Not so refined

The problem with René Jacobs’ Handel recordings, says Stanley Sadie (the distinguished musicologist) is that their “rough and explosive sound” is “alien to the refined and elegant age to which the music belongs.”

Or so I read on Sunday in a story about Jacobs’ critical reception, in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times.

And there we see much of the problem that classical music has these days — it’s out of touch with reality. So many people want it to be refined and elegant, more so than the world we live in. But to do that, they pretend that it was refined and elegant in the past, when clearly it wasn’t. Which means they’ve falsified classical music’s history, and made it lose touch with its own reality.

Now, I love Jacobs, and have even played parts of his recording of Handel’s opera Rinaldo (now apparently out of print) in my course on the future of classical music. Wild improvisation during the secco recitatives, an improvising timpanist in the ritornello of a bass aria, singers singing along with some of the instrumental music — it’s a performance that’s more than rough and explosive. It recreates what Jacobs thinks must have happened during Handel’s own performances, and in doing that explodes our old ideas about what Handel operas ought to sound like.

But Stanley Sadie doesn’t like that, because Handel’s operas, he thinks, come from a “refined and elegant age.” I can’t pretend I’m an expert on the 18th century, but to call that time a refined age you have to ignore public executions, frequent, bloody wars, bloody duels, aristocrats who rarely bathed, streets covered in horse shit, sewage in the gutters, and much, much more. The formal manners of the royal courts (which might seem refined to us) hid — or often were weapons in — truly vicious battles for power and status.

And as for music, returning now to Handel…we’ve come to think of Baroque music as refined and elegant, but the word “Baroque” means just the opposite: “exuberant and ornate,” says the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (defining Baroque style in music and architecture), or, more generally, “elaborately or grotesquely ornate; whimsical, bizarre.” Which is exactly how Baroque music, when it was new, struck people whose taste had been formed in an earlier age: overwrought, undignified, uncivilized. The tone-painting we find so charming in Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi — storms depicted in music, rapid rising scales to symbolize the Resurrection — were, in their time, either wildly exciting (for the people who liked them) or wildly disturbing (for people who didn’t).

And if you bought yourself a time machine, and saw Handel’s operas in London when they were new, you would’t find anything like elegant refinement. The nobility sat upstairs in the theater, their servants stood downstairs. Everybody talked, all through every performance; people shouted things at the stage.

The emphasis — in the operas themselves — was on spectacle, theatrical and vocal. A witch, in Rinaldo, makes her entrance in a flying chariot, pulled by fire-breathing dragons. Singers ornamented their music wildly. Handel, leading the music from the harpsichord, was himself an attraction, because of his extravagant improvisations.

The musicians in the orchestra improvised. Often the stage effects — though gaudy and elaborate — didn’t quite work. One contemporary account talks about a storm at sea depicted onstage, with a boy working the machinery clearly visible, taking snuff in the midst of the tempest. Birds, released in the theater during a garden scene in Rinaldo, shat on the audience.

The singers were anything but dignified. The stars were castrati, many of them gossiped-about because of their many affairs, with both men and women. Once, at a Handel performance, rival prima donnas got into a fight onstage — a viciously physical fight, with the largely male crowd no doubt shouting encouragement, even with the Prince of Wales sitting in a box. (He’d surely have enjoyed the fight just as much as anyone else.) The next day, a London newspaper published a satirical poem about what happened, full of explicit sexual comments (and I do mean explicit), on, for example, the imagined size of the singers’ body openings, and what kind of sex they indulged in.

How can we, given all this, believe that the musical performances were elegant, or refined? They must have been as full-bodied — as lusty — as everything going on around them.

Which means that Jacobs is right to turn the music loose. When we pretend that things were refined and elegant, we falsify the music we’re playing, and lose a chance to connect with the lusty world around us.

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  1. richard says

    Amen! I recently had a work of mine played over by a “classical” pianist, and he was “appalled” what I wanted to have him do to his piano. “But playing inside the piano makes such ugly sounds” he said. Nothing ever changes. If one wants “perfect” sounds, listen to a synthesizer.

  2. Eusebius says

    I’m fearing that many of the people who are now attracted to playing and listening to “classical music” are attracted because of these elegant and refined qualities that much of the music never really had…

  3. Sasha Hnatkovich says

    Used to work admin for a period instrument orchestra and, while I don’t totally buy into the whole phenomenon esp. re: classical era music, I did learn one thing: too may folks have equated Baroque with boring… I mean elegant… no wait… I mean boring. A major problem I found was, well, orchestras got to big for their Baroque britches. Too many people have heard Vivaldi, for example, played by about 20 too many musicians (often still a problem) who had little training in Baroque playing techniques (that’s changing thanks to a 70+ year old period music movement) with a soloist (and/or basso continuo) not trained in improvisation (changing thanks Robert Levin and others). Some would argue you need to go so far as to have Baroque era instruments (and gut strings and your own hand-harvested reeds… etc. etc.), I won’t. The best I ever heard that group play was when the right size ensemble was conducted by guest Jordi Savall in mostly French Baroque dance music. I damn near did stand up and dance, you know, like you’re supposed to to 300 year old party music. Now that would have whitened a few blue hairs (and woken their husbands)… and made Rebel smile.

  4. says

    Heartily agree, Greg. The Baroque had lots of lusty and turbulent music and performances and Baroque opera was just as exciting as you describe. But Baroque music is a big house and as a guitarist and one who spent some time playing the lute, I would like to mention that there is also a lot of Baroque music that is rather refined. Take the music of Robert de Visee who played and composed for the Baroque guitar. Or Denis Gaultier, who wrote the most intimate, refined and elegant music for Baroque lute (as did a host of others). Let’s not jump to the conclusion that no Baroque music was refined and elegant. There is a great deal of harpsichord music by Couperin, Froberger and many others that is most certainly so.

    • says

      Hi, Bryan. Thanks. And your experience counts for a lot. Also your caution. Like all eras, the Baroque was very varied.

      And at the same time I have to pinch myself, and tell myself that some of the refinement I myself hear might be in my own mind. Compare, for instance, Claudio Abbado’s Verdi opera recordings — Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth — with older ones. Abbado makes them sound refined throughout, which I’m sure is how he heard them, but not how others have heard them.

      There’s also the question of what refinement in the Baroque era might have meant. Jennifer Homans’s stunning history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, has a lot to say about some refinements — in etiquette and ballet — introduced in Louis XIV’s court. She sees these as in many ways expressions of royal power. Louis could make people behave in certain ways to suit his purposes. His work in ballet is stunningly self-assertive, as she describes it. He himself danced in ballets at his court, making a royal appearance at the end, if my memory serves me. Dancing was forbidden by the church at that time, and dancers could be excommunicated. But Louis disregarded that, and wasn’t excommunicated, because the church didn’t dare to sanction him.

      It’s also fascinating to read — in James H. Johnson’s Listening in Paris, an absorbing and detailed cultural history of how Parisians listened to music in past centuries — about the behavior of audiences at operas by Lully and Rameau. To say that the audiences were raucous is a giant understatement. They were completely unrestrained. “Watch your hands, Monseigneur!” people would shout, if they saw a priest sitting next to an attractive woman. Prostitutes worked the crowd during performances, and conversations, shouting, banter back and forth between stage and audience kept going throughout. The music may now seem refined to us, but how could it have come off that way in its time?

      You’re right, though. Some of it could have been refined. But, again, we have to be careful about whose refinement we’re talking about. It might really be ours.

      • says

        But, again, we have to be careful about whose refinement we’re talking about. It might really be ours.

        I think that brings up an interesting point, Greg–if it is our modern and anachronistic aesthetic sensibilities that have shaped how we re-present baroque music minus all the riff-raff that we’re able to read about in accounts of performances in the past, then why is it that we continue to do that despite evidence to the contrary.

        I recall that much of the earlier classical music concerts in the US were just as raucous and full of bizaare (for modern classical music aesthetic tastes) spectacles and, indeed, variety show mishmashes that we’d almost not even recognize them as, well, a classical music concert (as we know it).

        But the field doesn’t seem intent on re-creating the whole experience so much as just re-presenting some rarified composer intent. Then again, how much is that also shaped by our modern sense of what a composer intended?

        • says

          At bottom, I think it’s a human thing — we tend to see everything through our own filters. One sign of maturity is the ability to shake loose from preconceptions, and see things from other points of view. But that can be hard!

          And then there’s the conventional wisdom, which we all accept to some extent. Like those “flesh color” pink crayons we talked about. No one — well, no white person, or hardly any white people — questioned that this was the color of human flesh. Until an alternate point of view rose up and started marching in the streets. But even though this is a harsh example, I’m not going to blame people who get caught in the biases of their time. It happens to all of us. And alternate, even radically alternate points of view often have their own orthodoxy. Which can make people just as blind.

  5. Bill Brice says

    Our local classical-music FM station now does a pretty good job of programming and some OK commentary. But they run a series of promos that really set my teeth on edge. The theme of all their promotionals is how “soothing” and “relaxing” their classical music is. Some even feature endorsements from listeners like: “I keep your classical music running in the background while I do my housework. It’s sooooo relaxing. And it also helps me get to sleep at night.”. If I’d never experienced any so-called “classical” music, these promos would scream BORRRING to me. I’m sure the station managers know their demographic — which, here in south Florida, would be old (even older than me!) and conservative — but haven’t they ever considered attracting a more lively set of listeners? I mean, if you’re going to talk at all about music you love, do you seriously want to tell the world it’s a soporific? It’s hard to imagine any enthusiast of any other form of art going on about how “relaxing” it is; yet we hear it often about all sorts of non-pop music.

    OK… flame off!

    • says

      Several times after a concert I had listeners come up to me and say some variation of “I loved the concert, it was so relaxing I could have gone right to sleep!” They said this with every conviction that they were giving me a compliment. I replied graciously, but I was thinking something like “I didn’t practice those thousands of hours perfecting my tone and execution and discovering how to deliver each phrase with the maximum expressivity just so you could have a nap!”

      But my point of view as a performer and the point of view of an average listener are different. Perhaps these people were not sophisticated listeners and were pleased to be in a quiet environment for an hour, away from all the stress and hurry of their daily lives and with pleasant sounds to listen to. Compared to most musical experiences a classical guitar concert is going to seem rather sedate to many listeners because, hey, no drums!

      Perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge them their haven of calm. But what I really hope for as a performer is to move people, give them something they haven’t heard or felt before, something exciting perhaps.

      • says

        When Virgil Thomson was a critic, his editor gave him sage advice: Never criticize the audience. I think that’s right, and it applies to musicians, too. Assuming the audience isn’t disruptive. If people are listening to you, God bless them. What they make of it is their business.

        But at the same time, if we see a lot of people reacting in some particular way, that’s worth noticing. And since the “I love classical music because it’s so calm” trope is endemic in our culture, we can ask why it is, and say we don’t like it. How to change that would be another story, but maybe one part of it is too make our concerts less calm! Which might not sit well with some of us. Not meaning you, Bryan. But some of us, while wishing for a more active audience, might balk at creating any commotion while we play.

    • says

      Hi, Steve. Thanks for the link. I did see it. The story, for those who haven’t seen it, is about younger people in Norway taking less and less interest — as the decades pass — in the formal high arts. It very roughly parallels a study a Finnish scholar I know did, about why younger Finns don’t go to classical concerts. What the two efforts have in common is a fact they both acknowledge, that younger people in these two countries don’t care much about older, more formal kinds of culture.

      Which, from everything I’ve seen, is happening everywhere. In the US, according to the NEA, the percentage of the classical music audience made up of people 30 and under fell in half in the 1980s. And has dropped further since then. Nor is this trend limited to younger people. Even people in their 50s now go to classical performances less often than people in that age group used to. Studies of cultural taste show that just about everyone, of any age, now is a culture “omnivore” — someone who likes both high and popular culture. Except that younger people like popular culture more, and high culture much less. And may not even draw a distinction between the two.

      The sooner the classical music world wakes up to these facts — and looks at them not with horror, but with sympathetic interest, with some understanding that a change in taste doesn’t mean younger people are shallow or stupid — the better off we’ll be.

  6. Clay ZT says

    Just fantastic, thanks for this. At Rodelinda at the Met right now, they brought a live horse on stage and I think the elderly woman in front of me just about had a coronary. I’m holding out for elephants.

  7. says

    I suspect there are several different threads feeding into this trope of classical-music-as-smooth/calming/refined/high-class.

    The elevated aesthetic status probably goes back to the early Romantics and their efforts to get music acknowledged as High Art rather than pleasant background noise for the aristocracy’s social lives (and the associated efforts to raise the social status of musicians from servant/artisan to free-standing professional – the two are very clearly linked in Hoffmann’s Kreisleriana). This developed by the time of Wagner into the whole performance-as-quasi-religious-rite thing, and the increasing restrictions on frequency of applause. (Alex Ross has lots of good stuff on this: One can see how a convention of hushed audiences can slide from reverent to relaxed without anyone hearing.

    The sense of classical music as inherently legato (as in ‘smooth classics’) and/or restful may well be something retrospectively constructed in contrast to amplified music. If you live in 1815, you really notice the roughness of Beethoven’s orchestrations compared to Mozart’s, and understand this in terms of an evocation of the Sublime as opposed to the beautiful. If you live in 1980, both Beethoven and Mozart sound pretty smooth and restful compared to Meat Loaf and Whitesnake.

    On an Overgrown Path had a nice graphic the other week to map the world of classical music (, and it seems that the refined/smooth/genteel stereotype is effectively corralling classical music to about a third of the ‘entertainment’ dimension.

    When I started reading this post and comment thread it felt like a bit of a change of subject from recent discussions of classical music’s audience – but I don’t think that any more!