The Early Music Performer in the University

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The performer in a college or university music department frequently is a "Concert Artist" who has chosen to continue his career in a different setting, mixing performance with teaching. I would like to speak for another kind of performer, a new breed of musician who owes his existence, but usually not his performance technique, to the university. The performer of early music exists largely because musicologists have brought to light the generous repertory of music history. The scholars that study this repertory frequently are not themselves performers, but this new performer has learned from them, and supplemented musicological learning with skills sometimes learned in the conservatory, but more often self-taught. The performer has learned to think about music quite differently constructed from the music of the common repertory, and he has learned the technique of performance of those deceptively simple instruments that are ignorantly described as obsolete or primitive. The result of approaching music through different techniques, instruments, and analytical methods can lead to a heightened appreciation of the integration of body and mind that is the essence of the performer's art.

Let me give you a few marks by which the new breed of early music performer may be recognized and suitably confined in the zoos of American universities. He is a performer competent on many instruments, and perhaps a singer as well. He has had to learn the skills of the musicologist because there is no other way to prepare his repertory for performance. He edits most of his own music from original sources, transcribing (or, better yet, reading) from older notation. He may design or build his own instruments on the models of museum instruments he has examined. He thinks of pitches through solmisation; structure through modes; and dance rhythms through steps learned from early dance treatises. He is an improviser with the verve of a jazz player, but unlike the jazz player he must improvise in four or five distinct styles. He can provide an ex tempore new line over a tenor, or embellish a written line in a composed piece. His technique is founded on equal amounts of research and arduous practice, for he uses 16th century keyboard fingerings when playing Cabezon on a small tracker organ, and 18th century tonguings when playing Bach on a flute copied from Quantz's instrument. He is a busy and devoted man, and any music department employing him will use him hard because of his scholarship and virtuosity. If it were not too limiting a term he could be called a Renaissance man.

What he is may be further defined by what he is not. For example, he probably will not find much time to write articles for the journals, or books for his musicologist friends. He may not be a reliable man to have on committees because of pressure of rehearsals and concerts. His teaching may be better done through performing and coaching performances than through lectures to large classes. And he may want to have time to practice his instruments. Because of these peculiarities advancement in rank will come slowly, although his students and his audiences will receive good educational coinage from him. If he is to survive in our colleges and universities ways must be found to nurture his process rather than to exploit the skills he acquired before joining the faculty.

The advantages to a music curriculum of such a performer are many and can be seen most clearly in what the students may learn about early music. We hear music from early periods well enough performed by professionals today that it won't do to have Frescobaldi on the piano, Machaut on the oboe, or madrigals sung by all 200 in the chorus as examples of what it was like. There is no substitute for the sounds and delicate balances of early music performed by chamber ensembles of early instruments and one-to-a-part singers. This musical experience for students of music history can be triggered by such a performer, involving students at almost any level of their musical preparation. Rigorous training in chamber music performance may be another advantage to the students of the department. For example, standards of intonation need to be much more precise for Dufay than for Debussy because of the vibrato-less sound of the 15th century and the peculiarities of the Pythagorean tuning system. Furthermore, all early music performers must both sing and play, all must know the C-clefs, all must be able to transpose at sight, and all must be able to improvise figured basses and ornamentations. Even if a musician's training is only partial in these matters during his undergraduate years, it will enrich his abilities ever afterward.

It is possible that we cannot know a musical composition in the greatest fulness without having mastered the technique of performing it. A working pianist (who is widely acquainted with history) will have a richer insight into the literature of his instrument than a non-performer, no matter what his education, because the performer knows how it is done, and can appreciate how the instrument itself shapes the music and how the capabilities of fingers suggest the sounds and also mold the structure. The same is true of early music, and it, as well as the actual sonorities of the music, must be discovered through a performer's process. The technique of performance is an integral part of what we hear, but the study of the technique of early instruments is only barely realized as a part of the study of music history. Some music can only be known through a study of the technique of performance, as is the case with the improvised basse danse of the 15th century.

Music is an art that uses the human body very thoroughly, especially if we include the brain as a part of the body. It can be compared to yoga in the way the body-mind must be integrated. The university is a temple in which words are worshipped, and it is now experiencing a collision with a generation of students that seeks knowledge in experience as well as in words. The musical performer has always learned through an integration of body and mind, and consequently musicians have been somewhat subversive, and even regarded by some as anti-intellectual in the university. Perhaps we can more proudly recognize this part of ourselves and be able to show our intellectual, word-worshiping colleagues a new way, and the performers will be best able to see the road.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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