Smaro Gregoriadou

Home arrow ARTICLES arrow Authenticity


Searching the Way in transcribing and interpreting early music


From the booklet notes of the recording: Smaro Gregoriadou: reinventing guitar! - DELOS 3398


In examining reliable ways to interpret early music, we are led to the question of “authenticity”. What did period instruments really sound like? Do they represent real authenticity?


From the Middle Ages onwards, each category of instruments was characterised by an inexhaustible variety in shapes, tunings, tone colour, and number and quality of strings. Considerable differentiations in construction existed between instruments of different countries, as also from maker to maker within the same area, since luthiers, having been from the Renaissance associated in competitive craft guilds with high standards of proficiency, usually shielded their know-how in a hermetic secrecy. All early instruments that have managed to survive the ravages of time and were used by ongoing generations of musicians -even those instruments that have lasted until the present time- have during the centuries undergone so serious a change in construction and social role, that we can only make assumptions on how they initially sounded. Early theoretical treatises and pictorial instrumental depictions have been frequently distorted, misunderstood or used symbolically. Music scores do not provide an accurate means of comprehension of early music, mainly designated as they were for the first –and most often than not the single– performance of a cantata or mass, which was given in the presence of the composer himself and was subject to changes depending on the taste of the soloists or maestros who would interpret the same work afterwards and who, especially in the Baroque era, were considered as second composers. Additionally, the laconic proportions of a Bach or Händel masterwork do not anymore fit into the huge concert halls of a modern metropolis, and today’s audiences do not hear as in Frescobaldi or Purcell’s time, since their sound sensations and perceptions have been enriched with such a wide sound experience, as Romantic, Impressionistic, Dodecaphonic and electronic music, not to mention the noisy sounds of today. In the gap that finally divorces the modern listener from early performance, the evolution of technology that has made contemporary instruments able to surpass important disadvantages of older ones obviously contributes: plucked instruments’ tiny sound, winds’ weak intonation, strings’ lack of resistance and tonic accuracy.


“…It is our present we are interpreting…” Ferruccio Busoni writes in ‘Selbst-Rezension’: “One follows a great example most faithfully by not following it: for an example becomes great when it deviates from the one preceding it”. Paul Hindemith writes in his essay on Bach: “It is not enough for us to use a harpsichord as continuo instrument. We must string our string instruments differently; we must construct our wind instruments with the scalings of the time; and we must even recreate the relationship of choir pitch and chamber pitch in the tuning of our instruments”. Paul Henry Lang , the distinguished music thinker, wrote on the subject: “It is fair to conclude that old instruments and the playing on them do not necessarily represent real authenticity, for there is a significant gap between the ideal and the possible; we must temper what may be historically desirable by what is practically and aesthetically reasonable in order to realize the composer’s aims and intentions, even those he could not always carry out with the means available to him. It is always our present we are interpreting, but we are doing so by looking into the past. The question is that of new approaches, not only the solving of old riddles and problems”.


How, indeed have important composers treated the work of their predecessors if not by “reinventing” it in many different ways! Bach made changes to Palestrina and Mendelssohn to Bach. Mozart re-instrumented Händel; Grieg harmonically enriched Mozart sonatas; Mahler recomposed Weber; and Bach’s recitativi are interpreted in full instrumentation nowadays. Every genuine composer perceives old masters’ work through his spontaneous artistic judgment as through his era’s eyes, in the same way as every new historic period reserves for Œdipus, Antigone or Prometheus a view afresh.