October 29 - November 2, 1986


by Howard Serwer

The 1986 Maryland Handel Festival continues what has come to be a fruitful partnership between scholarship and performance. Performers have striven to increase their understanding of Handel and his world and scholars have increased their understanding of the realities of performance. Indeed, it could be said that our ideal is to eliminate that dichotomy whereby performers were (or were said to be) uninterested in scholarship and musicologists were (or were thought to be) uninterested in serving the serious performer's efforts to do justice to great works of musical art. Of course, we are not alone in trying to bring performers and scholars closer together, but this year's festival attempts to make a further contribution to this goal by sponsoring a conference on "Editing Baroque Music: Handel as Paradigm."

The music lover may fairly ask, "Why does music have to be edited? Didn't the great composers write down their compositions as they intended them to be played?" The answer to the second question is "no". Lest we be surprised at this, we must remember that musical notation is at best a very inexact aide-mémoire. How loud is loud? How soft is soft? The composer, who usually controlled the performance knew, and that was all that mattered. In the eighteenth century, as in popular music today, little or no thought was given to the problems posterity might have with inexact notation. Furthermore, composers, especially composers of theatrical works, often were (and still are) under very great time pressure and could be more than a little sloppy. Handel might indicate that the flutes and oboes are to play softly in a certain passage but at the same time forget to ask the violins to do the same -- or did he forget? Perhaps he intended just what he wrote? Turning to a similar passage in the same piece we might find that here he did call for the violins to play softly. Was the notation of the first passage defective or did Handel really intend variety?

Local custom affected performance, but in, say, London in Handel's time, musicians shared and understood a set of performance conventions and for that reason found it unnecessary to write down certain things. For example, it was generally assumed that pieces began loudly (but not too loudly) unless otherwise indicated. Therefore most pieces from this period have no dynamic markings at their beginnings. Today we must add "F" (forte or loud) because performers might not know the eighteenth-century convention. The simple part of music editing consists of correcting what we take to be mistakes; the hard part is deciding how much to change the old notation to make it conform to modern convention.

There can, for example, be too much editing, and in the past, much old music was over-edited. Editors tried to dress up eighteenth-century music in nineteenth-century clothes in an effort to make Haydn sound like Brahms. Others put in editorial marks based on their assumptions about contemporary performance conventions. At times such assumptions have proved wrong. For some music teachers none of this mattered much because they taught their students to play pieces the way their teacher had taught them -- never mind what the edition said.

In time, performers of sensitivity, of scholarly bent, or both, found that much was wrong with the old editions, and realized they had to go to the original manuscripts to find out what the composer wrote. This gave rise to a reaction in which music was issued more or less as the composer left it, but such editions were only useful to the specialist who understood the performance conventions of the time. Editors and publishers now found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. If they provided performance indications in their editions, such could turn out to be wrong; if they provided none, only the specialist could use the editions. For the Maryland Handel Festival and similar performances, we start with notation as close to Handel's original as we can get, and then for our performances (but not with intent to publish) mark it up for the performers.

This year's major work, Saul, continues our cycle of Handel's English oratorios. Apart from being one of the greatest of music dramas, Saul is an instance where it is impossible, without considerable work, to establish a text that is historically defensible. The two modern editions of the oratorio differ both in significant point and in matters of detail, and because we decided to present (or more exactly, approximate) the work as Handel presented it during its first run, we had to make many changes in the published versions. Furthermore, as is typical, we have had to make scores of performance decisions for ourselves because in many cases, Handel did not quite tell us what he intended. Anthony Hicks' article, "Handel's Saul, " explains how we made one of the most important of those decisions: who is to sing the role of David?

On Saturday, November 1 at 6:30 p.m. in Marie Mount Hall, University Community Concerts in association with the Maryland Handel Festival will present a panel discussion chaired by Robert Aubry Davis introducing the music to be performed that evening by The English Concert under the direction of Trevor Pinnock. Admission to the panel discussion is free.

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