The academic year of 2020/21 marks the birth of the mdw’s Department of Early Music—and in the following conversation, department head Stefan Gottfried and deputy head Eugène Michelangeli speak about their approaches to historically informed performance and the initial projects of this new department.
How old are terms like term “early music” and “ancient music”, anyway? And how did they come about?
Eugène Michelangeli (EM): I’d assume that at any given point, there’s always been some sort of older music that could’ve been called “ancient” or “early”. But what I understand early music to mean today is repertoire that doesn’t correspond to the classical canon—because it’s from an earlier period, or because special instruments and/or unusual playing techniques are fairly essential to its performance.
Stefan Gottfried (SG): The idea of music being “old” at some point has been a constant throughout Western music history. The “new” was always what was interesting, even if it often ran afoul of conservative tendencies—which were championed mostly by the church. Along with it, “old” music has likewise been an ever-present component of musical life. But it fell to the 19th century to develop a full-fledged interest in music from the more distant past—and in addition to Mendelssohn’s legendary revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, that era’s initiation of projects to publish complete editions of the music composed by figures including Schütz, Bach, and Handel reflected the great interest that existed as well as that era’s need to identify with its own tradition. It was only in the 20th century that terms like “ancient music” and “early music” came to be used in their present-day sense, which denotes a very special approach: namely, the attempt to come closer to realising the music as it was originally conceived and heard by working with the original sources as well as with the instruments and playing techniques that were in use during the period in question. Such an approach lives from the conviction that different eras conceived of music differently (which in turn necessitates different ways of producing sound) and that giving oneself over to these things enriches and deepens one’s own music-making. It’s by exploring all this that we discover the true diversity of Europe’s “classical” music. And in doing so, we begin learning new musical “languages” and how to express ourselves in them.
How can the interpretations that one hears in the context of “historically informed” performance sound as contradictory as they do if they’re all based on the same historical sources?
SG: That’s an essential question, and the answer has a lot of different layers to it. Fundamentally, it can be said that in any given language, individual people express themselves in differing and quite unmistakable ways despite adhering to the same grammatical rules. And it’s the same in music—above all in the music of a historical era that conceived of its musical doings as being analogue to language, an era during which “speaking in notes” went without saying. Another issue here is that just like in any other kind of historical research, any impression of past realities that we can get will necessarily be incomplete—which is doubly problematic in a field focused on researching the realities of sound, about which written sources can only ever provide limited clues. Though this does, of course, change in one fell swoop when you research romantic performance practice, since early recordings afford us an entirely different degree of knowledge. Finally, it’s the case that failure to realise certain very well-documented aspects is something that occurs not only in the “sloppiness of tradition” (Mahler) but also in the early music movement. An example would be two Handel oratorios where we know exactly how long Handel took to perform them (since he noted this himself in the score that he used). Despite this knowledge, all of the widely familiar recordings—including those by period ensembles—are way off: everyone needs far more time to get through these works. So this is a case where we’re clearly not managing to reproduce a composer’s feel for tempo, where it seems like Handel just took things way too fast for us. That really gets you thinking … and you wonder about the extent to which we, today, are actually willing and able to give ourselves over to it. What we often lack are conviction and the courage to shed old habits (including those of the early music scene itself) and leave our “comfort zones”.
EM: Historically informed performance is an attitude, a way of thinking; it definitely doesn’t provide any pre-packaged, absolute truth. And one shouldn’t expect the thing is that it brings forth to be homogenous. Instead, we should hope that performers follow this path as forthrightly as possible and continue to discover new things.
What mission is the new Department of Early Music at the mdw expected to fulfil? And on what existing in-house structures can it call for support?
EM: Early music has been a topic at our institution ever since it was founded. And the establishment of a new department devoted solely to this area is an essential step towards making further development possible. It’s about bundling and building upon all of our university’s relevant strengths in order to allow the world to access the full excellence of the mdw in this field, as well.
SG: The Department of Early Music is intended to be a centre of competence and interface for all early music-related activities at the mdw. And as we go forward, we want to intensify and expand our various connections to musical interpretation researchers, to the instrumental departments, to the church musicians, to the singers and conductors, and to music education at the University. The nice thing is that a great deal of interest already exists in many of these areas—and that there’s a growing awareness of how “classical music”, supposedly so set in stone, ultimately benefits from different ideas about sound.
What are your most important priorities and projects for the initial phase?
EM: A fundamental part of our efforts will be to maintain and build our relationships with the mdw’s other organisational units. And with diversity being one of our university’s great strengths, we’ll be trying to network ourselves as intricately as possible within this wonderful entity with an eye to doing good work together.
SG: In the present academic year, we’re planning to take on the following projects: next March will see us perform in the Glass Hall of the Musikverein, followed by a staged performance of Molière & Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in May at the Schönbrunner Schlosstheater in collaboration with the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Shortly thereafter, at Whitsun, we’ll be presenting ourselves at the International Baroque Festival of Melk Abbey together with other Austrian and foreign early music institutions. We’ll also be participating in two mdw productions e. g. Bach’s St. John Passion, and our offerings will be rounded out by master classes, workshops, and themed weeks (in this semester, for instance, on 18th-century French cantatas). Moreover the official event to mark the founding of our department will take place on 18 April 2021 in the Joseph Haydn-Saal and be followed by a symposium on The Harpsichord in the 16th Century. So with all this in store, our department can look forward to an eventful inaugural year.