Spinning Research

Oxford University put out a page in May of this year, relating to a grandiose project entitled ‘Transforming 19th-Century Historically-Informed Performance’, which has been awarded a major grant (£1 million) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Whether the writing and quotations from investigators in this article does justice to the nature or scope of the project I cannot be sure, but the article certainly does reveal how empty and self-undermining can be various research projects which are publicly defined by their spin rather than apparent content.

I believe it is worth unpacking the description, which I will attempt to do here:

The research will help today’s professional performers and music college students understand more about 19th-century style, and will offer them new approaches to the preparation of music for performance, as well as expanding their expressive possibilities.

That much seems fine and worthy – researching an area of performance style in such a way as might be useful for professional and student performers. This in itself is far from new, though; there is a large body of work on this subject in several language by a wide range of scholars (examples would include Clive Brown, Will Crutchfield, Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Martha Elliott, Dana Gooley, Philip Gossett, Kenneth Hamilton, Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, Johann Hüttner, George Kennaway, Daniel J. Koury, Colin Lawson, David Milsom, David Montgomery, Michael Musgrave, Robert Philip, Clemens Risi, Sarah Potter, Robin Stowell and to a lesser degree myself), not to mention a wider range of literature on performance conditions, programming, acoustics, audience habits, and much more.

So what is different about this project? We read:

The project’s Principal Investigator, Claire Holden, said: ‘Contemporary performances of C19th repertoire by specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles reflect little of what is known about historical style. Many aspects of C19th style are fundamentally at odds with the habits and expectations of modern day performers and audiences, conservatoire training and methods of performance preparation.

None of the above scholars, nor anyone else who has studied the subject, would I believe seriously dispute the second sentence above (but some might question the degree). But the first sentence suggests a wider attack on contemporary ‘specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles’ – which of these does Claire Holden mean? The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps (of which – see below – she has been a member for 16 years. Is this a principled but scathing critique of the very institution which has provided her with a salary for an extended period)? Or the Belgian orchestra Anima Eterna, directed by Jos van Immerseel? Or the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, as directed by John Eliot Gardiner? Or period instrument string quartets such as Quatuor Mosaïques or the Eroica Quartet? Or the mixed ensemble Hausmusik? All of these have presented a wide range of performances of nineteenth-century music using period instruments, all quite differently, but mostly in ways which constitute distinct breaks with other extant performing traditions for this music (in terms of tempo, timbre, approaches to vibrato, portamento, articulation, instrumental technique, and various else, as well as fundamental conception as manifested in the work), at least at the times of their pioneering work. However, in some cases other supposedly ‘mainstream’ performers and groups have changed their own styles, in a productive spirit of cross-fertilisation.

But in the absence of any names (and those above are amongst the most prominent), nor any specifics about which aspects of ‘historical style’ (on which these groups will by no means necessarily agree) reflect ‘little of what is known’, this appears to me like a convenient straw target, in order to be able to assert ‘everyone else before us was wrong, only we can be right’? Why should anyone believe that at this early stage in a project, Holden and her co-investigators are already so considerably more enlightened than all of the many others who have researched C19th performance style and/or attempted to respond to historical information about this style in their work?

Furthermore – and this makes me question the status of this project as ‘research’ – is Holden not pre-empting the results of the research, asserting a priori that ‘Many aspects of C19th style are fundamentally at odds with the habits and expectations of modern day performers and audiences’? Surely this is a hypothesis to be proved or disproved (or, likely, somewhere in between) by research – otherwise why bother doing the research at all?

The article goes on to say:

As a result, “period” ensembles are finding it more and more difficult to maintain a distinct identity in a marketplace where they are increasingly in direct competition with ‘modern’ orchestras – often playing the same repertoire with the same conductors and soloists in a similar style.

It is not difficult to observe how some ‘modern’ orchestras have adapted and moved away from some stylistic norm which had greater traction several decades ago, and adopted aspects of style which were bequeathed by period groups like some of those mentioned above. Many conductors associated with ‘period performance’ – including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington and others – have worked with long-established orchestras, whilst others – for example Charles Mackerras or Simon Rattle – have been eager to take on board some of the achievements of period performers, even when working with modern instruments. All of this has been observed and documented over several decades by most scholarly commentators on the subject, with some (such as Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell in their The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 153-154) noting the blurring of the clear line between ‘period’ and ‘mainstream’ performance that Laurence Dreyfus observed in his 1983 article ‘Early Music Defended Against its Devotees’, Musical Quarterly 49 (1983), pp. 297-322. This is hardly news, what matters is how this might form the basis for some new research questions.

The aim of this project is to engage performers and audiences in a re-invigoration of the ways in which C19th music is performed, by focusing on how this music is prepared for performance. We will use historical knowledge not for prescriptive ends but to open up a wide variety of radical performance and pre-performance practices.

I do not know of many scholars of C19th HIP who would claim that they are using historical knowledge for prescriptive ends, though the earlier text in this article suggests a negative view of what all others have done with such knowledge (or even a suggestion that they are unaware of it, which is ludicrous), which appears quite prescriptive to me.

But how do these scholars know in advance that the results will be ‘radical’? What if the data suggested that some of the historical practices were moderately conservative? Once again, if the conclusions are known in advance, why bother do the research?

In essence, the text above seems to be saying that this is a study of C19th rehearsal and practice techniques. This is a very worthy and important area of study, but would not have sounded so flashy when spun to research funding bodies like the AHRC.

Transforming C19th HIP will address these questions through scholarly research, empirical investigation, and practical enquiry and experimentation, combining historical performance and performance studies scholarship in a significant long-term research project.

Once again, this says little which could not have been said about the majority of previous scholarship on the subject.

The project has two partner organisations: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; and the Royal Academy of Music.

Professor Eric Clarke, Oxford University’s Heather Professor of Music and the project’s Co-Investigator, said: ‘The project is going to employ a very exciting combination of historical, practical and empirical methods, and will be thoroughly engaged with a world-leading HIP orchestra and its audience, and with the students and staff of a world-leading conservatoire.

Run that by me again? I had thought this project set itself up in opposition to ‘Contemporary performances of C19th repertoire by specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles’ which ‘reflect little of what is known about historical style.’? But there is a ‘world-leading HIP orchestra’ involved – specifically the OAE? Are they an exception to this rule (which would suggest some problem with the rule, as they are one of the most prominent such ensembles), or might they be hauled over the coals as a result of the research? Holden, the Principal Investigator, has been a member of the OAE since 2000, as revealed by her biography – will she subject her own employer to the same level of critical scrutiny as she alleges is required for other (unnamed) ensembles? And we are meant to be impressed by the mention of ‘students and staff of a world-leading conservatoire’ (the RAM), when ‘conservatoire training’ was earlier cited as as leading reason for the problem?

We read in this text a rather shallow attempt to spin a project as being in striking opposition to the practices of established groups, but then it also needs the prestige of a major orchestra and conservatoire to lend it legitimacy. The irony of this is glaring.

As I said earlier, this description may not do justice to the project, and may simply be a misguided promotional piece about a project which is considerably better framed. In this form, I cannot understand why this would have received ‘a large Research Grant’, and wonder if the obtaining of such grants has become mostly a matter of spin and having the right people associated with a project?

The description of a research project as ‘radical’ has become so routine as to be manneristic. It appears as if above all everyone looking for grants must present their work as boundary-breaking, iconoclastic, and in drastic opposition to what has come before. Actually there is plenty of important research which has been done and will continue to be done which attempts a nuanced and balanced approach to the data available, and achieves real original contributions to knowledge without always having to pretend that no-one else before had ever contributed anything of significance. The attention-seeking, pseudo-radical rhetoric in this article borders on the infantile.

Addendum: Looking at another associated project with the same PI, I read the following:

Consequently, true 19th-century practices have never been fully explored or realised,and familiar, secure, yet inaccurate ‘modern’ techniques such as off-string bowings have been the default directive. Whilst recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies (e.g. by Gardiner, Hogwood and Norrington) are well respected and certainly offer interpretative insights, their acceptance as definitive examples of historical performance in this repertoire is misguided and dangerous. The string playing does not follow either technically or stylistically the conventions that were natural to performers of that time.

Here we are back to the sort of stentorian rhetoric about accuracy and authenticity that has been said to be a feature of the bad old days. To describe performances, or the reception thereof, as ‘misguided and dangerous’, not to mention further claims about ‘there have been no recorded or concert performances which have given any meaningful realisation of early 19th-century string playing’, or how ’19th-century performance practices continue to be grossly misrepresented’, all sounds very ‘prescriptive’ to me. Again, this seems a spin on ‘all the others have got it wrong, only my group can get it right’. With various issues which should be the subject of critical research questions (e.g. the prevalence of off-string bowings) presented as established truth.

A lot of critical methodological reflection on historical performance has concluded that various aspects of performance from eras before the advent of recording are difficult to discern with any certainty, and the results will inevitably be rather provisional and inexact. Yet when some performers wish to claim that existing species of historical performance have got it wrong, they speak in the language of absolute truth. Some humility here would not go amiss.

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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.