in: Reviews

June 19, 2011

Significance of Early Music Performance

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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Aside from its interest as an historical document, however, this production as a whole throws into relief the whole issue of “performance practice.”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.

Tamar Hestrin Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard in May.

14 Comments

  1. I agree with the reviewer that an organization dedicated to authentic performance practice should not apply anachronistic music to a historic film. “Les amours de la reine Élisabeth” had an orginal score by Joseph Carl Breil. The first silent film to have a through-composed score was “L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise by Saint Saëns in 1908.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 19, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  2. “I agree with the reviewer that an organization dedicated to authentic performance practice should not apply anachronistic music to a historic film.”

    I am not sure that this is what your thoughtful and articulate reviewer is actually saying, Lee. If anything, as I read her, she seems to opine in the other direction.

    In any case, I am all for assessing this kind of kludge/pastiche/experiment (choose one) on its own merits. We all know it’s “inauthentic,” so what else is new? Was the movie/early music combination pleasing? stirring? stimulating? fun? emotionally engaging? life enhancing? Those are the more interesting questions, IMO, in fact the same ones we should be asking of any artistic enterprise whatsoever.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 20, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  3. I enjoyed this combination immensely, and along with the rest of the audience applauded vigorously when it ended. To answer some of Joel’s questions, which I agree are the relevant ones, I did find it pleasing, stimulating and fun. Above all, I found the period music a most welcome relief from the truly anachronistic scores of so many historical movies.

    What does anachronistic mean in this context anyway? Different from the period in which the movie was made, or different from the period in which the story is set? The latter annoys me far more.

    Bravo to the Newberry Consort!

    Comment by perry41 — June 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm

  4. The following was the reviewer’s thought with which I am agreeing:

    “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.”

    When original scores exist for films they should be used. The director’s intent should be respected. Film is Gesamtkunst.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 20, 2011 at 11:22 pm

  5. “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.” Next the reviewer writes, “Not that this is a bad thing.”

    “When original scores exist for films they should be used. The director’s intent should be respected. Film is Gesamtkunst.” But in this case, I don’t see anything to suggest that an original score ever existed.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm

  6. Yes Joe, read my earlier post. “Les amours de la reine Élisabeth” had an orginal score by Joseph Carl Breil.

    Maybe I’m a bit relentless on this subject, but there’s something very operatic about silent film- especially when it is presented with the appropriate original music. And who would suggest re-writing opera scores?

    Richard Strauss thought silent film scoring to be an important art. He even wrote a reduced version of “Rosenkavalier” to go with the eponymous silent film.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm

  7. The very competent film score to Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” was composed by one of Les Six, Georges Auric.

    Then, a few years back, Philip Glass bought rights from Cocteau’s estate, wiped out the original soundtrack, dialogue and music and all, and wrote a new score. So he made the Cocteau film into a silent movie, and created new sounds to be performed live….

    Well,why not? Yes, I would like to hear the silent movie scores, but yes, it’s also challenging to experiment.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  8. As I mentioned in my introductory notes to the performance, there was a score composed for the movie that has been lost. It doesn’t exist. Does that mean the movie should only be shown without any live soundtrack? Of course not. Even in it’s own time Bernhardt’s movie was shown both with the original score and with other accompanimental music. There are more gray areas of historical performance than those of black and white, and it’s important to explore in order to learn. If you can entertain and provoke along the way, all the better. Thank you, Joel for your comments.

    By the way, I am the musician in residence at the Newberry Library and the co-director of the Newberry Consort. I don’t know who Michael Powell is.

    Comment by David Douglass — June 24, 2011 at 10:46 am

  9. I should have also said that I never intended our early movie with early music to be in any way historical. It is historically inspired, modern performance art, and that is how it is described in all of our promotion. Any comment saying we shouldn’t do such a thing is silly and serves no purpose.

    Comment by David Douglass — June 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm

  10. And the last thing I’ll say, I promise!, is that the reviewer hit precisely on the fascinating issues concerning the nature of historical performance practice that the project suggests. I am grateful for that. We consider the nature of what we do too infrequently.

    Comment by David Douglass — June 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm

  11. Who gets the last word on this subject? I certainly did not mean to sound doctrinaire, merely to point out that there are obligations to consider the periodicity of the the movie rather than the subject depicted therein. Filmed costume dramas usually dress their heroines and certainly coif them more in the movie’s period than the subject’s. Likewise, the scores are also period pieces from the the time of the filming.

    Some other examples- Abel Gance’s Napoleon is much more effective with the score written by Arthur Honegger for the premiere in 1928 than it is with the pastiche put together in the 1970’s by Carmine Coppola.

    “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang has a wonderful orchestral score written by Gottfried Huppertz in 1927 that is far superior to “updatings” perpetrated by the likes of the Alloy Orchestra.

    Unfortunately works in the public domain such as “Les amours de la reine Élisabeth” have no copyright holders to defend their integrity.

    All of that said, The Newberry Consort’s effort may have been quite pleasing.

    BTW- Michael Powell is a famous English film director. I’m not sure how he was promoted or demoted to director of the Newberry Consort. (The editor has taken note and made the change. Thanks, Mr. Douglass)

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 24, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  12. Perhaps I should clarify my original point. I did not mean to say that anachronistic scores should categorically not be played with silent movies – only to point out that doing so makes the screening, as David Douglass puts it, a piece of “historically inspired, modern performance art”. When a DVD is released as “definitive” with an anachronistic soundtrack, the result is highly questionable; when such a performance is put forward as a work of art in its own right, it is perfectly reasonable, and the result will stand or fall purely on its own merits. On these terms, I would say that the Newberry Consort’s score was capital good fun and very well done indeed.

    As to the mysterious metamorphosis of Michael Powell, I really cannot say much – he was certainly still a director of film when he left my hands.

    Comment by Tamar Hestrin Grader — June 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

  13. From whence cometh the error:
    Nowhere in the review was there mention of the director(s) of Newberry Consort, but this segment below, from the submitted review, is what misled me:

    “… 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 Bernhardt’s bewilderment of 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 director Michael Powell pointed out, the merest flea-pit in the so-called “silent” era had at least a three piece band – ”

    So we added “the English film”… Although I am sure there are a multitude of persons by that name, this was the one referred to by the reviewer.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm

  14. Lee’s last comment included one point on which I can add some clarification (or obfuscation, depending on your perspective). Even though the film is public domain, under *French* law (and some other European laws to similar effect) the director’s descendants can bring an action to object to any distortion of the original, under “moral rights” legislation, as that is independent of copyright and survives indefinitely. Cases in Europe have permitted such suits involving the manner of presentation as well as alterations to the original. For example, colorization of black and white films has been blocked in France, and positioning of sculptures has supported claims in, I think, Italy. Of course, there would be no action available in the US for a violation of French moral rights law, since we have no equivalent that covers films and/or music (well, actually, Massachusetts does have such a law, but I doubt it covers accompaniment to a film as opposed to alterations to the film itself).

    Now isn’t all that interesting?

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — June 27, 2011 at 11:22 am

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