As our family was watching the movie Back to the Future a few weeks ago, I was again intrigued by the movie’s premise and inspired to apply it to the history of choral music. The plot is familiar: Marty (Michael J. Fox) uses a 1980’s Delorean time machine, engineered by Doc (Christopher Lloyd), to travel back in time to the year 1955.
While there, Marty has quite an adventure and learns two lessons that have become law in time travel theory, at least on television and in the movies: (1) our perception of the past is quite different than the reality of the past; and (2) any interference with the past changes the future. The first lesson, the reality of the past versus our current impression of it, is the theme of this brief presentation. Keep in mind, though, that our actions today will be the past tomorrow, and what we do now will, without a doubt, influence the future.
Just think, if we were able to travel back to the Renaissance Period and listen to performances of choral music, I bet the reality of that experience would be much different than many versions of Renaissance choral performance we hear today. Our current efforts have been influenced by hundreds of years of performing varied music of contrasting genres and styles. In addition, wildly conflicting theories and practices as to how and why choral music was performed makes it difficult to understand the unique role of choral singing in Renaissance culture and society. The main question is: How can we recapture an authentic sound and style in modern performances of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical choral music without actually going back in time?
Perhaps a visual analogy will help define this situation and provide some answers, namely a comparison of choral performance and the recent restoration of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
A December 1989 National Geographic article presents a stunning array of dramatic photographs and describes the project as follows:
The restorer’s credo is like the physicians: First, do no harm. The treatment was to lift layers of Rome’s dust, sooty grease from burning candle tallow, and other substances — even the residue of Greek wine used as a cleaning solvent some 275 years ago. All had obscured Michelangelo’s work. Worst of all were varnishes made of animal glues. Applied in various centuries to brighten the darkening surface, they did so for a time. Then each deteriorated and turned the ceiling darker than before. Despite its dingy appearance, most of the fresco remained in good condition (p. 697).
As the accumulated grime [and faulty “restorations”] of nearly five centuries were removed, the once gloomy masterwork was renewed to a glory of color and light. “[A] light to amaze the eye and blind the soul,” writes author David Jeffery (p. 688).
In choral music, we can do a similar kind of restoration to our performances; we can clean, renovate, and reawaken pieces that have become staid, dull, dark and gloomy.
Compare these performances. How are they different? Be specific.
Johann Abraham Schultz (1747-1800): “Thou Child Divine”
Lititz Moravian Congregation, Julia Keene, conductor, 1964 (4’51”)
Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, conductor, 1998 (2’08”)
So, how does a musical renovation takes place? This is accomplished in practical ways, by bringing a fresh energy and interpretation to historic music and by researching the most current ideas related to performance practice. In the early 1960s, led in this country by Thomas Dunn, conductor of Boston’s famous Handel-Haydn Society, conductors began to take a more musicological approach to interpretation. This practice continues today. In preparing “early” (pre-19th-century) repertoire, many aspects of the music are researched – historical extra-musical context, size of ensembles, nature and use of period instruments, tone quality (timbre), phrasing, articulation, tempo, etc. – to discover the most “authentic” way to perform the literature. There are also those who believe strongly in a contextually evolutionary type of performance, where the practices that have developed over time create a living, breathing performance in the here and now, accounting for the performers’ experiences and traditions in this time and place.
New recordings of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical repertoire have brought many of these ideas to life with performances that are exuberant, captivating, vibrant and joyful. Listen carefully to these recordings, especially the fresh interpretation of familiar works, and your musical imagination will lead you to travel acoustically back in time.
William Byrd (1539/40 or 1543-1623)
“Venite” from The Great Service, performed by The Tallis Scholars
Verse Anthem: “Christ Rising Again from the Dead,” performed by Red Byrd and Rose Consort of Viols
Two Versions of “O, come, all ye faithful”
Westminster Choir, Joseph Flummerfelt, conductor, 1980
“Adeste, fidelis,” arr. T. Greatores, The Taverner Consort, Andrew Parrott, cond., 1992
Three Versions of “Sinfonie” from Handel’s Messiah
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, conductor, 1976
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Walter Susskind, conductor, 2002
Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor, 1980.
Two Versions of “All We Like Sheep” from Handel’s Messiah
The Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor, 1980
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor, 1992
We have a responsibility as conductors to seek to discover a definitive sound and style that accurately conveys choral works as imagined by composers. To create an appropriate performance, our mode of time travel involves the writings of the period and our own musical imaginations to put these ideas into practice. Like the visual rejuvenation of Michelangelo’s recently renovated fresco, an approach to singing must bring music to life with vitality, personality, energy, directness and humanistic simplicity. Our contemporary enjoyment and understanding of historic music requires a genuine effort to uncover and rediscover the lightness, brightness and creative spontaneity of master composers. Such a musical expedition happens only if we are willing to continually rethink and reinterpret our current way of doing things. Guided by careful research and healthy experimentation, we can construct interpretations that encourage composers’ individual voices to sing clearly and directly. Successful performances are opportunities for singers and audiences to time-travel, much like in a Delorean time machine, to experience the precious reality of other ages of choral music in vital and vibrant ways.