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Historically-Informed Performance Practice

Jason Stell
Vol 1 No 2 (Jun 2022)

Historical accuracy can certainly be taken too far. For instance, I have no particular desire to fly in a replica of the Wright brothers' first aircraft in order to have an authentic appreciation of how they must have felt on that famous day in December 1903. Yet for some, certainly of the more adventurous type, such an experience would be the epitome of time and money well-spent. But in less perilous ventures, historical accuracy is firmly ensconced in our culture. Film-making springs to mind. Historical anachronisms utterly destroy the suspension of disbelief that underlies deep engagement by the viewer. Hence, directors take the utmost care to insist on accuracy in dress, landscape, and text to maintain the façade. It is part of the reason films like Spielberg's Lincoln or Bertolucci's The Last Emperor earn such critical praise. On the other hand, when one realizes kilts were not standard dress in 13th-century Scotland, Mel Gibson's Braveheart loses a bit of luster; and Gladiator's German shepherds, a breed invented in the late 1800s, seem sadly out of place for a movie set in ancient Rome.

Now several generations old, music's historically-informed performance movement operates with a fundamental premise that is both simple and powerful: music from the past was not written with modern instruments in mind. While Bach, Mozart, and Schubert can sound fabulous on today's instruments, the experience of hearing such repertoire on the historical instruments for which it was composed can be a revelation. Staunton's mission is to "Rethink Classical," and that extends to historically-informed performance practice. At Staunton all music composed before 1850 is performed on period instruments (original and replica) by professional musicians highly trained in historical traditions of interpretation and style.

This is not to say that one cannot or should not perform Bach on modern piano. Such things can and do happen on a regular basis. The point here is to stress that modern instruments are not necessarily better because newer. Indeed, with increasing technical development, some nuances, subtle shadings, and aesthetically meaningful advantages have been lost.

A Case Study: Keyboards
Consider keyboards. Modern grand pianos are outstanding creations. They maintain pitch extremely well, making them suitable for domestic situations where daily maintenance and tuning is not possible. They can be scaled to provide the right volume for everything from a small living room to a 5,000-seat concert hall. They have also become standardized around two features: equal temperament (meaning each successive semitone is equal in size, allowing one to play in all major and minor keys) and a range of 88 notes. In their design, all modern pianos utilize crossed bass strings, high string tension, and larger soundboard and hammers than earlier counterparts. True, today's Steinways, Yamahas, and Bösendorfers have their own sonic profiles. But walk into a piano store in Boston or Bosnia and you can sit down to play Mozart or Joplin as if you were in your own home.

Prior to the late 19th century, such uniformity was far less common, if present at all. Through the generosity of private owners and universities, Staunton Music Festival is proud to feature several early keyboards in its concerts. These special guests include replicas of Viennese fortepianos by Walter (ca. 1795) and Conrad Graf (ca. 1830), two magnificent organs built by the famed Taylor & Boody makers, and a half dozen harpsichords of varying eras and national origins. In Staunton you can hear Chopin played on an 1830 piano, or Bach on a replica of a harpsichord he had at his disposal. In the future we hope to present concerts of Fauré and Debussy on grand pianos like those they themselves composed upon – an original Erard or Pleyel from the mid 1850s.

Such historical fidelity can come with a price. We read stories of how Beethoven and Liszt routinely snapped strings or broke keys as they demanded more than then-current pianos could deliver. These composers were pushing the limits, reaching out for pitches, volumes, effects that they could imagine in their minds but not generate from their hands. There is certainly an argument to be made that such composers – seemingly always in search of the next stage of development – would scoff at our allegiance to instruments with very real limitations. Returning to the film analogy, must we insist on watching Gone With the Wind in black-and-white from a “purist” impulse, or do we embrace colorization of the images because (“surely”, we say) the director would have imagined it all taking place in full color? There is no easy answer to that question.

As pianist Andrew Willis notes in his Perspectives video, the distinct sound of each fortepiano derives from so many aspects of its construction: the woods used, the decisions about string types and layouts, the material covering the hammers, and of course the “action” - the manner in which pressing a key motivates a hammer to strike the appropriate string. Are the treble pitches triple or single strung? Are the hammers covered in felt or leather? These considerations – and their impact on the sound produced – go beyond pianos. Does this organ work by mechanically connecting the keys to the flow of air (as in a “tracker” organ) or via electrical assistance? Can one hear a difference in Couperin played on a harpsichord with plectra made from goose quills versus those made from plastic? Experts certainly can, but how much of this subtlety is detected by the general audience member?

One could explore similar topics in relation to all instruments: period versus modern timpani, for example, or the considerations that inform an historically-sound judgment over viola da gamba versus baroque cello versus modern cello. Let us close this short overview with a look at brass instruments. Modern trumpets, trombones, french horns, and tubas exhibit striking changes over their historical predecessors. Apart from the trombone, brass instruments (not to mention clarinets and oboes) have all been profoundly impacted by the invention of valves. Where historical instruments require different lengths of tubing in order to play in different keys, valves essentially mimic that aspect by creating places to allow the vibrating air to escape, thereby determining the pitch. This is why natural trumpets often have to be so long; it is why natural horns can be dismantled quickly to insert additional pieces of pipe.

In his Perspectives video, Todd Williams shows how the modern valve French horn makes the full, chromatic pitch collection readily available. As such, a modern player can navigate any and all keys with relative ease. At the same time, each note carries a very similar and homogeneous color or timbre. On period horns, where pitch is determined by tube length, embouchure (i.e., lip position), and hand placement in the bell, we hear a much wider variety of tonal color. This can be seen as a disadvantage (certain pitches in the key of D major, for instance, sound muted or thin), but it can also unlock a soundworld in which these gradations become important factors to the composer, who must consider how every unique pitch will sound in the total fabric.

Again, the takeaway is simply to appreciate that the instruments we see in a modern orchestra have a long history of evolution. At each stage, something may be gained and something may also be lost. In general, modern instruments have greater uniformity across the range of pitches and can function equally well in all keys. Historical instruments exhibit greater tonal variety and color; they have more character, but pushing them to certain non-standard keys will make evident their technical limitations.

By stressing the value of historically-informed performance practice, one need not assert a judgment about “better” or “worse.” That aesthetic reaction can be left to the listener and the performer. At Staunton Music Festival, our goal is to offer historical perspective, to spotlight elements of music performance that will be overlooked when historical accuracy is not maintained, and to present such experiences in conjunction with works dating from very recent years. In that way, we hope, the entire vast, living array of music composition and performance can be kept vital for our enjoyment and for the edification of generations to come.

On the Other Hand...
We could not let the opportunity slip by to explore the reverse chronological dimension: programming contemporary works that hint at, derive from, or directly embody older musical traditions. For instance, a featured work on the aptly-titled (Neo-)Baroque concert (August 18) will be Stravinsky's grand Symphony of Psalms, a hallmark of his so-called neoclassical period. On the same program, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 from 1720 sits side-by-side with Zachary Wadsworth's Palaces of Memory, a chamber work composed in recent years that utilizes the exact same Baroque scoring as Bach's concerto.

Earlier in the festival, on two programs held August 17th, old and new combine for equally compelling role play. At the noon concert on August 17 (Heucke Meets Mendelssohn), SMF presents the world premiere of a Concerto Grosso commissioned from German composer Stefan Heucke in 2020. More than the backward-looking title, this work brilliantly calls upon two orchestras: one modern and one Baroque. That evening Wadsworth again takes a crack at time travel in his premiere arrangement for Baroque ensemble of Dave Brubeck's iconic jazz standard Take Five for the concert by the same name. Fasten your seat belts!

(c) Jason Stell, 2022

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