Everything Old Is New Again

Craig Zeichner
Photo by Melissa Richard

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

Or maybe they don’t. Every generation of composers looks back—sometimes decades, sometimes centuries—to their predecessors. Think of twentieth-century works such as Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Francis Poulenc’s Concert champêtre, filled with pseudo-Baroque passages that owe much to Jean-Philippe Rameau and the Couperins.

Generally, the look back expresses itself one of three ways: imitation, emulation, or quotation. Ravel and Poulenc, for example, deliberately imitate past masters. During the Renaissance, composers based their settings of the Mass on ancient chant melodies or old secular songs—a device called parody. There’s hardly a Mass by Josquin des Prés, Pierluigi da Palestrina, or Tomás Luis da Victoria that doesn’t use parody. There was nothing funny about this highly complex technique, where all the voices of the original composition were quoted and assimilated into the new work.

There are also countless compositions that emulate older works or genres, frequently bearing the inscription on their title page “in the style of” or “homage to.” Some of these works pay the original a true compliment, like Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, while others, like Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, are weak pastiche.

Another way of looking back is quotation. I’m not talking about the kind of cribbing that such composers as George Frideric Handel and Gioacchino Rossini were guilty of. These guys were notorious recyclers of their own and, in the case of Handel, other composer’s works. The most common use of quotation is when the composer borrows an old tune from days gone by. Sometimes the quote is subtle, like in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which uses a motet by the Renaissance composer. At other times the quote is clearly stated—Benjamin Britten liberally quoted from older composers, most notably in his reworking of Henry Purcell’s Abdelazar Suite in the Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra (if you are keeping score, that work also contains a fugue).

Quotation exploded in the late 1960s. Kyle Gann in American Music in the Twentieth Century cited George Rochberg’s 1965 composition Music for the Magic Theater as “a work bulging with quotations.” Rochberg drew from an interesting mix of composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Webern, and Miles Davis. According to Gann, “The cat was out of the bag. Quotation mania spread throughout the classical music world.” There was also Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations (1967), based on Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel. Jacob Druckman drew on even older music, an aria by the seventeenth-century composer Pier Francesco Cavalli, in his Delizie contente che l’ame beate (1973). And of course, there’s Luciano Berio’s deliciously loopy use of quotes, including Mahler and others, in his Sinfonia (1968).

“Quotation allowed a return to tonality hidden beneath a veneer of irony; it offered a widened emotional palette without sullying the composer’s fingers in the actual writing of tonal or pretty music,” says Gann about the craze. End of discussion.

As I said earlier, imitation, emulation, and quotation have been going on for a very long time. But not all the time. The Baroque era, for example, was something of a fork in the road. Early Baroque composers like Monteverdi stretched out in the stile moderno (modern style)—a more emotive, and at times flamboyant, musical style that paved the way for the high Baroque works of Bach and Handel.

This trend continued in the classical and romantic periods, but that doesn’t mean the past was forgotten. While that trio of imitation, emulation, and quotation fell into a dormant stage, music history proves there’s no escape from certain timeless compositional forms. In other words, there will always be composers who write sonatas, symphonies, concertos, fugues, and theme and variations settings (consider Frederic Rzewski’s gargantuan The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary song, written in 1975)—it doesn’t matter whether the inspiring progenitor is Bach, Handel, Mozart, or Sergio Ortega.

Which brings us to the twentieth century, where things really get interesting. To some, the choices for the twentieth-century composer were clear: tonal or atonal. Perhaps that’s a simplification, because we also have to stir into the mix two recent –isms: Minimalism and the New Romanticism. That’s a heady brew, but as we listen in the first days of the twenty-first century, there’s another new, or perhaps old, wrinkle. What we have now are composers looking back, same as it ever was, and giving us some new variations on imitation and emulation. And to replace quotation, we have simulation. Let me explain the game plan.

I’m going to present some new takes on old music. This will include some composers who write as if the twentieth century never happened. While their styles look as far back as Perotin, they haven’t traded their MIDI software for quills; they are still sitting squarely in the twenty-first century. Who is performing this music? Early music specialists who are taking risks and breaking out of the early music ghetto. To my ears this is the most exciting development in contemporary music, and I hope to convince your ear, as well. I’ll also look at some of the instruments being used that haven’t changed since the eighteenth century. Some composers want them to simulate an older style, while others are asking them to bang out tone clusters on a harpsichord. This interest in old music isn’t confined to the world of “serious music,” either. There have been some interesting explorations of jazz, folk, and rock that draw upon old music, and I’ll introduce you to some of the people making this music.

So lace up your leggings, adjust your codpiece, and tune your crumhorn…

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