1:02 AM 3rd February 2024
Books: Refiner's Fire Richard Bratby
The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolutiopn
The Academy of Ancient Music is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, the orchestra commissioned Richard Bratby to write its history.
AAM, as it is affectionately known, was the first orchestra to be set up in the UK using period instruments, and Bratby uses first-hand testimony from artists, critics, collaborators, and supporters to chart its development.
Founded in 1973 by Cambridge harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood and record producer Peter Wadland, AAM quickly achieved global fame by lifting period instrument performance from the fringes of 1960s counterculture and putting baroque music into the pop charts.
In the opening chapter, Bratby transports the reader to the area of the Christopher Wren inspired church of St Clements Dane, London, in January 1726, where a group of musicians founded the Academy of Vocal Music to perform music from their past, such as the Italian Renaissance. It is a lovely segue to Hogwood reviving the name by forming the AAM.
It evokes the era well and is used as a preamble on ancient music to suggest that, then as now, the notion of authenticity in performance could lead to bitter controversy.
Fast forward a couple of centuries. Today, if a new group was forming, it would use the power of influencers via social media. In 1973, Christopher Hogwood had no such devices; it was left to the music critics of the day and the recording industry to promote his vision.
Hence the introduction of the charismatic figure of Peter Wadland by the recording company Decca, who first conceived the idea of a sort of period-instrument ASMF (Academy of St Martin in the Fields)—a recording orchestra par excellence. To mark the formation of AAM, it released its first recording of Thomas Arne’s Eight Overtures,
and so the exciting journey to educate the world on period instrumentation began.
Bratby’s research and interviews form a compelling narrative as we discover snippets about the principal protagonists behind the set-up and those who joined along the way. There are lots of fascinating morsels to savour, leaving us to delve into the different personality traits.
The chapter on Mozart and Messiah
details Hogwood’s visualisation of a project to record all of Mozart’s symphonies. There was a lot of Mozart to get through, which required routine. The title of the book comes from a recitative in Handel’s oratorio: 'But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appears? He is like a refiner’s fire'.
It is in this chapter that Bratby details a row that broke out between cellist Anthony Pleeth (who smoked while playing) and William Christie, the American harpsichordist brought in by Hogwood. Like the intensity of magnesium burning, it caused a dispute between the Musicians Union and the non-union members of the AAM.
The revolution that started in 1973 moves on to the post-Hogwood era. His last recording was the 1999 release of Handel's Rinaldo
, which marked the end of his long relationship with Decca, and was reviewed in the Gramophone
as an important Handel recording that would take some beating.
Violinist Andrew Manze, whom Bratby describes as the polar artistic opposite to Hogwood, had a period as associate director, helped by oboist Paul Goodwin. In 2006, Richard Egarr became music director, and he saw choral music as an integral part of the academy’s musical personality. He was succeeded by Laurence Cummings, who is interviewed extensively for the final chapter, 'Postlude, the Past, and Looking Forward'. He is taking on a Beethoven cycle, something that Hogwood recorded in the late 1980s, though High Canning wrote about Hogwood's 'manifest lack of a striking musical personality'.
There are some lovely photographs, a list of interviewees, and references, but it would have been nice to have included a discography.
There is much to glean from Bratby’s account, and he concludes for us all to cry out Padre Palo Sarpi's exaltation, Esto Perpetua!
However, in order for it to continue, refinements and different musical approaches must be made within the vision that inspired the AAM, so it will be interesting to see what developments occur under Cummings' leadership.
Refiner's Fire: The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolution
is published as a hardback and Ebook by Elliott & Thompson.
More information here.
For more on the AAM click here