On the 20th Century: Where Musicology Went Wrong

Now that Y2K has dawned and we have all acquired perfect hindsight regarding the 20th Century, it is time for historians to sharpen their quill pens (if not their claws) and record what really happened.

Stampede to "Authenticity"

The field of musicology should provide plenty of material. The notion of "original" or "authentic" instruments (as opposed to "imitation" or "spurious" ones?) alternately enthralled and revolted us, depending on the taste of the scholars and performers in question. We suppose that some scholars were unable to enlist anyone to perform their latest discoveries, for which we should in many cases consider ourselves fortunate.

In the course of this movement, we were asked to believe that early violins were incapable of sustaining tones, that the shaping of phrases was an aberration of the Romantic era, and that early flutes were incapable of producing a steady, focussed tone. We were even taught that singers should restrict themselves to chest voice. Fortunately for our ears, by the end of the Century, it had once again become permissible to use the bow, the embouchure, the sinuses, and even a discreet vibrato, to produce the cantabile style required by every musican of the past whose thoughts have come down to us, with the possible exception of that great composer of circus music, Igor Stravinsky, who opined that music was incapable of expressing anything but itself.

In the midst of this movement, I heard an otherwise intelligent harpsichordist exclaim how his new instrument (of a remarkable green color) allowed him to make his music more authentic merely by sliding the moveable keyboards one notch to the left! What a shame; in music, as in life, nothing is so simple!

Publish or Perish, or Both

We can blame much of this silliness on the "publish or perish" philosophy now prevalent in academic circles. One must publish in order to maintain one's academic position, and it is next to impossible to publish papers supporting the thesis that current performance practice is correct. No one would bother reading such a paper! Publication requires us to advance novel opinions, and that means arguing against the prevailing wisdom. The papers were reviewed by scholars who found themselves also encouraged to be contrarians, and before anyone noticed, a whole body of "knowledge" had developed.

The academic world is now geared to support revisionism almost for its own sake, even in fields where the demonstrable facts have not changed significantly. But now, at least, there is a vast literature against which academics possessed of good taste can rail, so we may expect the pendulum to swing back toward a performance style that is less quirky. Academics would do well to recognize that "publish" and "perish" are not mutually exclusive alternatives!

The 16' Register of the Harpsichord

One of the more pointless debates of 20th Century musicology concerns the 16' register of the harpsichord, which so raised the ire of the academics. One wonders why; surely there were better things to vilify.

First, it was argued that the 16' register was a historical rarity and should therefore be regarded as an anomaly. It is true that the number of surviving instruments of this type is small. But those that do are evidently very fine. Economics would suggest that the largest instruments, equipped with the extra 16' strings and the additional supporting structures this implies, would have been the most expensive models. Fewer of them would have been built, even if they were highly prized. Also, the difficult structural problems would suggest that fewer of them should have survived. Finally, as Denise Restout and others have noted, survival of anything large and expensive during the French Revolution was an exceptional outcome. So the comparative rarity argument cannot be taken as evidence of esthetic unsuitability.

Second, it is said that the 16' register makes "music" sound muddy. This argument seems to assume that if the instrument has a 16' register, then it must be used all of the time. This is obviously not true on the pipe organ, nor is it true on the harpsichord. Rather, the player simply has an additional resource that may be deployed according to his good taste. There are plenty of pieces where a 16' register may be used without creating harmonic muddiness, on the harpsichord as well as the organ. It is also a very easy matter to spot the pieces where the 16' register (on either harpsichord or organ) will create muddiness, such as pieces with close harmonies in the left hand.

Third, those who use the 16' register were at times labeled "conservatory harpsichordists", evidently as opposed to the "authentic" harpsichordists who have built their own (authentic, need we say) instruments and who have never been contaminated by any ideas that may have passed through the Romantic era. But it was in the conservatory that these artists learned how to make the most effective use of registration. Some of them may even have undergone a rigorous study of all keyboards, including piano and organ, possibly giving them a much broader historical perspective than some of our modern specialists. Thus, the arguments illuminate the sociology of academe, but they do not lead to useful conclusions about either the music or the instrument.

The fourth major argument is the strangest. These musicologists have deplored the use of the 16' register on the grounds that it makes the harpsichord "sound like an organ"! By this they mean, I suppose, a performance that uses 16', 8', and 4' pitches in an effective registration scheme. Like many people, I am aware that early musicians appreciated the difference between organ and harpsichord technique, so I was almost swayed by this argument. But if we think back to the greatest masters of the harpsichord, which of them was not also renowned as a master of the organ? We can count among the greatest organists all of the Couperins, the Bachs, D'Anglebert, Purcell, Dandrieu, Daquin, Frescobaldi, Froberger, and many others. Surely all of these must have learned in their childhood how to use the 16' register of the organ to effect. They would have had no hesitation on the appropriate use of a 16' harpsichord register if they encountered one, and they would have been well qualified to offer builders advice on its proper voicing.

When we read Mersenne, Praetorius, and other chroniclers of musical innovation, enumerating as they do all sorts of wonderous enhancements to the harpsichord, and when we discover the existence of authentic harpsichords having all manner of strange stops, even a late one equipped with a "remarkably effective" Venetian swell, we find it necessary to point out that the historical harpsichord was by no means a static instrument like our modern piano, flute, or violin. Pretending the contrary is probably more pernicious in the long run than using a 16' register where it sounds well!

Practical Acoustics of the 16' Register

We can learn a lot by experimenting with the acoustics of harpsichord sounds. To create muddiness in pieces with a lot of left hand movement, it is only necessary to suppress the upper harmonics of the notes in the lowest registers. The same thing happens on the organ or in the orchestra. Conversely, to counteract muddiness where it is a problem, we add higher or darker registers above the 16' pitch, like adding the Prestant, Clairon, or Doublette to the pedal part on the organ.

Among the interesting effects that a 16' register makes possible are the drone basses of musettes, drum effects (and horse effects, too!), as well as the harpsichord's only possible gapped registration (with the 4' register normally found on the same manual), so effective in tenor solos and music with a folk flavor. It is easy to see why builders experimented with the 16' register, and the surviving examples demonstrate that the experiments were successful.

Conclusion: 16' Register was and is a Useful Luxury

In summary, then, it has not been possible to prove that the 16'register is either historically or esthetically out of place on the harpsichord. The arguments seemed more effective at showing off petty jealousies than in advancing an understanding of the acoustics and esthetics of the harpsichord. It cannot be argued, either, that the 16' register is necessary. It remains, as it apparently was in the 18th Century, a nice-to-have luxury that could be effective in the hands of someone with good taste. And according to the commentators of that century, no instrument could possibly sound well if the performer lacked good taste. In the Baroque era, musicians seem not to have been so doctrinaire as the musicologists of the 20th Century. They were practical musicians, adapting whatever instruments were available to express how they felt about their music from moment to moment. We will be fortunate indeed if this view of music prevails in the 21st Century.

- John W. McCoy

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