Celebrating who?

(This is a revised version of what I originally posted. I didn’t think my original made its point very well.)

Headline on a music review in today’s New York Times:

A Song-and-Dance Salute to the Sun King

Now, I know that Times critics don’t write headlines, and I also know that headlines are often written in a hurry, not always with deep thought about their implications. But a salute to the Sun King? Why is anybody saluting Louis XIV?

Of course, the concert being reviewed featured music from Louis XIV’s court, but that’s not the same as celebrating the king himself. The review, I should quickly say, didn’t celebrate the king, and in fact the critic (Vivien Schweitzer) didn’t even like the most Louis-at-his-court-in-Versailles part of the performance, which seemed to be the presence of two dancers dressed in Versailles-era costumes. Schweitzer was much happier with the instrumentalists, who were dressed in stylish black, and played their concert in an entirely contemporary setting, the Time Warner Center in New York.

So why should I care about the headline? Because I think it underscores something about the classical music world. Classical music events don’t have much content. We play the music, with perhaps a few comments on its historical meaning. But we don’t engage with that history. We don’t take a stand on it. Compare the new Sophia Coppola Marie Antoinette film. I haven’t seen it — though I’m looking forward to doing that — but I’ve read about it. Coppola has ideas about Marie Antoinette, and that’s why she made the film. Whereas we in classical music just play the repertoire. It doesn’t matter — or at least not very crucially — where the stuff came from, or how or why it was written. It’s great music; therefore we play it. So into that vacuum the headline comes. The concert didn’t have any content, and the music, which the musicians clearly loved, came from the court at Versailles.

So why shouldn’t the concert be a celebration of Louis XIV? Was there anything else that it claimed to be? (None of this would matter, of course, if classical music hadn’t so decisively moved away from current culture. And yes, I know it’s harder to find living history in music, let alone take a stand on that history, than it is to take a stand on the history shown in a film. You can’t very well make a feature film about any historical figure without having some view of who that person was. But this only means we have to work harder to put some context — some cultural meaning — into classical performances. And if we don’t — if we don’t ourselves know why we’re giving the performances, apart, of course, from our love of the music — why should anybody come to them?)

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    There’s an interesting irony in what you point out, regarding “period instrument” performances of historic music : most ensembles claim to be historically accurate, but few, if any, actually try to present the music in the context of history you are alluding to. It’s odd hearing some of the leaders of these ensembles, for example, talking about how “emotional” the music is, suggesting even a Romantic element to it, yet still play the music as sterile as it looks published in any Urtext edition. YAWN.

    Thanks, David. And here’s a further irony. Period performances tend to be, as you’re saying, very clean. But the historical periods the music comes from were anything but clean. Even aristocrats didn’t bathe. Chamber pots were emptied from windows, their contents dumped into the streets below. The streets were full of horse shit (this obviously persisted through the 19th century, until cars replaced horses). The nobles and the royal family at Versailles used odd corners of the palace (or so I’ve heard) as tollets.

    And the world was full of violence. Wars, public executions, brutality, torture, massacres, duels. (This all is captured wonderfully in historical novels: Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle, and Jose Saramago’s “Baltasar and Bluminda,” which in horrfying detail shows how the workers building a Portuguese palace were brutalized.) So how could musical performances have been pristine? If they reflected the realities of life, even a little…

  2. says

    I quite agree, and would also add that the recording industry, with its emphasis on clean, professionally mixed, digital quality sound, skews our perception of the historical context. One may enjoy the technical precision of Mozart opera overtures performed by Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but how many takes did they do before the final cut? Moreover, we have to remind ourselves that the tutti virtuosi orchestra was, in Mozart’s time, still something of a novelty. Similarly, Bach would have been lucky to have one hot shot violinist for his cantatas. How might our students respond to Christlag in Todesbanden if they could hear a truly authentic performance?