Early music has been in the news a lot this month, and that is a good thing. For example, the recent concert of the Handel and Haydn Society led by Richard Egarr received no less than three Boston reviews, two in this journal (Joseph E. Morgan, March 20, and Tamar Hestrin Grader, March 21) and another in The Boston Globe by Harlow Robinson (“Period instruments put exclamation point on the Fifth,” March 22). Nicholas Kenyon wrote a long piece on the subject in The New York Times (see “Early Music is Enjoying Its Moment,” March 4, 2011), and the paper also featured an article by Allan Kozinn about Christopher Hogwood’s visit to Juilliard’s new early music program (“Baroque Music So Clean It Runs Itself,” March 20).
It is also a good thing that many of the claims about the “correct” way to perform early music that were once accepted as gospel have long been abandoned, but some ideas refuse to die. We are still being lectured that Bach’s vocal music should always be performed with one on a part, regardless of the where, why, or when of the performance. Others tell us that we should not only play eighteenth-century works without vibrato, but the music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well. Kenyon’s article credits Roger Norrington for this idea and praises him for taking “his distinctive quest for period style from Haydn and Mozart as far forward as Mahler and Elgar, eliminating the vibrato that modern string players use,” despite the fact that almost all of the recorded and documentary evidence tells us exactly the opposite.
The historical performance movement also still suffers from a short historical memory. Kozinn’s article, for example, seems to imply that Juilliard’s initiative represents the first time a major music conservatory has made a substantial commitment to the field. Perhaps in New York, but Boston beat them to the punch by several decades. The New England Conservatory was offering courses and an early music degree as early as the 1970s, there was considerable activity at Longy and, if I may be allowed to toot my own horn here (a period one without valves, of course), the curriculum that I created when I established the department of historical performance at Boston University in the 1980s included a course for pianists to study harpsichord and another for modern instrumentalists and singers to perform and study Baroque music.
We can go back even further to find top musicians advocating the historical performance approach. The music publisher Vincent Novello, for example, believed that eighteenth-century compositions should be published “exactly as they were intended to be performed by the Composer.” He wrote that in 1825.
Then there is the myth of the “authentic” performance. Robinson falls into this trap when he claims in his Globe review that the use of period instruments enabled the audience to “hear the Fifth [Symphony] the way Beethoven and his first audience would have heard it.” With all due respect to a fine scholar and writer, it is virtually impossible to hear a piece of music the way the composer and audience heard it. There are just too many factors that can never be duplicated: the purpose of the concert and the different classes of people who attended it, the number and quality of the musicians and their instruments, and the acoustics of the performing space, just to name a few. And let us also include the very ears of the people in the audience. Hearing a concert after a day of being bombarded by TV, radio, car noises, the sounds of electric guitars and a screeching Green Line is quite different from the experience of someone who lived during a low-decibel era when there were few if any machines and only the noise of horse-drawn carriages.
Grader was describing several of these factors when she wrote, “half the very large audience could hardly hear the soloist [since] fortepiani were not built to produce a sound large enough to fill a space the size of Symphony Hall.” So did Joe Whipple when he commented, “Mr. Eggarr and the orchestra did manage to achieve inaudibility in the front row of the curve from right to center of the second balcony.” Herein lies the core of problem. If Beethoven had walked into Symphony Hall for the first rehearsal of this concert, chances are good that he would have taken one look at the huge expanse of the 2000+ seat hall and shouted: we need a bigger piano and more players in the orchestra! It is also doubtful that he would have put his seal of approval on a performance plagued by “an unfortunate number of ragged entrances,” a movement skittering “along at such a pace that the orchestra was dangerously near to falling out of step” or one in which there were some “lamentable squawks from the natural horns,” as several reviewers described. Knowing of Beethoven’s volcanic temper and uncompromising personality, the H&H management might have been tempted to call for the riot police if they didn’t meet the composers expectations.
So let’s stop proclaiming that this performance is an authentic reproduction, and that one is not. Rather, we should congratulate the early music movement for introducing us to some wonderful repertoire, recognize the refreshing insights into performance practice it has provided, and sit back and enjoy it. And the next time you salute an emperor, it might be a good idea to make sure he is wearing some clothes.