Playing Subtilior

Plaidoyer For the Emancipation Of Early Music
Francesco Petrarca, a 14th century poet famous enough for his name to be Anglicized to “Petrarch,” is credited with giving a name to the “Dark Ages.” Meant were the centuries immediately following the fall of Rome, which were comparatively obscure and lacking in cultural achievements and historical artifacts. The time in which Petrarch lived was full of hardships; nevertheless, the arts and sciences flourished, and new ideas spread all over Europe. This age of humanism, however, is placed somewhere in the “dark ages” in the collective perception of our time, and its artistic works presented generally within strongly historical contexts. The artistic achievements of Petrarca’s age are generally of aesthetic interest exclusively to experts, and wider audiences (like regular classical music concert goers) are mostly unaware of the excitement that pre-Renaissance music and arts can provide.
There is much injustice in such a state of things, although maybe less drastic than  Dante’s placement of pre-Christian greats into the limbo – the suburb of Hell. Still, the fact that even some of today’s best-educated musicians would have to do some extra work to get the basic facts about the music of the “late medieval,” attests to some rejection by our time. On the other hand, some of the most eminent early music theorists report disappointment by modern audiences when presented with “historically informed” performances of such music. Modern performances are not many, my own “guitARS subtilior” being, rather, an exception to the rule. Such performances tend to raise the question of authenticity among early music experts, and for good reason, as the performance praxis has changed much since then. Also, there is a lot of discussion even among the early music experts about many features of what makes an authentic performance, and new standards are constantly being set as new evidence is evaluated.
I am myself convinced of the great aesthetic value of many works of the period starting with the ars antiqua (12th – 13th centuries), and especially of the ars subtilior period of the 14thcentury. I believe that classical music concerts—if not orchestral, then solo and chamber—should feature works from these times more often, and that inclusion and modern renditions would help this music become not only better known and understood, but also more widely performed by specialized performers.
All great works of art have some universal quality that appeals to people of any era. One could argue that Antigone, by Sophocles, cannot be perceived or understood properly today, since societies have changed so much, or after so much intervening history, or in a modern language, or outside of the amphitheatre. However, even if we put the great poet’s work aside, the conclusion must be made that the theme of Antigone is still relevant in our time, and that, unfortunately, the conflict would likely end tragically were it to occur today.
Although Shakespeare is by far not as old as Sophocles, and is also younger than the ars subtilior, his work is contemporary of the periods, which we label as “early music”. The unique success his work has enjoyed, is certainly based on its uniqueness. However, much of its success on stage is based on the fact that there have always been modern adaptations of his work. In fact, the performances that attempt to be authentic emerged only in the last century. Since the 18th century revival of Shakespeare’s work, every epoch has had its own Hamlet, or Lear, or Falstaff. Since the 19th century, many actors were photographed in some of their favorite scenes (usually involving the skull, or flowers), and we can mock the naiveté displayed in the same way in which Shakespeare himself mocked Petrarch’s legacy in Romeo and Juliet. We should, however, not forget that in their time, these “modern” performances were, well, modern, and also very often meant a lot to many cultured people. It is evident that modern performances are not always in complete congruence with the author’s intentions. However, the universal quality is what communicates, and makes the work of art live long after its author. This feature, which at the risk of it becoming something like a recipe, we can theoretically only try to describe, will come across undamaged by a good modern adaptation, be it musical or dramatic.
When I was preparing “guitARS subtilior”, I was influenced by many excellent theorists (Willi Apel, Elizabeth Eva Leach, Gilbert Reaney, Richard Hoppin), as well as performers of the early music (Ensemble Organum, David Munrow, The Medieval Ensemble Of London, Huelgas Ensemble). From these sources I have gathered enough information to attempt an “authentic” rendition. However, the sheer power of the music’s construction, as well as the originality that informed its ideas, convinced me to try to realize a version that would be more on my own “home turf”. The power of the best subtiliorpieces, in my opinion, will come through in any competent rendition—like the music of great masters. The classical guitar environment, with which I and many listeners are familiar, even allows for some neutrality, which lets composers’ ideas come to light with more ease.
I hope that modern and traditional renditions of early music will co-exist more in the future and inform and influence each other.

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