Magazine article Musical Times

Merely Players?

Magazine article Musical Times

Merely Players?

Article excerpt

Merely players?

PETER WILLIAMS

Playing with history: the historical approach to musical performance John Butt

Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2002); xvi, 265pp; L45 / L15.95 pbk.

ISBN 0 521 81352 2 / 0 521 01358 5.

As a former organ student of King's College, Cambridge, John Butt knows a great deal about playing and accompanying - about tempo, phrasing, articulating; timing, directing, rehearsing; planning, organising and presenting performances of music in different styles and from different periods, some of which must surely have raised from time to time practical questions of what is appropriate or 'authentic'. These are areas requiring great skill, a skill he still puts into practice in solo and ensemble performances that are historically informed more than was often the case, or so I

Professor Butt has also, chiefly from some years spent in California, assimilated several modes of thought au courant in American university departments of music(ology) and its big sister LitCrit, and as many have found, such an experience can change one for ever in various ways. So I wondered which of the two experiences would be more prominent in his new book, considering that it is dealing with `historically informed performance', the many issues of performance practice' in the Early Music Movement and the philosophy behind what used to be called 'authenticity'.

Now, there is something seductive about the USA for people of all ages and condition. Musicians and academics too: few performers can be indifferent to an American audience's flattery and material rewards, and in the same way there must be few academics who would not find a good US campus stimulating in the arts and literature, its lively thinking made possible in crucial ways by the mighty dollar. The attraction is enormous, despite a double downside: an academicism that in effect pays higher respect to musicology than to music; and an intellectual dependence on some (in my opinion) arbitrarily selected European fashions, usually non-British. The `lively thinking' that is so attractive springs from or consolidates (I don't know which) the most seductive idea ever formulated by a Westerner, if Saint Augustine of Hippo might be so called: that to think is higher than to do. In America, and now in our poor Cinderella universities of the UK, this is taken a step farther: to write books for academic presses, and to boost your CV for the next round of evaluations, is higher still.

Now one might hope that performance practice studies bridge the gap between the world of books and the world of live music, that each illuminates the other. But in practice they can do so only partially. Performance practice studies need not have anything to do with modern concerts, and (more importantly) perhaps can not do so beyond a few superficialities. Studies are to do with understanding a thing, not selling it. Public concerts and, in a different but comparable way, recordings came about as specific inventions for specific cultural purposes, and these were not the purposes of most types of music before a certain point in its history, or ever in the case of certain types.

Performance, even privately to oneself, is an art, and art is a thing in which knowledge is never more than a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out by artistry This means that a lot of toing and froing of academic arguments in the last couple of decades over the speciousness or otherwise of `authentic performance' of this or that music is, when it is not idle chit-chat, seldom if ever quite relevant. The whole issue is rather a conundrum, perhaps because ultimately, most musicologists aren't (or would hate to think of themselves as being) indifferent to live music, and because most performers aren't (or would claim not to be) indifferent to factual knowledge. There is, is there not, something of a chasm between the two, and I for one think there should be and, in any case, always will be. …

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