current scholarly interests include musical meaning and intentionality, the ‘authenticity’ debate, and memetic theory. In 2016 he became a visiting lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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