On period performances, anachronism and coherence

JSBachBassFirst of all, let me say that I do not have anything against ‘period’ performances of early music at all. Oftentimes I even appreciate them, in fact. However, I think that — irate cries from the purists to the contrary notwithstanding — they are not, and cannot be considered, any more ‘authentic’ than performances using modern instruments. And what I notice is that, in the long run, I consistently prefer the latter to the former. Let me spell my arguments for this idea in turn.

On first approximation, I might suppose that if I approached music from the point of view of a music historian, then I would probably worry about anachronism, so in that case I guess would tend to prefer period instruments, period performances, and so on. But then the problem arises, be it in music as in historiography, all the same: any history is reconstruction, interpretation and conjecture, up to some degree — even if granting some objectivity to the ‘sources’ and trying to keep anachronism under control. The historian is a diachronic product of historical time herself. (So, by the way, a history that completely ‘re-enacts’ the past — to borrow Collingwood’s phrase — is improbable, to say the least.)

The benevolent reader may object that she is not a historian, but just a regular music fan. But something similar as above holds, mutatis mutandis, for music listening and playing. Period instruments and period performances are conjectural at best — perhaps good, well-grounded conjectures, perhaps, but conjectures nevertheless.

An analogy with the history of science may help making the point clear. It is nice and thoughtful to play music on period instruments and enjoy it. As nice, in fact, as attempting to repeat Galileo’s experiments with inclined planes with materials similar to those used by him, or performing Newton’s experiments in optics in a like manner, or trying to do calculus with the same notation once employed by Leibniz, or, for that matter, reading Aristotle’s theory of science in the Analytics in a thoroughly Aristotelian manner. But if a contemporary scientist attempts to explain Galilean ideas in kinematics — quite different from a trained historian trying to understand his new science of motion in its own terms — it is not very reasonable to expect her to read Galileo without making the occasional reference to her contemporary background.

Likewise, it is utopian to demand that there is a ‘correct’ way of conceiving early music, and that it can be achieved by playing it in ‘exactly’ the same way as it would have been in the past. The (conjectural) attempt at musical reconstruction is always bound to be counterbalanced by the fact that, in the centuries that separate us from the composer, culture and worldview have undergone dramatic changes. And, finally, our very perception has shifted in an irreversible manner.

As far as the listener is concerned, listening is fully contemporary. The spectator is a contemporary spectator, in an inescapable way. It is plainly impossible to listen music in the same way as it was listened in the 18th century, and thoroughly unreasonable to demand so.

Another analogy, this time with painting, may be illuminating here. No one could ever have the pretense of perceiving (and I use ‘perceiving’ in a saturated, robust sense) a painting by Masaccio or Giorgione or Rembrandt ‘with the eyes of the past’, in the same way as a spectator from the artist’s time would appreciate them — ‘re-creating’ period sensibility, as it were. Sure, one can learn a lot about period pictorial sensibility, and this certainly enriches the aesthetic experience, but the result is a patchwork of synchronic and diachronic elements.

LutePlayerSo we come to my conclusion #1: ‘period’ music enthusiasts must have it clear that they are *not* experiencing music as it was experienced in the past, at all. They are experiencing something intermediate between the (alas, forever lost) music as it sounded in the past and present-day music. If not even music historians are granted access, through period performances, to music precisely as it happened in the past, as we have seen, this is even more the case with a modern listener. This is why I always find something odd and a bit pathetic in irate purists’ comments such as “this ornamentation (or: fingering, phrasing &c.) is ‘wrong’ because they didn’t play it that way (or: it isn’t the way it sounded like) in the 17th century at all”.

So, if the merit of period performances lies not it its once supposed ‘authenticity’, how is one to appraise it? My answer is: by the same standards that are employed for any musical performance. And by this I mean internal coherence of the music, as well as coherence with the listener’s set of aesthetic values and patterns of perception and judgement (what is usually referred to, in an omnibus fashion, as ‘matters of taste’).

As in history of science, and in history of philosophy, I kind of like to play with the idea of a ‘virtuous anachronism’. In practice, this means that I like Gould and Paul Galbraith playing Bach, Primrose playing Brahms, Richter and Marriner conducting Bach, Barrueco playing De Visée, Julian Bream playing Dowland, and so on. Techniques of musical instrument construction have evolved, phrasing has changed, and this is part of our cultural heritage. Why turn our backs on this, refusing the synchronic dialectic between early score and modern-day performance?

However, I happen to like some period performances — including Herreweghe, Koopman, Harnoncourt, Goebel — and to dislike Karajan or Yo-Yo Ma or Hilary Hahn playing Bach. How come? I explain this by resorting to the notion of coherence. Granted, both the first and the second groups of performers play with a contemporary touch, a contemporary idiom, a contemporary worldview and so on. However, I submit that the first group is able to highlight structural elements already present in the compositions, and unfold substructures coherent with it; their phrasing is able to do justice to it. The second does nothing of the sort: they superimpose additional structure that does not cohere with the structure already present in the score. This has nothing to do with ‘historical authenticity’, I hasten to add.

As is well known, Jorge Luis Borges has written a nice little parable, titled “Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote“, that touches on quite similar points. Writing the Quijote qua Cervantes in the 16th century is one thing; writing the Quijote qua Pierre Menard in the 20th century is an altogether different thing. Analogously, listening to Bach as a Köthen citizen in 1730, performed on the real instruments of the day, is one thing; listening to Bach performed on modern instruments is a wholly different one — as is listening to Bach performed by a ‘period’ ensemble. What determines the choice in each case is structure and coherence. And, lest it be thought that this makes for a ‘dry’ and ‘soulless’ approach to music, let me add that structure and coherence, in the sense I take both terms, also mean swing and groove. But this is a topic for another occasion.