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

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 fourth offering covers the second half of chapter 2. All Recaps

Mind the Gap: Current Styles

Prophets of the Revolution: Dolmetsch and Landowska

After the disorienting and wonderful dive into Romanticism, the second half of this chapter explores the roots and initial flowering of Rhetorical style. Two iconoclastic early-20th-century musickers laid much of the groundwork, but are sadly neglected today: Arnold Dolmetsch and Wanda Landowska

Wanda was a world-class keyboardist, and starting in 1905 performed mainstream repertoire (Bach, etc.) on a Pleyel harpsichord. Haynes cleverly points out that the Pleyel was a decent metaphor for Wanda herself - concerned with honoring the spirit of the past but not overly interested in recreating it. The sturdy metal frame and long sustain of the Pleyel were distinctly inauthentic and give it a metallic 20th-century sound. Listen to Wanda performing part of Bach's Goldberg Variations:

Arnold, on the other hand, was much more concerned with authenticity and much less concerned with practicing. He seems to have been a Renaissance man - a Google image search turns of photographs of him playing keyboards, lutes, and wind instruments, and he not only performed but built all of them. With his interest in the instruments and performing styles of the past, he was a spiritual successor to the later HIP pioneers. It's too bad that Arnold and Wanda didn't get along - they would have made a formidable team.

The Authenticity Revolution of the 1960s

In the post-war era, revolution was in the air across wide swaths of society, and music was no different. In 1950, the well-known composer Paul Hindemith wrote that

Bach felt quite comfortable with the vocal and instrumental types that were available to him, and if we care about performing his music as he himself imagined it, then we ought to restore the performance conditions of his time.

Hindemith specifically mentions constructing wind instruments with historical tunings, gut strings, etc. and given what subsequently happened it's easy to miss how revolutionary this idea was. Finally, Dolmetsch's ideas were coming to fruition. The 1950s and early 1960s seem almost like a space race - ideas and instruments were appearing left and right, and the effect was profound. Listen to Gustav Leonhardt perform that same bit of the Goldberg Variations that we heard from Wanda Landowska - the first of these two recordings is Gustav in 1953, the second Gustav in 1965:

The first version, to my ears, is following in the footsteps of Landowska - rather sincere, profound, heavy, even. The second version is much lighter, free-er, and lilting - almost dancing. This is the result of 12 years of Leonhardt's personal experimentation and growing, but also the publication of primary source research such as Dart's Interpretation of Music and Donnington's Interpretation of Early Music

Chain Reaction

As the "authenticity" movement swept the musical scene in the 60s, and historical instruments became more widely available, it became practical to apply the concepts to larger forms requiring more musicians: orchestra and opera. The first recording to really break that barrier was Nikolaus Harnoncourt's performance of Bach's St. John Passion with the Concentus Musicus of Vienna (1967). This performance all but settled "HIP 1.0" - most of the common elements that dominate Rhetorical Style to this day can be heard, at least a little bit, in this recording. Here's the opening:

The Dutch crew, Brüggen, Bijlsma, Kuijkin, and Leonhardt, along with Harnoncourt and others, took the new research and instruments and basically created Period Style. To a huge degree their influence can be found in period performances to this day, which is partly a testament to their genius but partly a matter of timing - José Bowen shares an insight into the development of the style of a jazz tune which is totally relevant:

Every musical performance makes us reconsider our concept of the musical work. The effect of each performance, however, grows smaller as the tune develops a tradition. The initial performances have the ability to shift the "center of gravity" farther than can later versions, which literally have more tradition to move.

Hard to argue.