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Book Review

The End of Early Music

The End of Early Music
Bruce Haynes
Oxford University Press, 2007
ISBN: 0195189876
ISBN-13: 978-0195189872
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According to Quantz, writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, the two most essential elements of music were… "de toucher & de plaire". To touch and to please the listener. Music – Baroque music, at least – aimed to evoke passions, sentiments, feelings in its listeners (which included its performers!) by employing known and identifiable rhetorical techniques in its figures and gestures. This is in distinction from the long-lined beauty, which was the aim of "Romantic" music from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, when almost every aspect of music (instrument-making, performance practice and styles, the cult of the lone composer-genius inspired by his (mostly) autobiography-led personal world) changed – into a style of music-making that dominates the performance styles which we know now. This has led to a detachment from the music; it has become excessively venerated, is approached as canonic and surrounded by "rituals" (coat tails, scheduled applause, the protocols of formal concerts etc).

Such an analysis is at the heart of Bruce Haynes thesis in his important new title, "The End of Early Music". He proposes that we should think in terms, not of "Early music" and the rest; but of "Rhetorical" music (pre-1800) and "Romantic" music (post-1800). Their purposes, techniques and substances are essentially different. Their proper performance styles even more so! In order to understand "rhetorical" music, we need to appreciate how the "view from this side" of later music has distorted our understanding of music written before 1800. "The End of Early Music" is another in a number of extremely welcome titles recently published which explore the "Historically Informed Performance" (HIP) or "early" music movement some half century or so after its first important strides in performance practice were made, and indeed as a different and specialist musicology emerged, in the late 1960s. We have already favorably reviewed Sherman's Inside Early Music (ISBN: 019516945X) as well as The Modern Invention of Medieval Music, by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (ISBN: 0521037042).

Musicians – particularly cultish and self-indulgent conductors – have done a lasting disservice to music written before their time by making an implicit assumption that we can and should map present styles ("romantic", "canonic") onto "early" (or "rhetorical") music. In tracing the development of HIP from the 1960s to the present, Haynes identifies three broad approaches to preparing, playing and appreciating music written before around 1800 that have prevailed since that era:

  1. Romantic style: portamento, lack of precision; slower tempi than acceptable today; lack of distinction between important/unimportant beats; exaggerated solemnity; agogic accents; rubato etc.
  2. Modern Style: an "obsession" with melody and beauty; long line phrasing; unyielding tempi, vibrato and legato; grand Wagnerian and Verdian mimesis or verismo etc.
  3. Authentic style

Haynes rehearses the history from the 1960s of the HIP "revolution" in two dozen or so well-researched (he was also "there": an oboe specialist, Haynes' partner is gambist Susie Napper) and persuasively illustrated pages. This makes an excellent introduction for anyone new to the subject. But it sets the scene in a more significant way. Haynes reserves his greatest scorn for the Modern movement. This is probably because of its extreme and demonstrable concerns antithetical to those of the Baroque. Many Baroque musicians also happened to be composers; did not necessarily expect their music to last; regarded music 20 years old as "ancient", for example. These are all qualities very different from those of the twentieth century symphonic tradition, which dominated music making for two or three generations. For Haynes the Moderns almost scuppered the revolution which was started by the likes of Dolmetsch and Landowska by trying to purify the life out of early music. Such performers claimed that its performers should suppress all expressiveness and elevate the score exactly as written to a fetish&hellp; "I consider the Modernist spirit to have been a disastrous blight on the music of the latter part of the twentieth century" [p. 22]. Here Haynes is surely on his strongest ground for such a plea to view the unknowns of space from outside the Earth's atmosphere also implies a humility and flexibility that ought – in turn – to welcome other new and open-minded ways of routinely looking at art.

Such other ways will definitely come. The orthodoxies of the first decade of this twenty-first century for performing early music will be superseded and improved on. We need to be ready for what overtakes us by adopting as flexible and unhistoricist an understanding as we can of what we mean by "authentic" and its implications. Wisely, Haynes implies that this means being skeptical about and wary of assuming that what we do now is necessarily the best, just because we've arrived at it now. It's tempting to think (and hope, perhaps) that one such hurdle over which a generation of HIP-music may have to pass before returning to a balance is that of excessive improvisation. Few would disagree with Haynes that the performers of today must follow Baroque practice and think of the performance as the last stage of composition. This means that what happens during improvisation in a performance is of comparable importance with the composition itself. For twenty-first century musicians to impose their improvisations on Baroque music may run just as many risks as those which Haynes rightly deplores when every last dot and slur is fetishized – the Werktreue syndrome.

It's more productive to understand that – for all it may go against a prevailing positivism – art music can still flourish even when we know that most music in the past was transmitted orally; and when we accept that Baroque composers were closer to poorly-paid artisans than intellectual demigods. If we must emulate, let's do it with those – and many analogous properties of "rhetorical" music as alluded to throughout these 250 pages and carefully outlined in Chapter 8, for example – fully in mind. And, specifically, let's understand exactly how and why the building blocks of that rhetoric informed Baroque composition. One of Haynes' most informative sections is indeed on just how Baroque music works in those rhetorical terms.

Yes, by "early", or "rhetorical", music, Haynes is referring chiefly to Baroque music, from 1600 onwards. Much of what he writes about phrasing, instrumentation, performance and composing styles and methods hardly applies to, say, French chansons or Renaissance choral polyphony. That does not invalidate his arguments; he's a Baroque specialist. Perhaps he would have done better to specify the period as precisely in the book's title and some of his generalizations as he does quite explicitly, for example, in Chapter 12. This contains one of the most persuasive and elegant cases he makes – for, basically, greater flexibility in approaching music of that period. Particularly since the comparisons between "Rhetorical" and "Romantic" ("early" and post-1800) music are continual and form such an important keystone of his argument. At times one almost gets the impression, too, that he dislikes, or looks down on music from the "Classical" period onwards: is the conductor really a "parasite" [p. 97]? In fact, it's the imposition of Romantic interpretative and performing styles and values on music from before 1800 that he objects to. Of course. But it's a subtle point: no performance in the twenty-first century can hope to recreate how a Bach cantata, say, would first have sounded. But let's remove the accretions; let's see the same absurdity (born, Haynes has it, of the spurious notion of "absolute music", which was endorsed even by the New Grove as recently as 2001. The concept of "absolute music" is of notes divorced from any instrument… Bach performed on the piano. It's as absurd as playing the Berg violin concerto on a Baroque violin. Flexibility will be far more profitable than a fetish for trying to reproduce the exact sound or 300 years ago at the expense of its musicality.

What Haynes demonstrates best of all is how current perceptions, and – worse – conceptions, of Baroque music risk stifling the latter's vitality and development. It's hardly surprising that we see the past through the eyes of the present. But, as Haynes so well shows, we are blessed with massive, accessible and reliable resources (those wonderful writers such as Mattheson, North, Avison and Burney especially in the eighteenth century) which can allow us insight into that music with enviable acuity: his book is filled with quotes from such sources, and is the richer for it! To ignore or "know better" than they did, then, is anachronistic, counterproductive and dishonest.

Haynes has an excellent metaphor for what can and can't be achieved by the "revival" of HIP music: in 1947 Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove that pre-Columbian south americans technically could have sailed from South America and settled in Polynesia in the south Pacific. The raft he used was a model built – to the best of everyone's knowledge and understanding at the time – robustly enough to withstand that journey. He did not feel it necessary to replicate exactly the glues, eating and dressing habits of those whom he actually did prove made the journey. Just that it was possible. So with "early" music in the 21st century. We do not need to deprive ourselves of technical advances in instrument making, score management or playing techniques in order to slavishly recreate Baroque sounds. It's inevitable that what we produce will be our interpretation. But we must bring unclouded honesty to the enterprise. And the best HIP practitioners around today (and they are huge in number – Haynes is liberal with his examples – must, can and do!

There is a companion website which contains audio streams of the 72 short extracted musical examples referred to in the text. This makes excellent sense, works well and makes a big difference, of course, in illustrating the points Haynes makes. There are certain reservations to be expressed, though, about some aspects of the style of the text: although Haynes' is a well thought-out and presented thesis, there are rather too many turns of phrase and slightly jargon-heavy references to ephemera that, in time, will date the tone of the writing. Regular references to "rock bands" whose purposes are so different from those of Baroque ensembles mean little or nothing and are a distraction. It's to be hoped these don't undermine the reception of his ideas. Nor a couple of hyperbolic statements: "Recordings of… Stravinsky… are not common" [p. 74]; "Scarcely any period players who are now in their twenties and thirties have even heard of Landowska and Dolmetsch" [p. 215], for example.

But these are small cavils. Haynes has made a series of subtle and important points for all listeners, musicians, all artists and potentially all art in fact, very well. Most fundamental of all must be that it is better to travel than to arrive… "Our ultimate concern is trying to approach historical performing." [p. 226] even though "in striving for Authenticity, we are creating something of our own, modern through and through." [p. 227]. How refreshing to hear ambiguity in music advocated, humility, the unexpected, the flexible, experimental and the descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive)!

One might perhaps have wished for a more explicit exposition of the political implications for such enduring qualities in performance: the democratization of creativity and the acceptance of the advantages of knowing one is still – and always will be – learning. After all, as Haynes explains well, what the musicians working with the seconda prattica at the start of the seventeenth century thought they were doing they in fact hardly achieved (some sort of return to how they imagined music sounded in antiquity). But if the kinds of attitude proposed by Haynes become more pervasive, they should promote a greater understanding of all music before 1800 (music written over up to four times as many years as since) . Then this century too might achieve something equally significant and hopeful for the future of music-making. Encouragingly Haynes concluding chapter is called "Perpetual Revolution".

If you have anything but the most casual interest in music before 1800 and its most proper and effective performance, then this readable and well-argued book, which has a great balance of technical and non-technical illustrations (see his handling of the evolution of instruments [Chapter 9] and Baroque and Romantic expression and Phrasing [Chapters 10, 11], for instance) for the practicing musician and listener alike, should not be ignored. Thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.