Sunday, May 22, 2011


The early music scene is hit by a disease: percussionitis. The symptom is the use of percussion instruments in music where the composer didn't prescribe them. This disease seems contagious, as within a couple of months I have heard at least three discs where the performers have fallen victim to percussionitis. And I wouldn't be surprised if they are not the last.

Being confronted with this disease I have gone back in time and searched in my reviews. I found several other examples from the last five years or so where I noted the same symptoms. Little could I imagine that it would become a serious disease in only a couple of years.

There is no doubt that percussion instruments have been used in Western music since old times. In his book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance David Munrow devotes a chapter to this subject, and he refers here to a book by James Blades, Percussion Instruments and Their History. Munrow emphasizes that we know very little about how exactly percussion instruments were used. His statement that they were likely used in dance music seems plausible, and I assume that is also the case in later periods in music history. But at the same time he urges to be cautious about using iconography as evidence of percussion being used in sacred music as well.

In the baroque era timpani were almost the only kind of percussion which were added now and then to the orchestra. They were used in operas, for instance by Lully, and in ceremonial and festive music, like settings of the Te Deum. If trumpets were included in the orchestra, timpani were mostly added as well. There is also some large-scale liturgical music, for instance from Austria in the late 17th century, which also has parts for timpani.

The fact that composers did not indicate the use of percussion in their music doesn't totally exclude the possibility that in actual performances percussion instruments were used. Scorings don't always reveal the whole truth. But if performers feel the need to add percussion, they should at least argue why this is plausible. They have to come up with sound arguments, based on historical research. So far I haven't seen such arguments, and mostly the decision to add percussion isn't argued at all.

The most horrible example of misjudged use of percussion is the disc with "Love Songs" by Henry Purcell. It contains mostly extracts from music for the stage, performed by Dorothee Mields and the Lautten Compagney Berlin, directed by Wolfgang Katschner. It is worth quoting Michael Wersen in his liner-notes regarding the performance of the Chaconne from The History of Dioclesian (I use the translation in the booklet): "There is a tradition of composing over a ground bass in England; on the one hand this has long been an opportunity to show off contrapuntal mastery, and on the other hand, from the mid-17th century, folk elements were also integrated into such 'ground' compositions. Wolfgang Katschner's lightly defamiliarized adaption [=adaptation] of this piece on this CD (he uses theorbos in the upper parts instead of recorders, a plucked bass, and enriches the acoustic palette by the addition of drum sounds) emphasizes the adaptability the piece acquired in its theater version between high compositional art and more popular entertainment music". But this has to be considered pure speculation as long as Mr Katschner doesn't come up with reliable historical sources which prove his point or at least give his decisions a certain amount of plausibility. But nothing of the kind is to be found in the liner-notes. I doubt if Mr Katschner has done any historical research into this matter. As long as no evidence is given which supports his decisions his performance can hardly be considered a specimen of 'historically informed performance practice'. 'Historically ill-informed' is more like it.

There are more examples like this. Some years ago I reviewed a recording of the Lachrimae by John Dowland, performed by the Capella de Ministrers. Here percussion is added to the galliards and almands. In a more recent recording of music for viola da gamba all recercadas by Diego Ortiz are performed with additional percussion. And just to mention one example of a recording of much earlier music: a disc with 'woman's songs of love and pain' from the Middle Ages by the ensemble Triphonia also contains quite a number of pieces where percussion is used. In this kind of music we can't rely on the wishes of the composers as they didn't specify any scoring and many of them are anonymous. But the fact that percussion was used in medieval times, as David Munrow indicated, is no justification to use it so often.

The question then is: why are so many performers falling victim to percussionitis?
As I already indicated the issue is mostly not discussed, and therefore any explanation has to be speculative. It seems to me that with the use of percussion performers intend to emphasize the rhythm of a piece. This could also be the explanation of the fact that the use of a guitar in the basso continuo group is equally increasing, and that plucked instruments are frequently played like percussion instruments. The best reason I can think of is that performers want to bring early music closer to a modern audience which is used to popular music in which percussion plays a key role. It is vital in making people go out of their mind. Maybe we have to consider percussionitis as the musical counterpart of political populism.

Ironically, rhythm is vital in early music too, and definitely in baroque music. Here we find dance rhythms everywhere, and that includes sacred music. But does that justify the addition of percussion? Is that really needed to make the audience feel the rhythm? I don't think so. Only recently I attended a recital by Gustav Leonhardt. If there is any artist who has a great sense of rhythm and who can make the audience moving their feet to the rhythm of the music it is Leonhardt. His recordings of other music - be it instrumental or vocal - have the same qualities. No percussion needed.

Is it really unfair to suggest that adding percussion bears witness to the performer's incompetence of giving convincing and compelling accounts of the music as it was written down by the composer? This could explain why the addition of percussion usually doesn't make things any better. The recording with pieces by Ortiz which I mentioned before is a good example. The rhythms are severely underexposed despite the use of percussion.

Rhythm in early music is important. But it shouldn't be in the centre, unless it is real dance music. By frequently adding percussion the music tends to lose its subtlety and its depth. After all, rhythm is a means, not an end in itself. The previously mentioned recording of "Love Songs" by Purcell shows how disastrous the effect of ill-judged adaptations can be. The Affekt of various pieces is largely destroyed by playing for the gallery. And that includes the use of percussion. Modern interpreters better respect the judgement of the composers. They are usually right.

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