Probably most musicians and music-lovers would agree that ‘music expresses emotions’, although each of these three words can be problematised: what kind of music? What do you mean by ‘express’? Whose emotions? What is emotion, anyway? And all of these three concepts – music, expression, emotion – change as we trace them back through history.
Early Music tends to concentrate on precise detail: should we play up or down a semitone from modern pitch, or in-between? Precisely how should we tune a harpsichord for Bach? Which violin-bow or oboe-reed should we use for Handel? These small details are significant – each one is a piece of jigsaw-puzzle which constructs your over-view of a particular repertoire and where it fits in history. But here, I want to ask the big questions, questions about ‘music’, ‘expression’ and ’emotions’, questions that are sometimes missed as we grapple with the minutiae of Historically Informed Performance.
For many musicians today, the first and most important means of ‘expression’ is rubato: vacillating rhythm, playing around with musical time. Exchanges of views between ‘modern’ and ‘early’ performers tend to focus on vibrato. A blog-posting on early opera begins bravely by noting that audiences value “imagination, innovation, and musical, sensitive interpretations; not what kind of bow is in use”, but fades out with “everyone’s happy to get back to using vibrato now”. So are these today’s priorities for early music: rubato, vibrato and the performer’s happiness?
We know what the priorities were for music and performance at the beginning of the baroque, around the year 1600. According to Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601/2)
Music is nothing else than Text, and Rhythm, and Sound last of all. And not the other way around!
On performance, many writers, notably John Bulwer Chironomia (1644), cite Quintilian, Cicero and Demosthenes:
What are the three secrets of great performance: Action! Action! Action!
And summarising the first two strophes of the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), one of the first ‘operas’:
Music comes to you, noble audience, whose importance is too high to be told, to move your hearts.
The historical priorities are Text, Rhythm, Action – and the audience’s emotions. Text (not vibrato), Rhythm (not rubato), Action for the Audience (not how the performers themselves feel).
I’ll try to keep these historical and inspiring priorities in mind as I continue to write, as well as in my research, performance and teaching.
Meanwhile, please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.