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Books Review

The Early Music Movement from Within and Without

by Uri Golomb






Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance

Peter Kivy

Cornell University Press


HB & PB / 296pp


Text and Act

Essays on Music and Performance

Richard Taruskin

Oxford University Press


PB / 382pp


Inside Early Music

Conversations with Performers Conversations with Performers

Bernard D. Sherman

Oxford University Press


PB / 432pp

During the last two decades, “Authentic Performance” (or the “Early Music Movement”) has become the mainstream in the performance of pre-Classical music, and it now successfully competes with “traditional” performance even in Classical and Romantic music. Its success has heightened the debates on the nature and desirability of historically informed performance. The three books reviewed here are among the most fascinating products of this ongoing debate.

Richard Taruskin is among the most prominent musicologists in the United States. In the past, he was known as an editor and performer of Renaissance music. Today, he is renowned as a scholar of Russian music (his publications include monographs on Mussorgsky and Stravinsky), and as an incisive critic of the Early Music Movement. Most of his writings on this latter subject – ranging from theoretical articles to record reviews – are collected (with a new and extensive introduction) in his book Text and Act. The reviews present Taruskin’s familiarity of the Early Music scene in all its variety of performance styles; but in his theoretical articles, he still presents the movement as if it were fashioned of whole cloth.

According to Taruskin, authentic performance is actually based on a modernist aesthetic. He argues that the demand for literalist performance, which obeys the dictates of the musical text and of historical performance practice, is typical of the 20th century – but not of any preceding era. The same argument applies to performance style: the “ambience of emotional detachment” in authentistic renditions of Baroque music is very much attuned to the abstract and geometrical trends in modern art – but not to the Baroque aesthetics, with its emphasis on rhetoric and expression.

Taruskin argues that the Early Music Movement is indeed authentic – since genuine authenticity is in reflecting the spirit of your own time – and that, at its best, it produces spectacular and unique musical results (e.g., Roger Norrington’s “inspired literalism” in the Beethoven symphonies; “the beauty [and] the communicative power of the new rhetorical approach” in Malcolm Bilson’s and John Eliot Gardiner’s cycle of the Mozart piano concerti; Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s uncompromisingly expressive renditions of the Bach cantatas). Nonetheless, he attacks the movement for its presumption to, and demand for, historical reliability.

Unlike some recent, post-modern thinkers, Taruskin does not reject the notion of “factual truth” as empty or meaningless. But he emphasises that, in practice, there are always gaps in the historical evidence, and that there is a fundamental difference between musicologists and performers in handling those gaps. Musicologists are rightly obliged to back up their theories with historical evidence; they have a right to present their own speculations, but they should clearly distinguish those speculations from hard facts. Performers, on the other hand, cannot leave gaps in their performance and wait for historical answers which may or may not be forthcoming. They must make a decision on how to perform the music in front of them. [1]

A similar critique can be found in the treatise by Peter Kivy, a philosopher specialising in the issue of emotional expression in music. Kivy believes that absolute music can express emotions – but cannot convey “honest” or “false” messages. And if music has no message, the performer obviously cannot distort that message. Therefore, Kivy – like Taruskin – rejects strict literalism. Both believe that the performers’ primary commitment is to their present-day listeners, and that performers have the right – if not the obligation – to present the interpretation that convinces them, without waiting for a go-ahead from the composer. Kivy calls this approach personal authenticity, and argues that its full realisation is inconsistent with the realisation of historical authenticity.

Kivy also emphasises the gap between present-day listeners on the one hand and the composer and his or her era on the other. He argues that even an accurate reproduction of the sounds which entered the ears of the composer’s contemporaries will not necessarily result in a reconstruction of their experience. For example, Beethoven’s symphonies – which his contemporaries perceived as innovative, difficult works – are now familiar, much-beloved classics. And even in the purely acoustical realm, our experience differs from that of the original listeners. Kivy points out that, once people were used to certain instruments, they would automatically screen the sounds produced by their mechanism (the clacking of woodwinds claps, the noise produced by the harpsichord’s mechanism, unavoidable faulty intonation in brass, and so forth). Modern listeners, for whom these instruments are new and unusual, find it more difficult to ignore these extraneous noises – but, in our turn, we screen out other noises, that were not familiar to earlier audiences.

Besides, our familiarity with more recent music is bound to affect our perception on several levels. We hear “Schubertian” harmonies in Bach – something none of Bach’s contemporaries could not possibly hear. And the original performing forces of the St Matthew Passion – which were considered quite opulent in Bach’s own time – seem to us like chamber ensembles when compared to the forces used in works like Berlioz’s Requiem.

Last but not least, when we hear music of the past, we experience it as music of the past: awareness of the historical context of these works is a vital part of our experience, and when we listen to an authentic performance, both we and the performers perceive it as a reconstruction. The composer and his contemporaries, on the other hand, were experiencing a new work, performed in the obvious, natural performance medium of the time.

Kivy argues that we cannot fully bridge these gaps, nor should we want to. In many respects, our enjoyment of Bach’s and Beethoven’s music is more complete than that of their contemporaries; why should we give that up? In his view, such enjoyment might even be a fuller, more genuine realisation of the composer’s intention. [2]

Kivy’s arguments are elegant, cogent and fascinating, and he raises important questions. But his book suffers from a fundamental flaw: he assumes that a critique of the (philosophical) concept of authentic performance is identical to a critique of the Early Music Movement, and he completely ignores the extensive literature (books, liner-notes, articles, interviews) which documents the views of historical performers. Taruskin devotes much of his book to discussing this literature, and is very adept in revealing the philosophical premises implicit in ostensibly practical arguments presented within it. Kivy does not even try to do this – in fact, a glance at his index and bibliography reveals that he does not mention a single historical performer by name, mless quote any of their views. This casts doubts, in my view, on the relevance and reliability of his book.

This impression is further strengthened by reading Bernard Sherman’s Inside Early Music. Sherman is the author of many articles on the Movement and its members, including the entry on “Authenticity in Musical Performance” in The Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1998; His book consists of interviews with 23 performers, representing the many generations, national and philosophical schools that make up the Early Music Movement. In his introduction, summary, comments and footnotes, Sherman indicates the place of his interviewees within the Movement as a whole, and beyond that in general cultural contexts. For example, Christopher Page, the director of Gothic Voices, speaks in an interview of the existence of “trans-historical humanness”, which allows us to connect with the experiential world of medieval music. Other interviewees, however, have emphasised the difference between intellectual understanding of Medieval music and the ability to relate to it on the experiential level. Sherman therefore devotes an appendix to debates on the existence and character of human nature (drawing on research in anthropology and psychology), and its implications for listeners and performers of early music.

The insiders’ view of the Early Music Movement, offered by Sherman, gives rise to interesting frictions between his view and those of “external” critics like Taruskin and Kivy. Thus, Sherman points out that many of his interviewees are keenly interested in the aesthetic of the composers whose works they perform – whereas external critics often assume that authenticists are primarily interested in the technical aspects (texts, instruments, playing techniques, and so forth). These critics also contend that an uncompromising insistence on historical authenticity (at least in theory) is a fundamental characteristic of the Movement. Sherman, on the other hand, reveals that the arguments against authenticity as an ideal (similar to those raised by Taruskin and Kivy) also exist within the Movement. Alongside performers who uphold unwavering loyalty to historical performance techniques (e.g., Gustav Leonhardt, Andrew Parrott), he indicates others (e.g., Peter Philips, Philippe Herreweghe) who are willing to reject such techniques when they find the results unconvincing. Some of them even employ historical arguments to support their rejection of literalism. The pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, for instance, argues that composers like Mozart (whose notes are often treated as sacrosanct) wanted performers to add something of their own personality to their music – and this included the addition of improvisations. [3] Faithfulness to the written scores results, in such cases, in unfaithfulness to the composer’s wishes. [4]

All three books are accessible to music lovers. Kivy presents his arguments in a structured manner, as befits a professional philosopher; but he writes in fluent language, free from jargon. Taruskin employs a rich, literary language coupled with a sharp-edged, provocative style, which conveys his message with clarity and bite. Clarity also characterises most of the interviews in Sherman’s book, and the few technical terms mentioned therein are clarified in Sherman’s extensive footnotes. These also contain detailed bibliographical references, and each interview is followed by a recommendation for further reading and listening. These add up to an excellent discography, pointing the readers to recordings that represent the Early Music Movement at its best.

In my view, all three books are essential for those readers interested in the issue of authenticity in performance. Sherman’s book might well represent a more reliable image of the Movement, but it is illuminating to examine the views presented within it against the incisive, original insights of Taruskin and Kivy. It is possible, however, that these two critics mark the end of a phase in an unnecessarily acrimonious battle. Sherman argues, and demonstrates, that the lines between “authenticism” and “traditional” performance are blurring, and that many on both sides welcome this development. The debate on historical performance is far from over, but in the future it might well take on the character of an open dialogue, rather than a turf war.

Writeen and contributed by Uri Golomb (November 2003)


[1] In one of his articles, Taruskin actually portrays himself as a post-modernist. John Butt, in a review of Text and Act, finds it difficult to accept Taruskin as a genuine post-modernist (if that is not a contradiction in terms). Butt argues that such a portrayal contradicts Taruskin’s insistence on the musicologists’ accountability. Taruskin also attacks the current tendency (reflected, in his view, among historical performers) to negate aesthetic value judgements in music – be they between composers (e.g., Bach and Mozart as opposed to the Kleinmeister of their time) or within a single composer’s oeuvre (e.g., masterpieces like Mozart’s last four symphonies as opposed to less significant works like his early symphonies). A genuine post-modernist would have welcomed this trend; but Taruskin insists on preserving critical value judgements.

[2] Kivy knows full well that many of Beethoven’s contemporaries enjoyed his music, and refers extensively to Robin Wallace’s study Beethoven’s Critics, which proves that many critics in Beethoven’s lifetime recognised the composer’s genius. But even Wallace’s evidence suggests that such critics’ enjoyment was not as natural and wholehearted as that of today’s listeners. In this context, Kivy posits two theses – the Romantic and the Historicist. The Romantic Thesis argues that the works of great artists are better understood by posterity than at the time of their creation. The Historicist Thesis, on the other hand, argues that the artist’s own contemporaries – his or her intended audience – are more likely to appreciate and comprehend and value the artist’s message. On this view, latter-day audiences must adopt (or at least understand) the original audience’s point of view in order to truly comprehend historical artworks. Kivy himself fully endorses the Romantic Thesis. He admits that a better understanding of the original perception can enrich our experience of historical music – but as a complement to modern perceptions, not as a substitute.

[3] Taruskin praises Levin’s ideology and practice alike, but regards him as the exception that proves the rule. Sherman, on the other hand, portrays him as a leading figure in a new trend, which is likely to intensify in the coming years.

[4] It should be borne in mind that Levin does not support an “anything goes” approach to improvisation. In order to improvise on Mozart’s music, he argues, one must know the style of his era; without studying harmony, composition, and so forth one cannot produce a musical improvisation.

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