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THE ANATOMY OF MUSICOLOGY, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 3rd November 1951

Musicologists! Ugh! It is a grave sign of the degeneracy of our civilisation that there is such a word, let alone such an occupation as musicology. When the hero lays down the sword and the historian takes up the pen, one immediately diagnoses a Silver Age. But when an art becomes the subject of disinterested rummaging and ruminating, and when men stop being expert at some form of artistry and are merely “experts” about it, then there is little to do save await the arrival of the Goths and Huns; the end is near.

Whether music is a vehicle of beauty, or gives some higher spiritual communion in a divine language too profound for the human tongue, or whether it is just a downright source of sensuous pleasure, it is incredible that anyone born with the slightest musical sympathies should be able to detach himself from the desire to make it or hear it. Yet the musicologist appears to hold aloof—an alien growth like the mistletoe—and derives his nourishment without making any contribution.

Just as an archaeologist, shovelling about in some poor Celt’s barrow, unearths a few paltry trinkets precious to the hero of long ago, so the musicologist pores amongst the arid crackling manuscripts and digs out the long forgotten work of some long forgotten worthy.

The archaeologist is not intrinsically delighted by his discoveries. Their workmanship is crude, and the arrangement of beads is in deplorable taste, in fact the only thing to be said for them—(and it is nothing to do with artistic merit)—is that the finds are “interesting,” they are further clues in some problem, yes, they are “interesting,” they “shed light.” But they are not beautiful, and no archaeologist claims this for them.

The musicologist differs in just that. His treasure-trove is no more beautiful by present day standards than the archaeologist’s, and may even be (by virtue of the very nature of our current aural tradition and heritage) beyond or beneath our comprehension: But,—and here the musicologist bubbles over with self-deception—we are assured that the new-found fossil sheds not only light, but sweetness. We must like it, it must move us. If we are superficial, if we are snobs and want to appear in an intellectual avant-garde, we must pretend to appreciate it.

But you and I, dear reader, are not taken in by that, are we? We have a developed sense of tonality more kaleidoscopic than Handel’s; we are used to the tempered scale and even the twelve-note octave; we are not steeped enough in plainchant, in the erstwhile rhythmic and melodic modes to get even the second-best out of Perotinus or Di Lasso; our feeling for Arabic music is extremely tenuous; we are not sympathetic to mediaeval singing through the nose; we experience none of the revelation and physical aesthetic thrill at tonal relationships that were undoubtedly felt by those who perceived them for the first time in the seventeenth century. In fact, we are so constituted that we cannot honestly pretend we derive any pleasure or beatification from the music (and the manner of making it) that several decades ago pleased our differently constituted ancestors,—especially if we have to suffer it for more than a few moments.

Admittedly there is the antiquarian in all of us, but after the first minute of curiosity and temporary fascination, our faculties seal up like a cut and our blood holds no further parley with the open air. It is useless (and dishonest) to deny it. Personal taste should be the arbiter, not historical erudition. Alas, it is not always so.

How glad then is the heart to consider the major defeat of the musicologists and their gospel of authenticity this summer in Cambridge. The Tempest!

Had the pedants been at work, we should not have had the welcome re-interpolation of Shakespeare’s lines where Dryden’s were insufficient; the masque would have been dressed in period costumes,—gaudy french hose, coloured ribbons, feathered hats and all that—instead of the charming pale isabella negligés which were in fact used and which reminded us of the ghosts in The Haunted Ballroom Ballet, though many of the inmates were obviously all too solid flesh; yes, the pedants would have forbidden the violinists their vibrato, because this was a vulgar circus trick in Purcell’s day; and the harpsichord would have been tuned in some authentic temperament; and we should not have had the refreshing addition of music from another of Purcell’s works, the Indian Queen. This addition was an inspiration, providing as it did some extremely poignant bars at one of the most moving points in the drama. To the pundits this must have been a most frownworthy “fraud.”

But in truth the show was guided by the exercise of taste and the wish to entertain, and not by the desire to parade knowledge or point a lesson. The appeal was to you and me, dear reader, not to intellectual climbers.

However, we are a “research”-ridden nation now, and as it takes an expert to catch out an expert, we are mostly at a disadvantage. Still, in music the audience is just as important as composer or performer, so we listeners must put our best ear forward, have our own opinions, in spite of Deller or Dolmetsch fashions, and not allow our natural diffidences to be preyed upon by a gang of book-knowledgeable spivs.

Peter Tranchell