Choral Performance: A Guide to Historical Practice

By Greig, Donald | Musical Times, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview
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Choral Performance: A Guide to Historical Practice


Greig, Donald, Musical Times


Third way Choral performance: a guide to historical practice Steven E. Plank Scarecrow Press (Lanham, Maryland, & Oxford, 2004); viii, 127pp; £16.99 PBK. ISBN °8108 5141 5.

THE early music movement has its own history of which Steven E. Plank's Choral performance represents one of the most recent developments. We are at a stage, he suggests, where 'the focus on questions of "what" have been richly supplemented by questions of "how" and "why".' Questions of 'why' are generally left to critical commentators and historiography: questions of 'how' belong to the realm of performance, and over the past 15 years there has been an increase in specialist performers' guides informed by performance practice studies.

The response of professional early music groups (a monolithic term which covers a range of periods and approaches) to the questions raised has taken two broad directions. Some embrace the lessons and implicit prescriptiveness of musicological research, cloak themselves in the mantle of musicological correctness and bang the authenticity drum. Others point to the impossibility of proving faithful reproduction (particular when it comes to vocal repertoire), underline the gap between theory and practice then and now, and proclaim that selling the music to the modern audience is the sole responsibility.

These issues, it would seem, now confront a new breed of performers of early music - the 'conductors and singers who come to "early music" from the mainstream and perform it in that context '. From this I infer that Plank is addressing primarily amateur performers (or aspiring professionals) rather than specialist professional ensembles. Presumably, then, this means choral groups in colleges and universities, smaller choral societies, and semi-professional ensembles like church choirs (Plank's biography informs us that he has been an Anglican Church musician for 30 years). The first of these seems the most obvious target, not least because the book would be a very useful short cut for essay writing or crammer for revision (Performance Practice 101). Also, sections on instrumental doubling suggest an environment where one might well be able to corral the odd, enthusiastic student into playing cornett for pieces in which instrumental doubling might be an option. Whatever the ensemble, the book will be a useful aid to any conductor who believes that the prerequisite for any early musical performance is a certain amount of history homework.

A musicologist by trade, Plank clearly has a great deal of experience with performance and if this book comes down on any side of the perennial (often imagined) debate between musicology and performance, it is on the side of the latter. Pragmatism, realism and pluralism are the watchwords of his position, yet a cursory glance at this slim volume might lead one to believe that its dense footnotes and thorough bibliography reveal a different agenda. They do not. Instead he is concerned with finding a 'third way' which, like its political counterpart, aims to keep everyone happy. This involves him in a choreography or counterpoint (he uses both metaphors) between the two positions.

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