Non-interpretation of baroque music

Something I’ve been thinking about for some time is the aspect of interpretation in baroque music. Todays big stars are conductors, directors, singers and musicians – all interpreters of baroque music. But how different this is to the 18th century! There were singers and musicians who were stars of course, but the famous directors of the 18th century also wrote and performed their own music. They didn’t have to ‘interpret’ it, they just played it!

With today’s famous directors and conductors we hear countless different interpretations (what’s more we have recordings of these interpretations) of the same repertoire. 17th century opera in particular is, in my opinion, a real victim here to the pursuit of interpretation, where it’s almost taken for granted that directors will add extra instrumental ritornelli etc. to the existing music. In my experience Cavalli tends to suffer more than others – people particularly like to add instrumental parts to sections of recitative (one particular Belgian gentleman with a penchant for the recorder comes to mind).

By adding ritornelli and composing extra instrumental parts as well as by devising ever increasingly elaborate continuo scorings there seems to be a desire to create the ultimate ‘interpretation’ of a piece of music. I even played a Händel opera once where the director had even written extra viola parts for some of the arias!

I think this approach is out of place in any genuine pursuit of historical performance.

Let’s imagine a performance of a Cavalli opera in 17th century Venice. A small wooden theatre with several singers and a band composed of 2 violins and a bass violin, 2 theorboes and 2 harpsichords (we know from records that Cavalli used on many occasions a band just like this). The violins played the ritornelli. The theorboes and harpsichords accompanied the singers who just sang the music and doubtlessly added some (bad-ass) ornamentation.

In other words, they just played – and sang – the music.

Surely the ultimate goal of the historical performer is to try to recreate the music as it was heard in its original context?! If that’s the case then why do we so rarely hear Cavalli played with appropriate instrumentation in all it’s glorious unadulterated form?

I guess I’m talking about a kind of interperative-minimalism here. Get the right kit, get the right technique, play the music and see what happens! Take a step back and enjoy the music for what it is. Let Cavalli speak as vividly to us today as he did in the 17th century. Let’s forget big egos and new recordings of Händel’s Messiah. Hey, let’s even forget our preconceived ideas about what the music ‘should’ sound like!

Baroque music just needs good musicians to come alive – interpretation as in the 17th and 18th centuries could be added in the form of ornamentation, let’s not re-write the music to suit our ideals.

7 Replies to “Non-interpretation of baroque music”

  1. Hi Richard
    Good point well made. but this observation goes far beyond baroque and far beyond music even!
    The problem here is a micromanagement mindset, failing to see the big picture in large scale context. I can just see that crazy guy scribbling away at his extra viola parts getting further and further away from the truth and really getting off on his own importance!- he probably only saw the entire world through a viola clef for weeks upon weeks! Tragic!
    Big picture!

  2. I always like to compare our attempt to re-create early music styles with foreigners playing Irish trad music. They have a huge advantage in having both living performers and recordings to copy, but still it will take a generation or two for them to sound any way authentic. The way they handle the ornamentation is the give-away: there is such a difference between playing an ornament as an ornament, and playing it as a structural note (as you would if you learn from recordings).

    We will never recreate the original ethos of baroque music, any more than we will speak French with Louis XIV’s inflections, but your generation of musicians have enough role-models to feel at home in a more-or-less agreed reading. You can stop thinking about style and just do it; our generation couldn’t.

  3. I did enjoy reading your article; but often find myself taking issue over the same question of approach, but from the other end of the spectrum.

    Take the idea, for instance, of an “original” version of Messiah, say. It looks as though Handel did a new one every now and then himself. A new singer in town, a new version of that aria, now as an accompagnato recit. A version in 12/8 of something that was already wonderful in 4/4. A version for outdoors with lots of oboes.

    I heard a friend saying how she had been touring a supposedly “Original, 1st version” of Messiah, and it wasn’t so good (it was Kym Amps, and we were at a conference run by an academic guy in the U.S.). He cited the example of one of the poets he worked on, Pope, who re-did his magnum opus constantly until the end of his life, each version better than the last. In contrast, Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ was also reworked often, each version worse than the last. Which is more relevant?

    I’ve also had to do a fair bit of reconstruction of works where bits are missing. I found this very rewarding, and I did like that you mentioned that musicians used to play their own works. Shouldn’t we just be learning to compose like our great predecessors, so that there’s hardly a perceptible difference if we feel some necessity to amend a bit here and there?

    And wouldn’t it be lovely if we all played our own sonatas too?

  4. Hi Richard,

    Have you read Bruce Haynes’s book “the end of early music” OUP 978-0-19-518987-2?

    It looks at the current schools of “interpretation” from a very personal perspective and is refreshingly polemic.

  5. Alan Curtis has expressed similar opinions- see ‘Inside Early Music’.
    To me – and to him- the problem, when Italian early opera is concerned lies deeper and it’s to do with language and meaning. The fact is that most conductors, continuo pl…ayers and the singers themselves don’t really understand the language. When say an English singer forgets his text he would usually sing some jibberish while an Italian would paraphrase as they understand the meaning of the text – that’s a fundemental difference. So what you get in the UK for instance, are singers who are concerned with voice production and an approximate phonetic rendering of italian sounds, while the continuo players are trying to project and be clever in their realizations in ways which are more often than not divorced from the text – in other words a glorious tedium and a rather empty experience. This is precisely when the need is felt to orchestrate the continuo, add ritornelli etc. It’s only with singers and continuo players who are attentive to every inflection and nuance of the text in an emotional and genuine way that the magic of Monteverdi can really happen. But using authentic forces without the meaning would remain meaningless, only slightly more authentically so!

  6. Richard, thank you for this article! (a bit late but better than never) I am really happy with your doubt about the “institutional” type of early music performing. Concerning the term “interpretation”, it seems to me that we directly go back to the age of hero type of musicians, the composer as a suffering genius against the whole silly world, the musical work as a “divine” “self – enlightenment” needed to be possesion to the next generation. With other words, “interpret” probably means totally different direction from the living music.
    I totally agree with you – we (I mean our age and most of the musicians) are deep in the ego and for me this and the matters I mentioned above are evidences that we are still living in something like post-romantic type of realization of the musical process and generally the figures of the composers and the players – singers. I very often feel that the changing of the modern instruments to copies is only the first step, but shouldn’t be the last.
    Yes, we are still far from “just playing”, but if we imagine that to play is to speak a common language freely (as this music probably was), we just need to know what exactly is this language, how it works and how to impress our inner world with it instead of to imitate “historical” sound which we still don’t understand very well. I just feel that for us something of the grammar and the vocabulary is still missing. All the concepts, different “interpretations” and “artistic” visions, the musicological quarrels are more or less evidences for it…I think…

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