Photo by William WegmanLISTENING TO VERY OLD MUSIC DEMANDS a confrontation on shaky ground between the imaginations of the long-dead composer and the listener presumed alive. However pious the press releases may read on the subject of “authentic performance practice as the composer might have heard it half a millennium ago,” the impression is inescapable that an interlock of artificialities is in operation. There is no way that today's performance of, say, a Mass by Johannes Ockeghem can be made to resemble what the composer had in mind — let alone what he was able to extract from whatever amateur choral forces his church might have been able to afford. We wouldn't like it if it did; over five centuries, ears and expectations change.
Instead, our senses are bathed in a thoroughly modern contrivance: the richness of medieval and Renaissance repertory newly repainted to fit today's conception of past practices: not the Parthenon of Athens but a Parthenon-shaped pizzeria in Fresno. In the last couple of weeks we've been visited by excellent early-music specialists whose performances, besides being gorgeous to hear, bore some cachet as “authentic” or, that more satisfactory epithet, “historically informed,” time machines devised for escorting latter-day throngs back through olden times in mellow comfort. The British group called Magnificat made its local debut, performing 16th-century Spanish polyphony in a church — vaguely Spanish, vaguely Renaissance — built in 1923. A week later came four women of the hot-ticket New York ensemble Anonymous 4, along with the six men of the group known as Lionheart, performing a complete Mass service by Ockeghem in UCLA's Royce Hall — a secular venue inspiring secular behavior. (Despite an appeal in the printed program, some in the audience succumbed to the need to break the continuity with applause every three or four minutes, thus widening the gap between listening to music circa 1999 and inventing music in the time of Columbus.)
Two major Renaissance figures, 130 or so years apart, formed the substance of these programs. Magnificat sang music of Spain's Tomás Luis de Victoria (15491611) and his countrymen: dark, passionate, sideslipping into passages of the startling dissonance we tend to ascribe to Gesualdo. Anonymous 4 and Lionheart labored on behalf of Ockeghem (14101497). Together these two sublime composers form the bookends for the century that saw Man and God sharing the composer's worktable and turning out music that told what the world needed to know about both.
Ockeghem is the “where has he been all my life” of recent years. Not a note of his music existed on records during my student days in Berkeley, therefore we were left unaware of his existence. Like Monteverdi, Beethoven and, arguably, Mahler, he bestrides a major musical upheaval, from the chaotic mannerisms of the early 15th century to the infusion of triadic harmonies and sweet, shapely melody as the century neared its close. At Royce there was the music of Ockeghem's Missa Mi-Mi, with others of his works inserted as they would be in a church service. The flow of expressive devices — strings of first-inversion triads (“fauxbourdon”) that sound as if born long ago in a distant galaxy; wrenching shifts of harmony; cleverly spaced-out counterpoint games (a tune sung in one voice against its mirror image in another) — is astounding enough; the sheer beauty of the music is beyond description. Ockeghem's music is somewhat recent for the usual tendencies of Anonymous 4 and their “brother” ensemble; it could be that this venture into new repertory — or the rude applause — brought on the occasional unsettled-sounding passage at Royce that afternoon. At the end there was the lament on Ockeghem's death by his most illustrious pupil, Josquin Desprez (14401521), music that seemed to capture the breath of anyone within earshot, and the surrounding air as well.
CERTAIN CLICHéS EXIST UNCHALLENGED: the notion of the clean, snowy-white way of singing — vibratoless and often bloodless — imposed on early music by choral groups mostly British; the “authenticity” of using boys' voices for the soprano and alto lines; the tuning obsession whereby singers do lip service to the past by honoring archaic systems of intonation so that a modern audience, familiar with Beethoven and the Beatles, hears everything slightly out of tune. (It's just as easy, by the way, to sing with contemporary intonation practices and still sound out of tune, as witness the work of our Master Chorale or, even more painful, the strained, wobbly singing I heard last March at the Los Angeles Bach Festival.)
On the evidence of recordings I have heard recently with particular pleasure, I discern an overall trend away from the pale bloodless style and toward an elegant balance between historical correctness and beauty. Two recent discs on Virgin Classics' Veritas label — vocal duets and ensemble pieces by Claudio Monteverdi (15671643) — hold me spellbound, both for the incredible imagination that fashioned these works and for the splendid compromise between history and contemporary awareness that sets the music free to chill our senses with its hot breath. Alan Curtis is the conductor, an American harpsichordist — onetime faculty member at Berkeley — now living in Venice (the other one), where he maintains an ensemble called Il Complesso Barocco. If you seek the ultimate proof of music's power to hold us in its grip, hear Curtis' group, on the second of the two discs, in the Lamento della Ninfa, a six-minute full-scale opera about abandonment, the pangs of love and the joys of eavesdropping, with the Complesso Barocco leaning with exquisite emphasis on the music's amazing array of dissonance employed in the depiction of misery. I never argue with people who tell me that this heartbreaking small work is the world's best music bar none.
On a rewarding Harmonia Mundi disc, Paul Hillier leads his Theatre of Voices through the thickets of Hoquetus, a trove of medieval vocal music: liturgical works; secular songs about love, war and matters in between; amazing exercises in complex counterpoint in which liturgical and secular combine simultaneously; wondrous bursts of sound from the device of “hoquetus” or “hocket” (“hiccup”) — a strange way of varying a sung note by breaking it up (i.e., “hiccuping”) among two or more voices. The music isn't just tricks, however; in its austere, two-dimensional way (think Ravenna's mosaics), it generates its own kind of fascination. So do Hillier and his group; over the years, from the early Hilliard Ensemble to the current group, his work in celebrating the interaction of man and music — any music, all music, Arvo Pärt and John Cage no less than Peter Abelard — has been a major force in keeping open the heavy gates between music then and ears now.