Tuesday, May 29, 2012

800 Words: Why Early Music Sucks

When classical musicians say ‘Early Music’ they mean something different than other people. To the average American, early music probably means before The Beatles. No doubt, some Americans hear the term Early Music and assume you mean anything before Thriller. But to classical musicians, Early Music will always mean BB: Before Bach.

Bach as we know him today is an invention of the 19th century, not the 18th. He was the first classical musician to earn mass appreciation long after he died. In his own day, he was a well-respected composer better known throughout musical Germany for his temper and the brilliance of his organ improvisations. But I wonder if anyone who heard his music in his own lifetime would have guessed that so many musical experts would come to view him as the colossus who towered over all music before or since. In the decades after his death, only a select few musical connoisseurs (including Mozart and Beethoven) appreciated him for the giant he was. It was not until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn performed his St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig to a packed church of listeners who openly wept that Bach began to attain his current reputation. Bach was perhaps the first composer to be more valued by another era than he was by his own. The reason for this is that the directness of communication in Bach’s music, the spiritual solace, and the massive profundity fit like a glove to the values and longings of 19th century Europe, yet it was almost completely out of step with the 18th century Europe of Bach’s day. Indeed, there are some decent reasons to doubt that Bach meant for his music to have the qualities which the 19th century so valued in him. According to the constant protestations of academic researchers, Bach’s music had been played for 150 years with forces too large, tempos too slow, rhythms too ponderous, and profundities too vast. According to them, Bach’s music should not cry out for the plight of the world, it should dance.

Is what they say true? And would that make Bach a lesser composer if it were?

As I’ve said in previous posts, the problem with the ‘academic’ manner of performing Bach is that it strips him of everything which made Bach’s music inflame hundreds of millions of imaginations. In such performances, he is no longer a giant, he is a second-rate Telemann. Even if it is authentic to what Bach wanted, it is not authentic to what his listeners desperately need.

But then again, the 19th century’s Bach is not our Bach. And the 19th century’s Early Music, is not our Early Music. Most people do not believe that we live in an era in which art exists to permit mankind to scale the heights of spiritual uplift – most people believe that religion or drugs do that much better. Most culturally active people don’t think they need Bach in the same way they once did, and like so much else which seemed profound to their grandparents, it seems to them boring and bombastic.

In most places, most places in America and Europe at least, Art no longer exists as a means to ‘better oneself.’ If you believe the Frankfurt School, that notion apparently died at Auschwitz, and professors influenced by them have been spreading Adorno’s idea to upper class students ever since. Even the music to which Baby Boomer professors listen seems too earnest for a generation taught to believe that self-betterment is a relative term. In today’s cultural world, with all its niches and options, the greatest indicator of artistic quality is its novelty: How new is it? How different? How original? And if you’re a little sentimental: How unique? Music and art can no longer save your soul, so it’s now just a commodity to be prized like a car or an i-phone. As it turned out, Adorno’s fears were entirely justified. But what he never could have forseen was that he was one of the primary causes of his fears coming to fruition!

It’s silly to even mention novelty when discussing the classical music world, which by definition prizes the old and battle-tested. But today’s classical music world, such as it is, is as much a part of our time as any other genre. We the classical music lovers of today prize newness and innovation as much as anyone else, and since – by definition – we can’t offer as much that is new, we offer more that is old.

And since it is far closer to the ethos of the contemporary world, early music is in some ways a much healthier culture than any other of the classical music world’s stale parts. Traditional symphony orchestras are lucky to retain their music directors for ten years, but period ensembles seem to keep their directors for life. Traditional performers can barely get a recording contract, yet there seems to be a new batch of recordings from the latest ‘visionary’ in the Early Music world every month. The fervor which greets performances of the great romantics (Chopin, Verdi and such..) is a mere nub of the popularity they experienced a century ago, yet many major opera houses now have as much Handel on their schedules as they do Wagner.

Why is this?

There simply aren’t enough new composers in our world to compete with all the innovation of the world’s bands, DJ’s, and performance artists…but there were… And if we can attract some new members into our ‘elite’ clique by opening our 1000 year back-catalogue, let’s do it,...or so we reason. It won’t matter if we have no idea how to perform it, and it won’t matter that until we do, all of it will sound somewhat alike. Even if it does sound alike to anyone who listens to it for more than an hour, it allows us to perform all sorts of completely new old instruments with new old sounds. It allows us to show that one particular era had different concepts of harmony and counterpoint than another, and therefore it allows us to contribute a little more to our modest part of the world’s multicultural rainbow.

I sometimes meet music lovers who are passionate about Early Music. I completely respect their right to be so, I just have trouble believing them. No doubt, this is obscenely hypocritical. I’ve spent most of my thirty years on this earth explaining to other people that yes, I’m absolutely serious when I say that I love and am obsessed by classical music, and you’re a douche for ever questioning that. To deny that other people can be equally passionate about a part of classical music which I don’t understand is more than a rudeness too far, it’s a slightly obscene form of retribution in which I get to discriminate against a minority within my own minority. I understand that people love Early Music, and that there is much to love within it. It’s just that I could scream.

Yes, the harmonies can be gorgeous, the rhythms can be invigorating. But after a couple decades of singing in choruses, and after a few years of directing them, I’d be hard-pressed to name fifty pieces of pre-Bach music which display a vision individual enough to describe without either resorting to theoretical music terms or generic descriptions about how the piece is ‘spiritual’ or ‘earthy’ or a half-dozen similarly boring adjectives.

This is by no means akin to saying that pre-Bach music is somehow lacking in greatness, or that mankind before Bach had not yet evolved to the point where it was capable of making great music. It is to say that we have lost so much of the oral tradition from these eras, and so few of the subtleties in their performance styles are accounted for, that we have no idea how to make a compelling authentic performance.

Authenticity has been a much-contested word in classical circles for the better part of a century. What is an authentic performance? Should performers always be absolutely true to the letter of the score? And if they are, have they done the entirety of their duty to the composer? It’s at least a question worth asking for living or recently dead composers for whom there is ample testimony for precisely what they want. But the further back the text goes, the less testimony there is. And the less testimony there is, the less the ‘authenticity’ question makes sense. When it comes to music pre-Beethoven, experts can’t even agree on the proper pitch. How the hell are performers supposed to recreate what the composers heard and wanted when they don’t even have the barest outline of what it sounded like?

It’s a cliché at this point, but the only authenticity is good musicianship. A boring performance can always hide behind the thought that perhaps the composer wanted it to sound as boring as they made it. But just as all classical musicians must ask themselves, Early Music performers still have to ask: if no listener is inspired, who cares what the composer thinks? It’s certainly a question asked more often now than the Early Music scene ever before did, but they still don't ask it often enough.

If Monteverdi heard his madrigals sung without any humor or sense of drama, he’d recoil in horror. If Handel saw the four-hour uncut snoozefests to which opera audiences are subjected – sung by so many wobbly voices with bad technique, accompanied by undramatic instrumental playing and faux-shocking stagings, he’d throw his hands up and probably issue a moratorium on his operas being performed. Even today, long after the authenticke brigade claimed to learn its lesson, performances and recordings of this music are hardly less dull than they ever were.

If we want Monteverdi and Machaut to capture the public imagination the way Bach once did, we have to stop trying to be true to their era and instead be true to our own. We need creative responses to this music that puts us squarely in our own day – not theirs. We need Dufay music videos and Ockeghem remixes. We need ways to approach English Renaissance which are deeper than simply recording Sting and his f-cking lute. We need musicians of vision who can translate this music for a public who will understand it instantly when they hear it played in their own language. We need today’s performers to do for for Josquin what Mendelssohn did for Bach. After all, if Bach were played in a truly authentic manner, we’d probably be listening to choirboys whose voices constantly cracked, violinists who always lose their place, and continuo which continually plays the wrong chords.

In the next day or two I'll  post of a list of recordings of early music which I love as much as any other type of music and precisely what makes them great. It's just a shame there aren't more of them!


  1. The pity is that the musicians you snub are producing (in my opinion and to the delight of many) the very adventurous, loving, direct performances you seem to want.

  2. Well I figured that someone would write that in, I'm just thankful it was someone as polite as you :).

    It's not as though I don't know the music. I can rattle off a dozen early music figures whose work I appreciate and respect, occasionally even love, and a couple hundred more I don't and in all cases tell you exactly what I like or dislike about them.

    What bothers me about the early music movement is that the current innovations are too little. Just because Emmannuele Haim introduces a little improvisation into works which William Christie strictly led by the book does not mean that the performances are musicians like her are particularly adventurous. It means that they're a little bit more adventurous than the last generation, not much. At some point soon, I'll talk about the early music performances I do love. Hopefully that can demonstrate that I know whereof I'm speaking.