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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Early Music, New Sound (or, Why Atys Will Sound Awesome)

It doesn't take much to be seduced by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Play this for a five-year old, a Greenwich financier, and a jaded teenager alike and dare them all not to feel at least a little French Baroque wind in their hair.

 William Christie: French Baroque Jedi.  
What's a bit more difficult to appreciate is how different―gloriously different―that sound is relative to what came before it. While Christie's innovations have largely been with specifically French music―unearthing rarely-performed works like Atys, restoring the place of classical French declamation in singing and whatnot―he's also a member of a more general club of early music reformers whose stripped-down approach to the music now largely dominates the scene.

This wasn't always the case. As recently as a few decades ago, it was still somewhat easy to find 100-piece orchestras (that's big) sawing their way through baroque works on decidedly non-baroque instruments, imbuing them with the kind of sweaty-browed romantic pathos fit for razing Valhalla itself. A classic example is Leopold Stokowski's famously elephantine transcription of Bach's D-minor toccata. Suddenly, Bach is Richard Wagner, returning the ring to the Rhine:

Leopold Stokowski, transcription of Bach Toccata & Fugue in D-minor, BWV 565

This example is a little unfair, since it's a transcription and not a faithful attempt at the original. But it still symbolizes the general impulse that early music reformers like Christie helped to displace: a preference for the big and bloated at the expense of the stylistic delicacies of the original scores.

These days, conductors are more likely to save their effusive outpourings of romantic subjectivity for guys with beards rather than powdered wigs. Go into a record store looking for those Bach transcriptions and you'll quickly find yourself in the historical section. So what replaced it? In a nutshell, history. Christie and crew researched, resulting in the use of period instruments (instruments built or emulating those built during the time when the music was written), pared-down ensembles, and an obsessive attention to the nuances of historical performance practices like declamation (the relationship between musical and linguistic accents) and ornamentation.

We could get into the minutiae of all of these things, from the use of gut strings (lamb intestines; think of that while you're soaking up Atys) to the more selective use of vibrato, to the arcane details of how ornamentation is supposed to be married to the consonants of the French language. But I'd rather you not jump off a bridge. It's best to just listen.

Here's a clip from the Shall-Remain-Nameless European Philharmonic:

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Zoroastre, Act 3, Scene 3

Molasses, anyone?

Now Christie and Les Arts Florissants:

The same, performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

That's what rejuvenated French Baroque music sounds like.


  1. Great summary of the progress those of us in early music have made!


    Gene Murrow, Executive Director
    Gotham Early Music Scene, Inc.