Clive Brown, Part 1

Before leaving for Europe, I corresponded with a number of people I hoped to meet with. Or at least attempted to correspond. Perhaps my pitch wasn't convincing (Hi! I'm trying to learn about historical performance styles! Can I come hang out with you?) or perhaps it was simply a busy time for many people, but my initial plan to split my time between London and Amsterdam was looking sketchier and sketchier as my departure date approached. Enter... Clive Brown!

Sex sells

Sex sells

Clive Brown is a well-known figure in the academic world of musicology and historical performance. He wrote what is probably the definitive work on Classical and Romantic performing practice from 1750-1900. There's a picture of that tome to the left. He's Professor of Applied Musicology at Leeds and recently worked with my friends in the Diderot Quartet, who put me in touch with him. After determining that the dates wouldn't line up to meet in the UK, he mentioned that he would be spending the week in Antwerp giving lectures and coachings on historical performance style. With that I started looking into train tickets to Antwerp!

I ended up attending four of his lectures, sitting in on a couple of his coachings, playing violin for him, and even going out to dinner twice. He was incredibly generous with his time. He was also incredibly passionate about his research and the elements of historical style in classical and romantic music that seem well-supported by the evidence but that one rarely hears in concert. For a "professor of applied musicology" it's understandably frustrating to him that even well-known performers with biographies filled with claims as to their interest and knowledge of historical styles are ignoring some of the most basic of his findings.

The crux of his argument that I observed throughout the week was that, in contrast to baroque music, classical and romantic performance practice represented a continuum, strains of which exist in the earliest recordings. Some of these recordings were made by musicians who were famous as "exemplifying the true Mozart style" and who were in many cases taught by associates of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc. When 19th century treatises are read with the sound of these recordings in our ears, we begin to realize that the foreign-seeming musical language of these recordings is very likely much closer to that of Mozart than we might expect, or even hope!

Why don't contemporary professional ensembles use a style within earshot of an Adelina Patti or a Marie Soldat-Roeger? Probably because in many respects it would qualify as "bad" by the standards of the modernist revolution: tempos would be very unsteady, changing with dynamics and phrase structure as well as with formal sections, portamento would be all over the place in a way frequently criticized as indulgent and in questionable taste, and (most damning of all) ensemble would very frequently not be "together" in the sense of being perfectly vertically-aligned in the score, as we are so used to hearing.

But what have we lost, with our modern cleanliness and crisp articulation and almost quasi-baroque approach that most of today's HIP ensembles have adopted? I'll just leave this here: Adelina Patti, the most celebrated soprano of her day, singing Voi Che Sapete from Marriage of Figaro.