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Book Review

Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers

Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers
Bernard D. Sherman, ed
Oxford University Press, USA, 2003
ISBN 019516945X
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'Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers' edited by Bernard D. Sherman is a highly recommendable collection of focused, substantial, varied, informative and extremely illuminating interviews with almost two dozen leading figures in the early music scene. But it's much more.

Originally published over ten years ago, this attractively-priced title has recently been revised and the critical discographies and bibliographies for each chapter updated. If you have any interest in 'early' (which extends in this case as far as Gardiner's Brahms) music, you should definitely investigate this book.

Thanks to Sherman's expertise in the area of early music, though, this is not a mere survey. Nor yet a summary of the early music scene by big names whose views would be interesting to read but could well lack coherent thrust. For sure the 400+ pages of interviews (in many ways amounting to well-structured and absorbing essays) do provide newcomer, amateur, professional and specialist with a real flavor for what's new, exciting, established, controversial and indeed what now is also received wisdom in this area of music-making. And in a scholarly fashion: there's hardly a page without relevant, current and accurate footnotes and sources. Sherman has selected his contributors and themes in order to explore at length some of the most central and intriguing issues pertinent to mediaeval, renaissance and baroque music (and beyond).

Those who contributed are: Marcel Perès (on plainchant), Susan Hellauer of Anonymous 4 (performing mediaeval music), Barbara Thornton of Sequentia (Hildegard), Christopher Page (mediaeval music), Paul Hillier (renaissance sacred music), Peter Phillips (The Tallis Scholars and Palestrina), Alan Curtis, Rinaldo Alessandrini and Anthony Rooley (Monteverdi), Andrew Lawrence-King (renaissance instrumental music and improvisation), John Butt (Bach), Gustav Leonhardt (baroque keyboard playing), Anner Bylsma (the cello in Vivaldi and Brahms), Julianne Baird (baroque singing), Nicholas McGegan (Handel), William Christie (the French baroque), Jeffrey Thomas and Philippe Herreweghe (Bach), Malcolm Bilson (the fortepiano), Robert Levin (Mozart and improvisation), Roger Norrington (Beethoven), John Eliot Gardiner (Berlioz and Brahms) and Joshua Rifkin (interpretation and rhetoric). The music in question spans almost a thousand years – from early organum and before in Marcel Perès' examination of how 'fundamental' Gregorian chant was (and hence how valid it is to try to establish Gregorian chant as a baseline from which to explore the rest of that repertoire) to the mid nineteenth century.

Indeed Perès' concerns about authenticity, which are expertly prefigured in Sherman's consummate introduction, run through the whole book. Though not in a polemic way: while alluding to the many debates surrounding 'early' (or historically-authentic/inspired performance) music since the 1970s, certain performances and definitely certain aspects of the relationships between musicologists and performers (Hellauer is particularly good on this) are now taken as stable, if not settled. But the debate has moved on: it's no longer how valid is it to recreate authentic performances, how far should we do so. But how possible it is. Surely a much more interesting and fruitful question. And one which a book of this breadth, depth and clarity answers very well. 'Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers' tackles that and analogous questions in the best possible way: synthetically. Instead of setting out to ask a single question by marching a variety of 'experts' in front of the tape-recorder, then selecting (from) their views to fit a perhaps shaky hypothesis, Sherman lets the questions themselves evolve, slowly, variously and almost incidentally over 400 pages. Although his updated introduction provides the broadest of roadmaps, it's his interviewees (interlocutors, perhaps: Sherman is, of course, an expert) who define the questions which then get answered – like many good questions – as much by being asked as actually by being answered. If there really must be a single answer, it would be that that the breadth, variety and richness of expertise (performing and musicological) which have evolved in the last 40 years should and do provision and navigate on the exciting journey that the early music community is taking. And no book in print provides a better guide than this!

The debate also examines in just what authenticity consists: read Christie whose comments on the drawbacks of attempting assumed 17th Century and 18th Century French pronunciation and the liabilities which follow [page 262] – it's comprehensibility that counts. Read Christopher Page, whose views on the primacy of the English-trained a cappella tradition (the absence of any kind of overt expression in the music – it must come from the words) have proved controversial. But very persuasive. Of particular importance to mediaeval performance is the theme of 'otherness' (were those who first wrote, performed and listened to early music 'like us'?), which implicitly runs throughout the whole book. Again, the postscript to the Page interview is essential reading here. As at many junctures in 'Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers' Sherman necessarily calls on disciplines and thinking outside the strictly musical so as to examine, weigh and reach conclusions on musical matters. These include, in this case, mainstream history, anthropology and philosophy – particularly Post Structuralism. But there isn't a single assertion unsupported by Sherman in meticulous and transparent footnotes and references. (Each chapter and section, by the way, has both discography and bibliography – annotated and current to the year of publication.) He's also particularly good at probing an interviewee further for examples and/or clarification when he knows that we, the readers, would benefit, though this is not a book of arid transcripts. Clearly there was much dialog and interaction. The views of one participant are frequently offered to another for comment, refutation or elucidation.

What emerges time and again is the sheer variety in performing and scholarly traditions. Popularly framed as 'controversies', these divergences of philosophy and practice are healthy, and vary greatly within single trends and schools – as the comparisons between Paul Hillier and Peter Phillips at the start of Sherman's particularly illuminating interview with the former illustrate. What also emerges is how strong the influence of Italian singing styles in almost all Baroque composers' music, including some of the adventurous melodic explorations of Bach.

Another common thread is given an intriguing twist by Andrew Lawrence-King in the chapter, 'Emotional Logic: improvisation'. It's hard to argue with the conclusions which he reaches (in the context of challenging the notion that more early music was vocal than instrumental) about the paradox that the predominance of improvised (instrumental) music before 1600 makes it difficult for performers of our time to achieve 'authenticity' because they're explicitly abandoning whatever was written down! Further, Larwence-King sets the development of instrumental music which undoubtedly did take place after 1600 in the context of a divide: music after Haydn (in particular) used structure as an expressive tool. Bear this – and the fact that much music even until Bach's time was not written specifically for a certain instrument – in mind and one's experience of much early music is necessarily different from that of Schubert, Chopin or Shostakovich. Implicitly the whole of 'Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers' examines what this means for performers and audience. Leonhardt, of course, who did so much to change the way Baroque keyboard music is understood and played, has it that Baroque music is actually more expressive than romantic because of its infinite concentration on and awareness of its details, as opposed to the broad sweep. Different ways of listening again.

This is to all intents and purposes a book 'by' performers, rather than a book 'about' music. So not only is the debate particularly well-framed. But hypotheses also emerge slowly and surely as the book progresses. Hypotheses on certain 'rightnesses', inevitabilities based on common ground between participants. What's more there's also a variety of solid conjectures – chiefly about what works in performance; and what works because it's musically feasible. For example – and core to the issues of the entire book – it's clearly impossible to know exactly how plainchant sounded in the monasteries and cathedrals of eleventh century Europe. But it is possible to know about and reject the (often glossy or romantic) accretions which were considered (until the work of 'Historically Informed Performance' pioneers almost half a century ago) necessary to 'enhance' remote repertoire for the twentieth century. It's towards exploring that differential (and every age has a differential) that our energies should now be going. John Butt on Bach also offers a nostrum to which many of the other contributors would surely subscribe… "I think questions of historical performance should be placed in the realm of the original creation of the music, rather than merely the original reception of the music" [page 175]. In short, if there is a unified 'message' expressed by all the musicians interviewed in this book in one way or another, it would be that recreation of authentic performances and performance styles is less of a goal than is reinterpretation with the appropriate lessons and practices we have learnt since, say, the death of Handel (the only composer from the 'Early Music' period whose works have never left the general repertoire).

What's more, a single 'authentic' performance sitting at the end of one rainbow waiting – static – to be picked up and coddled is as much a myth as are pots of gold there. The very variety of contributors' viewpoints in 'Inside Early Music' makes that plain: performances of music were much more changeable, mercurial, iterative and individual – elusive even – before the advent of concerts and recording. So an attempt to capture one style can only ever be that – not 'the' style. The 'definitive' can't exist. Hence it follows that one 21st century performer's interpretation may be as valid as that of another. And is best celebrated as such. That the controversies around varieties of vocal styles have proved fiercer than those associated with instrumental styles is in little doubt either. And reasons for this are explored in telling and compelling detail in the third (the Baroque) of the book's four sections.

There are many useful insights into how performers of early music achieve their results… Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano, for example, prepare for each madrigal in their award-winning Monteverdi series by treating it as an opera and – as good followers of the seconda prattica – explore the theatrical rhythms of the text of each piece first, and only later add the music. Or Bylsma: 'Ornaments must come from the heart, not from the fingers' [page 214]. Then Herreweghe: rhetoric is the most valid and pertinent key to performing Bach.

So this is a book to read and re-read, to explore in linear fashion and/or via its excellent index and cross-references. The wealth of musicality implied in scholarly (and occasionally quite colloquial) verbal exposition is inspiring. It has implications for all serious music. But such is the self-confidence and experience of the contributors to this excellent book, that they won't say so. You, the reader, though, will come away with deeper understanding of and renewed enthusiasm and admiration for the movement – and maybe see early music in new and profounder ways.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.