Performance Practice

Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

March 4th, 2017 No comments
Musicians at San Marco in Venice

Musicians at San Marco in Venice

In the early 80s, while studying baroque cello at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland I had the opportunity to play Bach St. John Passion at a lovely church in the Schwarzwald. I was thrilled. There are few assignments for a baroque cellist that can compare with being in the middle of this consummate masterpiece and I set about studying the work in preparation for the project. My German was even worse then than it is now, and I struggled to to stay afloat in the rehearsals with the help of an expat colleague who sat near me in the orchestra. I eagerly looked forward to the performance but I was a bit perplexed at first by by the fact that it was scheduled for 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that, of course, Bach’s work was to be performed as part of the Good Friday liturgy. More than just the unusual timing made sense to me that afternoon. Read more…

A Word About Translations

September 18th, 2016 2 comments

One of the fascinating aspects of presenting this old music for a new audience is the question of translations. Attitudes to translation change and different circumsstances require different approaches to transaltion. When we’re performing liturgical music in Latin, many traditional translations exist. I have long prefered to draw biblical translations from the Douay translation of the Vulgate, first published in 1609, one year before the King James version. More than once after concerts, members of the audience have asked why the translation of some psalm wasn’t the one they’d always known. After all the King James translation is a 17thy century transaltion. In a way though King James is a bit too good.

The King James version is a translation of the original languages, Hebrew in the case of the psalms, and is therefore a more “accurate” translation of the original. The Douay version is a translation of the Vulgate, which is itself a translation of the original, traditionally ascribed to St. Jerome in the 3rd century. My point is that the singers are singing the Vulgate, not the Hebrew, the audience are best served by a literal translation of what the singers are singing, even if it doesn’t match the “original”. Read more…

Is Every Performance "Site Specific"?

August 31st, 2016 No comments

Chloe Veltman recently posted an interesting commentary on the notion of “site specific theatre” with reference to the recent production of Dido and Aeneas by San Francisco’s Urban Opera (“Not All Site Specific Theatre is Created Equal”). She proposed that “in order for a theatrical production to be site specific, it needs to be conceived specifically for the space in which it is produced,” and therefore “space becomes a performer, with the potential to change the entire relationship between text, visuals, sounds and the human body in fascinating ways.”

In the context of her article I personally like her narrow definition, but it got me thinking that since any work of performance art exists only in the moment of performance, each performance is in some sense a new work, created freshly in a new “site” and therefore “site specific” for that performance.

Of course what Chloe was refering to with her definition was “environmental theatre” troupes like Reial Companyia de Teatre de Catalunya or Walkabout, and indeed it’s difficult to imagine such productions mounted outside their original “sites”. However, in the case of canonical “works” like Hamlet or Dido that she mentions in her article, I question the privileging of the original performance circumstances, in spite of the fact that I spend my life mounting “historically informed” performances.

I think “around” this issue all the time, as most of the music that Magnificat performs was “site specific” when it was composed and, in fact, there was never a thought at the time that it might be performed again, much less in another site. So every concert involves a reinvention, shaped to some degree by the environment – not only the venue of course, but the specific performers, the time of day, the audience, etc. Read more…

"To wonderfullye move, stir, pearce, and enflame the hearers myndes"

August 3rd, 2009 No comments

In Bruce Haynes’ thought-provoking, persuasive, and thoroughly entertaining book “The End of Early Music“, he devotes a chapter to a comparison of Baroque Expression and Romantic Expression. Appropriately, Haynes begins his discussion with a quote from “La Musica” speaking in the prologue of Monteverdi’s Orfeo:

“With sweet accents I can make every restless heart peaceful and inflame the coolest minds, now with anger, now with love.”

In reading Haynes’ revealing discussion of Rhetoric, Declamation, and “Affekt”, as understood before the Enlightenment, I am struck anew that the goal of the musician in the performance of Baroque music is to engender emotions in the audience – not merely to “express” those emotions. The composer provides a blueprint, a menu, and the musicians and the audience share the experience. The performer of this music is  tasked not merely with transmitting nothing more and nothing less than what the artist-composer wrote on the page, as Toscanni would say, “Com’ è scritto”. Rather as C.P.E. Bach observed,

“[M]usicians cannot move others unless they themselves are moved; it is essential that musicians be able to put themselves in each Affection they wish to rouse in their audience, for it is in showing their own emotion that they awaken sympathy.”

At least for pre-Romantic music.

The notion of the performer as a transparent “vessel” through which the composer’s work is channeled to the audience strikes me as a thoroughly 19th century concept. Surely, the circumstances in which we perform are heavily influenced by 19th century aesthetics (the very notion of “aesthetics” as we normally think of it begins with Kant) and the audiences we perform for are, of course, neither 17th nor 19th century audiences, which creates a lot of other interesting issues, but with Baroque music at least, the goal would not seem to be to offer some idealized “work” as conceived by a composer for an audience to reflect on, admire, and contemplate – that’s what you do with a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem.

I am persuaded that in pre-Romantic music (what Haynes calls “Rhetorical” music – in contrast to “Romantic” and “Modern” styles), the obligation of the musician is to experience an emotion and, through skill and technique, cause the audience to experience the emotion as well. Of course, with the music that Magnificat performs, there’s a 3 or 4 century gap between our audiences and the original audiences and while some basic emotions transcend any specific era, the range and flavor of emotions of 21st century audiences and performers alike are necessarily radically different from those of the 17th. What strikes me as critical is intention and commitment. The moment in the narrative, the instrumentation of the aria, the flat six before the cadence and the ornamentation implied by that cadence – these are all road signs indicating an emotion or “affekt”, which the performer interprets and then “feels”. The success of the performance is in some way measured by the degree to which that affekt is communicated and felt by the audience participating in the collective experience.

The Romantic philosophers who were creating an “aesthetics of music” viewed this sort of approach as manipulative or artificial and rejected it. Instead, they held up the canonic masterpieces of the genius/composers – the “Classics” – as somehow outside of time – and the performers role was to transmit them – without getting in the way.  Earlier in his book, Haynes quotes E.T.A. Hoffman from 1810:

“The true artist lives only in that work which he has comprehended and now performs as the master intended it to be performed. He is above putting his own personality forward in any way, and all his endeavours are directed towards a single end, to call to life all the enchanting pictures and shapes the composer has sealed into his work with magic power.”

Haynes also quotes the New Grove dictionary article on expression, in which Roger Scruton, who encapsulate the Romantic view:

“…to describe a piece of music as expressive of melancholy is to give a reason for listening to it; to describe it as arousing or evoking melancholy is to give a reason for avoiding it.” (emphases mine)

By the 20th century, performers become necessary, but interchangeable, servants or staff (these days conveniently replaced by CD players) that presented the ineffable works of the composer for the contemplation of the listener. I’m not saying that audiences don’t have an emotional experience in a “Modern” performance – of course they do – but I do question how often the musicians and audiences are sharing the same emotional experience. We have all known performances in which that did happen and, on some level perhaps, those are the only ones that matter.

The Title of this article, quoted from Thomas More, is also drawn from Haynes’ book, which I recommend highly to all interested in music.

Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

March 2nd, 2009 No comments
Musicians at San Marco in Venice

Musicians at San Marco in Venice

As Magnificat turns our attention to December’s performances of the mass setting by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, I decided it would be a good time to repost and expand this article that I wrote two years ago after our performance of a reconstruction of the mass celebrating the 1607 re-dedication of St. Gertrude’s Church in Hamburg. The performance of sacred works within a re-construction of a contemporaneous liturgical context has been of feature of Magnificat’s concert series since our first season in 1992 with our performances of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie (Christmas Story) in collaboration with the San Francisco Early Music Society. Since then, Magnificat has performed over two dozen programs based on reconstructions of historical liturgies.

It has almost become an “article of faith”, reinforced by comments from members of our audience and the musicians who have contributed their talents to these performances, that the experience of the work, whether a setting of the mass by Gabrieli or vespers music of Cozzolani, is enhanced by the accompanying liturgical texts and additional music that the composer took for granted when conceiving the work.

As I have researched and constructed these programs over the years, the polyglot stylistic brew that inevitably results from a liturgical reconstruction has sometimes felt like cheating. After all, the Roman liturgies had a millennium of gestation before the composers of 17th century applied their talents to its elaboration. The architecture provided by the liturgy almost guaranteed a balanced and coherent concert program. Additionally, the 16th and 17th centuries saw a remarkable revitalization of the ancient structures as a result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the integration of new musical styles. The genius and inspiration of many of the finest musicians of the period were devoted to the elaboration of liturgy – and not just the mass ordinary or the festal psalms and Magnificat of Vespers.

Important scholarship by Jerome Roche, Robert Kendrick, Jeffrey Kurtzman and many others have demonstrated that sacred music in the 17th Century was not merely reactive – incorporating stylistic developments from the world of sacred music – but was an equally innovative and vibrant sphere of musical composition in it’s own right. The exquisite motets of Monteverdi or Cozzolani the many cycles of instrumental sonatas and organ versets, intended as substituitons for vespers antiphons or mass propers as well as private devotional situations, demonstrate the same vibrance and experimentation that makes the secular music of the 17th Century so compelling.

A liturgical reconstruction does alter the traditional, largely 19th Century, norms of concert protocol – and this is no doubt what new audiences notice first. Most obviously – no intermission and no applause until the end. This is rough on performers, as it eliminates the most obvious interaction between them and the audience. On the other hand, the intensity that results from the unbroken attention and the inexorable flow of the liturgy creates a atmosphere that is in some more intense than formalized clapping and bowing. (For me, the sound of hundred of pages turning in unison – an indication that many in the audience are intently following the translations is more than adequate compensation for the absent applause!)

Magnificat will present two programs this season constructed around liturgies: the Christmas Mass program featuring music by Cozzolani December 4-6 and our performances of Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 on the weekend of April 23-25. Every performance is a journey of discovery, so I will probably update this post again later this season to reflect those experiences. Read more…

The Office of Vespers

October 16th, 2008 No comments

When St. Benedict established the first monastic order in Western Christendom in the sixth century A.D., he prescribed round-the-clock prayers for his monks consisting of eight separate services, one every three hours. These services, the primary texts of which were the Old Testament Psalms of David, comprised the Office Hours, and the most prominent became the evening Office, Vespers, from the Latin word for evening.

All of these Offices were sung throughout to music commonly known as Gregorian Chant—a large repertoire of single-line melodies that dates back to the earliest years of the Catholic Church.

At some unknown point in history it became a frequent practice to perform the Vespers service not only in monasteries and monastic churches, but also in public, so-called “secular” churches as well as in the private chapels of nobles and high clerics. Moreover, Vespers services came, in the 15th century, to be occasionally performed at least partly in polyphony rather than exclusively Gregorian Chant. The 15th century was a period of rapid expansion in the quantity of polyphony used in the central public service of the Catholic Church, the Mass, and by the end of the century, polyphony had become more prominent in Vespers services as well. Read more…