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Early Music’s Lost Generation?

Bernhard Trebuch is Mr Austria Early Music, a broadcaster and producer, and early music entrepreneur extraordinaire whose energy, enthusiasm and scholarship are legendary throughout Europe,  especially in the Alpine countries. Only Bernhard would record a 24 CD box set of Richard Wistreich reading  Mainwaring’s Life of Handel (complete with footnotes) or  the prose writings of Erasmus in Latin, not to mention the 100 or so complete works of the Tyrol’s greatest composer, the one-eyed Oswald von Wolkenstein. A while ago, after a grappa or two, we got on to the present state of early music, and Bernard handed over a copy of his new Messiah recording. It’s a typical Trebuch/ORF production: you don’t just get the music, but a couple of supplementary discs as well, this time a conversation with the 93 year old Handel scholar Winton Dean interspersed with historic Handel recordings going back to Malcolm Sargent and beyond. What draws all these elements together is Bernhard’s passion for the music. It’s a live recording, with young musicians who play and sing their hearts out. As he says in his liner note:

We are familiar with all the treatises, know how to play the trills, have complete mastery over the whole range of historic instruments. We have almost limitless possibilities to edit, rework and technically enhance recordings. Yet often the most important factor of the music seems to be missing: the ability to feel and communicate emotion, to live this passion.

Bernhard’s interest in early music was fired by, among other things, the LPs of  David Munrow which he discovered when he was a teenager. Munrow, like his near contemporaries Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood,  Emma Kirkby, the Hilliard Ensemble, Gothic Voices –  everyone before early music entered the mainstream in fact –  managed to do what they did without benefit of institutional instruction. The fact is, we all made it up. The next generation or two complained that it wasn’t possible to study early music at conservatoires or universities, and gradually it found its way into higher education syllabuses where it got stuck, eventually becoming part of the mainstream, just one of a number of centrally administered modules.

The effect of this revolution was to rejuvenate much of the canonic repertoire, which had the varnish scraped off it, and to introduce a few new candidates for composerly sainthood. All well and good. The downside is that the music also became rule-bound, driven by the ideology of academia which is obsessed with assessment and abstract excellence.  We made sure you know how to play the trills the way the composer wanted them, and ignore the stupid people who did it differently (those idiots the treatises complain about, and who were sadly all too often in the majority).  The early music movement became like a property of the National Trust – beautifully restored to the condition it was in before anyone lived in it.

Many of my contemporaries went into teaching. They had to make that up too, but inevitably went on to become part of the establishment that their own success had helped to create. There is now an entire industry of early music pedagogy, with its own teaching and performing logic that often has only a tenuous connection to the awkward, dirty, unpredictable world of professional performance. It’s moved a very long way from the charismatic musical pirates who started the movement, and in the process has moved even further from the past, presenting the music in its sanitised 21st century perfection, ignoring all the bits we didn’t want to reclaim from history. The stuff we leave behind – effects such as portamento, rubato, the para-linguistic rhetoric and so on – are what made it human and individual. They’re the bits that aren’t really amenable to teaching or measurement.  If you sing your conservatoire Purcell following Tosi’s Opinioni in all their bizarre detail you will fail. Don’t try singing Bach and Mozart following Agricola or Hiller, or people will think you’re mad. After all, we all know that portamento has no place in Bach. It’s just that Bach and his contemporaries didn’t realise it at the time.

Bernhard’s right to point to the lack of passion. The two of us whinged away about the black hole in early music performance, the perfect but predictable excellence of the properly certificated early musician, the lost generations of inspired risk-takers who do it because they love it.  But if you don’t give students the tools to create  their own performing persona they can only fall back on what they know, and it’s not enough to know only that which is easy to teach. The most important task of the teacher is surely to liberate students from the pedagogy so they can discover the real music for themselves. Singers in particular tend to be way too dependent on their singing teacher prop. As I’ve mentioned before, some of the most successful singers of all time acknowledged no teacher at all. I found that one of the hardest things at the university I used to work at was to persuade students to trust their own instincts rather than those of their teacher. It seemed like a kind of trick really – the more dependent on the teacher they were, the less likely they ever were to make a success of singing as a career. It might get them kudos on their course, but their short-term success rarely prepared them for the shock of the real world they hoped to enter.

For the second year running, one of Bernhard’s Sound & Fury recordings has been CD of the Year on the Medieval Music & Arts Foundation website. This time it’s Pierre de la Rue.  Todd McComb appreciates the passion too. We’ll be recording masses by Caron and Prioris (new to me) next month.

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