A Cutting Insight

Hugh Cutting by Olivia da Costa

I am totally awestruck to have the chance to work once again with Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Bernard Labadie, and to be the closing act of OSL’s wonderful Bach Festival at Carnegie Hall in such esteemed company as Jeremy Denk and Gil Shaham. And thanks to YOU for reading the words of a blabbering Englishman; I thought I’d write a few short paragraphs about this programme to save you all from listening to me drone on about it in person. Consider this a mercy…!

I was asked recently about this pairing of Bach with Handel, and more broadly about the way we interpret these two composers distinctly when it comes to their vocal music. They are often considered repertoires that require different vocal approaches, and so the question was what the authentic styles were for each. This got me thinking more carefully about what ‘authentic’ actually means, so here are some thoughts on that in relation to these two Germans.

Countertenors are largely very lucky in terms of career potential. Due to the relative scarcity of this voice type even today, a countertenor still has much choice in terms of the repertoire and types of work for which he might be considered: Bach passions, Handel opera, contemporary opera, and recital, all whilst working under this increasingly vague term ‘countertenor’. Whilst we may be more limited by the operatic repertoire compared to a soprano or baritone, we still get away with murder when it comes to crossing these various mediums of singing; the countertenor still roams relatively free, unimpeded by the categorization of vocal fachs (types within a voice type that determine which repertoire is deemed appropriate).

And with this program I get to experience this first-hand. It’s not so common to hear a concert of these monolith composers shoulder to shoulder; in Europe there seems, usually, to be a large schism between the two styles of singing: the clean, pure and fiddly of-the-heavens Bach versus the bel canto, emotional and of-the-earth Handel opera. And we can’t forget their distinct cultural contexts: the Lutheran church, and the 18th-century operatic stage.

This gap between the two is relevant in how we interpret them; I think the way that Bach and Handel approach their writing for voice IS different, and far cleverer and better-qualified writers than me would explain why. That said, I’d like to consider them linked by their shared aim: to articulate something of what it is to be a human being.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Very reasonably, you could roll your eyes and think ‘well of course, all music is intrinsically linked to humanity because humans create it, you simple imbecile’. But hear me out: I think that, in the quest for historical authenticity that kicked off in the second half of the twentieth century when much of this baroque music was rediscovered and championed on historical instruments with brisker tempi, it can (understandably) be easy to lose track of the root of this (or indeed any) music as we strive for  ‘correctness’ in historical style considerations like ornaments and articulation. Dare I say this, even: especially with Bach, we frequently run the risk of considering the music something to ‘get right’ because of its intricacy, brilliant musical counterpoint, and construction. And with Handel, we can get so caught up in the beauty of his melodies that we forget that the arias are from a very specific emotional point in a much larger operatic plot sung by a specific character who has their own reasons for singing.

And don’t get me wrong – style and baroque practice as we know it are essential in providing the tools with which we can interpret a score, but I don’t think style should limit our interpretation. It is something we work within for the sake of articulating that which binds these church and stage works; namely, a human’s emotional world.

In essence, I’m waffling on about the human-ness of these works as opposed to their abstract forms. The word ‘baroque’ points to this music’s age and temporal context, but when we connect with them empathically, we experience these two great composers in their true nature as relevant, visceral and current. Bach’s esoteric beauty and Handel’s vocal fireworks are only half the story if they’re not connected to the honest, and emotional story of – and story between – the words.

We owe so much to those who have recovered and reinvigorated this music. And because of their trailblazing work, it is no longer enough to see this music as a museum piece existing in a glass box of style and authentically historical performance; it’s there to be interpreted from the context of human experience and emotion. This is our mission, and I think that’s a true, and hopefully honest authenticity for which we should strive, and of which there will be as many versions of authentic as there are interpreters. Thank you again for this opportunity, and I hope you enjoy the performance!