High-Prized Noise

Thomas Mace, from Musick’s Monument. Source.

‘Music’s not what it used to be’. ‘Kids these days, with their so-called music’. These are familiar refrains. Most of us develop a strong connection with music in our youth. But as years progress and fashions change, some of us end up feeling left behind.

While leafing through Ernst Meyer’s book English Chamber Music, I discovered just this type of complaint made by Thomas Mace in the late 17th century. He castigated the ‘Wonderful Swiftnesz’ and ‘High-Prized Noise’ of the new fashion for violin ensembles, which he thought were ‘fit to make a Man’s Ear Glow, and Fill his Brain full of Frisks’.

Looking back to the viol consort music that had flourished before the Civil War, he wrote: ‘we would never allow Any Performer to Over-top, or Out-cry another by loud Play […] This Caution made the Musick Lovely, and Very Contentive.’

Today, in an age of ear-splitting amplification, it’s amusing to imagine Mace trembling before a group of bewigged fiddlers. There are nostalgics in every age: no doubt people expressed similar consternation at the arrival of Rock ’n’ Roll. It would be an interesting research project to compile such comments throughout music history, and compare the supposed virtues people feared were being lost.

In terms of classical music though, there is a clear difference between then and now. Mace was writing before the creation of a canon – today, classical music is dominated by old music. So although performance practices have changed significantly over the centuries, in one sense classical music is what it used to be.

A few years after Mace’s comments, John Playford’s published The Division Violin. I recently came across a YouTube video of two Grounds from Playford’s work, performed by Baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman.

‘Divisions’ were a chance for violinists to show off their technique by improvising variations on a theme. And there are plenty of fast runs here, but I love the sense of ease and freedom in this performance. You can see it in their body language, and at the end they turn to each other and smile. They are enjoying themselves, something also in evidence in their video of a Schmelzer Sonata.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing early music on the piano. I like the cleanness of the notes on the page, without all the fussy dynamic and articulation symbols that clutter up later scores. This simplicity feels more honest, open, and full of possibility. It feels like you are being trusted – you can figure out the nuances for yourself.

I am not a nostalgic – there were no ‘good old days’ – as times change, I think we simply gain and lose different things. Since Mace’s period, classical music has developed enormous complexity of form, and technical refinement in the articulation of sound. It has accrued a canon, and a ‘temple of music’ culture of elite performance which did not exist when much of the music we hear today was composed. In fact, like the viol consorts that Mace cherished, a lot of chamber music would have been written with the private enjoyment of musicians in mind.

But it’s not entirely obvious that the increase in notational demands on musicians, and the decline of improvisation in classical music, is necessarily an overall improvement in affairs. My feelings about this waver. There are days when I want precisely the immersive experience of an in-depth performance in a concert hall. But there are other days when I want music that is easy to listen to, and that makes me – and the musicians – more allowances.

Furthermore, watching the Playford video, I find it hard not to think that of all the 19th-century developments in classical music, the normalisation of wide contrasts in volume may be the one I’m most ambivalent about.

Mace’s concern about ‘over-topping’ violinists had it the wrong way round: today many musics are louder than classical, but few are also so quiet. This places an inherent tension in the social experience of the public concert, which is the need for pristine silence. You know how this one goes: tutting among the audience, endless debates about coughing and applause. Sometimes it feels like music making without the smile.

Whether this in-built fussiness bothers you or not, it is the yin to the yang of the particular path of development that classical music has pursued. And yet, with all this considered, it feels significant that the current culture of the art-form so fetishises Bach. Why, after all, does Radio 3 have a ‘Bach Before 7’ slot every weekday morning? Why was I taught to emulate Bach fugues at university, 250 years after his death? Why is he the go-to choice for so many soloist encores after a big Romantic-era piece?

It’s his sublime mastery of his craft that makes him so revered, you would probably say. That is undoubted. But I think it’s something else too: his relative evenness. Bach doesn’t jump out at you, he doesn’t scream and whisper. Bach feels like a return to music’s fundamentals. He feels like coming home.

Some of my favourite concerts I’ve been to have been performances of early music, and part of that is doubtless because it tends to fit within a comfortable, sociable listening range. And while it is in some ways limited compared to later music, that can paradoxically make it feel more at ease, and more free.

That sense of freedom is also why I’ve recently enjoyed learning to play Byrd’s keyboard variations on the song John Come Kiss Me Now. Although written for the tonal strictures of the virginal, it overflows with joyful invention. The part where Byrd suddenly crashes into triplets is enormously satisfying, once you’ve got your head and fingers around the rhythmic mischief he’s up to. At that point, I find it hard not to smile.

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