As a classical singer I perform lots and lots of music by dead people. One disadvantage though of singing the music by composers who stopped living is that you can’t ask them what they really meant, how they wanted it sound, who they wrote it for or just simple things like tempo or dynamics. We can only guess.
The Early Music Movement has from when it began in the 50’s been incredibly important to our understanding of the fantastic music of the baroque and the pre baroque era, but it has grown into a kind of mainstream genre where some theories have become truths we don’t even talk about any more. A lot of people don’t ask questions any more, but take for granted that they Know.
Yes, there are books and treatises, paintings and other clues, but they are still just clues. Good clues, but, I say it again, clues, hints. We know things like how trills were supposed to be played and sung, there are written down improvisations so we know about that. We know many of the technical things, but we have no idea how it actually sounded!
Especially the sound of singers is something of a mystery. Again, a lot of people preach the ”truth” but, again, we have no idea (In some cases, like with the castrato singers, i think it’s just as good). And maybe we wouldn’t like what we heard anyway? Maybe the singers would be overly sentimental in their interpretation, too harsh in their tone? Maybe their timing too free? Maybe they improvise just a little too extravagant?
For me, I believe that the only correct way is to be humble for the time passed and with all our love and gratefulness respect to the people, who lived and worked before us, perform the music of their time in the best way we possibly can, with the knowledge we have and not be too sure about the rest… How we perform ”authentically” today is more of mirror of our own time than we want to think. (Don’t misunderstand me- of course we should learn as much as we can and of course we should be as respectful as we can to the collected knowledge. And of course! Know the rules before you break them and all that. I can say this because I’ve worked with and studied early music for more than 20 years.)
One good thing about not knowing for sure, is that it gives us lots of opportunity to use our brains and figure out for our selves what we think is right for us, here and now. When we do that, the music comes alive and it’s just wonderful, wunderbar!
But sometimes the music I sing is by someones who is not only unquestionably very alive, but also someone close by, someone I can work with. Like now. I have for the last week worked on ”Places of Sounds and Words” a piece by my dear friend Henrik Hellstenius. He wrote this for me and the glorious Cikada (if you haven’t had a 35 minutes long piece written for you, DO IT! It’s GREAT!) and we’ll perform it for the third time this Saturday, in Copenhagen. Here.
”Places…” is a kind of urban cantata. We experience the sounds of the city. The sounds we hear all the time and the sounds no one should have to hear. We hear the scattered modern human, our ideas of the world, the echo from the past and, even, some birds and animals. It’s a fantastic piece and I love doing it.
And as Händel wrote and adapted his music to fit his singers, Henrik does that for me. When I can’t ask G F (yes, I call him that) if he really meant ”that” or if ”this” is a misprint, I can ask Henrik! I can even ask him to rewrite it for me if my soprano mood requires so. Like Händel’s singers/musician could (and did).
With him, and his living colleagues, I can discuss colours, tempo and the over all idea and intention of the work, so I know for sure what he or she wants.
Händel might be clenching his fists in frustration over hos misinterpreted his music has become. Maybe we are ”too” good?  Or maybe, I chose to think this, he likes it a lot.
Of course it can be intimidating to perform and carry the work of someone who sits right in front of you, but if it’s one thing I’ve learned by doing just that, is that most of them they want the music they have written to come genuinely alive and to be sung and played with the unique voice and temper of that one performer or ensemble.
And to end this in a pretentious way, It’s only music, but music and the music we make together, musicians and composers, should be bigger that ourselves, and discussions of Dos and Don’ts.