Early Music and Movies

Because I am studying something a little more "off the beaten path", I often have to explain what early music is (as opposed to not-early music) and justify why one would even want to do it.  Explaining this to other musicians is certainly an interesting task, but explaining it to non-musicians baffled me for quite a while.  Finally I think I have found an explanation that works for everyone. 

So let's start with a comparison:  music is like movies.

Music has performers.
Movies have actors.
In both, the performer/actor is presenting something to an audience, hoping to move the audience in some way.

So far, so good?  Awesome.

Movies come in different genres (action, horror, romance, comedy, sci-fi, etc.)
Music can come in different genres based on instrumentation and form (orchestral, solo, vocal, instrumental, etc.) or from different time periods or composers (romantics, classicists, impressionists, jazz, baroque, renaissance, medieval, and many of the more modern 20th and 21st century techniques).

Movies can involve many different actors (or groups of actors).
Music can involve many different performers (or groups of performers).

In movies, you do not always assume that an actor who is good in one genre of film would be good in another.  For example, many people are fans of Adam Sandler's comedy work, but somehow I don't think he would thrive as well in a serious drama.  There are always exceptions to the rule, of course.  Robin Williams' comedy brilliance is well known, and his dramatic roles are also always excellent.  The reason this works, though, is that he doesn't use the same delivery in a comedy that he does in a drama.  The techniques of acting that he employs in Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, are very different from Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society.

In music, it should be the same, but it isn't always.  For some reason, some musicians expect to play every piece in the same style, regardless of genre.  Obviously, techniques appropriate to jazz do not always transfer to Beethoven piano sonatas, or vice versa.  Fortunately, many musicians are wiser than this and recognize that each piece should be played in its own style with its own unique characteristics.  Ladies and gentlemen - this is the premise of early music. 

As I have often explained to my vocalist friends in other departments, one would never dream of singing Mozart and Wagner in the same style.  Obviously, solid technique is a must for both, but the stylistic characteristics (and costumes!) are very different.  Early vocal music often gets a reputation for being an excuse for bad technique, but this is such a misconception.  Bad singing is bad singing, no matter what is being sung.  There have been performances and recordings made of any and every piece of music with bad technique.  That is not a phenomenon unique to "early" music.  Good singing is good singing, no matter what the repertoire is.  Honestly, some "early" repertoire is so outstandingly difficult that it is impossible to sing without solid technique.  Early music isn't about good technique or bad technique any more than any other musical genre.  I sing with just as much power and support as my opera colleagues.  I sing with vibrato.  I use different articulations and ornaments for colors and effects.  Obviously, when I'm performing with a lute, my volume level is lower to accommodate the softer sound of the lute.  When I'm singing a recitative (as I did this summer) accompanied by six harpsichords, an organ, a clavicytherium, and cello, more volume and power is required.  Early music is about performing music before 1750 (or so, depending on who you talk to) and performing it in the proper style and, in many cases, on the proper instruments.

But back to the point about actors sometimes only being successful in one genre and sometimes being able to succeed in many...

In this area, musicians are the same.  Some musicians can make a career of only performing one thing (Beethoven piano sonatas or Puccini operas), while others can be successful with multiple things.  Many performers of medieval and renaissance music are also successful performers of 20th and 21st century music, including some very avant-garde styles.

One more comparison before I leave the movie analogy...

Sometimes, movies are bad.
Sometimes, musical performances are bad.

Yes, it happens.  And it happens to everyone.  No matter the genre of music or movie, bad happens.  I have often heard "modern" musicians criticize "early" musicians for a bad performance, saying that "gut strings are just an excuse to play out of tune."  Well, out of tune happens.  It happens to everyone, regardless of gut strings or metal wound strings.  Bad movies are made.  Bad concerts are recorded.

Now, legitimately, if you look for it, there is quite a bit of distasteful early music that has been recorded.  My music history listening CDs from college are full of terrible recordings of early music.  I think it is a huge shame that whoever made the CDs chose to use such awful recordings, because all music deserves to be shown in its best light.  There are absolutely mind-blowing performances of the madrigals of Gesualdo, early Italian Trecento repertoire, and chant.  But the recordings on those CDs are full of bad technique, bad diction, horrible intonation, and all the things that would make anyone hang their head in shame.  On the same CD are some fantastic performances of Schubert and Schuman Lieder.  Possibly the person who put the CD collection together hated early music.  Possibly they didn't have many recordings to choose from.  Or they were cheap or lazy.  I don't know.  I know I can find amazing recordings of Hildegard von Bingen's responsories on youtube, along with clips from the latest Hollywood Blockbuster.  I can also find terrible recordings, along with segments from laughably bad B-rate horror films.

Unfortunately, it is also true that many of us come to the earlier styles of music after having spent many years learning later repertoire.  This is less of a challenge for vocalists, and more of a challenge for instrumentalists.  Violinists may begin their training at a very young age, but a baroque violin is a different instrument than its modern cousin.  Gut strings make a different sound, and the bow is held in a different way.  Playing a piano is a very different experience from playing a harpsichord, even though both are keyboard instruments.  Sadly, most people don't start on harpsichord or baroque cello or theorbo.  Maybe one of the few instruments which has remained more or less unchanged is the recorder... and that is now being taught to hundreds of elementary school students as a "beginning instrument".  Personally, I love the recorder.  Everyone should learn to play the recorder.  That said, treating the recorder as a children's instrument only, perhaps as a step-up to a clarinet (a "real instrument"), ignores the fact that there is an amazing repertoire for recorder that requires as much skill and virtuosity on recorder as one would expect from any other "professional" instrument.

With that said, it is incumbent upon those of us who are performing on early instruments or performing early repertoire to dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to our performances.  We should not be content with bad performances.  If the pieces we are working on are badly written, we should find new ones.  There is no excuse for poor performance, no matter what the repertoire.  A bad movie is a bad movie, no matter the genre.  A good performance is a good performance, no matter what pieces are performed.

Obviously, every person has their own personal preferences.  I happen to love action and sci-fi movies.  My husband loves comedies.  I also happen to love the music of Hildegard von Bingen.  I love early Italian baroque works.  My husband loves playing orchestral music of Russian composers.  I'm not a huge fan of horror movies.  I also don't care much for Schoenberg.  Everyone is entitled to their own preferences.  Whether one happens to like early music is a separate issue from what early music is and whether a performance is good or not.

Hopefully you made it through the analogy!
The next installment:  Everyone is an early musician (they just don't know it yet).