New lamps for old...

The composer and early music.

Ivan Moody


The history of the involvement of music of the relatively remote past with that of the present is extensive. If one considers only the present century, then the appearance of "neo-classicism" alone would provide ample evidence of this.

One has only to think of Stravinsky's involvement with Bach (Variations on Von Himmel hoch, Dumbarton Oaks) and Gesualdo (Monumentum), or Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras, or Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. There is other evidence too: Webern's doctoral thesis on Isaac and the influence of canonic technique on his music, Elgar's luscious orchestral arrangements of Bach, and Vaughan-Williams's Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. There is the influence that the beginnings of the "early music revival" had on modern composers: the rehabilitation of the harpsichord, for example, led directly to the composition of a number of works for the instrument, including the concertos by Falla, Martin and Poulenc; the "discovery" of Alfred Deller's voice (in conjunction with the music of Purcell) had a direct impact on the music of Britten and Tippett, thus re-establishing a lost tradition which is flourishing today - the counter-tenor voice may be heard just as much in contemporary music as in early music(1).

Later on there are the examples of Xenakis's admiration of Dufay, Penderecki's study of chant and renaissance polyphony and its results in such works as the St Luke Passion, Birtwistle's arrangements of Ockeghem and Machaut, Finnissy's recreations of Obrecht's motets, Pärt's engagement with renaissance polyphony (the Symphony no, 1, "Polyphonic" of 1964) and Bach (various works, but especially Credo, in which Bach's music gradually obliterates P„Àrt's own - at that time serial), Tavener's use of Bach in his Coplas (part of Últimos Ritos) or Cantigas de Santa Maria in Canciones españolas, Maxwell Davies's work with various kinds of mediaeval and renaissance music (Missa super l’homme armé, Prolationum, Worldes Bliss and the opera Taverner), and Sofia Gubaidulina's astonishing Offertorium, spun from the theme of the Musikalisches Opfer.

Since the coming of age of early music performance, however, and, more particularly, the sheer availability of commercial recordings of a huge range of repertoire considered to be "early" (in practice now meaning anything from reconstructions of ancient Greek music to Schubert, Brahms and beyond) has meant that such repertoire has played a far greater part in the consciousness of composers. This means that one is exposed to the whole range of music rather than merely what one "ought" to know if one is going to be a composer. In many respects this is part of the ever-widening "plateau" of compositional possibilities available nowadays and merely makes the task more difficult, on the other hand, it is surely a positive thing that somone learning composition at a conservatory or a university now no longer has to take for granted that his technique should be founded on analysis of the "classics" (meaning selected Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, some Bach chorales and Lassus bicinia, followed by the entire nineteenth century as illustrated by the "big names"). Instead, he may discover that his development is closely bound up with isorhythmic techniques as found in De Vitry or Dunstable, or with the vocal colours of Victoria and other polyphonists, or the constructional devices found in Zelenka and Biber. The point is that he has a much wider field to examine (which of course entails a greater responsibility, principally towards his own voice as a composer) and a much vaster range of possibilities.

There are composers who have attempted to engage with what is sold in the record shops as "early music" but which is in fact part of a continuous tradition: any composer concerned with western chant will be aware of this, and a number of Eastern Orthodox composers also come into this category - John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, the Greek composer Michael Adamis, and the present writer. Each has sought in his own way to relate his music to that of his tradition (liturgical chant, whether Greek Byzantine, Russian or any other tradition) which, by virtue of present-day methods of packaging and sales, appears, when it is recorded, on the most inaccessible rack of the "chant" section just before "Albinoni" and "Anonymous".

Though from the late 1950s onwards William Glock at the BBC had already taken the initiative in programming early and contemporary music together (On 12th November 1959 the BBC broadcast Stravinsky's Mass together with the Tallis Lamentations, sung by Bruno Turner's Pro Musica Sacra; this initiated Glock's famous series of Invitation Concerts which mixed old and new music)(2), more recently, some specialist performers of early music have moved into the area of contemporary music. Notable examples are the Hillard Ensemble, the Taverner Consort, Theatre of Voices, Fretwork; at various points The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars, A Sei Voci and The Landini Consort, and, more recently, Anonymous 4. Paul Hillier has written in a number of articles about his experiences in working with Pärt, and how these paralleled his investigations into and performance of mediaeval music (the same flexibility of rhythm, for example, the same "whiteness" on the page). Such parallels are of the utmost importance when it comes to the moment of performance, as my own experiences have shown. It is rare, for example, that I need to indicate a metronome marking for any work I write for the Hilliard Ensemble; similarly, in Revelation, which I wrote for the Taverner Consort, and In Nomine, written for Fretwork, I was not faced with the necessity of indicating "orchestral" phrasing for the sackbuts or violas da gamba - these things arose by themselves from an instinctive understanding of vocal phrasing which is natural to performers of early music. These details of collaboration between composer and performers in fact indicate a new kind of performance practice, just as the rise of the post-serialists meant that performers had to absorb new ways of thinking and approaching the music in order to play Stockhausen or Cage, for example. It is nothing less than a meeting point between the past and the future.

This phenomenon leads naturally to the related one of the bête noire of early music, authenticity. I recall, at a meeting of the Plainsong & Mediaeval Music Society in London once defending, as a composer, the right of future interpreters to perform my work (and I consider the same to be true of any other composer) according to their own lights; that any piece of music has its own life, independent of the composer, as soon as it leaves its creator's desk. These observations were provoked by another member of the society who had observed that he wished to be instructed by specialist early music groups in the exact way that music was performed at the time it was written. These complex issues of authenticity have been well aired in various journals and books in recent years, and taking into account the stage of maturity at which early music performers have inevitably now arrived - a stage which allows us to discuss these matters_from the most diverse points of view and to arrive at historically informed performances which are utterly different from each other - I think it worthwhile here to quote from an article by Pierre Boulez which was published in the journal Early Music some years ago:

"I know very well that there are a number of important composers who have insisted on their rights to tradition, Wagner and Stravinsky among them. Their claims were of course made in different terms, living as they did at different times, without the benefit of the same resources. Wagner attempted to found a school in order to establish an authentic performance tradition; he failed, for lack of money, but this perfectly legitimate desire to provide the foundations for an interpretative understanding of his work was subverted, after his death, into an inflexible code, said by many to be corrupt and fossilized. Stravinsky insisted that reference to his own recordings would demonstrate their unique documentary value; unfortunately, his unreliable interpretative gifts, together with the circumstances in which the recordings were made (...) prevent these testimonies from being taken as absolute models. For that matter, can such a thing exist? The truth of any interpretation is essentially transitory (...)."(3)

Indeed. However, it has taken a good deal of time for those concerned with earlier music than Wagner or Stravinsky to arrive at this eminently sensible conclusion. Lively debate is sensible ("Should Jordi Savall really use all those instruments and voices and in quite that way when performing the Cant de la And yet why not? What evidence of performing practice is there? Since there is no continuous performing tradition, he is using his knowledge and musicianship as a 20th century musician specializing in the music of earlier epochs to present us with his own interpretation", etc.), the imposition of immutable opinions is not. This point is also made by Octavio Paz in the Prologue to his biography of the Mexican poetess Sor Juana de la Cruz:

"The work shuts out the author and opens to the reader. The author writes impelled by conscious and unconscious forces and objectives, but the sense of the work - and the pleasures and surprises we derive from the reading - never coincides exactly with those impulses and objectives. A work responds to the reader's, not the author's questions. The reader stands between the work and the author. Once written, the work has a life of its own distinct from the author, a life granted by its successive readers. [...] A work survives its readers; after a hundred or two hundred years it is read by new readers who impose on it new modes of reading and interpretation. The work survives because of these interpretations, which are, in fact, resurrections: without them there would be no work. The text transcends its own history only by being assessed within the context of a different history."(4)

Seen in this light, the appearance of the Hilliard Ensemble's collaborative disc with the jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Officium (ECM New Series 1525 445 369-2) should not be very surprising(5). Plainchant and polyphony from various periods are overlaid with improvisations on saxophone which completely transform the nature of the music: it is "being assessed within the context of a different history". There is something at stake here which goes beyond the "authenticity argument", in that all the music on the disc was intended for use within a liturgical context. It would doubtless have shocked all the composers, from Pérotin to Morales, even to imagine that such a process as this could be applied to their music (and since the same process was applied to a piece of mine in the concert in King’s College, Cambridge, accompanying the launch of the disc in 1994, I feel justified in this assertion!). There is no doubt that Garbarek's playing is absolutely beautiful (unless he happens not to be your kind of jazz musician, which is another question...) and that following his elaborations of thematic clues picked up from the polyphony is fascinating, but does a piece as sublime as Morales's Parce mihi need this? Since this piece is performed on the disc with two different improvisations and once with no improvisation at all, one may judge for oneself.(6)

Shocking to the composers or not, however, it would have been equally inconceivable to them that the same music, with or without saxophone, could be heard on a recording (whether "definitive" or not...) at any time the listener chooses. The limits are difficult to establish. Has the initiative of early music taken creative energy from modern music? The two phenomena are certainly interlinked - we are recovering ever more of our historical patrimony at the same time as we are pushing it forwards into the future. Tradition, as it were, the process of history, has speeded up.



  1. I write this, in fact, the day after hearing the world première at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, of Dipiplito by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, scored for solo countertenor, solo 'cello and orchestra. The imaginative use the work makes of the countertenor (sung here by Derek Lee Ragin) loses nothing by comparison to composers of the 16th or 17th centuries.
  2. I am grateful to Bruno Turner for supplying this information, as well as for drawing my attention to the observations of Octavio Paz cited below.
  3. Pierre Boulez: "The Vestal Virgin and the Fire-Stealer: memory, creation and authenticity" in Early Music Vol. XVIII No.3, August 1990. This is a re-casting of an earlier French version which appeared in Inharmoniques no. 4 published by IRCAM, Paris.
  4. Octavio Paz: Sor Juana: Her Life and Her World, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, 1988. Original Spanish edition entitled Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las Trampas de le Fe
  5. To say nothing of the use made of plainchant by pop groups.
  6. Since this article was first published, other recordings have inevitably appeared which raise at least as many questions. Apart from the successor to Officium, the double album Mnemosyne (ECM New Series 1700/01, 1999), one could mention Mozart in Egypt (Virgin Classics 7243 5 45311 2 5, 1997) and In Darkness Let Me Dwell, reworkings of Dowland by John Potter, Steohen Stubbs, John Surman, Maya Homburger and Barry Guy (ECM New Series 1697, 1999). It is interesting to speculate on how these considerations may relate to issues raised by the treatment of mediaeval music by such diverse groups as La Nef (Perceval Vol 2, Dorian DOR-90294, 2001), Acantus (Acantus, Gimell482 516-2, 1999) or Radio Tarifa (Rumba Argelina, World Circuit WCD 042, 1993/1996; Temporal, Ariola 74321 42290 2, 1996).



© 1997, 2001 Ivan Moody and Goldberg Ediciones


This article first appeared in Goldberg no. 1 (1997) and is reproduced here with permission. Please click on the following link to go to the Goldberg website: