On some problems in performance

Con­sid­er­a­tions for the future of wind bands, part 3

First we must rede­fine the word “Music.” Music is some­thing which hap­pens live before a lis­ten­er. A record­ing of music is not music. A record­ing is again only a sym­bol of some­thing else and a good anal­o­gy is a pho­to­graph. A pho­to­graph of a friend may be ever so vivid and may com­mu­ni­cate much to the view­er, but the pho­to­graph will nev­er be the real person.

We have paid a dear price for the priv­i­lege of hav­ing record­ings. For one thing, we have giv­en up the pow­er and influ­ence which live music once had with the pub­lic. Mahler would take a train from Vien­na to the Nether­lands just to hear a live per­for­mance of one move­ment of one of his sym­phonies. Today we would scarce­ly walk across the street to hear a local orches­tra play a Beethoven sym­pho­ny because in our home we have record­ings of that com­po­si­tion by great orches­tras and great con­duc­tors. At the turn of the last cen­tu­ry, when record­ings were first becom­ing avail­able, Sousa who was the object of enor­mous pop­u­lar­i­ty, refused to make record­ings for he saw them as the death of live music. Records which appeared by the Sousa Band were made in the dark of night, with oth­er peo­ple con­duct­ing, and with­out his knowl­edge. And he was right. On a sum­mer evening in Berlin in the 1890s, one could hear as many as 15 band con­certs occur­ring in var­i­ous parts of the city. Today in Europe and Amer­i­ca there are many towns where there is no live music at all [dis­count­ing pop music].

Anoth­er impor­tant thing which has been lost due to record­ing is the expe­ri­ence of per­form­ing ear­ly music. While it is true we con­se­quent­ly have record­ings of ear­ly music which oth­er­wise we would not have, the fact that this reper­toire has not been per­formed or heard live in so long has caused impor­tant expe­ri­ence in per­for­mance prac­tice to have been lost, leav­ing us only the evi­dence of the eye. For exam­ple, we look at a score of a 16th-cen­tu­ry motet by Palest­ri­na and in our mind we imag­ine it sound­ed the way to looks on paper — no dynam­ics, no phras­ing and no accom­pa­ny­ing instru­ments. This impres­sion seems strength­ened by the fact that the Sis­tine Chapel, where Palest­ri­na him­self heard his music, had no organ. How­ev­er, the pay-books for this Chapel in the 16th cen­tu­ry doc­u­ment reg­u­lar pay­ments to mem­bers of no few­er than four wind bands for per­for­mance with the singers in the Chapel. At the same time, cities and courts in many Protes­tant and Catholic areas were requir­ing their instru­men­tal­ists to appear on Thurs­day evening for rehearsal and on Sun­day to per­form with the choir. Con­sid­er­ing what we now know of the prac­tice of church music of the 16th cen­tu­ry in both Protes­tant and Catholic ser­vices, it is clear that Palest­ri­na nev­er heard a per­for­mance which reflect­ed only what the eye sees on paper.

In addi­tion, the amaz­ing doc­u­ment of per­for­mance prac­tice which Michael Prae­to­rius has giv­en us of church music in 1619 is almost unbe­liev­able. Accounts of the free­dom to expand to larg­er ensem­bles than what the eye sees on paper from one ensem­ble to as many as nine sep­a­rate ensem­bles, free­dom to change and expand the notat­ed instru­men­ta­tion seen on paper, free­dom to alter the dynam­ics and tem­pi, free­dom to add even the inter­po­la­tion of com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tions in the midst of what appears on paper.

Michael Prae­to­rius, Syn­tag­ma Musicum, 1619

Anoth­er aspect of ear­li­er music which has been lost to us is the impres­sion of “frozen” music which record­ing implies. The entire per­for­mance ele­ment of impro­vi­sa­tion has been lost. Dur­ing the Baroque the great new demands for court music caused court com­posers to depend on the play­ers to “fin­ish” com­po­si­tions. Take for exam­ple the Vival­di famous Pic­co­lo Con­cer­to in C which is fre­quent­ly per­formed today. After a brief orches­tral intro­duc­tion we come to a pas­sage in the score marked “Solo.” Here the orches­tra has noth­ing but C major chords, one on each bar.

But this is not music. A C major chord is not music. Well, then, the music must be in the pic­co­lo part. But no, there is no music here either, only a long series of Alber­ti bass fig­ures used as sym­bols of har­mo­ny. So we have ten or eleven mea­sures with no music notat­ed on paper. 

The Alber­ti bass meant, “Here the pic­co­lo cre­ates the music and here are the chords.” And this is per­fect­ly safe from the per­spec­tive of Vival­di, for any­thing the pic­co­lo does, even a mere scale, will be more musi­cal than Alber­ti bass fig­ures. We must relearn the fact that the Alber­ti bass fig­ure in the Baroque was not music, but is only a sym­bol to be replaced by real music, a sym­bol for impro­vi­sa­tion. No Alber­ti fig­ure should ever be actu­al­ly per­formed. So what do we hear today? Sure­ly the soloist today will not stand before the orches­tra and audi­ence and play this mean­ing­less fig­u­ra­tion do they? Yes, they all do!

A sim­i­lar prac­tice was present in the Clas­si­cal Peri­od, often using mere repeat­ed tri­ads to indi­cate har­mo­ny for implied impro­vi­sa­tion. The Mozart Clar­inet Quin­tet, K. 581, is a per­fect exam­ple. In the first move­ment Mozart begins with a love­ly descend­ing melody, then a very brief bridge for clar­inet con­sist­ing of what in Eng­lish we call “doo­dling,” then the melody repeats. This mean­ing­less lit­tle clar­inet bridge is there because Mozart, a man with an excep­tion­al abil­i­ty to hear and iden­ti­fy musi­cal idioms, was think­ing, here is a solo work for clar­inet and in its first entrance has the clar­inet play­er doing what every clar­inet play­er does imme­di­ate­ly after he first puts his instru­ment togeth­er, play a series of tri­ads to make sure it works.

In the devel­op­ment sec­tion we have an exam­ple not infre­quent­ly found in Mozart of him show­ing o# his skill in com­po­si­tion by ignor­ing how­ev­er beau­ti­ful the melodies he has used in the expo­si­tion sec­tion and instead demon­strat­ing his skill in mak­ing a musi­cal devel­op­ment out of some insignif­i­cant frag­ment, in this case, that lit­tle doo­dling by the clar­inet at the begin­ning. So we hear each string instru­ment, one after the oth­er, with writ­ten out impro­vi­sa­tion on this lit­tle fragment.

Final­ly, when it is the soloist’s turn, Mozart does not write out sim­i­lar impro­vi­sa­tion using 16th notes but writes only tri­ads con­sist­ing of sin­gle eighth-notes. He was obvi­ous­ly say­ing to the clar­inetist, “Now it is your turn, impro­vise using the chords which are given.” 

This is so musi­cal­ly obvi­ous that sure­ly no clar­inetist would ever think of play­ing only what is on paper, — beep — beep –beep– beep — beep, would they? Sad to say, they all do. They are think­ing, “Who am I to play some­thing Mozart did not write?” But Mozart did write it, but we have lost the under­stand­ing of the notation.

Going fur­ther back, the tra­di­tion of impro­vis­ing in Church music is not only for­got­ten, but it is also a dark, deep secret of musi­col­o­gy. It seems to us today almost a heresy to imag­ine impro­vis­ing above Plain­chant in the church. But, there are accounts that it hap­pened by Bot­tri­gari, Mersenne, Glare­an and Matthe­son. The great 15th-cen­tu­ry the­o­rist Tinc­to­rius even had a spe­cial name for it, can­tus regalis. Impro­vi­sa­tion was not only a means of cre­ativ­i­ty for the per­former, but the great Hen­ry Pur­cell com­plained that writ­ing every­thing out robs music of the spe­cial qual­i­ty of being per­formed in the present tense [all writ­ten music is ipso fac­to past tense!] How much impro­vi­sa­tion did one hear in the ear­li­er cen­turies? John Donne (1573–1631) found both lis­ten­ers and play­ers were more delight­ed with impro­vised music than notat­ed music.

And so it con­tin­ued through much of the 19th cen­tu­ry, doc­u­ment­ed by that won­der­ful sto­ry Berlioz told in recount­ing his first tour of Ger­many. At the begin­ning of the slow move­ment of his great Sym­phonie fan­tas­tique, he recounts an old­er gen­tle­man impro­vis­ing the begin­ning oboe solo. Berlioz stopped the rehearsal and explained to the man that this was his own com­po­si­tion and he would appre­ci­ate it if the oboist just played exact­ly what he had writ­ten. The elder oboist was embar­rassed, apol­o­gized and promised to obey. And he did for the sub­se­quent rehearsals, but in the per­for­mance he could not help him­self from doing what he had always done, doing his job in “col­or­ing” the writ­ten page.

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