October 31, 2013

Christopher Hogwood: Exploring Music’s Past to Shape its Future

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Last night, Christopher Hogwood performed  live piano/organ accompaniment to the 1924 silent movie The Hands of Orlac at Sage Chapel.

This past Friday, renowned British conductor, musicologist and keyboard player Christopher Hogwood arrived at Cornell for the beginning of his A.D. White Professors-at-Large residency. Hogwood poked fun at this title throughout his lectures: “They describe me as being ‘at-large’ on your campus this week, which makes me sound like an escaped prisoner.” In refutation of this image, he then reiterated that he is available to talk after all lectures and rehearsals he would attend this week. This casual, conversation-based interaction is the most important element of his program — one talent Hogwood possesses aside from his scholarship and performance is his ability to express himself, whether it is to a lecture hall or a student asking a passing question. His availability is perhaps what made his visit such a rewarding one for anyone who came to learn.

In an introductory lecture entitled “The Past is a Foreign Country: Why Making Music Matters,” Maestro Hogwood introduced a central theme laced throughout his events, stressing continually the importance of history in accordance with classical performance. Hogwood claims that he became a musician “by accident.” Originally, he wanted to be an archaeologist, but later came to study classics. As a connoisseur of the ancient, he came into the world of music history later on in his education. Through his experience, he noted the stratification of academics of music in the university; he posed the problem of the lack of connection between those who study musicology and those who strictly perform music as a specialization. His lecture proceeded to display how the scholarly side of music — assessing accounts of recorded music at certain points in history — provides a useful dimension to musical performance. At this point in time, we have access to over a century of recorded music; we can hear how these works were performed in their respective eras. These audio samples provide a lifeline to the dry, written scores of music. Throughout this lecture, he played over speakers various early recordings of works, including the earliest recording of a Handel choral work from 1888, as well as one of the only recordings of the last castrato voice, that of Moreschi; these pieces were haunting and certainly out of the ordinary. By listening to these works, one realizes that the past was, indeed, a foreign country; as Hogwood explained, “they did things differently.” We must consider the background of classical music when we bring forth new productions of these works. An important point that Hogwood emphasized was how much of what composers said about their music in the past was not written down in many cases. Thus, the notes and score that the composer produced cannot be taken as the full map of the music we make. An example he used to illustrate this point was a recording of Aaron Copeland himself as he conducted his Appalachian Spring. A mere comment in rehearsal changed a phrase in the music that would go unaccounted for without this recording. He tells the violins to add a crescendo, a dynamic that he says he is simply used to, although he did not “know where it came from.” Hogwood suggested that adding this crescendo in a scholarly edition of a piece exemplifies an ideal balance of scholarship and performance.

Hogwood is not only well-versed in musical scholarship and performance, but he also collects ancient instruments and visual art relating to music. In another symposium, he shared some of his collection and provided insight into Cornell’s own archives. Cornell’s collection of recorded birdsong in the Lab of Ornithology, the Cornell plaster cast collection and some of the hidden treasures of the Kroch library’s pre-1800’s collections were the main revelations of his presentation.

He also took the time to look at the reserve of historical instruments recently donated to our own department of music. In a lecture later in the week entitled “The Present and Future of Historically Informed Performance,” he again accented the link of scholarship and performance by sharing some of the recently found versions of Corelli sonatas that he himself compiled into a new scholarly edition. Some of the parts of the music — whole movements even —were printed for the first time in this edition. A separate violin part includes 102 separate movements from the sonatas in embellished versions by 18th Century players, including those of Geminiani, Corelli’s most famous pupil. It was amazing to not only see this edition of these seminal works in their utmost authenticity; we also were given the chance to hear these expanded versions by a Cornell masters student, who played them on a baroque violin accompanied by a period piano. It was as if we were hearing a pupil of Corelli’s in the 18th Century. Again, this was not music you can hear every day. Hogwood shared with his audience that “historically informed music looks backwards and forwards” by advancing the true forms of these works.

It was not only members of the Cornell faculty and lecture attendees that have benefited from these events. Hogwood dedicated time to coaching Cornell’s own music groups, including the Cornell Chamber Orchestra, Les Petits Violons de Cornell and the Glee Club and Chorus. He also stopped by for question and answer sessions in music classes. Hogwood’s visit brought to the forefront an area of interest that Cornell’s Music Department has been intimately involved in, but which has been rarely exposed. We at Cornell are lucky to have so many preeminent scholars, as well as the ancient instruments that made Hogwood’s visit so enthralling. Hogwood will return again next fall for what is certain to be another valuable experience for our classical music community.