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About NewOlde.com

NewOlde.com has arisen from a personal housekeeping project. To improve the accessibility of early music resources, I decided to organize interesting material in web format for my personal intranet. As the pages began to take shape, I realized that others might find them helpful and posted the results to date on the Internet.

The main point of the website is to provide fast access to important information resources. Most of the originality is in the organization and compilation, although, as time permits, I will add additional reviews and comments on recordings, books, music, instruments and performances.

Since this is a personal website gone public, it strongly reflects personal tastes and interests and does not purport to be comprehensive. My own principal interests are historic stagings of early opera, historically-inspired (or restored antique) keyboard instruments, historic pitch and temperaments, and recordings of little-known works that deserve to be better known.

If you have a website and would like to deep link to some specific place on a page of NewOlde.com, please let me know and I will be happy to add a bookmark for your convenience.

John Wall
New York

Some comments on:

Early Opera

The Pitch Problem

An Example of Questionable Early Music Marketing


Early Opera

The dominant form of opera during the 17th and 18th Centuries was the Dramma per Musica. After nearly 200 years of neglect, except by a handful of scholars, surviving baroque operas are slowly making their way out of manuscript collections. With the knowledge and experience accumulated during the first 30 years of the Historically-Inspired Performance (HIP) movement, there is now a significant core group of specialists with growing expertise in each of the elements of a Dramma per Musica production -- music editors, instrument builders and tuners, instrumentalists, continuo players, singers, dancers, gesture coaches, choreographers, costume and set designers -- who occasionally collaborate on an interesting revival. More often, the music alone, or at least much of it, is played, while something not even remotely resembling an historic Dramma per Musica is performed on stage.

Probably fewer than 1% of surviving serious operas have been revived in modern times, but the number seems to be growing exponentially, now that the operas of Mozart and Handel have been exhausted. Vivaldi currently is a hot commodity, but there still is little interest in the works of Hasse, the most popular opera composer during his lifetime, or indeed of Drammi per Musica during the 30-year gap between Handel and Mozart.

I hope to infect as many others as possible with the enthusiasm I have for early music, particularly drammi per musica, of the late 17th to late 18th Centuries. It is clear from the examples of Mozart and Handel that when there is widespread curiosity about ancient music and musical history, research will be done, symposiums will be held and their proceedings published, modern editions will be prepared, and works will be staged. The more that is known about the still obscure, vast majority of early operas, the more likely that sufficient demand will be created to support the necessary attention by experts.


The Pitch Problem

Largely due to decisions by a handful of woodwind instrument builders in the early days of the early music revival, it was universally settled that baroque "original instruments" be tuned to a pitch of a=415. In fact, orchestras had no choice, as available baroque flutes, recorders, oboes and bassoons were built at 415, while transposing keyboard instruments usually could be tuned at either 415 or 440.

However, 415 is certainly too high for French music to the end of the ancien regime and for English music at least around the turn of the 18th Century, after imported French woodwinds had become established in Britain, and for early Italian harpsichord music. It is also too low for much music composed before the 18th Century. For a detailed survey of what is known about pitch based mainly on surviving woodwind instruments, see the new book by Bruce Haynes, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A".

The legacy is more than 15 years of early music recordings that now need to be re-recorded at lower or higher historic pitch, in some cases with different voice types. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, haute-contre parts in French and English music often were assigned to falsettists, even though the parts originally were sung by high tenors. High pitch caused problems for other singers, notably basses who had to extend their upper ranges.

Fortunately, a=392 woodwinds are now widely available, and the leading French baroque musicians increasingly have been playing and recording at 392. (Although French chamber pitch was somewhat higher, c.404.) Thus, for example, Marc Minkowski's recordings of Gluck's Armide and Iphigénie en Tauride were performed at 392, and may be the first recordings of Gluck's French operas at historic pitch. Likewise, the works of Henry Purcell are now typically performed at 392, with songs such as "Sound the Trumpet" assigned to high tenors.

Additional lower pitch performances have begun to crop up, such as Elizabeth Wallfisch's recording of Bach's solo violin music at a=400 and Siegbert Rampe's recording of reconstructed early Bach overtures at a=394.

An increasing percentage of harpsichord and continuo organ builders now offer a 392 option on transposing instruments, and, based on the beliefs of some experts that French pitch may have been even lower in the early to mid 17th Century, a few builders have made French harpsichords that transpose down to a=345. Furthermore, based on the belief that the 16th Century Italian harpsichord pitches were c.310 and 345, transposing 16th Century Italian harpsichords at a=310 and 345 have been made.

Some of the surviving historic French baroque organs have been restored to lower pitch. Most recent French organ recordings with alternating chant, e.g., CDs by Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr, have been performed with restored historic organs at a pitch of a=392.

The next challenge of the historic performance movement will be to match the newly-recreated instruments with the music written for them.


An Example of Questionable Early Music CD Marketing

I recently purchased the CD pictured to the left -- "PACHELBEL, Make a Joyful Noise" -- from a used record store for $2.99. I don't recall every having noticed it previously. In all likelihood I have seen it many times while rummaging through cutout bins, but passed it over on the assumption that it featured yet another dreary recording of Pachelbel's ubiquitous Canon in D. Upon close inspection, the careful connoisseur will note the names of Konrad Junghänel and Cantus Cölln in small print, as well as the names J.C. Bach and J.M. Bach in barely legible italics.

 

In fact "Make a Joyful Noise" is the American issue of the CD depicted here: the 1994 Cantus Cölln recording on dhm of little-known motets for two choirs by Pachelbel, Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) and Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694), and the more modern motet, "Ich lasse dich nicht" BMV 159a, formerly attributed to J. Christoph Bach but apparently composed by J.S. Bach. The CD brochure includes the motet texts in the original German and Latin with English translations, and the English translation of Dr. Peter Wollny's program notes. Despite the different covers, the reference number is the same on both the European and American CDs: 05472-77305-2. [Update April 2004: The recording has been reissued on dhm Splendeurs as 82876601642.]

Quite obviously, BMG hoped to capitalize upon the popularity of the Pachelbel Canon by passing off this superb disk of rare vocal works as simply "Pachelbel", which most Americans would equate with a familiar piece of background music often heard at grocery stores and airports. I suspect that this strategy may have backfired, since customers who wanted The Pachelbel Canon, or perhaps 60 minutes of continuous Pachelbel Canon, would have been disappointed to find it missing entirely.

Meanwhile, early music fanciers such as myself have overlooked the disk because it appears at first glance to be commercial junk. BMG's marketing strategy effectively hid this fine product from regular and compulsive purchasers of early music CDs, whose relationship to early music labels such as dhm is equivalent to the relationship of alcoholics to breweries.

BMG made little or no effort to market deutsche harmonia mundi CDs in the US after acquiring the label from EMI-Electrola circa 1990. Nevertheless, I've heard from a person who used to record with dhm that their sales were quite good for CDs of unknown early music performed by little-known artists. However, BMG is a giant record company that used to sell millions of overpriced pop CDs before copying equipment became widely available. The most successful early music "hits" don't come close to the sales of many pop music failures.

BMG cut out most of the dhm catalogue in the U.S. in 1999. I was fortunate to find many dhm disks by groups and artists such as Cantus Cölln, La Stagione, Tafelmusik, La Petite Bande, Capriccio Stravagante, Al Ayre Español, the Consort of Musicke, Gustav Leonhardt, and Andreas Staier at the now defunct Tower Classical store in Yonkers for $4.99 per disk -- just before some merchant apparently discovered and purchased the entire cache. Now only a handful of dhm CDs are officially marketed in the U.S., and most of their artists have moved to other labels.

As for the Pachelbel et al. recording: it's exceptional, as one might expect when the recording engineer is Dr. Thomas Gallia and the performers are Cantus Cölln, in this case featuring Johanna Koslowsky and Maria Cristina Kiehr, sopranos; Graham Pushee and Kai Wessel, countertenors; Gerd Türk, Wilfried Jochens, and Martin Post, tenors; Stephan Schreckenberger and Raimond Nolte, basses; Christoph Anselm Noll, organ; and of course Konrad Junghänel. The motets are performed one-to-a-part in accordance with the research by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott.

All of the music on the disk was new to me, including the motet recently attributed to J.S. Bach. The latter, though short, is quite interesting. It begins in the dotted rhythm of an aria siciliana, with one choir echoing the other. This is followed by a fast second part, in which one choir sings a background chorale.

In "Halt, was du hast", a much longer motet, J. Christoph Bach wove a complementary theme around the chorale "Jesu, meine Freude". In the second part of the motet, the second choir departs from the chorale text and echoes the first choir.

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