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The Limits of Musicology


Having just proof-read my two Cambridge Music History chapters (both should be published next year) and being in the middle of proof-reading the History of Singing I’m more than usually conscious of whether or not I practice what I preach. All of my historical writing is generated as far as possible by the actuality of performance – in a nutshell what singers might actually have sung rather than what composers or theorists may have written (or expected, or hoped for…),  a historical perspective rather than a musicological one. It’s not always easy to incorporate elements of historical practice: the early music movement is very selective in what it chooses to recover from the past, and there are entire institutions dedicated to perpetuating a new and improved version of history.

Much of the time modern singers are at the mercy of conductors, directors of one sort or another, or simply the ideology of modern performance. The latter has its roots way back in the 20th century, when the composer’s word finally became law. Within the early music movement, despite welcome moves to the contrary in some quarters, there’s still a view that even the 15th or 16th century composer was the fount of all inspiration and that a musicologist who works on the surviving manuscripts is his representative here on earth. Unfortunately, many musicologists tend to privilege musical theory rather than performance practice, the rules rather than their application, and in their wish to preserve the integrity of the composer too often resort to what the text books of the time prescribe  rather than the less tidy but more creative flights of fancy that the singers might have enjoyed. You wouldn’t try  to reconstruct Impressionism from art teaching manuals of the period – you’d end up with view of what the teachers might have wanted rather than what their wayward pupils came up with, and a completely distorted view of the past.

There is a major conflict of interest here between musicologists and historians – the former are likely to want something faithful to what they see as the surviving remnants and reputation of the composer, while the latter are more interested in the performances he may have heard. The modern idea of a composer able to demand that performers do his bidding, or indeed that the score might represent a performance at all, is far too often imposed on historical periods when such concepts simply didn’t exist. There are few things more depressing for a singer than having a musicological policeman imposing his or her will ‘because the composer wanted it that way.’ Composition as we now understand it, the creative act of a single inspired mind, perfectly formed in order to be worshipped and interpreted by others, didn’t really exist until Wagner and only found its fully reductive form with Schoenberg and Stravinsky. By treating renaissance composers like their modern equivalents we do the music a huge disservice; we also misrepresent the past and make things much less fun for singers.

From a singer’s point of view, the task of the musicologist is simply to produce a readable score. The edition can have any amount of performance suggestions, but the decisions on what and how to sing should be left to the singers. That’s how it worked at the time.  In the case of renaissance music, there is now a living tradition – generations of singers have grown up knowing the rules of ficta and how to interpret proportion signs. We’ve also grown up with the performance practice sources (such as they are) and we know full well that if a source keeps insisting that singers do things in a certain way, it’s because the singers of the time were reluctant to stick to the rules. The single thread that runs through all my research into performance practice is that singers were (until the 20th century) a law unto themselves. If everybody had sung according to the rules there would have been no need for the frequent complaints about the tritone and other colourful indiscretions.

So…bring on the creative and spontaneous use of theoretical apparatus – let’s have a plurality of performance practice driven by what feels right to those who practice the performing. We rarely discussed ficta in the Hilliard Ensemble, and we had an understanding that the first voice to encounter a problem would set the mode for the rest of the piece. Next time it could be different – there are usually many possibilities (often no right answers) and we wouldn’t want to be stuck with the same solution for ever. On one early trip to the USA we sang at a conference and afterwards an eager PhD student came round to ask if we raised cadential leading notes in late medieval polyphony. ‘Sometimes,’ was our reply. The distaste and incomprehension on the face of the student, whose entire academic career was devoted to getting a definitive answer to this question one way or the other, was a wonder to behold.

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