Basically Bach

at First United Church of Oak Park

September 7, 1986


Music of the Baroque

at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ

November 4, 1986

Much attention has been given over in recent years to the “authenticity” movement in serious music circles, to the pros and cons of playing baroque and classical music on instruments of those periods rather than on their modern counterparts. In Chicago alone there are now two professional period ensembles, Basically Bach and the City Musick, both of which sprang up within the last couple of years.

The Chicago Symphony virtually ignores early music, and what token older music (pre-19th century) it does perform is usually done by conductors trained to present it in a bombastic 19thcentury manner: slowly, with romantic phrasing and tempi, an exacting approach to rhythm uncharacteristic of the time, unbalanced orchestra] and choral forces often up to five or six times larger than the pieces were scored for, and hordes of strings employing the vibrato and rubato associated with Brahms. The CSO’s music director, Georg Solti, believes firmly that modern instruments are the end product of a long Darwinian struggle, and that, as he told me recently, “if Bach could hear his music performed on our wonderful and much-improved modern instruments, he would surely prefer it to the out-of-tune, primitive instruments of his day.”

That may well be, say critics who nevertheless have made a case for performing this music with the contours and colors that Bach originally intended, with the instruments that he knew rather than the instruments that he might have known (and if he had, these critics argue, would certainly have written different music for). They argue that a modern clarinet in Mozart is no less out of place than an 18th-century basset horn in a Mahler symphony, that the question of the best instruments for the music at hand comes down to the instruments that the composer himself knew, heard, and employed. “Whatever we might speculate as to what Bach or Mozart might have preferred,” British early-music specialist Christopher Hogwood told me recently at Ravinia, “I work under the assumption that what they wrote they considered not only playable but effective within the capacity of the instruments of the day. To suggest that a composer wrote for instruments and techniques that were only going to develop after his death is to do insult to his intellect and his musicianship. A composer should be considered innocent until proven guilty!”

All of this arguing among specialists could make one wonder whether any of this makes the slightest bit of difference to the average listener, or whether earlymusic enthusiasts have simply cooked up a tremendously clever public- relations scheme to interest a largely 19th-century-oriented listening public in music of earlier periods.

Chicagoans had the unusual opportunity this fall to hear for themselves what the differences between an “authentic” performance and a modern perform ance of a single baroque masterwork –Bach’s Mass in B Minor –might actually be.

The first of these performances came in September from Evanston’s Basically Bach, which claims to provide the “best in baroque music,” and reminded us that their performances of the Mass were the “first Chicago performances with authentic baroque instruments.” Fine. Did that mean that they actually were playing, as “authentic” would seem to indicate, instruments constructed and employed during the time of Bach?

Apparently not. “With the exception of the string bass, the instruments used in this concert are copies or reproductions of authentic baroque instruments,” explained the program. The instruments were made no earlier than the mid1970s–the early-music-instrument revival being so recent -according to what is known about instruments of that day. The best of these instrument makers set out to copy a specific surviving instrument from the period as closely as modern conditions will permit. The irony is that most of these “authentic” instruments are actually newer than the “modern” instruments that they are supposed to predate!

That last qualification is a significant one, and some feel that attempting to build a baroque violin today is as absurd as trying to erect a 20th-century Gothic cathedral or Egyptian pyramid. We must also keep in mind that the old instruments were played by techniques completely different from those used on their modern counterparts, and that today these techniques must be learned with considerable difficulty by players who have already mastered modern techniques on modern instruments. It is argued that no one can ever fully master a baroque violin who hasn’t played only that instrument since childhood, which is something even the purest of the purists haven’t advocated — yet!

Contemporary performances on period instruments often sound out of tune, and replete with missed and wrong notes. It is often supposed, as by Solti, that this failing stems from the inherently inadequate nature of the instruments themselvesvalveless brass instruments and looser strings are torturously difficult to play with precision and accuracy (as the Basically Bach brass section unhappily illustrated). The presumption is that Bach and Mozart heard their own scores performed imprecisely but put up with the situation because it was the best their times could offer them. We have come to equate the, advance of technology with that of art, and to assume that the most modern representation of music must be the best. A modern metal flute that is longer and has movable metal keys must be better than a shorter wooden flute with only a few holes. Why? Because it’s what the flute is now, critics argue, and is much easier to control than its ancestor.

Granted, a baroque flute i’s much more difficult to play. But of course the performers of Bach’s day didn’t know that. It was what was available to them, and to composers, at the time. It seems likely that performances of the day on these instruments were, by the standards of the day (which according to much of the evidence emphasized accuracy at least as much and perhaps much more than we do), in tune and precise, perhaps even more so than we can imagine. Do we really think that a Bach or Mozart would be less demanding than a Solti or a Hogwood?

Another interesting problem, rarely considered, turns on the fact that pitch has been steadily rising over the last few centuries as string tension has increased. Today, even A at 440 (vibrations a second, the modern so-called concert pitch) would be flat for most orchestras -the CSO, for example, tunes at A equals 444. In Mozart’s day it was 418 or so, and in Bach’s day around 410. This means that what Bach wrote and heard as D-flat major we now play and hear as C major! Since it is generally agreed upon that individual key signatures have particular emotional significances, we are left wondering about what modern performances might be failing to express when the sounds that the composers originally intended are unknowingly transposed.

Still, why bother with all this? If the obstacles to performing these earlier works on period instruments, are so great, can any result be worth the effort? In answering, we must recognize that we have created a unique problem for ourselves by becoming more interested in performing music of the past than music of our time (contrary to Bach’s time, for example). Music is created and then re-created. A century from now, performers will have to worry not only about authentic Bach and Mozart but about authentic Mahler ‘and Schonberg as well, to say nothing of authentic George Crumb. After all, what we now call modern instruments will also become museum relics, and future performers will be faced with the same problem: Is it better to attempt to approximate performances of the 20th century by using obsolete instruments. and techniques, or do we perform the music on the instruments that we know, at a sacrifice of the original textures and timbres?

It is obviously a no-win situation, or optimists might say a no-lose situation. The ideal might be music of the past performed with the instruments and forces of the time played in a first-rate manner with performers exclusively or primarily trained for that style. (Most period instrument players, especially in the United States, where music is not government supported, must also play their modern instruments frequently to make a living.) Some of the famous European ensembles are getting there, not only on records but in live performance as well. If public opinion is an indication of where any of this is going, original- in strument recordings outsell modern-instrument recordings two to one, and there are now over half a dozen good period-instrument recordings available of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos compared to only one just ten years ago.

The Basically Bach performance of the Mass in B Minor was a fascinating study of the pros and cons of contemporary performers attempting to play period instruments effectively: the overall instrumental playing was generally fair to very good, with some intonation and tuning problems, especially in the horn and trumpet sections, which often struggled for the right notes and pitches.

On the other hand, several firstrate outside section leaders were brought in, and the solos of many of these players were extraordinary, especially concertmaster Nancy Wilson’s solo during the first aria of the Gloria, and the beautifully rich, pure outpouring by flutist Lyon Leifer in the Benedictus.

No modern violin can begin to approximate the shimmering quality and clarity of line (with all the upper partials present) that one can hear from a gut-strung violin bowed with the infinite variety of tone that a baroque bow is capable of producing, nor the light vibrato that’s due to the absence of a chin rest on the old violin (even a genuine Stradivarius in use today will have been modernized -with synthetic strings, a chin rest, and a longer bridge, and played with a larger bow). Today’s cello, which uses the floor as its sounding board (with the help of a stick reaching from the bottom of the instrument to the floor), produces a louder and harsher sound than the much mellower baroque cello, whose sounding board is the player’s own legs. And Basically Bach restored the baroque balance of fuller winds against lighter-sounding strings.

One aspect of “authenticity” that Basically Bach ignores, presumably for practical rather than aesthetic reasons, concerns male and female voices. Throughout most of the 18th century, only male voices were used for choral and solo singing, especially in church (women were not allowed in the sanctuary area); and of course, Bach taught at an all-boys school for the last half of his life. Discussions of sexism aside, a choir made up of boy sopranos -and male altos has a far, different sound than a choir of adult female sopranos and altos. It’s less cluttered, especially for counterpoint. Yet there are very few boys’ choirs in this country properly trained for this kind of singing, and none in the Chicago area.

Many of Basically Bach’s women were steeped in the 19th-century style of singing, with its emphasis on large tone and constant wobbling vibrato. This inauthenticity was even more apparent in the Music of the Baroque performances, which also used women, and in larger numbers. Still, a magnificent male alto, Steven Rickards (hired for the occasion), was the alto soloist, a tremendous advantage.

Basically Bach made sure that there was a proper numerical balance of choristers to orchestral players, and kept both groups as small as Bach had… intended. But the choral and orchestral forces rarely achieved a proper sound balance, largely because of the uneven quality of the chorus; the vocal soloists stuck out like a sore thumb during the choral sections. A small group of singers will be more effective than a large one singing this music, but they must all be first-rate singers.

Basically Bach’s music director, Daniel V. Robinson, obviously had a clear vision of what Bach’s Mass should communicate to an audience, although sometimes the performers didn’t get the message (Robinson’s fancy and probably not 18th-century choreography didn’t make communications any easier). Robinson often brought out the best in the ensemble, while mediating between its capabilities and brisk baroque tempi.

Despite the flaws, the performance was often quite moving. There were some very tender moments, especially the Credo transition from (to translate) “and he was buried,” with its tomblike peace, to the glorious burst of “Et resurrexit. . . ” It’s a shame the trumpets couldn’t keep up.

Thomas Wikman’s Music of the Baroque, now 15 seasons old, has enjoyed enormous popularity and success. In an era when even the CSO can’t seem to sell out concerts an ymore, Wikman does so constantly across the Chicago area. Wikman has come to fill a significant gap by of fering Chicago audiences first-rate performances of primarily baroque masterworks on modern instruments. Many of Wikman’s players come from the CSO and the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, and he’s polished his ensemble to an extraordinary degree. Surely, Music of the Baroque is as good a modern-instrument baroque ensemble as one will find today, and perhaps the best.

The ensemble’s recent performances of the Mass showed the group at its I shining best. Not a phrase was out of place, and despite occasional problems (the CSO’s principal horn player, Dale Clevenger, flubbed a note here and there, and some of the singers had intonation problems), the cumulative effect was one of those rare performances where the line between aesthetic and religious experience became magnificently blurred. And for all their obvious disadvantages in performing older music, this was achieved on modern instruments!

Which raises the significant point. We can argue in the abstract all we want to about authenticity versus modernity, but in the end it is the talent and vision of the performer that will determine the effectiveness of a performance.

All other things being equal, my own preference is for period-instrument performances of baroque and classical music because I feel that hearing the original timbres, textures, colors, and contours of Bach or Mozart is as vital to an understanding of -their music as seeing the original colors of a particular painter would be to understanding that artist. Yet all other things are rarely equal, and I have heard Bach performed on kazoos, steel drums, and synthesizers with more spirit than is shown in some Bach performances by both authentic and modern interpreters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Ziv.