Memory and Creativity in the Interpretation of Early Music

Aquarelle Watercolor 01 de Rebecca Hayward

Memory and Creativity in the Interpretation of Early Music

Performance and Interpretation of Early Music Practice as a Process  of Translation

The Process of Translation: Early Music as Foreign Language

Yves Bonnefoy’s description of the process that he brings to the translation of poetry from a foreign language to his own, I find to be precisely applicable to the performance of Early European Music today.  Why is this so?  Because Early Music is indeed a foreign language with all the attributes that Bonnefoy ascribes to it, and with all the opportunities and responsibilities involved in making a work of art in a strange language available in a new language.

A foreign language has its own cultural environment and history, and therefore, getting  meaning from it is only the first step. One must get deeply involved with the language, leaving aside one’s own preconceptions and trying to understand how that language works within its own framework, quite separate from one’s self, from what one is used to, from one’s own culture. And yet, in order to do this, to thus deeply identify with the other–the foreign–language, it is necessary to bring to it a knowledge of one’s own language.  In other words, the connection is made by taking something from the new language while recognizing that one’s own language forces us in some measure to modify it, and through the simultaneous visions obtained in these two languages, trying to create something that is as close to the original work of art as possible.

In the same way, Bonnefoy as a poet, works to bring his translations very close to the original, but also, he knows that he must allow for his own poetic imagination to work on the original text.  At various points he must make decisions that are interpretive decisions so that the result can be a coherent piece in his own language. Furthermore, he must draw upon his own capacity for free association to gain a greater freedom with the text once he has made his interpretive choices, and this means putting his own unconscious development at the service of creating a really profound translation.

This process of translation is, as Bonnefoy so well describes it, the meeting place of two destinies, the destiny of the poet of the past, or the present, in another language and culture, and the translator’s own personal destiny.  While he is working on a particular text he knows that he is actually working on his own personal life project: as translator he is also a poet who through the language of another poet is working out something that is necessary for his own development, his own understanding.

This is one approach that can be taken to Early Music and the one that I have adopted.  It is meaningful to say that in Early Music one is working with a foreign language in terms of the musical elements involved, and as one attempts to comprehend and express this music, the aim is not only to preserve a heritage but to achieve a deeper understanding of oneself through this music.

Thus, in my work with Early Music I have tried to allow for as much free association as possible as a means for coming to an understanding of the music of the past.  These free associations can be sometimes literary, sometimes musical, or on occasion, ‘technical’.  A ‘technical’ free association can occur in working with a particular musician or group of singers who present certain things in their techniques that allow us to go forward in unexpected directions.  In the recording of  « La Messe des Fous », I have taken the liberty to bring together certain musical texts that to my mind help to recreate the feeling and ritual context of the mass, by means of establishing what might be an inner trajectory of its music. This was done without, at the beginning, worrying about its musicological correctness, but in response to a solid intuitive feeling.  Then, of course, I check to see if such an intuition is valid musicologically, and if it happens that there is no supporting evidence, it must be abandoned as possibly too foreign to the work in question. However, in years of experience with the music that I work on, the results of giving free reign to my imagination are most often confirmed by musicological research.

A particularly happy example of this process happened in preparing the « Carmina Burana ».  Because the vocal group had made great progress in their handling of ornamentation, I spontaneously in rehearsal improvised an ornamentation for the piece ‘Bonum est Confidere’ which was kept and subsequently recorded. Later I found another manuscript that contained the same piece but with an almost identical ornamentation.

Of course, this is not meant to describe, nor to prescribe, a process in which scholarship is merely trotted in to back up random intuition. But rather, erudition can be used to stimulate, to develop intuition.  As in the case of good translation, intuition in music can only arise out of a struggle to gain great familiarity with the work.  This entire process, a process so close to that of translating a work of poetry from a foreign language, could be justly summarized in the one word ‘intuition’–intuition that arises from the personal search for understanding and truth–thus, the intuitive approach to the interpretation of Early Music as an act of translation.

Some Lessons from the Poets

This parallel between the translation of poets by other poets and the interpretation of music from the past by today’s musicians, calls attention to some things that the musicians might learn from the poets.

First, the relationship of a poet to another whom he would translate, seems to be based on something like an initial aesthetic shock–he reads, say, Dante or Shakespeare, becomes excited and taken by something in the rhythm that he wants to get into his own work.  When Marianne Moore seeks to put La Fontaine into American English–and there couldn’t be anything more foreign to American English than La Fontaine–she felt she needed that experience for her personal development. In fact her editor, thinking of supposed ill-effects on her own writing, advised her against doing this translation; but she knew her own artistic needs better, went on with this project and, of course, subsequently went on with her writing.

My contention is that ideally today the musician’s relationship to Early Music should be the same as a poet’s relationship to another poet, that the musician would become interested in a certain repertory because he experiences an aesthetic shock and feels that he has to work on it in order to incorporate it into his own development.

Musicians could also usefully examine a second aspect of the work of poetic translation.  When poets translate a piece from a foreign language and culture, even one from much earlier times, they don’t treat it–as musicians do generally today–as something ancient, distant and alien from them.  The poets bring a feeling that the work is very much alive to them and is experienced as if it were a part of their own contemporary literature.  When poets like Bonnefoy translate Shakespeare, or Pound Homer, they never express the sense of distance and foreignness that musicians do when they try to handle Early Music.

Major Elements of Early Music Involved

in its Interpretation as a Foreign Language

Having in this way set out the basic character of a process for interpreting Early Music, we can now come to our main task:  That is, to examine–really to merely sketch–how major elements of Early Music enter into and facilitate its interpretation, treating it as a foreign language.

The Religious Presence

All the main elements of Early Music are involved in, play some function in, making the past a living part of the present, and thus are suffused with a religious presence.  This is to say, that the various elements of this music aimed to help people to grasp, remember and comprehend something transcendental in human experience.  And this transcendental aim allowed this music from the 9th to the end of 18th century to express certain important threads of unity and continuity.

The Instruments

The musical instruments are the most concrete element of this music available today.  Questions of whether Early Music instruments are ‘better’ or what-not for playing this music, or any other music, are not relevant.  People should play the instruments they want to play without their being tied to some repertory, as related to some form of status. However, these instruments do allow for another set of expressive possibilities. Furthermore, they also allow for a kind of ‘horizontal’ (timeless?) free association with many folk instruments still played today and with folk music technique–technique that is still very much alive.

For example, the recorder is much closer to the Rumanian flute droite and to the Irish tin whistle than to the modern transverse flute, the harpsichord is closer to the cymbalum and the psaltery than the piano, the lute closer to oriental instruments like the tar, the ‘oud or the saz than the guitar.  In organological studies one discovers that even in such treatises as Ganassi’s or Hotteterre’s on the recorder, the techniques described are extremely close to folk techniques, and this provides a tremendous opening to new forms of interpretation.  Now of course, it is in a sense contradictory to call these ‘new’ forms of techniques, because in folk music today we find a very active use of these techniques.

The Early Music instruments have been a predominant focus of attention, and this is perhaps because of their concreteness. However, their larger significance may be that they can carry an important burden of the memory of this music beyond the capacity of modern instruments. Furthermore, certain instruments, particularly the keyboards–harpsichord, organ and clavichord-‑ have been very carefully described in certain Early Music treatises by such outstanding musicians as G. Druta, F. Couperin and C. P. E. Bach. These treatises underscore the extent to which the techniques of these instruments were completely different from the piano techniques of today–notwithstanding the obvious physical resemblance between the old and the modern versions of the western keyboard.  The differences in technique-‑ the use of the arms, fingers, fingerings, the emphasis on non‑ legato playing, silences d’ articulation–cannot be under‑ estimated in trying to understand and perform Early Music.

The Words: In the Forefront

In all Early Music the words are in the forefront of the musical text.  It is the word that is at the heart of the collective memory embodied in Early Music, music that is largely singing, the song being sung words.

Singing and the voice were the model for all instrumental performance.  Bach prefaces his three-part inventions saying that he composed them as examples of counterpoint and as exercises designed to the young player to learn how to make each voice « sing ».  Even polyphony is an intensification of the dialogue between singing-speaking voices.  It was not designed to drown the words, but to lend them greater meaning in what was essentially a convivial experience, a dialogic experience between the voices. An expression frequently quoted in the 17th Century said, « He who speaks, sings well; he who sings, sings badly ».

If vocal ornamentation is a requirement in Early Music technique, it is aimed primarily at heightening the meaning of the words. Ornamentation should neither smother the melodic line, nor should it distract us from the words. Nevertheless, the virtuoso instrumental improvisation on the song has its place in this repertory: It is a way of expressing a personal and intense relationship with a piece.  This, of course, should be distinguished from virtuosity as a demonstration of technical conceit.

Non-verbal Music: Dance, Pageantry and Ritual

The poetry of Early Music is supported on the foundations of well-defined rhythms, and the dance with the liberal use of percussive instruments becomes the indispensable reinforcement of all of this music.  François Couperin specifically defined measured music as closest to poetry, and free rhythm as ‘prose’. Even though the dance is perhaps at the origin of our instrumental music–along with the first virtuoso performances that were instrumental improvisations on songs–the relationship to strophic poetry in the dance was never erased.  Without the support of words in some respects this aspect of Early Music remains the most mysterious–even when the choreography of the dances has been restored. But it is absolutely essential for us to accept the centrality of the dance in our interpretation of Early Music. Here again I think that we can take our cue from the poets and poetry.  In a cultural environment attuned to the vitality, the energy and subtleties of the rhythms to be found in Dante, Machaut, Ronsard, etc., we can imagine the subtlety of rhythmic expression in the dance.  This should make us wary of overly repetitive interpretations of the rhythms of Early Music.

The dance was a jubilant group celebration bringing excitement and earthiness to religious expression and creating the framework for courtship.  Even the most serious works use the motifs of the dance.

Pageantry and ritual provide the settings for music and dance, and they too move to rhythmic cadences.  The sense of pageantry should provide the ‘environment’ for the dance suite as sell as for the religious cantatas and passions.

The Oral Tradition

Songs and singing form the basis of Early Music and were transmitted mostly by oral tradition.  All oral traditions have a relation to the past that is sacred, and this is congruent with, and reinforces the sense of divine presence that is felt in this music even when it not–though much of it was–directly related to religious service.

Another key consequence of the oral tradition is that written music notation is only an approximation of this music, a point of departure, an aid to more profound memory.  In the oral tradition cultural memory and continuity is carried in the memories of individuals.  Of course, continuity across generations can be gained by more exacting forms of written notation.  But when this happens, as in modern times, the tradition of memory declines-‑ what is written need not be remembered.  When music is internalized in the individual’s memory, it becomes available for embellishment and improvisation.

The most difficult task in the performance of Early Music is to be found precisely here: Unequal notes, singing with ‘graceful neglect’, and so forth, belong to this oral tradition continuously evoked in the treatises of the time.  Our major effort to understand Early Music notation must be devoted to identifying what essentially belonged to an oral tradition which, because in fact it was an oral tradition, was largely not written down–and, also, was considered not quite notable.  Early Music illustrates the limits of any form of musical notation.  This is a mind-set completely contrary to our present day teaching of solfege.

In this context it can be well noted: improvisation and ornamentation, that are at the heart of creative realization of Early Music, represent a continuous search to explore and capture the nuances of its great themes.

Continuity in the Great Themes of Early Music

While the greater part of Early Music is based on religious poetry, the remainder are love songs.  Somewhat outside this framework are songs commenting on men and women as they are, the satirical and the bawdy.  It might be said that taken together Early Music celebrates God and love and, with more or less reverence, accepts nature.

The main religious themes of this music are (i)the text of the mass, (ii)the adoration of Mary and (iii)the agony of Jesus and the suffering of Man, as in the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  The pursuit and development of these themes creates a continuity that spans the centuries even as radical changes in forms and styles of musical expression appear to obliterate earlier ones.  Even when the Lutheran chorale breaks with these specific themes, and establishes new ones, these in turn perform the same role for continuity.

The love songs offer composers more scope to be free from ritual, but they too have their constant themes of love satisfied or not satisfied. And they are at the service of courtly love that is deeply connected to the religious framework.

The troubadours are a different circle of musicians than the official church group, but it is obvious that some of the love songs are deeply reverential, and that something like secular forms of expression are found in such work as the songs to the Virgin Mary in El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat and the Cantigas. The fusion of the themes of religion and love reaches its peak in opera in its ritualized extension of courtly love.  Orpheus is a Christ-figure working out the religious theme in terms of perfect love and beauty.

The songs of satire and bawd could be seen as a counterweight to the arrogance that can go along with remaining at transcendental heights. Men and women are reminded of the humble limitations of their unchanging natures, and without slavishness to accept them. Even here a striking fact is how often the earthy words are set to music that softens them and suggests something other than vulgar indulgence.

An interesting evidence of the continuity of this musical world is provided by the incident of Louis Couperin’s meeting with Chambonnières. Only 19 years old at the time, Couperin had lived only in the country-side, but he was immediately introduced to play an important role in the music of the French court.  Nothing is known of his musical education.

Continuity and Unity in Early Music:

Significance for Its Interpretation Today

The continuity of Early Music over the centuries particularly defines it as a foreign language in the world of today.  The general acceptance of the transcendent aim of all of this music underlies a psychological continuity that one can feel, for example,  moving from Frescobaldi to Bach–a kind of lineage-‑ Frescobaldi, Froberger, Buxtehude, Bach.  There is nothing comparable to this in the modern period; it is foreign to us today.  Music has become divided into exclusive boxes and specialized expressions and techniques. This means to me that we must look deeply into our own music in all of its extant forms and search for an integration of those aspects that seem most relevant for the interpretation–the translation, if you will–of the works offered to us in the language of Early Music. This approach has led us to the study of the rich folk traditions and practice that are still with us today, and their extension in such directions as jazz–as those aspects of music today that are most relevant to this search.

As we have seen, translation always involves a profound psychological process.  In this case we are attempting to bring a musical world characterized by transcendental unity and psychic continuity into today’s profoundly divided world–a world of compartmentalized music and profound social and psychic splitting. We have no choice but to draw upon and engage in, an integrative scholarship as the source of genuine, authentic intuition in the interpretation of Early Music.

This awakening of music from the past has its psychic obligations.  It encourages attention to the object itself — accepting it as it is and was. Interpretation becomes the expression of reverence without enslavement to the object.  I think that this is reminiscent of Corbin’s description of how music–la musique du coeur–in Persian philosophy is what prevents the thinker from being forever exiled from his past. Each musical expression is unique and its recreation restores a dead object to life.  Artaud, viewing Nature as the totality of all of the Past, proclaimed the wonder of medieval theater whose setting was Nature itself.  Such past aesthetic and musical expressions bursting upon the world are captured by Gustafsson in « The Silence of the World before Bach ».   The intensity of this experience is not dissimilar from that described in psychoanalysis as the integration of the good internal object; without this past being, or becoming, alive within the self, personal creativity can only be a mirage.