Further Thoughts on Authenticity

[William Jurgenson wrote a rather fiery email in response to Paul Power’s piece on authenticity. We asked him to contribute his own thoughts on the matter, and he has obliged. Mr. Jurgenson’s credentials appear at the end. Ed.]

William Jurgenson

[July 2003.]

The fashionable trashing of the historically informed performance (HIP) is, when not hubris, based on false premises:

  1. The tacit assumption that earlier versions of any instrument must necessarily be inferior to their present incarnations.
  2. The assumption that the “original instrument” enslaves or relegates the performer to a secondary level.
  3. The assumption that such performers (and builders) are attempting blindly to copy some source which they believe to be vastly superior to the present conditions simply because it is old.

While all of this has some truth to it, it is overly simplistic and in many cases not limited to the HIP crowd at all. In particular, modern string players are the most extreme example imaginable for number three. In this case the tables are turned. Modern players use old violins almost exclusively, although in reality these have little to do with their original state, while many serious HIP professionals prefer to use new violins precisely on the grounds that the Guarneri was new in those days as well, and had not been completely rebuilt umpteen times. There are new violins that are every bit as good as the good old ones and actually far better than most old ones in professional use. In the modern case, the player somehow believes that the “personality” of the master instrument will aid him in playing old music — in truth, 95% of concert repertoire is old music written by dead composers, most of it before 1850. In the case of music written after Edison’s invention, it is easy for musicians to be “authentic.” Strangely, those deriding the HIP musicians have no misgivings at all listening to Oscar Levant’s recordings of Gershwin’s Preludes to learn how they were intended, even if they decide not to play them that way. It does not seem to dawn on them that Levant was authentic Gershwin — and authentic Levant as well. There are no questions about the “authentic” instrument, although, strictly speaking, the Steinway of 1939 — if it was a Steinway — is very unlike that of today. It could have been a Baldwin, probably even was. The authenticity remains.

What we are looking for is authentic music. Now that can be Glenn Gould’s idea of what Bach is, or Leonhardt’s, or Horowitz’s, or.… Authenticity is a personal matter. But is it correct like a correctly spoken dialect with all the implications that dialect — any dialect — carries, subtleties of meaning lost in the official high language, both because the words themselves are no longer present, and because they now mean something else? In that respect, the correct tool for the purpose is an essential prerequisite even to get anywhere near what was intended in any art or trade. If that end can then be duplicated with other means, other tools, so much the better, but most often it cannot. Something else ensues, not necessarily inferior but rather better adapted to the new tool or method. It is this “most often” that must concern us, this “most often it cannot.”

The argument that the HIP movement would relegate the artist to a position less important than the instrument is that of the modern l’art pour l’art “artist” for whom the tool is the necessary evil. Where that can get you is beautifully demonstrated by the works of Kandinsky. Regardless of what we think of his art and of what it did for 20th-century painting, Kandinsky is technically miserable: The paint is falling from the canvas. He couldn’t be bothered to learn to do it right. The question then arises, is the tangible painting the art, or is the idea behind the thing the art? Is there a difference? Eine Zwickmuehle. If, as the l’art pour l’art Bewegung would have it, the idea is the object of value. It does not matter that, with respect to posterity, Kandinsky could not apply paint properly. The problem then arises that, after his paintings self-destruct, there will be nothing to demonstrate his ideas. But if the paintings are restored, in other words, transferred to a new backing, then they are no longer originals — in fact, no better than a good replica. AND they convey the absolute untruth that Kandinsky could paint, which he couldn’t in a technical sense.

What does that have to do with us?

Any reproducing art is of necessity subjective and always authentic. That said, one has the choice of going about his business of subjectively reproducing what he thinks and feels is right with the tools that he masters. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as it remains clear that it is HIS subjective interpretation. I prefer Horowitz’s Scarlatti to most anyone else’s. I make no claims, and neither did he, that this is HIP or even anything like what Scarlatti heard. In this context, however, it is clear to me personally that almost no one else has come closer than he, HIP or not, and this would seem to me to show

  1. that really proper instruments have not been seriously regarded and mastered, and
  2. that most of those involved take the same a priori valid stance that Horowitz did but are nowhere near as good musicians as he.

Now, if someone of his caliber would seriously learn the tools and dialect, that could be a real eye-opener musically. Scarlatti used the shortcomings and idiosyncrasies of the instruments at his disposal to his advantage, using their “special dialects” to help impart color and meaning. Robbed of these colors, accents, lisps, the “… musicke is marred.”

Getting back to my language metaphor, you cannot hope to be intelligible in a foreign language, let alone a dialect, that you have not mastered despite the fact that the Latin alphabet is being used. Just because you can spell out the words or even understand their modern meaning and perhaps even their Indo-European roots, doesn’t mean that what you try to say will be intelligible to anyone else except at the same abstract level. That brings us to the “Agony of Modern Music,” but that is another topic.

Like poetry, music has many valid levels, and the intrinsic meaning is NOT the foremost, any more than Bach’s kabbalistics are foremost in his work. Any translation (what the player does), however good, loses most or all of this primary level as soon as he leaves the original language. If he does not master the original language, all that is left is the meaning. On the other hand, nonsense like Edward Lear’s (or Carl Maria v. Weber’s) is nonetheless enchanting if it is as beautifully presented as it was meant to be. Without the very special characteristics of the classic clarinet, Weber’s large oeuvre for just this instrument sinks to pulp, not because of the out-of-tune notes and funny sounds, but because of the special speech characteristics and larger range of colors the old instrument offers.

At a very mundane level, you can keep just one plane in your tool box. It might even be a Lie-Nielsen or a Norris (Steinway D), but it is just one, and you cannot hope to do all jobs with it. To be sure, it will do well at what it is supposed to do, but everything else will either be an extreme effort on your part or a botch, or both.

If your only plane is a Stanley Handyman (also cast steel but inferior due less to materials than to “improvements” and cost-cutting simplifications), you’ll probably never get beyond the DIY doghouse. It is good for planing doors so that they clear the carpet, or rather, not as good or better than any other plane. The question of ruining it does not arise.

One last remark: The average listener does not exist. That sort of metaphor implies that we speak an intelligible language only to those we feel are our equals (another aspect of the “Agony of Modern Music”), and to all others, a sort of baby talk consisting of simple verbs and monosyllabic nouns, without adjectives or adverbs, and by all means, none of them funny furrin words. Either what can be said is worth saying the way it was written by the author or it is not. If a simpler version was or is possible, of what good was the intricate version?

[William Jurgenson was born in Flint, Michigan, 1944. School in Pontiac, MI with summer courses at Interlochen. Composition major, plus contrabass and English minors, at U of M, pupil of Ross Lee Finney and George Wilson. Apprenticeship as organmaker in Germany, as well as apprenticeship as luthier. Lecturer and author of several papers in several languages, alone and more recently with Dr. Stephen Birkett of Waterloo, Ontario. Married, four children, two dogs, one cat, six motorcycles.]