Period performance practice

Most people, in most times, listen mostly to "modern" music, that is, music written in their own epoch. But there have always been those who want a little more. Unable to get the future's music right now, and unwilling to stay with just today's music, they dive into the large treasure of music that has been accumulated since the first ways to preserve music in writing had been invented. This is an immensely rewarding experience, because obviously there is much more good music to be found if we consider all music composed over the last several hundred years, than if we consider only modern music.

And indeed, in old music we can find a much better ratio of good to bad quality than in modern music. I'm not saying that all music written centuries ago was good, by no means!  The fact is that in all times most musicians have produced poor quality, and massively so, while a few have turned out some masterworks. But it's also a fact that of the music composed in past centuries, almost all the bad has been forgotten and lost, while the good, the raisins out of the cake, has been preserved! Time itself did its selection work!  And this collection of raisins, picked by time, is what nowadays is called "classical" music, generating much confusion, as it is not nearly limited to music written in the classical epoch of history proper.

The problem

Music is far from being a static thing. Instruments are developed, used, modified, replaced, sometimes forgotten. Performance practices appear and die out, together with the corresponding music styles. So, when it comes to performing a musical piece that was composed 300 years back, we are faced to important questions: Should we try to play it in the "best" possible way, using those instruments that produce the greatest sound, played by the best performers of our day? Or should we rather try to perform that music as closely as possible to the way it was performed in its time?  Cheat on the great old masters, and do it better than they could?  Or cheat on our contemporaries, and force them to listen to a museum-like sound?

The instruments

Human inventiveness is astonishing. I invite you to pay a visit to a good museum of musical instruments (there are many, all over Europe, and in many other places too). It will show you a small sample of what kind of things people have invented in the pursuit of the perfect sound. And for every instrument, music was composed! We would need them all, to perform music from all times!

It's a common problem for musicians who follow the traditionalistic route to find themselves lacking a certain instrument. When Bach calls for a dulcian, or one of so many old composers specifies a viola da gamba, then those are still easily filled requirements. But what can a musician do if a composer specifies an instrument that no one has even heard of in the last two hundred years?  Many instruments came out of fashion very quickly. Here the choice is either playing that music on modern instruments, not playing it at all, or... well, step forward, take the long route, learn about that instrument, build it from scratch, make it work, improve it, learn to play it, and then perform the music in a historically more authentic way!

Fortunately, many musicians nowadays specialize in some old-style instrument, and this has enriched the musical panorama by an enormous amount.

The voices

The human being hasn't changed very much over the last several thousand years. But one of the few changes is that humans now grow to a much larger size than before. And this has an effect on the voice register! Some voice ranges which were common a few hundred years back are now not so common, and others which are common today find little old music to sing.

Human voices can be divided broadly into men's, women's and children's voices. The three kinds are very different indeed! And within each group there are many more differences. But a large problem arises: A fourth group of voices used to exist for several hundred years, and is now basically extinct: The castrati voices. It's easy enough to decide that a part originally written for a boy choir 300 years ago, should be sung by a boy choir even today, but what can we do with parts composed for castrati? There are almost none nowadays! And the few there may be, are by no means able to satisfy the demand! Here we are forced, for good or for bad, to replace them by some second choice. In some cases, mostly church music, highly trained boy's voices can replace them in a more or less convincing manner. In other cases, like classical opera, women with strong voices can usually do the job quite well. But a lot of music remains, specially baroque opera, which has been rendered basically impossible to perform in original style, since it uses the special and inimitable characteristics of these now extinct voices as the main building block! Here we have no choice but to resort to women voices, in the clear understanding that what we are listening to is by no way the original music.
In some cases countertenors or falsettists sing castrati roles, but I have never found them to be convincing. Faced to this dilemma, I prefer women's voices.

But the case of the boy's voices isn't trivial either. Since the ban of female singing in churches, almost all church vocal music considers boys at least for the soprano line, and in the case of continental Europe, usually for the alto line too, while English music usually employs countertenors for the alto line. Now there is really no shortage of boys in our modern world, but there is a catch: For some reason that is unknown to me, puberty nowadays happens several years earlier than it used to. History is full of remarks about boy treble singers employed by churches until they were 15, 16 or even 17 years old, by which time they were discharged because their voices were breaking. In our times, a treble is happy to reach his 13th birthday with an unbroken voice, and really few do it until 14. This gives them much less time to mature musically, before they are no boy singers anymore.

On the other hand, this problem can be offset in a large part thanks to modern, more effective training methods, as the many church choirs, and other boy choirs all over the world, convincingly demonstrate. The wide availability of recorded music exposes a modern child to much more listening experience than a 17th century kid may have enjoyed, and this surely helps speeding the development of musical understanding and performing skills.

The performing techniques

As varied as the music styles, and the instruments, are the performing techniques. Just one of the problems in recreating a true style performance is that in many cases we simply don't know how a 16th century performer played his instrument! The lack of any sound recording equipment in that time forces us to rely on written accounts, whose interpretation is bound to lead to severe errors.

And even if we knew exactly how it was done, in many cases a really true performance would be a disaster with the listeners! In the late 19th century, which is really not that long ago, the usual singing style included attacking any important note from an octave or even more below! The singer started in the basement, whooped up, and then settled somewhere close to the real note. We have enough recordings of such singing techniques, made in the early 20th century using the first recording equipment, and sung by divas and famous tenors who had learned their art some decades earlier. And this kind of singing sounds utterly horrible to most modern listeners, accustomed to the present day style of attacking a note exactly on the spot and taking pride in the precision of the intonation! What a huge difference! So, even if we know how it was done, we may sometimes choose not doing it that way!

Modern composers leave relatively little interpreting to be done. They state the paces, the accents, write down organ stops, and of course all notes are there. But this has not been that way in old times! Baroque composers basically wrote down a skeleton of the music, and trusted the craftsmanship of the performers for all the rest! Now this sets the stage for a disaster: If you put modern performers, clueless about improvisation, ornamentation, and baroque play in general, to perform such music, you will end up with a bone-rattling skeleton, rather than with baroque music!
Baroque music really cries for being filled out, ornamented, changed according to the mood of the performer and to the atmosphere that builds up in the concert room. Doing this kind of finishing to the music is a basic requirement for true-style performances of baroque and earlier music!

So, what's best?

I tend to prefer listening to old music performed in what nowadays passes as "original style". The instruments used are those that most closely resemble the ones used in the old time performances. The players do their best to investigate how these things were played, and try to follow that practice. If a part was written for a boy choir, it is actually sung by a boy choir, however imperfect the choir might sound compared to a professional adult choir. It is simply a nice thing to know that this music might have sounded just like this, when Master Bach was conducting it himself in Leipzig, several hundred years ago! And this originalistic peformance style allows us to discover nuances that simply would be lost in a modern-style performance.

But it does not need to be always this way. I have heard modern performances of baroque works, using large choirs, modern instruments, producing a much fuller sound than possible in the old times. Some kinds of music really lend themselves to this modification! Just think of Händel! I'm sure he would have been glad to get a large romantic orchestra, a choir composed of 1000 singers, maybe adding a Roland synthesizer with a 10000 Watt class-D amplifier, and blasting out his Messiah over the city of London! I can vividly imagine Händel at the Roland keyboard, his white mane flying in the wind created by the breathing of the massive choir, exceedingly happy with the new sound!

But one thing is wrong: Partial approaches that combine incompatible sounds. Period instruments from the baroque time usually produce much softer sounds than modern instruments, but are much more agile. If you now perform a Bach cantata using period instruments, together with a choir of 30 men and 40 women, the choir will overpower the instruments in a hopeless way. The fine and detailed playing will be drowned under the massive, but clumsy choir sound. On the other hand, take a choir of 16 boys and 6 men, and put a full modern orchestra in front of it, and the choir simply is reduced to total inaudibility. But take the large mixed choir together with the modern orchestra, and you will get strong, intense, interesting, enthusing music. Or better, take the boy choir and the period instruments, and you will get a colorful, detailed, marvelous performance like those conducted by Bach himself, as the famous Harnoncourt/Leonhardt recordings show!

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