Musical history: historical music

Lawson, C. (2012) Musical history: historical music. In: Proceedings of the Clarinet and Woodwind Colloquium 2007: Celebrating the Collection of Sir Nicholas Shackleton. Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, Edinburgh, pp. 25-30. ISBN ISBN 978 0 907635 59 8


"I am convinced that 'historical' performance today is not really historical; that a thin veneer of historicism clothes a performance style that is completely of our own time, and is in fact the most modern style around; and that the historical hardware has won its wide acceptance and above all its commercial viability precisely by virtue of its novelty, not its antiquity". Richard Taruskin's once notorious yet now widely-accepted views can justifiably be applied to those most tangible of artefacts - the instruments themselves. As long ago as 1932 Arnold Dolmetsch's pupil Robert Donington remarked of his teacher's reconstructions; "the old harpsichord has certain limitations [and produces] a jangle, slight in the treble but audible in the bass. The new instruments, which remedy these historical oversights, have proved both purer and more sustained than any previous harpsichord". Two generations later Robert Barclay drew attention to the finger-holes often placed on copies of the Baroque trumpet, so that "the so-called out-of-tune harmonics of the natural series will not be unpleasant to modern sensitivity. The result is a trumpet which resembles its baroque counterpart only superficially." During the heady days of recording activity in the early 1990s Clive Brown issued a timely warning that the characteristics of some of the orchestral instruments employed in Beethoven cycles by The Hanover Band, Christopher Hogwood and Roger Norrington would certainly not have been familiar to musicians in Beethoven's Vienna and that the public was in danger of being offered "attractively packaged but unripe fruit". During Sir Nicholas Shackleton's lifetime the worlds of the collector and professional period instrumentalist sometimes diverged in quite radical fashion. Clarinets were among the instruments that began to be widely copied within a musical environment where few period conductors showed much organological interest, ever anxious to be acceptable to modern ears. The regularisation of historical pitches, (for instance to A=415 or A=430) has been ironic, given that Quantz in 1752 lamented the lack of a uniform standard, which he reckoned was detrimental to his work as a flautist and to music in general. For today's players it is perhaps unfortunate that organological evidence in the public domain has tended to focus upon such matters as key mechanisms, bores and visual impact, with insufficient attempt to communicate the subtle quality of different instrumental sounds. Of course, words struggle to communicate certain aspects of art, whether quality of timbre or those tiny differences in emphases and timing that distinguish a great performance from a merely good one. As Daniel Türk put it in 1789, "certain subtleties of expression cannot really be described; they must be heard". The fascination with different nationalities of instrument which was a central focus of Nick's life as a collector has been largely ignored in the studio, with composers as diverse as Cherubini, Rossini and Beethoven routinely recorded on the same set of "period" instruments. Unripe fruit indeed!

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