EU Regulator Finally Settles Period Musical Instrument Debate


Viktoria Mullova braves Mad Cow Disease of the fingertips.

With a little help from Mad Cow Disease, officials in the dynamic and creative Belgian capital of Brussels have ruled that pre-19th-century music must not be performed on period instruments. The decade-old European Council law No. 999, which was adopted in response to an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, places tight restrictions on importation of beef products. This has made it financially impossible for suppliers to continue making gut strings for violins and cellos.

The Telegraph describes how the EU, which has yet to rule on the broader question of historically informed performance styles, is taking the Baroque repertoire out of playlists:

Special dispensations were granted to some suppliers allowing them to continue to operate, provided they complied with strict precautions.

However, the rules were toughened in 2009 and fears for the industry were sparked earlier this month after one of Europe's leading gut string manufacturers, Aquila Corde, which is based in Caldogno, near Vicenza, was told that its dispensation had ended and had not been renewed.

The company says the Italian government has not yet brought into legislation the latest EU diktats on the issue and that this means the bureaucratic burden of seeking a renewal is now too great.

It has already stopped production of the strings and will instead concentrate solely on synthetic ones.

Mimmo Peruffo, from the firm, said the difficulties it had encountered were part of a wider problem surrounding the EU regulations and predicted that other suppliers could face similar problems.

"This is a Europe-wide problem. The risk of production being closed all round Europe is very big, but there is no risk at all from the strings."

SOFRACOB, France's lone maker of gut strings, went out of business last year. In an article titled "Baching-Mad," the Daily Mail notes that in order to contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a hungry early music performer would have to eat several yards of cello string. 

Soviet-born fiddler Viktoria Mullova, who defected to the free west in the early 1980s, says she "wouldn't be able to play Bach" without gut strings.

"It would be like telling pop stars they couldn't use microphones at a concert," Mullova tells the Telegraph. "Putting metal strings on old instruments would produce a horrible, distorted sound."

In these informal times when everybody pretends they're cool with audiences applauding between movements, it may be hard to remember the monocle-popping passions the "authentic instrument" or "historically informed" debate once stirred. Audiences who first heard Bach in Leopold Stokowski's massively orchestrated adaptations and performers accustomed to loud, ringing modern instruments had a hard time adjusting to the more muted instruments and less indulgent playing style demanded by the period instrument counterrevolutionaries. 

"They say that Bach must not be interpreted and that he must have no emotion, that his notes speak for themselves, " power organist and Mike Douglas Show stalwart Virgil Fox raged. "You want to know what that is? Pure unadulterated rot! Bach has the red blood. He has the communion with the people. He has all of this amazing spirit… They're full of you-know-what and they're so untalented that they have to hide behind this thing because they couldn't get in the house of music any other way! "

For my money the period instrument movement had the same healthy effect as punk rock: Shrinking the size of the ensemble and using less resonant instruments led to more disciplined, less time-consuming performances and encouraged the band to keep the beat. 

Like all such mod/rocker standoffs, the period instrument debate eventually died down, until most people couldn't remember which side they were on in the first place. Now another clumsy set of regulations comes along to get everybody screwed up again. How long before the European Council decides to unite the unruly continent through uniform codes of equal temperament?