Playing Early Music: a guitarist’s introduction to historically inspired performance #2

by Harold Gretton

Article 2:

What are primary sources and do we need them?

The following is a  brief summary of historically inspired performance (HIP) and issues arising from HIP, conceived for guitarists who are not necessarioy familar with the literature on the subject. Those who have read Kenyon’s symposium on the subject, Taruskin’s Text and Act, Haynes The End of Early Music, and other such tomes, will find nothing new. It is hoped that players shall be stimulated to question their interpretative choices and perhaps seek out primary sources,in the hope of freeing themselves from the written score when interpreting early music.

1. What is early music?

The question “what is ‘early music’” might be rephrased as: what music may be considered historical, and of relevance to a HIP approach? In 1988, a now renowned collection of articles edited by Nicholas Kenyon in the small volume Authenticity and Early Music was published. At this time it may still have been controversial in some circles to make an ‘authentic’, or ‘historically inspired’, performance of works written in the early 19th century. Robert P. Morgan points out, in his contribution to the volume, the change in what repertoire may be the subject of a historically inspired performance (pp. 76-77). Morgan refers to the definition of Performance Practice given by Howard Mayer Brown in the 1980 edition of The New Grove, in which ‘early music’ refers only to music written before 1750. According to this early definition (itself, ironically, now historical), the entire repertoire for six-string guitar is not considered a suitable subject for HIP!

Of course such a limited definition of ‘early music’ was very quickly superseded, and the 1984 edition of The New Grove already contains a section by Robert Winter on performance practice since 1750. It is interesting to note the reason that 1750, or indeed any date, was provided as a cut-off date for HIP. By way of explanation, Kenyon (p.11) refers to an argument given by Nicholas Harnoncourt in his introduction to a 1968 recording of Bach’s B minor Mass. Paraphrased by Kenyon, Harnoncourt suggests that there was no need to re-imagine Beethoven due to “continuity of performance”. Because works by Beethoven never stopped being performed since their first performances, present-day interpretations may be regarded as authentic, based on a tradition that has preserved, through repetition, the original performance.

In the guitar world, that is like saying that if your teacher’s teacher’s teacher studied with Coste, himself a student of Sor, you have authority on Sor’s own performance practice.

A continuous performance tradition is unlikely to preserve a performance practice over the course of 200 years. Performance practice has a tendency to change. It is enough to compare the performances of students of Segovia with those of Segovia himself to accept that the authority of a continuous performance tradition is limited. Morgan eloquently summarizes this change when he states: “the way Mozart was played in the earlier nineteenth century … was already quite different from the way Mozart himself played. This does not mean that a performing tradition did not exist, but simply that it did not remain unchanged.” (Authenticity and Early Music p.77).

The same changes may be observed when comparing the performance practices of, say, Fernando Sor and Napoléon Coste. Though Coste certainly considered himself as continuing the performing tradition established by Sor, unconscious changes may nevertheless provide limits on the extent to which Sor influenced the younger French guitarist.

In order to illustrate the speed with which performing traditions change, Morgan goes on to give an example of a performer who re-recorded the songs of Gerschwin (of which recordings were made within the composer’s lifetime) in an attempt to recapture their original sound. Similarly recent examples may be found in abundance in the guitar community. Guitarists seeking to capture the original performing tradition are no longer content to accept editions fingered by eminent performer’s like Segovia, John Williams or Julian Bream. There is an increasing market for Urtext or (preferably) facsimile editions, no matter the potential problems of these. Everybody is, quite rightly, expected to be aware of the manuscript of Sonatas by Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s and José, or the Cinco Piezas by Piazzolla.

Even where the composer is not a guitarist and worked closely with the dedicatee in order to develop an edition with which both parties are happy, that edition is no longer regarded with as much authority as a manuscript, whether or not the latter is unplayable or hopelessly unidiomatic. The result is too often a bizarre situation in which players struggle to play notes as written in a manuscript at the expense of phrasing. The holy scripture of the written score is endowed with greater importance than the actual performance, a phenomenon referred to in the previous article as partiturtreue.

Of course, this practice is understandable, especially when regarded in light of the many freedoms taken by early interpreters (such as Coste with Sor in his re-edition of Sor’s studies), and it does illustrate that there is no historical limit on what may be considered historical. A work written yesterday may be treated with an informed or uninformed approach: the interpreter has the option of informing him- or herself on the circumstances of the composition and first performance, or not.

A further and final illustration of the “chronological advance” of what works may be considered historical comes from my own experience with the Sequenza XI for guitar (1988) by Luciano Berio (1925-2003). Interested in the work, I visited the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel in order to look at the manuscripts and early drafts, as well as letters between the composer and the dedicatee, Eliot Fisk. I was surprised to find that the first complete draft of the work was practically devoid of fingerings, harmonics, phrasing marks, dynamics, and numerous other interpretive signs that appear in the published score. The conclusion I drew from this observation was that these interpretive signs were contributed by Fisk before being approved by Berio for publication. Whether or not this conclusion is correct, when I related it to fellow guitarists at guitar festivals internationally, their reaction was often to take this as a license to alter the published score. Rightly or wrongly, the examination of historical sources gave greater freedom to interpreters, and freedom from the published score! This is the opposite of partiturtreue, historical information being used to validate performance decisions which give public performance greater importance than a written score.

Any work written in the past (which is to say before the present day), may be treated as the subject of a historically inspired interpretation.

The next article deals in greater detail with what HIP is, and defines primary sources, giving examples of what material the performer can look for when setting out on a HIP approach.

Article summary:

  1. Any work written before now may be considered historical and be researched in order to make a historically inspired performance.
  2. A continuous performance tradition does not preserve performance practice.
  3. Relying only on an original manuscript may go contrary to the aims of performance, resulting in something awkward and unmusical.
  4. Historical research of a range of sources may liberate us from a score.

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