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The Naked Emperor and Authentic Performance


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.

Mark Kroll will be lecturing and performing in Bratislava, Slovakia this May for its International Conference on Franz Liszt. He will be speaking about the transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies by Liszt and Hummel, and playing two of them on an 18th-century fortepiano—but in an 18th-century concert hall.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Vegetarianism in Boston, indeed

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  2. Excellent, Mark! By the way, it’s Allan Kozinn…

    Comment by Nimitta — March 25, 2011 at 7:22 am

  3. One of my favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes tells the story of a cowboy from the past who is captured by a time machine (just as he is about to be hanged, by the way) and whisked to the time of the episode itself, the 1960s. At one point, when he enters a saloon, he is bombarded by noise from a juke box, pulls out a pistol and blows it away! Never mind the juke box, all the assembled noises of mid-20th Century New York City would have been completely jarring to ears accustomed to a natural sound world.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — March 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

  4. @Mr. Glavin: I love that Twilight Zone too, and it illustrates Mr Kroll’s point.

    Great article Mr K. When I was a student at NEC, the wonderfully amusing Daniel Pinkham used to refer to the “Earlier Than Thou” crowd who claimed to know how early music should (and must!) be performed.

    Comment by Klingsor — March 31, 2011 at 9:56 am

  5. Really great article. I feel like one question that is simply not being asked during the debate is- why is it even so important that we recreate the music EXACTLY as the composer heard it? Why should I care? Music, as far as I know, is the only art that has this trend. Actors almost never try to simulate Shakespeare’s plays EXACTLY as Shakespeare intended them, with an all-male cast, no scenery, props, etc; and probably would be mocked for doing so. Rather, they stay as faithful to the text as they can, while updating elements of the play, staging, etc, to take into account changing audiences and changing times.

    I enjoy early music performances and the interesting perspecives they bring, but I hate this idea that it’s important or even possible to recreate the sound-world of the 18th or 19th centuries or whenever. Music should not be about recreating something from the past, it’s about creating something in the present.

    Comment by jdturbessi — April 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm

  6. Bravo Mark Kroll for an article which was at turns thoughtful, perceptive, illuminating and humorous. We all need to take a deep breath and recall what music really is, and what it can do for us. I think Bach as much as anyone would be more than amused to listen to some of the “pure,” and “legitimate” performances of his sublime music we hear these days. If he’d had a “swell box” on any organ he played, I bet he would have used it, and I’ll just bet he’d love Eric Whitacre’s “virtual choir” on the web.

    Comment by Brian Jones — April 17, 2011 at 10:38 am

  7. In general, I appreciate the corrective to the “earlier than thou” philosophy that unfortunately still plagues much of the early music world. I think it’s important to point out, however, that we fall into the exact same trap we’re decrying when we proclaim that Beethoven would have been furious at the horns, or that Bach would love this or that new invention or that Mozart would be a film composer (my personal favorite) … were they alive today. The fact is, they aren’t, they didn’t have access to all these things, and we’re being foolish to say what they would or would not like no matter the point of view we think we’re defending.

    Early music is a thoroughly modern style that, at its core, is a way of connecting modern musicians and audiences with very old music that is independent of the received wisdom many of us learned once upon a time. That the style is becoming a new kind of received wisdom is unfortunate, but there’s endless room for musicians to create and innovate. After all, in music, there’s no such thing as an emperor.

    Comment by jcooper — April 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm

  8. *I quote Mr Kroll –
     ” 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
    Mr Kroll must be aware, although there are so many errors in his sour-grapes article that one wonders, that these comments might well have been made about Beethoven’s own performances – many of which were shambolic to put it kindly.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — April 28, 2012 at 10:39 am

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