08 October 2018

Baroque Baloney

A Giant by virtue of ability or an accident of time?

Over the weekend Singapore staged a Baroque Festival.  I’m not sure that three very short programmes containing barely three hours of music in total by three composers (and a part of a fourth) constitutes a true “Festival”, but I am open to persuasion either way.  What concerns me more is the use of the word “Baroque”.

You do not have to have read many of my blog posts to know that I am strongly opposed to what I regard as the seriously flawed practice of using the word Baroque as a synonym for a specific period of world history.  We might all have been taught in our grade 5 theory lessons, or at our High School music classes, that every and any composer writing music between the years 1600 and 1750 was Baroque, but at various times in our history we have also been taught that cigarette smoking is an acceptable social habit, that asbestos is a wonderful material for use in domestic buildings, that a woman’s place is in the home bearing children and caring for her husband’s every need, and that same sex relationships are repugnant.  Just as we now recognise that those attitudes fail because they misrepresent health considerations, and demean both women and homosexuals, so we should recognise that to lump every composer together by coincidence of dates is similarly to misrepresent and demean their individuality and the value of their music.

Any composer is influenced by a whole raft of things - culture, geographical location, technology, personal relationships, individual sexuality, gender and social standing - before the accident of time.  Do we look at today’s USA, with its idiosyncratic political attitudes, at today’s North Korea with its oppressive and dictatorial government, at Saudi Arabia with its unshakeable belief in its inalienable right to administer life and death to its subjects, or to Singapore with its comfortable, safe and unexciting life-style, and say that everybody thinks and does the same by virtue of the fact that they are all alive in 2018?  We do not do that in our 21st century, so why do we see no incongruity in making those very assumptions of sameness in earlier centuries? 

Almost every child who has had a few superficial lessons in music history can trot out the statement that Baroque comes from an Old Portuguese word meaning deformed pearl.  That may (or may not) be correct, but do any of them (or their teachers) take it any further and ask why music should be likened to a deformed pearl, be it Portuguese or any other nationality?

The application of the word Baroque to music was first recorded in a highly derogatory critique of Rameau published in 1733.  It was, in short, a term of abuse and ridicule.  Rameau, for his part, relished controversy and contention, and I suspect he deliberately had written music which was seen as the antithesis of his French counterparts.  Set beside the clean, clear, no-nonsense rhythms, harmonies and melodies, of Couperin and Charpentier, Rameau was almost gleefully wayward, introducing complex inner distractions and confusing outer details to which the description of a “deformed pearl” must have seemed utterly appropriate.  I think we might suggest, even, that Rameau was deliberately courting controversy and attempting to trigger debate.

So how is it that a composer like Bach, who, in his music at least, was never controversial (even if, in life, he was anything but simple and uncontentious) has ended up not just being described as “deformed” but celebrated as the most “deformed” composer of all time?

The answer lies in the passion amongst educationalists in the early 20th century to put everything into boxes with neat little labels so that it was readily comprehensible to the ignorant masses.  Sadly, music education – always slow to change with the times – has got itself stuck in that rut, and still loves its boxes and labels.  How much easier it is to describe all those myriad composers who lived and worked between 1600 and 1750 as “Baroque” than to endeavour to identify them with the kind of unique set of circumstances which have ensured that their names and their music have been preserved into posterity.  Gardeners talk of Bedding Plants and Perennials when suggesting to amateurs what to grow and where – and there is some value in this – but by doing the same thing with music, we do it a big disservice.  “Let’s begin our programme with Baroque and then move to Classical before finishing with Modern”, is the mantra of bad piano teachers and weak-kneed pianists when planning programmes.  Forget issues such as tonality, style, character and impact.  You can have a programme comprising three pieces all called “Prelude in D” provided they are taken out of different historical boxes, yet a programme of Powerful Opening Statement , Long Sonata, and exciting Toccata is deemed unacceptable since they all have come out of the “Modern” box; no historical variety here, so bad programme!

That inability to identify variety when it stares you in the face, because you are blinded by the label on the box, was the big flaw in this Baroque Festival.  We had a concert of Bach.  Yes, we could argue that Bach is a true Baroque composer, in that his music is complex, often difficult to comprehend and usually quite astonishingly deformed.  Various theses are propounded to justify Bach’s love of Bach’s love of counterpoint; that he intended his music to be incomprehensible to man and comprehensible only to God, that he was so fascinated by mathematical formulae that he allowed it to govern his approach to writing music, and that his obsession with the mechanical intricacies of the organ led him to write music which celebrated mechanical workings above all else.  Whichever argument you put forward, the fact is that Bach wrote the way he did because of the technological, cultural, intellectual and social circumstances not of his day but of his geographical location and his professional position. 

That said, the other two composers in this festival came from very different backgrounds.  Purcell was English.  At the time England was tearing itself apart with political and religious divisions; divisions in which music played a pivotal role.  The restoration of the theatre to the hub of social life in Purcell’s London, the emergent Anglican Church and the way singers were recruited and trained all had a bearing on the way he wrote his music.  There was no sense that he was writing music to be appreciated only by God – his music had to be appreciated by the large mass of people being enticed back to music after a period of musical famine.  There is nothing in Purcell’s background which points to a fascination with mathematics or machines.  So in every respect he was different from Bach.  He spoke a different language, he breathed a different air, he answered to different employers with different agendas, and he lived in a very different city.  He happened to live (briefly) around the same time as Bach, but while that would seem to be of no significance whatsoever, it so happens that they both lived at a time which music historians have packaged up and labelled as “Baroque”, so we lump them both together and consider them as closely related. 

This undermines them both as individual composers, but particularly hard-hit has been poor Purcell.  19th century historians defined Baroque in such a way that Bach’s music was the ultimate example of it, so the further a composer was from writing like Bach, the less good he was.  Purcell’s music is nothing like Bach’s, so he is, by extension, a much worse composer.  And for years poor old Purcell has been castigated as inferior to Bach because both have been labelled Baroque.  Let’s turn it on its head and suggest that beside Purcell, Bach’s music for the theatre was so absolutely dreadful that it has all been lost, and that since it is virtually impossible to play any of Bach’s organ music on the English organs of Purcell’s time, he was not as good an organ composer as was Purcell.  Nonsense?  And yet how many reading this call Bach “great” purely on the evidence that he could write Fugues well and could retrospectively be assessed against a set of phantom ethics devised a century later to define a theoretical period of musical history?

The third composer was Handel.  When it comes to fitting into a box, he was so large and expansive that no box was ever conceived which could accommodate him.  Yet, once again, he was a “Baroque” composer for this festival, and music written for a very different place, a very different society, a very different audience and under very different circumstances than either Bach or Purcell, was presented as if it was their equal.

In short three composers, from three very different backgrounds, writing in very different places and for very different audiences, had nothing in common to link them other than the accident of living around the same time.  If that’s sufficient to build a coherent festival, why not build one based on composers whose names begin with R, with composers born in the month of April, or composers who are known to have preferred wine to beer.  It makes as much sense as lumping together composers living around the same time in history, but lacks the enticing attraction of a single label.

I mentioned part of a fourth composer.  Well, in one of the concerts we heard Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi Concerto.  Only a stone deaf gorilla might have mistaken Vivaldi for Bach, proof positive, I would have thought, that the term Baroque has no validity in assessing individual musical styles.  Yet the cursory programme notes (written, I would imagine, by an eager if ill-informed student) persisted in calling this Bach’s Organ Concerto.  For some reason, there is an attitude abroad which suggests that Vivaldi is not the kind of composer which respectable festivals like to play alongside the music of Bach.  When it comes to Baroque, what we really mean is Bach is best and nobody else is worth serious consideration.

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