Attempts at authenticity in performance of baroque music go back a long way, but current approaches can arguably be traced back to the pioneers of the 1960s, such as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Bruggen.
In those heady days, the early music pioneers attempted to use or recreate instruments not played seriously in their baroque form for centuries. Crucially, they used their experiments to challenge the ways music of the 17th and 18thcentury was being played in their time. Their work led to the period instrument revolution of the 1970s and 80s. After this, period performance became a little standardised and even taught in music collages. The “right way” to play early music was born and things stabilised.
Within that standardisation lay a plethora of modernisms … A at 415 as a standard pitch, “natural” trumpets with the questionable and entirely modern (1950s-1970s) inventions that are nodal vent-holes, played using modern mouthpieces and lead-pipes, modern scrapes of hoboy reed developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and a range of variably authentic strings and bows.
It’s easy to rail against the faux authentic (did you notice me reference to ventholes), but that misses the point I think. How authentic is authentic anyway? My natural trumpet is a copy of an instrument made in 1746, and our hoboy player uses one based on a hoboy of similar vintage. These are not instruments of the Restoration, but a generation later. Our hoboy player was asked recently about work to use reeds scraped to baroque patterns rather than modern long scrapes, and the question was “why?”
To answer this I would point to this performance of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.
On 19 mins 55 seconds the trumpet plays, without ventholes, an almost unplayable part. Notes have to be bent and cajoled out of the places they naturally sit in the instrument, and the player suffers as he plays his line. The words … translated as:
Be faithful, all pain will yet be only a little thing
After the rain blessing blossoms, all storms pass away
Be faithful, be faithful
It is possible, and most common, in period performance to play this aria on a baroque trumpet with ventholes. But to do so sanitises the music. Bach wrote with the instrument in mind, and understood the stress and tension playing such a line would cause. And in true rhetorical style, in feeling the pain the musician evokes pain in the audience. Suddenly the music makes sense, and when the final movement follows in a far easier key you can feel the relief in the words “god will, just like a father, hold me in his arms”
For me it comes down to why we make any attempt at all to use period instruments, and why we attempt to find instruments made to be as authentic copies as possible, as far as possible using techniques of the time. The music. Yes our authenticity is relative not absolute, as is the case with all early music groups, and we have to make compromises. But we keep pushing to use instruments and techniques which are increasingly as authentic as we can, in order to be inspired by them, and in turn by the music. When we use unfamiliar and at times very difficult period instruments, they show us some of the ways the music may have been intended to be played. From the altered tonality forced by real natural brass, to the fickle sounds of short scrape reeds and short fingerings, and markedly different sound and articulation of the more historically made strings, the soundworld changes. By engaging as much as we can in the struggles of period performers of the 17th century we gain insights into how the music works. The result we feel, is a fresher and more genuinely authentic performance … music not as a museum piece or played as a learnt “early music formula”, but as a fresh and lively experience. And it remains an exciting and infinite journey of discovery, not merely a destination to reach.