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Classical Mythology 101

10. The Myth of Authenticity

It is futile to ask WWJD -- What would Johann (Sebastian Bach) do?



Don't get me wrong here. It's not "authenticity" that's myth. It's the idea that period instrument musicians have no legitimate claim to authenticity when they perform early music.

In the mid 1980s, the classical music world fought a minor semantic skirmish over that word ~ "authenticity." The battle was a reaction (or call it a "counter offensive") to the success of the so-called "early music revolution" of the '60s and '70s ~ a largely British invasion led by medievalist David Munroe and scholarly Baroque specialists like Thurston Dart, Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock whose aim was to apply the expanding discoveries of forensic musicology to re-create early styles of early music performance. The overhaul was fairly comprehensive, affecting elements like ensemble size, performance tempos, tuning pitch, instrumental design and timbre, overall volume, embellishment and execution techniques and use of manuscript editions. The result was a sound that was both novel and intimate, and judging from the record sales, it was welcomed by the music-consuming public.

However, the movement met with some resistance (it couldn't be called a "revolution" otherwise), mainly from American critics who found the new sound of this old music scruffy, scratchy and generally repugnant. There was no pushing back the popular appeal of the early performance groups, but the battle lines eventually came to be drawn over the use of the word "authentic" to describe what they were doing. How that word came to be first used ~ whether it was an artistic decision or a marketing idea ~ I don't know. For a time, though, it was common enough to speak about "authentic performance practice" and the "authenticity movement" when referring to the phenomenon. It was an innocuous enough word (certainly no worse than using "classical" to describe music that emphasizes thematic development and harmonic diversity to build large, complex structures). But the critics of "authenticity" took aim at this tiny word and symbolically fired their entire barrage of objections to the movement itself. How, they asked, could one possibly know if the performance was truly authentic? Wasn't this just an arrogant claim on the part of the scholar-performers? How could it be authentic if they themselves didn't agree on how this music should be played? How thoroughly could current musical scholarship determine the practices of early performance? Couldn't the conjectures of early music scholars, based on sketchy arcane data, just as easily be wrong as right?

All good and valid points, to a degree. As it turned out, the critics won that round and the result was the death of the word "authentic" in this context. No one uses it any more to describe early music performance. The word has vanished completely from the lexicon of those who write about early music. The preferred and accepted terminology is now "period instruments" or "original instruments" as in "period instrument practice" or "original instrument ensemble" (which is actually a very narrow description). The popularity of the musical style hasn't abated; we just have to call it by a different name.

Today, you still see articles in major newspapers imply or explicitly claim that period instrument style is tyrannically doctrinaire and that its practitioners are like religious zealots who worship at the altar of their imagined composer dieties. It appears, though, that the critics who make those charges are the conservatives and worshippers themselves: same religion, different altar. In fact, to think of early music scholars and performers as high priests of an ancient dogma is a lousy metaphor. It would be more accurate to portray them as cultural anthropologists motivated by interest and curiosity. It seems only natural that they would want to reconstruct a vintage musical experience. If they do so with any success, it shouldn't be surprising that the result would be vastly appealing (as it would have been to audiences of an earlier day). Critics of period instrument performance don't seem to recognize that anyone could find its very sound so beguiling. Some ask, "Why use a harpsichord or fortepiano when a concert grand sounds so good?" Others of us would counter by asking the reverse.

And what about the question of historical accuracy? Nowadays, cosmologists listen to the echoes of the Big Bang and turn their telescopes to glimpse the edge of the universe. Paleontologists perform dynamic acoustic analyses of fossilized crania to reconstruct the long silent call of the dinosaur. Genetic detectives study the signature of DNA to determine that Caucasian invaders entered Finland, massacred the indigenous males and bred with their women. How different are these explorations of the past from a musicologist measuring old cathedral organ pipes to determine the pitches that were in use centuries ago? Is it invalid to draw conclusions about ensemble size and configuration from historically contemporary writings and art work? If a violin is rebuilt to 17th-century specs ~ down to the shortness and tilt of its neck and the lightness of its bass bar ~ can the result (owing to pure physics) sound much different from instruments played in Purcell's day? Astrophysicists, archeologists and biologists are very good at interpreting scanty data and extrapolating far-reaching conclusions. Music scholars are in the same business. The conclusions they reach (and the choices that musicians make based on those conclusions) may not turn out to be the final word in period practice. But like good scientists, they're on the right track if they make the best use of today's data and remain open to tomorrow's.











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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: June 9, 2000