The Byrds and the B’s Being an Historically Informed Performer

Playing music from Italy of the 1640s by Kapsperger on the harpsichord in the Mediterranean glass house of the Berlin Botanical Gardens with a theorbist colleague, as I was recently, amidst the shrieking and squabbling of uncountable birds might not be exactly what the composer had in mind, but it does carry with it a sense of authenticity; the foliage of southern Europe, the perfumes of plants and flowers from Italy to the western coast of Portugal.

As unusual a place as it might be for a concert you might even be forgiven for calling it “HIP”. But Calling a musician or musical event “HIP” probably isn’t anything especially new except for in the world of classical music. And even then, it’s taken on a new meaning for us. Some might see it as being trendy, others probably deride it as really geeky. But what exactly does “HIP” mean for a classical musician? We’ve had our punk violinists, our and glamours pianists but were the complete antithesis of “HIP”. Today, when we call someone “HIP” we’re actually referring to players who are involved with “Historically Informed Performance”, a not-entirely-new approach to playing music from bygone eras. I know, there are those who would say “but it’s all been done before” and, of course, they would be right. That’s exactly what the HIP player hopes; that what they are doing was done before, and more or less in the same way they are doing it now. But the HIP musician today hopes that it was last done this way somewhere between 200 and 600 years ago!

Not much more than 50 years ago the world of music underwent a radical and new direction; that of turning back the clock by reproducing musical performance practices from the 15th through the 18th century. The idea was to jump into a kind of time travel machine and wind the clock back, at will, to some point in our musical past and peel away the layers of subsequent centuries of musical tradition. Old instruments were dragged out of museum cases, dusted off and brought back to life. Old manuscripts were re-examined and stripped of hundreds of years of added editorial alterations. Suddenly, a clarity, an understanding of the music of Byrd and Palestrina, of Monteverdi, Purcell, Telemann, Bach, Händel and Mozart to name but a few, sprang into view along with a whole new field of musicology, that of Historical Performance Practice, as it was then. Degree programmes sprung up at music colleges along with peer-review journals. A whole new branch of records and CD’s flourished. Craftsmen started to build instruments based on old museum instruments. There seemed to be no going back. A whole new market had been created like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

But how historically informed was all of this? At first, as exciting and new as this was, shockingly revealing even, it was a bit like the blind leading the blind. The performers knew more than their predecessors but were miles from the truth. Still, they were ploughing forward to go where no one had gone before. Frantic reading and re-reading of historical texts about performance, organology and a whole bunch of opinionated viewpoints erupted like wedding confetti. There were still all too many musicians claiming that the composers from the past could never have played these instruments well, they just don’t work. Well, because we couldn’t yet didn’t mean they couldn’t! Swift progress was made and some really great musical performances started happening. These were the important foundations upon which people like myself could build. And this building process is still underway and more alive today than ever before.

For me and my close colleagues, things have moved away not only from those early days but even the mainstream “Early Music” musicians of the 21st century. For us, long gone are the intonation horrors of Vallotti, Werckmeister and Kirnberger pseudo-tunings, the theoretical tuning “temperament” methods of 18th century musicologists and so popular with revivalists in the late 20th century. Real tunings, those used by real musicians, from Lanfranco’s tuning of 1533 to the Tempérament Ordinaire of Rousseau in 1778 via various “meantone” tunings and even Bach’s very own system, we are now finally putting some of the right spices into the right soups. The trade standard delrin plastic harpsichord plectra hasn’t seen the inside of one of my instruments for over ten years. Back to basics and to the birds again; only real crow feathers for me, from crawing to cooing; violins with equal tensioned gut strings, oboes with single-piece hand-rolled brass tubes, lutes and theorbos with double gut frets, theorbists with nails and appropriate hand positions. I just managed to get my hands on the hottest thing since sliced bread: historical iron harpsichord strings made today in Canada using the same alloys and essentially the same manufacturing methods used in Nürnberg—the then universally used product. This is the first time it’s been available since about 1830.

As to William Byrd on the harpsichord? Well it’s all fingers and no thumbs pretty much, as he did. It’s not that being a purist is in any way a good thing in and of itself. Pedantically sticking to what one has been told or to what one has read is the stuff of musical disaster. There is as little point in trying to use historical fingerings and still sounding like a modern pianist as there is using modern piano fingerings and trying to sound baroque. The more of the mechanical things you get right the more chance you have of getting closer to the intentions of the composers. It all about getting into their mindsets and leaving our modern preconceptions behind, seeing their odd ways not as limitations but liberations to the music.

This is what gave birth to an ensemble I now nurture in Berlin called EGG. It’s a platform though which like-minded musicians can find other like minded people to air their thoughts, to develop ideas together and to involve the public by putting on concerts and making recordings. It’s pretty much what the ancients were up to. Imagine sitting in Pasqua Rosée’s newly opened cafe in Paris in 1672, with d’Anglebert, Lully and Marais in heated discussion about what a prelude ought to be like. That’s how they developed, and that‘s what we are trying to do today, here in Berlin. We get together for English cream tea or homemade ciabatta bread and chat, discuss, play through new pieces together or even rehearse for concerts and the like.

On the whole I find that especially smaller groups, ensembles of two to five players, are really rewarding. It’s in these kinds of groups where the greatest headways are made, simply because people have more of a chance to give their own input, whether a concert of early Italian theorbo music with the accompaniment of harpsichord and birds, or small cantatas for the church year by Telemann or even sonatas for viola d’amore. It’s through the careful reading and putting into practice the teachings and writings of music historians from the period in which the music was written—particularly primary, rather than secondary sources—and the active discussion and music-making today that brings us closer to understanding their musical approach. This approach, just by way of doing it a whole lot, gets us nearer to the truth and to the music in the hearts of these composers.

Being an Historically Informed Performer in today’s world also means that I have to research, write articles, teach and most of all keep thinking and learning. Even within the field of Baroque musicians today there are all too many still who stick to doing what their teachers did, and their teachers’ teachers. We have to know things now about the mechanics of our music and about our instruments. For example, I published an article last year on the tuning Bach used for his harpsichord based on a graphic doodle on the front page of the manuscript of his Well Tempered Clavier. I do experiments with wire such as my Wire Project, where over three years I tested three different kinds of harpsichord strings on the same instrument in identical conditions to see how they compared and shared all of this with the music world, the community of players and instrument builders.

The quilling and damping of harpsichords is another huge issue which all too many are still dragging their feet on today. Even those using bird feathers tend to think they know better than the ancients and use seagull or turkey, goose or condor rather than crow quill as they did. There was enough goose and turkey feather lying around from their pen refuse which they didn’t use, clearly crow was better to warrant buying it specially. We’re so lucky to have an amazing museum of historical instruments in Berlin, the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung which houses some amazing instruments including a number from the famous Ruckers dynasty of builders. These guys’ instruments were the most sought after in the world for about 200 years, the Stradivari of the harpsichord world! They even have an instrument thought to have been Bach’s own in the museum! I played some of the instruments at the museum recently and it just blows your mind to be able to do that!

Thanks for your visit

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s