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J.S. Bach, William Shakespeare, and Colourising Laurel and Hardy.

January 16, 2020

In a miserably belated attempt to inject a bit of culture into my acrid and aging philistine bloodstream, I’ve determined to listen to a lot of Bach this year.

Accordingly, over the past couple of days I’ve commanded Alexa to play me three different versions of the Goldberg Variations.  Two of the them were played on the piano and one of them was played on the harpsichord.  Guess what? – the one played on the harpsichord didn’t “send me” in quite the same way.

The piano, quite simply, offers a better musical vehicle.  It is warmer, more varied, subtler, more expressive than a harpsichord and it deserves to supplant the harpsichord as anybody’s default-setting keyboard instrument of choice.  In Bach’s lifetime, the pianoforte was an experimental instrument being developed by Bartolomeo Cristofori.  There were not very many of them and Bach certainly didn’t “hear” a piano in his head while composing the Goldberg Variations.  He imagined a harpsichord sound.

I suppose I feel the same way about all-male productions of Shakespeare.  I find them interesting but I don’t look for the greatest performances of Portia or Viola or Rosalind among such productions.  Obviously while writing, Shakespeare must have imagined a young male voice in his head.  Cleopatra looks forward, knowingly, to someone who will “boy my greatness”.  However, when I hear Lady Macbeth, or Miranda, or Imogen in my head, it is a woman’s voice that I hear even though Shakespeare had as little access to female players as Bach had to pianos.

These two examples trouble me somewhat in the context of my unending online war with the people who want to colourise Laurel and Hardy films.  My case against them is so well rehearsed it practically types itself:  black and white cinematography is an art form in its own right, creative decisions were made on the basis that such films would be seen in black and white, decisions involving costumes, lighting, set design, props, and even joke construction – decisions that no form of technology can redress or compensate for.  Colourisation therefore is vandalism, an affront to the visual imaginations of very creative people.  The likes of Welles and Huston managed to defend their own masterpieces from colourisation before they died – should not Laurel and Hardy be entitled to the same (or a similar) level of respect and protection?

So… am I allowed to listen to Bach played on a piano and watch women playing Shakespeare and still object to colourised Laurel and Hardy?

Yes.  Yes I think I am.

I think I can by escaping an overly constricting vision of “intentionality”.  Shakespeare and Bach were constrained (respectively) by legislation and by technology.  They “intended” female roles to be played by boys and the Goldberg variations to be played on a harpsichord only because they had no alternatives.  The critical question is whether creative decisions would have been different if women and pianos had been at Shakespeare’s disposal?  The only answer is – possibly or possibly not.  We cannot, however, imagine “better” texts/scores of As You Like It or Goldberg Variations that would have derived from such knowledge.  We can, however, see colourised versions of 1930s and 1940s film noirs and we can know that they look all wrong.  Nobody who knows anything about film wants to see a colourised version of The Maltese Falcon or Citizen Kane.  Lovers of Shakespeare and/or Bach do not (generally) feel the same way about women on stage and harpsichords.

If we’ve seen Judi Dench playing Cleopatra or heard Glenn Gould playing Goldberg Variations, what we seem to experience is the exfoliation of Shakespeare or Bach.  Such performances feel like an extrapolation of the real logic of certain poetic and musical phrases.  These performances feel “faithful” to Shakespeare and Bach not in some narrowly archaeological sense – minutely reconstructing details of original contexts – but rather in the sense of understanding the essential character of the compositions involved.

Colourising black and white film on the other hand is just messing about with crayons – disfiguring something that makes perfect visual sense on its own terms.

Yes.  I’m right.  I’m still right.


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  1. I now want to watch Laurel and Hardy and listen to Bach

  2. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting this on Shakespeare Day because I’ve been getting into a number of “colourisation” debates again lately…

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