This spring has been teeming with a dizzying profusion of riches for the lover of early music in the Northeast. In April Carnegie Hall launched “Before Bach,” a month-long festival of Renaissance and Baroque music performed by the the most admired international groups and soloists in the field. Since this was an “on” year for The Boston Early Music Festival, an equally distinguished group of regulars and visitors just now packed about the same amount of musical activity into a week, supplemented by hosts of mostly outstanding comprimarii in its Fringe. This coming weekend BEMF’s western coda, consisting of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and his Orfeo, both performed in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, will overlap with the first weekend of one of the oldest festivals of early music, Aston Magna.
L’Orfeo is a performer’s piece. Composed at a time when the composition of music meant something quite different to what it does now, or in the 19th Century, though certain aleatory pieces of the 20th Century left very much of the act of creation to the performer these do seem to be considered somewhat freakish by many — to many programmers of concerts and some in audiences in particular — and popular opinion now gives very rigidly defined roles to composer and performer, to the point that many expect a very narrow field of professional activities of each. Perhaps it is partly the force of professional specialization which seems so strong nowadays, especially in the sciences. We wouldn’t want to turn into a race of Fachidioten, though.
One day Beethoven got up and went to the house of Dorothea Ertmann, a woman he clearly loved. Her child had died. She had lost her ability to speak. The composer sat at the fortepiano and played for her a concert of late Beethoven that no one else will ever hear. She began to speak. Beethoven thought of music as a changer of things—a power—at its most powerful, a healer. The tale insists that Beethoven spoke no word to Dorothea. Anecdote? There is good evidence. And think of that other more important evidence—the motto he wrote at the top of the Missa Solemnis: “from the heart, may it go to the heart.” Think of the fundamental importance that actual physical sound had for Beethoven, how he relates in the Heiligenstadt Testament that losing his ability to hear made him suicidal. (Think of this also the next time you hear an expert say that he can hear the Beethoven 9th better reading the score than he can in the concert hall.) What healed Dorothea was a performance. The whole occasion was about sound. She made none, Beethoven made the sacred sounds; she spoke.
In his study of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, John Wenham quotes the musicologist Denis Arnold:
“No doubt all professions have their hazards; and for the student of Monteverdi the principal one is surely that musicological Lorelei, the Vespers (of 1610, of course). To edit it is to receive the kiss of death as a scholar. To perform it is to court disaster. To write about it is to alienate some of one’s best friends. Even to avoid joining in the controversy is to find oneself accused of (i) cowardice, or (ii) snobbishness, or (iii) sitting on the fence, or (iv) all three.”
What is it that makes the Vespers so problematical? A brief historical background will help the reader and listener to understand.
One of the happy results of the economic crisis—and there have been some—was this important and delightful production of one of the greatest of operas, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. BEMF’s original plan, in keeping with their policy of devoting their operatic performances to spectacular stagings of rarely performed, ambitious works, was to present Antiochus und Stratonica (1708) by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760). At the very least Poppea would need only some forty odd people on stage, as opposed to over a hundred in the Graupner, and no machinery, large choruses, or dancers. Poppea was also BEMF’s first repetition of an opera: They staged it at the very first festival in 1981. BEMF has performed numerous important operas, but, if any opera deserves revisitation, it is Poppea. In fact, as brilliant and as successful as this production was, Poppea presents so many problems to specialists, as well as to audiences, that no single production can solve them all, and I can only hope that the people behind this production, above all Gilbert Blin and Ellen Hargis, as well as the musical principles, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, will have an opportunity to return to it at least once again in their careers, to develop and refine their insights, which were both intellectually trenchant as well as blessed with common sense of the best kind. The Seattle Ring, Caramoor’s Semiramide, and this Poppea show how much there is a lot to be gained by respecting the composer’s intentions and the conventions of his time. In my enthusiasm I saw the production twice. I’d venture to say that they got it right.
One easily understands the international acclaim BEMF has garnered. After four years of following these performers as they eagerly mount these ancient dramas, I am always astonished at their musical excellence and enterprise—something unprecedented in the world of early music.