Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Music World's Reactionary Radicals

"Th[e] 'early-music' movement (also known as 'period-instrument' and 'authentic-performance') was a deliberate strike against the classical-music establishment," writes Heather Mac Donald, in an absolute must-read describing how "in recompense for living in an age of musical re-creation, we occupy a vast musical universe, far larger than the one that surrounded a nineteenth-century resident of Paris or Vienna," and suggesting that "at a time when much of the academy has lost interest in history, contemporary classical-music culture is one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse" — Classical Music’s New Golden Age. A brief history:
    In the second half of the twentieth century, a performance practice broke out that rejected, in the strongest possible way, the teleological understanding of music. An overwhelming drive possessed certain conductors, instrumentalists, and singers to re-create the music of the pre-Classical era—from the medieval through the baroque periods—as it was performed at the time of its composition.

    These musicians discarded the modern steel-strung and -armatured instruments that had evolved in the nineteenth century and learned to play the gut-strung, fragile instruments of the Renaissance and baroque periods. They pored over music treatises, prints, and other historical materials to discover, say, how a seventeenth-century violinist attacked his instrument, how he handled the shorter, curved bow of the period, how he phrased and ornamented a line, how much vibrato he used. Needless to say, any thought of “modernizing” a score’s harmonies or orchestration was out of the question. These history-obsessed musicians didn’t want to bring the music of the past into the present; they wanted to enter the past on its own terms. The stylistic particularities of older music that, according to the teleologists, limited its potential, were for these revolutionaries its very essence.

    The results were a revelation. The sound of these performances of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi was light and nuanced; the music pulsed with energy. Trading the large modern orchestra for small baroque ensembles of temperamental instruments was like exchanging a leather-upholstered Cadillac for a frisky, unbroken colt. The premodern horns—unreliable and highly prone to indiscretions—blared out with a glorious astringency. The timpani shot from the orchestra with hair-raising force. Conductors emphasized the dance elements in baroque music, inflecting certain beats within measures as a courtier might beckon to his dance partner. An unfamiliar and seductive voice—the countertenor—emerged to take on roles in baroque operas and masses that castrati originally sang.
Click the link to learn how the movement "provoked a counterreaction and a sharp philosophical debate about the nature of performance and the proper role of historical knowledge in music-making" as it "unleashed arguably the most concentrated rediscovery of lost music in history."

The movement "also demolished one tiresome credo of classical-music critics: that the way to revitalize the concert tradition is to program contemporary music." The author notes that "the critics are wrong in defining 'new music' exclusively as contemporary" and reminds us that "[t]he public could not be more unequivocal: it finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves." She offers this fascinating and uplifting history of the music world's reactionary radicals — The Early-Music Quarrel.

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

One problem: virtually none of the voice pieces from the baroque period can be replicated today because we no longer, for good reason, produce the singers necessary to sing the parts.

Why don't we produce those singers anymore? Because we don't create castrati anymore. For the vast bulk of the vocal pieces of the baroque period, we will never (thank heaven!) experience those pieces as they were meant to be sung. One of the prices of civilization. A trade off well worth it in terms of advancing human rights, I would say!

BTW, I'm surprised you're quoting MacDonald. She's a brutal atheist with very little truck for traditional conservatives.

12:57 AM  
Anonymous walt said...

I would also guess they are not tuning the instruments to the Equal Tone Temperament System to play these pieces since it mainly came into use during the 1800's.

3:53 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Mark, yes. I'm glad we no longer have castrati. To be honest, I don't even like the music made for them, even when performed today by women or counter-tenors. Too gay-sounding for me. I like basses, baritones, tenors, and sopranos, but prefer choral and instrumental music of the baroque.

My thoughts on the baroque are similar to those of Sir John Tavener on Mozart: I find nothing appealing about the era with its powdered wigs and the Enlightenment, but would say it gave us the best music in human history.

About quoting Mac Donald, I was surprised halfway through the piece when I realized who had written it. I often quote atheists and lefties when they make good points. Strangely, I am less willing to do so when neocons, especially Catholic neocons make good points. For example, I used to find much of value on First Things, but I now refuse to even look at the rag.

walt, I'm not musically aware enough to know, but I'd guess you're right.

8:30 AM  
Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

That reminds me: Have you seen those clips on YouTube, three excerpts from Mahler's 9th symphony, played by the Japanese NHK, led by Korean Chung Myung-Whun? They're just lovely, if you like Mahler.

1:32 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I have not seen them, but as a fan of both Mahler and Chung must seek them out:


2:57 PM  

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