Practitioners of 17th- and 18th-century music on old instruments — or replicas of them — have often been condemned tyrannical antiquarians in search of a chimerical authenticity. Rarely recognized for his humor, even though he had great gifts in that department, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno was the cleverest and funniest in his ridicule of what has come to be known as historically informed performance. Soon after the Bach anniversary celebrations of 1950 Adorno characterized the pared down forces of so-called “authentic” performance as having the effect of a “rehearsal which a few musicians have by chance decided to attend.” Adorno dismissed “mechanically squeaking continuo-instruments” such as the harpsichord, and condemned as “pure superstition” the idea that “the shrill and rasping Baroque organs are capable of capturing the long waves of [Bach’s] lapidary, large fugues”
In a number of journalistic sorties later collected in the 1995 book Text and Act, the super gadfly, Richard Taruskin, argued that far from a reanimation of the old, the early music revival was better to be thought as the most modern of musical pursuits, a reflection of our time not of the past.
With Songs of Wars I have seen, an hour-long work written in 2007 and receiving its New York premiere two weeks ago in the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, the German composer Heiner Goebbels has embraced the modernity of early music performance in creative and compelling ways. One of the most inventive and skillful artists of our time, Goebbels’ moving piece both brings into relief and transcends the distinctiveness of modern and early playing techniques and instruments in a work that treats musical and moral themes past and present.
The work was commissioned jointly by the London Sinfonietta, one of the leading chamber orchestras specializing in contemporary music, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a period instrument ensemble also based in London. While many a concert of early music has been done in ad hoc way with both modern and old instruments, Songs of Wars I have seen is, as far as I know, the first large-scale compositional project that involves two leading groups from what were once thought such different musical worlds, though that gap has been closing over recent years.
Goebbels’ imaginative and highly crafted music and his dramatic, but never showy, approach to the “classical” concert—long a bastion of stifling uniformity with regard to repertoire, the controlled behavior of the audience, and the physical involvement of the musicians in the performance—made out of this seemingly unlikely commission a thing of mysterious beauty greater than the sum of its two performing parts.
Not content simply to merge the two groups while exploiting timbral and technical differences between the instruments, Goebbels hit upon an idea that compellingly served the thematic concerns of the work. He divided the musicians by gender, a dichotomy that coincided with old instruments and new ones: the women of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with their antique or replica string instruments (violins, viola, cello bass, and theorbo) as well as a baroque flute and bassoon. This was only a part of the Orchestra; the full band with the men along, had played a program of C. P. E. Bach the night before at Lincoln Center. For the Goebbels premiere, baroque men got the night off. From the Sinfonietta only men were involved—the masculine and martial percussion and brass, as well as the group’s Piano/Keyboard/Sampler player. This platoon was arrayed in a single line on a raised platform at the back of the stage, above the women in front holding their old instruments and arrayed among an assortment of vintage floor and table lamps that gave these female players’ huddled togetherness the feel of a drawing room, sometimes dimly lit. That the women of this baroque band should be Enlightened in this way was a perhaps nothing but a clever coincidence. In another frequent feature of Goebbel’s work, stage lighting effects were coordinated with important musical moments and added a further level of meaning to the intimate illuminations provided the women.
These two groups and two genders were commanded by the precise and powerful Finnish conductor Anu Tali, a diminutive maestra in very high heels. I’m not sure if the composer has specified the sex of the conductor as well, but it seemed eminently correct that control of both ensembles should reset in the hands of a woman.
Is this the first piece of “classical” instrumental music to specify the sex of the performers? To be sure, instrumental performance has long been gendered; 18th and 19th-century girls and ladies were relentlessly enjoined by masculine moralists to avoid putting a flute to the lips or a cello between the legs. As soon as the division of the sexes is laid out so obviously on stage such issues necessarily come to the fore.
But the more immediate reason for the division was the text that inspired the piece and from which it derives its title—Gertrude Stein’s memoir of the Second World War, Wars I Have Seen. She passed the war near Lyons in Vichy France, not an undangerous thing to have done for a lesbian Jewish bohemian. Many of Goebbels’ works involve spoken texts and in Songs of Wars I have seen, excerpts from Stein’s memoir were read with the kind of deadpan repetitive humor characteristic of the author’s prose—and also with English accents of various regional hues—by the members of the Orchestra, turning on their lamps to be able better to see their words. These passages from Stein ranged from the opening pronouncements that “there have always been wars” to complaints about the shortage of sugar and the necessity of making do with honey to the humorous catalog of different national qualities of German, English and French radio announcements.
These reflections, which achieve a kind of universality through observational detail, are interspersed and accompanied by Goebbels’ diverse range of musical styles and affects, from quaking sonorities of both groups playing together, then their music disappearing into the cosmic whir of the sampler before giving way to plaintive theorbo solos of a lushly, almost Iberian, cast near the end of the piece.
Goebbels interleaves with his own 21st-century forays and ruminations movements taken from the 17th-century English composer Matthew Locke’s incidental music of Shakespeare’s Tempest. One of the most literary and aesthetically astute of modern-day composers, Goebbels notes that Shakespeare is a frequent topic of Stein’s writings. Locke’s sound worlds resonated in many directions: suggesting the arts-and-crafts salons of interwar Paris frequented by early music pioneers such as Wanda Landowska, as well as Locke’s own age of still more wars and plague and, most obviously, our own interest in historical revivals. The haunting music, played with highly expressive ensemble spirit and nuance, was a haunting reminder of the timelessness of war and loss. The work closes with a taps-like reverie, both ecstatic and mournful, from the solo (modern) trumpet. The women extinguished their lights and the stage remained in silent darkness until the audience finally felt bold enough to break it with fierce applause.
After this gripping concert the night remained warm and many people were out enjoying it. By the next morning it was cold again and on the radio, the same technology that kept Stein informed in the third of the three wars she lived through, there were predictions of snow and reports of bombs in Libya and more deaths.
This is part 2 of DAVID YEARSLEY’s review of Heiner Goebbels at Alice Tully Hall. The first may be found here.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com