I am sure that many a student reading through a history textbook has yawned over Boethius and his De institutione musica. It was written about 1500 years ago and the assumption therefore might be that it has little or nothing to do with us. But when I read in that work that the true musicus is “he to whom belongs the ability to judge”, I find something for us to connect to. How often do we wish for this sort of musician to choose concert programmes, to conduct them, to perform them and to write pieces for them? And, crucially, to take a seat in the auditorium, and show an unfeigned appreciation. I am sure every performer craves that.
I continued studying baroque music today, listening amongst other things to the middle movement of Vivaldi’s Spring concerto from The Four Seasons. This has been in my mind for several months with regard to the aria that I am writing for my string quartet. Hearing the movement performed so terribly today, I wondered if any piece in the world is routinely played as badly as The Four Seasons. Bad performances, bad pieces, bad choices of programmes. All this surely relates to the Boethius point about judgement. The true musician is one who can judge, he said. In our time, it might be a music critic. But in the end, whoever it is, she/he must get the chance to give leadership. Otherwise where are we? What do we have? A bunch of pretty young concerto soloists playing fast scales and filling their bank accounts? Opera directors, doing whatever it is they think they are doing – they may know, but a lot of opera goers certainly don’t. There is a whiff of decadence here.
In contrast to this, yesterday, on hearing just a few vocal intervals from a Handel aria (a section of his Apollo e Dafne) I gasped out loud. What struck me was the beauty of the writing as well as the truth of the execution (by a superb soprano called Karina Gauvin). Now, I understand very well that times moved on and things can’t be what they were. We no longer have aristocratic and royal or ecclesiastical patronage, therefore we no longer have the culture that produced Handel and Mozart. But then we have somehow to hold on to the “good magic” that I noted in the Handel piece.
I don’t care how democratic we become. My point is that if the quality is lost, then this whole endeavour is also lost. And that is the message that I am drawing out of Boethius. Those who can judge must do so and give the leadership that is required.