Four Town Pipers, Three Professional
Fiddlers, and One Apprentice...
When Count Rasumovsky's musicians first tried Beethoven's
Quartet in F (op. 59 no.1) they were certain that the composer was playing a joke on them.
you do not consider these works to be music," said Muzio Clementi.
"They are not for
you," Beethoven answered, "but for a later age."
Beethoven was not alone. Other
composers as well suffered the inability of musicians to meet the demands of their music. Leopold Mozart (1719-1787),
father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a respected composer, violinist, and theorist wrote, "the best composition is often
so miserably performed that the composer himself has difficulty in recognizing his own work."
Yet proponents of "historically informed practice" insist that in order to fully appreciate the music
of the eighteenth century, we must hear the instruments and performance practices that inspired its creation, performances
such as the composers themselves heard.
"Historically informed practice" is based primarily on three works:
"Essay on The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments," by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "On Playing The Flute,"
by Johann Joachim Quantz, and "Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing," by Leopold Mozart. Each offers rules,
yet each also speaks eloquently in favor of individuality, expression, and variety, qualities largely overlooked in the quest
"I have never liked excessive uniformity," Wrote C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788). "No
one can be content with one who memorizes all the rules and follows them mechanically. Something more is required. Play from
the soul, not like a trained bird."
J.J. Quantz (1697-1773) wrote his flute method for
beginners. "I do not pretend to prescribe rules for those musicians who have acquired general approbation either in composition
or in performance," he wrote. "I do not wish to set myself up as infallible ... It seems as if the majority of flute
players today have fingers and tongues but are deficient in brains ... The agreeableness of music lies not in uniformity or
similarity, but in diversity ... Rarely do we follow that surest of guides, our own feelings..."
Much of the performance practice of the eighteenth century was dictated by the primitive instruments of the period. Quantz,
a flutist, teacher, composer, and instrument maker, played a one-keyed flute, the customary instrument of his day. "When
I gradually learned to understand the peculiarities of the instrument," he wrote, "I found that there remained a
slight impurity in certain tones, which could be remedied only by the addition of a second key. I added this second key in
the year 1726." It's not likely that Quantz reverted to the one-keyed instrument for performances of pieces written
Improvements weren't limited to wind instruments. The bow changed dramatically. The Italian "sonata"
bow, the basic baroque bow--with its straight or slightly convex stick--limited articulation and caused what Leopold Mozart
called a "small softness," a momentary drop in volume at the beginning and end of each bow stroke. The Tourte bow,
in general use by around 1790, offered greater subtlety, clarity, and facility, and a variety of shadings and seamless legato
not possible on earlier bows.
Composers welcomed every improvement in instruments, encouraged
innovation, and in some cases even participated in the creation of new instruments.
endorsed the piano over the older harpsichord. "The pianoforte enjoys great advantage over the harpsichord and organ
because of the many ways in which the volume can be gradually changed," he wrote. "The undamped register of the
pianoforte is the most pleasing and...the most delightful for improvisation."
Bach (1685-1750), "the great conservator of the legacies of the past," was also an innovator. "He was so full
of harmony that, besides a constant and active use of the pedals, he is said to have put down such keys by a stick in his
mouth, as neither hands nor feet could reach," wrote Charles Burney, an eighteenth century musicologist who may have
been a bit too trusting of his sources. Bach pioneered the use of tempered tuning, devised a new fingering system for
keyboard instruments, praised Gottfried Silbermann's early pianos, took part in the invention of the lute-harpsichord
and viola pomposa, elevated the harpsichord from accompanying instrument to full partner in chamber music, and created the
J.S. Bach may never have heard a satisfactory performance of any of his
choral, orchestral, or chamber music works. In May, 1729, Bach auditioned twenty-one singers to fill vacancies in the
School of St. Thomas as resident students. Eleven were found to have "no musical accomplishment." Of the ten
who were admitted to the school, one was judged to have "fair proficiency," one "mediocre," one indifferent",
one "slight," and one "poor." The next year, in a memorandum submitted to the Leipzig Town Council,
Bach described his orchestra as "four Town Pipers, three professional fiddlers, and one apprentice. “Modesty
forbids me," he wrote, "to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge."
was noted, according to Johann Abraham Birnbaum, for his "special adroitness, even at the greatest speed, in bringing
out all the tones clearly and with uninterrupted evenness," and "the uncommon fluency with which he plays in the
most difficult keys just as quickly and accurately as in the simplest."
judges according to his own fingers, his pieces are extremely difficult to play," wrote J.A. Scheibe, "for he demands
that singers and instrumentalists should be able to do with their throats and instruments whatever he can play on the clavier."
Yet those qualities, clarity, evenness, fluency, and control, must have been far beyond the capabilities of Bach's student-singers,
his "four town pipers," and the primitive wind instruments and bows of the period.
attempting to standardize the performance of works of the period, authentic performance practitioners are ignoring the catch-as-catch-can
nature of the musical life of the eighteenth century. In 1778, Mozart wrote to a family friend, Abbe Bullinger, "How
I detest Salzburg. The Salzburg orchestra has been rich in what is useless and superfluous, but very poor in what is
necessary, and absolutely destitute of what is indispensable." In a letter to his father, dated July 20, 1782,
Mozart complained about the second performance of The Abduction from the Serraglio: "I was so angry that I scarcely knew
myself ... it was given just as you have it there, except the parts for the kettledrums, flutes, clarinets, and Turkish music
are occasionally lacking, as I could not get paper ruled with so many lines. They were written as extra leaves and the
copyist has probably lost them, for he could not find them.(!) ... By Sunday week, my opera must be orchestrated for a band,
or someone will step in ahead of me and take the profit."
The consistent quality of Mozart's
music under such circumstances is explained by Alfred Einstein in "Mozart: His Character, His Work" (1945): "Mozart"s
music is complete in itself, and almost independent of the player." Although Mozart wrote in praise of a few singers
and instrumentalists, he complained vociferously about the general level of musicianship of his contemporaries, the common
denominator in defining the style characteristics of the period.
Composers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries spoke frequently of the desire for
larger orchestras, a desire apparently lost on the authentic performance community, which insists that small ensembles were
fundamental to the style. In 1778, Mozart wrote to his father, "Most of all, I look forward to the concert in Paris.
The orchestra is said to be large and very fine..." In 1780, with the commission to write Idomeneo, the means at his
disposal had included the combined orchestras of Mannheim and Munich. In March of 1781, in Vienna, Mozart was initially
refused permission by his Prince to take part in a concert for the benefit of widows of musicians. "Listen to this,"
he wrote to his father. "The orchestra is 180 strong. My sole regret is I should have played no concerto."
The low pitch favored by authentic performance practitioners, who have declared A415 to be "authentic,"
was the subject of controversy in the eighteenth century. According to Quantz, "the pitch regularly used for tuning
an orchestra has always varied considerably according to time and place. It is much to be hoped that a single pitch
for tuning may be introduced at all places." That hope has yet to be realized. Today, the Philadelphia Orchestra
tunes to A440, the Berlin Philharmonic to A445.
“Historically informed” practitioners
ornament according to the rules set down in Quantz ("I do not wish to set myself up as infallible") and C.P.E. Bach,
yet ignore more general principles in those works. "Above all things, a prodigal use of embellishments must be
avoided," wrote C.P.E. Bach. "Regard them as spices which may ruin the best dish." Quantz wrote,
"The more simply an adagio is played with feeling, the more it charms the listeners, and the less It obscures or destroys
the good ideas that the composer has created with care and reflection. A well written melody... must never be varied,
unless you believe it can be improved." There are those among the authentic performance practitioners who believe
they can improve upon the work of J.S. Bach.
have for some years striven to inquire into and perfect everything that contributes to the lively expression of the passions,"
wrote Quantz. "These inquiries into composition would be of little use, however, if others were not also made into
the art of performance." Yet authentic performance practitioners reduce the art of performance to the level of
a trained bird, with their dutiful adherence to a set of rules which were, after all, merely to help beginners until they
had enough experience to allow "that surest of guides, our own feelings" to inform their performances.
In actuality, all the music of the eighteenth century was for a later age, an age in which
musicians and instruments would be capable of meeting its demands. The performance practices and instruments of the
period, rather than serving as an inspiration to the composers, actually prevented them from hearing what they had written.
Town pipers, apprentices, flutists "deficient in brains," out-of-tune, colorless, inflexible
wind instruments, bows that dictate dynamics and limit nuances, and performances "so miserable that the composer has
difficulty in recognizing his own work," are hardly the elements of a viable style. Far from having tradition and
scholarship on their side, participants in the period instrument movement are betraying the principles of the composers whose
music they profess to serve.
***"At many places people did not concern themselves about good taste at all, but remained attached to
older ways. And, furthermore, there were various adversaries who, possessed of an absurd love for the old, believed they had
sufficient grounds to reject everything as extravagances that departed from the old mode. It was not so long ago that they
still defended the old style, their fervor as great as their grounds were weak."