“It’s How Bach Would Have Heard It”: Stifling Creativity Through Historical Reconstructionism

I recently read a review in the New York Times that criticizes professional musicians for making artistic choices. A critic judges a professional German symphony and its conductor to be unmusical (or less musically perfect than they are capable of) because they made the conscious decision to not diminish the size of the orchestra for certain selections in their program. This scolding is part of a large, increasingly emboldened segment of the classical music academy that has begun to call for all performances to be “historically informed”. The movement seeks to synthesize the research of musicology with performance practice. This pendulum swing in favor of historical research has led to a plethora of recordings, interest sessions, and articles extolling the virtues of the concept. Their primary question comes in two parts: Is there an “ideal” performance version of a musical work (in the platonic sense of the word)? If so, is the ideal performance one that recreates, to the smallest detail, the exact environment of the original performance, as it would have existed in the time and space in which it was conceived? Such a recreation would, theoretically, be as close to sounding like what the composer him/herself would have heard or envisioned for the work. One can see the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to declare one’s own performance of a great master as “the way Bach would have heard it?” For many musicians this desire to recreate what the composer intended is like uncovering a new code in the DNA sequence of musical society, taking our understanding of the art form one step closer to perfection. It is a scientific principal applied to an artistic medium. We all like confidently declaring that we did something the “right” way.

To that end, many conductors and performers have been fascinated with the challenges such a performance presents. They are at pains to deploy the exact same forces, period instruments, physical staging of players, historical tuning, and historical language pronunciation that the latest scholarship has discovered. It has played out in concert halls and recordings across the world, though the American academy has embraced it with unusual relish. At a recent national gathering of the Choralrati, much conversation was had on the historical appropriateness of certain ensemble presentations. The higher the level of musicianship, the greater the expectation that the ensemble reproduce a historically informed performance. Generally, high school and youth ensembles are forgiven for not recreating historically informed performances because their role is seen to be more about exposure than artistry. However, collegiate and professional ensembles are increasingly expected to take this scholarship into consideration when making a public performance or risk being dismissed as “behind the times”, “unscholarly”, “amateurish”, or even “lazy”. The historical reconstructionism movement has developed a subgroup that seems to enjoy bullying anyone who doesn’t wear the same clothes as them.

To which I say, “bull.” First, it is impossible to actually recreate a historical performance. Taken to its furthest extreme, we have to admit that there are elements of the original performance of a work that make replicating it either impractical or undesirable. For example, women couldn’t conduct any of them. Women also didn’t sing or play in most ensembles until the 1800s or later. This is particularly a problem for singers, as the timbre and color of the adult female voice is naturally quite different from that of the boy soprano. Most institutions don’t have access to historical instruments, usually there are more students in a collegiate ensemble than there were in the church and court ensembles of history. Far too much time is already wasted on historical language pronunciation. It is very in vogue right now to sing with Latin pronunciation of a certain composer’s country because it is deemed to be more authentic to the sound that would have been heard during that time. No one (at least no one I have read about or heard) makes that same effort with historical vernacular language. Concert spaces today are built with different acoustics and technologies in mind. The inconsistency in application of these characteristics in today’s historically informed performances dilutes their potency.

This is all peas and carrots, to some degree. If musicians want to try recreating historically accurate performance environments, why not? There should be no problem with this approach provided it remains one of many methods of musical presentation. It’s certainly interesting to see and hear these unique performances, as they are usually quite different than contemporary concert paradigms. What should absolutely be condemned, however, is this call for historical accuracy to be the sole means by which an ensemble’s presentation and musical accumen may be taken seriously. Such a philosophy will inhibit creative and artistic interpretation, limiting conductors and ensembles to the role of large, expensive, human record players. Incapable of doing anything other than repeating what others have already done, the focus of their musical craft would lean toward technical efficiency and away from creative artistry.

Homogenization is, after all, just another word for standardization. Standards have their value: they define and defend quality and support tradition and institution. The musical world already has layers of hidden code in this regard, code written to dictate global themes and local minutae, from concert attire to program notes, musical technique, facial expression, concert length, appropriate venues, acceptable instrumentation, acceptable composers. The list goes on and on like some long, complex DNA blueprint for acceptable musicianship. To build outside of the blueprint is to risk marginalization and, on rare occasions, personal obsolescence.

Yet, creativity thrives beneath the shroud of mystery! If every element of an artistic form is quantified and codified, is it still artistic? Is artistry possible without individual interpretation, without creativity? Is not the essential, humanizing component of art that it explores and gives voice to the uncharted and undiscovered pathways of the human experience? Surely, this type of creative artistry cannot be reserved for art creators only. It is a vital quality for those who give voice to musical creation throughout time. Music without humanity is simply ink dots on paper. The music historian an critic alike should bear that in mind.