Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Book Review: Authenticity in Music

At only 78 pages, this slim volume is not in the least bit intimidating, yet manages to explore in some detail the philosophy of authenticity in (mainly) Baroque music. Raymond Leppard, whose academic and performing credits are extensive, including a 14-year stint as the Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, begins by illustrating the differences in approach to music reception or listening between today's globalized post-modern western society compared to the 19th and early 20th centuries' ideals of progress and improvement on the past. This is no more than a potted history, and is somewhat generalised, but is nonetheless a useful and I think necessary backdrop to a discussion about historical performance in today's world. I am not sure about his hypothesis that the atomic bomb was the big turning point where western culture abandoned the idea of progress in favour of the search for something deeper and more profound. Has this really led to the rise in popularity of early (Renaissance and Baroque) music, as a response to this search for purity and balance in a chaotic world? It's a nice theory, but I think it is perhaps a little too convenient. But then again, he only has a handful of pages for this development, and is certainly not pretending that he is presenting an in-depth exploration of the subject.

The second part of the book is a discussion and explanation of Leppard's own approach to interpreting and performing early music. He is not addressing the finicky little details of ornamentation and phrasing, but rather the general attitude and approach. He outlines the problems the musician has to grapple with: the incompleteness of the repertoire, inconsistent and often ambiguous notation, and great variation in advice regarding technique and interpretation, even in original sources. He points out the fact, simple but often overlooked, that, no matter how hard we try we can never replicate exactly the sound of the past. Even if we play Bach from Bach's manuscript on Bach's harpsichord in Bach's house using Bach's tuning system, we will still be playing and listening with ears and minds who have heard Mahler, Shoenberg and Franz Ferdinand.

The only way forward, Leppard concludes, is to find a middle ground between the pedantic pursuit of authentic purity and the communication with modern audiences. A compromise is needed, he writes, combining the knowledge about the past gained from academic study with a creative understanding of the spirit of music, and a focus on communication with the listener.

This book was very easy and enjoyable to read, and would hold interest for both listeners and performers. Leppard's style is conversational yet nuanced, and he includes musical examples to illustrate his points. I would have liked some suggestion for further reading, rather than the very brief notes at the end. Overall, though, I found this an interesting, thought-provoking book.

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