Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.

 

The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!

 

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Oui will rock you

April 24, 2017 at 2:39 pm

There’s a great hymn, O Filii et Filiae, which is sung in many churches on the Sunday after Easter, because its text mirrors the gospel lesson of the day – the story of doubting Thomas. It is one of those instances of a gripping narrative wed to a simple yet interesting melody which, being roughly 600 years old, has clearly stood the test of time.

For me, it’s a chance to pull out one of my favorite organ pieces, don my beret, and pretend to be French. French organs stand out in that they are jam packed with fiery trumpets and other noisy stops, making them exceedingly loud – necessary to fill the cavern of a massive French cathedral with sound. Before the revolution, the French organ tradition included writing (or improvising) variations on popular chants or sacred melodies. Jean-François Dandrieu did just this when we wrote his Offertoire pour la fête de Pâques – variations on O Filii et Filiae, showcasing the terrifying thunder of French organs.

When I hear that sound, it makes me imagine a peasant from a village, coming into Paris and going into a church – and being petrified and awestruck at the sound of the organ. Our human fascination with loud sound, like the appeal of this hymntune, hasn’t changed.

 

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When will King Arthur return to rule?

November 10, 2016 at 10:30 am

The Arthurian Legends tell us that Arthur will one day return to reunite and rule over Britain. Arthur’s reign represents perfect politics, and his Christ-like return would mark the beginning of a new golden age. Even so, King Arthur, quickly come. We need you on this side of the pond as well.

How fitting that Henry Purcell, the greatest English baroque composer during his life (and easily the greatest English composer since the renaissance) had written an opera based on the King Arthur legends. And, interestingly, it was politically poignant when it was composed, as England was struggling with who would be the heir to the throne – their choices were the King’s brother (that’s good) who was Roman Catholic (that’s bad) OR an illegitimate son (that’s bad) who was Protestant (that’s good). Sadly, Arthur didn’t return then to fix the political strife, but fingers crossed that he shows up in the US sometime soon!

This is an older recording (from 1956), and it shows its age in its over-romantic interpretation of the music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s different from the way it sounded in Purcell’s day. For one, the instruments used have evloved significantly over the 200 years; secondly, musical styles and practices have evolved as well. For a “performance practice” version of some of the same music, click here.

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