Performing the Past: Text and Act in Eighteenth-Century Music

In an article for our inaugural issue, Hannah Lane (Australian National University) examined how emotions of tenderness and pain were performed and expressed on the single-action harp. Introduced to France in the mid-eighteenth century, the single-action harp reached the zenith of its popularity in pre-revolutionary Paris.

Now, in this guest post, Hannah recounts her attraction to the single-action harp as a subject of research and how her performance on the instrument informed her work.

Mme de Genlis

Mme de Genlis

In 1761, the Parisian theatrical impresario Charles-Simon Favart described the single-action harp as “the instrument à la mode; all the ladies are mad to play it.” Eminently suggestible and subject to the whims of fashion, I felt a similar level of intoxication upon first hearing this instrument and later playing it. In my case, it wasn’t the rush of the zeitgeist, rather it was the sensation of entering a world of feeling outside of my own experience, a rich colour palette of unfamiliar emotions, each containing more subtle nuances than I had previously experienced. As a performer, I found myself asking questions that ranged from the specific (“What emotions were associated with the single-action harp in late eighteenth-century France and why?”) to the vague and seemingly unanswerable (“How did it all feel for the performers and the audience at the time?”). I decided to seek some empirical answers through my doctoral research into the musical influence of one particular harpist, the extraordinary musician, writer, pedagogue, and proto-feminist, Félicité de Genlis (1746–1830). Genlis helped launch the aforementioned fervour for the single-action harp in Paris. Her mother, Madame du Crest, utilised the young Genlis’s prodigious musical talent to help the family survive the financial ruin brought about by Genlis’s aristocratic, spendthrift father. Much to the discomfort of the young Genlis, Madame du Crest proffered her daughter as musical entertainment at acquaintances’ dinner parties in exchange for financial remuneration or perhaps a second-hand gown. I was drawn back into a more practical line of inquiry through reading Genlis’s accounts of her first experience with the single-action harp. The results of this inquiry led to my article for Ceræ Journal. I was struck by the obvious importance of Genlis’s initial independent experimentation with the instrument outside of her musical instruction; this seemed to be a major factor in both her virtuosity and her emotional connection with the harp, which lasted the length of her very long (for the time) life.

Lutherie, Harp Organisée in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2013 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

Lutherie, Harp Organisée in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2013 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

In real-time performance, the application of historically informed performance practice will always be, as early music specialist Dr. Andrew Lawrence-King once put it, an act of “educated spontaneity”. As many have made pains to point out, we cannot ever truly know exactly how this music was performed. The aim of such a practice, at least from the perspective of a musician communicating with an audience, is not to reconstruct the past but to enliven this music for today through understanding as much as we can about its meaning at the time of creation. So what can we draw upon to educate ourselves in preparation for those magical moments of spontaneity? Of the surviving material evidence for music before 1800, one of the most important artefacts we have at our disposal is the instrument itself. For example, there exist a reasonably large number of original single-action harps from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some of which can and have been restored to playing condition. In the case of the subject of my article — the French Louis XVI era single-action harp — we are lucky enough to have an instrument maker, Beat Wolf, who has dedicated his life to the careful study of the restoration and reconstruction of these instruments so that harpists today can play music from the late eighteenth century on a new-old instrument. Playing this instrument provided the beginning of a very small answer to the very big question of “how did it feel?” Time and the freedom to experiment as well as patience and a good dose of humility on my part allowed the instrument to become my teacher. This produced some satisfying results: musical discoveries made independently of any textual or pedagogical instruction were later reflected in primary source texts. I remember feeling thrilled when, upon discovering that I could produce three distinctly different tone colours if I played at different points along the length of the bass strings, I found an exact description of this phenomenon in Louis Charles Ragué’s pedagogical harp treatise Principes de Harpe… (1786). I was reminded of this experience later in a discussion with historical harp pioneer, Maria Christina-Cleary, where we agreed that in the relationship between the historical instrument and the musician, we — the musicians — are most definitely secondary in the equation and the instrument will dictate its terms of engagement. Musicologists, cultural historians, and performers have much to learn from each other both through text — our critical study of primary texts in their many forms — and through act — our practical study of historical instruments. My search for those moments of educated spontaneity continues but one thing I know is that in performing the past, you have to meet it on its own terms.

You can read Hannah’s full article, “‘L’orage des passions’: Expressing Emotion on the Eighteenth-Century French Single-action Harp”, here.

Based in Melbourne, Hannah Lane is a PhD Candidate in Music at the Australian National University. As a harpist she performs regularly on early instruments: the eighteenth-century French single-action harp and the seventeenth-century Italian triple harp.

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