Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Are the Concepts and Objectives Behind the “Authentic Performance Movement” Fundamentally Flawed?

In this essay, we shall be examining the so-called “authentic performance movement” but what IS the authentic performance movement? This movement, also referred to as the historical authenticity movement and/or the early music movement, is a group of musicians, performers, and composers who “strive to realise the [baroque and classical period] composer’s intentions and expectations regarding performing style.”1 What this means then, is that said musicians, et al. strive to play Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical musical works in a way that they would have been played in their respective eras. This includes performing on instruments made in the same way as those from the period, using the same construction materials, designs, intonations, and tuning systems. Now that we have an adequate description of the movement in question, we may now move on to a critical analysis of its concepts and objectives (if indeed said movement even has any to be subjected to such scrutiny.)

The origins of this movement lie in the 1950s all the way through to the 1980s, and has continued on through the 90s up until present times.2 However the history behind this movement can be traced to developments as far back as during 18th and 19th centuries.3 During the eighteenth century, musical performance was focused on new music. This can be exemplified in the ‘Querelle des Bouffons’ that took place between 1752 and 1754, which was a controversy surrounding the merits of the newer Italian operas versus the merits of the older French operas. During this controversy, contemporary philosophes and other writers argued, sometimes vociferously, that the newer Italian opera was better than the older French operas pioneered by Jean-Baptiste Lully and promoted at the time by Jean-Phillipe Rameau. The people of that century simply did not care for older music. This can be contrasted with the 19th century, where there was a conscious move towards performing works by composers of older eras. As Bernard Sherman notes “admonitions to honor the composer’s performance intentions... became common in the 19th century and dominant in the twentieth.”4

Whilst there are number of reasons for why these developments took place during the 19th century, at the centre of the debate during the twentieth century was a debate concerning “authenticity.”5 Critics of the “authentic performance movement’ have focused intently over the usage of the word ‘authentic’ and it is this word in particular that is singled out as the principle target of the critics’ ire. It is primarily the controversy over the meaning of ‘authenticity’ that has led to the movement being given the alternate name: ‘historically informed performance movement.’6 However, there is some doubt as to whether or not “authenticity” really laid behind the movement. D. Fabian argues that the concept of authenticity being attributed to the movement was really down to critics taking “commercial propaganda at face value.”7 That is to say that those associated with the early music/historically informed performance movement do not seek ‘authenicity.’8

Thus, one could argue that identifying this movement as the ‘authentic performance movement’ is nothing more than a straw-man caricature. What then CAN be said about the aims of the early music/authentic/historically informed performance movement? Michelle Dulak argues that shift in emphasis from ‘authenticity’ to ‘historically informed performance’ is simply nothing more than semantic posturing:
Early music” itself will hardly do, when so much of the repertoire concerned is so recent… “Authentic” has succumbed to a thousand critical blows, most of them richly deserved. “Contextual for no very obvious reason, was stillborn… “Period” and “historical” (with the variant “historically informed” remain, but a careful observer cannot help noting that even they become rarer with time. I venture to suggest that this linguistic fidgetiness has its roots in the changing nature of the beast itself.9
This view, however, misses the deeper differences between the notions of ‘authenticity’ and being ‘historically informed.’ Whilst they may seem two names for the same thing, there is a fundamental difference. Being ‘authentic’ from a musical perspective is not the same thing as being ‘historically informed.’ Edidin notes the argument of Kivy that a rendition of a composition can be authentic in a ‘personal’ sense and forms the basis of arranging as form of art.10

The fundamental argument against equating ‘authenticity’ with ‘historical informed performance’ then, is that the personal authenticity expressed in varying renditions of compositions past and present is of aesthetic value. The reason for this is because the very act of arranging is itself an art form that gives rise to new musical expressions. Therefore, it is inappropriate or perhaps unfair to label certain artistic expressions as ‘inauthentic.’ Whether because it was because of such criticisms, or if, as D. Fabian argues, that the movement never self-identified as such, since the 1990s the term ‘authentic’ has been subsequently dropped.11 Nowadays, the focus is more on performances being ‘historically informed’ that is to say performances which are historically accurate. Whether this has been part and parcel of the movement since the very beginning or whether this a new direction it seems as if this fascination of the past follows very much in the same vein as the fascination of the past exemplified by so many groups as far back as the Renaissance humanists and as contemporary as today.

Robert Donington gives a possible explanation for this current obsession, especially the music of the Baroque period. He argues that it lies in the fact that there is actually a sense of continuality between music of the past and music of the present. That is to say, Baroque music exemplifies musical elements found in popular contemporary music today, chief among them being improvisation.
Much of our own contemporary music pursues such spontaneity and in baroque music this ingredient is contained in the very conditions of its authentic reportoire.12
However, is this attempt at historical recreation any less problematic than striving to create the most ‘authentic’ rendition of a performance? Writing about Renaissance music, Howard Mayer-Brown writes that the question of how music of the past was actually performed is one that is “difficult to answer because the music is so remote from us… that even the most basic facts about the way it was played must be demonstrated rather than assumed.”13 Bernard Sherman notes that “some authors believe that it is impossible for us to perform music exactly as it was done in its own era.”14

Whilst it therefore seems out-of-date to think of an ‘authentic performance movement’ but of a movement that endeavours to re-create compositions the way they were historically performed, it seems as if this does not change much. There are still problems with presuming one rendition of a Baroque period composition is more ‘historically authentic’ or ‘historically informed’ than another. This has been briefly hinted at and shall now be expounded upon in more detail now. What are the fundamental problems with historical Reconstructionism in relation to the music of the Baroque period and earlier? One issue lays in the fact that “performers did not simply follow instructions given them by composers” and that “musicians were expected to be able to invent new melodic material extempore.”15 In the Baroque and Renaissance periods, performing music involved more than simply reading the scores. The singers and instrumentalists of those times were fully expected to add elaborate improvised ornamentation, and according to precise musical rules. A problem then, lies in determining what these rules are and how they should be interpreted and applied.

More than this, we have to determine not just stylistic characteristics, but sonic characteristics, questions concerning instrument choice, instrument construction, instrument techniques, ensemble line-up, ensemble size, and a plethora of other issues. Whilst this might seem like a daunting task to some, the problem is even more insurmountable than this, for the documentary evidence (in terms of musical scores) we have is fragmentary.
Some authors believe that it is impossible for us to perform music exactly as it was done in its own era. In a few cases, such as the use of castrati singers, it is obviously impossible (or repellent) to re-create a known practice. But more generally, evidence about period performance practice is almost never complete, so performers must go beyond what scholars can certify as historically accurate. Doing so involves the use of the performers’ imaginations—and modern musical imaginations differ almost inevitably from those of previous centuries.16
Reconstructing music of the past is therefore immensely difficult if not impossible. The principle argument against attempts at accurate historical reconstruction of musical compositions is that “historical performers supplement the meagre documentary evidence with their own musical taste…”17

Interestingly enough, Taruskin, whom Dulak cites and refers to, despite offering stringent criticisms of the historicist enterprise, does not see the ahistoricity inherent in the historicist enterprise as a deathblow to their efforts. Rather, he argues that despite the “thin veneer of historicism” and the “rhetoric of authenticity,” the movement “constitutes proof that what [Taruskin] calls “authentistic” performance is a living tradition…”18 As Edidin concurs:
One way to qualify the extreme view [that deviations from history falsify the efforts of historicism] would be to hold that historical authenticity is but one source of aesthetic good among many…9
Whilst the two ideals, authenticity and historicism, are different, it seems then as if they overlap considerably after all. If one takes authenticity in music to mean something that is aesthetically good and enjoyable, and the efforts of historicisms achieve this affect, then it seems as if both concepts are vindicated.

Tracing the development of the “early music movement,” D. Fabian notes that despite arguments such as those above, those involved in the movement still clung to the idea that “an Urtext score reflected the composer’s ‘definitive version’ of the piece.” Those affiliated with the movement in the 1950s held to the ideal of ‘historical authenticity.’20 As aforementioned, Edidin reports a distinction Kivy made between personal and historical authenticity, and so in this sense the obsession over ‘authenticity’ in earlier critiques are misguided. What those in the authentic performance movement actually meant by ‘authenticity’ and what critics supposed they meant were two entirely different things. We may recall Dulak’s complaint earlier that the central aims of the authentic performance movement has been transmogrified, and this is somewhat justified given the vagueness of the term ‘authenticity.’ Yet, as we have seen, there is a fundamental distinction between ‘authenticity,’ ‘historicism.’ Furthermore, we are met with two types of authenticity, ‘personal authenticity’ and ‘historical authenticity.’

We have cleared up some of the terminology, but not all. In determining the aims and objectives of the authentic performance movement, we were met with two terms: the sufficiently vague term ‘authenticity’ and the more clearly defined term ‘historicism.’ However, we are now met with two new terms, as mentioned above. Personal authenticity, which refers to the art of arranging carried out by modern composers and performers who seek to re-create works of the past. Their re-working has aesthetic value whether it is “historically informed” or not. What then of ‘historical authenticity?’ Whilst some argue that historical authenticity is synonymous with efforts at trying to re-create musical compositions the way the original composer intended, I disagree. Whilst a desire at historical accuracy is obviously a major part of Historical Reconstructionism, historical authenticity is more than this. I take historical authenticity to refer to the aesthetic value of historicism; that is the effort to re-create compositions of the past as they would have been performed originally.

As previously discussed, Edidin notes that historicism21 can be at least one source of aesthetic good. However, he goes on to argue a further point that whilst historical reconstruction is “not necessarily or always a source of aesthetic good” that “there is good prima facie reason that it often will be a source of aesthetic good…”22 In other words, at least some examples of ‘historically informed performances’ will be aesthetically good because of efforts at historical reconstruction. Therefore what ‘historical reconstruction’ can be historically authentic in addition to being personal authentic by virtue of its being personally authentic. He develops this argument further by offering the premise that “the aesthetic payoff of following a composer’s performance suggestion is ultimately to be judged by experience of the result of that way of performing.”23

Having briefly reviewed the key concepts associated with the ‘authentic performance movement’ we have come to the following conclusions. The fundamental aim of the ‘authentic performance movement’ is merely an attempt at historical recreation; to re-create compositions according to the original wishes and intentions of the composers. The use of the term ‘authenticity’ was simply misleading colloquialism that. Debates over ‘authenticity,’ whilst somewhat misleading, are, however, enlightening nonetheless. We discussed the varying meanings of ‘authenticity’ and how they applied to the efforts of Historical Reconstructionism. The aim of this essay was to discuss to the objectives of the ‘authentic performance’ and weigh in as to whether these objectives were ‘fundamentally flawed’ or not. The discussion as to whether or not historical reconstruction of early compositions is a worthwhile enterprise almost entirely focused around philosophical, aesthetic concerns, as it was more or less admitted from the outset that our knowledge of how these pieces of music was actually performed is particularly fragmentary. What then, are our conclusions in this regard?

Authenticity is a word that has sparked a wide amount of controversy, with some regarding the use of the term highly offensive. However, more thoughtful commentators have offered expositions of what authenticity actually means, and then discussed how it relates to the ‘authentic performance movement.’ Authenticity can carry two meanings, personal authenticity and historical authenticity. Personal authenticity is the aesthetic value of a piece of music purely based on its value as art. Historical authenticity is typically used to refer to how historically accurate a work is, but I take it to mean the personal authenticity derived from efforts at historical reconstruction irrespective as to whether this historical reconstruction is ultimately successful or not. Thus, we can see two ways in which historical reconstruction is a worthwhile endeavour. Firstly, composers engage in the art of arranging. How they arrange other composer’s compositions and how they perform them leads to new musical expression.

Secondly, compositions can be aesthetically pleasing purely as a result of the attempts at historical reconstruction. That is to say that pieces that aspire to be historically informed can be more aesthetically pleasing than pieces that do not aspire to being historically informed. The only issue then is whether these aesthetic results are intentional or accidental by-products. However, I think such a question ultimately does not add to the discussion at hand (otherwise it would have been raised earlier) as the answer to such a question does not alter the aesthetic results. Whether it is deliberate or unintentional, ‘historically informed’ pieces can be aesthetically good. Note that this is also wholly independent of whether or not these pieces actually are historically accurate or not, thus rendering the question of whether such historical accuracy is possible a moot one. The question being discussed is whether or not the aims and objectives of the ‘authentic performance movement’ are fundamentally flawed or not. Whilst historical accuracy might simply be a quaint, ludicrous notion, aesthetic good can still come of it.

Bibliography
Books
:
Howard Mayer Brown, Embellishing 16th-Century Music, Oxford University Press, (1976)
Robert Donington, Style and Performance, Faber Music, (1982)
David Schulenberg, Music of the Baroque, Oxford University Press, (2001)

Journals:
Michelle Dulak, The Quiet Metamorphosis of “Early Music,” Repercussions, Vol. 2, No. 2., University of California Berkley, (Fall, 2003), pp31-61
Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way: Historical Authenticity, Personal Authenticity, and the Performance of Classical Music, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, University of Illinois Press, (Winter, 1998), pp79-91
Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement: A Historical Review, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 32, No. 2, Croatian Musicology Society, (Dec., 2001), pp153-167

Web Articles:

Bernard D. Sherman, Authenticity in Musical Performance, http://www.bsherman.net/encyclopedia.html (Accessed November 25th 2011)

Notes
1 Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way: Historical Authenticity, Personal Authenticity, and the Performance of Classical Music, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, University of Illinois Press, (Winter, 1998), pp79-91, p79
2 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement: A Historical Review, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 32, No. 2, Croatian Musicology Society, (Dec., 2001), pp153-167, p153
3 Bernard D. Sherman, Authenticity in Musical Performance, http://www.bsherman.net/encyclopedia.html (Accessed November 25th 2011)
4 Ibid.
5 Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way, p79
6 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement: A Historical Review, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 32, No. 2, Croatian Musicology Society, (Dec., 2001), pp153-167, p153
7 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement, p154
8 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement, p155
9 Michelle Dulak, The Quiet Metamorphosis of “Early Music,” Repercussions, Vol. 2, No. 2., University of California Berkley, (Fall, 2003), pp31-61, p31
10 Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way, p80
11 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement, p153
12 Robert Donington, Style and Performance, Faber Music, (1982), p6
13 Howard Mayer Brown, Embellishing 16th-Century Music, Oxford University Press, (1976), pvii
14 Bernard D. Sherman, Authenticity in Musical Performance, http://www.bsherman.net/encyclopedia.html (Accessed November 26th 2011)
15 Howard Mayer Brown, Embellishing 16th-Century Music, Oxford University Press, (1976), pvii
16 Bernard D. Sherman, Authenticity in Musical Performance, http://www.bsherman.net/encyclopedia.html (Accessed November 27th 2011)
17 Michelle Dulak, The Quiet Metamorphosis of “Early Music,” p33
18 Michelle Dulak, The Quiet Metamorphosis of “Early Music,” p34
19 Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way, p81
20 Dorottya Fabian, The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement, p158
21 Edidin himself uses the term ‘historical authenticity’ as referring to the efforts of Historical Reconstructionism/historicism, whereas I take ‘historical authenticity’ to refer to the aesthetic value of the historicist enterprise.
22 Aron Edidin, Playing Bach His Way, p81
23 Ibid.

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