Out of the Shadows

Monday, 8 November 2021

No interpretation is the correct one. At the same time, with the resources that we have in front of us, it would seem churlish not to make the effort to try to understand what the composer meant

Frederick Waxman conducting Figure at their inaugural concert, St John Passion, Sept 2021 (Photo Oliver Bowring and Musicarta Media)

Figure – a newly formed HP ensemble for the post-Covid era

Frederick Waxman, artistic director and founder of Figure, introduces the ethos behind his new ensemble in advance of the group's concert on 19 November 2021 performing Mozart's Gran Partita with oboist Leo Duarte at the church of St Bartholomew the great.

The past eighteen months have been challenging for musicians. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us in the performing arts into a long sabbatical (and a year and a half is a very long time if you’re in your mid-twenties) with only the occasional moment of respite. On top of that, Brexit has made most of the traditional models of touring impossible. Emerging from lockdown, it seemed right to form a new group – a fresh start – and being a young musician myself, I wanted to create an ensemble that comprised performers of my own generation. Historical performance is without a doubt increasingly at the fore of contemporary music making and the rising fourth generation of historical musicians has a new legitimacy and centrality. Figure will explore a wide range of repertoire through the historical lens, music from the Renaissance to the beginning of Modernity, while championing talented up-and-coming musicians.  

It is almost impossible to perform traditional concert repertoire today without acknowledging the historical movement. It used to be thought that there was an unbroken tradition of performance, that because we have not stopped playing Beethoven since Beethoven played Beethoven we know what he wanted, but we recognise now that the tradition is fallible. Each generation add a layer of unwritten interpretation onto a score and radical changes have happened to instruments and technique in the intervening time. Critical performance is now integrated into the conservatoires, where musicians are encouraged to modify their playing style according to repertoire even if they don’t go so far as to change what they’re playing on. The legacy of the earlier generations of historical performers – Hindemith, Harnoncourt – is to introduce historicity to music, the idea that composers of different eras wrote music with different instruments and performing conventions in mind. This comes with profound musical implications – as Bruce Haynes writes, “when you say something differently, you say something different”. On the other hand, the legacy of musicologists Richard Taruskin and John Butt is to undermine this historicity, to demonstrate that authenticity as an end in itself is unreachable. We reconstruct lost performance practices from unreliable sources and a few surviving original instruments, and we are forced to fill in the gaps in our findings with our own intuitions of what the music ought to sound like. Playing Bach like Jascha Heifetz is no longer an option for a young violinist, but playing Bach like Bach is not possible. We cannot play on modern instruments with an entirely clear conscience, even if we know that historical ones are a fudge. Music is by nature ephemeral, and no performance can be truer than another. Similarly, no interpretation is the correct one. At the same time, with the resources that we have in front of us, it would seem churlish not to make the effort to try to understand what the composer meant. They cannot be ignored – Willie Nelson sings, “what did you think all them saddles and boots was about?”

Rather than specialising on a particular repertoire, with Figure, I want to perform music by a range of composers from different places and periods. In a nutshell, historical performance is contextualisation – music is best understood by understanding its development, both in terms of instruments and ideas, across time and place. Beyond the material differences in instruments, music prior to the 19th century had a very different place in society and set of aesthetic principles to that which is currently has. In his 1767 Dictionnaire de musique, Rousseau quotes Fontenelle’s witty remark on abstract music – “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” (“Sonata, what do you want from me?”), but less than a century later, Schopenhauer describes it as a “direct expression of innermost being”. Our contemporary view (consider Sontag – music is the “most alive of all the arts”) is in many ways highly Romantic, and to get out of our own unexamined mindset is the essential task at hand.  With an appreciation and understanding of the evolution of music as a whole we are better able to get inside the mind of any particular composer.

We launched the group with a concert of Bach’s St John Passion at our home St Bartholomew-the-Great. Bach is an icon for period performance, and the St John is a work which is the apotheosis of his style, dramatic and beautiful, and offering resurrection. Oboist Leo Duarte leads the ensemble in our second performance, Mozart’s Gran Partita, the composer at his most joyful and sublime, on the 19th of November.

Frederick Waxman

Tickets are available via www.figureensemble.co.uk. 

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