Bach, um, marches towards the world

I’ve included “marching towards the world” in my catechism of Chinese music clichés. We might also set out from a different starting-point—further to my Bach chinoiserie, and in the vein of Alternative Bach (see also here).

For a long time Bach and his music hardly ventured any further than Saxony. But here’s Erbarme dich (cf. here and here) sung by Fadia el-Hage and Sarband, from their Arabian Passion (as ever, the BTL comments are worth reading):

And here’s a live version with Fadia el-Hage:

Further to Bach on the lute (such as this), you can also find several renditions on the oud, like this:

Instances where Bach’s Lutheran world-view comes into contact with Islam may be suggestive, but his music can also be attractive on other instruments, beyond mere novelty. Here you can find a Nordic version of the prelude of the 6th cello suite. Meanwhile, the sheng-player Wu Wei has ventured into baroque, as here:

Evidently I welcome all kinds of new versions of Bach, but perhaps here my Chinese snobbery comes into play. I just can’t hear the benefit of playing Bach on the sheng; the ethnic frisson seems spurious, as if mutual bandwagons are being jumped on. I can’t get used to the modern sheng used as a monophonic instrument, but I must be wrong about this. Just because an instrument has the capability of playing chords (traditionally in this case, fifths and octaves), it doesn’t always have to be, any more than the organ; but to me it deprives the sheng of its essential character. So however tasteful the playing, it seems kitsch, reminding me of Gheorghe Zamfir, yesteryear’s flavour of the month—although for some reason I don’t quite mind this:

Just be grateful we didn’t record our rendition on erhu and saz… See also the comment below this post, with the Polis ensemble playing the Air on instruments of the eastern Mediterranean. While the arrangement is beautiful and the playing sensitive, I wonder if it they might transform it more by relishing the ethnic timbres, rather than conforming too reverently to Bach’s sound-world. I can imagine it being most moving within a concert of their core repertoire—just as it is most spellbinding in the context of the 3rd suite itself.

There’s lots of Bach on sax online. Some is rather straight, but I like this—live from Leipzig (just like Bach was!), what’s more:

I welcome further links to ethnic Bach—obviously we’re looking for genuine explorations here, rather than mere exotic orientalizing.

All this contributes to my fantasy of a world-music version of the Matthew Passion, on which more anon.


With thanks to Fanny Paccoud and David Badagnani

Popular culture in early modern Europe


We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.


Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.

Playing with history: HIP

*For main page, click here!*
(under WAM at the right of main menu)


On the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, further to my article on Richard Taruskin, I’ve added a page on

  • John Butt, Playing with history (2002).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.

In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.


Alternative Bach


In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.

In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of  Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.

Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).

Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.

Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:

* * *

Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.

Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if the former has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights. Christ lag in Todesbanden has remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated:

For their recording from Eisenach during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilrimage, click here; for an introduction to the cantata, click here.

So questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate early interpretations with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.

The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):

The person who crystallized all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognized as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]

As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:

How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?

And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”

Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced,  lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:

The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.

As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.

People were quick to realize that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the  original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”

In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.

Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.

* * *

I’ve touched on related issues in several posts, such as

and, further afield,

as well as in various posts on reception history, like

On a lighter note, for vignettes on my days in the English Baroque Soloists, see here and here.

Another fine female composer


Today—all day—is another great reason to tune in to BBC Radio 3 for their fantastic selection of female composers, part of their ongoing commitment to the topic. So much fine music to explore… (for my 2017 post, see here).

Yet another coup this week was their broadcast of Céphale et Procris, a tragédie en musique by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729).

The opera was first staged in 1694—just as a Chinese monk was copying a numinous score of the shengguan ritual ensemble repertoire in Beijing. In Paris, Jacquet kept composing despite losing her young son, her husband, and her brother.

After only a few performances, the opera wasn’t heard again until the 1990s. But it sounds wonderful.

Following Lully, her soundworld often anticipates Rameau, including the tragic final sequence, and this aria from Act IV, Funeste mort:

Where have I been? * (And perhaps you—unless you’re more au fait with the niceties of French baroque than me.) I now find that YouTube is awash with Jacquet’s works. For now I’ll cite from her wiki entry:

Her talent and achievements were acknowledged by Titon du Tillet, who accorded her a place on his Mount Parnassus when she was only 26 years old, next to Lalande and Marais and directly below Lully. A quote from Titon du Tillet describes her

marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.

So let’s all explore Jacquet de La Guerre’s ouevre—harpichord pieces, trio sonatas, cantatas!

For leads to some other female baroque composers, see here. For 20th-century French female composers on this blog, see Lili Boulanger and Germaine Tillion. So many names to add to the T-shirt


* “Nobody tells me anything”—and there was I thinking I’d discovered an unknown singer called Aretha Franklin

Das Land ohne Musik


Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912. More here.

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

There is no city in the world, I am sure, where so much music is consumed as in London.

Hector Berlioz, 1851

Susan McClary’ s book Feminine endings is always full of leads, such as:

Linda Austern and Richard Leppert have demonstrated that one reason the English have produced so little music is that they—more than their German or French neighbors—have long associated music with effeminacy. (p.17)

An intriguing thought, but it begs questions. First of all, “produced” here clearly refers to the composition of art music. A perceptive essay is

  • Peter Holman,* “Eighteenth-century English music: past, present, future” (ch.1 of David Wyn Jones (ed.), Music in eighteenth-century Britain, 2000),

where he tellingly probes the description of 18th-century England as “Das Land ohne Musik” (cf. Haydn). He dates it back further to a pithy 1840 comment by Heinrich Heine:

These people [the English] have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting.

Touché! As Holman notes,

Of course, this agenda is part of a larger one that has more to do with 19th-century cultural politics than with a proper, balanced evaluation of the total corpus of 18th-century music. It privileged what was perceived as as the centre—Italy, Germany, and Austria— over the supposed periphery—Scandinavia, eastern and central Europe, France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It privileged instrumental music, especially those genres that used Viennese sonata form, over vocal music. And it privileged the work of the professional secular male in concert music over all others, such as church musicians, amateurs, and women.
The most persistent observation on musical life in 18th-century England is that it was dominated by Handel and other immigrant composers, the implication being that native composers were too feeble, parochial, or conservative to offer them much competition.

OK, he’s broadly following the continental critics here in equating “musical life” with art music—not all the diverse folk traditions, such as the musical life of taverns in East Anglia. But he unpacks the assumptions of even this limited definition:

It was not a new situation. Immigrants had played an important role in bringing new ideas from the continent ever since the reign of Henry VII. (See Wind, ethnicity, and gender, and They come over ‘ere…)

Adducing Ferrabosco, Notari, and Draghi, Holman notes that that as the scale of immigration increased,

these developments were not symptoms of weakness or decline, but evidence of a vibrant and complex musical life. Musicians were not attracted to London from all over Europe by the prospect of becoming big fish in a small, stagnant pond, but because London was the largest and most exciting pond of all, where you did not need to be a big fish to make a fortune.

Indeed, it could be argued that England was the most musical country in Europe by the second half of the 18th century, judging by the amount of musical activity of all types.

The variety he cites here includes rival concert series, Italian opera, provincial music societies, church choirs, and amateur musicking such as “gentlemen” competing in taverns. This is indeed more diverse than the narrow picture he criticizes, but still doesn’t subsume “folk” activity such as sea shanties or street fiddlers. He goes on:

My second objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that there is little sign that immigrants replaced native musicians in lucrative employment, or prevented them from obtaining it.

Just as the Lupo and Bassano families had supplemented indigenous instrumentalists at the court of Henry VIII, Italian opera became just an extra strand enriching the musical life of London. But

My most serious objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that it is based on an anachronistic conception of national and racial identity. […] England has always been a nation of immigrants, and it makes no sense to restrict an account of its culture to the work of natives, or, more accurately, to the work of the descendants of less recent immigrants.
What is often forgotten is that immigrant composers, anxious to be accepted in England, adapted their own idioms to conform to English taste.

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

At the same time, the “foreign domination” theory does rest to a large extent on the focus on the composers and performers of art music. Despite my pleas to broaden the social scope, Holman’s perspective, like a lot of in-depth studies of WAM, belongs firmly within the wise counsels of ethnomusicology. His chapter contains many more perceptive observations, which you must read!

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

  • Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (1987)

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

  • “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”,

which I introduced here. As the book’s Introduction notes, recent changes in scholarship,

especially evident in literature, film, and visual art, have led to a systematic investigation of the implicit assumptions underlying critical methods of the last two-hundred years, including prominently the assumption that art consistutes an autonomous sphere, separate and isolated from the outside social world.

Janet Wolff’s Foreword is another nail in the coffin of “autonomous” art—and another critique that should be compulsory for heritage pundits in China. The book ranges rather widely, with chapters from Rose Subotnik on Chopin, Simon Frith on popular music, John Shepherd on music and male hegemony, John Mowitt on electric technology in sound production, and Leppert’s own discussion of the music, domestic life, and cultural chauvinism of British subjects in India.

The authors point out that they hardly deal with music and society in non-Western cultures, touching “only lightly on questions about the music of women, and ethnic and racial minorities”. They observe that women, and the lower classes, have been erased from the received picture, though they are rarely excluded from musicking—just from prestigious public musicking.

So again the book is largely based on the musical activities of the bourgeoisie—not least because the source material largely derives from them. Still, the debt to ethnomusicology is clear: even if WAM scholarship may seem to contrast with ethnomusicology, they can enter into a rapprochement [uh-oh, more non-national terms?—Ed.].

* * *

Actually, all we need to deflate the idea of Das Land ohne Musik is the classic question “What is music?“—or rather, “What is musicking?”. Pundits of both WAM and pop music tend to take a limited view, as I often observe (e.g. here, and here).

By a narrow definition based on composers of art music, most of the world over most of history would be considered “without music”. Do mothers singing lullabies, spirit mediums, or percussion bands, count? Even once we’ve thrown out the narrow assumption that music means art music, I wonder how one might rank the cultures of the world in terms of “musicality”: Inuit, Italian, Andalucian, Tibetan, Bolivian, Malian, Afghan, and so on. Were Afghans or Andalucians “unmusical”, and are they now? And we may be lumbered with the dodgy cliché that Africans, like Chinese ethnic minorities, are “good at singing and dancing”—but where might north Americans come in the spurious league table, for instance?

Cultural genocide—the suppression of indigenous cultures by a dominant force—is a separate subject. As I write this, I notice this blurb for what I’m sure is a fine BBC4 programme:

Masters of the Pacific coast: the tribes of the American northwest
Exploring how culture was established on the American northwest.

Discuss… An inspiration for the Party’s current replacement of the complexities of Uyghur music by “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (note also this post)?

Is a society in which most people frequently sing or dance less musical than one with an opera house, a symphony orchestra, and a conservatoire? “Expenditure on the arts” is a dubious index. Is a funding-dependent society in which children are discouraged from singing and dancing unless they’re formally trained as musical as one where such activity is assumed, embedded in the culture? Indeed, even in such a culture, formally-trained musicians make up only a small proportion of participants.

As always, it’s worth considering the wise words of Bruno Nettl, in his

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

He addresses the issue of “what is music?” —a point also made by Christopher Small in his introduction to Musickingin a famous vignette in his chapter 2, “Combining tones: the concept of music”:

Let me reconstruct a cocktail party conversation about 1975 when I confessed to working in ethnomusicology. “Studying American Indian music?” says one amazed person. “I didn’t know they even had music”. I try patiently to explain. “Oh yes, I knew they had chants, but is that really music?” From an elderly gentleman: “I spent a year in Africa, heard a lot of singing and drumming, but is that music? After all, they don’t write it down. Maybe they just make it up as they go along. Do they really know what they’re doing?” More explanation. A young man has added himself. “But these sounds that some peoples in Asia make with their instruments and voices, or the Indian chants, can you call them music? They don’t have harmony.” And a middle-aged lady: “My teenage sons play something they call music all day. I can’t stand any of it.”

We might now wonder if Nettl was going to the wrong kind of parties; indeed, he notes that people may have since become more broad-minded, but the issue remains. He discusses John Blacking’s important book How musical is man? (1973):

writing today, he would likely have asked “How musical are humans?” […] He recognized the world as a group of musics, though he personally was always more interested in their borderlands than the centers, but he wanted to make sure that his readers understood a major point: in the end, all musics are equally valuable, or, let’s put it this way, all musics are to an equal degree music.

Nettl’s whole book explores such themes—essential reading! Even his models for types of cultural change may be instructive to understand the fates of native American and Uyghur cultures.


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

So the Land ohne Musik slight rests on a blinkered valorization of a league table of Great Works by Great Composers, rather than the diverse forms of musicking in society generally. Ironically, it’s based on new music.

As to England being ohne Musik in 1914 (or indeed 1714), never mind all the WAM activity then, how about all the traditions then being unearthed by Cecil Sharp and Co.—singing, local dance traditions, street music, wind bands? In the narrow view, none of these seem to count.

Issues here include the balance of “active” producers and “passive” consumers, amateur and occupational performers. What of a society which expects to invite performers often, as in Hokkien cultures in southeast China; or one where people simply attend a lot of parties?

Music does seem more ubiquitous than ever today: not just via technology (over speakers in malls and, um, elevators), but actively: both listening to recorded music most of the time, and active musicking at all kinds of social events, including clubbing, places of worship, and football matches.

So never mind 1730s’ Leipzig or 1780s’ Vienna, how about Liverpool and Detroit in the 1960s, or Herat in the 1970s—or Beijing, New York, and London today? I’m not exactly disputing the notion that some societies may be more “musical” than others, but attempting to compile a league table of world musicality would ultimately be a cul-de-sac. Whether for the 18th century or today, it’d take a thorough broad-based survey of soundscapes to assess all this—one fine example of the broad view is Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 The hidden musicians, on musical life in Milton Keynes.

At least, people don’t wait for composers (whether indigenous or foreign) to write symphonies and operas to express their musicality. All this may seem obvious, but people still tend to stick within their particular tribes.

By the way, I constantly dispute the narrow dominance of one particular limited view of what constitutes “Chinese music”. I’ve given many instances of the narrow dominance of the conservatoire style and commercial pop; but punk, all kinds of vocal music along the continuum from folk-song to opera, spirit mediumshousehold Daoists, shawm and percussion bands, and so on, are all part of the picture we have to consider—as for any society in the world, for any period. Yet again, we should delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse

* This is neither here nor there, but it was on tour with Peter that Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story


More stammering songs

Baroque, vaudeville, fieldwork, and blues

possum pie

As part of my series on stammering I’ve already featured several songs about speech impediments, like There once was a man from CalcuttaRossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”Gepopo, and Uri Caine’s take on Bach. Now, thanks to this page from Judy Kuster (part of a site containing rich material), I find a plethora of further links, worth reading together with two splendid discussions, here and here.

As the latter page observes,

By the rise of vaudeville, the stuttering song was established enough that it was considered its own small genre, a specialty for comic singers—Sammy Stammers, from 1894, is a typical example. These stuttering songs fit naturally into a coarse period whose popular music mocked the Irish, Jews, Asians, and blacks.

And in all these cases, modern audiences can only await their cue from the victims to benefit from, even enjoy, such creations.

In the heady days before PC (“gone mad”), there was a b-b–bumper crop in the early days of the recording industry, showing at least that stammering was a significant element in public consciousness. It’s good to contextualize it in the context of other disabilities:

  • Joseph Strauss and Neil Lerner (eds.), Sounding off: theorizing disability in music (2006),

among many interesting chapters (not least on Glenn Gould!), includes

  • Daniel Goldmark, “Stuttering in American popular song, 1890-1930”,

showing how stutterers there were portrayed in music between 1890 and 1930. Here’s a medley of short clips:

Intriguingly, several of the most popular songs focus on female sufferers, always in a minority—like K-K-K-Katy (Billie Murray, 1917), which, on a roll, he followed up with the “incredibly insulting” You tell her I S-T-U-T-T-E-R.

Oh Helen (1918) contains the ingenious lyric

Oh H-H-Hel, Oh H-H-Hel, Oh Helen please be mine
You s-s-simp, You s-s-simp, You simply are divine
You m-m-mud, You m-m-mud, You muddle me it’s true
Oh D-D-Dam, Oh D-D-Dam, Oh Damsel I love you 

i'm always

Still, there’s a disturbing undercurrent of romance. As the Locust St. post oberves,

The poor stuttering protagonist falls in love but his impediment makes it hard for him to express his feelings. There are typically two outcomes. There is the (relatively) optimistic: in “Stuttering Dick,” as in “The Stuttering lovers,” an Irish folk song, the stuttering guy finds a stuttering girl, and the two live in bliss. Then there is the more popular and more tragic scenario, when the stuttering character falls in love, can’t communicate his feelings, and winds up scorned and ridiculed.


Charles L. Todd records among Mexican migrants, California 1941.

Turning to ethnographic fieldwork, here’s the full version of the unusually endearing song that opens the YouTube medley above. Sung by Lloyd Stalcup, a 14-year old Texan migrant worker, it was recorded in 1940 at Shafter FSA (Farm Security Administration) Camp in California as part of the fine Voices from the Dust Bowl project by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin of the Library of Congress (with evocative fieldnotes here):

But as non-PC goes, the pick of the b-b-bunch—as politicians are discovering, if you’re gonna be offensive, why not go all the way?—has to be Possum pie (or The stuttering coon, 1904), with lyrics by Joseph C. Farrell, music by Hughie Cannon:

Of course, few of these songs attempt to break out of the rhythmic mould to reflect more accurately the irregularity of stammering. Ironically, the impediment disappears when singing, and in rhythmic speech, but neither offers more than temporary relief. I wonder if there are any east-European songs in the parlando-rubato form beloved of Hungarian scholars, or even Bulgarian aksak “limping” treatments…

Delving further back, for us early music fans Andrew Oster has a chapter in Sounding off about Demo, a stammering dwarf (YAY!) in Cavalli’s 1649 opera Giasone. Here the fast repetitious ornament trillo or gruppo, a kind of throat tremolo (defined by Caccini, used expressively by Monteverdi—and recently by Abrahamsen in the mesmerizing let me tell you (see Soundscapes of Nordic noir), is put to comic use:

It reminds one of the drunken stammering poet in Purcell’s The fairy queen (1692—also featuring a Chinese man and woman, BTW):

Now all we need for a full house is a drunken stammering black Jewish Chinese gay dwarf, FFS.

The links above take the story on to pop since the 1950s; but for blues fans, I’ll play out with John Lee Hooker—one of the more realistic impersonations of the sound. You can decide if it’s “a revelation—the singer isn’t a poor victim but a player, wooing a girl through his stammer” or if it’s just “good old-fashioned sexual harrassment”:

* * *

This may just be a coincidence of the birth of the recording industry, but it looks rather as if stammering songs reached peak popularity in the wake of World War One. So recalling that many Chinese stammerers are also documented in historic periods of warfare, we may wonder if there’s some correlation between social trauma and disfluency in speech. Speech therapy is clearly among the needs of current refugees, for instance. Still, if conflict were a simple stimulus, our forebears would all have been at it. And I’ve no idea how one might make a more comprehensive global diachronic survey—taking account of class, economic conditions, gender, and so on.