Pitching in the wrong direction?
The week before Christmas I was working on my studio extension project to the accompaniment of Radio Three’s Breakfast programme when a recording of He Shall Feed His Flock from the Messiah was played. If I recall correctly, the conductor was Leopold Stokowski. Unsurprisingly then, it was a heavily romanticised and massively scored performance a universe away from the kind of historically informed baroque most of us expect to hear today. Above all, it was SLOW. Laboriously, painfully and comically slow in my view. So slow, in fact, that an individual minim was almost long enough to make a cup of tea!
Apparently, this particular playing was a listener’s suggestion or request. I’m not sure what Petroch Trelawny really thought, but one of his justifications for the choice was that the recording now constituted part of the historical record. Indeed it did. It showed us how the Messiah was conceived and received during the earlier part of the twentieth century. The existence of such recordings is certainly an important part of the evidence trail in music history. For me, there is an immediate and obvious parallel to be drawn with the old 78rpm recordings of boy sopranos and the choirs they sang in, such as London’s Temple Church under Thalben-Ball. Boys today sound very different and listeners unused to the pre-war boy sound can show reactions similar to my own on hearing Stokowski’s Messiah interpretation.
I am avoiding the vexed question of right and wrong in this, though I do wonder whether anybody would want to recreate a Stokowski performance with a modern orchestra and choir (assuming they could get one big enough!) What status do we afford those scholars, instrument makers and musicians who have given us performances that we believe are much closer to the sounds witnessed by Handel or Bach?
This questioning brings me to my main point of a thought experiment that some will consider heretical, no doubt. The experiment is this. Suppose a successor of Petroch Trelawny were to play, fifty years into the future, a recording of, let’s say a Taverner Mass or maybe even Parsons’ exquisite Ave Maria by a choir such as The Sixteen or the Clerkes of Oxenford? Would breath be drawn or amusement be occasioned by the shrill, high pitch? Lest a burning at the stake be threatened, let me defend myself by quoting in full the last paragraph of Andrew Johnstone’s paper on how the Early English Organ Project has put another large nail into the coffin of the high pitch hypothesis
To many of the church musicians for whom early Anglican works are now core repertory, the present revelations about the original pitch of those works will probably not be very welcome news. Transpositions of the Fellowes type are by now so familiar and firmly established that they have acquired a time-honoured authenticity of their own that will be difficult, and perhaps even undesirable, to shake off. To scholars, editors and authentically minded performers, however, the Early English Organ Project has made it abundantly clear that transposition by a minor 3rd does not represent early Anglican music as it was in the beginning.
Now is there a right and wrong to this or is it entirely a question of taste in a world of cultural relativism? I came across this interesting reply to a query about pitch standards for boys’ voices on the ACDA’s Choralnet
When Tudor church music, after a long period of neglect, once again started to take its place in the cathedral repertoire it wasn’t very popular. The problem was that the editions being printed often pitched anthems far too low creating a muddy, lifeless quality. Modern scholarship has corrected this problem, but it is a far from an exact science simply because there was no standardization of pitch.
This, too, is now an historical document because, of course, the “modern scholarship” to which it refers is no longer modern. The scholarship of today has corrected the upward transposition error of the scholarship believed to be “modern” by the writer. But why this belief that a lower pitch is “muddy” and “lifeless”? This belief does persist and it undoubtedly fuels the enthusiasm of those who would create the Wulstan sound in their own choirs. Perhaps it is a question of taste, but I would see it also as a questioning of open-mindedness and conditioning. Have we been heading in the wrong direction for several decades with regard to the interpretation of renaissance choral music?
I recently came across a very beautiful recording of Parsons’ Ave Maria sung by Phillip Cave’s Magnificat choir at lower pitch. The Sixteen begin on Ab3, as indeed do King’s Cambridge in a 1994 recording. Cave begins a minor third lower on F3. Does this sound “muddy” and “lifeless”? Not at all to my ears! There is an exquisite, rich and prayerful sonority that is missed by high pitch performances. Have your high pitch if you must, but open your minds to what we increasingly believe was the pitch the music was actually sung at when it was composed, and let the scales of “muddy” and “lifeless” fall away!
My one big regret, of course, is that there are no boys performing like this today. Yet.
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