When I was asked, together with Roberto Gini, to organise this Festival of music from the time of the Estensi by the city of Modena, I felt this was a great honour for me, and that I could realise a dream I had for many years. At the same time, I was asked to tell my own experience with “ancient music” and my own history as an “interpreter”: this is what I’m going to do, with the wish – not vain I hope – to divide this dream (partially become true, but for the most part still to realize) with a number of people as great as possible.
Twenty years ago, after my diploma at the conservatoire, when I decided to turn to the so-called “baroque violin”, I thought I could spend a limited period of time specializing, in order to be able to play all repertoire on two different instruments. The truth is that I’m still “specializing”. After more than twenty years, not only I haven’t gone back to play modern violin, but the more I go on, the more I can clearly see the immensity and complexity of the two centuries of music I like to play, the XVII and XVIII centuries. I’ve never had the sensation that I got to know enough about it or to be a “specialist”, and so I continue, on a road that isn’t a motorway, but bifurcates all the time, and the exploration of the different possible ways is long and slow.
Of course, the situation all around has changed a lot: twenty years ago, there were very few of us, without means nor credit, and a generation of music critics – bound to the past and absolutely unprepared to the changes that were coming along – looked at us suspiciously. As extra-parliamentary politicians we were attached to symbol-figures, not many in Italy, and among them Giorgio Pacchioni and Mirko Caffagni from Modena and Luigi Rovighi and Sergio Vartolo from Bologna (to whom I would like to express the esteem and the gratitude of one who hasn’t forgotten.
Twenty years ago, I did my first visit to the Biblioteca Estense: that world – that attracts me and that I love – came out of a magic door. The autographs by Colombi, the decorated manuscripts of Stradella’s cantatas, the miniatures by Galli, the basses by Tonelli and many other treasures made my imagination drunk… even now, when I go back to the Biblioteca Estense, I feel like a child who is told marvelous tales.
But the revival of the interest towards “ancient music” has in the meanwhile become a large phenomenon, popular on a world level, and over this necessity some musical operators should – perhaps – think deeply, because it embodies, in my opinion, the need of a sound “ecology”, of a transparent and human sound, in which the power in decibel shouldn’t be systematically prevailing on beauty and grace and where intonation is pure and perceptible, not always made instable by a continuous variation of a quarter of a tone; a flexible and dynamic sound exactly as human voice is in speaking, in declaiming a language – music itself is a language – not blocked dynamically in the effort of singing or playing at the top of the voice… perhaps, the “old” could become “new” again, enlivening our present. My perception is that present can be more sound if we know well our past and have a good relationship with it: harmony with the past is, in my opinion, the only mean that lets us build an enlightened future. After all, as the philosopher said, we are, us modern people. as dwarves sitting on the shoulders of the giants who lived the past, and it’s only because of this if we have the chance to look further. I don’t believe history is a constant progress: if it had been, wars, poverty, children dying of hunger wouldn’t exist anymore; if it had been so, we wouldn’t be more interested in Giotto’s frescoes ruined by the earthquake than in contemporary painting, and the same medieval frescoes would be considered primitive if compared to those of the Cappella Sistina, that would also be second to Tiepolo’s frescoes, and so on.
So the common mentality according to which “great music” starts with Bach, with particular reference to the XIX century, has its roots in a non-education to listening to “other” music, a lack in knowledge and in familiarity with other musical repertoires, that prevents from a complete appreciation of the different languages, and this is the reason why nowadays in most of the concert societies only music written in the space of 150 years is performed, as if in that time all the essentiality of our cultural heritage was held.
Without judging musical education (it’s hard to believe that, in a country with our artistic history, there isn’t a State school where music from the Middle Ages to the XIX century is taught at a specialist level, and all reforms that don’t take care of this are surely going to be incomplete, making the cultural difference from other countries of the European Community even bigger), I’d say our job also consists in revolting against an interpretative conception flattened by the use of the same aesthetic perspective assumed as a common denominator because considered “more evolved”. The aesthetic perspective is of course conditioned by the instruments used: the instruments – discovered, studied and loved – are those who open to us the ways of artisan techniques, that lead our aesthetic sense and determine borders. The borders: here is something I sometimes don’t understand about the contemporary use of classical instruments. I’m shocked by the violence with which we attack every note, as if the intensity of a performance should be given by the fact of hurling ourselves at something: it’s as if nowadays we express with music nothing else but all of our desperation, the desperation of a century that hasn’t abolished but multiplied wars; it’s as, even when we play music, we should shout loud, louder that the others to impose ourselves on everybody’s attention… I don’t like the idea of putting an enormous burden of tensions on the instrument, and I’ve abandoned this attitude many years ago; this not only by renouncing to the more and more modern and sophisticated violin prosthesis (chin rests and shoulder pads with space designs), but also by not considering the instrument as an external thing, an uncomfortable and artificial appendix on which hurl ourselves. A new perception has come gradually, even with didactic work: we are the instrument, ourselves – not the violin, that is just a mean – and we should tune ourselves inside; we are the string, and we shouldn’t be too loose (we would produce a dull sound) nor too drawn (we would produce a rough and hard sound and risk to break). This is the main difference: nowadays musicians tend to apply a technological culture towards the instrument, and live their relationship with music mostly through their relation with the mean. Ancient musicians studied counterpoint, harpsichord and organ, they used to sing since they were children and studied more than one instrument, even if at last they privileged one, but every musician was able to write music.
At this point – if you are still reading – I would ask your contribute in order to abolish words as “authentic” and “executive praxis” from all speeches of music, because they represent those fences behind which the embarrassed music critics have put – in order to have an easier way of cataloguing – those who are interested in ancient music, as if they were a species to protect (or to hunt) and also and mainly to pity. It’s true that some among us would like to stay behind these fences, but personally I’ve never liked easy labelling too much. Even the term “baroque”, found out in a latter period, is clearly unsuitable to illustrate all that – in different styles, movements and contrasting (sometimes even opposite) currents – has been produced by the culture in more than a century and it’s anyway inadequate when it is preferred to the XVIII century. Often behind these terms a certain sense of discrimination has been hidden, as if it was true that an “authentic” interpretation is only and simply “authentic”, differently from a “true” interpretation of today, like an arrangement that writes again a piece, as it often happens in opera production. The so-called “authentic” work is actually only a preliminary work of study and preparation to interpretation (a personal interpretation is necessary!). Of course who is prepared in a specific way towards a certain work (in an “authentic” way…) gives a different interpretation if compared to who isn’t prepared in the same way.
But have you ever visited an “authentic” exhibition? I think you have rather seen ancient paintings well restored and cleaned from XIX century additions (how many years have passed since Roberto Longhi was speaking about “works of art awfully ruined by added painting”?) or Renaissance frescoes from which ivy leaves prudently covering Adam and Eve’s bareness have been cancelled. So, nowadays, nothing is more normal than wanting to look clearly inside the will and the habits of an author before giving his work our own interpretation.
After twenty years I still feel the stimulus, that imprisons me between a wish I can’t clearly name (perhaps it has many names) and a sort of nostalgia that is projected towards the future… I know what I say isn’t clear, but the fact is that I’m involved in these two centuries of music as in a labyrinth of different tastes, styles and practices, many worlds to explore, to which go back many times in spirals more and more concentric. And I have understood that it’s not possible to arrive to an ending point: the only reward for those who make research is the research itself.
Imagine just one thing: specialised researchers in this field are only now able to tell us exactly what the real thickness of the guts strings used by violin players from the XVII century to the beginning of our century was; these strings are quite different if compared to those normally used by “philological” players. We can then affirm that not even one “baroque” violin record with “authentic” strings has ever been recorded (and even these last words are pure vacuity…).
As you can see, it is necessary to beware of standards, of the satisfying sensation that we have gained certainties that can be labelled. The market has appropriated the “ancient music phenomenon” as all the other phenomena that can interest a large number of people, so it is advisable for those who want to devote themselves to music of the past not to base themselves on commercial products as records, but to build their own interpretative view through a way that doesn’t admit shortcuts. And there we arrive to an unpleasant point: long and tortuous roads are not for us anymore, used as we are to move quickly, to choose the fastest way because we always have very little time (and time is getting less and less). But in art shortcuts don’t exist, or conduct to results we can only appreciate in short term, not for a long time. We should consider if speed is always or not a positive value. And, anyway, the chance to use an airplane doesn’t take away validity to the fact of riding a horse.
Time is necessary: necessary to penetrate the meanings of a musical notation that is always symbolism, poetry or dance and that can be understood by imagination led by knowledge. So: gain knowledge and experience in order to be able to distinguish the order between freedom in interpretation and subjective will. Music shouldn’t be the nail on which we can hang our narcissistic glories. We shouldn’t play certain music because it’s requested by market reasons, but only if we believe in it. It’s better to live on the borders, to force the market, to stimulate people, the many, to know and not only to recognise, and not to believe, that present is more important than the past, because what today is actual and beautiful will be swept away by another century, by another taste, by other interpretative ways…
Then, perhaps, the only thing we can do is to try and find our place in a more general, universal harmony.
When my son (who is 4 now) was born, I tried to imagine the world in which he was going to live, I thought about the future, about the things and the culture he was going to find and by which he would be conditioned and marked, I reflected on the generational differences between him and his grandparents, between him and me, and I wondered: “My God, how will I explain to him that my job regards a culture so “old”? What changes will have taken place in society and mentality when he goes to school and starts having friends with whom compare his life? Will it ever be possible for him to consider his father up-to-date, or will he look at me as an obsolete, backward figure? Could I ever be a “guide” for him?”
The answer hasn’t come.
But I was conscious of the fact that a father has a precise and important role for a child: he has to let him know reality, and so the sense of limit, the structure of thinking, of knowledge, of research.
I looked around me with more attention, and felt we live in a world where we all find it more and more difficult to concentrate: things (often too many) slide beside us or bounce against us because of the fast rhythms with which everything takes place and gets old-fashioned. I thought that teaching how to live is perhaps also to transmit the ability of concentrating on a precise point, the perception that in depth of a drop of water it is possible to contemplate the immensity of the ocean.
One day, together with many others of my generation, I dreamt to change this country, today I believe that, to regenerate the culture and the mentality of a country, even “ancient” music has its own utility and function.
So, in time, I understood that young people don’t look for teachers anymore, but for witnesses.
And then what we can transmit is rather what we are than what we know.