EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author. It first appeared on Reichel Recommends: The Arts in Utah and Beyond.
How wonderful it would be to be able to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony exactly as it was heard at its premiere! Or would it?
Let’s picture it. It’s December 1808. You live in a tidy hamlet a few miles from the center of bustling Vienna. Though it has been a few years since you’ve gone to a symphony concert, you enjoy the music of leading composers like Hummel, Reicha, and Weber. The loudest sound you ever heard was thunder from that storm in the summer of 1806, but that doesn’t really count. Your biggest manmade bang was the local 18-piece military band that plays on the town green on holidays.
Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.
The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.
You’ve heard about this rascal, Beethoven! How he’s terrorized Viennese society with his erratic behavior and avant garde music. You’ve thrown up your hands attempting to play through one of his piano trios, and as far as his string quartets are concerned – well, forget them because they are incomprehensible.
But you’re curious and want to keep an open mind, and even though it’s a frigid day you’ve decided to make the hour-long trip into the heart of Vienna to hear the premiere of his Fifth Symphony at the Theater-an-der-Wien. As you enter the city center, the noise level increases along with the urban energy. The commotion of horses and carriages, merchants, and shoppers, upsets the tranquility of your accustomed existence but adds to your growing excitement. You arrive at the concert hall where there is a continuous, low hum of anticipation among the throng.
You find your way through the cavernous, candlelit hall to your seat in the balcony. In the unheated building it’s not quite as cold here as down below in the orchestra section where the audience, which will stand through the entire concert, huddles together for warmth. While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.
By intermission you’re exhausted and have to go to the bathroom. You’re inclined to go home, but because going to the symphony is such a rare event and you’ve paid royally for a ticket you decide to see it through to the bitter end of the program, which after the Fifth Symphony will include two more movements from the Mass, an improvisation on piano by Beethoven, and finally his Choral Fantasy.
With stolid determination, after intermission you return to your seat. To your surprise you see not only the usual musicians on stage, you see three trombonists, and, is it really? Yes, a piccolo player! To your knowledge none of these instruments has ever been used in a symphony orchestra! What could the madman have up his sleeve? You think optimistically, these are the instruments you’ve heard in the village band. Maybe this new symphony will have the marches and beloved landler you enjoy so much. Maybe this symphony won’t be so bad, after all. You lean forward in your seat, anticipating a downbeat as pleasantly bucolic as the beginning of the Sixth Symphony you heard only two hours before.
Those first four notes!! You are thrown back against your seat. No symphony has ever started like this. The strings, all in unison, playing with driven intensity. It feels like the loudest noise you have ever heard. Not just in a concert hall. Anywhere. In your life. The intensity. The power. The maniacal repetition of those four notes. The four notes that will become the most famous in music history. And on and on it goes. At times the orchestra almost has to stop playing because the music is so radically different and difficult. As you will find out later, this is not really so surprising because the musicians had only one rehearsal.
Now, let us jump forward 200 years and compare our perception of classical music relative to the world around us now. Today, noise is our constant companion. Mechanical noise, industrial noise, crowd noise, workplace noise, iPods, YouTube, television, radio, you-name-it-noise. Noise from cars, buses, planes, trains, subways. Noise disguised as music surrounds us from elevators to supermarkets to sports stadiums in decibel levels corrosive to our hearing, tranquility, and mental well-being. Noise is non-stop.
And what has happened to concert music and musical instruments since Beethoven’s time? What is the single similarity in the evolution of every orchestral instrument from the piano to the violin to the flute to the trumpet? Answer: They have progressively become louder, with greater ability to project sound. (Many would say with a more beautiful sound as well.) Why? Because concert halls got progressively bigger in order to seat more people. And why were bigger concert halls necessary? Because composers, beginning well before Beethoven, wrote symphonies drawing upon more and more musicians and a greater variety of instruments. Berlioz wanted an orchestra of 400 musicians. Mahler’s Eighth, “The Symphony of A Thousand.” And why did composers do that? Ah hah! Because that’s what listeners wanted to hear.
Let’s go back to our premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth and approach it from our 21st century perspective. Beethoven had an orchestra of 50 musicians, give or take. Their individual level of playing is somewhat spotty. Probably they sounded like a decent college orchestra. The horns and trumpets were valveless, meaning the ability to play all the notes of the scale were significantly limited and those chromatic notes that were attempted were difficult to play in tune and with full tone. The string players played on instruments that had significantly less power than instruments you hear today. (In a nutshell, virtually all string instruments that were made until the mid-19th century and are still in use have been substantially restructured in order to provide the projection and brilliance we are enamored of today. A new bass bar, a re-angled neck, a re-contoured and lengthened fingerboard and corresponding bridge, metal and/or synthetic strings constitute a few of these changes. Even the design of bows changed radically in the mid-1800s to be able to produce greater intensity of sound.) So in this regard alone, the shock and awe of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth would be reduced to milquetoast.
Now is a good time for me to rephrase the original question: Do we really want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was heard at its premiere? Do we want to listen to 50 unevenly trained musicians, give or take, playing for four hours on weak instruments that are hard to play, in an unheated concert hall conducted by a deaf man on one rehearsal?
Let’s take a look at the issue from another angle: performance practice. These days there are a group of wand’ring minstrels (usually conductors) who travel throughout the world cloaked in a banner on which they’ve emblazoned the words “Historically Informed.” They give performances purported to be authentic reenactments of music from the 18th and early 19th centuries. We’re supposed to pay reverent homage to these musicians for their painstaking research and to feel the didactic thrill of their cause.
First of all, any professional musician worth his salt is historically informed, and for a small group to claim exclusivity to common knowledge about performance practice conveys a public misperception at best and is an insult to the majority of performing musicians at worst. One reason I have trouble with this brand of music-making is that purveyors of H.I. performances tend to cherry pick from the available historical record, satisfying their own personal preferences while claiming to be the real deal.
Here’s one example. For decades there’s been a heated debate over whether or not string players should play music up through the time of Beethoven with vibrato (the rapid oscillation of the finger on a given note, which provides a unique luster to the tone). There was even one H.I. conductor I worked with who went so far as to say that music by a composer as late to the table as Mendelssohn should be played without vibrato whatsoever. (Just think about the Mendelssohn violin concerto for a moment. What is wrong with this picture?)
If scholarship on this tempest-in-a-teapot issue was ironclad, then maybe the H.I. crowd would have a point. But the fact is that every contemporary tome from the period in question that I’ve been able to lay my hands on says not only that vibrato was used in those bygone days, but should be used! In 1542, barely a moment after the violin’s umbilical chord had been cut from its viol ancestors, we have the first documentation of vibrato, strongly suggesting that the practice was already a prevalent component of technique. [Silvestro Ganassi, Regola rubertina (Venice 1542, 1543) pt. 1, ch. 2] The use of vibrato for expressive goals is described by no less a virtuoso than the 18th century Italian violinist and scholar, Giuseppe Tartini, composer of the great “Devil’s Trill” Sonata [Traité des Agréments, 1771].
And here’s a quote from Francesco Geminiani’s The Art of Playing on the Violin, from 1751. Geminiani, by the way was, along with Tartini was one of the greatest violinists in Europe and a first-rate composer, and he was invited to perform personal recitals for King George with no less a figure than George Frederick Handel as his accompanist. This is what Geminiani had to say about the technique and nature of vibrato:
To perform it you must press the Finger strongly upon the String of the Instrument, and move the Wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the Sound by Degrees. Drawing the Bow nearer to the Bridge, and ending it very strong, it may express Majesty, Dignity, etc. But making it shorter, lower, and softer, it may denote Affliction, Fear, etc. And when it is made on short Notes, it only contributes to make their Sound more agreeable and for this Reason it should be made use of as often as possible.
You would think it would be hard to dispute this clear documentation of the importance of vibrato. Nevertheless, once upon a time I got into a debate – okay, it was an argument – with an H.I. conductor du jour about vibrato. He kept insisting that we play totally without vibrato (which, for many reasons too boring to go into here, makes our modernized instruments sound pretty lousy). When I said to this erstwhile maestro that I had read in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that it seemed clear our 18th century colleagues played with vibrato, he told me – disdain clearly evident – that I thoroughly misunderstood Geminiani’s meaning, and that I needed to read it in its original Italian. Feeling chastened, I went straight to the primary source, and with more amusement than outrage, discovered that Geminiani, having spent most of his life in merry old England, published The Art of Playing on the Violin in English.
Many H.I. sorts gleefully point to Leopold Mozart’s admonition against playing with too much vibrato, which he called a “tremble:”
There are some players who tremble at every note, as if they had a chronic fever. One should use the tremolo (vibrato) only in those places where Nature herself would produce it. [A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, 1756]
Question: Who is Leopold Mozart? Primarily, he was the sperm donor of Wolfgang, and, if not for this lucky break would have been relegated to the backwater of music history. Leopold Mozart was a capable court musician in the (then) cultural boondocks of Salzburg, Austria. He wrote a good amount of inoffensive music and a well-pored-over method book on string playing. He is also famous for relentlessly badgering his genius son not to compose music that was complicated, emotional, or thought-provoking for fear it would alienate the hoity-toity aristocracy, thereby preventing Wolfgang from obtaining a full-time position, thereby preventing Leopold from receiving a comfortable retirement plan. And who out there, may I ask, can confidently locate “those places where Nature herself would produce” her tremble?
So first of all, whose opinion do you trust? The internationally renowned Francesco Geminiani, or the provincial country bumpkin, Leopold Mozart? Second of all, what does Papa Leopold’s admonition really mean? If he says that you shouldn’t play with too much vibrato, then it would strongly suggest that… Yes, you guessed it! Musicians played with a lot of vibrato. Grumpy old Leopold didn’t like its popularity because “when I was a boy…”.
Sorry to go on ad nauseum about vibrato. Time to move on to a different thought. How many of you have traveled through a hilly country like England or Italy? Have you noticed the change in people’s spoken accent when you wend your way from one village to another? Hell, you go from Brooklyn to the Bronx and it’s like another language. Now, go back two or three hundred years, when the sole possible means of verbal communication was person-to-person and most people rarely left the confines of their natal valley. Just imagine how much that linguistic phenomenon would be magnified! Don’t forget, it wasn’t until Italy’s unification in 1870 that they started thinking about a national language.
My point is, do you really think that there was only one way to play music in that day and age? Do you really think no one (or everyone) played with vibrato? My guess is that the variety of techniques and interpretations was much more vibrant, colorful, and creative than it is now, when easy international travel and instantaneous mass media give us a thoroughly homogenized concept of what well-played music is “supposed” to sound like. So much for the orthodoxy of the Historically (Mis)Informed.
It may sound like I’m arguing for gut instinct over study and scholarship, for loud over soft, for anything goes over good taste. Far from it (though it must be said that some of our greatest artists succeeded admirably by relying on playing “from the heart”). I’ve learned immensely from studying original manuscripts and early editions of Vivaldi and Mozart, of Bach and Beethoven. I’ve read invaluable books about baroque and classical music performance style. I’ve talked to experts about which ornaments are appropriate to French baroque music and which are appropriate to German or Italian. I’ve worked with inspiring conductors, including period music specialists like Trevor Pinnock, who are not only scholars but also exhilarating musicians. The point is that, as it was for my colleagues of yesteryear, good musicianship boils down to that indefinable sense of what will move the audience. You, as a performer, decide what’s special and unique about the piece you are performing, and about every note that comprises it; not whether it conforms to a certain pre-determined (and not necessarily correct) template of what is stylistically “authentic.” Besides, since the only recording technology from bygone days is the printed page, no one today can claim with certainty what “authentic” sounds like. You study the score in as many ways possible, you consider its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts, you consider the implications of the piece’s structure, its harmonic logic, its contrapuntal and motivic invention. You make thousands of judgments to determine what you think is the most compelling way to perform a piece of music, and if you do that beautifully and it grabs enough listeners, you’ll have done your job.
Ultimately, here’s the real question: Do you want to experience what the audience heard at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth, or do you want to experience what they felt? I’ll take the latter any day.
Good article and I agree with most of it. And of course people played also with vibrato in former times, and critique to reduce it indeed suggests that it was a general way of playing and singing. (By the way, a moderate vibrato in the singing voice is a natural phenomenon, not an artificial addendum, so when instruments imitate singing in melodic phrases, vibrato comes naturally.)
But the point of HIP is not orthodoxy, but awareness of stylistic norms which strongly influence both writing and performing music. The scores of the Viennese classics (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) clearly indicate that only a reduced string section can provide the right balance with the woodwinds, and that the much softer brass of the time can only fit-into the texture if played with some delicacy which has become more difficult with the modern instruments. Playing a Mozart symphony with a full body of strings exhausting themselves in deep vibrato drowns the woodwinds which are also under regular attack from loud horns and timpany. The famous recordings of Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra of Mozart symphonies from the sixties demonstrate, however, that a perfectly stylistically-true Mozartian sound is possible when a modern orchestra is handled with a sensitive understanding of the type of music: it is very HIP ahead of its time without any loss in terms of expression and beauty.
Since HIP is a human thing, there will be conductors who have a flawed understanding of it, as happens in any field, but that should not mean that it has not contributed enormously to the understanding of music from times, so different from ours. For instance, playing Beethoven symphonies with a smaller string section and without the heavy, round sound of the romantic period, greatly enhances the eloquence and expression and especially, clarity, of the music, as do quicker and lighter tempi. The truly gifted conductors do pick-out those elements from HIP which enhances their performances and avoid the extremes that they feel is diminishing the music.
I object, however, to the phrase: “You make thousands of judgments to determine what you think is the most compelling way to perform a piece of music, and if you do that beautifully and it grabs enough listeners, you’ll have done your job.” It suggests, namely, that the perfomer’s job is to render music compellingly so that as many listeners as possible will be ‘grabbed’. A better approach would be to try to understand the score, the music, as best as possible and to arrive at the best possible way to render the musical thoughts of the composer. If the music itself is expressive, that should be enough; the number of affected listeners is irrelevant – and also introvert, meditative music which does not swing its arm in heroic gestures can invite numerous listeners into its orbit, like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Debussy’s Preludes, or – to remain within the orchestral repertoire – Debussy’s Faun Prelude, or the adagio from Beethoven’s 9th symphony or Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.
I agree with many elements of your piece, but I also think your characterization of H.I.P. in 2017 is somewhat of a red herring. Beginning with Taruskin’s trenchant criticism of the 1980s, the notion of “authenticity” has progressively disappeared from early music discourse… a CD issued in 1992 might still rock a gold sticker proclaiming an “authentic” performance, but this is long in the past. Most musicians today embracing an “historical” approach are doing so undogmatically, and are simply asking the question of whether an understanding of earlier performance practices might actually bring something out in the music that might otherwise be obscured by the uncritical inertia of mid-20th-century performance practice. Are there still a few around who would sacrifice emotion at the desiccated altar of academic correctness? Surely. But this doesn’t describe the vast majority of historically-informed musicians that I know. The vibrato issue is an interesting case study. No one I know today insists on “eliminating” vibrato. But it seems to me that — following both Geminiani and Mozart — that it serves an expressive purpose, and it might be worth being aware of why you are using it, and how you might vary it intensity according to the context, or even, in certain circumstances, decide to omit it.
Agreed: informed performance ‘from the heart’ is the way to go, and many historically informed performances, to be fair, do this. In other words, most musicians who insist on using the term “historically informed” are loathe make any such claim about authenticity. So in a way you’re creating a strawman here. As for vibrato, John Holloway once pointed out to me that vibrato was indeed advocated. But without a chinrest or a shoulder rest, you inevitably do a different sort of vibrato; not something broad and continuous but more akin to an ornament or coloration. Having said all that, anyone who tells you to avoid vibrato altogether is a fool, clearly. Many superb period performers use vibrato and few of them are the kind of ayatollahs of authenticity you’re writing about.
Mozart wrote a letter to his father from Mannheim, claiming that he came across something unprecendented there: an orchestra whose strings played together!
Who was Leopold Mozart? Certainly not a country bumpkin. He may not have been Geminiani or Tartini, but he was the sole teacher of his genius son, Wolfgang, and and his almost equally genius daughter, Nannerl. His book on violin playing has many valuable suggestions for performers on string instruments based on his own personal experiences as a court musician. In any event, the question of vibrato is connected both to national style and personal taste. The late 19th and early 20th century practice of continuous vibrato was quite different from how vibrato was applied in earlier eras. In the latter era mentioned, sometimes vibrato served as a kind of expressive ornament, and at other times was either more liberally applied or eliminated entirely, especially in quicker passages. I will agree that there are those who go too far with the application of scholarship, especially since they often use it to justify their own personal tastes. But on balance, I find that I personally prefer, say, an historically informed (no one worth his salt purports to be “authentic”) performance of a Brandenburg Concerto to an early 20th century historically “uninformed ” one. For that mater, give me an historically informed performance of a Mozart or Haydn symphony rather than an overstuffed vibrato-laden rendition (played with scores full of inaccuracies and 19th century “updatings”) by one of the “great” conductors of the recent past. But again, this is a personal preference. Nevertheless, throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water, as this writer seems to be suggesting, strikes me as being as extreme as an allegedly scholarly performance which claims to be “authentic”.
Even better – play music mostly by composers who are alive and only play dead people’s music occasionally. Do silent movies dominate the cinema?
But dead composers’ music is not silent and is, for a great majority of listeners, still entirely ‘relevant’ for today. It has not ‘altered’ because it has been written on the basis of the ‘holistic nature of human perception’ (see Steven Semes’ article on this site:
Silent movies date because they are much more related to their environment than music, which is non-conceptual. There are silent movies which have become classics, in spite of their silence.
And for one composer in particular, it was not the music that was silent but the world (Beethoven).
Hi Gerry, nice to see you holding forth. It’s hard to disagree with a lot of it, as the Duke used to say, if it _sounds_ good, it _is_ good.
But I think you’re setting up some straw men here. Few in the HI field would concur these days with Roger’s militant view on vibrato — on the other hand we can observe that constant luxuriant vibrato in string playing didn’t exist until well into the 20th century (for evidence see any number of pre-1920 recordings of Joachim, etc); Mark Katz, in his fascinating book “Capturing Sound — How Technology Has Changed Music,” advances the theory that constant vibrato was devised by Kreisler and contemporaries ca. 1920 to cover small intonation flaws that were fine in a concert hall but laid bare by an electrostatic microphone. What we _would_ claim is that up til then vibrato was used sometimes, as an expressive device.
More generally, having primarily worked the HI side of the street since we last saw each other, I would define HIP as an alternative and evolving lingua franca based not only what antique instruments and early manuscripts and treatises can teach us, but also on cultural factors, rhetorical devices, size and acoustic of performance spaces, etc, with the goal of creating _more_ dramatic and compelling performances, or at least more interesting, than are possible with a standard-issue conservatory approach. For example, a group called the Wiener Akademie gives performances of Beethoven, Liszt, etc in the very rooms in Vienna they were originally played, often much smaller than modern halls. And I’m sure you would agree that sheer volume of sound is not the only factor in creating a compelling performance.
A terrific, knowledgeable, and entertaining piece by Gerald Elias.
When considering vibrato in a performance by a stringed instrument of a Bach fugue, it is helpful to weigh the value of the reverberation of an organ in church…impossible to even come close without the amplification inherent in vibrato.
My main bugaboo in regards to performance practice is the neglect of adhering to the composer’s metronome mark in compositions written after 1817…personally I find that overabundant fluctuation of the tempo robs the work of its lyricism and genuine excitement.
A lovely thought-provoking piece. If time travel were possible, we’d all want to hear exactly how this under-rehearsed orchestra with a difficult program actually sounded in December of 1808. Regarding HIP, I recall a conversation with MTT many years ago (at the height of the “authentic” marketing) in which he asked “does it make the music (i.e. the emotion to which many refer) better?”
The answer is of course, not necessarily. However, I think the question of vibrato, while interesting, pales in comparison to the question of color. Meaning, those natural trumpets, without valves made with period technology have a distinct sound, as most of the instruments as has been pointed out above. The differences in color are fascinating and do provide a “window” into the period.
I saw the Venice Baroque Orchestra recently: A440, with a modern harpsichord, but with baroque bows and bridges. Their Four Seasons was profound and compelling, as if I was hearing the work for the first time. I would contend VBO is valid concert-going experience, but hearing Major City Orchestra do the same repertoire is just as valid. Let us not forget the power of the music itself, no matter what instruments and musicians are used to perform it.
The music withstands quite a lot if it is strong.
Mellifluous piece until it posts a Tacet and turns into a score settling of symphonic proportions. If I may bring the lowly blues guitar into this, go on youtube and compare anyone you can think of to Stevie Ray Vaughn. His wrist delivers every note with vibrato, short or long. Judge for yourself if there are specific stretches for it, or if it just adds body as long as one has the skill set.
Nicely written, but wrongheaded. In general, the debate exhausts me in its pointlessness. There are wonderful musicians in the “historically informed” camp–and more than a few charlatans. Also in the more traditional camp.
The stuff on old Leopold is preposterous. He was no “country bumpkin”–his treatise on violin playing was extremely highly regarded, and consulted for decades all over Europe.
Basically, any performance is a presentation of the musician’s concept of what is beautiful. If you are a good musician, you will come up with a good concept, however you arrive at it. There definitely was a sound in composers’ minds when they wrote their music, and it is different from what we hear today. It is certainly worthwhile to examine what they intended to hear, without slavishly replicating the worst aspects of bygone performance practices. (There is a famous letter from Haydn to an impresario presenting his symphonies in London in which he suggested that they rehearse them before the performance, indicating that this might always have been done.)
Do we want to hear Beethoven (and everything else) played on original instruments, by the astonishingly talented musicians of the Historical Performance movement?
Well, of course we do, and it’s now an established part of Conservatory training, recordings, videos, movies, even VR.
And why not? It’s absolutely fabulous. And there are many fine modern orchestras as well.
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If only HI performances were limited to ensembles playing exclusively on historical instruments, there would be some chance for authenticity. Many top modern orchestras work with HI conductors. String sections are forced to play without vibrato on their normal intruments with steel strings and modern bows and in large numbers, the horns and trumpets play copies of natural instruments without valves, trombones play sackbutts and tympani players use baroque pauken. The woodwinds play their normal modern instruments. And this is presented to audiences of thousands in large halls. The so called expert HI conductors ask for this odd set up and I cringe when I hear ugly string sounds, natural brass having to force their tender instruments in an attempt to keep up with overly forte dynamics while the percussive boing of small kettle drums forced to play too loud is an exclamtion of Hysterically Informed music practice.
The anti-vibrato movement has also infested the vocal scene, forcing some singers to attempt to defy nature to sing without vibrato in early music.
There are very few singers who have made careers singing that way, for two good reasons:
a) it’s damn near impossible to sing without vibrato, and
b) while those who can manage it may sound refreshingly clean for about thirty seconds, the lack of substance in the sound soon has the audience looking around for the exits.
(Besides, it’s hard to take seriously a grown woman who sounds like a six-year-old.)
The other HI fad among some singers of renaissance music is the vilely nasal sound they espouse. They take Chaucer’s line in The Canterbury Tales about the Abbess who “entuned in hir nose ful semely” at face value, which to my mind merely indicates an inability to recognise satire. They also cite in evidence the distorted faces of singers in early paintings, which ignores both the fact that humans of any era look ridiculous when they sing, and that ancients artists also had a sense of humour—and couldn’t depict for nuts.