The first time I heard Early Music performed in period-appropriate style I experienced, not surprisingly I suppose, a full mixture of amusement, bemusement, mild horror and deep curiosity. It was in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal opera Orfeo at the English National Opera; I was a mere college stripling who had probably not even heard the phrase Early Music at the time let alone known what it might mean, and ‘performance practice’ was in something of a time of transition. Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role with, if I remember properly, a rather nice overall sound, but a straight-tone and senza vibrato style and a strangely stuttering kind of ornamentation that might well have been an authentic recollection of the opera’s original character and an accurate and historically informed version of the way it would have been presented by its composer and first performers. I, having never been taught such things, merely heard sounds quite foreign not only to my ear but to my concept of skilled and artful performance, let alone prettiness. I do remember thinking that either this was all far over my head (entirely possible) or it was a pointless and poor imitation of what the ENO imagined the average amateurish opera company of Monteverdi’s day must have been capable of doing (less likely), or poor Mr. Johnson, who later went on to receive his OBE, just plain wasn’t up to the job despite a naturally pleasant voice.
Years later, I may not be much smarter than the young squirt of those days, but I’m far more experienced and have heard worlds more music, both the great and the terrible and, of course, a massive quantity in between. And I’ve been taught a thing or two about the fine points of what is beautiful and magical when it comes to singing or playing with any amount of vibrato–or none–and the many elements that combine to create tone and color and variety and character in a performance. I’ve learned some useful stuff that changes how I perceive both the level of virtuosity in playing or singing and its aesthetic appeal, two aspects that do not always coincide in my ear, mind and heart but when they do, that combine to create a kind of joy that is virtually unattainable in any other way.
When my husband conducted a production of Orfeo over a quarter century after the first one I’d heard, I had a whole different understanding and appreciation for what the many performers were doing and why the stage director would expect them to do so both from a visual standpoint–training them, along with other coaches, in appropriate ways of moving and posing and gesturing as well as in those of vocal ornamentation, since she is a superb and well-trained Early Music singer herself–and an historically suited musical one. Just as there are countless styles and types of music known to us nowadays, which you can multiply by the number of individual teachers, performers and audience members to get a rough sense of the variety you’ll encounter, there were historical strictures and structures and stylistic trends and ideas that shaped earlier generations (centuries) of music and musicians and listeners, and while some have perhaps remained relatively unchanged since their inception, many more evolved over the ages. Our expectations of music have certainly changed, and our guesses as to how it was first conceived and perceived are only as good as the lines of scholarly inquiry and oral tradition can attempt to make them.
In all, it makes rich fodder indeed for both the ear and the imagination, and I for one am mightily pleased that I have had the opportunity to live a life immersed in all kinds of music and to learn along the way. I still like much of what I heard, whether ignorantly or not, in my younger days, and much of what I like now I learned to love along the way. While my form may be far from historically accurate or artistically impressive, I will still happily bow and curtsey to all the musicians who have shared their gifts with me in my life, and to all of those who work and are inspired to play more, to sing onward.