Modernism, Rhetoric and (De-)Personalisation in the Early Music Movement

by Uri Golomb [Cambridge University doctoral student]

Seminar paper presented for Prof. John Deathridge's course "Theories of Modernism and the Avant-garde," King's College London, August 1998

[This paper is referenced in Bernard D. Sherman's article on early-music performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, in Early Music America (Fall, 2001), available in the articles section of Sherman's Web site.]


The thesis that the Early Music Movement owes at least as much to 20th-century taste and aesthetics as it does to historical performance practice is widely accepted today. The most direct formulation of this idea is by Richard Taruskin. The modernist source he usually alludes to is the compositions, performances and aesthetics of Stravinsky. The resultant authentistic aesthetics he describes as "literalistic", "impersonal" and "leery of the profound or the sublime" (Taruskin: 167).

Pre-echoes of these views can be found in Adorno's critique of the precursors of today's Early Music Movement. Adorno derides Bach's devotees (including historical performers of his time) as "Philistines, whose sole desire is to neutralize art since they lack the capacity to comprehend it" (Adorno 1967: 137). By "Neutralization", he refers to the manner in which artworks "have forfeited their intrinsic meaning" by losing "any possible relation to social praxis", and thus "los[ing] even their own aesthetic import" (Adorno 1976: 113). Adorno's claim that historicist performers "seem to wait with potential fury lest any more humane impulse becomes audible in the rendition" (Adorno 1967: 143) also reflects a key feature in Taruskin's critique of latter-day authenticism (cf. Taruskin: 150; see also Dreyfus 1983: 300-304).

The claim that historical performances repress the expressive element in music and its performance is common to many critiques of this movement. In this paper, I would like to examine some of the assumptions behind such claims. My view is that they represent, at best, a one-sided view of the Early Music Movement, and I would like to demonstrate the potential for a richer, alternative reading.

1. Modernism and Depersonalisation

In his essay collection Text and Act, Taruskin offers several identifications for the musical modernism that has influenced Early Music the most. The book likewise presents a varied, multifarious view of the Early Music scene, especially in reviews of specific recordings. However, in presenting his general theory of the Early Music Movement, Taruskin seems to ignore this diversity. Instead, he insists that "modern [i.e. authentistic] performance is an integrated thing" (Taruskin: 141), deriving from one strand of 20th century music:

I would go so far as to suggest that all truly modern musical performance (and of course that includes the authentistic variety) treats the music performed as if it were composed - or at least performed - by Stravinsky. (Taruskin: 114)

For Taruskin, the ideology and performance style of the Early Music Movement are linked with such ideals as T. S. Eliot's "depersonalization" (quoted in Taruskin: 102) or Ortega y Gasset's "dehumanization" (: 131). The latter term
was not meant, nor should it, conjure up images of robots or concentration camps. It meant an art purged of those "human, all too human" elements that to artists in the early twentieth century suggested ephemerality, inconstancy, mortality, in favour of abstract patterns and precision suggesting transcendence of our muddy vesture of decay. (ibid)

In the creative arts, this purge meant a move away from content and expression. Taruskin cites in this context T. E. Hulme's distinction (published in 1924) between vitalist art - which imitates the "forms and movements found in nature" - and geometric art, which relied on "abstraction" and on "something fixed and necessary", as opposed to the fluidity characteristic of vitalist art (quoted in Taruskin: 109-110). A corollary in musical aesthetics is Stravinsky's insistence on "the higher mathematics of music" and his attack on what he called "a refusal to acknowledge the truth and the laws [...] that we have called fundamental" (Stravinsky: 61)

Depersonalisation also entailed a suspicious attitude towards freedom of expression, which was seen as partially responsible for unleashing the horrors of the world wars (Taruskin: 104). Stravinsky's "great principle of submission" (169) can be seen as an example of a similar attitude in musical aesthetics:

What is important for the lucid ordering of the work - for its crystallization - is that all Dionysian elements which set the imagination of the artist in motion and make the lifespan ripe must be properly subjugated before they intoxicate us, and must finally be made to submit to the laws: Apollo demands it. (: 105)

The quote above also entails a clear rejection of the Romantic notions of expression and sublimity. Taruskin (132-133) cites in this context the concepts of the Sublime and the Beautiful, as elucidated by Edmund Burke in 1757. In a brief historical sketch, Taruskin notes that the Sublime became increasingly dominant in the 19th century - reaching its height, in music, with Wagner. The 20th century reversed this process: the Beautiful - with its characteristics of clarity, proportion and polish - is clearly closer in spirit to the dehumanised or geometric art.

It is important to note here that the "depersonalised" aesthetics did not encourage the traditional (in both senses) concept of a canon of great works - for all the immortality associated with it. One can point out two reasons for this:

1. The canon was based on a glorification of creative individuals, who were praised for the expressivity and sublimity of their art. The spirit of depersonalisation, on the other hand, centered on the permanence of abstractions. This emphasis ultimately led to a negation of any genuine, specific meaning and content in art (cf. Ortega quoted in Taruskin: 132).

2. The canon was viewed as a basis for a continuous tradition. A certain degree of freedom in treating this tradition was not only allowed to the artists (creators and performers alike), but was actually demanded from them (see Taruskin: 106-107). This evidently clashed with the newer ideology's suspicion towards expressive freedom, and its demand for permanance

A philosophy which demanded submission and restraint even from creative artists was bound to limit the freedom of performers. Loyalty to the expressive content and spirit of the work may have been appropriate for the vitalist view; the clarity and rigidity of the geometric art was more consistent with literalism. Thus, Stravinsky demanded from the performer a "consciousness of the law imposed upon him by the work he is performing", and "submission" to this law (Stravinsky: 171). As well as obviously echoing depersonalisation, Stravinsky's preference of "execution" over "interpretation" (: 161-165) fits the ideal of geometric art. A literal execution will usually lack the expressive gestures and nuances that "vitalise" musical interpretation (: 165-167); it will be more precise, uniform and abstract.

Another important feature of geometric performance is the avoidance of heaviness and weight: the lighter the performance, the greater the sense of play and abandonment of content. This raises a curious paradox. Taruskin (114) cites Stravinsky's demand for "true solidity", and describes it as arising from "the rage against flux and impermanence, the same refuge in fixity and necessity, the same fear of melting into air" that lay behind Hulme's aesthetic ideology. But later he states that in the ultimately modernist, geometric performance, "the piece seems ready virtually to blow away [...] to melt into air" (: 135).

Beyond this superficial contradiction, one can point to a deeper question. Taruskin (134) describes modernist aesthetics as "an art debunked and off its pedestal", and argues that this process inevitably leads to an ironic view:

The art works of the past, even as they are purportedly restored to their pristine sonic condition, are concomitantly devalued, decanonized, not quite taken seriously, reduced to sensuous play. [...] Authentistic performers do seem determined to close this gap [between great composers and Kleinmeister], which [...] testifies rather conclusively to their modernity. (: 138)

John Butt (1996: 328), in quoting this statement, comments that such lack of discrimination is actually symptomatic of post-modernism rather than modernism. What I question, however, is the implication that a de-mystification of the canon necessarily leads to such "devaluation" - that music can be either venerated or dehumanized (in the Ortegan sense), with no third option.
An interesting case in point is Hindemith's view of Bach. Hindemith was the only objectivist, purist Bach devotee to be named in Adorno's article (1967: 143; see also Haskell: 179-180); Taruskin (134) counts him alongside Stravinsky as representing the same basic stance. Both Hindemith (16-19) and Stravinsky (173) preached a full-scale restoration of Bach's performing forces, emphasising their smaller size and attacking the inappropriateness of the symphonic performances still predominant at their time. For Hindemith, historical reconstruction was indeed part of an effort to remove Bach from his pedestal, to help change
The mythical being [...] back into a human being, the glittering hero [...] into a loveable fellow citizen not withstanding all his failings, the statue of stone and bronze [into] flesh and blood. (Hindemith: 12)

Such statements seem dangerously close to ignoring the "astronomical distance" (Adorno 1967: 145) between Bach and his contemporaries. But when Hindemith moves from debunking earlier stereotypes to presenting his own view of Bach, that distance is clearly retained; his vision of Bach (Hindemith: 36-37, 39-42) is no less heroic and exalted than the myths he sought to replace.
By Hindemith's standards, it was the previous generations who de-personalised Bach by turning him into a monument. By taking him off the pedestal, Hindemith tried to present an image of Bach that could speak more immediately to present generations - without reducing his stature in the process.

This issue of speech is to be the central topic of the next section. For Taruskin, one of the most obvious consequences of depersonalisation is the erasure of the concept of music as language which dominated much of past musical aesthetics:
To the proponent of a dehumanized, geometricized art, literally no one is speaking. There is, I would suggest, no aspect of today's authentistic performance practice more pertinent to twentieth-century aesthetics, and none harder to justify on historical grounds, than its ambience of emotional detachment, its distancing of voice from utterance. (136)

I seriously doubt, however, whether the Early Music Movement as a whole is really aiming, either in ideology or in practice, at the neutralisation of musical expression. In the next section, I will try to examine the authentistic quest for the retrieval of speech in music, and some of its ramifications on the performance styles of the Early Music Movement.

2. Rhetoric and Personalisation

According to Taruskin, authentistic performers follows in Stravinsky's footsteps in at least two ways. Firstly, they try to reconstruct the original sound conditions of masterpieces of the past while ignoring their effect and meaning. Secondly, they try to produce performances that are as emotionally detached as possible. In this context, Taruskin (113-114) quotes the following passage from Stravinsky's Poetics of Music, arguing that it pre-echoes the views and practices of the Early Music Movement:

Music [...] which evolves parallel to the process of ontological time [is] inducing in the mind of the listener a feeling of euphoria and, so to speak, of "dynamic calm". The other kind [...] dislocates the centres of attraction and gravity and set itself up in the unstable; and this fact makes it particularly adaptable to the translation of the composer's emotive impulses. [...] The music that adheres to psychological time likes to proceed by contrast. [...] I have always considered that in general it is more satisfactory to proceed by similarity rather than by contrast. Music thus gains strength in the measure that it does not succumb to the seductions of variety. What it loses in questionable riches it gains in true solidity. (Stravinsky: 41-43)

It is instructive to compare Stravinsky's statement with Philippe Herreweghe's programme for a rhetorical performance style for Bach's music:

Renaissance music aimed at being the reflection of divine perfection and at keeping the listener [...] in equilibrium with the external and internal worlds, bearing the stamp of oneness. On the other hand, "musica pathetica", or "musica rhetorica" aimed at moving, unbalancing whoever listened to it, with the more or less avowed goal of rendering him more vulnerable and hence more receptive to the seduction of a message. The Baroque composer is in no way preoccupied with depicting his own subjective state of mind, but seeks to provoke in the listener a temporary emotional turmoil, a succession of emotional states, the causes and effects of which he is in perfect control of, and which he studies and catalogues with the greatest care. (Herreweghe: 28-29)

Herreweghe clearly rejects a Stravinsky-like concept of ontological time as irrelevant to Bach's music, preferring a system of expression focused on "dislocation" and instability; and he sees it as his duty as a performer to enhance these effects (Herreweghe: 33; compare with Taruskin: 136).

Within the Early Music Movement, Herreweghe's approach is not innovative. Nikolaus Harnoncourt titled his first collection of essays Music Als Klangrede and called for a style of performance that would reveal music's full expressive force. Gustav Leonhardt explicitly aimed at "a lively performance style", which consisted of a departure from the "objective" interpretation of Baroque music [...] in favour of "dynamic inégale playing" [and which] takes seriously the Baroque demand for a performance to make sense from a rhetorical point of view and is appropriate to the affections. (Arlt and Theil)

This emphasis on rhetoric contradicts Taruskin's equation of historicism with abandonment of content. Taruskin argues that the traditional approach to performance construes intentions "internally" [...] and sees their realization in terms of "effect" of a performance, while the latter [authentistic] construes in terms of empirically ascertainable - and hence, though tacitly, external - facts, and sees their realization in terms of sound. (Taruskin: 99) He identifies the traditional approach with "idealism [...] which recognizes a sharp distinction between content and form", while equating authentistic approach with positivism, for which "content is a function of form" (: 99-100).

In my view, however, authentistic research into rhetoric occupies a half-way house between idealism and positivism. For a musician like Harnoncourt, form is function of content - as when takes the ideal of speaking music as the starting point in the recreation of Baroque articulation (Harnoncourt 1988: 39-49). He and other performers interested in rhetoric clearly perceive the composer's intentions in terms of effect. However, what they are striving to achieve is a historical effect, grounded in empirical evidence. In a way, such performers still seek historical justification or "permission" for an expressive rendering of the music, rather than relying on their own intuitive empathy with the music.

One can also question the impact of rhetoric on actual performance style. Taruskin (149) described Harnoncourt's performances as "vitalism redux". However, he considers Harnoncourt an exception. On the other hand, Joseph Kerman (205) considers rhetoric an essential feature of, among others, the Netherland School (see also Butt 1998).

My own observations have led me to conclude that rhetoric is an important but not dominant feature of the Early Music scene. Taruskin amassed considerable evidence illustrating uniformity and expressive detachment in authentistic performances. Counter-examples can cited, but these will not dislodge Taruskin's own evidence. The same applies to performers' avowed intentions. Harnoncourt's and Herreweghe's arguments in favour of rhetoric can be countered with Christopher Hogwood's call for a "neutral" and "purist" style of performance (in Johnson 1988) and with Joshua Rifkin's rejection of the centrality of rhetoric (in Sherman: 381-388)

In the final analysis, it might be revealed that a unified authentistic performance aesthetics does not exist. But even the style of a single performance cannot be reduced to simple generalisations. Taruskin speaks of authentistic style as a consistent entity, "fleeter, lighter, drier, brittler, more uniform in every way" (363). He implies that performance paramters in Early Music are all slanted towards the same ideal: a performance "less individually characterized, less particularly memorable, less consequential" (ibid).

In my view, this implication is false on at least two counts. First of all, performance parameters can - and often do - draw performances in opposing directions. Secondly, uniformity in one parameter does not entail uniformity in another. Many historical performers maintain a certain rigidity in tempo, but display notable diversity in phrasing, articulation, dynamics and colours. The diversity is often linked with rhetoric and, more generally, with an attempt to humanise the music.

The point can be illustrated through a comparison between the performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion by Furtwängler and Gardiner. Gardiner's performing forces are audibly smaller, his tempi faster and more rigid than Furtwängler's. In all other parameters, however, it is Gardiner who provides a more varied reading.

In the opening chorus, Gardiner combines a close attention to detail with a dramatic conception of the movement's architecture. The former aspect can be heard, for instance, in the opening ritornello, in such details as a slight crescendo in the bass's rising scale (bb. 6-7) or the differing articulations towards the choral entrance. Furtwängler's rendition is more monumental. In the middle section (bb. 52-71), he elicits more nuance and variety, but generally his performance is characterised by uniform dynamics and phrasing.

Gardiner's interpretation reaches its climax in the final section (bb. 72-90). Herreweghe (31) calls bb. 72-82 the "Confirmatio", in which the orator "restates his thesis in a reinforced form". Gardiner performs this accordingly. Commencing with a sforzando on the second chorus's "sehet" in b. 72, he then descends towards the end of the section, only to affect a condensed and highly-charged crescendo in bb. 82-90 (the "Peroratio" in Herreweghe's analysis). Furtwängler, on the other hand, hardly alters any parameter, and his performance contains no obvious climax at all.

The differences are even more pronounced in the final chorus of Part I ("O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross"). Gardiner often highlights individual words (e.g., the dynamic waves on "Krankheit", bb. 65-67) and draws sharp contrasts between sections (e.g., softer timbre and dynamics in "von einer Jungfrau", bb. 35-39 and following lines, broken by fanfare-like intensity of "Den Toten er das Leben gab" etc., bb. 56-67). Furtwängler's only modifications in a rather uniform reading are structural: small diminuendi preceding some choral entrances, and a massive ritardando towards the end (bb. 94-99).

In sum, Furtwängler's reading may well embody "a communion that renews contact" with Bach as the "fountainhead of contemporary music" (Taruskin: 106), but it is Gardiner who presents a more emotionally-involved, dramatic interpretation.
As I noted earlier, any single example can be dismissed as untypical. I believe, however, that Gardiner's approach is typical both of his own aesthetics and of those of many of his fellow "authenticists". The Early Music Movement may be characterised by a tendency towards literalism and rigid tempi, but in many other parameters it presented an increase in variety. The resulting performances demonstrate that vitalism and geometrism can co-exist, not only within the Movement as a whole, but even within a single performance.

Through this combination, the Early Music Movement produced performances that are at least as dramatic and as expressive as those of "traditional" performers. This can still be viewed in terms of "taking music off the pedestal" (Roger Norrington in Sherman: 339). But the result, in many cases, was a "restor[ation] of the human side of [the] music" (: 344) - something closer to Hindemith's recasting of Bach's image than to the depersonalisation described so vividly by Taruskin.

3. Thoughts for Further Research

In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate that the view of Early Music as a restrictive, depersonalised enterprise is one-sided and incomplete. I have emphasised features of some authentistic performances that are inconsistent with modernism (as portrayed by Taruskin), and pointed out their affinity with Baroque Doctrine of the Affections (or rather to the performers' image of that Doctrine).

However, it is quite possible that these elements could be traced to key features in the 20th century musical scene as well. One avenue of exploration of the interconnection between authentistic performance and today's music is to investigate 20th-century music which actually has come into contact with the Early Music Movement. To give just a few examples: at least three important "Early Music" British conductors (Gardiner, Harry Christophers and Richard Hickox) have also made a reputation in performing the music of Benjamin Britten; Paul Hillier is known for his performances of the music of Arvo Pärt as well as of Medieval and Renaissance music; composers such as Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman have written music expressly for the viol consort Fretwork.

Such an investigation should be taken within a broader understanding of the Early Music Movement itself. The development of authentistic styles of performance is well-documented in recordings. The views of authentistic performers are likewise documented in books, recording liner-notes, articles, interviews and documentary films. So far, the exploration of these sources has been somewhat haphazard. For instance, the interest of many historical performers in the ideas behind the music - the composers' aesthetics and ideologies - is largely ignored by those who write on the movement from the outside. These writers still view the authentistic enterprise as a material one, focusing exclusively on the retrieval of historic performance practice. Yet the idea-oriented trend, while not necessarily predominant, is characteristic of an increasing number of authentistic performers.

What is missing from many critiques is an acknowledgment of the variety in both the ideologies and the actual performances within the Early Music Movement. Historical performance has a longer history and a broader scope than it is often credited for. Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival rightly views today's Early Music Movement as part of a development that started in the 19th century. Bernard Sherman's Inside Early Music convincingly demonstrates the broad scope of the current scene. In a sense, the term Early Music Movement itself is misleading, inasmuch as it implies a unified aesthetics and ideology.

In any case, it is increasingly difficult to generalise about the Movement. Perhaps some of the points raised by Taruskin, Dreyfus and like-minded critics were pertinent to the Early Music scene a few decades ago. As Nicholas Kenyon writes,

There had to be a period when performers [...] emptied themselves to a self-negating extent of their own tastes and prejudices [...] now, on the other hand, the pendulum has swung back and a strong personal taste is now accepted; expressive instincts can be unleashed without any danger of being proved unhistorical. (Kenyon 1988b: 17)

Literalism and restraint are still part of the Early Music scene; but they are no longer predominant. The flamboyant style of performers like Rinaldo Alessandrini, Fabio Biondi and Skip Sempé, or the improvisational approach of artists like Robert Levin and Andrew Lawrence-King - as well as the rhetorical approach described in the previous section - are no less central to the current scene than the literalism and restraint of Hogwood, Andrew Parrott or Joshua Rifkin.

Perhaps it is too early to reach a comprehensive account of what is still a living, constantly-changing phenomenon. But I still believe that it might be possible to commence a more comprehensive and descriptive research into Early Music aesthetics, especially given the growing interest in performance analysis. Taken in tandem with research into developments in 20th-century composition, such investigations might yield important insights into the relations of authentistic performance to the contemporary musical scene as a whole.

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Butt, John. 1996. "Acting up a text: the scholarship of performance and the performance of scholarship" [Review-article of Taruskin 1995]. Early Music 24/2: 323-332.
-----. 1998. "Bach Recordings Since 1980: A Mirror of Historical Performance". In Bach Perspectives IV (in print).
Dreyfus, Laurence. 1983. "Early Music Defended against its Devotees: A Theory of Historical Performance in the Twentieth Century". Musical Quarterly 69: 297-320.
-----. 1992. "Mozart as early music: a Romantic antidote". Early Music 20: 297-309.
-----. 1995. "Patterns of Authority in Musical Interpretation: Historical Performance at the Cross-road". Unpublished lecture given at the international symposium "Authenticity in Interpretation" (Jerusalem, May 28, 1995).
Gardiner, John Eliot. 1987. "Ecco Orfeo!" In the insert notes to his recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (Hamburg: Archiv Produktion): 17-20.
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Recordings of the St. Matthew Passion cited:
1. Wiener Sängerknaben/ Wiener Singakademie/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Wilhelm Furtwängler. Recorded live 1954. Released 1995. 2 CDs; EMI 5 65509-2.
2. Choeur d'enfants "In Dulci Jubilo"/ La Chapelle Royale, Paris & Collegium Vocale, Gent/ Philippe Herreweghe. Recorded 1984. Released 1985. 3 CDs; Harmonia Mundi 901155.7.
3. London Oratory Junior Choir/ Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner. Recorded 1988. Released 1989. 3 CDs; Archiv 427 648