(a good deal of this is reworked from a piece about Monteverdi I wrote three-and-a-half years ago.)
(24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine trumpets, nine french horns, six kettledrums, as many snare drums as can be afforded.....and if you’re feeling more conventional you can add some strings. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.)
When Haydn heard Messiah in London, he was said to be in tears and exclaimed “He is the greatest of us all.” Beethoven said of Handel “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Mozart was nearly as effusive: “Handel understands effects better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
Before the beatification of Mozart, and Beethoven (and Bach), it was taken for granted Handel was the greatest of all composers. When Beethoven needed a sound to challenge the world, he needed look no further than Handel’s example to show what music can do. While Bach was a mere local cantor, Handel was considered the very apex of music’s ability to entertain, challenge and move audiences.
(If the opening to Zadok the Priest doesn’t thrill you. You have no pulse....give it a second...)
So now, with 2011 drawing to a close, I’m ready to ask a question that should have been asked hundreds of years ago. Why are most performances of Handel such unbearable snoozers? For fifteen years, I've tried to convince myself that I like this music enough to sit through countless hours of it surrounded by other sophisticated people, basking in the self-congratulation of being too sophisticated to go merely to concerts containing the Three B's.
And if this scenario rings true for anybody else, it's because, like me, you really do like a great deal of baroque music. You've heard things - moments, arias, even whole hours and acts of this stuff - that you really quite love. But in order to reach those moments, you force yourself to sit through hour upon hour of untold tedium. One aria after duet after trio after aria...for over three hours, every one of which becomes indistinguishable from one another. Don't tell me you haven't had this experience because I know you're lying. We classical music lovers have all gone to our share of Messiahs, seen at least one or two operas by Handel, those of you who are lucky (ie the Europeans) probably got to a few runs of Monteverdi and Rameau, maybe even one by Vivaldi. We all know and love our Bach and have seen dozens of concerts of his music. But regardless of the composer, most of these experiences involve approximately fifteen minutes of truly involving music, and then sitting through another three hours of excruciating dullness. If you weren't sitting in an opera house or concert hall, you could swear you were listening to a CD entitled 'vocal music for narcoleptics.'
(Monteverdi, writing and performed at his best.)
And because the music making is so staid, it is ripe to be subsumed by the very worst excesses of the more vibrant theatrical world that moves parallel to us. How many articles do we have to read about Orfeo ed Euridice as lesbians misunderstood by a homophobic Cupid do we have to sit through before the invisible hand begins to show its disapproval? How many reviews should we read about Giulio Cesare done in Nazi uniforms? How many will we see L'Incoronazione di Poppea done with nude court dancers? And how many more productions will involve trench coats and dark glasses? When will people stop thinking that these productions are original? Nobody should be opposed on principle to rethinking classic texts, even to radical rethinkings. But if a director brings different ideas to the productions, they damn well better be every bit as good as the original concept. But how many are?
The problem is never the competence of the ensembles: everything is always well-sculpted, well-manicured, nary a note out of place and nary a note out of tune. The problem is that Baroque opera performances are so lacking in any inspiration, involvement or inner life that there is scarcely a point in sitting through it unless you value the ability to say that you did.
(How Monteverdi used to be done. Very pretty, right? Now imagine four hours of exactly this....)
It doesn't take much of a brain to figure out that Baroque opera is not bereft of interest on account of its music being naturally boring. There had to be something within this music that excited audiences or else no one would think to preserve it. But what was it about these operas that were so incredible that they became at least as integral to their era as movies are to ours? I've heard estimates that in the early part of the eighteenth century, there were 18,000 operas written, and those were only the ones based on librettos by a single poet named Metastasio! Why was Baroque opera such a craze for no less than a hundred years? What are we not hearing?
You can only guess as to the answer, but I think it should be fairly obvious. What's missing from Baroque Opera is everything missing from our performances of every era of music before and since, only even more. In our finally ending era of Urtext, critical editions, authentic performance, and comme e scritto, we have lots sight of music's most fundamental aim - to give pleasure. We can follow the text of the composers as closely as we want. But if the results are dull, no amount of hiding behind the composer’s markings will sell more tickets.
(It's now more than half a century after Nikolaus Harnoncourt became the leader of the authentic performance revolution. They used to seem completely revolutionary, his performances now seem a near-ideal marriage of tradition and revolution. Nowhere more so than in Bach.)
Opera companies, even court ones, were never so firmly established as they have been since the age of conductors like Mahler and Toscanini. The era was one of makeshift performances, recomposed for each singer's abilities, each concert space, each available instrumentation, and each audience proclivity. Singers were expected to interpret with the score as a blueprint, but not as the Holy Writ. Over-acting was no doubt encouraged. No doubt this meant that there were at least as many awful opera performances in their day as there are awful movies in ours. But in exchange, the best performances were as of the moment, as live and as spontaneous in their way as a Coltrane solo. In the hands of the best performers, opera was probably an experience unlike nearly any we have today.
Is there any artform in which tradition dies harder than classical music? For reasons I could never understand, there are many classical music lovers who insist that this music be well-mannered, civilized, tamed. For these music-lovers, classical music is simply a refuge from the chaos and barbarity of everyday life. They listen for a tamed experience of calm, balance, and stability - and would like to hear the exactly the same performance they heard fifty years ago. If they heard Bach's B-Minor Mass in college with a chorus of 300 and a full orchestra, that will be the way they want to hear it for the rest of their lives. And if these music lovers heard the work with a chorus of 18 and just as many instruments, they will shut themselves off to any other way. Even now, early music is still a battleground between two equally closed-minded dogmas. There is no shame in subscribing to one or the other. If you don't like your music-making to come with revelations and challenges, that's your right. It's just that I could scream...and so probably would any decent composer.
(Rene Jacobs. He started out as a countertenor, he then became the HIP movement's second truly great conductor.)
It should at least be said that we've come a long way in the fifty years since the Raymond Leppard editions. Who can deny that Baroque opera is becoming less and less of a chore. One day soon, it might even be a joy. The realizations are getting more diverse and occasionally even more imaginative. Conductors like Rene Jacobs, Jordi Savall, and Marc Minkowski are able to buck accepted notions of what's 'correct' in favor of what works (and let's be fair, Harnoncourt always did that too). Soon-to-be-legendary singers like Cecilia Bartoli and Sandrine Piau (and the already legendary Lorraine Hunt Liebersen) built their careers around these virtually unknown masterpieces, endowing them with a visceral depth of expression that is sometimes unattainable in the 19th century operas we know so well.
But this is precisely the problem. I can so easily name these figures because they are exceptions to the dangerous rule of law pervading the authentic performance movement. The authentic performance cannot exist merely to force musicians to play in any given style. Authentic performance exists to make performers aware of the stunning diversity of interpretive choices available to them. The best performers of the HIP movement are always conscious of the fact that the only true authenticity is great music-making. If this means doubling the winds or halving the tempo, they have no qualms about doing so joyfully. The ultimate irony of the authentic performance movement is that it set out to restrict the way interpreters perform music, but ended up endowing our music scene with more diversity than ever. It’s just a shame that most performers choose not to exploit it.
And this is why performances of Baroque music that are any less than good become ever more inexcusable. If you're going to perform a piece as important to the history of music as L'Incoronazione di Poppea completely uncut (which I would be surprised to read that Monteverdi ever did, particularly because he probably didn't even write the famous ending...), you had better make a performance vital enough to sustain interest over four hours of music.
What we currently think of as classical music is still very much a 19th century phenomenon. The rest of music has moved into the 21st century, but classical music - by the definition of its very name - is a preservation of the music of an era that is no longer with us. Perhaps in 2111, the English speaking world will still be hung up on The Beatles and Bob Dylan while new and vibrant musical cultures spring up Spanish and Mandarian speaking worlds that have completely new definitions of what music is.
(The only Biber (sic) that matters. Heinrich, conducted by the great Jordi Savall)
In the meantime, the past is past. Neither the 17th, 18th, 19th nor even the 20th centuries can ever be recaptured. Authenticity doesn’t matter, quality does. No amount of boredom can justify taking the tempo you think Monteverdi/Handel/Beethoven wanted. Sometimes, a traditional 19th century approach can make music from other periods even more interesting, (re: Bach, Stravinsky - it works backwards too), more often, it kills most of the things that are interesting about the music (Monteverdi, Handel, Shostakovich) of other times....or at least that’s what I think.