The Viol: History of an Instrument.
Professional musicians who are also professional musicologists are a fairly rare breed and likely to remain so. Quite apart from the philosophical reasons for the separation, which go back far indeed--the divide between theory and practice is inscribed in Western culture with a depth that we ignore at our peril--there are also good practical reasons. Despite the obvious and vital connections between fields, maintaining real credentials in either is a life's work in itself; doing both bespeaks a forbidding aspiration for overachievement. Perforce, most performer/scholars end up located in one camp, making more of less convincing occasional excursions into the other. On the whole, these individuals, like all boundary crossers, do much to enrich the scope of both regions they inhabit. But they also tend to draw tire from both sides.
Without knowing Annette Otterstedt's training and professional affiliations--she does not offer any in her book--I conclude that she has primarily located her career in the world of performance, writing this book about her instruments an excursion into scholarship. I would hazard to say this in part because the book is not just a history, as its English title implies; it is also a practical manual, as the more informative original German title tells us. Otterstedt speaks authoritatively and in detail about matters of technique, style, and instrument maintenance, something one had better not do without extensive practical experience. My conclusion results also from the kind of occasional potshots at musicology that are altogether too easy to find among performers--even, alas, the kind of highly educated performer that she herself clearly is. Thus we have in her introduction.
Th[is] book addresses those readers who would like to learn something about the viol, rather than about musicological technique ... musicology ... is fixated upon written works and sneers at the medium with which they are performed. The discipline is a visual instead of an aural one. Music is treated as a paper-exercise ... (p. 16)
This is the musicology of more than a generation ago, and even at its most entrenched it was never monolithic, never universal. Why do so many intelligent performers persist in repudiating it as if it had been, as if the face of musicology had not changed so radically in embracing praxis? In Otterstedt's case, the question is exacerbated by her frank and repeated reliance on the work of those same older generations, in particular, the pioneering work of Arnold Dolmetsch. She invokes Dolmetsch as part of her generally strong case for returning to the sources--in this case, both the circumstantial evidence of the repertory, and the numerous method books for her instrument published over a span of several centuries. The necessity of doing this is clearly a long-held philosophical conviction on Otterstedt's part, one I applaud, and on the whole she does it well, with originality and panache. I find the middle sections of her book (the second part of part 2, which offers discussions of pitch, tuning, ornamentation and so on, and all of part 3, which deals with finding, setting up, and maintaining a suitable instrument) particularly exemplary for the way they consistently unite historical chapter and verse with practical how-to-do-it. On the basis of these sections I would certainly recommend this book to advanced students of the viol (as well as to students of historical string playing in general, the category into which I, a cellist, fall). Otterstedt offers a fine example of the essential process of engaging with sources oneself, putting them into dialogue with one's ongoing experiences as a player, and thus, gradually, over years, building up the kind of intimate and personal engagement with history that makes for informed and compelling performances.
I would be more hesitant to recommend the book to beginners. To be fair, I doubt that Otterstedt intended the book for them; at one point she remarks, "Early music is an industry that leaves little room for doubt. One of the aims of this book is to disseminate doubt, not for the sake of dissension, but for kindling discrimination and enhancing knowledge" (p. 18)--hardly a remark for an introductory text. Otterstedt is polemical, and perfectly frank about the way a polemical purpose underlies her work. She is not only original in her methodological approach to source work; she is al times also idiosyncratic--an approach more appropriate for mature students. This is most apparent in the earliest sections of the book, in which she provides broad cultural background. Occasionally she offers conclusions that can be, well, startling. The strong opinions to which long experience entitles one sometimes come across as prejudice in matters of cultural context and analysis, and Otterstedt does not supply the nuanced discussion for which some of her assertions beg. Perhaps most unaccountable to me is her repeated dismissal of Italian humanism, which she typically couches in a rather unpleasant tone:
Nothing but the text could make a musical work comprehensible, and a reedyvoiced Humanist reciting an ode to the reedy-voiced lira da braccio, which sent his reedy-voiced friends into raptures, owed his success much less to the music than to a historicising idea of music, which really had hardly anything to do with the music of the period. Malignant though this may sound, it does describe the heart of the matter ... Properly speaking, the sentence "Let the word be mistress of the music," which is ascribed to Monteverdi, but is really older, is nothing less than an insolence. What other art form would have countenanced such cheek? (p. 13)
Or, another example, in the context of' discussing Heinrich Schutz's ill will toward John Price, an English viol player visiting Germany:
Schutz was a Lutheran, that is to say, an earnest German, with the Word and its exegesis always close to his heart; Price, on the other hand, was a sprightly, witty instrumentalist. (p. 38).
This kind of unsupported statement does not disqualify her more nuanced and substantive work with practical matters, but it does make me hesitate to recommend the book as a performer's introduction to integrated and responsible use of sources.
Of course, one might think it inevitable that I, as a cellist, would be put off by a dismissal of Italian humanism, since my instrument and its aesthetic are that movement's direct descendants and beneficiaries. Otterstedt's position is that the viol, to the contrary, was a casualty of this same cultural movement, and the articulation of this position is one of the strongest polemical purposes of her book. She carries this position--what I would call advocacy for a lost or disadvantaged aesthetic--forward into the present day. Her detailed and useful discussion of the history of viol-playing, its schools and trends across the centuries, which makes up part I, culminates naturally in reflections on the current state of the discipline. She does not mince words:
Modern viol-playing has meantime become dominated by a style of "machismo," which is absurdly at odds with this elegant chamber instrument. This was graphically illustrated in the film "Tous le matins du monde," in which a perspiring Gerard Depardieu, in close-up in the character of Marin Marais, gave a creditable impression of a man lifting heavy furniture ... this performance should have brought the blush of shame to every violist's face. (pp. 102-31
In this case I am thoroughly in sympathy; I spent much of this film staring at the ground because I could not stand to watch the ill-judged contortions of the actors. But Otterstedt goes much further; she also disapproves of the sounds produced in that film, finding them too clean, too articulate, and not truly characteristic of her instrument:
Today the viol is in a desperate situation, for it is not itself. Its musical condition is that of a derivative of the violoncello . . . this dependence has prevented a musical language proper to the viol from evolving, both in terms of ensemble balance with the bass in the leading role and in the sound of the instrument itself. With depressing predictability [it] keeps aspiring back to a totally un-viol-like sound of robust clarity with no accidental noise components, which is really that of the modern violin family.... (p. 259)
Despite the fact that I adore the soundtrack to Tous les matins (TF1 Video , DVD), and am a rabid fan of Jordi Savall (of whose playing in the film Otterstedt is politely disapproving), I find Otterstedt thought-provoking in this regard. It is quite possible that things are indeed as she says, and that the current sonic aesthetic (of which that soundtrack is such a shining example) has relatively little to do with the historical sound of the viol. As she puts it "[t]he historical sound of viols is not 'beautiful' in the modern sense, that is, low-noise and uncomplicated" (p. 259). She is adept at marshalling chapter and verse to support her contention, quoting to good effect from Mersenne, "But the sound of percussion which the viols make has also something rude in it, containing a little acerbity, & a little hardness, & which is not yet sufficiently purified for the delicate ear ..." (p. 259; trans. of Marin Mersenne, Harmonie universelle [Paris: chez Sebastien Cramoisy, 1636-37], bk. 1, proposition 4, p.13).
In the peroratio of her book, Otterstedt uses this valuable and provocative observation to suggest that "we must relearn to appreciate the quality of sound." This is well and good. There are few things more profoundly valuable than learning to question the sonic preferences we take for granted, and I would go so far as to assert that one of the most useful aspects of the whole early music movement has been in the way it invites--or incites--us to do exactly that. Otterstedt is, however, rather despairing about the current landscape in dais regard: "[E]arly music could have been a very good vehicle really, if only we had not thought of technical perfection and our own fun . . . what love there is to be discovered [among modern-day early music musicians] is not so much the love of our subject as a love of our own images" (p. 262).
Well, here we are again: historical performance is not about history at all, but about ourselves. The crucial question here, post-Taruskin, is, do we really expect that it could be otherwise? Otterstedt is a fighter (or she is perverse). She does expect this; it is the premise of her book: "All those who think this can bring the viol up to date are welcome to it; by the same token, they ought to acknowledge without pride or prejudice that those accustomed to more substantial, less standardized, fare do not share the taste" (p. 262). I too have long been a professional performer in early music, and while I admire her fierceness, I am no longer able to share it. Indeed, I must deplore the value judgment to which she devolves here, and I have come to feel that there must be more intellectual flexibility if the nexus between history and performance is to thrive in the long term.
Speaking from a North American perspective, I think the decision to publish this book in English was a smart one. As excellent as are the Cambridge University Press guides, alternate performance practice viewpoints to the British ones are useful and timely. There is, however, one further level at which this book is idiosyncratic, and it is a profound and systemic one: the translation, It does not appear that a native English speaker was involved in the "englishing" of this book--there is no mention of it in the acknowledgments. The result is frankly more than a little peculiar, for there are numerous odd locutions and occasional excursions into a weird kind of nary-colloquiality (I had to use the dictionary at some points to follow her). It is the kind of thing that is charming in live speech, and it does add to the book's already colorful nature. But in combination with the determined perversity of some of the cultural contextualization, it puts the book squarely off the map as a contribution to serious music scholarship. I fear it will activate the prejudice of the musicologist camp--it activated mine in quite a few places--and thus tend to deepen rather than heal the sad divide of which she has written, that between musicology and performance.
ELISABETH LEGUIN University of California, Los Angeles
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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