Friday, December 09, 2011

There is no Utopia

"After all human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know that time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing a year of war lasts so much longer than any other year. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It's just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it." Gertrude Stein

This is probably my favorite Stein quote.  Which brings me to the current on-going argument about original instruments.  This comes up in all sorts of contexts.  In recent years we have been hearing about the pros.  Cecilia Bartoli has joined their cause and sings their praises.  As their cause advances and the groups become more and more common, they get bolder and bolder, insisting that later and later composers should be played by these instruments.

The main purpose of all these "improvements" to musical instruments was to improve the ease of playing in tune in a large variety of keys, in fact to create a situation where all 24 keys (12 major, 12 minor) are created equal.  The overtone series, the source of all pitches on natural instruments, creates a situation where the key of the fundamental pitch of the instrument is the most in tune, and the farther away you get from that the more out of tune everything is.  Are we clear about that?  Yes, modern instruments are louder, but that was not the purpose of changing them.  The purpose was to improve intonation, and by extension allow much freer modulation to keys that are not close to the original key of the piece.  The constant pea soup of Wagner modulation requires modern instruments.  And don't even bring up Schoenberg's Twelve Tone System.  I am ignoring the string family of instruments which changed to make a brighter tone.  You can play anything on either kind of violin.

To play a composition on "original" or "natural" instruments, it will need to have been composed in a way that makes this possible.  Special care is taken to put in notes for the French horn that will actually be available on a natural instrument.  Pieces in different keys might have involved using instruments with different fundamental notes.  Blah, blah, blah.  Needless to say, giant books are written about this.

The point of this is--you can play any classical piece from any era on modern instruments, but you can only play pieces composed for natural instruments on original instruments.  For simplification's sake the early instruments fell out of use.  If I can play anything on my modern instrument, what do I need with this old one?  I can simplify my training and improve my virtuosity if I focus on the present.

The revival of the use of original instruments is due to the fact that "there is no utopia."  People are people, and that involves a lot of boredom with how things are and a desire to change them to something else.  Right and wrong, good and evil, are not involved.  It's all just human nature at work.

Apologies to The Horn who has been getting quite fiery about this subject here, here, here, here (my favorite in the series), here ( kind of like this one, too), here, here, and here

Our ears are now accustomed to the exquisite precision of recorded orchestral music, particularly the precision of intonation.  This is not a concept that can be projected into the past.  The cultural ideal has changed and will continue to change. Your brain is different from theirs.  Whatever you choose, you are doing it for your own reasons, and not for reasons related to what previous generations thought. 

Precision creates boredom.  Boredom creates a desire for something new, in this case "original instruments."

People just love feeling they are superior to other people.  It's what people do.  Do you enjoy playing original instruments?  Then by all means keep doing it. 

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