About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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When you consider that the greatest hymns ever written—the plainchant hymns—are pushing the age of eight hundred and that the noble chorale hymn tunes of Bach date from the early eighteenth century, then what is the significance of the word “old” applied to “Mother at Thy Feet Is Kneeling”? Most of the old St. Basil hymns date from the Victorian era, particularly the 1870s and 1880s.
— Paul Hume (1956)
Early Music & Performing Forces
published 20 December 2010 by Jeff Ostrowski

First of all, I invite you to compare and contrast two beautiful performances of Kevin Allen’s Tantum Ergo. One was recorded by a choir, and the other by vocal phenomenon Matthew J. Curtis:

    
Click Here to enlarge CHOIR VERSION                                Click Here to enlarge SINGLE VOICE VERSION


(This piece was heard at the beginning of Sacred, Beautiful, & Universal, and is now in print. CLICK HERE to learn more.)

Upon hearing these two recordings, some will surely ask the question: is it better to sing polyphonic music with only a few singers or many singers? The below blog entry explores this question in a general way. Oh, and let me please say at the beginning that I think both recordings are absolutely extraordinary and special. I think to compare them is like comparing apples and oranges.

When I was in the fourth grade, a fellow student had a book report due, but he chose not to read the book. His solution was to simply write out the information on the back cover of the book, ending his oral presentation by saying, “So, if you know what happens next . . . read the book!” The point is, this fellow was not using a clever rhetorical device: he really didn’t know how the book ended.

I fear that some of today’s modern choral groups are, perhaps, guilty of a similar trick. So many of today’s “early music” vocal ensembles consist of only a few singers (frequently one on a part). Many times, they justify this by arguing against large performing forces for early music “for the sake of authenticity” and to “clarify the polyphonic lines.” I suspect the true reason (in many cases) is that it is much more expensive to pay for a large number of singers (for example) than it is to pay for a small number of singers. Besides, it often happens that more singers on an individual line (for instance) actually helps to clarify the polyphonic writing (not muddle it), because the individual voices and vibrato are minimized.

Then, too, sometimes people simply do what they want to do. I once attended a guest lecture where the speaker started out by admitting that we posses absolutely no iconographic evidence for accompanying a certain genre of early Sacred vocal music with instruments. (“Iconographic evidence” refers to the pictures, illuminations, and paintings of singers in Church that have come down to us.) Having admitted this, he then went on to say that this type of Sacred music was normally accompanied (in spite of the iconographic evidence to the contrary). I later learned that he, himself, played an early string instrument and directed the Collegium at his University. TRANSLATION: he wanted to play his instrument!

When the “early music” movement first started, some people rejected it by saying, “If we wanted to be truly authentic, we would be forced to perform Mozart with powdered wigs infested with insects.” I feel there is a grain of truth to this statement, in the sense that we cannot simply look at a composer’s circumstances, imitating those conditions. For instance, I seem to remember being told that Hans Leo Hassler served a particular nobleman who often went to war. Whenever it was time to go to war, not only was Hassler’s choir substantially reduced in numbers, but (sometimes) Hassler himself had to pack his bags and go fight! Even if my memory is incorrect, and I’m thinking of a different composer, this story illustrates the fact that there is more to making music than imitating limited circumstances placed on composers in the past.

In Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg claims that Bach “craved” large performing forces (page 44), and used them whenever he could afford them. Mozart heard one of his symphonies played by a large orchestra in 1781, and wrote a letter filled with glee, stating: “The symphony went magnifique, and had great success. Forty violins played—the wind instruments were doubled—ten violas, ten double-basses, eight violoncellos, and six bassoons.” Chopin normally played the piano very quietly (due to his frailty and sickness, evidently), but told a student who apologized for breaking a string, “Young man, if I had your strength and played that Polonaise as it should be played, there would not be a string left in the instrument by the time I got through.” Again, there is more to being “authentic” than imposing limits under which the composer suffered while he lived.

I, myself, am actually a big fan of authentic performance of the music, because I believe anything else does a disservice to the music. For example, I do not believe in performing Scarlatti Sonatas in the Hollywood Bowl, as Vladimir Horowitz did, because those pieces were not written for such a venue. I do not believe in performing chamber music in large concert halls, because chamber music was not conceived with that venue in mind. I do not believe in playing Baroque keyboard pieces in the Metropolitan Opera House. I do not believe in playing a keyboard reduction of Bach’s B-minor Mass on the harpsichord. I do not believe in playing reductions of Renaissance polyphony on the piano, as Glenn Gould did. I could go on and on and on.

To me, this is the most important thing (especially when it comes to Church music). Perform music ONLY in venues where it sounds good! If you insist on performing a piece of music in a place it was never intended, please don’t blame the music for sounding bad!

I also believe that we live in an age of absurd loyalty to the printed page. For instance, how Mozart would laugh if he heard us performing his music! He would ask us many questions, including, “Why do you not embellish my pieces, especially the slow movements? Why do you not improvise the cadenzas? Why do you scrupulously adhere to my basic dynamic markings, where I will mark fifty bars in a row as piano and sixty bars in a row as forte?”

Pianist Harold Samuel had an interesting take on “authenticity.” Wanda Landowska was lecturing him, after one of his Carnegie hall recitals, telling him in great detail how foolish he was not to play Bach on the harpsichord. Finally, Samuel was able to get a word in. He said, “But Madame Landowska, I don’t like the harpsichord . . . .”