Meet the Artists – Katy Bircher

Playing with History again

In May 2016 John Butt gave a keynote speech for the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Historical Performance Institute for the “Historical Performance: Theory, Practice and Interdisciplinary” conference. This article is a transcript of the keynote and considers the historical approach to musical performance since the publication of his book “Playing with History” in 2002.

Administrator Position

Matthew Passion – Opening Chorus


Was Bach really a ‘tasteless and chaotic composer’?

 on the Spectator:

It’s just not what you expect to hear on Radio 3 but I happened upon Music Matters on Saturday morning and after playing us a clip from the opening chorus of St Matthew Passion Tom Service pronounced, ‘Bach is a tasteless and chaotic composer.’ I felt as if my ears had been syringed.

Service was actually repeating what one of his guests, the Bach scholar John Butt, had just asserted, as if to verify his intention.

You may want to listen to the actual radio programme for context!

NCEM young composers award 2015 winners announced

Simon Frith: Why we should be frightened of Bach (and why we’re not)

The following is a transcript of Professor Simon Frith‘s keynote talk, given at our  Coffee & Enlightenment performances on 4 & 5 February 2015. For a review of the Glasgow event, please see The Herald.

Talks at classical music concerts are not common these days, so I should begin by saying what this talk is not.  It will not be a lecture on Bach, an exercise in musical appreciation of the sort that Donald Francis Tovey developed when he was Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.  He set up the Reid Orchestra so he could illustrate his talks or, rather, he mastered a way of introducing music that enabled his audience to listen better, with more understanding of what was going on.  This way of talking about music lives on in radio broadcasts, concert programmes and record sleeve notes, but such lectures to inform listening rarely introduce live classical music any more.

What we are more used to now is a spoken introduction to early music concerts, in which a group’s leader introduces us to the instruments, describing their provenance and saying something about the sources of the music we will hear, perhaps explaining the group’s more unusual performing decisions.

My talk will not be like this.  I won’t attempt to analyse the music to which we are listening tonight nor say anything about the Dunedin Consort’s instruments or John Butt’s take on Bach’s historical musical practice.  Rather, this evening celebrates a different sort of event, not a classical or early music concert, but a coffee concert, an institution first established in the early eighteenth century (in the 1730s Bach directed such concerts in Leipzig).  These can be seen as early examples of what the German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, calls “the public sphere”, places where citizens met to listen to music, drink coffee and talk, talk not just about music but also about matters of the day, about public events and rumours, in a setting that was not under the auspices of the government or organised for political ends.  The music played might or might not affect or feature in the discussions.  In seeking to get some sense of what these events might have been like, John Butt therefore asked me to start a discussion.  I suspect he invited me because even though I am Tovey Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh I am not a musicologist; no-one would expect me to display Tovey-style analytical expertise although, as John also knows, I can talk about anything, especially when I know little about it!

What I want to reflect on this evening is music and religion.  My thoughts are obviously inspired by Bach’s music (and by the cantatas we’re are hearing today) but I believe this is an appropriate topic for a contemporary coffee concert because arguments about religious beliefs, secular society and the relation between the two are matters of immediate importance, whether we’re discussing religious faith and what’s now called militant atheism or Islamic fundamentalism and the ever-louder demand that the Enlightened West be more aggressive in defending its secular principles from irrationality of all sorts.  In relating these issues to my experience of listening to Bach, I will draw on an excellent essay on enlightenment and belief that appeared in the Guardian a few weeks ago, written by the Indian scholar, Pankaj Mishra.  []

I will begin with two anecdotes.  The first is from someone I know who is on the committee of one of England’s many Bach Choirs.  Last year, like many other choirs, they performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  A choir committee member who was a Quaker thought this was a good opportunity to use an advertisement in the programme to publicise the Quakers as a group which is particular concerned to debate issues of war and peace.   This suggestion was strongly opposed by other members of the committee, who thought it inappropriate for a Bach Choir to be advertising a religious organisation.  If the Quakers were allowed to advertise in this programme, what would stop other religious groups advertising in choir programmes in the future?  The irony of members of a choir that primarily performs religious music (often in religious buildings) wanting to keep a clear distance between themselves and religious organisations does not need spelling out.

Second, as some of you will know, Radio 3 has a daily Bach slot between 6.30 and 7.00 am every weekday morning.  The reason, as I heard a presenter explain last December, is that “Bach is the ultimate pick-me-up!”, the ideal way of getting people ready to face the working day.

I draw two conclusions from the Bach choir argument and this cheery remark.   First, it seems clear that Bach’s sacred music has been effectively removed from its original context of the rituals and needs of worship.  Like his secular music, it has become a form of entertainment, a ‘pick-me-up’, a pleasure-commodity for which people happily pay.  And, of course, this musical move from worship to entertainment is not just an aspect of classical music history.  We can find similar processes in popular music—in the history of gospel, for example, or of Christmas carols.  What we have here is the long-term secularisation of music in terms of its sociological functions and value.

Second, though, the secular musical pleasure for which people now pay, the secular musical experience we/they value is, nevertheless, understood in terms of a free-floating uninstitutionalised religiosity.  Individually what we get from classical music is routinely described as a spiritual uplift: music, it is said, gives us a sense of a realm beyond the everyday material world.  Music is good for the ‘soul’, enables us to experience ‘profound’ feelings and offers us a kind of restrained ecstasy.  I haven’t got time to go into this in more detail here, just to argue that for many people today (and not just so called high music listeners) the musical experience is understood as a quasi-religious experience.  Such sacralisation of musical pleasure was established in the nineteenth century (not least by Mendelssohn’s ‘revival’ of Bach), as concert halls became the equivalent of churches, sacred spaces with hushed audiences, seriously listening to transcendent sounds ‘for their own good’.   This is religion as a way of feeling rather than as a way of believing, which means, in turn, that while everyone at a concert —at this concert, for example—may feel they are in something like a congregation, there’s no reason at all to think that we share any religious beliefs or purposes at all.

It follows that even though we often do describe our listening experiences in religious terms, we are rather different from Bach’s original listeners.  Try hard as he does to perform Bach’s music so that it sounds like it did when it was first played, John Butt can’t get us to listen to it in the way people listened then, even in this coffee house context of a reconstructed environment.  John’s book on the philosophical context of Bach’s musical work, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions(Cambridge University Press, 2010), suggests to me that for the original listeners to Bach’s sacred music, ‘a religious experience’ described something decidedly unsettling.  The comfort of God’s blessing and the exhilaration of God’s grace were stalked by doubt, guilt and the fear of damnation.  I can relate to this in my own experience.  My parents met in an evangelical youth camp and I grew up in a religious household.  When my mother died—she was one of the kindest and most gentle women one could hope to know–I was dismayed to hear her described in the minister’s funeral oration, as a miserable sinner no better than the worms in the soil.  Such a shame-inducing account of the inescapable sinfulness of humanity—and the damnation that would follow—was, it seemed, a necessary part of the belief in Christ’s redemption.   The religious experience of Bach’s music, in other words—the experience of Bach’s music as religious—is very different from the quasi-religious experience of today’s classical music.  To listen to Bach and contemplate human folly and consider what kind of afterlife awaits us is not a way of listening to Bach that is likely to make us feel good and enjoy opaquely profound thoughts about nothing in particular.

At the heart of Bach’s sacred music was a tension between the institutionalized fear of God and the possibility of individual enlightenment.  In the long term the Enlightenment led to the ascension of reason over faith as the basis of our beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.  Individual autonomy came to trump traditional authority, but Protestantism itself, was an attempt to reconcile the different tendencies here, to reconcile reason and faith.  For an individual, such attempts always face the possibility of failure, of getting things (reason and belief) wrong and being damned as a consequence.  Bach’s sacred music was music for people for whom the precise contours of individual religious belief both mattered and were a constant source of anxiety as well as grace.

Since then, rationalism has come to be taken for granted, but that is not to say that the resulting secularisation has solved all ethical or perceptual problems.   To start with, it is clear to me that something is missing from an account of human experience that explains everything by reference to evidence based reason.  There are experiences, experiences that we value, that can’t be explained in this way.  This is one reason why music is seen to provide a kind of religious experience, an access to something that we feel but do not ‘understand’, an experience, that is, which is essentially irrational.  The problem is that if music certainly can be used as a substitute for religion in terms of feeling, providing a sense of the ineffable—it cannot provide the same sort of moral purpose or guide to living.

To put this another way, it is apparent that neither the heritage of European enlightenment nor the experience of listening to Bach guarantee anything in the way of either reasonable or moral behaviour.  Last year, the eminent academic international lawyer, Philippe Sands, staged a musical/theatrical event: ‘A Song of Good and Evil’,  (See This followed his discovery that both Hersht Lauterpacht, the Jewish lawyer who helped develop the concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ and drafted closing arguments for the prosecution in the Nuremburg trials, and Hans Frank, a Nuremberg defendant (he was a Nazi lawyer who in 1939 became governor-general of the occupied sector of Poland), talked about getting through the stress of the trials by listening (or imagining listening) to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. What, then, can Bach’s Passions be said to mean when that meaning is so important to people on both sides of an argument about good and evil?

What can be said is that Bach’s music doesn’t sound archaic to contemporary sensibilities (anymore than do Shakespeare’s plays).  The reason, I think, is that one of the questions Bach was asking (though I’m using Mishra’s words here)–does an enlightened society have to be a godless one?–is still relevant, although, as an atheist, I would phrase it differently (again using Mishra’s words): does individualism and the language of rights have to trump a sense of community and the language of obligations?

Mishra ends his essay with a discussion of Jürgen Habermas, who, as I suggested at the beginning of this talk, is the most prominent academic celebrant of the rise of the secular public sphere, of which coffee houses were an early example.  Habermas. Mishra notes, has come round to believing that the ‘substance of the human’ can only be rescued by societies that ‘are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions.’  Habermas’s dramatic shift is one sign among many that the identity of the secular modern, which was based on exclusivist notions of secularism, liberty, solidarity, and democracy in sovereign nation-states, has unraveled, and requires a broader definition.  A new common space has to be negotiated.

It is precisely such a common space that Bach’s music, sacred and secular, describes.  And ironically, perhaps, it seems to me that it is the sacred music—the cantatas we are hearing this evening—that provide the best evidence of what the secular public sphere should now sound like.

Meet Simon Frith – Why we should be frightened by Bach (and why we are not)

We speak with Simon Frith who will be introducing the discussion at our first coffee concert series! John Butt will join him to discuss along with the audience and musicians some of the issues raised.

Please could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.   I’m the (semi-retired) Tovey Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.  My main academic duties now are supervising PhD students and running a popular music research seminar.  I’m also at work on the second volume of a three volume history of live music in Britain since 1950.

It’s fair to say that you’ve had quite an unconventional career for a ‘musicologist’. Please might you tell us a bit about your background and how it informs your current research?   I’m a sociologist rather than a musicologist, so my interest has always been in the meaning of music as a social and cultural practice, rather than the analysis of musical forms (though the distinction between text and context is also something that can be examined and understood sociologically!)

In the past, you’ve written extensively and perceptively on a wide range of socio-cultural issues relating to popular music. How far does this relate to classical music’s role in contemporary society?   From a sociological perspective, all musical practices are open to the same kind of analysis and, indeed, one interesting question is why and how the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ music in contemporary Western societies was first established and is now maintained.

Do you have (or have you had) any particular personal reactions or connections to Bach’s music?   Other than that I’ve always liked listening to it…. no

This project is boldly entitled Why we should be frightened by Bach (And why we’re not). Can you outline some of the reasons why Bach has become such a significant cultural figure, since the ‘rediscovery’ of his music in the nineteenth century?   What interest me here is a kind of double process in which, first, a music which has a religious function became a form of entertainment (people listening to Bach for pleasure; Bach concerts and recordings commodities for sale) and, second, that such entertainment came to be seen as offering a quasi-religious experience — a kind of transcendent uplift — which differentiated it from other forms of commercial musical entertainment (this is true for classical musical ideology generally — see below — but Bach’s music became particualrly important for this from the mid-19th century onwards).

To a significant extent in your writings — as both an academic and journalist — you’ve engaged with academia and ‘high’ culture’s difficulties in taking popular music seriously. How do you think that this might relate to some of the assumptions of earlier classical repertories?   An important strand of the thinking which created the high cultural ideology of the 19th century (the ideas of individual genius, the canon, silent listening, etc, etc) was the need to differentiate aesthetic experiences along class lines while also suggesting that the meaning of real art somehow transcended its social circumstances. To suggest that what we now call classical music (and its audience) was ‘serious’ in this new way necessarily implied that other kinds of music practice (and audience) could not be taken seriously.

Do you think it’s helpful for an audience to try and understand the creative contexts for historically distant repertories – for example, in this case, in relation to Bach?    I don’t think it’s necessary to have particular musicological or historical knowledge of Bach’s creative practice in order to enjoy listening to his music, but I think it’s helpful to have such knowledge when discussing why and how we enjoy listening to it (just as such knowledge is important for the musicians who have to make — and justify if only to themselves — performing decisions).

What do you think is particularly helpful or special about approaching Bach’s music in this format?   This format would be great for any kind of musical performance–we still know remarkably little about how people actually listen to and make sense of music–but it’s particularly interesting for Bach, partly because his music obviously raises interesting questions about the relationship of religious and aesthetic experience and partly because the music itself was first composed and heard when such questions about the nature of individual belief were of wide public concern.

Meet Simon Frith and join the discussion with John Butt at our concerts exploring JS Bach’s in early February 2015!
4th of February @ 6pm Greyfriars Kirk – Edinburgh Book Now

5th of February @ 6pm Glad Cafe – Glasgow Book Now

Meet the musicians – Mhairi Lawson

We catch up with Soprano Mhairi Lawson ahead of our Messiah performances in December 2013.

Tell us a bit about your early life. How did you come to be a singer? Did you play any instruments? Were you encouraged by your parents to pursue music as a career?   I don’t remember ever not singing something or other.  Sang around the house, in church and sundayschool, in school.  My parents are both active in choirs and amateur opera societies, it was normal for the house to be ringing with some kind of noise.  I learned the piano, played for local ballet lessons and also occasionally church organ. A career in performing music came as a bit of a surprise as we didn’t know any professional musicians and there were none in the family. My parents were and still are extremely supportive.  My Dad is still holding out for the yacht I’m supposed to buy him….

In recent years, you have really started to feature as one of the top specialist performers of baroque repertoire. Did you find yourself instinctively attracted to this repertoire? When did that happen?   I have been extremely privileged to have been given good opportunities to work within the area of historical performance practice – it seemed to choose me, and I wonder if my childhood exposure to a lot of national and traditional music of Scotland, particularly dance tunes, contributes also to my love of 17th and 18th century repertoire.

You’ll be performing Messiah with us in December. I’m guessing that you’ve sung the work many times (!). How do you manage to bring fresh insight to it with every performance?    Yes, I’ve sung this work many times – I never get bored with it, I always work it with my voice teacher to find a higher level of delivery – this is a lifetime’ s work.

What do you enjoy most about singing with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort?   Being involved in all aspects of the work in progress ie. as chorister and soloist is immensely rewarding – hard work, mind you, physically and mentally.

When you’re not singing or travelling between engagements, how do you spend your time?    I do the following….  build Lego star wars models with my 5 yr old boy, nag my husband,  build lego batman models, plant vegetables,  catch up on “worthy” reading to keep ahead of my historical performance students at the Guildhall School in London,  build Lego chima models,  go to the hairdresser, make damson gin and goosebarry and blackcurrant jam,  watch DVD box sets of ‘boardwalk empire’ and ‘homeland’, drink gin, go to the opera as much as possible.

Do you have any advice for young singers considering pursuing their art as a professional career?   Hmm, difficult.  I was told by a well meaning teacher that I’d never have a career and that I should probably give up. I suppose that my advice would be – ignore people wanting to give you advice.  At least, choose your advisors carefully!

Mhairi will appear with the Dunedin Consort at the following performances:   Fri 20th of December 2013 @ 7.30pm The Queen’s Hall – Edinburgh 01316682019 Handel’s Messiah Sat 21st of December 2013 @8pm Kelvingrove Museum (Glasgow) 01413538000 Sold Out (£10 Standing Gallery tickets available) Handel’s Messiah Sun 11th of May 2014 @ 3pm The Queen’s Hall – Edinburgh 01316682019 Madrigals of Love and War

Meet the musicians – Jonathan Manson

We speak with Jonathan Manson ahead of his concerto appearances with Dunedin on August 2nd (The Brunton/Musselburgh) and September 17th and 22nd (Perth Concert Hall/Lammermuir Festival)

How did you end up playing the cello? I started on the violin when I was six but found it very frustrating as my sister already played the instrument much better than I could.  A year later, when I first tried the cello at our village primary school in Aberdeenshire, I was completely smitten – mainly because playing on the bottom string sounded to me just like a Land Rover starting up!

As a cello (and viola da gamba) player your role keeps constantly shifting. One day you are supporting the bass line, others you are part of the harmony and others you need to play the most difficult solo pieces. Is there a particular role you enjoy better? I feel very lucky to have such a variety of roles, often on different instruments, which all help me to get different perspectives on the music.  The difficulties involved in playing a concerto are obvious, but the craft of playing a bass line – which involves being responsive and flexible but also guiding the music with conviction – has particular challenges which I relish.  Playing middle parts, which I usually do on the tenor viol, is also great fun as one usually gets the juiciest harmonies.

The cello concertos you will be performing in August (Vivaldi) and September (CPE Bach) are very different. What challenges do each one bring? The Vivaldi C minor concerto is a wonderfully atmospheric piece, but it’s concentrated into a shorter and denser format so there is less time to develop the musical ideas: one has to grasp each character quickly before it changes again.  The CPE Bach concerto, on the other hand, is conceived on a bigger scale and uses a much greater range of the instrument.  The fastest movement is the last, so the challenge is to pace yourself so that you have enough energy left for the tiring passagework that comes just before the end.

What’s your idea of perfection? As I’m writing this in the middle of a heatwave, my idea of perfection right now would be standing on top of a mountain in Sutherland with a fresh sea breeze blowing in my face…

What living person do you admire the most? David Attenborough, who has done more than anyone in the last 50 years to raise awareness of the importance and extraordinary variety of the natural world.

What is special about working with the Dunedin Consort and John Butt? One of the things I appreciate the most is the working atmosphere in the group: the focus is always on the music and how we can best serve it, rather than on personalities and politics.  I’m sure we are all infected by John Butt’s generous, inventive and open-minded spirit, which helps us all to feel involved in the delight of ‘rediscovering’ the music.  I find it fascinating that pieces I’ve played hundreds of times before can seem so fresh and vivid when we’ve worked on them with John.  And his razor-sharp wit keeps us all amused, which is an added bonus!

Jonathan Manson performs:

Vivaldi’s concerto RV 401 2nd of August @ 7.30pm The Brunton in Musselburgh  EVENT INFORMATION CPE Bach in A minor 22nd of September @ 7.30pm St Mary’s Church – Haddington Lammermuir Festival SOLD OUT CPE Bach in A minor 17th of September @ 7.30pm Perth Concert Hall – Perth EVENT INFORMATION                 You can find out more about Jonathan Manson from our artists’ page.

Meet the Musicians – Nicholas Mulroy

We catch up with Nicholas Mulroy ahead of his appearance as the Evangelist in our upcoming concerts next week.

When did you decide to become a singer? There probably wasn’t a specific timing to the decision. I studied languages at university, and when I spent a year in South America I missed the collective act of music making a lot; perhaps that was when the seed was initially sown.

What would have you become if you had not pursued music professionally? I worry that I’m unemployable otherwise, but I think I might have followed my parents into some sort of educational job. I enjoy the bits of teaching I do at the moment, and those times when you can see or feel something getting through to someone for the first time can be incredibly satisfying, which isn’t unlike something we aim for in performance – a moment of direct communication.

Tell us about one of the highlights of your career to date? That’s a difficult one! I tend not to look back very much (also, my memory isn’t what it was…), and often find that people’s ideas about any given concert can differ hugely anyway. But I work regularly with some extraordinary musicians (very much including the Dunedin Consort), and have been incredibly privileged to hear quite amazing performances of all kinds of things in all kinds of places. There are, of course, certain places where it’s always a thrill to sing – the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is very special, for example – but the main thing is the connection between the performers, the music and the audience; when you get that right it’s quite something.

Are stereotypes about tenors true? Do you all really want to sing as high as you can? I might not be the best person to answer that.. Though I do think that performing can cause stress in every musician. In Britain the more neurotic types don’t tend to be indulged too much, whereas on the continent I’ve found there to be more concessions given. Having said that, singing tenor can feel a bit like a high wire act (mostly without a safety net!), and there is of course always an element of macho competition in any extreme sport like that.

What’s special about working with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort? There’s always a strong sense of discovery in everything John does – no two performances are the same, and he creates a fantastic working atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable trying new things, and pushing themselves and each to new places with the music. John wears his huge amount of knowledge very lightly, but is endlessly compelling and never fails to shed new light on what we’re performing, more often than not with unusual and entertaining turns of phrase. It also helps that the musicians of the group are all amongst the very best around.

What keeps you awake at night? At the moment, my four month old son, Michael.

What is the hardest thing about performing the Evangelist role you will be singing with us? It’s a fantastic role to sing. In telling the story, a big part of the piece belongs to the Evangelist, and the way Bach sets the story, harmonically and dramatically, is – in both Passions – completely masterful. But it’s not easy! Firstly, it’s long (and the way we do it with Dunedin means that I sing in all the choruses and the tenor arias, too, so not much time off), so the question of pacing is key. It’s not completely clear how ‘involved’ the Evangelist should be: in the St John, for example, it always seems to me that the storyteller is really very close to the action – he could well be the ‘well-beloved disciple’ mentioned – so one has to consider how emotionally bound up with it the Evangelist should be, and to what degree one is outraged or bereaved by what happens. Bach gives lots of clues, though: harmonically you can feel the story ebb and flow, peak and trough as you go through, all of which helps you along the journey of these extraordinary pieces.

Nicholas Mulroy performs the Evangelist with the Dunedin Consort in their Passion tour this coming March.

Passion Tour Dates 2013:

Wed 13th March at 7.30pm Aberdeen Music Hall John Passion Book Now Thu 14th March at 8pm Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow John Passion Book Now Sun 17th March at 3pm The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh Matthew Passion  Book Now Mon 18th March at 7.30pm St John’s Kirk, Perth John Passion Book Now