‘Whether good, bad or indifferent’: Early Music and Modern Mass Media

by Dr Daniela Fountain

Early music’s relation to modern mass-media is closely linked with the technological advancements made in media itself during the twentieth century. The wide-spread dissemination of this music throughout the last century continuously raised awareness and interest in a variety of listeners even when exposed subconsciously to the sounds, rhythms and musical structures.

Harry Haskell (1988) devotes considerable attention to early music’s relation to media in his chronological account of the early music revival. One of the driving factors for the more widespread recognition of early music has been identified by Haskell as taking the form of the technological advancements of recording and radio (Haskell, 1988, p. 114, 120). ‘For better or worse – perhaps for better and worse – the twentieth-century mass media have radically transformed the early music movement’ (Haskell, 1988, p. 130), so Haskell claims. Whilst he is convinced that radio was extremely successful in promoting early music, he is more apprehensive in his judgement of film’s or television’s contribution to the revival of early music. His critique intensifies for early music in film, which, in his view, is confined by ‘similar limitations’ (Haskell, 1988, p. 124). Haskell summarises cinematic applications of early music as little contributing to the revival of early music. On a positive note, he argues that even the ‘inappropriate’ deployment at least raises awareness of early music. Wide-spread dissemination and public display enable constant reviewing processes of early music concerts and recordings. Films add to this a new layer by incorporating early music in narrative driven contexts. A film’s discussion in the popular press and online continues to generate questions about early music’s existence and performance practice.

Whilst Haskell’s views appear to some extent limited due to the time in which they were written, one wonders how he might rate the music in the Showtime-series The Tudors (2007) had his work been written a quarter of a century later. In The Tudors the legacy of the early music movement of the twentieth century can be experienced through a number of defining moments. Episode 1 employs period pastiche in the form of lute, psaltery, harpsichord and recorder accompaniment for scenes of calm beauty, be it behind the first scene of sexual intercourse, the king and queen dining, playing chess or generally at court or most predominantly when King Henry VIII receives a shave whilst dictating his response to a treaty of pan-European peace. Furthermore Thomas Tallis, one of the most important British composers of the Renaissance, features as a character at some point in this first episode, being commended by the Archbishop of Canterbury to join Westminster cathedral. Throughout the series the calm beauty of period sounds is retained and practiced in the form of implied source music and occasionally with a token onscreen representation of the sounding period instruments. It may seem that early music has been fully absorbed into modern mass media and its innate sound qualities are recognised and employed purposefully to indicate more than just period both in film and on television.

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REMOSS: The Story So Far

Hello and welcome to the REMOSS blog! REMOSS is a new and exciting study group, hosted at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Music on Stage and Screen (MOSS), which brings together participants from a diverse range of fields. We hope to discuss the different ways in which Early Music (broadly construed as pre-classical) is represented and used in film and television, opera, ballet and theatre, and videogames etc. We’ll be posting reports about our roundtable sessions and any observations we happen to make!

Outside of academia, it is perhaps through media that Early Music is most often encountered, and yet this is an avenue of enquiry that has so far gone under-examined. Though this project might have begun (as we’re sure many do) as an exercise in pedantry by a number of grumpy academics (!) highlighting unintentional anachronisms in historical dramas (a temptation we are committed to resisting), we feel now is a great time to redress this gap in the scholarship. We expect, through our events (both in the past months and those to come), to go some way towards exploring a number of highly relevant debates regarding authenticity, anachronism, and orientalism. Through our discussions of a diverse range of compositional practices, we expect to establish a fruitful forum for the exploration of the representation of Early Music on stage and screen.

So far, the REMOSS group has met at the University of Nottingham for three very interesting roundtable sessions. Given that we’re venturing into relatively unchartered waters, there is no shortage of examples, drawn from stage, screen, and new media, to be brought to the table. This range of examples outlines the breadth of this exciting topic, and highlights some of the key issues that we expect will come to characterise this project.

The first roundtable discussion included informal presentations and discussions from James Cook, Alex Kolassa, Esperanza Rodriguez-Garcia, and Jonathan Herrick. Topics included the use of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ in a coronation scene from TV series The Borgias, the mystery play of Elche that has been the focal point of a local celebratory festival in the town of Elche for centuries, and a sequence that incorporated a performance of part of The Beggar’s Opera in the video-game Assassin’s Creed III (2012). A variety of issues were discussed, including anachronism and the ways in which this might provide commentary for (or against) the drama, the use of plainchant as an underscore to dialogue, the ways that ‘living traditions’ can affect musical representation, and the integration of newly-composed music alongside historically-accurate music in a video-game context.

The second roundtable developed some of the themes from the first session, with informal presentations from Mervyn Cooke and Adam Whittaker. The representation of Tudor music in a number of scenes from Elizabeth (1998) was discussed at some length, raising a number of interesting points. The session also included a brief investigation into the representation of an organ player in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and questioned some of the possible reasons for the degree of attention paid to the mechanics of the organ.

Finally, our third round table was the first to include new international speakers accommodated through video conferencing. Two of the speakers from this will be writing guest blogs here in the near future. After three successful roundtable discussions hosted at Nottingham, we’re very much looking forward to our study day on 12th June 2015. Again, we will be accommodating a number of speakers through video conferencing. This will allow the international membership of the group to get involved in the discussion and to bring yet more perspectives to the debate. We expect this day to be exciting and will be sure to report on in a subsequent blog post!

If you’re interested in joining REMOSS, or just hearing more about what is going on with the group, you can join our JISCmail list (remoss@jiscmail.ac.uk), email us (remoss@nottingham.ac.uk), follow us on Twitter (@REMOSSNotts) or visit our website (http://nottingham.ac.uk/moss/research/remoss.aspx).

James Cook
Alex Kolassa
Adam Whittaker
Jonathan Herrick

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