In this season of the Boston Early Music Festival, it occurred to the Newberry Consort to experiment with a combination of Early Music and Early Film, taking Sarah Bernhardt’s film Queen Elizabeth, from 1912, preluding it with three of the period’s loveliest consort songs (including Dowland’s Can she excuse my wrongs and Flow my tears), and accompanying the screening of the movie with a continuous soundtrack (so to speak) of Elizabethan consort music. This they did on June 17 in the Modern Theater of Suffolk University.
Ellen Hargis sang (always a joy), and the consort of four viols led by David Douglass on violin played. They were somewhat plagued by slipping strings and tuning issues, which the demands of keeping up with the events on the screen did not always leave time to correct, but the selection of music was convincing and elegant.
The movie, however, was the great curiosity of the event. Filmed when Sarah Bernhardt was 68, a mere three years before her injured leg was finally amputated, it is not a cinematic production in the sense that we are familiar with today, or even that others were creating at the time (Feuillade, for example). Queen Elizabeth was one of Bernhardt’s stage successes, and the movie looks very much like a stage that has been compressed to fit in front of a camera; long passages go by while the actors declaim, gesturing histrionically in a style better suited to a large theater than the screen. Presumably this was effective on stage – surely it must have been, given Bernhardt’s legendarily beautiful and distinctive voice. Physically, it can give very little impression of the great actress’s skill; cramped by her injured leg (which must have been acutely painful), she spends most of the shots seated or standing near a support, and the few times she walks across the set, her movements are slow and stilted.
Aside from its interest as an historical document, however, this production as a whole throws into relief the whole issue of “performance practice.” It is easy, watching this early-twentieth-century production by a nineteenth-century artist, to laugh at the muddle it makes, for example, that of period costume: the women of the Court variously clad in Victorian gowns with Elizabethanesque decorations, and the Queen herself in an elaborate but very Edwardian tea-gown, and everyone with twentieth-century hair styles (plus a variety of beards for the men). Yet how can we today, performing music from the period in which the movie is set, be so arrogant as to sneer at Sarah Bernhardt as though we know everything and do everything perfectly in “period style”? A performance of English Renaissance music on German or French Baroque instruments is not necessarily considered to be laughable today, yet is it so much more historically accurate than bewilderment at Bernhardt’s gowns?
The questions of performance practice in this production can be carried even further. The medley of Elizabethan consort music was performed upon instruments built in the style of the period and played and sung using our best knowledge of period technique. Yet this music has nothing whatever to do with what would have been performed with the movie, when it first appeared. Certainly live music is more in keeping with early twentieth-century cinematic performance practice than piped music or none at all. As the English film Director, Michael Powell pointed out, the merest flea-pit in the so-called “silent” era had at least a three-piece band – but it is a very safe bet that Queen Elizabeth was not accompanied by consort music at its premiere, and even if it was, the chances are not high at all that it would be have been accompanied by consort music played by a consort of viols. By choosing music that suits the story which the movie was based on, and by performing in the best “period style” that we know today, we create an “inauthentic” performance of the movie itself.
Not that this is a bad thing. It is impossible to perform music of the past exactly as it would have been done then. Even if by some miraculous combination of scholarship, musical taste, instinct, and luck, a musician today were able to play in a manner that would cause no surprise to a musician of the past, there are still too many aspects of performance that are beyond reproduction. The appearance of the performer (face, figure, dress, and gesture all included), the manner in which the audience perceives the music (no one in 2011, post-Bach, post-Brahms, post-Bebop, and so on, can perceive music the way a person in 1611 would), the appearance of the performance space and the audience itself, the noise of today’s world – all make it impossible to create a performance “as they would have done or heard it then.” Nor, I believe, should this be the aspiration of performers today. The point of Historically Informed Performance is not to create a sort of musical equivalent of a museum diorama, a frozen reconstruction of something that already happened. The point is to understand the music on its own terms, removing (or at least acknowledging) as far as possible the distortions which our view from the twenty-first century imposes on time past, and using the knowledge thus gained in conjunction with the unavoidable consequences of living in the twenty-first century, to create a performance which is eloquent and moving.