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Is it important to be historically informed?


MusingMuso
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Is history just bunk?

 

Is it just "One xxxxxxx thing after another." (Alan Bennett)

 

My favourite quote is from Linda Landowska:-

 

"There is no reason why we should not be friends. We both play Bach. You in your way, and I in his way."

 

Why didn't many composers for the organ leave specific registration instructions, as an orchestral composer would have done?

 

Is Bach arr. Virgil Fox less worthy than Bach recreated by scholarly insight?

 

Isn't it all just fashion and personal taste, or maybe the facism of academia?

 

Is Reger any the worse for being played on an English instrument, or Vierne played on a neo-calssical instrument?

 

Is it better to just make things sound good, and then play with conviction?

 

;)

 

MM

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Maybe describing academia as fascist is putting it a bit strong. I am sure that academics have much to teach us, and it is those who latch on to part of what they say that cause much of the trouble. Many medical 'breakthroughs' trumpeted in the press are no such thing, and disappear without trace. (no, I can't quote a specific example, but I have a newspaper cutting somewhere detailing several such).

With regard to music, though, I think we have much to be grateful for. I for one prefer, after the initial shock had died down, 'Messiah' played by small forces at a brisk pace, rather than the rather overblown performances of Sargent etc.

I do feel, though, that the desire to copy old instruments, or at least take what we assume to be how they may have sounded, and ccopy that, to be mistaken. The greatest music sounds well wherever it is played, and on whatever instrument, provided a competent player has got the measure of both musiic and instrument. A performer worth his salt will recognise that some pieces, for whatever reason, just don't work on some Organs, and play something else.

As to comparisons between Organ registration and orchestration, a violin sounds very much like another violin. Two different builders of equal merit may well produce stops with the same name, but the sound is totally different. Suggestions are the most we can hope for, I think.

 

Regards to all.

 

John.

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Is history just bunk?

No. It's fascinating.

 

Why didn't many composers for the organ leave specific registration instructions, as an orchestral composer would have done?

The history fascists tought me that it was a matter of conventions, which sometimes were confirmed by repetition in the score, but more often were not. Some schools had developed a set of shorthand instructions, most effectively the French. Other schools just did not bother.

 

Is Bach arr. Virgil Fox less worthy than Bach recreated by scholarly insight?

Worthy? Depends on what you would like to hear, or give the audience to listen. I don't believe in Wanda's view, but some ways of music making, in relation to the music played, sound more convincing to me than others, for several reasons. Personal predilection for certain sound qualities is just one of them, expectation from knowledge of historical instruments and other sources another.

 

Isn't it all just fashion and personal taste, or maybe the facism of academia?

Fashion: As far as it is reflected in the market, of course it is. Personal taste: If you mean it in the way of saying "Well, it all comes down to personal taste in the end", then the question is useless. If, on the other hand, "taste" means something in the way of "bon gout" as the Couperins might have used the expression, then it is a definitive Yes.

 

Is Reger any the worse for being played on an English instrument, or Vierne played on a neo-calssical instrument?

No! I love listening the players to cope with instruments, and love it even more if they manage well. Nicolas Kynaston playing Widor's Eighth on a German neo-baroque Ott form the 1950ies in Bonn? Fascinating!

 

Is it better to just make things sound good, and then play with conviction?

You might be on to something there.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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It is absolutely vital to be historically informed about the music you are intending to play. One of the most vital things I learned from William Whitehead was the absolute importance of musical integrity. Being historically correct is much more arbitrary because scholarship changes and, in all areas of life, each generation likes to dismiss the opinions of the previous generation. In a way that is how society progresses and that is why the study of history is so important. Being historically correct is actually quite difficult, nay, verging on the impossible. Historically informed performances are absolutley vital and much easier to achieve, especially in times when we have the advantages of the internet. How we interpret that historical information, and thereby influence the way we perform the piece. is for us to decide and thereby hangs the musical integrity that William Whitehead - and no doubt many others - stresses in his teaching.

 

So far as Virgil Fox arrangements are concerned I think there is a (minor) place for them. At the age of 14, one of the things that finally persuaded me to have organ lessons was a vinyl LP I borrowed from a friend. It was of Virgil Fox at the Riverside Church playing Bach, Guilmant, Franck &c.,, and it inspired me greatly. A couple of years ago I bought a second hand copy of it, out of interest, to see what I thought of it after not hearing it since 1962. It is truly awful and he takes enormous musical liberties with absolutely everything. Dreadfully unhistorical and inauthentic, yes, but in 1962 it inspired a 14 year old boy in Brigton to start learning to play the organ. Was that so bad a thing?

 

Malcolm

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So far as Virgil Fox arrangements are concerned I think there is a (minor) place for them. At the age of 14, one of the things that finally persuaded me to have organ lessons was a vinyl LP I borrowed from a friend. It was of Virgil Fox at the Riverside Church playing Bach, Guilmant, Franck &c.,, and it inspired me greatly. A couple of years ago I bought a second hand copy of it, out of interest, to see what I thought of it after not hearing it since 1962. It is truly awful and he takes enormous musical liberties with absolutely everything. Dreadfully unhistorical and inauthentic, yes, but in 1962 it inspired a 14 year old boy in Brigton to start learning to play the organ. Was that so bad a thing?

I'm guessing that it was the historians and their disciples that caused the many Fox fans to, over time, change their views. I, perhaps unluckily, never heard a Fox recording but I did, in 1975, buy the Harnoncourt period instrument recording of the Bach Christmas Oratorio when I was 15 and it absolutely sold me the "rightness" of a historical approach. Mind you, the way had been prepared by daily listening to David Munrow's amazing Pied Piper on Radio 3.

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As to comparisons between Organ registration and orchestration, a violin sounds very much like another violin.

 

I've been struggling to avoid reacting to this and find I can't stop myself. I cannot possibly begin to agree with this statement, especially in the context of a discussion of HIP.

If you want to start at the extremes why not compare recordings of Menuhin and Wallfisch?

 

 

On a more general note, any performance is about a series of decisions and the way these come together will produce an end result. In the concert hall the first decision may reside with the promoter - who will they book? Then (if we stick with the organ), there is a decision about what to play (though these first two decisions might be made hand in hand). If one is booked to play Buxtehude in (say) Truro Cathedral, then (assuming one accepts the booking) one has to choose where one stands on the continuum of "making the organ sound at it's best" and "getting as close as possible to the composers intentions". Possibly that is an extreme example, but if one has no grasp of the composer's intentions (no matter how sketchy that grasp might be due to the imperfect nature of research into the subject), how can one start to make such decisions?

 

I could go on (in fact I have done elsewhere with 10,000 words on approaching a performance of Schutz's choral music in a modern context), but I would urge you to remember that many of the decisions are set in stone way before the player touches the instrument.

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Is it important to be historically informed? Yes. But this doesn't just mean knowing something about the composer's original intentions (amazing how many famous organists still can't play a Buxtehude Praeludium with the correct tempo relationships between the sections) but also the instruments and their associated performance practices. AND the performing traditions in the interim. Context is everything...

 

The thing to realise is that just because one knows the 'rules' doesn't mean that the result will be the same as somebody else who knows the 'rules'. It is possible to interpret the rules in different ways depending on our own backgrounds and temperaments as much as anything else. Knowledge is liberating, not limiting. Finding one's own truth is as 'authentic' as we can ever achieve.

 

Clueless playing (and there's plenty of it around), no matter how brilliant, is always second-best.

 

Bazuin

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I've been struggling to avoid reacting to this and find I can't stop myself. I cannot possibly begin to agree with this statement, especially in the context of a discussion of HIP.

If you want to start at the extremes why not compare recordings of Menuhin and Wallfisch?

You are right, of course. I was, though, thinking about orchestration rather than solo instruments, and I would still say that the sound of one group of strings is much like another - not identical, but similar. So is the sound of a group of brass, woodwind and so on similar. I should also point out that recordings do not always reveal the exact tone of the original sound; microphones pick up all sorts of sounds that our ears may not hear (try listening to a recording of someones voice that you know well), and the accoustics of the rooms used will almost certainly be different - all making accurate comparisons difficult.

 

If, though, one were to take a group of stops on, say, the RFH Organ and that in the RAH with identical names, (Open Diapason, Principal, Fifteenth and Mixture say) the sound produced would be quite different; a far greater difference than that between different orchestras or string soloists. That is the point I was, rather clumsily I admit, trying to make. And that makes orchestration rather easier than indicating precise registration on an Organ. Not to mention that any stop requested may well not exist on the instrument I am playing - in fact, in many cases even the pitch required, especially mutations, could quite easily not exist on a given instrument. And if it does, there is no guarantee that there will be a suitable accompaniment for a solo, far example. So if one wishes to play the music, one has to find a combination of stops, or a single stop, that sounds well, and use that.

 

Historically accurate?

 

Possibly. Not in exact registration, perhaps, but in spirit.

 

I cannot believe that any composer for our instrument always used the same registration, especially when playing on an Organ which was not his usual haunt. His aim may have been for a particular type of sound, but such is the nature of the beast that he always would have had to accept the nearest approximation he could find to what he was used to. And in so doing, possibly reveal something about his music, and maybe even himself, that his 'home' Organ may not have done - who knows?

 

Regards to all

 

John.

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It is absolutely vital to be historically informed about the music you are intending to play. One of the most vital things I learned from William Whitehead was the absolute importance of musical integrity. Being historically correct is much more arbitrary because scholarship changes and, in all areas of life, each generation likes to dismiss the opinions of the previous generation. In a way that is how society progresses and that is why the study of history is so important. Being historically correct is actually quite difficult, nay, verging on the impossible. Historically informed performances are absolutley vital and much easier to achieve, especially in times when we have the advantages of the internet. How we interpret that historical information, and thereby influence the way we perform the piece. is for us to decide and thereby hangs the musical integrity that William Whitehead - and no doubt many others - stresses in his teaching.

 

So far as Virgil Fox arrangements are concerned I think there is a (minor) place for them. At the age of 14, one of the things that finally persuaded me to have organ lessons was a vinyl LP I borrowed from a friend. It was of Virgil Fox at the Riverside Church playing Bach, Guilmant, Franck &c.,, and it inspired me greatly. A couple of years ago I bought a second hand copy of it, out of interest, to see what I thought of it after not hearing it since 1962. It is truly awful and he takes enormous musical liberties with absolutely everything. Dreadfully unhistorical and inauthentic, yes, but in 1962 it inspired a 14 year old boy in Brigton to start learning to play the organ. Was that so bad a thing?

 

Malcolm

 

=============================

 

 

I like Malcolm Kemp’s reply a great deal, because it juxtaposes three (perhaps more) alternative understandings simultaneously.

 

Firstly, an apology for the use of the term academic fascists, which I admit is a bit strong. However, even among civilised, erudite, thinking people, it is possible for waves of opinion, prejudice and downright hostility to be fashioned into tablets of stone and for gurus to proclaim their particular gospel. After all, the hostility against the neo-baroque organ was only matched by the hostility against the romantic organ, and I am old enough to recall the furore surrounding the Festival Hall organ, even though it all commenced when I was about five years of age and still sang, “There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden,” and recited “Cecil was a caterpillar.”

 

It’s very interesting that Malcolm was inspired by Virgil Fox, as indeed I was, because if nothing else, he was an exciting performer in the midst of an often stolid world. Speaking for myself, I think I was also “historically informed” at a young age, and that also came from recordings, in the form of Geraint Jones and the superlative BBC programmes he presented from some of the consoles of Europe’s finest historic instruments. I cannot think of two performers further apart, yet both had a very considerable impact.

 

Now musical integrity is something else entirely, and I’m not sure what it is, even though I recognise it when I hear it!

We can all have a stab at what is upright, honourable, honest and truthful. We may be historically informed; perhaps great musicologists and historians; enough to make the claim for integrity perhaps, but does it always necessarily amount to great music-making?

 

Were it that simple, all performances would be broadly uniform, save for any acoustic considerations of tempi and degrees of legato and detachment.

 

I’m inclined to think that Friedrich makes a very important point when he suggests that....”some ways of music-making, in relation to the music played, sound more convincing to me than others for several reasons. Personal predilection for certain sound qualities is just one of them, expectation from knowledge of historical instruments and other sources another.”

 

Applying my own logic to this, I think it amounts to the combination of native cultural environment and handed down tradition on the one hand, and the perception and appreciation of foreign cultures and traditions on the other. In other words, the more we learn, the more we understand. The same is true of history, which makes us stop to consider the possibilities and constraints which had such an effect on what composers could or couldn’t do.

 

Yet I remain almost schizophrenic in my appreciations and predilections of organ-playing and music generally, and I’m not sure why, unless I am a hopelessly free-spirit hacking my way through the lianas and undergrowth of musical conformity.

There is a part of me which can be moved by the tiniest detail of nuance and phrasing, played on a wonderfully restored old instrument in the Netherlands, yet there is another part of me which is enthralled by the dangerously gung-ho recordings of Virgil Fox and others. I suppose the latter is a bit like watching someone having a go at the Cresta Run on a silver tea-tray: not something you would want to try yourself, but something you don’t forget in a hurry as a spectator.

 

I still don’t think I’m close to answering my own question concerning history, even though I absolutely agree with Friedrich that it is fascinating. Perhaps I am more inclined to the view that history is a wonderful servant but a very destructive master. After all, Bach re-invented Vivaldi and Corelli, while Busoni, Tausig and Reger took the liberty of re-inventing Bach. Virgil Fox, (as a supreme example of the expressionistic/American-Germanic romantic style), re-invented everything he touched.

 

If art is the closest thing to life that we have, then anything which speaks to us across the ages and presents us with a different perspective, is art, whether we like it, hate it, disapprove of it or applaud it.

 

When I listen to Virgil Fox, I know that I am not just listening to an organist running on high-octane; his audiences probably having blood pouring out of their ears. What I am listening to is art imitating life, with the same frenetic energy which took the world from the model-T Ford to the surface of the moon in only 50 or so years.

 

When I listen to Reger, I sense both the turmoil of the man and the turmoil of a nation trapped within a political system which held her back and thwarted ambition; expressed in the musical language of a tortured chromaticism which could go no further.

 

I listen to “A moorland suite” by John Ireland, and sense a nation yearning for a pastoral peace which probably never existed, but which seemed such a pleasant diversion from reality.

 

This brings me closer to answering my own question, because although art may never reflect the past authentically, it can at least reflect our perceptions of history and bring them vividly to life.

 

The problem will always be the manner in which perceptions change, as we select this or that piece of history out of context. When Cecil B de Mille asked for the film-score of "The ten commandments", to be, “....like Wagner; only bigger,” he was doing nothing different to what the director of the film “Amadeus” did to Mozart, or what Virgil Fox and Stokowski did to BWV565.

 

Art doesn’t have to be historically informed or even tasteful; though it often is. It is much more important that art says something about life as it is, or may have been, and if that leads to great or interesting interpretations, and performances which carry conviction, we should perhaps be comfortable with that.

 

MM

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Musing Muso goes a long way to answering his own question and I agree with what he has written above. I think all of us who have commented on this topic are actually saying more or less the same things but in different words.

 

As humans we experience a very wide range of emotions and it is therefore only to be expected that we should respond to a wide range of musical genres and performances. Currently I am greatly influenced by the Liebestod from Tristan and Erbahme Dich from the Matthew Passion and I have recently found a great liking for the Bach cantatas and even the B minor Mass which, for many years, I disliked. I like Elgar - particularly his sadder music but also the more optimistic works - and R Strauss. Of course I like the polyphony of Masses and Motets and the church music of Schubert, Haydn, Mozart and even Rheinberger. I also like a lot of other works, including lighter music. It is a sad and incomplete person whose musical tastes are limited and such limitations make for dull performances.

 

Malcolm

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