Music’s Never-Ending Story (1/2)

Composers have long been stuck in a baroque time warp. Gone is the excessive melodic freedom of the romantics as the twentieth century favours the simplicity and astringency of Bach and Handel. Simon Trezise explains the obsession.

Time travel as a desire to embrace or recreate a bygone era is not confined to the twentieth century. In the nineteenth, Victorian architects expended vast resources on wild fantasies based on gothic buildings of the remote, medieval past. In music, Tchaikovsky’s profound love of Mozart’s music manifested itself in the orchestral suite Mozartiana, and in the delicious intermezzo from his opera Queen of Spades. Mozart himself wrote a suite in what he considered Handel’s manner and Grieg did something similar in his glorious Holberg Suite.

But the twentieth century’s fascination with the past is at a far more obsessive and complex level, and it is the baroque period that has most captured the imagination of performing musicians and composers. Interest in Bach had been gathering momentum since Mendelssohn gave the first nineteenth-century performances of the Passions. At first this interest was not so historical in bias, more a question of what the baroque could do for us. So Busoni arranged Bach’s organ works into Lisztian piano works of stupendous virtuosity that must have had Bach twisting and shouting in his grave. Mahler took Bach’s two most popular orchestral suites, conflated movements from each and then added dynamics, phrasing and complex continuo parts that make the music sound like one of his symphonies.

The little baroque music that was performed would have sounded fat and bloated to our ears. Handel’s Messiah was, is, and will probably forever be the most popular of all baroque works; for years it was done with huge choirs sometimes exceeding a thousand voices, and full symphony orchestras – quite unlike the small groups heard at the Dublin premiere in the eighteenth century. Strings would have played with plenty of portamento, vibrato when it became fashionable, and modern brass instruments remote from the originals were used.

Strings with everything
Even such an intellectual conductor as Wilhelm Furtwängler showed little interest in how the music might have sounded when it was written. For Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 10, he uses the full strings of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, whose awesome power makes the slow introduction sound like Wotan raging from the mountain tops. This was Handel filtered through the romantic German tradition – and the result is stupendous!

Working alongside the mainstream conductors and keyboard players were specialists like Wanda Landowska, whose interest in baroque keyboard music led her to revive the harpsichord (then almost forgotten), albeit in a colossal, hybrid format. Her instrument sounds like a cross between the real historical entity and a church organ, so vast was its range of timbres and volume (like modern pianos it was iron framed). But apart from her exotic registration, she played with real restraint and discipline, reviving masterpieces like Bach’s Goldberg Variations in recordings that still sound remarkably ‘authentic’, in spite of the idiosyncratic instrument. Her work wasn’t to all tastes: in his famous quote, Beecham thought her harpsichord sounded like ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof’!

Many years before a famous semi-amateur performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in Oxford (1925), which began the massive revival of interest in his music, Nadia Boulanger, the great composition teacher, was performing and recording his madrigals in pre-war France. She was typical of a handful of dedicated enthusiasts who sowed the seed for the post-war baroque revival.

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