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Musical Hermeneutics: The ‘Authentic’ Performance of Early Music

What does make a musical performance authentic? What do we mean by authenticity anyway? Michael Graubart looks for some answers.

Bach fugues on the clavichord or the piano? Handel arias with added ornaments or plain? Mozart concertos on a fortepiano, gut-strung violins and valveless horns or on a Steinway grand piano and modern orchestral instruments? Beethoven symphonies at the breakneck speeds indicated by the metronome marks he later added to his scores or at the tempi that conductors have traditionally found to be musically appropriate? Such questions are much in the minds of concert-goers and CD-buyers as well as of performers these days. As a matter of fact, they are only particular examples of what determines a performer’s ‘interpretation’ of any piece of music, but they concentrate the mind on tangible, objective aspects of performance, in contrast to the subtle, elusive, often almost unanalyzable complexes of phrasings, articulations, dynamic and agogic nuances and internal textural balances that more generally differentiate one performance of a given piece from another.

Hermeneutics – in philosophy but also in other contexts – is the theory of interpretation or understanding. Any hermeneutic enterprise concerned with written-down music must begin with the notation – the ‘alphabet’ of signs – used in the score. Establishing an authoritative text from sources such as the autograph, manuscript copies, printed scores, orchestral parts – with or without alterations by the composer or his first performers – proof corrections, letters from the composer and verbal descriptions of early performances is a matter of textual criticism and scholarship. But during the eight hundred or so years during which a musical notation approximating to our modern one has existed, individual signs (the ‘letters’) and their combinations (‘words’ and ‘sentences’) have gradually, and in some cases radically, changed their meanings.

A further problem can arise if a musical score is regarded as a set of instructions to the performers rather than an artefact in its own right. Its instructions can be roughly divided into ‘means’ notation and ‘ends’ notation. The sheet music for a pop song often contains examples of the former: the notation for guitar chords doesn’t specify the notes to be produced, but instead tells the player which frets on the finger-board each string should be stopped against; the Renaissance and Baroque equivalent was lute tablature. This is fine; but of course the notes that are heard depend on the notes to which the strings have been tuned. There is a lute piece by a member of the Neusiedler family, Judentanz, which the history books used to cite as an early example of parody, or even antisemitism, in music because the tune on the top two strings seems to be in two different keys, and doesn’t fit the accompaniment. But non-standard string-tunings were in occasional use in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, and if a suitable one is adopted, the piece comes out as a very straightforward one, entirely in D major!

But exclusive reliance on ‘ends’ notation can be just as confusing. An example is the frequent appearance of specified notes that are not part of the natural series of fundamentals and overtones in the scores of music for the 17th and 18th century horn, which had no valves to allow these notes to be sounded. Such notes had to be, as it were, ‘faked’; but the way this is done affects the way the music sounds. We know how it was done in the time of Mozart and Haydn, but there is little evidence, and that contradictory, to show what techniques were in use in the time of Bach and Handel.

The instruments in use in earlier centuries – even the nineteenth – differed in sound from modern ones, even when they were ancestors of our familiar ones and had the same names. This is the most apparently straightforward issue connected with the ‘authentic’ performance of early music, but it is in fact a very knotty and complex one. I shall return to it later on, but as an introduction to it, it is worth contemplating, on the one hand the normative, indeed ethical, implications of ‘authentic’ (and ‘unauthentic’!), and on the other hand the awkward fact that many modern music-lovers derive more aesthetic pleasure from listening to modern instruments, particularly because the latter are often more effective in the large concert-halls of our day than the instruments designed to be heard in small rooms in Baroque or Classical palaces.

Many musicians seek to justify the use of modern instruments with an argument which seems to crop up most often in connection with Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos. We know that he was continually dissatisfied with the pianos of his day. Would he not have preferred his music to be played on a modern Steinway concert grand? Yes, probably. But we can be pretty sure that he would have written different music for it!

In returning to questions of notation, we come face to face with the classical problems of hermeneutics. Only a performer knows just how much a musical score (and especially a pre 20th century one) does not prescribe. Any score must be interpreted within the horizon, the ramifying complex of assumed conventions and practices, of its period. Two examples – but two important ones – must suffice.

J.S. Bach frequently provided no indications of tempo in his scores. Much of his music was intended for performances directed by himself; but certainly not all. We may suppose that when he did write words meaning ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ over particular pieces, he meant ‘faster than usual’ or ‘slower than usual’. But what is ‘usual’? Much was written about these matters in Bach’s day, and there is evidence that the normal heart-beat (which, for sound neuro-physiological reasons, is also a comfortable walking speed) was taken as a norm. There was, indeed, a tradition of the human heart as metronome, together with intricate indications of proportionally faster or slower speeds, stretching back to the ‘Tactus’ of the medieval choirmaster; but, though Johann Quantz, Frederick the Great’s flute teacher, distinguished between the heart-rates of phlegmatic and choleric performers, implying great precision, the application of tempi derived from the heartbeat to music with different rhythms and metres is not so simple.

The reported evidence of listeners to performances in the period of the music’s composition can also be a two-edged sword. Say someone attending the first performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in Venice in 1610 had written to a friend, praising the sweetness of a soloist’s voice or the number of instruments used. What can we deduce from this? That sweet voices and large instrumental ensembles were what everyone hopefully expected, or that they stood out on this occasion because small groups of instruments and Renaissance voices (whose incisiveness is hinted at by musical parallels with certain kinds of folk music still practised today, and by the positions of the Adam’s apples of singers in Renaissance paintings) were still the norm?

The question of instrumentation is rather different. The written sources of music before the mid-eighteenth century often do not indicate what instruments the music should be played on; in the case of music from the sixteenth century and earlier, such indications are almost never supplied. Conventions played a part here, too. Choral music in the Renaissance was often accompanied by trombones if sacred, by viols and perhaps recorders if secular. But the truth was that the composer saw himself as providing a ‘do-it-yourself music kit’, which the performers put together using whatever singers and instrumentalists were available, taking into account the size of the performing space and the social context of the performance. So our problem today is not that of insufficient knowledge but of too much freedom. To perform a motet or a madrigal of the 16th century which, on the page, appears to consist of five unaccompanied vocal lines, using, say, a boy treble and a countertenor and giving the other vocal lines to two sackbuts (Renaissance trombones), a bass viol, an archlute and a small organ might well be considered to be ‘historically informed’; to have it sung to the accompaniment of electric guitars and bass guitar, a synthesizer and a drum-kit would not, enjoyable though it might be. But where do we draw the line? Modern violin, viola and cello? A trumpet with valves instead of an alto sackbut? The decision must take into account what instruments could have been available in the composer’s time: Bach arranged his own triosonata in G, originally for two flutes and continuo, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, but he could not have imagined the sound of modern flutes and a modern piano. Using period instruments and, insofar as we can establish them, period bowings, articulation, phrasing and tempi has practical advantages. How many of us have actually heard the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s 8th symphony, first heard softly played by a solo clarinet, when, at the movement’s climax, it returns low down in the cellos and basses while the whole rest of the orchestra blares out a chorale-like harmonization over the top? I have – but only in performances by orchestras with the lighter sound of early- 19th century brass and wind, and with the bottom-heavy string section, favouring the cellos and basses, common in Beethoven’s time.

But the important question is: “Why do we listen to music from a period not our own?”

If we listen to it for immediate pleasure, then performances on instruments that we enjoy, old or new, are the thing.

Indeed, this applies, too, to the style of performance. No-one would claim an historical perspective for the Swingle Singers’ unaccompanied vocal jazz performances of Bach’s harpsichord pieces (Swingle I, of course, not that etiolated reincarnation, Swingle II). But in the sense that they were integrated, accomplished, hugely enjoyable pieces of modern musicmaking with just enough of a background of Bach to highlight the ways in which they were jazz and in which they deviated from Baroque music-making, they had their own, non-historical authenticity.

If, on the other hand, we are trying to enter into the world of a great composer from an earlier period, as we might want to enter the world of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, because we believe that a form of intellectual and emotional communication, mediated by the performers, can take place between the intentional expressive act of the composer and ourselves, then only a performance that places what we hear against the background of what was usual and expected at the time of the composition of the work can generate meaning and affect by deviating from those norms. Only a production of the Antigone that not only makes the religious beliefs and social practices of the time plausible but allows the modern spectator to internalize them can generate the emotional charge and intellectual meaning of the enormity of leaving Polynices’ body unburied. Only a performance of Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto in a concert situation that makes one expect that a Classical concerto will begin with the orchestra and not the soloist, and will not change to a remote key in the sixth bar, can allow one to respond to that extraordinary opening (which, in a Romantic or modern context, would be quite unexceptional).

This raises two very big problems – one aesthetic and psychological, the other philosophical. The first is that the one element of a performance that can never be made ‘authentic’ is the listener. The first listeners to Bach’s Italian Concerto (despite its name a piece for solo harpsichord) must have jumped out of their skins at the unexpectedly dense seven-note chord that begins it. To us, used as we are to jet engines, pneumatic drills and symphony orchestras of a hundred, and, moreover, listening to it in a big hall, it sounds like a pleasing tinkle. Similarly, the dissonance with which Bach’s Cantata No.54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, begins would very vividly have expressed to the congregation in 1714 the discord that sin causes in our souls and in the world, but to us, used to Mahler and Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Birtwistle, it sounds sensuous and expressive (though it has to be admitted that this was, in fact, also part of Bach’s expressive intention, because the worldly blandishments of sin are contrasted with its spiritual disruptiveness in one and the same sound).

The second is that of the identity of a piece of music. Does it reside in the composer’s initial mental idea … in the written score … in each performance … in what goes on in each listener’s consciousness? Is there only one 5th symphony of Beethoven or as many as there have been listeners listening to performances of it? In the form of the questions: “How far can a performance of a given work deviate from what is generally accepted as the normal range of possible performances before it ceases to be a performance of that work and turns into a different piece, and who decides what the limits of the normal range are?” this problem returns us to many of the topics discussed above.

© Michael Graubart 2000

Michael Graubart is a composer

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