Nouvelle Old Music

Posted on September 28, 2014 by psu

When people talk about “movements” they usually refer to something that has come into being as a reaction to, or in opposition of, something else that has existed for a long time. If you were a foodie in the 1960s (through the 70s and 80s) you would know that the so-called “Nouvelle cuisine” was a reaction to the heavy and often stultifying traditional style of French cooking. Large portions of cream sauce were replaced by tiny little portions of very fresh ingredients cut into interesting geometric shapes.

During a similar time period some people with a historical interest in music started to propose that one should re-think how “early” music was played. In this context what I mean by “early” music is music from the European Renaissance and Baroque periods, roughly between 1400 and 1700. Think Dufay to Bach. I am primarily interested in music beginning with the Baroque composers, since those guys were all popular enough to have relatively modern recordings made of their music. It’s also where the first signs of conflict arose with respect to how the music should be played.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the extent that this music was played at all, it tended to be played in what people have now come to consider an overly “Romantic” style. This is characterized by a few different complaints:

  1. Large ensembles.

  2. Methodical, leisurely tempo.

  3. Relatively rich and heavy group textures.

  4. Modern instruments and instrumental technique.

The intellectual question that came to interest some performers was this: what if you used old instruments and then also tried to research older techniques. What would the music sound like then?

When the results of these investigations were inevitably packaged up for records, the so-called “period”, “authentic” or “historically informed performance” movement was born. Record companies are always after something new to sell, even if what is new is how to play old music differently. So they picked a bunch of arrogant, stuffy, and iconoclastic personalities to push these ideas out into the marketplace. While they were all unquestionably talented and sensitive musicians, they were also marketing gold. Nothing sells better than a little bit of arrogance and the ability to project a sense of authenticity and progress.

Over the years the period instrument movement progressed from a relatively small niche to arguably the single most influential classical music style of the late 20th century.

You might be able to tell from all the above text that I am not personally all that enthusiastic about this outcome. To me there are three problems:

  1. Especially in the early recordings, the instruments sound terrible.

  2. All of this talk of authenticity is nonsense. We don’t know what Bach’s music sounded like back in the day any more than we know what his food tasted like. It’s fine to say that you find playing Bach with a smaller band to be an interesting and perhaps enlightening experience. It’s fine to declare that you actually like nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching of old violins played with no vibrato that fills so many recordings done in this style. It’s fine to find playing old instruments fun and rewarding. Finally, it’s fine to enjoy the intellectual game of hunting down historical references to music played in the past.

    What is not OK is to declare that this has any relevance to how the music should be played now. Because it doesn’t. Musical performance is not a history lesson. It’s music. In addition, it is not OK is to dismiss the performance traditions that led up to some of the best conductors of the early 20th century as hopelessly old fashioned, stodgy and even ignorant. The truth is that some of these performances, especially the better ones that continue to be reissued on records, CDs, digital files, and cloud streams constitute everything you might want in a musical performance. Get on Spotify and listen for yourself. If you can’t figure out how to like what Klemperer, Böhm, Beecham, Walter, Stokowski, or Toscanini are doing, then I just don’t know what to say to you.

    When I was a kid three of my defining experiences with music were:

    All of these were done on modern instruments, and with performance practices mostly uninfluenced by the period instruments folks. Nothing like them would be made now (except maybe the Beethoven, but even there people usually use smaller orchestras and a lighter sound), because the performances no longer conform to what some have decided is “authentic” or “correct”. That’s sad.

  3. Finally, the domination and influence of the period performance style in most modern recordings of everything from (say) Bach to Beethoven has had a distorting effect on how this music has been performed live since the late 1980s. In particular, groups like the Pittsburgh Symphony in general will not play Bach, Handel, most Haydn, a lot of Mozart, and more Beethoven than you would imagine without paying homage to the “lessons” of the period performance movement. What this means is that you will never hear the whole orchestra belt out the Mozart 40th Symphony, or the Messiah, or sometimes even early Beethoven because they think that audiences will not accept performances in that “Romantic” style anymore.

    I think this is nonsense. I am tired of Chamber Music Mozart and Beethoven. I want to hear the big sound that you might have heard in the 70s, but which I never got to hear live. I’d like the PSO to play the Brandenburgs without bringing in a special guest group, no matter how excellent the guest group actually was (and they were good, but that’s not the point). And I’d love to hear a live performance of the crazy full orchestra arrangement of the Messiah that Beecham made in the late 50s. I think it would be fantastic.

    But, such a thing will probably not come to pass. Instead what started out as a way to allow people who did not want to play old music in the same old way has become the new orthodoxy. In addition there seem to be only a few people with the vision to explore “traditionally modern” performances of such music. This is too bad. Why should the historians have all the fun?

In the end, there are two bright sides to keep me from falling into a deep depression:

  1. So far anyway, the period obsession has not destroyed Bach played on the piano. Also, you can always escape into the Rilling recordings of all of this other music.

  2. At least on records, we can still listen to the old performances. And maybe a few decades from now some enterprising young musicologist from the future will decide to look into late early 20th century performance practices for Baroque music and start the wheel turning all over again.


If you want a more deeply felt take on this subject written by a better and much more qualified writer, hunt down the various editorials that American Record Guide has published on this subject over the years. Google has an excerpt here, look at page 153. Don Vroon is nuts, but he’s mostly right. If I were smarter I’d just defer to him.