- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Historical Performance in Music ed. by Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell
This book offers a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on historical performance, which has increased significantly over the last three decades. It will be a helpful resource for the growing number of musicians who, even if they are firmly grounded in a contemporary tradition of performance, are increasingly conscious that these issues are not merely relevant for musicians using period instruments, but also for all who engage with historical repertory, which is now understood to include that of the first half of the twentieth century.
The chosen content of the Cambridge Encyclopedia encompasses the following categories of article: historical musicians who have contributed significantly to the performance theory of their own time (e.g. Leopold Mozart); more recent, but not contemporary, musicians who became involved with performance issues in older repertory (e.g. Pablo Casals); later twentieth- and twenty-first-century [End Page 581] performing-practice scholars, practitioners, and ensembles (e.g. Frederick Neumann, Emma Kirkby, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment); musical instruments; types of ensemble and ensemble practices (e.g. Orchestra and orchestral placement); technology (e.g. Phonograph); topics (e.g. Oral tradition, Improvisation and Unwritten Performance Practices), particular practices (e.g. Fingering, Vibrato). The editors themselves undertook the task of providing numerous informative entries, Lawson on wind instruments and related issues, and Stowell on matters connected with upper string instruments. More than a hundred other contributors lent their valuable expertise to the project. Coverage is wide, but cannot of course be exhaustive, and users will occasionally look in vain for something they might think should be there. They may also take issue with particular opinions or perhaps, infrequently, question the accuracy of particular statements. It would be invidious, however, to criticize individual articles; some factual discrepancies are unavoidable in an undertaking of this size, and some areas of the discipline still merit more focused basic research.
Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell have set out their aims and objectives for the book in an informative Editors' Preface, which not only details criteria for the inclusion of particular categories of entry, but also serves to locate the Encyclopedia in its present-day historical context. Although much of the material the book contains is factual, and therefore not subject to change, much also reflects the current, yet continually evolving, state of scholarship, where interpretations of the evidence are often influenced by stylistic preconceptions; these are sometimes determined more by practical exigencies in the contemporary world of musical performance than by objective evaluation. As the editors observe: 'Modern musical life has certainly dictated a virtuosity and flexibility that incorporates some decidedly unhistorical elements. Importantly, we are naturally selective in our interpretation of the evidence' (p. xvii). In 1991, in an article about recorded performances of Beethoven's symphonies, I suggested that listeners were being offered 'attractively packaged but unripe fruit' ('Historical Performance, Metronome Marks, and Tempo in Beethoven's Symphonies', Early Music, 19 (1991), 248), a phrase quoted in the title of a thought-provoking article by Colin Lawson in 2008 ("'Attractively Packaged but Unripe Fruit": The UK's Commercialization of Musical History in the 1980s', Performance Practice Review, 13/1). To a large extent this situation has not changed significantly, though there seems to be a growing awareness of these issues among established performers and teachers. Especially among young musicians, too, there is a real willingness to engage with unfamiliar, but historically well-documented practices that encourage a less strict observance of the musical text and therefore more creative freedom. In a few fairly recent cases, musicians have been bold enough to put these to the test of public approval in recordings that challenge conventional contemporary attitudes towards the notated text. The Encyclopedia's editors, as well as contributors, are certainly aware of the constraints imposed by the prevailing imperatives to deliver polished performances that conform to an accepted norm; in order to maintain a successful brand...