Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the limitations of all-purpose definitions of ‘beautiful’ music

The death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016) is a great loss for music. I am posting here a modified version of a comment originally placed on the Slipped Disc blog in response to a wonderful tribute to Harnoncourt.

 

No figure was more pivotal within post-1945 historically-informed performance than Harnoncourt (except possibly Gustav Leonhardt). Some of what he pioneered was already nascent (August Wenzinger had produced the first recording of the Brandenburgs on period instruments in the late-1940s/early-1950s), but it was Harnoncourt who spearheaded a performance revolution which could stand its own ground against what was more mainstream practice. Our understanding of Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Mozart – and then Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss II (in which he was incomparable) and others – have been massively enhanced by his work.


But I like to think of Harnoncourt as a political figure too. He strove as far as possible to find alternatives to the autocratic model of charismatic authority on the part of the conductor, which had been epitomised by Furtwängler, Karajan, or for that matter Toscanini – and which would be continued by many, including some themselves involved in HIP. There is an integration of and interplay between musicians in the work he conducted, and he demonstrated palpable alternatives to dictatorial Wagnerian models of the interpretative process. Harnoncourt’s performances, as much as his writings, exemplify his resistance to a form of orchestral playing which is always smooth, in which the Melos takes precedence over all else, with everything gauged so as to produce singular, overwhelming emotion. Instead he performed for intelligent and musically literate listeners, sensitive to so many possibilities of nuanced meaning, aware that music’s meaning does not stop when the audience begin to applaud. The music is by no means necessarily an organic whole ready to be ‘consumed’, nor a shiny, polished commodity; Harnoncourt’s work can be rugged, disconcerting, illuminating, though also beautiful where appropriate. It is not served up in a ‘culinary’ fashion (to use Adorno’s term), but that in no sense means it should be inaccessible to those with an open mind, looking for a music with which to actively engage.


In some ways Harnoncourt’s attitudes have been viewed as ‘aristocratic’, a throwback to a pre-bourgeois era, in particular before the French Revolution and the streamlining of professional musical training, separating out technique and a narrow conception of expression from a wider musical and other education, for which Harnoncourt blamed above all the foundation of the Paris Conservatoire. And Harnoncourt’s aristocratic ancestry is sometimes cited in support of this view. But I see things differently. This was music-making to stimulate thought, open up the mind, a type of musical sortie within a culture industry which works to generate the opposite reaction. Harnoncourt was, as a musician, a democrat rather than an aristocrat, for he treated listeners with dignity and respect, rather than trying to play down to them.


In a paper given in 2008, I began to explore the possibility of reconciling some of the ideas of Harnoncourt and Adorno, which might have been thought to be radically opposed, in light of Adorno’s explicit disdain for the historically-informed performance he encountered up until the early 1950s. I believe Harnoncourt was reacting as strongly against this particular school of performance as Adorno.

The following text from Harnoncourt I find remarkable, and should be read by all:

We find importance in other things than did the people of earlier times. How much strength and suffering and love they squandered in constructing their temples and cathedrals, how little they expended for the machinery of comfort and convenience! For people today, an automobile or an airplane is more valuable than a violin, the circuitry of the computer’s brain more important than a symphony. We pay all too dearly for what we regard as comfortable and essential,while we heedlessly discard the intensity of life in favor of the tinsel of creature comforts and what we have once truly lost, we will never be able to regain.

This fundamental change in the significance of music has taken place with increasing rapidity over the past two centuries. At the same time, a change has occurred in our attitude toward contemporary music as well as art in general: as long as music was an essential part of life, it could emanate only from the contemporary world. It was the living language for something which could not be said in words; it could be understood only by contemporary human beings. Music brought about changes in people, in listeners as well as in musicians. It had to be continually recreated, just as human beings had to keep on building new homes, in keeping with new patterns of living, new intellectual climates. Thus old music, the music of previous generations, could no longer be understood and used, although its great artistry was occasionally admired.

Since music is no longer found at the center of our lives, all this has changed: now that it is regarded as an ornament, it is felt that music should first and foremost be “beautiful.” Under no circumstances should it be allowed to disturb or startle us. The music of the present cannot fulfill this requirement because at the very least, like all art, it reflects the spiritual and intellectual situation of its time, and this is true of our present time as well. Yet honestly coming to terms with our spiritual and intellectual situation cannot be merely beautiful: it has an impact on our very lives and is therefore disturbing to us. This has resulted in the paradoxical situation that people have turned away from contemporary art because it is disturbing, perhaps necessarily so. Rather than confrontation, we sought only beauty, to help us to overcome the banality of everyday life. Thus art in general, and music in particular, became simply ornamental and people turned to historical art and to old music, for here they could find the beauty and harmony that they sought.

As I see it, this interest in old music – by which I mean music not written by our generation – could only occur as the result of a series of glaring misunderstandings. Thus we are able to use only “beautiful” music, which the present is unable to offer us. There has never been a kind of music that was merely “beautiful.” While “beauty” is a component of every type of music, we can make it into a determining factor only by disregarding all of music’s other components. Only since we have ceased to understand music as a whole, and perhaps no longer want to be able to understand it, has it been possible for us to reduce music to its beautiful aspect alone, to iron out all of its wrinkles. And because music has in general terms become simply a pleasant garnish for our everyday lives, we can no longer fully comprehend old music – that is, what we actually call music -, because we have not been able to reduce it to a purely aesthetic dimension and to iron it smooth.

[…]

There have been many periods throughout history during which attempts were made to simplify music and to confine it to the emotional sphere, so that it could be understood by anyone. Each of these attempts failed, resulting in new diversity and complexity. Music can be generally comprehensible only when it is reduced to a primitive level or when each individual person learns to understand the language of music.

 

From Nikolaus Harnoncourt, ‘Music in Our Lives’/’Die Musik in unserem Leben’ (1980), translated Mary O’Neill, in Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech. Towards a New Understanding of Music (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1988), pp. 11-13.

And I would like to commend the following performances conducted or directed by Harnoncourt.

 

 

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2 Comments on “Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the limitations of all-purpose definitions of ‘beautiful’ music”

  1. […] Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the limitations of all-purpose definitions of ‘beautiful’ music (7/3/16) […]

  2. I have an admiration for Harnoncourt: his was an original mind that followed his musical conscience. To hear him speak or read his books was always stimulating. But when I listen to his conducted performances I am always tripped up by the lack of connection between the parts. An extreme example: Mozart Jupiter Symphony: opening two bars in tempo and then two bars considerably slower, then back into tempo. It seems like he can never keep the ball in the air for very long and, for me, the whole was never greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, it was less. If one seeks an antithesis to Furtwängler and Karajan, it would surely be Klemperer and Toscanini in their different ways.


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