Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Harnoncourt - Baroque Music Today

Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech : Ways to a New Understanding of Music
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Publisher: Amadeus Press 1995
ISBN: 0931340918

Love him or hate him, call him a pioneering genius or dusty and mannered, Nikolaus Harnoncourt deserves a lot of credit. Not only did he lead the period-instrument movement into its first major successes (both artistic and commercial) but his ideas about how to play Baroque- and Classical-era music (and why to play it that way) have had enormous influence even on conventional symphony orchestras and their conductors. This volume is a collection of essays and lectures Harnoncourt has given over the years laying out those very ideas. The title, Baroque Music Today, is something of a misnomer at this point: the latest essay in the book dates from 1980, and the second essay, "The Interpretation of Historical Music," is effectively the founding mission statement (from 1954) of Harnoncourt's period-instrument orchestra, the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. While the occasional observation seems dated or debatable, and certain points are repeated from chapter to chapter (the chapters were originally separate lectures), most of what Harnoncourt has to say remains both instructive and persuasive.

Extract: Music in Our Lives

From the Middle Ages to the French Revolution, music was one of the foundations of our culture, indeed, of our very lives. The understanding of music was part of a general education. Today, music has become simply an ornament used to embellish idle evenings with trips to the opera or to concerts, to evoke public festivity or even to banish or enliven the silence of domestic loneliness with sounds from the radio. A paradox has emerged: quantitatively, we have much more music today than ever before; almost uninterrupted music, but it is no longer very relevant to our lives. It has become simply a pretty adornment.

We find importance in other things than did the people of earlier times. How much strength and suffering and love they squandered in constructing their temples and cathedrals, how little they expended for the machinery of comfort and convenience! For people today, a car or an aeroplane is more valuable than a violin, the circuitry of the computer's brain more important than a symphony. We pay all too dearly for what we regard as comfortable and essential, while we heedlessly discard the intensity of life in favour of the tinsel of creature comforts; and what we have once truly lost, we will never be able to regain.

This fundamental change in the significance of music has taken place with increasing rapidity over the past two centuries. At the same time, a change has occurred in our attitude toward contemporary music, as well as art in general: as long as music was an essential part of life, it could emanate only from the contemporary world. It was the living language for something which could not be said in words; it could be understood only by contemporary human beings. Music brought about changes in people, in listeners as well as in musicians. It had to be continually recreated, just as human beings had to keep on building new homes, in keeping with new patterns of living, new intellectual climates. Thus old music, the music of previous generations, could no longer be understood and used, although its great artistry was occasionally admired.

Since music is no longer found at the centre of our lives, all this has changed: now that it is regarded as an ornament, it is felt that music should first and foremost be 'beautiful.' Under no circumstances should it be allowed to disturb or startle us. The music of the present cannot fulfill this requirement because at the very least, like all art, it reflects the spiritual and intellectual situation of its time, and this is true of our present time as well. Yet honestly coming to terms with our spiritual and intellectual situation cannot be merely beautiful: it has an impact on our very lives and is therefore disturbing to us. This has resulted in the paradoxical situation that people have turned away from contemporary art because it is disturbing, perhaps necessarily so. Rather than confrontation, we sought only beauty, to help us to overcome the banality of everyday life. Thus art in general, and music in particular, became simply ornamental and people turned to historical art and to old music, for here they could find the beauty and harmony that they sought.

As I see it, this interest in old music, by which I mean music not written by our generation, could only occur as the result of a series of glaring misunderstandings. Thus we are able to use only 'beautiful' music, which the present is unable to offer us. There has never been a kind of music that was merely 'beautiful.' While 'beauty' is a component of every type of music, we can make it into a determining factor only by disregarding all of music's other components. Only since we have ceased to understand music as a whole, and perhaps no longer want to be able to understand it, has it been possible for us to reduce music to its beautiful aspect alone, to iron out all of its wrinkles. And because music has in general terms become simply a pleasant garnish for our everyday lives, we can no longer fully comprehend old music; that is, what we actually call music, because we have not been able to reduce it to a purely aesthetic dimension and to iron it smooth.

We find ourselves today in what amounts to a dilemma, therefore, if we continue to believe in the impact of music, in its power to change us, for the general spiritual condition of our times has shifted music from its central position to one on the periphery, from something with moving force to something that is simply pretty. We must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with this; indeed, if I were to believe that this is the ineluctable fate of our art, I would immediately stop making music. I believe, therefore, with ever greater hope, that we will soon recognize that we cannot renounce music, and the unwitting reduction of which I spoke is renunciation, that we can unhesitatingly submit to the power and message of the music of Monteverdi, Bach or Mozart. The more deeply and totally we try to understand this music, the more we shall see what this music still is, above and beyond mere beauty, how it opens us up and unsettles us with the diversity of its language. And finally, once we have understood the music of Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart, we will have to find our way back to the music of our own time, the music which speaks our language, embodies our culture and moves us forward. Does not the fact that art no longer strongly affects our lives underlie much of what makes our times so unharmonious and terrible? Are we not reducing ourselves with a shameful lack of imagination to the language of the 'sayable'?

What would Einstein have thought, what would he have achieved, had he not played the violin? Only the imagination can produce the daring, creative hypotheses which then must be demonstrated by logical thought processes. It is no coincidence that the reduction of music to the beautiful, and thereby to the generally comprehensible, occurred at the time of the French Revolution. There have been many periods throughout history during which attempts were made to simplify music and to confine it to the emotional sphere, so that it could be understood by anyone. Each of these attempts failed, resulting in new diversity and complexity. Music can be generally comprehensible only when it is reduced to a primitive level or when each individual person learns to understand the language of music.

The most far-reaching attempt to reduce music to a level which could be understood by all occurred as a result of the French Revolution. This was the first time that a great nation had ever attempted to employ music in the service of new political ideas: the ingenious pedagogical program of the Conservatoire was the first effort to reduce music to the common in the history of the art. Even today, musicians the world around continue to be trained in European music by the methods developed in revolutionary France, and listeners are taught, in keeping with the same principles, that it is not necessary to study music in order to comprehend it: all that is called for is simply to find it beautiful. Each individual therefore feels entitled and qualified to form his own judgment as to the value and the performance of music, an attitude which was perhaps valid for post-revolutionary music, but which in no way applies to the music of the preceding ages.

I am deeply convinced that it is of critical importance for the state of western European intellectual life that we live within our own culture. As far as music is concerned, this requires two new departures: first, new methods, or methods similar to those used over two hundred years ago, must be used to train musicians. Rather than teaching music as language, our academies drill only techniques of performance. This focus is, however, merely the lifeless skeleton of technocracy. Secondly, general training in music needs to be rethought and accorded the status it deserves. We will then be able to gaze with fresh vision upon the great works of the past, in all of their stirring, transforming diversity. And this will in turn prepare us for what is yet to come.

We all need music; without it we cannot live.

I. Basic Principles of Music and Interpretation
Music in Our Lives.
The Interpretation of Historical Music.
Musical Understanding and the Training of Musicians.
Problems of Notation.
Tone Systems and Intonation.
Music and Sound.
Old Instruments: Yes or No?
The Reconstruction of Original Sound Conditions in the Studio.
Priorities: The Relative Importance of the Various Factors.
II. Instrumentarium and Musical Discourse
Viola da Brazzo and Viola da Gamba.
The Violin: The Solo Instrument of the Baroque.
The Baroque Orchestra.
The Relationship Between "Words" and Tones in Baroque Instrumental Music.
From Baroque to Classicism.
Origin and Development of Music as Speech (Klangrede).
III. European Baroque Music
Program Music Vivaldi: Opus 8.
The Italian and French Styles.
Austrian Baroque Composers Attempts at Reconciliation.
Telemann The "Mixed" [Eclectic] Style.
Baroque Instrumental Music in England.
Concerto Grosso and Trio Sonata in the Works of Handel.
What an Autograph Can Tell Us.
Dance MovementsThe Suites of Bach.
French Baroque Music Excitingly New.
French Opera: Lully-Rameau.
Reflections of an Orchestra Member on a Letter by W. A. Mozart.

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1 comment:

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