Thursday, March 3, 2016

Period, Original or Authentic Instruments

You wouldn't believe the number of books, articles and posts written about this topic. From the outside, what instruments are used to play classical music are pretty obvious:

Click to enlarge
But if you are a practicing classical musician or dig into the history a bit, you start seeing all sorts of interesting things. That orchestra depicted above is comprised of instruments with different origins and varying histories. For example, the bowed string instruments achieved their present (or final?) form by the late 17th century in the workshops of those superb instrument builders Stradivarius, Amati and Guarneri. Though modern builders have tried to surpass the quality of these instruments, most prominent violin soloists prefer to play ones from these three builders (though as it was a family trade, there are actually a number of builders with the same name).

The winds are a different story. The early orchestra was built around the bowed string instruments with the winds treated as mere auxiliaries, mostly for the addition of a particular color or to add weight. This was because early wind instruments tended to have issues with consistency and tuning. The natural horns, for example, were limited to a single key unless they changed "crooks" (a metal tube that changes the length of the sounding tube and hence the fundamental). During the 19th century valves were added to enable the horns and trumpets to play in any key. All of the wind instruments were modified and improved during that time resulting in the symphony orchestra that we know today. Early orchestras only had one percussion instrument: the timpani shown in the above photo. Technical developments were made to enable the pitch of each drum to be quickly changed with a foot pedal and a host of other percussion instruments were added such as the cymbal, triangle, bass drum and literally dozens if not hundreds more! The harp, seen at the back on the right, was added in the 19th century as well.

So by the end of the century the orchestra had grown to around a hundred players with modern winds and percussion. In the early days the wind section had a couple of flutes, a couple of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets. That was it and the trumpets were used only occasionally. By the end of the 19th century there were clarinets in various keys, piccolos, cor anglais, contrabassoon, trombones, tubas and whole bunch of percussion instruments including tubular bells, glockenspiel and xylophone. Keyboard instruments like the piano and celesta also occasionally appeared.

However, even in the first half of the 20th century, a few eccentric musicians like Arnold Dolmetsch and Thurston Dart began to study the instruments of early music and concerts featuring the instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque began to be organized. This trend, often called the Early Music Movement, did not pick up steam and begin to have a public following until after the Second World War when instruments like the harpsichord attracted the attention and devotion of superb musicians like Gustav Leonhardt. There have been several different terms for this movement, but I believe the current one is "Historically informed performance".

You might think that this might be a simple matter of, if you become interested in the music of, say, Monteverdi or Bach, you do some research and notice that the instruments they wrote for are different from the ones in common use today--even the old violins were altered in the 19th century to make them louder--so it might be a good idea to revive some of these old instruments and their playing techniques to see what the music really sounded like.

This soon became a nexus of debate as the use of the term "authentic" as in "first performance on authentic (or original) instruments" was revealed by Richard Taruskin and others as nothing more than crude marketing. After all, if our recording is "authentic" then the others are "inauthentic" or phony!

But the fact remains that the sound of the late 19th century orchestra is wildly different from what we suspect was the sound that Bach or Haydn was used to. But this raises the issue of aesthetic quality. It is pretty clear from the historic record that performances in the 18th century were, by modern standards, severely underrehearsed. A Mozart piano concerto might, might get one rehearsal at best. Often the first time the orchestra read it through was at the concert. We can imagine the poor tuning, misreadings, spotty ensemble and other flaws that were endemic. So a modern performance, even with the different instruments, is likely to be far more accurate and tidy.

So what the period instrument folks are doing these days is using old instruments (or copies) and historic playing techniques together with modern standards of tuning and accuracy and ensemble discipline to deliver a performance that was likely to be never heard before our time! So, not that "historic" after all. But still, I think that I prefer this to a historically unaware performance of Mozart or Bach played no differently than the orchestra might play Brahms or Mahler. Wouldn't you?

As an example of really superb "historically informed performance" on "period instruments" I offer this performance of the Piano Concerto in C minor, K 491 by Mozart played by Malcolm Bilson on a copy of Mozart's own piano with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:


Jeph said...

I'm with you Bryan, I've been researching Bach's Ricercar a 6 for an upcoming concert, and boy are there a lot of recordings larded up with swooning strings on full vibrato and long, almost comical ritardandi. Baroque music benefits enormously from a little restraint in performance. These days, even on modern instruments, some thoughtful players (if you ask me)are switching to a more subdued style. Just enough vibrato to sweeten the sound a bit, more terraced dynamics instead of dramatic crescendi. Historically aware is great, as long as it's not taken to a stifling extreme.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes! I think that any time Bach is played these days, on old or modern instruments, there is an awareness of how the articulation, rhythms and sonorities might have differed in the 18th century. Players like Glenn Gould and Grigory Sokolov have played early music on piano with a brilliant grasp of these differences.