Historical Performance and Authenticity

On Dec. 5th one equall musick and McGill's Centre for Research on Religion (CREOR) co-hosted a Restoration Evensong to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It was a great success - we had c. 100 people in McGill's Birks Chapel at 530 on a cold wednesday night at the end of term. Quite the turn out considering it was the middle of the week - in some respects a bit of a gamble, but one that paid off immensely.

The musical line-up was fairly accurate we thought, without going into too much precision on what might have actually appeared in a Chapel Royal Service c. 1667. The choral music was as follows:

  • William Smith, Preces and Responses
  • Psalm tunes from British Library Add. MS 17784
  • Pelham Humfrey, Evening Service in E Minor
  • Orlando Gibbons, Behold thou has made my days
  • John Milton's hymn, The Lord will come and not be slow, to Old 107th
The instrumental music, provided alternately by our viol consort and organist, was:
  • Orlando Gibbons, Fantazia of foure parts
  • John Jenkins, Fantasia Number 6
Lastly, Torrance Kirby provided a meditation 'On Common Prayer' that discussed the form(s) of worship, drawing on his vast knowledge of Richard Hooker. In all, it was a good mix.

The event itself has created something of a stir here at McGill - in a good way. We explicitly decided to leave the question of whether it was a service or a performance up in the air - ambiguous and blurred. In practical terms I think this is why we had such a good turn out. It wasn't clear what our 'audience' or 'congregants' or 'participants' might be expecting - and that fluidity allowed those who wouldn't normally attend any church service, even an evensong, the intellectual and emotional space to engage with the event itself in their own way.

This blurring, though, I think has important implications for how we view the phenomenological as much as the intellectual nature of authenticity and historical performance. It goes much further than making sure the pieces were the right pieces, or that the ficta were actually appropriate or not. Or the bowing (knees) or bowing (viols). We didn't want to go into Purcell, and once we found that the Chapel Royal recycled pre-civil war music from the 1630s, which opened up a whole range of possibilities. We decided not to bother with the documented switch from brass / sackbuts to viols over the course of the 1660s. It was easier to find viols for the event in any case. Our approach was not to be too precise, but to explore a range of possibilities that might or might not be 100% explicitly accurate and authentic. Of course the coupe-de-grace in this respect was the use of Milton's text for the closing hymn (which was quite rousing actually) - the two bona fide Milton experts in the 'crowd' got the wit behind the fact we'd cast the event as a Chapel Royal reconstruction - of sorts.

It's in the ups and downs, the directions, the expectations, and our lack of concern about precision that I think this event accomplished something quite important. We didn't huss and fuss, like I said, over the historical authenticity of particulars, but rather on the aesthetic possibilities the music and service could offer in the widest array. On the one hand, it was a service. For those who were set to worship, it was a moment of devotion. On the other, for those who wanted to see it as a performance, they could approach it from a more scholarly point of view. The points at which the tension between these two poles became obvious was in standing, kneeling, and the saying of the Lord's Prayer. We didn't introduce the service, Kirby didn't dissect it, and so the blurring between service and performance meant our participants were left wondering - should we kneel? should we sing the hymn? should we stand? when do we stand? For many I suspect this was a bit confounding, but there's the point in the end. If we're going for an historically authentic reconstruction, it can't BE a performance because it actively disengages the audience as a key part of these kinds of cultural practices. The very tensions evident in questions of should we kneel, how do we kneel, and should we sing along, are questions which lay at the heart of much of the liturgical tension of the 17th century. And so, while the authenticity of each piece, and the selection of music might not have been exacting to the standards of years of archival research, the authenticity of the event itself might have actually been higher than had we simply classed it as a 'performance'. We had our moments, too, as an ensemble - some timing issues as well as pitch, but that's also more 'authentic' isn't it? The exactly nature of performance as mimicry or emulation, in the end, would have worked against the authenticity we were going for - a little roughness around the edges, a blurred sense of what the event was about or its purpose, and the lack of engagement in precisely these questions until after (over sherry and seed cake!) had a profound impact on how the entire thing went off. People are talking about it, not because it was a performance, not just because we did a great job, but because it offered a different way of thinking about authenticity and historical performance.

And so, I'm quite pleased! Congratulations to McGill PhD student Anna Lewton-Brain for all her hard work!