An Atmosphere of Controversy

the introduction from the book Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers by Bernard D. Sherman

Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. This material may not be copied or distributed without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

Torniamo all'antico: sarà un progresso ["Let us turn to old times: that will be progress"]
- Giuseppe Verdi

The "early-music revival" has been around for a whole century, but it was only in the 1980s that its recordings suddenly began to top the Billboard charts. A decade later those who called "historical performance" a fad have been proved just as wrong as those who called it a revolution. It shows no signs of disappearing. But even now, it can still make us wonder, "Why do they play like that?"

That question inspired this book. Musicologists have published whole libraries of historical evidence, but few performers have put their experience into print. Yet they have special insights to share. Charles Rosen says that "musicology is for musicians what ornithology is to the birds."1 While some of my interviewees say a good deal about musicology, the musicologists can't tell us how it feels to fly.

The relationship between musicologists and early-music performers might seem to be a simple matter: musicologists do research, performers put the research into practice. In fact the relationship is complex,2 because the two disciplines make an uneasy match. Music history tries to restrict itself to what is supported by data, but performance suffocates under that restriction. Music historians try to find out what happened in the past, performers try to make something happen now. In some ways, the purposes conflict. As Rosen says, "Paradoxically, in so far as the purpose of a performance of a Mozart concerto is reconstruction of eighteenth-century practice rather than pleasure or dramatic effect, just so far does it differ from an actual performance by Mozart."3

But a performance can, of course, try both to reconstruct early practice and to give pleasure or dramatic effect. The results can be surprisingly vital. Still, the tension between the goals may explain part of why the early-music movement has, as Joseph Kerman says, "always flourished in an atmosphere of multiple controversy."4 This book presents insiders' views of many of the controversies - what they are about, and why they might matter. Without such views, we can't really understand why these artists play as they do.

Some of the controversies arise within the realm of musicology, but others reflect the tension between scholarship and art. The crux of this book can be expressed in a question: How can you use historical information to enliven modern performance? Answers to that question fall on a spectrum from ignoring the evidence to following it to the letter. Those two responses, and others less extreme, underlie the most obvious of the controversies - what Kerman called "disputes over turf."

Fighting Words: The Turf Wars

The turf wars have usually pitted mainstream musicians against the history-minded upstarts who encroach on their territory, as in, "Now they're playing Brahms?" or, from the other side, "How can they still play Bach on the piano?" If the "war" image is extravagant, it does at least suggest how strong the emotions could become on both sides. When historical performers of the 1970s and '80s compared using old instruments to cleaning a dirt-encrusted Rembrandt, it was more than an analogy: it implied that ignorant mainstreamers were trashing the classics.5 The historicist pronouncements often involved not just art, but also morality. Bernard Holland recalls "fierce Manichean struggles of good versus evil."6 I remember an early-music advocate describing her colleagues' work as "the responsible performance of Baroque music." Another, expressing the zeal many of his colleagues felt in the 1970s, argued that musicians are [my italics] "under an absolute injunction to try to find out all that can be known about the performance traditions and the sound-world of any piece that is to be performed, and to try to duplicate these as faithfully as possible." So much for Horowitz, Gould, and Rachmaninoff, who violated that injunction without apology, and for other mainstream performers, who also violate it, if less audaciously. It's not surprising that mainstreamers often accused the historical performers of pedantry - of "restraining any and all of the interpreter's natural urges."7

As that shows, mainstreamer charges could be belligerent and moralistic in their own way. The historicists were accused of amateurism, and - to turn the tables - of trashing the classics. Although historical performers did sometimes take speed, lightness, or inflection to the point of mannerism, the critiques went beyond that. One critic wrote of the unfamiliar instruments, "it is impossible to listen without discomfort, nausea, without clenching one's teeth," and urged that performers "guilty of musical outrages" be given prison sentences.8

The turf wars sometimes seem a textbook case of "ingroup and outgroup" psychology.9 Psychologists have found that people in an ingroup tend to see the outgroup in terms of simplistic stereotypes - and while historical performers are a varied group, you wouldn't know it from many of their critics. Similarly, the "mainstream" has eddies that historicists sometimes ignore.10 Also, ingroups tend to see themselves as virtuous but beleaguered, and the outgroup as malevolent and powerful. Both camps have been known to describe each other in such terms: I recall a review of the Cecilia Bartoli/June Anderson recording of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, which praised the two popular divas for bravely reclaiming the piece from the early-music mafia.

Of course, both sides also make substantial points. Regarding the mainstream complaints, even the most sympathetic observer must admit that historical performance did have its phases of both amateurism and pedantry. Both phases, however, were necessary. Regarding amateurism, it has often been hard to make a living at historical performance, so those who tried to master it had to earn their keep doing something else. Besides, even in supportive circumstances it takes a while to master an instrument. In 1963, Nikolaus Harnoncourt's fledgling Concentus Musicus recorded the Brandenburg Concerti in ten-second takes, because the period winds could stay in tune only that long11; but in 1993, John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique recorded three Beethoven symphonies in live concerts, and the winds stayed in tune throughout. As for pedantry, it too was an inevitable phase. It takes time to unlearn old habits, and a longer time before new practices become ingrained. In the gap between the old habits and the new ones, musicians play pedantically. In addition, sometimes the pedantry was deliberate; a program note circa 1950 said that "Early music was a highly aristocratic art and restraint governed even the display of emotion."12

In 1994, however, Clifford Bartlett writes of British Baroque playing that "what was at first a fairly stiff, somewhat puritanical approach has become much more free"13; and that applies elsewhere (though not universally - medieval performers, who often have links with folk music, sounded anything but puritanical in the 1950s). I don't find much evidence for pedantry in my interviewees' playing, or in their words. Several of them praise historically uninformed moderns from earlier in our century. Anner Bylsma admires Fritz Kreisler; William Christie loves Sir Thomas Beecham, and doesn't mind at all that Beecham detested musicology and insisted on using corrupt editions. These interviewees have no fetish about historicism, but they do object to an undiscriminating obsession with smooth, powerful surfaces, a fault many music critics observe in "competition-winner" mainstream playing today.

In general, the turf wars appear to be subsiding in favor of what Alfred Brendel calls "true cross-fertilization."14 Period string sections, once famous for astringency, are now sometimes praised and even criticized for sweetness of tone15 (which, according to Michelle Dulak, proves that the astringency was not determined by the instruments but instead reflected the performers' choices16). Wendy Carlos uses historical tunings in her electronically synthesized Bach, some mainstream conductors explore period styles17, and many players in both camps cross over regularly. Gardiner conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, and Yo-Yo Ma, who has performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Daniel Barenboim, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Itzhak Perlman, also played it with Roger Norrington, Ernst Kovacic, and Robert Levin on historic instruments (Ma using a gut-strung cello). Even eminent singers cross over: Bartoli has recorded Mozart with Christopher Hogwood (using period instruments), and Dame Joan Sutherland is featured in Hogwood's period recording of Handel's Athalia. When warned that the recording would involve old instruments, she is said to have replied, "That's all right, I'm a bit of an old instrument myself."

Listening tastes, too, seem less segregated. Today, writes James Jolly, the editor of Gramophone, "a Mozart opera almost has to be performed on period instruments to make reasonable headway in [the CD] catalogue."18 He notes that recent exceptions, by Harnoncourt and Sir Charles Mackerras, have explored period styles, if not period instruments. At the same time, a few performers of pre-mainstream repertoire - the monks of Silos, Anonymous 4, the Tallis Scholars, Jordi Savall, and some others - have reached audiences far larger than the usual medieval/Renaissance music subculture. These performers may even cross over to contemporary classical music (as in Paul Hillier's work with Arvo Pärt, or Fretwork's commissioning of new music by Gavin Bryars) or, to everyone's surprise, to popular musics (as in the Hilliard Ensemble's disc with the saxophonist Jan Garbarek19).

Nonetheless, it would be mistaken to declare either a victory for early music or a cease-fire in the turf wars. The later interviews in this book contain plenty of salvos against the mainstream. On the other side, some critics still speak of "the authenticity craze['s] . . . arid [music making,] the often out-of-tune instruments [sounding] ghastly."20 As for performers, in a recent interview the violinist Pinchas Zukerman said that historical performance is "asinine STUFF . . . a complete and absolute farce . . . **** AWFUL," and adds, "Nobody wants to hear that stuff. I don't."21

The Authenticity Wars: What Is Possible, What Is Desirable?

As large audiences began to want to hear that stuff and historical performers began to make money, new controversies arose, often within the historical ranks. Beneath the disputed turf lay certain assumptions; as the historicists gained ground, they began to questions those assumptions. For example, many flinched from their critics' mockery of the use of the term "authentic" to mean historical accuracy, so that the term has become virtually taboo among historicists (unless it's enclosed in ironic quotation marks; though some artists who sneer at the term don't seem able to stop their record companies from using it). Other disagreements, often still internecine, continue, reflecting the tensions between art and scholarship - and, some would say, between artistic idealism and marketplace pragmatism. And these disagreements, like the historicist's disputes over turf, reflect a further tension: between the past, when the music was written, and the present, when we're playing and hearing it.

For example, many doubt that reviving old playing styles is entirely possible today. The goal of historical performers is something like playing Strauss waltzes with the special rhythmic lilt that makes the oom-pah-pah uniquely Viennese; but the equivalent of echt Viennese style may be forever lost to us in Dufay or Monteverdi. Admittedly, our growing knowledge of performance practice lets us "resolve certain problems about how various musical notations were meant to be rendered."22 But evidence about early playing styles is almost never complete. We must fill in the gaps with our imaginations, and we have twentieth-century imaginations.

To honor St. Patrick's Day, a small Iowa town hosted an Irish-accent contest. A visiting Dubliner - the only authentic Irishman in town - signed up and seemed certain to win. He lost, to an Iowan. To Iowan judges, the real thing didn't have enough of the ould sod to it. Perhaps when we fill in the gaps of authentic Bach or Beethoven style, our sense of what's authentic is just as biased.

What might also make historical re-creation impossible is that performing contexts influence music-making, and old music is almost never performed now in the contexts it was written for - chapel, feasting hall, music room, salon.23 Even music written for the concert hall has to contend with radically different concert-hall sizes, acoustics, and audience behavior.24 In a subtle example of a context shift, Robert Philip25 observes that a modern audience's main listening context is recordings, which are "perfect." If a concert performer, in the heat of inspiration, flubs a few notes, many of his listeners, recalling their CDs, will say not "How inspired!" but "Why should I pay good money to hear someone who hasn't practiced?" Cowed by such responses, most modern performers spend hours practicing a concerto so that they get the notes exactly right, and make that a higher priority than the flight of inspiration, which the orchestra might not be able to follow neatly. This attitude is the opposite of those held by many performers in even the relatively recent past (as early recordings show). To the extent that recordings have changed our outlook, some critics say, we can never play as artists played in the past.

Some historical performers try to "recontextualize" old music - for instance, by embedding a Renaissance mass in re-enacted liturgy, or preceding a Mozart concert by giving the audience minuet lessons. Such approaches, however, may not quite bridge the chasm that divides us from the past. They do not solve a deeper problem that is often raised: that our musical aesthetics reflect our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives, which differ from those of past eras. Even if we embed a Dufay mass in its liturgy, we probably won't feel, as Dufay's listeners did, emotional associations between the chants and specific religious holidays (as Susan Hellauer explains in her interview). Even if we learn to dance a few Mozartian dances, they probably won't signify class distinctions for us as they did for Mozart and his listeners; unless we're told, we won't understand that the Count would dance a minuet but not a "relatively rowdy" contredanse26. And the problem might go deeper. If a passage in Mozart expresses yearning, says the fortepianist Steven Lubin, we should know that eighteenth-century yearning was different from twentieth-century yearning. It was "more innocent and trusting" than the sort habitual to us, who have fewer "hospitable realms" to yearn for.27 If such "otherness" applies to Mozart, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, how much more to Hildegard, who pre-dates Thomas Aquinas?

Lubin believes, however, that we can recreate eighteenth-century yearning, through historical immersion and through searching within ourselves. I myself wonder whether yearning in Mozart's day was all that "innocent and trusting." Mozart's father constantly warned him that "all men are villains," that "all friendships have their motives," and that he should "trust no one"; Mozart ended up "[s]keptical, wary of easy solutions, doubtful of men's motives, disdainful of panaceas."28 Wye J. Allanbrook is right, I think, to say that we value the dark side of Mozart more than did he or his contemporaries, who didn't share our post-Romantic "ingrained assumption that profundity and melancholia go hand in hand"29 : we do seem more prone to melancholy than Mozart's contemporaries30, and our era is clearly less optimistic than theirs was, with its faith in the triumph of reason and the perfectibility of humanity. But a close look at the joys and sorrows of both eras suggests that underlying human emotional equipment has changed little since then.31 So the claim that "otherness" makes historical re-creation impossible may be exaggerated (we'll return to this in Christopher Page's interview). Still, there's no denying that we differ in some ways from our predecessors, and that it affects how we hear or play their music.

For all these reasons, almost no one today makes bold claims about playing music exactly as it was played in the past. Attaining that goal seems too difficult.


Of course, a goal might still be worth seeking even if it's impossible to attain. If 100 percent historical accuracy were really ideal, 50 percent accuracy would be better than none at all; and while a minuet lesson might not give us eighteenth-century ears, it could still enrich our understanding. And the argument that our imaginations must fill in some factual gaps can apply to any historical enterprise, and doesn't invalidate it. But some critics argue that even if perfect historical reconstruction were possible, it would not be worth the effort. We can hear Elgar conducting his music on early recordings and could re-create his performances accurately. But why should we play Elgar as Elgar did, these critics ask, if we prefer it played differently? Why shouldn't we use Mozart to express twentieth-century yearning? That may be what we need Mozart for. And some listeners might prefer a Dufay mass with as little liturgy as possible.

The original early-music view was, of course, that music sounds best when played as the composer expected it would be played. In this spirit, the interviews in this book include many specific claims that historical practice improves performance. If, for example, the composer wrote down only a bare skeleton and expected the performer to flesh it out with ornamentation, then learning how to ornament in the composer's style will generally give better results than playing the bare bones. And (though this doesn't arise in the interviews) seventeenth-century keyboard music has proven to be vastly more interesting when played with historical instruments and tunings32. These and other arguments can be convincing; but in the end the principle is not as universal or as self-evident as it may seem.33 No one, for example, has tried to revive the French Baroque practice of conducting by beating time on the podium with a large wooden staff. And when we imagine shivering Thomasschule students, at seven-thirty on a winter morning, performing a virtuoso chorus written three days earlier, we might ask whether we could tolerate truly historical Bach.

Whether or not the original way is best may also depend on who's listening. I once saw a Chicago production of Under Milk Wood with an English friend. She informed me afterwards that most of the actors had vaguely Gaelic accents, and that only Captain Cat's was truly Welsh. His was the only accent I'd found difficult to understand. Perhaps Chicagoans are better served by ersatz Welsh. Such thinking, some fear, might lead a musician to pander to an audience, rather than challenging its preconceptions; but the principle may have deeper musical applications. Joshua Rifkin is far from alone in noting that a typical performance in the eighteenth century or earlier was what we today would call a barely rehearsed run-through. We could re-create that, he says, but maybe an eighteenth-century audience, hearing a piece for the first time, needed only a run-through, while we, who have heard Mozart and Bach so often, need an interpretation. And the fact that performance context has changed also raises questions about why we should want historical accuracy. Charles Rosen points out that much of Bach's keyboard music was written for private use; if we tried to play it in public in the same way that an eighteenth-century musician would have played for himsel - that is, without trying to project the musical events to an audience - we would defeat the purpose of concert-giving.34

Such examples suggest that even if you believe that historical evidence matters, you still have to decide whether each particular historical practice does. Is it important to making the music work today, or is it a meaningless accident of history - irrelevant or even harmful from a musical standpoint? The "meaningless accident" is what Donald Tovey had in mind when he said that if we want to be truly authentic in performing Bach cantatas, we would have to "flog the ringleaders of the choir after an atrocious performance."35

The distinction is by no means lost on most historical performers. Of course, making the distinction is not an objective science; sometimes a conclusion (one way or the other) is all but inescapable, but more often it depends on the performer's assumptions and priorities - and those of the performer's era. Our era is more likely to consider historical practice important than the nineteenth century was. And as we'll see, historical performers themselves draw the line in a variety of places, from near-purism to near-rejection of the historical ideal.

The question of the accidental versus the relevant distills some of the "authenticity" issues into the kind of practical problems a musician faces every day. It applies, for example, to the original calling-card of historical performance, period instruments. Harnoncourt now focuses on modern-instrument groups; an instrument, he says, is "a tool, not a religion." Nonetheless, when he conducts modern orchestras he often uses historical brass and percussion instruments, which he thinks have an inimitable effect. Anner Bylsma sometimes plays Bach with instruments other than those specified, or with a modern bow; but he considers using gut strings crucial to Boccherini's cello music.

As that suggests, how much of period practice is important might differ in different sorts of music. "[It] is more acceptable," wrote Howard Mayer Brown, "to play Bach's music on modern instruments than Rameau's,"36 and Bach seems robust in many other ways. But French Baroque music often requires period instruments and a firm grounding in historical style even to be interesting, much less effective.

The issue of accidence versus importance relates also to a major trend among musicologists today, which seeks to understand music by reference to its larger contexts - social, political, economic, religious, and so on.37 Such musicologists often seek to understand what music meant in its own time, which makes their project seem, at least at first glance, like a natural ally to historical performance. In fact, historical context comes up often in the interviews. I suggested earlier that changes in performance context may make it impossible (or undesirable) for us to play as people did in an earlier century; here we may ask which aspects of larger historical contexts must be considered when trying to make the music live in modern performance.

The discussions in this book often suggest an ecological web: change one part of the system, and you change what is incidental to the music and what is necessary to it. An authentic historical performance practice may no longer fit, because we or our contexts have changed. If you re-create the exact size and layout of the orchestra that premiered a Mozart symphony - but put it in Carnegie Hall - it will sound puny. The "necessary" element is an adequately powerful sound; the "historical accident" is the size of the premiere's orchestra, which made a big sound in the small, resonant halls of Mozart's day.38 Some historical performers, perhaps, have focused on accidental features - such as the exact size of an ensemble - rather than the important ones. My interviewees are often more discriminating.

Should We Care about the Composer's Intentions?

Some doubt that even selective historical accuracy is a worthy goal. In particular, they question whether performers should be concerned with honoring composers' intentions on how to perform their own music. During the nineteenth century this ideal became widespread,39 and today, says Robert Martin, "In general, the best performers have a strong sense of their roles as servants of the composer."40 Admittedly, some critics believe performers' subservience to the composer is lip service - little more than "crocodile humility" - but few would agree. In any case, many in the early-music movement (for example, Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin) share Martin's "strong sense."

Others in the movement appear to serve a slightly different purpose: they try to play as the composer's contemporaries did. But critiques of the composer's intentions raise arguments that also apply to trying to play like contemporaries. For example, Richard Taruskin argues, to paraphrase him, that what really counts in the arts is the experience delivered to the audience; what doesn't count is who comes up with the means of delivery.41 A distinguished critic has denounced conductors (like Daniel Barenboim) who ignore the p marking at the chorus's first entry in the Brahms German Requiem, and instead have the chorus enter pp. Barenboim's defenders might respond that the elderly Brahms told a young choral conductor that the chorus should enter with "the softest pp."42 But Taruskin's argument against intentions is different: it would say that if the effect is beautiful, it doesn't matter who thought of it - Barenboim, Brahms, or Brahms's contemporaries. Another argument against privileging the composer's intentions distinguishes between a performance art and a textual one, and thus between the composer's intentions regarding performance and those regarding notes. As Peter Kivy says, it's easy to disprove the simplistic belief that the composer always knows best how to play his or her music.43 And the composer's contemporaries could be equally fallible.

Of course, as Kivy notes, composer's views on how to perform their own works deserve special consideration - and sometimes composers do know best. In previous centuries, composers were often great performers, so their performance instructions may have reflected their expertise in that area as well as in composition. And their compositions may have been partly determined by performance considerations. One must then distinguish between a performance instruction that is part of the piece's identity (like whether the piece is in a major or minor key), and an instruction that is, to quote Virgil Thomson, "not part of [the composer's] original creation, but rather one musician's message to another about it, a hint" on how to put it over.44 If you play the slow movement of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata at a prestissimo tempo you are, in a sense, creating a new piece. But if your slow tempo is slower than Beethoven's metronome marking, it's still the piece he wrote. You may well be choosing what is (given your instrument, phrasing, acoustical situation, and so forth) a better tempo for the movement. You may be serving one of Beethoven's more cherished intentions - winning over the audience with a great performance of the movement45 - by overriding a less cherished one (your playing at eighth note=92).46

Arguments about the composer's performance intentions can get more complex than this, and the above is far from a complete survey. In practice, the resolution may be the same as with historical practices: it may boil down to case-by-case decisions by the performer about whether a given performance instruction is essential, beneficial, insignificant, or inferior to some other alternative. Which category an artist ends up putting an intention in will, again, depend on his (and the era's) priorities. Wilhelm Furtwängler was at least as devoted to serving Beethoven's intentions as Roger Norrington is, but Norrington, unlike Furtwängler, defines such service so that it includes the metronome marks.

Why Did the Early-Music Movement Happen?

This brings us to the most celebrated of the authenticity debates, those involving motivation. These take my originating question-"Why do they play like that?" - to a deeper level. They ask not "On what grounds does Norrington follow Beethoven's metronome markings?" but "Why does Norrington think it important to do so?" If the goal of historical performance might not be completely attainable or desirable, why do so many people seem to share it? The simplest explanation, as we've seen, is that they just think the music sounds better played historically. That may seem an adequate reason, and in some cases it's undeniably convincing. But, in general, one can't get away with so simple an explanation of motives. A critic could, for example, respond, "You can get used to many things once you decide that you should - but if they ever run into a case where it sounds worse to them played historically even after they get used to it, would they ignore the history, or would they play in a style they didn't like?" In short, for historical performers is history a means or an end?

Some say these performers (many of them, anyway) do make it an end in itself. The motivation, they say, is antiquarian, like Civil War battle re-enactments and other "living museums." But that kind of historical accuracy, some add, should be an end only for scholars, not artists (the "uneasy match" idea). Of course, when a musical culture is as fixated on the past as ours has become, it might seem inevitable that some musicians would want to re-create history for its own sake. But is it? After all, the emphasis on past masterpieces needn't be antiquarian, since those masterpieces are believed to speak to all times. In fact, many musicians understand the composer's intentions as involving timeless elements of the work, which transcend historical circumstance.

Robert Morgan finds another explanation for our concern with historical accuracy. Most musicians before our era, he says, believed themselves part of a living tradition with a direct connection to the musical past, so they usually saw nothing wrong with playing Bach or Handel in the performer's own modern style. That attitude still holds today among, say, rock musicians covering a Beatles tune: there's no expectation that they will simply reproduce the original, because the tradition is still alive. In "classical" music today, though, when modern musical styles seem unconnected with those of the past, the musical past has become a museum. Its artworks are "no longer ours to interpret as we wish" - that would seem like painting airplanes over a Constable landscape - but "ours only to reconstruct as faithfully as possible." Morgan contends that "concern for historical authenticity represents . . . a situation characterized by an extraordinary degree of insecurity, uncertainty, and self-doubt" - that is, a fragmented musical culture, which lacks a strong identity of its own.47

Some go further and speculate that the concern with historical accuracy "may be a symptom of a disintegrating civilization."48 Perhaps; regardless of whether eighteenth-century yearning really was more naive and trusting than ours, many of us yearn for a more naive and trusting world. Some listeners and players want music to take them out of our world and into Bach's or Hildegard's, whether that is impossible or not. A sense that our culture has taken a wrong turn (or even that it is "disintegrating") is no longer the preserve of fundamentalists, fascists, and reactionaries; as a college professor wrote in 1994, "Nearly everyone I know lives with the sense of serious decline if not impending fall."49

Since Berlioz50, various people have questioned the assumption that modern instruments are necessarily better than their predecessors. But, with a few exceptions, such questioning has become a force in the musical marketplace only since the 1960s. That this date seems a watershed may reflect nothing more than the growth of the recording industry; but as we've just seen, it is tempting to speculate about deeper social causes. Such speculations are, of course, slippery. On the one hand, one could note that this rise in the market popularity of historical performance coincides with when Robert Heilbroner sees society on a large scale losing faith in human progress and perfectibility - and in particular, in technological progress.51 (Obviously, he is aware that such doubts had arisen in the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth, but says that these doubts were localized to intellectual circles, and not nearly so widespread as those of our era.) This fits in with the idea that yearning for an Arcadian past motivates some historical performers. On the other hand, John Butt speculates that the shift toward historical performance could equally well reflect the "bombshell in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography and hermeneutics: that one's viewpoint is not neutral and absolute" but is instead contingent on one's place in history.52 Such an attitude could have made musicians less likely to assume that their "natural" way of playing music was the best way.

Indeed, some other suspected motives are not especially oriented to the past. Some see the motivation behind the early-music movement as simple competitiveness: if Karajan and Co. have already perfected mainstream style, the only way to make your mark is to stake out radically new territory. Other observers see this in a less cynical light. They think that historical performers are trying to inject a dose of novelty into a flagging concert life, in which a limited repertory and an increasingly uniform style have led to shrinking audiences.53 With few newly composed works reaching a significant public, performers sought a more appealing brand of novelty - and the past provided plenty of neglected works and new ways of playing familiar pieces. But if novelty is all that historical performance offers, what will happen when the novelty wears out?54

Richard Taruskin argues that this novelty-making reveals some life in our musical culture. Historical performance, he says, is not about putting musicology into action - it's about trying to make old music suit our modern (and, he argues, modernist) tastes. Regarding the acid-test question - "If the music sounded worse to them played historically, what would they do?" - Taruskin documents cases of supposed historical purists ignoring inconvenient historical evidence. Like people in most spheres of life, these performers privileged the evidence they liked and ignored or devalued the evidence they didn't. He concludes that by using evidence selectively, even the most uncompromising historicist performers unconsciously try to create the sound not of "then," but of now.55

They are doing, in other words, exactly what Morgan says musicians at most times have done - playing earlier music in the style of their own day. The only difference is that because of the museum-curator ethos that Morgan talks about, historicists have to pretend (even to themselves) that they're being historically accurate. This makes it irrelevant to argue about the "impossibility" of re-creating the past: the past is something we construct to suit our needs. In many of his writings, Taruskin tries not to deplore this or to dismiss it as the equivalent of the Iowan Irish accent. Instead, he calls it far more reassuring (and, in the deepest sense, more authentic) than true antiquarianism would be. "Being the true voice of one's time," he writes, "is . . . roughly forty thousand times as vital and important as being the assumed voice of history."56

Despite the compliment, this argument has not endeared Taruskin to the early-music world. And, of course, Taruskin's argument sems overstated. Early-music performers have been known to ask instrument makers to use wood only from the very region used by the 18th-century instrument maker they want copied. Marcel Pérès tells me that at home he never uses electric lights, but only candles, in order to better understand the mentality of the Middle Ages. Telling such performers that they aren't really trying to re-create historical practice does not win their gratitude, even if you then tell them that what they're actually doing is forty thousand times more important.

This is part of why Taruskin is generally seen as early music's most ferocious detractor. That perception needs some discussion, because the published record suggests something more complicated. Taruskin agrees, after all, that "the fruits of scholarship can mightily assist the performer's purposes"; pursuing historical practice, he thinks, can free one from deadening habits. He even says that "the best specialist performers get much closer to their chosen repertory than their mainstream counterparts manage to do."57 And as a reviewer he has warmly praised, in detail, the musicianship of many early-music performers - I count twenty in the reviews I've surveyed - and has attacked, according to my survey, only seven. But the impression that remains from his work is of a scathing denunciation. The reason may lie partly in Taruskin's rhetorical emphases, partly in internal contradictions (his critics have noted some)58, partly in what got published where (the praise been buried in smaller-circulation magazines), and partly in how entertaining the attacks can be. But much of it may lie in the fact that his praise for the playing is often mixed with complaints about the claims for historical fidelity. Consider Taruskin's response to one of many angry letters.59 Here he takes an approach different from the one I summarized: he says he admires early music performers' idealism and musicianship, but continues, "What I am waiting for is an end to the pretense that what Early Music performers are doing is being [merely] historically correct. They are not ransacking history in pursuit of truth. What they are seeking is permission. . . . Being human, when they find permission, they are apt to believe that they have found the truth and become 'certain'."60

Just how apt they are to believe this you can judge for yourself as you read. Whatever you decide, this idea of "seeking permission" brings us to another proposed motive in historical performance. Needing permission reflects, of course, submission to authority. Perhaps thinking of the moral tone of the turf wars, Nikolaus Harnoncourt calls the authenticity ideal "very close to the kind of political dogmatism and religious fundamentalism that are so much part of our times."61 Taruskin and the gambist/musicologist Lawrence Dreyfus,62 among others, argue more generally that the need to get "permission" is all but universal in classical performance today. This authoritarian need, Taruskin says, reflects the exaltation of the composer and the musical work over the performer and the performance. Permission usually comes from the composer's score, he and Dreyfus say, but among early-music purists permission must also be granted by another authority: scholars of performance practice. Not surprisingly, Taruskin considers this "tyranically limiting."

All the same, another motivation for historical performers might be the opposite of adding more constraints of authority: it might be to sidestep the conflicting demands that musical authority makes of performers today. Over the past few centuries, our art-music culture has given performers less and less latitude in determining what notes to play or how. But since about 1800 our culture has also put far more emphasis on individual expression and creativity than in pre-Romantic times. Performers are supposed to express the composer's emotions and intentions, not their own; but they are also supposed to be original, insightful, and creative.63 Some believe they can't win: whatever they do, someone will attack them, either for serving the composer too slavishly or expressing themselves too willfully.64 This conflict is at the root of the critics' arguments about inspirational artists like Bernstein and Furtwängler. Perhaps historical performance offers a way out of this dilemma. Historical performance obliges you to serve the composer's intention by learning all you can about his era's playing style, including idiomatic features (like the Viennese waltz rhythm) that were never explicitly notated. (Let's overlook the inconvenient fact that composers sometimes ignore their own idiom, as in Bernstein's recording of West Side Story, which used operatic principal singers instead of Broadway-savvy ones.) To regain the style of a past era means that you have to improvise, ornament, add notes - skills that are hardly recognized in mainstream conservatory training - and phrase and articulate quite differently than you learn to do in such a conservatory. As a result, you can creatively rethink how to play. Even better, especially if you play music about which there's little or no evidence regarding performance style, you can construct your own style more or less from scratch.

An advantage of such stylistic creativity is that it is less likely than mere originality to get you accused of willful self-expression - after all, you are just doing what was done by the composer's contemporaries, and musicology says so. Historical performance, then, may let some performers have it both ways, by combining creativity and fidelity.65 Michelle Dulak argues that the true defining characteristic of the historical-performance movement today is that it offers "radical freedom from mainstream convention"; its players "are expected merely to sound different and are given such wide latitude that they can be different in nearly any way that pleases them."66

It could be, of course, that all of the motivations I've mentioned - and others too - act on different historical performers, or perhaps on the same performer in varying degrees. It's not difficult to find evidence both for and against every one of these motivations somewhere in this book. And they hardly exhaust the possible motivations. For example, John Butt, at the outset of his interview in Chapter 9, gives some reasons for his interest in historical performance that are quite different from those suggested above.

Why Does It Matter?
Das Beste, was wir von der Geschicte haben, ist der Enthusiasmus, den sie erregt.
[The best that history has to give is the enthusiasm it arouses.]

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The musicologist Leo Treitler recently began an article about a Marcel Pérès concert by remarking on the "decline of Early Music Talk," by which he meant the controversies discussed above. He then proceeded to give a fascinating example of Early Music Talk. It seems to me that the Talk is, if anything, getting more interesting these days, interesting for what it says about both the past and the present. And I consider the extent of controversy surrounding historical performance to be a sign of artistic vitality.

All the same, the controversies may not convey why the fuss is worth it. Analyzing premises and hidden motives can obscure creative achievements. Two of the most vocal critics of the premises of historical performance, Taruskin and Rosen, concur about these achievements. Rosen says that through taking "the indefensible ideal of authenticity" seriously, historical performers have increased "our knowledge . . . and our musical life [has been] enriched."68 Taruskin calls historical performance "the least moribund aspect of our classical music life"69; it allows a musician to "remake oneself," to challenge all of his or her "knee-jerk habits."70 (Laurence Dreyfus argues that it can impose uniformity and knee-jerk habits of its own71; but I don't find these faults afflicting the artists in this book.).

I will be less circumspect than Taruskin and Rosen. As someone who has reviewed and played mainly modern instruments, I've found that the best historical performers provide some of today's most insightful, original music making. Historical reconstruction has its own fascinations, but its ultimate justification has been in the moving performances of many artists like those interviewed in this book. Moreover, no one can deny that only historical performers have made it possible for us to live with great music - from such giants as Hildegard, Dufay, or Josquin - that had been buried for centuries.

I've spoken of the incompatibilities of musicology and performance, but the two share a common interest: the same works of music. The interactions of musicology and performance can reveal important things about those works, things that would stay hidden without the joint effort. Thus my interview subjects offer us entryways into composers many of us had never heard of, like the sixteenth-century Spaniard Alonso Mudarra; they share insights into some whose music may be less familiar than we think, like Palestrina; and they make us reconsider some whose music we thought familiar, like Mozart. And my interviewees often give revealing answers to my original question, "Why do they play like that?" In doing so, they often challenge assumptions that many of us make about music.


1. Rosen, The Frontiers of Meaning (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), p. 72.
2. Discussed by Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), chap. 6; Laurence Dreyfus, "Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees," The Musical Quarterly 69 (1983), pp. 297--322; and Richard Taruskin, "On Letting the Music Speak for Itself," reprinted in his Text and Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), first published in the Journal of Musicology I:3 (1982), pp. 338-49.
3. Rosen, The Classical Style (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 107.
4. In "The Early Music Debate," (an edited transcript of a symposium featuring Kerman, Laurence Dreyfus, Joshua Kosman, John Rockwell, Ellen Rosand, Richard Taruskin, and Nicholas McGegan), Journal of Musicology 10 (Winter 1992), pp. 113-30.
5. The analogy is also problematic. It assumes that underneath all the accumulated grime there is an authentic musical "original" waiting to be restored to pristine condition. This conceives of a piece of music as a timeless thing - a concept that raises enormous problems when applied to an active, temporal process like music, as several writers have discussed, such as Lydia Goehr in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford University Press, 1992). Another problem is that the analogy, in comparing tone color to the pigment in paintings, exaggerates the importance of tone color in pre-nineteenth-century music; this is discussed in the Gardiner interview, Chapter 19. However, the charge that historical performers put an anachronistic emphasis on tone color ignores the fact that many of them (especially keyboard player) justify the use of period instruments not in terms of sound, but in terms of the clues that the instruments give performers about style and articulation. Still, the analogy itself misses this point.
6. Bernard Holland, "A Streak in the Heavens Has Become a Straggler," The New York Times, Sunday Arts and Leisure section, 31 October 1993, p. 31.
7. Donald Vroon, American Record Guide 56 (March/April 1993), p. 220.
8. Gérard Zwang, A contre-bruit (Paris, 1977). The translation comes from Laurence Dreyfus's "Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees."
9. Marilynn B. Brewer and Roderick M. Kramer, "The Psychology of Intergroup Attitudes and Behavior," in Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 36, ed. Mark R. Rosenzweig and Lyman W. Porter (Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, 1985), pp. 219-43.
10. Hermann Danuser argues that there are actually three modes of performance in art music today: the "traditional" mode, which includes what I call "mainstream" musicians; the "actualizing" mode, which interprets old music in light of modern compositional styles, and includes such artists as Glenn Gould and Pierre Boulez; and the "historical-reconstructive," which includes the artists interviewed in this book. See Danuser's Musikalische Interpretation (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 1992).
11. According to the producer, Wolf Erichson, in James Keller, "Wolf Erichson," Historical Performance 6 (Spring 1993), p. 32.
12. Erwin Bodky, program notes for the Cambridge Society for Early Music, quoted in Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p. 178.
13. Clifford Bartlett, "Pandolfi Mealli and Others," Early Music 22 (August 1994), p. 521.
14. Alfred Brendel, Music Sounded Out (London: Robson, 1990, and New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), p. 224. See also Michelle Dulak, "The Quiet Metamorphosis of 'Early Music,'" Repercussions 2 (Fall 1993), pp. 31-61.
15. Stanley Sadie praises Trevor Pinnock's strings for their sweetness in Gramophone 72 (January 1995), p. 50; Raymond Knapp, in an informative review of Norrington's Brahms First Symphony, praises the strings' sweet tone but faults their "reluctance to abandon" that tone in some passages (American Brahms Society Newsletter 11 [Spring 1992], pp. 4-7).
16. Dulak, "The Quiet Metamorphosis," p. 39.
17. For example, Claudio Abbado, Yehudi Menuhin, David Zinman, and Michael Morgan; Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Simon Rattle have even conducted period-instrument groups.
18. Editorial, Gramophone 71 (April 1994), p. 1
19. Officium (ECM New Series 445 369).
20. Sedgwick Clark, in "North American Retrospect," Gramophone 70 (May 1993), North American edition, p. A3.
21. David K. Nelson, "An Interview with Pinchas Zukerman," Fanfare 14 (March/April 1991), p. 38.
22. Neal Zaslaw, Notes 8 (March 1994), p. 948.
23. See Charles Rosen, "The Shock of the Old," New York Review of Books, 19 July 1990, pp. 46-52, and The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 383-85.
24. Nicholas McGegan and Robert Levin discuss the changes in audience behavior in their interviews. Julianne Baird, in her interview, discusses how hall sizes have affected singing technique.
25. Robert Philip, Early Recordings and Musical Style (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 230-31.
26. See Wye J. Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (University of Chicago Press, 1983), chap. 2, and p. 81.
27. Lubin, "Authenticity Briefly Revisited," Historical Performance 4 (Spring 1991), p. 46.
8. See Maynard Solomon's Mozart (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), pp. 8 and 90 on Leopold Mozart and trust, and p. 355 on Mozart's skepticism.
29. Allanbrook, "Mozart's Tunes and the Comedy of Closure," in On Mozart, ed. James Morris (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 169-86; quote, p. 176.
30. Or Ravel's: in recent decades, rates of serious depression appear to have doubled every ten years in many countries. See the Cross-National Collaborative Group, "The Changing Rate of Major Depression. Cross-National Comparisons," Journal of the American Medical Association 268 (1992), pp. 3098-105.
31. This is discussed in the Postscript to the Christopher Page interview.
32. John Butt pointed this out; personal communication, 1996.
33. Sometimes an informed critic even applauds the bare-bones avoidance of ornamentation; see Richard Taruskin's praise of Artur Schnabel's unhistorical Mozart in Text and Act, pp. 290-91.
34. Rosen, "The Shock of the Old," p. 50.
35. Tovey, A Musician Talks (Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 66.
36. Brown, "Pedantry or Liberation?" in Authenticity and Early Music, ed. Nicholas Kenyon (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 30.
37. Discussed briefly in the Postscript to the Page interview.
38. See Neal Zaslaw, "Mozart's Orchestra," Early Music 20 (May 1992), pp. 204-05.
39. José A. Bowen, "Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Wagner as Conductors: The Origins of the Ideal of 'Fidelity to the Composer,'" Performance Practice Review 6 (Spring 1993), pp. 77-88.
40. Martin, "The Quartets in Performance: A Player's Perspective," in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, ed. Robert Winter and Robert Martin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 140.
41. See Taruskin, "Tradition and Authority," reprinted in Text and Act, p. 190, originally published in Early Music 20 (May 1992), pp. 311-25.
42. The conductor was Siegfried Ochs; see Max Rudolf, "A Recently Discovered Composer-Annotated Score of the Brahms Requiem," Quarterly Journal of the Riemenschnieder Bach Institute 7/4 [October 1976], p. 13.
43. Kivy, Authenticities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 162-87.
44. Thomson, The Art of Judging Music (New York: Knopf, 1948), p. 296. See also Kivy, Authenticities, pp. 28-32.
45. He could show more concern for such things than we might expect. In an 1819 letter to his piano student Ferdinand Ries, he said that if the "Hammerklavier" Sonata "should not be the right thing for London," Ries could leave out the slow movement or reorder the internal movements. In Beethoven's Letters, with notes by A. C. Kalischer, trans J. S. Shedlock, ed. A. Eaglefield-Hull, (London: Dent, 1926), p. 268.
46. Kivy, Authenticities., pp. 424-44.
47. Robert Morgan, "Tradition, Anxiety, and the Current Musical Scene," in Authenticity and Early Music, ed. Kenyon, pp. 57-82.
48. Donald J. Grout, "On Historical Authenticity in the Performance of Old Music," in Essays on Music in Honor of Archibald Thompson Davison (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 341-47.
49. Joseph Epstein, "Decline and Blumenthal," The American Scholar, Winter 1994 (Epstein is a neo-conservative, but many liberals feel the same way). There are many optimists too, of course-for example those who believe that computer technology will create a new golden age. But even some techno-optimists exhibit nostalgia for a golden past.
50. Berlioz, "Instruments Added by Modern Composers to Scores of Old Masters," from his À travers chant (Paris, 1862). In The Art of Music and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 148-49.
51. Heilbroner, Visions of the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). He sees a somber, "apprehensive" view of the future becoming common only during the last thirty years; the fin-de-sièclism of the 1890s was, he argues, localized, and should not be given undue prominence. (Whether or not the world is in fact in a state of decline today is a separate question, as he notes, and for purposes of the present discussion is irrelevant.)
52. Butt, personal communication, 1996.
53. See Nicholas Temperley, "The Movement Puts a Stronger Premium on Novelty than on Accuracy . . . " Early Music 12 (February 1984): 16-20; Will Crutchfield, "Fashion, Conviction, and Performance Style in an Age of Revivals," in Authenticity and Early Music, ed. Kenyon, pp. 19-26; and Joshua Kosman's section of "The Early Music Debate," pp. 117-19.
54. Peter Phillips, "Beyond Authenticity," in Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, ed. Tess Knighton and David Fallows (London: Orion, and New York: Schirmer, 1992), pp. 44-47. Phillips believes that this has in fact happened, and that historical performers must now win attention on "the strength of their musical vision."
55. In many of the essays reprinted in Taruskin's Text and Act. His claim that early-music style belongs to modernism - by which he means a Satie/Stravinsky-like concern with lightness, formalism, and impersonality - applied most effectively to some of the dominant British artists of the 1980s; it was, I think, a specific example of his general point, an example Taruskin was able to document at length. But even at the time, Taruskin acknowledged that some of the Continental early-music leaders, like Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, were not Stravinskyan objective modernists.
This does not necessarily disprove Taruskin's basic idea that historicists are creating a modern, not a historical, sound. Jordi Savall's gamba-playing does not reflect Stravinskyan modernism, but it does use more legato than French Baroque playing probably did (see Taruskin's "Of Kings and Divas," The New Republic, 13 December 1993, pp. 31-44; on p. 43 he discusses Savall with enthusiasm). This too may reflect Savall's modern tastes rather than history. Romantic though it sounds, it may not entirely escape the label of "modernism." Rosen writes, in "The Shock of the Old," p. 46, that modernism "has its neo-Romantic side"; Taruskin, in the introduction to Text and Act (p. 10-11), describes modernism as a late manifestation of Romanticism, not its antithesis.
56. "The Modern Sound of Early Music," originally published as "The Spin Doctors of Early Music" in The New York Times, 29 July 1990, Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, p. 1. Reprinted in Text and Act; the quote is on p. 166.
57. Text and Act, p. 306.
58. John Butt, "Acting up a Text," Early Music 24 (May 1996), pp. 323-32.
59. The letter is from James Richman, and was printed in the New York Times Arts and Leisure letter section on 26 August 1990; parts of it are reprinted in Text and Act, p. 171, along with the commentary from Taruskin that I quote.
60. Text and Act, p. 171
61. Stephen Johnson, "Making It New," Gramophone 69 (May 1992), p. 26.
62. Personal communication, 1995.
63.The ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman, who is doing a study of the early-music scene, points out that there are other music cultures which give their performers little latitude in determining the notes but do not lavish attention on the figure of the composer. What makes us distinctive is that we lionize the composer and limit the performer's creative freedom but also value originality highly. We thereby sever the functions of composer and performer, and place them in a relationship of mutual dependence in which a certain tension inheres. Personal communication, Dec. 31, 1994.
64. See, for example, Bernard Holland, "When the Musician Upstages the Music," The New York Times, 24 May 1995, p. B2.
65. An argument against the proposals I've made in the preceding two paragraphs is that they may overestimate the prestige of the composer relative to the performer. After all, some say, it is the performers who are idolized and enriched, not the critics.
66. Michelle Dulak, "Early Music Circles Its Wagons Again," The New York Times, Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, 11 June 1995, p. 40.
67. Leo Treitler, "Remembering 'Early Music,'" in Thesis 8 (Fall 1994), pp. 32-33. "The decline of Early Music Talk" is a phrase quoted from Bernard Holland's "A Streak in the Heavens."
68. "The Shock of the Old," p. 52.
69. "The Modern Sound of Early Music," p. 170.
70. "The New Antiquity," p. 231.
71. "The Early Music Debate" pp. 114-17.