Ever since Caroline Brown founded The Hanover Band in 1980 its primary objective has been to enable audiences to gain a better feeling for what earlier music actually sounded like when heard in favourable circumstances. Historical instruments are key to this; as one prominent conductor recently put it, ‘they have more colour, shape and less weight than modern instruments. They are more tangy, more piquant. We can play full out with the greatest passion, and still sound like Mozart.’
Since musicians work within the medium of sound, the challenge of recreating earlier performances is formidable. Indeed, as Mozart’s contemporary Daniel Türk wrote in 1789, ‘some musical effects cannot be described; they must be heard.’ There is of course a sense in which the entire history of music has disappeared before recording was invented during the latter stages of the nineteenth century. Even a large library of musical dictionaries, biographies and analytical tomes cannot do more than hint at how music used to sound. Although such contextual information is useful, one remains only too aware that words are inadequate to communicate certain aspects of art, whether quality of timbre or those tiny differences of emphasis and timing that distinguish a great performance from a merely good one.
An earlier composer’s intentions (or even expectations) can be difficult to determine. The Hanover Band draws on a huge variety of historical evidence, including literary sources, archives, treatises, autographs, early editions and iconography. Research into musical style informs its approach to national idioms, articulation, melodic inflection, accentuation, tempo, ornamentation, embellishment and improvisation. It takes rigorous account of conditions and practices in terms of historical pitch, temperament, venues and programmes, orchestral constitution and musical direction. The Band’s ethos recognises that the use of period instruments must be complemented by musical understanding, an awareness of social and cultural context, acoustical considerations and concert-giving situations.
Over a decade ago one celebrated critic noted that ‘there is no worthwhile, thoughtful and intellectually stimulating and musically adventurous performance going on today that has not been touched by the period instrument movement.’ The Hanover Band under its inspirational artistic director Caroline Brown has played a major part in bringing about this state of affairs. In the very year of the Band’s foundation The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) noted how revealing it would be to hear Beethoven symphonies on period instruments, but added that ‘the practical difficulties of assembling and equipping such an orchestra would be almost insuperable…’. Within two years the Band had produced an LP of the First Symphony and during the 1980s recorded a complete cycle; it is no cause for embarrassment 30 years later that one reviewer of the time described the disc simply as ‘Beethoven as he would have heard it’. Throughout the Band’s many recordings and concert tours, Caroline has insisted on maintaining the Band’s original pioneering spirit, never succumbing to the ‘standardised’ period style which others have so readily embraced. Indeed, The Hanover Band’s distinctive approach lies well outside Richard Taruskin’s notorious description of period performance as ‘the most modern sound around.’
What are the special qualities of The Hanover Band? 35 years ago there was a general consensus that the ‘authentic’ musician aspired merely to act willingly in the service of the composer, denying any form of glorifying self-expression, attaining this by following text-book rules for ‘scientific method’ with a strictly empirical programme to verify historical practices. These were somehow magically transformed into the composer’s ‘intentions’. Yet Caroline immediately recognised that the craft of music-making must be held in equal balance with the art, even though historical evidence often seems heavily biased in favour of the former. In a pre-digital age, those precious interactions between composer and performer have been largely lost for ever. The artistic aspiration of The Hanover Band has never compromised historical accuracy on the altar of practical expediency, whilst recognising that judicious selection from the plethora historical evidence does not constitute compromise. Hearing earlier music as it was performed ‘in favourable circumstances’ requires a sensitive interpretation of Bach’s shortage of players and singers for his weekly service at Leipzig; Beethoven wrote his symphonies at a time when the situation for orchestras in Vienna was very difficult – culturally, politically and musically. And how are we to react to Mozart’s evident delight at a very active audience response during the première of his Paris Symphony? In interpreting the past The Hanover Band has demonstrated an artistic integrity that has become all too rare within the realm of historical performance.
Director of the Royal College of Music.