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Talks By Vaughan-williams


Mark Taylor
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Did any one else hear a short programme on Radio 3 last night - a talk given by Vaughan-Williams in July 1950 titled “the Great Bourgeois” in which he spoke about performance practice in Bach’s music? Here is a snippet:

 

“We have no longer, thank heaven, the baroque style of organ, which we are told, with very insufficient evidence, was the kind of instrument Bach played upon. By the way, I see there is a movement a-foot to substitute this bubble and squeak type of instrument for the noble diapason and soft mixtures of our cathedral organs …”

 

The whole thing can be hear on BBC iPlayer – its fascinating stuff. Here is the link

 

Last night’s programme was the first of a series, in tonight’s programme Vaughan-Williams talks about his friendship with Holst.

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Did any one else hear a short programme on Radio 3 last night - a talk given by Vaughan-Williams in July 1950 titled “the Great Bourgeois” in which he spoke about performance practice in Bach’s music?

 

Thank you for that link. How could anyone so musical be so absolutely wrong about almost everything to do with Bach? That is, judging by the current accepted view of historically informed performance! Perhaps the fellow had never heard a well-regulated harpsichord built on baroque principles, and based his opinion on some plucked version of a grand piano. It's easier to sympathise with his views on the neo-baroque organ of his time which exaggerated some of the characteristics of the early instruments to the point where they became intolerable.

 

It would be wonderful if we could look 60 years into the future to learn what our successors will think about historically informed performance as practised in 2008.

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"Wrong" ? But are we any "better" ?

My two cents: in 60 years, we shall be laughed at,

by people who will be laughed at 60 years later...Etc.

 

Let us take the precise words:

"the baroque style of organ, which we are told, with very insufficient evidence, was the kind of instrument Bach played upon"

(quote)

 

What did R. Vaughan-Williams mean with "baroque style" ?

 

What means "very insufficient evidence" ?

 

He could not ignore Bach was indeed a baroque composer, and played

baroque organs, since there was only those that were available then.

 

So we must conclude he tought what was believed a "baroque style organ"

was not at all comparable with what Bach had. And here he is not "wrong"

at all...

 

Pierre

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"

So we must conclude he tought what was believed a "baroque style organ"

was not at all comparable with what Bach had. And here he is not "wrong"

at all...

 

Pierre

 

Yes but doesn't the next bit about 'noble Diapasons.....our cathedral organs' etc. show where he was really coming from? I think you are probably correct Pierre but not altogether sure whether it was what RVW (FRCO too) meant - certainly not back then!

 

AJJ

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I think what I would draw from this is the importance of never, ever, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

 

Each generation of musicians may (should) think it is doing something better than its predecessors. On the other hand, I believe it is important to know how things were done in the past, and to remember that performers in the past could set out a rationale for the way they did things, just as modern performers can.

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It seems to me that RVW just hadn't thought about his subject matter properly. He was so sure that JSB would have loved hearing his works played by modern instruments, yet he would have been scandalised to hear performers taking liberties with his own compositions - e.g. by substituting an Ondes Martenot for the cor anglais in the slow movement of the second symphony.

 

There were two aspects of the talk that took my breath away. One was his cavalier attitude to the notes the composer actually wrote and his advocacy of wholesale cuts in performances of the passions. The other was the revelation that, in late nineteenth century England, Bach was considered to be a good composer but not a great one. I wonder whom they thought of him as on a par with - Hummel, perhaps?

 

The term "insufficient evidence" presumably indicates he wasn't at all convinced that the organ in Bach's time was in the baroque style. But in that case, what did he think Bach played? A Father Willis? Surely he wasn't so historically ignorant as to think the romantic style of organ went back to the eighteenth century - was he?

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It seems to me that RVW just hadn't thought about his subject matter properly.

 

On the contrary I think that he had thought about it very carefully - but he was approaching it with a perspective that is very hard for us to understand.

 

This was recorded over 50 years ago when RVW was towards the end of his life - his formative years were at the end of the 19th century - over 100 years ago.

 

Most of the principles that he espoused are similar to ones that I see often in these message boards - it is the music that matters - use your ears - use good musical judgment - don't slavishly follow the registration in the score if it doesn't sound right ... etc ... etc ...

 

RVW's point is one that has often been made - we can never know exactly what a contemporary performance of Bach's music would have sounded like and even if we *could* know that we could still only hear it through our 21st century ears that have become accustomed to a whole range of sounds that simply didn't exist in Bach's day.

 

Of course, then you have the problem of what to do about it - the current fashion is to try to understand what we can about the historical context in which this music was first performed and then attempt a "historically informed" performance - but, at the end of the day, let's admit that there is still a lot of conjecture (which is just a fancy word for guess-work) and I think that the more successful "historically informed" performances owe as much to present day good taste and musicianship on the part of the editors and performers as they do to historical research. Put another way - we are never going to know the whole picture - research can give us some ideas of how certain things might have been - it can give us some pieced of the jig saw puzzle - but much more is still unknown than is known so it is still down to a modern interpretation to "fill in the blanks" and put those pieces together into something that is musically convincing.

 

If RVW appeared to be particularly cavalier in his approach I think it is just because he was being honest and plain spoken about what he believed.

 

Certainly one thing continues to be true - each generation has an absolutely unshakable certainty that they and they alone have been granted the wisdom to truly understand how things should be done, and how utterly wrong their immediate predecessors were ...

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Did any one else hear a short programme on Radio 3 last night - a talk given by Vaughan-Williams in July 1950 titled “the Great Bourgeois” in which he spoke about performance practice in Bach’s music? Here is a snippet:

 

“We have no longer, thank heaven, the baroque style of organ, which we are told, with very insufficient evidence, was the kind of instrument Bach played upon. By the way, I see there is a movement a-foot to substitute this bubble and squeak type of instrument for the noble diapason and soft mixtures of our cathedral organs …”

 

Hi All

 

Been away for a while; hope all is well in Discussion Land.

 

For what it's worth, I wonder if the above means only that RVW, seemingly unfamilar (?) with the great instruments of the Baroque, was nevertheless aware of the rather exaggerated neo-Baroque organ then coming into vogue, and had all his fingers crossed, hoping that this wasn't actually the sort of instrument on which Bach had to play. For our part, we can look back with hindsight at such organs and acknowledge that, while they certainly tried, they really missed the mark. He didn't have the benefit of hindsight, but thought the neo-Baroque instrument to be unsatisfactory. A great deal of this may come down to being schooled in Romantic traditions both of what an organ "should be" and of performance generally (and there is in what he says, I think, a clear sense of the self-satisfaction that each generation carries, that what it does is "right"). But perhaps some of it may be an unspoken recognition that the neo-Baroque instrument was in some respects almost a caricature (of that of the Baroque). (And, as I say this, I realise that it is just as easily open to argue that the high Romantic instruments whose "noble diapasons" and "soft mixtures" he extolled were no less exaggerated.)

 

By the way, who was it who said something to the effect that he preferred nothing better than Bach as played by Harold Darke at St. Michael's Cornhill?

 

Rgds

MJF

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On the contrary I think that he had thought about it very carefully - but he was approaching it with a perspective that is very hard for us to understand.

 

This was recorded over 50 years ago when RVW was towards the end of his life - his formative years were at the end of the 19th century - over 100 years ago.

 

Most of the principles that he espoused are similar to ones that I see often in these message boards - it is the music that matters - use your ears - use good musical judgment - don't slavishly follow the registration in the score if it doesn't sound right ... etc ... etc ...

 

RVW's point is one that has often been made - we can never know exactly what a contemporary performance of Bach's music would have sounded like and even if we *could* know that we could still only hear it through our 21st century ears that have become accustomed to a whole range of sounds that simply didn't exist in Bach's day.

 

Of course, then you have the problem of what to do about it - the current fashion is to try to understand what we can about the historical context in which this music was first performed and then attempt a "historically informed" performance - but, at the end of the day, let's admit that there is still a lot of conjecture (which is just a fancy word for guess-work) and I think that the more successful "historically informed" performances owe as much to present day good taste and musicianship on the part of the editors and performers as they do to historical research. Put another way - we are never going to know the whole picture - research can give us some ideas of how certain things might have been - it can give us some pieced of the jig saw puzzle - but much more is still unknown than is known so it is still down to a modern interpretation to "fill in the blanks" and put those pieces together into something that is musically convincing.

 

If RVW appeared to be particularly cavalier in his approach I think it is just because he was being honest and plain spoken about what he believed.

 

Certainly one thing continues to be true - each generation has an absolutely unshakable certainty that they and they alone have been granted the wisdom to truly understand how things should be done, and how utterly wrong their immediate predecessors were ...

 

 

 

Absolutely to all that.

 

Slavish adherence to 'authenticity' as currently perceived is bound to lead to ruin. ;-) Shouldn't we temper historical awareness with good taste? And good taste (just like bad taste) is cultivated, not innate, and therefore subjective...

 

A small example: my organ teacher urged me to follow the registration instructions printed at the start of my edition of the Franck Third Chorale (fonds, anches 8' or something). To my ears, on the 20th C English organ in question this sounded thoroughly rotten, and quite un-French.

 

(There's an illuminating and surprising interview with John Eliot Gardiner on 'authenticity' in the new Gramophone.)

 

And wasn't it Tovey who said that to deliver an authentic performance of a Bach cantata, the choirboys would have to be given a sound thrashing afterwards for getting things wrong...?

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And wasn't it Tovey who said that to deliver an authentic performance of a Bach cantata, the choirboys would have to be given a sound thrashing afterwards for getting things wrong...?

 

I much enjoyed the St John Passion conducted by Gardiner at the Proms the other day but I did wonder how "authentic" the choral singing was. It was so beautifully shaped, but would Bach's choir really have sung like this? Huge amounts of dynamic contrast - more Virgil Fox than Walcha. The chorales were certainly phrased in a way that a congregation couldn't have.

 

Mind you I have grave reservations about a concert performance of one of the Passions in the middle of the Summer anyway.

 

Stephen Barber

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I much enjoyed the St John Passion conducted by Gardiner at the Proms the other day but I did wonder how "authentic" the choral singing was. It was so beautifully shaped, but would Bach's choir really have sung like this? Huge amounts of dynamic contrast - more Virgil Fox than Walcha.

Stephen Barber

 

Similarly 'If ye Love Me' by Tallis on Classic FM (ok - I listen to it in the car!) with the Sixteen performing almost like the Swingles and King's Singers combined. The 'lower voices' version was good but the seemless 'soft focus' sound was decidedly off putting. (Sometimes there is a boys choir on Songs of Praise that I find has the same visual effect.) Maybe this is what people want to hear these days rather than a search for so called 'authenticity'.

 

AJJ

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I much enjoyed the St John Passion conducted by Gardiner at the Proms the other day but I did wonder how "authentic" the choral singing was. It was so beautifully shaped, but would Bach's choir really have sung like this? Huge amounts of dynamic contrast - more Virgil Fox than Walcha. The chorales were certainly phrased in a way that a congregation couldn't have.

 

Mind you I have grave reservations about a concert performance of one of the Passions in the middle of the Summer anyway.

 

Stephen Barber

 

Absolutely - my particular problem with these kind of performances is the way the Chorales are sung: far too precious. Wouldn't they have been belted out by the congregation with big organ accpt? Aren't we told that this is why the German organ developed powerful pedal tone?

 

And how 'authentic' is the use of womens' voices... ;-)

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Absolutely - my particular problem with these kind of performances is the way the Chorales are sung: far too precious. Wouldn't they have been belted out by the congregation with big organ accpt? Aren't we told that this is why the German organ developed powerful pedal tone?

 

And how 'authentic' is the use of womens' voices... ;-)

 

 

I felt that the chorales were the most moving aspect of JEG's John Passion (both heard live from a cheap seat in the audience and re-watching this morning from the hard drive of my PVR). Such a refreshing and challenging change of perspective from the narrative and the formal arias.

 

Not trying to stir trouble of course! But I don't think of JEG as an 'authentic' performer - he uses baroque instruments in the same way as neo-baroque organ-builders included nasards and tierces in otherwise stylistically flexible ensembles.

 

This is not intended as negative criticism though - if you're going to do the John Passion at the proms then his way is a fantastic way. And as RVW would no doubt point out, the musicianship is the most important thing. Usually I'm a bit of a performance practice know-it-all but for me in this case, authentic or not, it was the best John P I've heard in years.

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