The End of Early Music: Chapter 2 (part 1)

The End of Early Music is a 2007 book by the late great historical oboist Bruce Haynes. Subtitled "A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-First Century," this book was in many ways the inspiration for Musicker. In this series of blog posts, I'm re-reading the book, offering chapter-by-chapter recaps as well as some of my own thoughts and reactions. The subsection titles are Bruce Haynes's. This third offering covers the first half of chapter 2. All Recaps

Mind the Gap: Current Styles

Three Abstractions: Romantic, Modern, and Period Styles

There have been three dominant styles in the performance of rhetorical music in the 20th century. As the century began, Romantic Style held sway, but as the century ended, Romantic Style was all but extinct, and could be heard only on recordings. What evolved from and eventually replaced Romanticism as the musical mainstream? Modernism, with its emphasis on precision and relative emotional restraint. These days, if we go to a performance of Bach's Matthew Passion (canon, hello) we're likely to hear a Modern style or a Period style performance, Period style having splintered away from Modern style around the 1960s.

That's all well and good, but this is all crying out for musical examples. Luckily, I just learned how to embed Spotify tracks! Here are two representations of today's dominant styles:

Pretty different, right? The first track, by the way, was Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, recorded in 1988. The second track was Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, also recorded in 1988. Modern, Period. Cool. Now give this a shot:

The first two recordings are different from each other; this third sounds like it could be from another planet. That's Willem Mengleberg conducting Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir in 1939 - but the style goes back further than that. Mengelberg conducted the Matthew Passion every Palm Sunday starting from 1899.

Listen to as much as you can - personally, the further in I get, the less insane it sounds - portamento and wild tempo fluctuations seem to amplify the emotion of every. single. moment. Check out the lead-in to the recap ~4:20 - 4:52, and compare to Solti ~3:30 - 3:58. It's a style from another era, but it's certainly not bad.

"What unique importance it is to every musical message, that the melody shall hold us without cease." -Wagner

"What unique importance it is to every musical message, that the melody shall hold us without cease." -Wagner

In the next section, Haynes goes on to examine some of the characteristics of Romanticism and how it subtly influences musicians to this day. This is a luxury - for the first time, musicians of one period are able to closely examine music from an older, extinct style thanks to the advent of recording technologies towards the tail end of Romanticism (late 19th, early 20th century). He points out a certain melody-centrism that leads musicians to make decisions without fully considering the lower voices; particularly the bass line which is so vital to all rhetorical music. He also points out Werktreue, the idea that the true ideal performance is somewhere in the ether, and the related phenomenon of the transparent musician (the musician is only a vessel), and the reduction in improvisation.

OK, that got kind of wonky - sorry. On to more great Romantic wackiness:

Recordings That Document the Heart of Romantic Practice

Listening to these early 20th century recordings - especially those of musicians at the ends of their careers - is like a window into another world. In this passage, Haynes calls out a number of recordings of soloists, and it is initially confusing - these recordings sound so individual and free and expressive that the Werktreue philosophy seems unimaginable. It seems clear that "Romantic Style" wasn't a static thing, or perhaps that the ideals of the style were different for soloists than they were for orchestras. Joseph Joachim was probably the preeminent violinist of the second half of the 19th century, and staunchly anti-Wagner. Listen to his spare yet flexible performance of Brahms's Hungarian Dance #1:

Joachim's style reminds Haynes of another rarity - Alessandro Moreschi, the "last castrato" who recorded the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria in 1904. The extreme and obvious emotion in this performance is almost hard to listen to for modern ears:

Glenn Gould is perhaps the most "Modern" of all 21st century pianists. For reference, just listen to a few seconds of Gould's Bach:

Gould, predictably enough, opined about these old recordings:

how very high the level of whimsicality and caprice, how very flirtatious and extravagant the range of dynamics...

It certainly begs the question: What would Joachim and Moreschi have to say about Gould?