The Columnist
Knutters standing up in a Theatre by Wendy Hoile

The move towards authenticity in music has embraced conducting, playing and the manufacture of instruments, until now. If you want to hear a piece as it sounded 150 years ago you can go out and hear it. That is the generally accepted theory.

It is, unfortunately, totally false. An authentic performance involves not just the playing of music, but the listening of music as well – in fact, the average concert or recital involves more listeners than performers by a long way – and what is the use of having authentic performers if there is nothing authentic about the audience? All very well having the correct nineteenth-century sounds, but why waste them on an inaccurate and unauthentic twentieth-century audience?

That is why I started the Schola de Auditorio Antiquo, or Ye Olde Authenticke Listeneres (the name tends to vary with the style of music). We are a group of like-minded people, 40 or 50 of us, who consider that the modern style of concert-going with its silence between movements and churchlike devotion is a regrettable development. We wanted to get back to the old days, when audiences clapped when they felt moved to – between movements, during movements – and chatted, ate nuts, bought drinks, flirted and circulated as the music was actually being played. We wanted, in brief, to get fun back into concert-going. The only fun enjoyed by modern audiences is in coughing between movements.

To begin with our approach was not well understood. We first appeared in public in a concert on the South Bank in 1987 and made a sensational debut. As arranged, we spent the first ten minutes in comparative silence, then one of our number stood up and cried to another one: “Lord Mornington, as I live an die! And how is your lady wife?” The second man stood up and returned: ”She is not expected to live another two months, which is plenty for me.” At this point the rest of us got up and drifted into lively conversation, in true authentic fashion, which, as you can imagine, not only gave the rest of the unsuspecting audience a shock but brought the audience to a halt.

The leader of the group (one of those wind ensembles very popular at the time) indignantly called for silence. I, as our leader, equally stoutly shouted back: “You play your authentic music, sir, and we will do our authentic listening!” However, the concert hall attendants were sent for and we were promptly ejected. Nothing daunted, we turned up again at a concert of Haydn music, in the Festival Hall, where we surprised everyone by taking to the floor and dancing to the minuets. Again we were ejected, and again when we attended a performance of the Miracle Symphony. As I am sure you know, the original audience in London was so struck by the music that they surged forward in admiration and a chandelier, which fell from the ceiling, landed on the empty place where the crowd had just been. This suggested two things: one, that the audience had originally been standing and two, that they had room to surge. When the music started, all 50 of us stood up. There were loud cries of “Sit down!” or rather, this being England, loud whispers. “On the contrary!” we roared back. “You stand up! Be authentic!” When the protests grew too loud, we all surged to the front of the hall and clapped the conductor. Then we were ejected, perhaps because he was unfortunately in the slow movement at the time.

We tend to vary the way in which we participate in the music. Sometimes we bring a full eighteenth-century picnic which we unveil and enjoy at a given signal. Sometimes we restrict ourselves to drinking French wines and throwing paper decorations. Occasionally we will mount something really unusual, like a spontaneous duel with swords between two of our members. Yes, the Schola de Antiquo has really made a tremendous difference to the authentic music scene.

If you say that you have not heard of us, I am not surprised. For obvious reasons we cannot advertise our presence, as we would certainly be barred. But ordinary listeners are coming to enjoy our authentic recreations more and more, and if it gets out that we are due to appear at a concert, the ticket sales shoot up in anticipation of our lively presence. Word of mouth ensures us a good following – if you can talk of an audience having a good audience!- and many people have told us that they find it hard to get back to boring twentieth-century audience-going again.

We are not, of course, nearly as old as Domus yet, a group which is celebrating its tenth anniversary at the moment. It may not seem much to a group like the Royal Philharmonic, which is so old it now has none at all of the original members, but ten years is very respectable for a chamber group. Soon it will be twenty years, and twenty-five, and then the embarrassing tribute on Radio 3, and then the inevitable knighthood. I think Sir Domus would sound nice, personally.

But they will have to deal with the recurring question: why do you call yourself Domus? I wonder how many people in twenty-five years time will remember that the group was so-called because they built their own dome-like structure to perform in? I wonder how many people, given the present level of education, even know that domus means house or home? And I wonder how many people know that Domus was originally inspired (as was the Schola de Auditorio Antiquo) by the desire to be absolutely authentic?

The idea was – if I have got this straight – that when the group found out that many of the great composers had written their music in outdoor pavilions, summer-houses and other kinds of temporary structures, it only seemed logical to play the music in the same circumstances. Did Brahms write a piano quartet in a marquee? Then it should be played in a marquee. Unfortunately, the British weather put paid to the total authenticity of their performances, when they found it impossible to get adequate insurance cover for their greatest project of all: to play Night on a Bare Mountain out in the open, on top of Snowdon, after dark.

Temporarily disillusioned they came back indoors, like other groups. But it has done them no harm, in fact they may be healthier for it. They may even be ready for a visit from the Schola de Auditorio Antiquo, soon, We will be the group letting off small indoor fireworks in the back row. Till then, good luck!

Domus Tenth Anniversary Concert programme, November 1989


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