By Stephen Raskauskas
Bach is a towering figure of music history, in part because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Yet modern musicians largely ignored composers who came before him until the recent revival of early music that has transformed the ways we play and hear music of the past. This spring, Carnegie Hall’s Before Bach series celebrates music written in the late 16th and 17th centuries—prior to when Bach became an active composer —performed by the pioneering artists who have revitalized the repertoire for today’s audiences.
Just 50 years ago, hearing an entire concert of Renaissance or Baroque music was a rare delight. On occasions when early music was performed, Palestrina was sung like Puccini and Bach was played like Beethoven. But in the 1960s, as musicians became increasingly interested in early music, they soon realized they needed to approach the repertoire differently.
One such trailblazing musician has been Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who returns to Carnegie Hall as part of Before Bach to conduct two Monteverdi masterpieces—the Vespers of 1610 (Vespro della Beata Vergine) and his seminal opera L’Orfeo. With his internationally acclaimed ensembles, the English Baroque Soloists and The Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner applies what he calls “a combination of forensic research into the source material and bold practical experimentation” to recreate sounds of the past.
Like teams of art historians and conservators charged with restoring the Sistine Chapel, music historians and musicians worked together to dust off early works and reveal their true brilliance. After some trial and error, Gardiner says he and his colleagues, “began to appreciate what composers of the past 400 years were aiming at,” and “to hear how amazingly passionate and expressive their music could really sound. Plush Romantic sonorities now gave way to much leaner ones—clearly defined, vivid, and multicolored. The revelations were immense and hugely rewarding.”
Some of the biggest revelations came from original instruments that have survived the ravages of time and from new ones modeled after them. Modern musicians have not only mastered these instruments, they have developed the skills to improvise in historical styles—an uncommon ability just a few generations ago. Though scores are often viewed as sacrosanct, early-music notation often invited a good deal of improvisation.
“By going back to an ‘older’ style of playing, we can render the music fresher and more contemporary.”
Soloists, for one, were expected to gracefully embellish their parts, while musicians performing on instruments like the harpsichord and lute typically improvised by reading nothing more than a bass line. By examining manuscripts, scores, and other historical accounts, musicians today have picked up clues as to how they can play beyond the score while still respecting a composer’s original intent.
Initially, those who advocated for “historically informed performance” were met with resistance. Some argued that musicians could never authentically recreate music composed before the age of recording. Others asserted that modern instruments and techniques have evolved for the better, and that there was no need to revert to older instruments and ways of playing. But the efforts of revivalists have proven to be much more than merely an antiquarian pursuit; the aesthetic results they achieve are undeniable.
“Here, then, is an underlying and fascinating paradox: By going back to an ‘older’ style of playing, we can render the music fresher and more contemporary,” Gardiner explains. “Composers who had seemed a bit remote or just plain dull suddenly began to speak to us like moderns, their music having gained fresh energy and astonishing immediacy.”
While the works of Bach and Handel, curiously born just months and miles apart, have been especially popular with contemporary audiences, Before Bach invites listeners on a journey to discover once-forgotten gems and rediscover now-familiar favorites.
One of the most elaborate choral pieces ever penned is, without a doubt, Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet “Spem in alium.” Composed for the English court at the end of the 16th century, the piece is arranged for eight choirs of five voices. Groundbreaking groups like The Tallis Scholars have learned to execute even the most complex counterpoint with crystal clarity, and sing “Spem in alium” as part of a workshop with 30 young choral singers—one of two exciting Before Bach programs that feature The Tallis Scholars.
Though French music of the Ancien Régime was once seen as pure pomp and circumstance to promote the crown, we now appreciate its stylishness and sensuality. Jordi Savall has been revolutionary in resurrecting this repertoire as well as the entire viol (or viola da gamba) family of instruments. Similar to its relatives in the violin family, the viola da gamba has frets, a minimum of six strings, and is played decidedly differently, resting gently da gamba (“on the legs”). Since Savall founded his ensemble Hespèrion XXI in the mid 1970s, he has become the most eminent gambist of our time. For Before Bach, he shares sophisticated French fare with audiences at Carnegie Hall in a solo recital and in performance with his prize-winning Le Concert des Nations ensemble.
Decades into the early-music revival, artists no longer perform the operas of Monteverdi and Verdi with the same techniques. Carnegie Hall has been essential in bringing Baroque opera to New York audiences, and has long been committed to presenting works by Handel in particular. Some of the highlights of Before Bach include complete concert performances of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, one of the earliest operas to survive in full score, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, known most famously for the heart-wrenching lament “When I am laid in earth.”
Thanks to the efforts of musicians and musicologists, Renaissance and early Baroque repertoire sounds fresher now than ever before. There is something for everyone to discover in Carnegie Hall’s Before Bach series.