How are we to appreciate the creations of the past? Are their meanings best revealed by historically accurate re-creations? Or does that approach inevitably fail to explain why these works still inspire us in the present? Should we study past creations with contemporary analytical tools and concepts? Or does that inevitably trivialize a masterwork by distorting its meaning in its own cultural context? Or is it precisely because a work is of interest to us in our age that we study it and, therefore, inevitably distort the creation’s original meaning(s)? Should we try to use historically appropriate concepts to analyze past creations, with the inevitable anachronism of applying analytical tools appropriate to one historic period to answer our own questions—questions that might well have been unimaginable in the age in which the work was created?
Clearly, there are no single or simple answers to these unavoidable questions. We are still interested in Bach’s solo-violin works because they are “masterworks” that have transcended their historical and cultural setting, yet the very notion of such a musical “masterwork” was alien to Bach’s culture.
If we try to re-create the pieces the way they might have sounded to Bach, where are we to draw the line of historical re-creation? I remember some years ago participating in a modern-instrument performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. I was seated close to French hornist David Jolley, who, after sitting quietly onstage for a long time, rose to perform beautifully the treacherously difficult horn solo in the “Et in quoniam.” A New York Times reviewer singled out Jolley’s performance for high praise but depreciated that praise by noting that Jolly had performed on a modern valve horn. Many of us who had participated in the performance were outraged at that snide comment. How far should we have gone in re-creating an appropriate “historically authentic” setting? Should we not have performed the mass as a concert work at all, since masses were not “concert pieces”? Should we have re-