By Gregory Cox
The Revolution in Classical Music
For much of the 20th Century, the music of the Renaissance (1350 to 1600), the Baroque era (1600 to 1750), and the Classical period (1750 to 1825), was performed without much care or understanding of the composers' purpose. Thus, the intent of the music (playful or sacred) and the effect it produced (joyful or somber) was often lost.
For example, even though Beethoven knew the inventor of the Metronome, Johann Malzel, and encouraged him to invent it so that music tempos would never be a matter of question - and marked his works accordingly – his music was played far more slowly than he intended after 1850.
It was largely the influence of Richard Wagner's ingenious but ponderous operas (1833 to 1882) that produced this interpretive sea change. They were performed at a relative snail's pace. Musicians changed their style of play to accommodate him, instruments were altered to increase volume, new instruments were invented, and orchestras became massive. All music from 1850 onward was subjected to the Wagner aesthetic treatment.
When Sir Roger Norrington began conducting Beethoven symphonies on the world stage in the 1990's, at the original Malzel tempos, he created a sensation and a firestorm of controversy. Many critics claimed he was misinformed, and was making Beethoven sound “...like he arrived in a Lamborghini...” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1993).
This realization has forced conductors and musicians to reinterpret and adjust their performances through all historical periods, and the results have been profound. The speed of a piece can have a dramatic effect on our emotions.
Almost all symphonic instruments before 1800 are different from standard 20th Century ones. Stringed instruments carry less tension and have a softer sound, wind instruments are mainly wood – not metal, and the horns have no valves. Orchestras were much smaller before 1800, and performances were a much more intimate experience.
Early music was generally forgotten until the 1930's; or when played, sounded uninspired. Purcell, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, and Mozart often sounded mechanical. When I was growing up, earlier composers were often thought of as “lightweights” by the Bach and Wagner-worshiping intelligentsia. Original instruments like the harpsichord, lute, and recorder almost disappeared.
Imagine the thrill, then, of hearing a harpsichord played for the first time since 1790, as if it had been dropped into a concert hall by a time machine. The 1931 recordings of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist born in 1879, were a global sensation. She taught herself to play the harpsichord and discovered that Bach's Goldberg Variations – until then played only on piano - sounded entirely different on it.
Don't misunderstand, nobody wants to do away with large and powerful modern orchestras. They're a thrilling experience. But we can support both.
The last forty years have seen an explosion of successful authentic instrument orchestras led by gifted conductors producing legendary renditions of Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Ninth, Mozart's Requiem, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerti.
Julian Bream, Joshua Bell, Jeanne Lamon, Trevor Pinnock, and other brilliant musicians have built careers on authentic performances. New York's Metropolitan Opera is doing a stellar job with its authentic Baroque opera performances such as The Enchanted Island (broadcast around the world in HD, and seen at the Paramount Theater last January).
Recording companies like Telarc, Archiv, and Naxos have been very successful with their recordings. The golden age of great music is now. We can't go back in time, but it's very satisfying to hear a Purcell opera performed the way he wanted it done, and to see Beethoven arriving in his Lamborghini. That too is thrilling.