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Thoughts on the 6+5 Rule Expressed in Terms of Handel’s Water Music

Posted By Brian Phillips On May 30, 2008 @ 1:32 pm In Uncategorized | 14 Comments

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The modern symphony orchestra is a bizarre historical formation, a kind of living museum of half-forgotten anxieties about the future development of music. What had been the orchestra’s rapid evolution in size, instrumental makeup, and professional organization came to a relatively abrupt halt toward the end of the nineteenth century, at a moment when conservative and classicizing forces, alarmed at what they perceived as the abandonment of tradition in favor of increasingly unwelcome innovations, succeeded in investing the form of the orchestra as they understood it with an unprecedented transhistorical prestige. A series of conventions that had little basis either in necessity or in historical practice—the placement of the second violins on the near left of the conductor; the prohibition against applauding between movements—were elevated to the status of absolute rules as a bulwark against a modernity that they could oppose but not prevent.

As a result, the twentieth century’s conception of what it would anachronistically call “classical music” was heavily determined by a set of standards which had their roots neither in the life of the present moment nor in the original intentions of the composers whose works formed the bulk of the repertoire. Handel’s Water Music, for instance, was written to be played by a small baroque ensemble that could float on a barge on the Thames. Subsequent generations adapted the work to be played in the groups and on the instruments that were common to their time. In the twentieth century, however, the work continued to be performed as it had been in the late nineteenth, by the large, slow, burdensome Romantic orchestra that had by then been universally accepted as the authoritative medium for almost all European art music.

What can be said about this is that while the Romantic orchestra frequently produces performances of extraordinary beauty, it also makes a certain kind of nostalgia inseparable from the act of playing or listening to music. Music was performed this way once, it says, at a moment when things were as they should be. Things are no longer as they should be, but these sounds played with this authority can offer a glimpse of the vanished golden age. For me, at least, it would be senseless to deny that that (ultimately false) nostalgia lends a powerful secondary attraction to, for instance, the recordings of Otto Klemperer. At the same time it would be senseless to deny that the ossification of the orchestra and its repertoire has robbed them both of their social vitality: one has a sense, almost always, of hearing something that is already over rather than something that is still underway.

There have, recently, been interesting challenges to the orthodoxy that produced this condition. It may be worth noting that the most commercially and critically successful of these have been the ones devoted to recreating the conditions of even older and more authentic performances, and not the ones devoted to discovering whether it might be possible to renovate the old traditions in light of the way we live now.


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