There was a time I thought that musicologists studied music and musicians and made into a science that very act of observation. They wrote things and read what each other wrote and created an almost separate camp of musically active professionals, professionals whose task it was to understand, to document, to explain what musicians do and did.
As with all sciences, of course, convincing someone of any hypothesis is half the battle. But once you have convinced enough of the establishment new work starts to be created, based upon your own, however wrong it was in the first place. I call this The Beringia Complex. Beringia, we are told, was a land-mass situated between Siberia and Alaska which obligingly popped up every now and then from beneath the oceans during particularly cold snaps when so much of our oceanic water was holed up as frozen ice on our polar caps. And then along came Siberians and meandered across into North America—skip to the lou my darling—all the way. How tidy, how imaginative, how convenient even.
And so was the history of all North, Central and South America determined. Indeed, all First Nations peoples were from Siberia. Not only did they waltz across only when Beringia did her three various appearances, each about 5,000 years or so apart, but they got stranded in Alaska, poor things, and couldn’t walk through central Alaska because a pesky big glacier was in the middle of their planned route. But, in due course, the ice melted once more, Beringia sunk back under the waves and Alaskan glaciers obliged by receding sufficiently to let our First Americans perambulate on down as far as the Monte Verde in Chile. And upon all this was built a whole plethora of disciplines and theories.
So one day, many years ago, I wrote to the NASA’s Goddard Weather Center and asked just what the modern Bering Straits look like at the coldest time of the year up there, March. They kindly obliged me with numerous photos, graphs, diagrams showing recent, old and even extrapolated ancient ice patterns between Siberia and Alaska. And, lo and behold, I feel pretty sure you could almost have made it across the meagre 50 miles on foot many many times in past years, hopping from one ice floe to another. And as it turned out, in 1998 two men, father and son, did just that! Furthermore, to speculate for a moment, if so much water were frozen on the icecaps wouldn’t the North Pole be so much larger that the exposed Beringia would have been covered by ice? And anyway, who needs land to get to America? Are we to understand that the Aboriginals of Australia waited for an ice age to hop, skip and jump from island to island 50,000 years ago? So if not, if we suppose that the Australians had boats so long ago why wouldn’t Siberians have been able to build them a mere 15,000 years ago? One word: Pseudoscience. Far more likely, as the science community is slowly beginning to agree, they skirted around the ice edge on boats all the way from Siberia right down to Chile.
Today we tend to see water as an obstacle; we can’t walk over it, drive across it or swim very far in it. But if we go back to a time such as the 17th century, when land travel was much slower, a time when horses generally didn’t pull coaches much faster than a human walked, when a trip from Leipzig to Hamburg probably was as quick to walk as to hitch hike, waterways were the ideal highways. You could take a boat, for example, down the Seine from Paris and up to Oxford along the Thames, crossing the English Channel en route, and on it carry loads never possible overland. We see England’s eastern coast as a shoreline surrounding England but back in Viking days it was a shoreline surrounding part of the North Sea much as the Riviera does part of the Mediterranean. We even think of England as being cut off from Europe, as might be modern thinking, where actually traveling back and forth from England to continental Europe was much faster while water ran between, than when England was still joined by luscious meadows. Perspective is the problem here, and how one gets ones mind back into the perspective of the people being studied. And, of course, paleoanthropology is not the only victim of this kind of wrong-turn backseat driving phenomena. Musicology is no more spared it than any other branch of science. In fact, I wonder sometimes, if musicology is the most stricken with it today.
Take, for example, the harpsichord described and depicted in 1440 by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle in which he has taken the principles of Pythagorus for the length of organ pipes (double the length from the mouth of the pipe to the end of the pipe for each octave lower) and applied them to the string lengths of clavichord strings. This all works fine. However, Arnaut then goes on to describe a plucking harpsichord where the string does not sound by being stricken with a tangent, and where the string does not vibrate from a tangent to the bridge but along its whole length. And so the strings on Arnaut’s harpsichord are longer than they should ideally be.
To make matters worse, of course, he was not the only one doing this. There is an upright harpsichord built probably in Ulm around 1480 where the same erroneous principles were employed. There are also a couple of instruments built in Italy where we see the same issues. If Arnaut’s measurements were just plain wrong, as is probably the case, then others in the 15th century were jumping off the same cliff. Not only they, but people today (who ought to know better), are building instruments according to Arnaut’s design and repeating the same errors! The Beringia Complex all over again!
We have now turned musical evolution on its head by creating the very notion of Historically Informed Performance, the Early Music movement and all the musicians and musicologists who follow on behind it. In the hope of understanding the past and how music was performed, and in an almost anthropological way, we started to recreate what we thought might have been the way music had been performed in past centuries. But to do this we needed to read, and read, and read some more. Many people of the Renaissance and Baroque were keen to write on musical matters and publish them, such as Arnaut de Zwolle, just as modern musicologists do today. Even though these ancients were living at the same time as the music they were writing about, they were writing often with very subjective and often inaccurate points of view. Travel still wasn’t then what it is today and often musicologists would express opinions about things in foreign lands they could only know about indirectly through others and, as we all know, the story changes in the telling…
The modern anthro-musicologist is distanced not only in space but time and culture. Someone warned me not too long ago how much noisier our streets are today than in 17th century Paris. I live in central Berlin and the quiet hum of passing cars can’t possibly be as loud, or as busy, or as distracting, as a score of horse-drawn carriages and their metal-rimmed wheels with four or eight—or even sixteen—metal shod hooves clattering along streets roughly paved with cobblestones, bits and bridles clanking, drivers chortling. It is very hard to put modern experiences and notions to one side and be open to what might have been.
One interesting disparity seems to have changed little; the theory of things and the practice of them often do not quite tally up. The musicologist finds it hard to accept that what seems to be purely logical just doesn’t end being what ancients did. The pitch of the ancient Chinese zither, Gu Qin, for example, was determined by having the strings the same length as a certain number of rice grains lined up tip to tip. This varied, of course, from year to year region to region. The better the year, the lower the pitch! How poetic yet how random!
What often catches the modern Historical Performance musicologist out is how they assume there to be a universal qualitative norm, regardless of the epoch. They argue that what they think of as bad is what a 17th century person would think is bad too, whether it be a tuned interval or an appoggiatura on a downbeat. Probably not. But reading, and more reading, might never unearth things which could clear it up—writings which many in the 17th century just wouldn’t have read. And so the musicologist starts to tell us, dictate to us, what was done—even when there is no way of really knowing. Did the average person you see in a 17th century painting from, say, Belgium, really tune the instrument with a perfectly proportioned scale, based upon the teachings of Italian theorists who wrote a century before in Latin, for example? It doesn’t take a time traveler to see what utter nonsense this is. But there are those who insist that every person who played the harpsichord was an expert tuner too. Was that even important to the ancients? Did they really care if they played William Byrd on an English virginals or on a German harpsichord? Should we care? Should we only play American music on a Steinway and German music on a Bösendorfer?
But somehow Early Music musicologists grabbed onto musical memes such as vibrato, pitch, tunings and even historical glues. Did they use vibrato between 1550 and 1750? Probably (we have enough physical and contextual evidence to show it.) Should we play Bach at a = 415 Hz and Händel at 422 Hz, Louis Couperin at 392 Hz and his nephew François at 409 Hz just because the pitches might—just might—be close to what people around them were using some of the time? Should we accept that musicians read rule books before getting up to play in public? How wonderfully naive. I hear people today claiming that the most important thing for them when listening to Baroque music on the harpsichord is that it is tuned correctly. I wish only that my life were so simple!
Sure, these marvellous snippets of information, be it about tunings, instrument construction or set up, even fingerings and phrasings, vocal techniques etc. do give a broader understanding of the mind set of the people writing and playing music in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But that is all they do. We cannot possibly hope to get it “right” hundreds of years after they died. These memes have given countless music lovers the false notion that by applying these aspects to their playing they approach playing well. But music making isn’t like buying a paint-by-numbers kit. There is no right and wrong. There are only two ways to play: well and badly.
This week a singer brought to me for a rehearsal the Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus) by Buxtehude, a choral piece with solos for various voice types. I dutifully tuned a fitting tuning scale system for Germany in the time of Buxtehude and was mortified by the screamingly painful intervals. Playing in f minor, c minor, e-flat major, b major… He can’t possibly have tuned his instrument this way—could he? I’m sure few musicians apart from myself would dare to tune like this, resulting in such agonising enharmonic misspellings. Musicologists would be quick to scold anyone who did! But wait!!! What is the piece about? Oh yes, that’s right: The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus.
Likewise, I hear cries of foul play when howling a-flat major chords show up with 17th century tunings during Froberger’s Lamentation on the very painful death of His Imperial Majesty, Ferdinand the Third. “That tuning makes a-flat major sound too painful.” But once again, what was the piece about? The very painful death of Ferdinand the Third. When Froberger says “very painful” how painful was it? Do we go with modern doctors’ techniques and ask for a number on a scale from one to ten?
Musicologists jump to correct musicians and to tell them how to play and how to set up their instruments. And yet so many of them, and the players therefore, have completely missed the whole point of the music they think they understand so well. Indeed, they have so fully misunderstood the personality of the times, the sentiments and culture. Thinking of the Baroque as a chocolate box example of grace and elegance, as most now seem to, but missing the underlying punk personality the period is saturated with, is having the whole aesthetic fly right past your ear. Buying a new harpsichord with modern faux chinoiserie in poor imitation of a bygone aeon slapped on it like icing on a home made wedding cake will trick only the fool’s eye and is just about as antithetic as it gets.
Copying daft errors, such as Arnaut de Zwolle’s hypothetical harpsichord, seeing only the trees and not the forest by focusing on the least important of issues of tuning, vibrato and pitch, misses the point completely and is little more than pedantry; an attempt to show ones wisdom while revealing ones lack of it. Maybe it’s time the tail stopped wagging the dog. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate and get a more realistic perspective back and start making good music again, rather than “historically corrected” music.
I noticed a remark on a social networking site the other day posted by the builder of my guitar, Filipe Conde, about how much he missed his late father on Father’s Day. This builder learned from his father, one of the Conde brothers, who, in turn, learned from his uncle—one of the two greatest masters of Spanish guitar building, Domingo Esteso. The other great master was Esteso’s teacher, Ramírez. I am very happy to be the proud owner of a Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar, one of my most prized possessions. Esteso and Conde guitars were the staple of the greats: of Paco de Lucia, Paco Peña, Juan Martin and even Sabicas (whose brother and former duet partner lived right above me in Manhattan, years ago). And after sending my condolences to Filipe I reflected on why I, a harpsichordist, had bought a Conde flamenco guitar. There was something so attractive and appealing about instrument builders who made instruments for their time, modern instruments, which reflect the past traditions but yet are developed to suit the modern mind. And flamenco, a current and contemporary art form so rich in freedom and they joy of making music together, with each other, for each other, so alive and without the electron microscope hovering constantly over the music desk. Flamenco and guitar building, two remarkable arts freed of the shackles of musicology; of historicity and pedanticity. Here, the musicologist listens, learns and retells but never dictates. Perhaps there is an example to be learned from this.