The Identity Crisis of a Baroque Music Ensemble


Jean-Baptiste Lully with the chamber musicians in the background. As any baroque string player knows, performing outside under foliage can have problems, especially when the weather is humid outside. Insects or rain droplets falling onto your instrument does not help the music sound perfect! If we knew that a particular piece was originally performed outdoors, would we feel obliged to perform it outdoors every time we played it? Of course not.

Ensembles that perform music with the intention of adhering to historical sources have a history of running into labeling problems. We've seen the terms "Early Music" (or "early music"), "historically accurate," "historically authentic," "historically informed," and "on original instruments" applied to a large swath of repertoire spanning from Pérotin to Beethoven, from global folk music traditions to recreations of Ancient Greek music, and even to newly invented musical traditions (e.g., early music adaptations of Sephardic music). What these phrases denote is by nature amorphous because the definitions react to contemporary attitudes towards intrinsic and extrinsic musical values. It is because monikers such as "early music" have come to mean so many often contradictory elements, that by themselves they mean very little at all.

To make matters even more complicated, changing early music performance philosophies have come under heated debate on stage and in the classroom. Very often, mention of "early music performance practice" immediately brings tense questions to the floor: vibrato or no vibrato? A=415, 440, or 392 (or should our pitch be higher to suit Italian music)? who should sing the mysteriously high haute-contre line? The flood of questions obscures the meaning of the music itself and risks dividing musicians into political camps. The danger of employing terms such as "early music" or "historically informed performance practice" is that it can lead to or imply rigidity. Performers can be overly eager to adhere strictly to one interpretation of a text or score (e.g., a performer might avoid creative bow or breath articulation simply because the composer did not indicate any in the score). On the other side of the stage, audiences might interpret a performance they hear as the only true incarnation of a certain repertoire, and thenceforth refuse to accept or attend other interpretations of that same repertoire. Music, of course, is anything but static. The way that we hear and play music is influenced by our core values and our reaction to what goes on in the world around us.

We encourage you to think of us just as we are: a musical ensemble that plays French repertoire from the 17th and 18th centuries in a way that takes French baroque performance practice into consideration while leaving room for artistic creativity. Let us shake off the baggage of early music and strive for new perspectives on what it means to play music from the past.

#earlymusic #philosophy #classicalmusic #baroque

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