The Early Music Red Pill
For the last several years, the vast majority of my work has been in the early music field. I spent many years playing only modern bassoon, but my gigs and most of my work conversations for the last handful of years have been in and around early music. Moving to Cologne has changed that a bit, as I have quite a few modern connections from Indiana University here, where I studied modern bassoon. Apparently there is an IU ex-pat black hole situated somewhere in Cologne. So I am again surrounded by modern players, wonderful musicians, but with little or no early music training. So I find myself between two worlds. The thing is, I have swallowed the red pill of historical performance, and there is no going back to the same world in which I once lived.
One cannot not forget the magic that is hearing an ensemble of early double reeds play an F# major chord, the magic gut strings and an understanding of counterpoint can bring to a performance of Bach’s music, or the magic of playing Telemann on baroque bassoon. One would not want to play the Rite of Spring on baroque bassoon, but it is many times easier to play a continuo line on baroque bassoon than it is modern. It all depends on the goal of a particular performance. To travel two miles, one would not use a plane, one would walk or use a car. To travel 1000 miles, one would use a plane. Does this make the plane or the car a superior mode of travel? Certainly not. Studying early music, I believe, should be part of every musician’s curriculum. By absolutely no means do I think every musician should only play early music, but to understand the language of the past, or at least to be able to translate this language, is priceless knowledge.
Historical performance is not about recreating exact replicas of past performances, but rather learning the language of a particular time in history. The primary concern voiced among my modern music friends, is that historical performance practice is too constraining. That allowing for historical context means that the music is somehow less current. I thought the same thing before I was pulled into the early music rabbit hole, but actually have found the opposite to be true. I remember working on music from Baroque and Classical masters and being at a complete loss. What to do with music that has little to no dynamic markings? One can only rely on intuition to a certain point, and then one needs the grammar.
I find it interesting to listen to a piece of baroque music performed on a modern instrument with a performer who hasn’t studied any early music. The performance can sound strange to me, like listening to poetry with the accents on the wrong syllables, or listening to a speech where everything is just one run on sentence. This is not to say early music should never be performed on modern instruments, but a little bit of historical performance practice study would go a long way. For me, playing anything pre 1800 on modern bassoon feels like a translation. Translations themselves are not bad, it allows for people to enjoy great works who would otherwise not have access, but there is always going to be something lost in that translation.
What about all the rules? Classical music as a whole is full of rules, we just don’t think about them as rules if they are on the page. We are musicians who, in most cases, take other people’s compositions and interpret them to the best of our abilities. Accents, crescendos, slurs, dynamic markings, these are all rules that one follows at the composers request. However, one would be hard pressed to find someone complaining about the confines of accents. It would be sacrilege to change Beethoven’s accent markings, yet the phrasings that Bach considered self-evident are ignored, because these rules were documented in outside treatises, rather then on the page.
It all boils down to whether you believe that historical context belongs in classical music. It is my opinion that we cannot play Bach the same way we play Beethoven, the same way we play Mahler, or Berg. Historical performance is realizing that tastes change, styles change, and that we do not perform music in a vacuum. Musicality can be highly subjective, what is considered a good performance changes over time, and this makes people uncomfortable. While yes, musicality at the end of the day or the end of last century is the same, but we do not just deal just in emoting. Music, particularly classical music is not just about expression. It is also about craft and style. It is a blend of intellect and heart, and to take the intellect out of the pictures I believe is to do classical music a big disfavor.
That is what we do in early music, we put the craft back in. We should not project romantic expression onto the rhetorically driven music pre-1800. Expression was an important part of a musician and composers life, but the thought process was different. In my musical life, I became frustrated in modern settings when I was told to be more musical. Great, that is very useful. In baroque and classical era music, there are more tools to reach this elusive “musicality” goal. The treatises ask you to decide whether the music is lively, melancholy, delicate, coy, pleading, etc. There is a much more concrete path that has been laid down for musicians to reach their goals, and I have found these guidelines work in any setting, in any time period. We work in a field that is based, for better or worse, mostly in the past. Isn’t it time to study this past?