Stephen Pettitt

Capturing a moment

Stephen Pettitt on how Sir Roger Norrington and others started the debate about ‘authenticity’

Stephen Pettitt on how Sir Roger Norrington and others started the debate about ‘authenticity’

In the late 1970s, the conductor Sir Roger Norrington, at the time in charge of the late and lamented Kent Opera, created the London Classical Players. With this act Norrington, who has just turned 75, joined a small group of musicians regarded by the wider profession as, to put none too fine a point on it, rather nutty. They included his British colleagues Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock, the Dutch harpsichordist Ton Koopman and recorder player Frans Bruggen, the Belgian Sigiswald Kuijken, and, from a slightly older generation, the iconoclastic Austrian conductor and viola da gamba player (and noble descendent of European royalty) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and another Dutch harpsichordist, Gustav Leonhardt. All were united in their determination to ditch received wisdoms, deconstructing accepted norms of performance practice and putting it all together again using as their only tools instruments and treatises from the same epoch as the music they were playing.

Suddenly, old violins which had been modernised to cope with the stresses of metal strings at high tension were converted back to their initial states and strung with gut. Players played them without vibrato and with a comparatively low-tension, light baroque bow. They studiously applied the principles outlined in Francesco Geminiani’s The Art of Violin Playing and Leopold Mozart’s A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing. Flautists dug up, or else had expressly made for them from ancient blueprints, wooden instruments which had holes and no elaborate key mechanisms to make covering and uncovering them easier. The baroque and classical flautist’s bible was a volume dating from 1725, On Playing the Flute, by Johann Joachim Quantz, flute player, flute maker and composer for Frederick II of Prussia.

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