Is Nationalism Really Rampant in Early Music?
Andreas Staier was born in 1955 in Göttingen, Germany. He was the harpsichordist for Musica Antiqua Köln for three years and has performed as a Hammerklavier and harpsichord soloist with all the major early music ensembles. In this article, he responds to the controversial VAN interview with Mahan Esfahani from April 6, 2017.
By now I’ve gotten used to the endless stream of communication coming from Mahan Esfahani. These statements are only ever about one thing: how hostile powers are conspiring against him, the innocent victim. Now the stream is flowing faster; he’s beginning to personally insult people. “Having funky hair or playing a little bit of jazz doesn’t make you iconoclastic if your harpsichord playing is perfectly orthodox,” he says in VAN. He doesn’t name names, but there’s no doubt about whom he means. It’s Jean Rondeau. I’ve never met Rondeau, but I’d still like to respond to these claims.
I had heard of Esfahani for the first time in 2006 at the Bach Competition in Leipzig. At the time, a few members of the jury told me that he simply refused to accept that he didn’t make into the finals. He was willing to blame the jury, along with anyone and anything else he could think of for this—anything except for his own playing. In the following years, he communicated an intense enthusiasm for the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. This went to the extreme of him claiming to be a disciple of Leonhardt’s, without having ever taken a lesson. In truth, he only met Leonhardt a few times, and even those meetings were brief. In any case, he had his obituary prepared and ready to go; 24 hours after the harpsichordist’s death, his “First Tribute by a Disciple” was already online.
A short time later Esfahani’s perspective changed. By 2014 he was characterizing Leonhardt’s playing as “willful dullness.” This was just the beginning in a series of increasingly hostile attacks against Leonhardt and his students. If there are musical reasons for this change in paradigm, I’d be curious to hear them. But until they’re given, I have to assume that it was a new marketing strategy that was being employed here.
Over the last three years, Esfahani has stylized himself as a savior from the degrading influence of Leonhardt’s school. This school, he claims, represents a conspiracy of the bourgeoisie, and he is the only one who recognizes it. In an interview with Die Welt, he says:
If you go back to the glory days of the harpsichord as a solo instrument, most harpsichordists were Jewish; many, such as Wanda Landowska and Zuzana Růžičková, were women; or they were the children of small towns from humble backgrounds, like Ralph Kirkpatrick or George Malcolm. That all changed after World War II. A new movement began, which was inseparable from wealth and social class.
To summarize: rich, non-Jewish men repress and replace Jewish women and the poor. But this generalization is ludicrous. Neither Ton Koopman nor Bob van Asperen, to name just two of the most prominent first-generation Leonhardt students, came from wealthy backgrounds. Koopman is from Zwolle, a small town in Holland. George Malcolm, on the other hand, was born in London. Here’s the problem: if you substitute “wealth and social class” with “Gustav Leonhardt,” it starts to make a certain (limited) amount of sense. In this case, Esfahani wants to tell us that Landowska was a Jewish woman and Leonhardt a wealthy non-Jewish man. Who could have guessed. So why doesn’t he name Leonhardt, though it so clearly is about him? Because a single name isn’t enough to suggest a conspiracy.
At the beginning of the VAN interview, we learned that Esfahani has traveled to Bruges, where he experiences an epiphany. He discovers what no one had thought possible: some musicians are narrow-minded. He feels excluded and is sure that nationalism is at play here.
Particularly hostile are the “Dutch and French camps.” Whom does he mean exactly? Is there one camp, or are there two? It doesn’t take much of a leap to realize that, again, the Leonhardt school is in his sights. But now France is involved and everything becomes even vaguer. France has its own history of rediscovering the harpsichord, which is quite different to the Dutch one. The only concrete things we learn about these “camps” is that they are against Esfahani, they are hermetical and orthodox, and Rondeau is the prime example of them.
Let’s continue reading and act as if we’re discussing facts here. We’ll start with Rondeau’s pedagogical ancestry. This leads us from Blandine Verlet to Huguette Dreyfus and Ralph Kirkpatrick, then finally to Wanda Landowska, Leonhardt’s complete opposite! That should have been a reason for Esfahani to reconsider some of his ideas, or at least the prospect that his theory is a gross oversimplification. The various strands of the harpsichord tradition are woven together in complex ways. The figureheads of two apparently opposing schools, Landowska and Leonhardt, have more in common than might be apparent upon superficial observation. I’ve always found Leonhardt’s vehement rejection of Landowska suspicious. We often feel pressured to distance ourselves the furthest from those to whom we owe the most. How much Landowska was in Leonhardt? This is certainly a fascinating question. Does Esfahani attempt to answer it? No. Does he make any other, more detailed observations about the way he understands the differing national traditions in early music, does he characterize them or contrast them with one another? No. Why does he speak so vaguely? He has to. Otherwise it would be easier to recognize his nonsense.
Esfahani builds a wall of words this way: he takes a piece of paper and divides it into two sides. On the left side, he writes a list of political buzzwords. On the right, he writes the (alleged) characteristics of his current enemies. On the left, it’ll say, for example, Racism, Nationalism, Conspiracy, the more serious the charge the better; and on the right, overdone articulation, large inheritance, running around barefoot, the more disparate the adjective the better. And then he randomly draws lines connecting the left and right sides, takes a deep breath (“How much time do you have?”)—and speaks! What’s important is that he doesn’t name names and keeps the terminology as vague as possible. If, after reading the interview, you feel unsure of yourself or wonder if you’ve understood everything correctly, you can relax: for long stretches there’s nothing to understand. The keywords are connected grammatically, but not logically, with one another.
I heard Esfahani in concert once, at the York Early Music Festival in 2015. His figured bass realization was not up to the complexity of English and French music of the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t mean he played wrong notes, which can happen to anyone; instead, the voice leading was incorrect and awkward, the chords were wrong, and the polyphonic textures were oversimplified. Let me be clear: this isn’t a judgement based on my personal taste, but a statement of objective mistakes. (Whether I personally liked it or not is irrelevant in this context.)
Isn’t it quite bold to accuse a colleague of infertile orthodoxy when your own understanding of music is at a level where the terms “orthodox” or “unorthodox” aren’t even relevant yet? Esfahani dismisses Rondeau’s talent for improvisation. It’s fine if jazz improvisation on the harpsichord isn’t to his taste—as he says, he prefers hip hop and bluegrass. And that’s a good thing, because if he tried to improvise, he wouldn’t be able to; he doesn’t have enough understanding of harmony. The difference between Rondeau and Esfahani has nothing to do with nationalism. The calculus is much simpler: Rondeau is the more competent musician.
Esfahani criticizes the early music world’s “obsession with articulation.” Should we discuss the importance of articulation in the 18th century treatises? No, it’s not worth it—Esfahani already represented the opposite point of view in his obituary for Leonhardt. In that article, he writes of spending entire nights studying Leonhardt’s articulation. Everything becomes arbitrary and interchangeable. The rhetorical climax of the interview is his statement on the Enlightenment:
“The Enlightenment freed slaves, the Enlightenment gave equal rights to women!” It’s a magnificent sentiment. If only the context wasn’t one where conspiracy theories and patchwork history reign.
He’d sell his soul for a little publicity. A little calm would be much better. But he can’t afford it. His fame and his career have more to do with his words than with his music. The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other.
Mahan Esfahani shows that the post-factual discourse has found its way into the world of classical music. ¶