Thursday, 23 January 2014

Psuedohistorically informed performance

One of the most depressing trends in modern music is the ubiquity of ”historically informed performance” (HIP) practice. For the uniformed, this means performing the music on period instruments and adhering slavishly to the notes and rhythms marked, in the effort to be "authentic" and adhere to "the composer's intentions".

This has become obligatory in recent years when performing pre-romantic music and practically all heresy have been driven from the concert hall, including great conductors like the late Sir Colin Davis (1)  and Pierre Boulez (2), all in the pursuit of "authenticity" 

However the philosophy underlining HIP is weak, as it's questionable that we can create authentic performances or even that we should do so.

Turning back the clock

The first problem with creating "historically informed performances" is that we don't know much about how the music was originally performed before the invention of sound recordings in the late 1800s. Musical notation becomes only more and more vague and questionable the longer back we go in history. For performance practice we have rely on contemporary descriptions of how they played and instruction books on performance, which is thin stuff indeed. We don't even know if they followed the instruction books or not. To make the case even clearer, try to imagine a future historian trying to reconstruct modern performances without the benefit of recordings. Even with our much improved musical notation, it would indeed be a difficult, if not impossible task.

It is therefore very much in doubt whether we can create (or re-create) a "historically informed" or "authentic" performance. But even if such a thing existed, if the people in the HIP movement could play a piece of music just as it was played when the composer was alive, without "modern distortions", would we, the listeners, hear the music as the composer intended, as his original audience would hear it?

Of course not. Our experiences are far too different from that of the original audience, which would make the experience cloured or "distorted" by modernity. Imagine a time-traveler, who traveled back to the 1791 and went to premiere of "Die Zauberflöte". Would he or she listen to Mozart with the same ears as that of the contemporary audience?

"We cannot", as Professor Mark Berry (3) puts it, "unhear "The Rite of Spring" or the sound of the modern orchestra..." Nor, as the professor continues, should we wish to. There is no reason why we shouldn't continue to reinvent the music of the past and create a dialogue with history, instead of trying to preserve it.

That HIP, with a few exceptions doesn't take this into account show how, despite its claims to historicity, it lack grounding in the science of history. The movement takes a child's view of history, where it is the mere repetition of base facts, the listing of kings and presidents. It cares more about the instruments of the age, than the people who played them. It cares only for how the music was played, not why the musicians played that way. The understanding of the wider context, the analysis and interpretation of the facts that real history demands is beyond them. It is psuedohistory, a form of antiquarianism. They are "interested in historical facts without being interested in history", to paraphrase historian Arnaldo Momigliano.

"Dead, absent and indifferent"

The main argument for HIP is that by adhering to HIP practice, the performer honors the composer's intentions. Of course, as the preceding sections points out, it's probably impossible to recreate the performance the composer intended via HIP.

However, a more important fault with the argument is that it rests on the assumption that we should honor the composer's intentions. While it the HIP movement rejects "romanticizing" pre-romantic music, it ironically does so in the name of the romantic ideal of the artist as genius, whose work should not be tampered with.

The first problem with this is that the intentions of long-dead composers are unknownable. We can't possibly know what Bach or Mozart would have thought about Karl Böhm or Wilhelm Furtwängler performing their works on modern instruments, whether they would have liked it or rejected it. Their works now belong to us, the living, to interpret as we want. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, there is no point to performing a work, as it was when the composer was "alive, present and approving", when the difference is that he or she is now "dead, absent and indifferent". This is no more presumptous by us than claiming to know the minds of the dead (4)

I will in fact go so far as to say that there is no reason to put the composer's intentions above that of the performer. The performer is also an artist and if he or she can create good music by not adhering to the composers expressed intentions, he or she should do so. The work of pianists like Alfred Cortot and Glenn Gould are good examples of the excellent music that can result from not adhering slavishly to the composers intent.

This brings us to the second problem with using the composers intentions as a standard. For the fact is, that throughout most of our history composers expected the performer to take liberties with their music, and as musicians themselves, interpreted other composers music. The idea of putting the composer's intentions above those of the performer can be traced back to the composer Igor Stravinsky and the conductor Arturo Toscanini in the twentieth century. (5)

Earlier composers and musicians have no such scruples. Bach rearranged both the music of himself and others composers, among them Vivaldi; Mozart re-orchestrated Händel's "Messiah", while Mahler re-orchestrated Beethoven's and Schumann's symphonies.

By adhering dogmatically to the score, to the composers intentions as written, we may thus ignore the deeper, unwritten intentions of the composer. As Richard Taruskin (5) points out, Mozart's music often expect the performer to embellish the written music with his own; an expectation that is most often ignored by HIP performers, who perform Mozart without "the raiment" of the music that he would have expected them to give them.

"The fundamentalism of our times"

Musicologist Richard Taruskin has written extensively on "Early Music movement" (which he has been a part of) and he found that it was quite prepared to ignore the historical evidence it claimed to follow in it's performances. This of course means that isn't really a revival of early performance practice, but instead something new. It is modern music-making, for modern tastes. (5)

HIP's origins lie in a modern taste for text-centered literalism, impersonalism and lightness, he argued. These qualities are also evident in modern compositions. The literalism and impersonalism comes from Stravinsky and Toscanini, who argued against individual interpretation by performers. Instead the musician should only play what is in the notation and become "executants" (as Stravinsky put it) of the composer's will.

The lightness comes from modern-day aversions against the strong beliefs and ideologies. In our post-modern post-ideological age, Beethoven's claim that "all men are brothers" are today seen as outdated relics of nineteenth century-optimism. The lightness is inherent in the sound of HIP, with the small ensembles and, often, the fast, dance-like rhythms the music is played with.

I think the antiquarianism and impersonalism of the HIP movement is a way of distancing the performer and the audience from the messages in the music. When you do a personal interpretation of a piece of music, you make the music's message into your own in a way. You don't distance yourself from it. But when you perform it impersonally, and instead let "historical facts" guide your performance, letting as little of yourself into the music as possible, you distance yourself from the message contained therein. "It is the composer who says this, not me".

But this lack of sublimity has not led to tolerance. The HIP movement has, as mentioned in the beginning of this article been fanatical in it's zeal to drive out all other forms of performance from the concert hall and recording studio. This has led to one of the movements pioneers (and possibly it's most reasonable and talented member) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (6) call the authenticity ideal "very close to the kind of political dogmatism and religious fundamentalism that are so much part of our times".

This has thankfully died down somewhat in recent years, when the criticism of Taruskin and others forced the HIP movement to somewhat abandon their claims to authenticity. Some "historically" informed performers have accepted the necessity to take liberties with the text and inject emotion into their performances.


Before I finish, I must say i am not against "historically informed"  performance, at all. My disagreement with it's principles, doesn't mean I reject the music. I am after all an atheist who listens to Bach. And of course, there are many HIP musicians who agree with me in my rejection of authenticity, like Harnoncourt, Frank Agsteribbe (7) and Taruskin. HIP can be the starting point for new, interesting interpretations of music and I can not imagine anyone finding anything questionable at all about the early music movements efforts to re-discover pre-baroque music, which was it's starting point. What I reject is the idea that there is one right way to perform music. There can and should be as many ways to perform a piece of music as there are performances.

                                Wilhelm Furtwängler - St. Matthew's passion (1954)

Let all rivers flow.








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