It is likely the case that Bach and his music have generated more articles, books and festivals of his music than virtually any other musician in history. Since his death in 1750, countless scholars and musicians have dedicated their lives to the study and performance of his music, and it reaches more people the world over every day than any other classical composer. I can count myself among the many who has made his music the central focus of my career. In this section I want to share my passion for Bach’s music through what has been written about it by some of the world’s scholars and performers.
Dr. Alfred Mann and Bach
The link to my article below appeared in the American Choral Review when Dr. Alfred Mann was the editor. I had the great privilege of studying with him at the Eastman School of Music. With his passing in 2006, the music world lost one of it’s pre-eminent Bach and Handel scholars. Dr. Mann wrote many books, articles and essays, and was a conductor emeritus of the Bethlehem Bach Choir. His influence on generations of musicians continues to inform their performances of Bach and Handel to this day.
Power Point presentation on Baroque Music
The following link will take you to a Power Point presentation on music of the period during which Bach lived and worked – known today as the Baroque Era. You can also find the link on the “Public Downloads” page along with presentations other major periods of music.
Baroque powerpoint presentation
The following are opening remarks (first of two parts) that were read at the First Annual Rochester Early Music Festival (link to program) in the fall of ( ). It’s inspiration comes from the following cartoon that appeared in ( ) on ( ). (insert either link or PDF)
“Doctor, We Will Be Using Original Instruments”
Thomas J Folan
A few years ago, I sat in an oral surgeon’s chair, about to have a tooth extracted . . . again. I began breaking my teeth in my early twenties, and I empathize with those who have bad dental histories. Throughout my life I have had more than my share of traumatic dental experiences, but the good news is that I have come to appreciate the advancements in oral surgical instruments and techniques. How could people undergo procedures such as the one I was about to face before Novocain, before dentists had the kind of motorized drilling tools that can take out a cavity with military precision? As an aside, my respect for George Washington went way up when I learned of his lifelong struggles with dental health. When the surgeon finally entered the room, and stopped my attempt at self-distraction, he asked me if I wanted to listen to some music while he operated. Absolutely, I said. My choices were Brahms, Gershwin or the Rolling Stones. I picked Brahms, and before long I was swept away, the music ringing in my ears, the Novocain numbing my nerves. If you must have a tooth extracted, this was about as good a situation as I could hope for.
Some months later after learning of my dental experience, a musician friend gave me this cartoon. (See figure 1). She knew about my interest in, and enthusiasm for historical performance practice, the use of original instruments and, therefore, wanted badly to inject me with a dose of humility. The message was clear: I should get down on my knees each and every day, thanking the creator that I was fortunate enough to live in an age of advanced and civilized instruments of all kinds, musical as well as dental. She told that I should be thankful for having musical instruments that now are equipped with metal strings, valves, extra keys, metal frames, and new and more resilient materials that made them easier to tune, play and manipulate. And this is in the realm of acoustic instruments, without mention of the ease and convenience of playing digital ones. But I am persistent and although I draw the line with surgery by readily admitting that new and improved is better, in the realm of musical instruments, I still continue to advocate the use of ancient (meaning early) techniques and instruments (albeit mostly copies). Simply stated, I believe that performance practice and original instruments contribute positively to our understanding and enjoyment of music of the past and its relationship to the music of our own time.
The term Performance Practice is traditionally defined as “the conventions and knowledge that enable a performer to create a performance.” In the context of notated music, performance practice is usually thought to encompass everything about performance that is not unambiguously specified in notation (The term coined by German musicologists was “Auffuhrungspraxis”). This definition immediately causes problems, as it is often not what is notated, but what is not notated that gets the attention of a musician interested in performance practice issues. If you play pop songs, for example, you begin to get a feel for particular conventions, patterns, and formulas – a knowledge of how the song unfolds, with the advantage that the music is part of our contemporary culture – we therefore speak the language and understand it instinctively. It is a reflection of our culture and what it means to live in our time. There is some similarity with old music, but with the added dimension that, in order to understand what you are playing, you must speak the language of that earlier time as well as possible. And the more sonatas you play by a certain composer – take Mozart as an example, the more you understand and are comfortable with his musical language, and style. These common traits help to determine what makes music of any time period unique and also by paying close attention and immersing oneself in that world, allows for more natural fluency in the interpretation – in the speaking of the language of the composer, understanding his culture and environment and, ultimately be able to express his distinctive musical personality. Speaking the language of the composer is what makes the study of performance practice more involved, more time consuming and more difficult. There are other factors to consider, not just the notes in the score or simply imitating the way your teacher performs the music. Some of us may be fortunate enough to study with a pedagogue who has mastered the style and language of a certain composer, but even in this world of so much information at the tips of our fingers on the web, there is still the prevailing attitude in many institutions that the student must imitate the teacher and the tradition that is passed down from teacher to student, with the musical stamp of the teacher viewed as more important than studying the music in its historical context, approaching it as though it passed directly from the composer and his time, to our own. Too often the composer’s intentions are laid aside in favor of a performance tradition and a “school of playing” that emphasizes the instrument and the student’s mastery of technique and tone, and following the example of a famous teacher, rather than seeking to strip away the layers of paint that accrue with time. To seek to understand the composer, we must begin as though the work has just been composed, and that we are the first generation to play it.
With early music, understanding means combining experience with techniques and conventions of the time in which the music was written, along with knowledge of contemporaneous documents such as treatises, articles, letters and other writings, is critical to having any chance at approximating the composer’s intentions. And this knowledge is necessary because the score itself does not tell the whole musical story. For example, applying a common baroque convention like inegales (the lengthening of certain notes) to certain pieces gives the music a charm and character that better holds the listener’s attention; without this addition, the music becomes predictable, lacks a motion, or becomes quickly tedious and stiff. Taking a more contemporary example, think about this idea in terms of a jazz piece. The notation of the rhythm in the score does not tell you what rhythms must be altered in order to give the piece its characteristic jazzy swing. In order to do this, you have to know about the practices involved so that you can bring the performance to life and make it convincing. In this case it is easy to determine what to do by just listening to some of the greats of the style on recordings. But for most of music history, this of course, is not possible, so there must be other lines of inquiry pursued in order to more closely approximate the style and feeling of the particular period of music. Thus, in most early music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, even Classical), you have to look at the music much as you would a jazz chart – the basic information is there, but not the details – and certainly not the spirit.
In the EARLY days of the performance practice movement, along with issues concerning notation, little was known about the construction of many of the instruments used by performers during their own historical time periods. Of the instruments that have survived the ravages of time, there are relatively few instruments, especially non-string instruments (violins, cellos), in playing condition. This is particularly true for instruments that became obsolete, like harpsichords and certain plucked instruments like the lute, theorbo, or even bowed instruments such as the baritone or viol. The more common stringed instruments of earlier times like violins and cellos many of which had survived and had been well cared for, were also altered in the 19th and 20th century. Violins, for example got new bridges. Heavier bows were invented. Gut strings were replaced with metal ones, string tension was increased and the delicate resonating bodies of the instruments occasionally received reinforcing. So a part of the struggle to come to an understanding of what these instruments were like when they were first constructed, and before modifications were made to them, was in the rediscovery of how to build a good copy of an “old” instrument – not, as a harpsichordist friend of mine liked to say, rebuild a ruin.
For the harpsichord particularly, there were numerous first attempts that resulted in curious instruments that belonged neither to the past, nor to their present. In and of themselves, they represented animals of their own particular order. The instruments built by Pleyel, for example (and made famous by the ground-breaking performances of Wanda Landowska), contained metal frames (the metal frame actually did not come into use until it was integrated into piano construction in the first third of the 19th century). In addition to mechanical instruments, even more elusive was the limited knowledge about singing techniques common in different places and different centuries. One instrument that did much to shed light on the sound aesthetics of earlier times, however, was the pipe organ, a number of which remained in use throughout the centuries, some rebuilt to suit changing musical tastes, some left almost untouched, and therefore offered a good deal of information as to their construction and the aesthetics surrounding their placement and sound quality.
Simple questions like, “What makes Renaissance music different from Baroque music?” “What did the music sound like when it was new?” and “What kinds of instruments played the music?” began to be asked first toward the latter part of the 19th century, by individuals who were interested in great musical figures and the revival – or perhaps better stated, the continued study and performance of their music. The most obvious example is the composer J.S. Bach, who garnered the support of early music historians (known now as musicologists), like Phillip Spitta, Wilhelm Forkel. Consideration of these issues eventually turned into a full-blown performance practice movement during the 20th century, as those who sought answers to these questions redefined how we look at music. These musical “scientists” poured over scores in libraries, monasteries, and in private collections, “rediscovering” musical treasures of composers long forgotten. Continued interest gave rise to a group of notable scholars and performers that began to influence the way music was taught and played in schools, and the discipline of musicology as a legitimate professional musical pursuit, was born. Some of principals included the persons of Albert Schweitzer, Gerhard Herz, Robert Donington, Alfred Mann, Denis Stevens, and Karl Geiringer. Together they began to train a new generation of musicians sensitive to, and interested in music of the past, making it the focal point of their study and performance.
Performance practice began to gain wider acceptance and recognition in the 1950s and 60s. Individuals such as Thomas Binkley, (Studio der Fruhen Musik), Alfred Deller, (the Deller Consort), Nikolaus Harnoncourt, (Concentus Musikus), Gustave Leonhardt, and August Wenziger, (University of Basel), devoted themselves solely to the study of performance practice techniques and the mastery of period instruments. At Yale, Paul Hindemith and Howard Boatwright brought works by Tunder, Lubeck, Bruhns, and Buxtehude back to life. Here in Rochester too, in the early 1940s, the Eastman School of Music invited Alfred Mann and his mother, Edith Weiss Mann, a prominent harpsichordist of the time, to give a recital of baroque music for recorder and harpsichord. Dr. Mann once reminisced that this was, in all likelihood, the first such concert of early instruments at the Eastman School.
The historical performance movement really took flight and began to challenge the mainstream of modern performance, with a proliferation of recordings and performances in the 1970s. Nickolaus Harnoncourt and his Viennese ensemble, Concentus Musikus, undertook the enormous project of recording the complete Sacred Cantatas of Bach. The project was to be completed by 1985, in time for the celebration of Bach’s 300th birthday, but it came up short. It was eventually finished a few years later and stands as a testament to the constantly changing and evolving world of performance practice. The feat has since been duplicated, with each group attempting to distinguish their own versions of the works, based on the latest and best available information and research. But the initial effort of the Concentus captured the imagination of the music world and there began to be other similar projects with other composers such as Christopher Hogwood’s recording of the complete symphonies of Mozart, and Roger Norrington’s recording of all of Beethoven’s symphonies. Throughout the latter half of the century, the scope of music that encompassed the realm of performance practice spread to music of the Classical and Romantic periods as well. The complete piano sonatas of Beethoven as well as those by Mozart and others, were recorded on period instruments, as were orchestral as well as a variety of chamber works by Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, and even Wagner. The movement continued to grow and the general public showed more enthusiasm and a seemingly endless appetite for all things ‘authentic.’
This enthusiasm turned out to be good for the performance practice movement and bad for classical music in general. The attention garnered by the new breed of performer/scholars began to exacerbate a slowly developing rift in the classical music world. As sales and market share of early music performances rose and more traditional performances began to wane, hostility grew between those who came down on the side of “performance practice” and those who did not. Attacks against performance practice practitioners began to appear in print, reviews, and books. (There are famous tirades by some of the most eminent musicians of our time, quotes from certain well-established and highly respected virtuosos that I dare not even repeat.) Modern players would sometimes deride the movement and refer to music of the time before Bach as “pre-music.” Period instruments were railed against as inadequate in sound, tinny or thin sounding, primitive, and incurably out of tune. I once read a review that referred to a couple of recorders playing in a concert as sounding like a couple of “pathetic wheezing pieces of wood.” Then there were the attacks (with more than a bit of justification) on players who used the claim of “authenticity” as a badge of superiority, almost claiming that the only good performances were those that were played on original instruments using performance practice techniques.
Further, some musicians’ unabashed claims that they knew exactly what the early music sounded like in the times in which it was composed, raised the hackles on many a modern player’s neck. As performance practitioners made claims that ranged from a more ‘authentic’ sound, to instruments that better suited the music, superior phrasing and articulation, copious historical evidence, more accurate tuning systems and ensemble sizes, and authentic manuscript editions, they began to usurp the repertoire of what had been the bread and butter of most large orchestral ensembles’ seasonal offerings. An old Boston Symphony playbill from the early 1920’s clearly demonstrated the point, as on the program were concerti grossi by Corelli and Vivaldi, a symphony (not one of the last six) by Mozart, and more “suitable to modern orchestral forces”, compositions by Mahler and Strauss. Such a mix of different repertoires and range of style would be out of the question today. The result surely has caused a feeling among many musicians that they have been cheated out of playing a lot of high quality music, and that their more modern performance style is somehow out of date, unmusical or invalid.
What was it about the early music movement and its popularity that so threatened the establishment? Were the performances of modern ensembles already stale? Did music and the way performers think about music need to be questioned at all? Was the early music movement really just a natural reaction to a music scene that was already suffering from a lack of ideas and a growing state of atrophy and disinterest? Was it all about liberating music from the ‘one size fits all’ approach that was the typical state of the classical concert scene in America? It is a strange to have an ensemble sitting on an enormous stage dressed in 19th century garb, preparing to play a piece of music that had been originally intended for a blue collar Sunday morning congregation in an 18th century German church, being enjoyed presently by an upper middle class audience that understands the etiquette of sitting in silence until engaging in polite applause at the end of thirty minutes of uninterrupted music. With that disconnect, is there any wonder why audiences don’t want to come to these kinds of live performances? (to be continued)