I have to admit that I’ve never loved the “historically informed performance” movement. This is the whole scheme of playing the music of the Baroque and Classical eras, on musical instruments of that era, in (what is supposed to be) the style of that era. The movement is about as old as I am, and become mainstream in the classical music world. I’ll concede that the “period performance” movement has had a corrective effect on some 20th century excesses. However, I still prefer Bruno Walter’s Beethoven to Norrington’s, and Szerying’s Tartini to Wallfisch’s. But, a recent scientific breakthrough may lead me to change my mind.
To be completely honest, I’ve got several problems with the “authenticity” thing. Some minor issues are that I just don’t think Locatelli was that great; that the players usually play too darn fast; that vibrato is, in fact, a good thing, and so on. There’s a larger philosophical issue—we simply can’t recreate 18th century performance style. The 20th century is a complete anomaly in the history of humanity and music, in that sound (and performance practice) is no longer ephemeral, but the performances of Mozart and Bach—the sounds they made—are lost forever.
However, the biggest problem I have with “authenticity” is the instruments. I simply don’t like the way they sound. I hate the timbre of the harpsichord, and “fortepianos” sound like John Cage’s “prepared” pianos and can’t stay in tune. I’ve played excellent baroque violins, and they’re interesting, but there are reasons that just about every Strad and Guarneri and Amati has been modified to modern spec and played with a modern bow. To my ears, authentic instruments don’t sound good, so imagine my surprise when I found that problem is with my ears, or what’s around them.
A really neat paper came out recently about the interplay of acoustics, acoustical aesthetics, and fashion. The lead author, D. Avril Poisson, is more noted as a researcher in the biological sciences, but like the noted geneticists Jacques Monod and James Crow, she is an accomplished amateur string player. Like me, she had always been irritated by the sound of “period” instruments, and like me, she had always assumed the problem was with the unique timbre of the instruments—their signature collection and arrangement of overtones.
The bolt of lightning that inspired her to change her mind was quite literal: it fried a transformer at an electrical substation near her workplace, Miskatonic University, one evening last winter. Dr. Poisson is as dedicated to her art as she is to her science, so the evening’s rehearsal of the Miskatonic Pro(-Am) Musica went on according to schedule, in a chilly room lit by candlelight. Dr. Poisson found herself wearing a sort of hunter’s cap with earflaps and LED lights in the visor so she could read her score, and found that her viola sounded radically different. The ear flaps, though they did not cover her ears, seemed to amplify certain frequencies of sound from her viola and quench others, and her modern instrument took on a radically different character.
As soon as she could, Dr. Poisson borrowed one of her fellow enthusiast’s violins—a 2003 reproduction of an Andrea Amati in its “original” condition with gut strings and a baroque bow, and played it with a variety of headgear, ranging from the hunter’s cap to a sombrero. Although, to her ears, the fiddle never sounded great, it sounded quite different with each topper—different enough to spark a possible breakthrough in “authentic” practice.
Collaboration with Amy Vieuxtemps, a historian, and some creative work with a costumer provided Dr. Poisson with a variety of periwigs and perukes such as might have been worn in the time of Bach and Handel. These all featured curls of stiffened wool immediately adjacent to the wearer’s ears, and unsurprisingly, radically altered the wearer’s impression of modern and baroque violins. Dr. Poisson found, to her surprise and delight, that the annoying features of the baroque violin’s timbre vanished when she wore a gentleman’s wig of the late-17th century German style. The fiddle sounded great.
Dr. Poisson, a noted experimentalist, realized that this was an extremely subjective observation, and so, set about to gather some data. She rigged up a manikin with microphones and a variety of wigs, and collected sound spectra of several modern and baroque violins. She was able to identify certain clusters of tones that the wigs filtered out, and others that they seemed to amplify. The result was not surprising, given what anatomists knew about the effect of different shapes of bats’ ears on their sound perception. Also, the result was robust enough that she developed a computerized filter that could be fed a digital waveform from a baroque violin, and would produce a “wigged” version of the sound. In a blind survey of the 107 Miskatonic students enrolled in a music history class, 83 preferred the “wigged” baroque violin to the “naked” fiddle. Similar results were obtained with a reproduction of a 1691 Flemish harpsichord, and the university’s prized 1780 Stein fortepiano.
There is some fodder here for historians of fashion. Ornate wigs were absolutely required for men of any standing in society from the mid-1600s on. Fashion, driven by royal vanity, is usually cited as one reason, along with the desirability of a shaven pate and removable hair in a milieu rife with head lice. Along about 1800, such wigs rapidly become intensely unfashionable (outside of the English legal system). Given the eternal nature of both royal vanity and parasites, the reason for the wig’s demise has long been a mystery.
At the same time wigs were on the way out, Francois-Xavier Tourte revolutionized the design of the violin bow, giving the instrument much more power, and the violins of the Cremonese masters were having their necks replaced and strings tensioned. John Broadwood was expanding the length and width of the piano, balancing the increased tension of the strings on a stronger, cast-iron frame, and harpsichords generally became kindling.
According to Poisson and her colleagues, this synchrony is no coincidence. I have been taught that the interplay between composer/performer and instrument builder was a closed cycle: the musician wanted more powerful instruments, driving to the builder to make a more powerful instrument. Then, the instrument maker built something with even more oomph, and the composer expanded his vision to encompass it. Poisson suggests the radical hypothesis that this vicious cycle also killed the periwig, as, by 1800 its major use (according to her) was as an acoustic filter. The itchy, unpleasant thing was no longer necessary and was summarily discarded.
Although fashion is constantly recycling old ideas and calling them new, it is unlikely that the clock will roll back far enough for the powdered periwig to re-enter the mainstream. The fashion of playing the music of the Baroque on unimproved instruments is also unlikely to perish (especially since so much money has been invested in modern reproductions of these instruments). I am always hopeful that I will be able to enjoy such performances, but must I go and get a wooly wig?
Not to worry. Poisson, in conjunction with the global mega-instrument maker Yarnaha, has developed a product called “BarokEerz.” These are a disposable, clip-on set of curls made of synthetic fibers that can be worn to any event featuring period performance practices. The concept is on firm scientific, artistic, and financial ground. Yamaha acousticians have confirmed that BarokEerz exactly replicate the acoustic effect of a periwig, and can even be specially tuned to maximize enjoyment of music from the early Baroque through the late classical period and account for variations between Italian, German, French, and English fashion. Endorsements have been secured from a variety of the most pure-minded and rigorous period performers. And, they are inexpensive enough that they can be included in the price of a ticket to any major concert venue. I look forward to hearing the Baroque with fresh ears—or, though I shudder at the spelling, Eerz.
Poisson, D. Avril, and Amy Vieuxtemps (2013). Acoustic and Perceived Timbre-Modifying Effects of 17th-18th century Gentlemen’s Wigs. J. Hist. Informed Perf. 33: 430-440.
Kuc, R., (2010). Morphology Suggests Noseleaf and Pinnae Cooperate to Enhance Bat Echolocation. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 128 (5): 3190-3199.
Poisson, D. Avril, and Bella Sone (2013). Wigger: A Software Package for Modernizing Ancient Instruments. Proc. Southeast. Indiana Acoust. Soc. (A), 12: 72-77.
Yarnaha (2013). You’ve Never Heard Baroque Music Before—Hear It With New Eerz! [Press Release]