Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Music as Speech -- Quiz Answers!

In my last post I listed several pieces in which there are embedded messages about performance style or what I would call musical rhetoric.

Since no brave soul has come forward yet to give answers, here they are:

1. Siciliana

This is the Adoration of the Magi, the second movement of Respighi's Botticelli Triptych. Good Italian that he was, Respighi depicts the Magi's coming to the Holy Family with a Siciliana rhythm:

The Siciliana or Siciliano rhythm has been used for centuries by composers to depict pastoral scenes like the one depicted in that manger in Bethlehem.

Like many ancient rhythms it has become part of the rhetoric of musical style. Undoubtedly this rhythm existed in melodies long before our current notation system was adopted. Therefore, any interpretation of this rhythm must be undertaken with the understanding that the notation on the page is just an approximation of what the rhythm should feel like when performed effectively.

After the performer can accurately execute the rhythm exactly as printed on the page, he must recognize the rhythm is code for a particular style -- in this case, the Siciliana.  Then the execution must be altered slightly.

The characteristics of a Siciliana are a moderate or slow tempo and a lilting feeling.  These can be accomplished by showing the flow of quarter/eighth, quarter/eighth, etc., with the eighth acting as a pick up note to each successive quarter.

The sixteenth note in the middle is just a gentle addendum to the eighth note. It should not be emphasized or given much weight.  The weight in the phrase goes from quarter to quarter with the eighth acting as an uptake of energy and the quarter as a release of that energy.

Here would be my way of grouping the three notes.  As you can see, the notation system used doesn't allow for this to be made explicit. So often the beaming and bar lines in music simply function as a mathematical accounting system and can get in the way of good phrasing and musical style.

Sometimes the execution of this rhythm is taken a step further by delaying and lightening up on the sixteenth so that it becomes close to a 32nd note.

Here is an effective way of performing this passage from the Hindemith Sonate:

 Note also the tenuti on the dotted eighth notes (Hindemith) and the staccato (really more of a lift than a staccato) on the 16ths and 8ths (Stees). These changes, along with the displacement of the 16th give the music a lilt that it would lack with a literal interpretation of the rhythms and articulations on the page.

2. Fanfare

Here is another dotted rhythm, this time articulated and in a fast tempo. This is a Fanfare or Signal rhythm. You could trace its roots back to ancient times when brass instruments were used to signal in hunting or to present royalty.

Practice evolved over time -- perhaps in order to make the announcement or call more stirring -- to put a space or lift between the dotted note and the short note.  Used by Mozart in the last movement of his "Jupiter" Symphony it adds a royal flourish to the motives of the movement.  In conjunction with the use of trumpets and timpani in the orchestration the audience at the time would have at least subconsciously felt the allusion to royalty.

There are echoes of this style in the Bassoon Concerto, especially if the performer chooses to articulate the first dotted rhythm:

3. Implied meter. In these examples the composers stray from the printed meter for a short time. They leave it up to the performers to find these hidden codes.

Mozart Symphony #40, mvt. 3

Saint Saëns Sonate, mvt. 2

Monday, October 14, 2013

Music as Speech, Part 5 Embedded Messages - A Quiz

OK, now it's your turn!  Look for the embedded messages in these parts, comment on what you find and how YOU would interpret them. 

1.  Respighi: Adoration of the Magi from Botticelli Triptych
     Hindemith: Sonate for Bassoon, mvt. 1



2.  Mozart: Symphony 41, last mvt.
     Mozart: Concerto for Bassoon, 1st mvt.


3.  Mozart: Symphony 40, 3rd mvt.
     Saint-Saëns: Sonate, 2nd mvt.
     Tansman Sonatine, 1st mvt.



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Music as Speech, Part 4 -- The End of Early Music

The End of Early Music

Another voice from the Period Instrument Movement is Bruce Haynes. Haynes was an oboist and a much-published author.

In his book, "The End of Early Music", he divides the performance practice of Early Music (music pre-1800) during the past one hundred years or so into three camps, the Romantic, Modern and Period styles.

The book comes with a wonderful companion website. It's very helpful to listen as you read to hear the evidence for Haynes' points.

Here are short excerpts from three recordings of the second movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2

Romantic: Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1928)

Modern: Yehudi Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra (1960s)

Period: Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus (1981/83)

The most obvious differences I noticed were the tempi (Stokowski the slowest, Harnoncourt the fastest), pitch levels, use of vibrato/portamento, and trills (Stokowski on the note, the others from above).

You can also hear the long arch of Romantic phrasing in the Stokowski and the smaller waves in the Harnoncourt.

Haynes goes on to describe Romantic Style thus:
  • portamento (sliding between notes on stringed instruments)
  • extreme legato
  • lack of precision (not deliberate)
  • tempos that are usually slower than anyone would use today
  • lack of distinction between important and unimportant beats, due to an unrelenting heaviness and a surfeit of emphasis
  • melody-based phrasing
  • exaggerated solemnity
  • concern for expression
  • controlled use of vibrato
  • agogic accents (emphatic lingering)
  • rubato
Succinctly put, it's the performance of Bach as though it were Wagner

Modern Style:
  • no portamento allowed
  • seamless legato
  • high emphasis on precision
  • unyielding steady tempos
  • lack of beat hierarchy
  • long-line phrasing
  • emphasis on objectivity instead of emotion
  • expression results from exact reading of text
  • continuous and strong vibrato
  • rigidly equal 16th notes
  • no rubato
The performance of Bach as though it's Stravinsky or another Neo-classical composer of the 1920s-30s

Period (or Eloquent) Style:

While I could not find a similar list in Haynes for the Period Style, he lists some of its attributes when describing what a player in the 17th or 18th century might have been expected to recognize or infer from those older manuscripts:
  • figures and gestures and their function within phrases
  • many dynamic changes
  • changing tempo, both long-term and short
  • inflection and note shaping
  • rhythmic freedom used to distinguish the relative melodic importance of notes (agogics)
  • prolonging the first of a group of notes in faster passages and making it stronger, in order to clarify metric groups and delineate figuration (the agogic accent)
  • contrasting articulations
  • pauses
  • bowings based on note importance
That's a lot to take in!  Haynes makes no pretence about his hatred of the Modern Style and refers to the Period Style as H.I.P (historically informed performance).  Doesn't everyone want to be "H.I.P.??

This book is just as thought-provoking as the collection of Harnoncourt essays and made even more convincing by joining it to a companion website (login information provided on the Oxford University Press website.

As I said in my previous post, it's not possible to digest all of this information and translate it to my playing on a modern Heckel bassoon in a present-day American symphony orchestra.  Perhaps at some point there will be US orchestras in which the players are skilled in modern and period instruments (I have a friend in the Zurich Opera who plays modern horn for 19th, 20th and 21st century repertoire and period horn for Mozart, etc.), but that day has not come.

However, as I mentioned before, the Period Style is thriving and has crept into the fabric of classical music everywhere.  Through the recording industry it is now just as likely that you'll hear Mozart performed in Period Style on the radio as you will Modern Style. This has changed the way a mainstream symphony orchestra approaches music pre-1800.

Now to a very important point I'd like to make:

Why am I so concerned about musical style?

Because, in my opinion, the teaching of musical style for bassoon (at least in the US) has become relegated to something of a frill. There are many factors causing this:
  • The instrument is so damn hard to begin with that most people have enough to do just playing it in tune, getting the notes and making reeds for it!
  • The audition system in American orchestras encourages a safety-first, accuracy-oriented approach to playing that discourages statement-making or risk-taking. Thus, no style.
  • By and large, teachers of the bassoon have for the past few decades devoted an enormous amount of energy to the CRAFT of bassoon playing at the expense of the development of musical artistryin their students.
As a result, playing with great attention to musical style on the bassoon (I'm hesitant to apply this to other instruments) has become pretty rare. So often in an orchestra one hears the bassoon play a big solo right after another woodwind instrument does it and it comes off as a poor cousin in relation to quality and interest in the playing of others.

Don't get me wrong -- it's extremely important that young bassoonists have a mastery of the craft of playing (control of the instrument).  However, I doubt anyone decided to become a professional bassoonist to demonstrate how well they flick or double-tongue!

So how can someone learn to play with style?

Style involves first absorbing all of the information in a score, deciding what to do with it and then showing how style fits in.

Harnoncourt says,"Understanding the work must be accorded first place. How does the work communicate itself to the listener and what part do its stylistic features play in this communication? Is it a question of the style of a particular period. . . or is it the personal style of the composer?"

Great performers in the Baroque period understood the rhetorical symbols and codes in a text so well that composers didn't need to write instructions for every note.  Today, due to the heterogeneity of musical styles, composers who want their works to be performed in a particular way are very meticulous in marking instructions. Thus, when encountering music in which little or nothing but the notes are prescribed, the performer may feel at a loss unless he has a knowledge of the performance style.

Without knowledge of a piece's style, the fall back is usually one of the following:
  1. Shallow, characterless performance or,
  2. "My teacher told me to play it that way
  3. That's the way they do it on the recording
  4. My edition says to do this (Can we please give up on Schoenbach's editions of Vivaldi and Weber and Guetter's Mozart?!) 
Interestingly, Haynes says, "To play literally 'as written' from the page, Urtext style, would thus -- paradoxically -- be to play not as written, as it would overlook the shorthand messages embedded in the notation and assumed to be understandable."

It's my assertion that many of these shorthand messages survive in the musical culture today.  Their functions may have changed, but they are there if you look for them.

In my next post I'll give some examples from bassoon literature that have messages embedded in them.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Music as Speech, Part 3 -- The Rhetoric of Musical Style

Musical Rhetoric or Style

In this post I'd like to introduce the views of a musician from the Period Instrument movement.

Nicholas Harnoncourt has devoted his whole career to the historically informed performance of works of the past. As such he offers incisive and challenging views to those of us who perform all periods of classical music on modern instruments.

While it is a waste of time to attempt to somehow accurately perform music "the way it sounded" when performed in the past, through description by contemporaries and study of surviving manuscripts and instruments from the time, a very compelling way of performing music from the past has developed.

Right here in the Cleveland Orchestra I've seen a big change in our orchesta's attitude and ability when such specialist conductors are brought in to perform a Baroque program for instance.  Although some string players will complain about the sparse vibrato and all those open strings and the woodwinds may whine about the greater variety called for in articulation and the lack of a long line in phrasing, the results get better with each passing year.

Our orchestra has trouble with the type of conductor who enjoys making lots of last minute changes in the parts or displays a more spontaneous approach to performing -- one that lacks consistency from night to night. This is where the two cultures clash. One that strives for consistency and perfection in ensemble night after night versus a conductor who's used to working with smaller, more flexible forces for performances that are ephemeral and spontaneous.

We do best when a specialist comes in with all the parts meticulously marked -- which repeats to take in a suite, dynamic changes in repeats, articulation suggestions that differ from the printed ones, even suggestions as to where to ornament.  Some spontaneity works well, but our rehearsal time is short and expensive!

Back to Nicholas Harnoncourt!

In his thought-provoking and challenging set of essays, "Musik als Klangrede", available in English as "Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech", he lays out the problem for performers today who approach music of the past:

"It was clearly understood by instrumentalists in the 17th and much of the 18th Century that their music was always expected to "speak."  After all, rhetoric with its complicated terminology was included in every school curriculum and, like music, was considered part of a proper education. And since the doctrine of the affections had been an essential component of Baroque music from the very beginning -- the objective was to arouse certain emotions in the performer, in order to communicate them to the listener -- there was a natural link between music and rhetoric."


"Theorists (of the time) occasionally stress that the composer and performer do not need to be aware that they are observing basic rhetorical principals; after all one need not know grammatical rules to master one's mother tongue. Any violation of the rules is instinctively felt to be wrong, whether or not the rules themselves are conspicuously known. The matter-of-factness with which composers and interpreters assumed that their audience understood their "tonal discourse" amazes us, since both musicians and listeners today often have great difficulty with this very understanding.

This is because musical life today is fundamentally different from that of the Baroque age. We play and listen to music from four or five centuries, sometimes at one and the same concert, and we are told so often that true art is timeless, that we casually and without the necessary knowledge compare works from the most widely differing periods. The listener of the Baroque period, on the other hand, heard only the latest music, and since musicians of the time only played the latest music, it is clear that the nuances of this musical language were well understood by both parties."

He has this to say about a letter Mozart wrote to his father about the audience reaction to the premiere of his "Paris" Symphony (#31).

"His remarks about the audience also deserve particular attention. Mozart is not at all surprised that the audience applauds between the movements, or even while the musicians are still playing; in fact he seems to count on it. This spontaneous applause reassured the composer that he was understood. Indeed, part of the music was probably lost at first hearing in the lively reaction of the audience, so that repeats may have served a dual purpose. There is no loud applause after the intimate andante, of course. The original andante, which Mozart preferred to the other movements is not known at all today, although he considered it the equal of the others -- "each is good in its own way." The reaction of the audience demonstrates quite clearly just how far-reaching are the changes which have occurred in the way music is played and listened to. At that time, people wanted to be surprised by something new, something they had never heard before. The listener gladly allowed himself to be moved to outbursts of excitement when a gifted composer succeeded in a particularly effective flash of inspiration. No one was interested in what was already known; the stress was on novelty and only novelty. Today, on the other hand, we are interested practically only in what is known and what is all too well known. As musicians, we feel quite keenly that this desire to listen only to what is known is carried too far, for example when we play Beethoven's Seventh Symphony several times for the same audience in a very short time. Or we find quite embarrassing the audience's, and sometimes even the conductor's, lack of interest in unfamiliar works of the present or of the past."

The immediate and intense audience reaction fits with reports by other audience members, performers and composers of this time. The freshness of a new composition being performed for the first time -- combined with an audience and performers who engage in a musical dialogue with established codes embedded in the music that everyone understood -- work together to trigger emotional states in the performers and listeners that would be out of place except perhaps at the end of the performance today.

Harnoncourt is right when he says that today, most often audiences applaud a great performance, not a great piece. When the piece is already well-known (and most on programs today are), the excitement is generated by the excellence of the performance. (The famous exception to this rule might be Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which never fails to illicit a great response.)

We can't or perhaps don't even want to get back to performing circumstances this volatile. What if the audience, spurred on somehow by Baroque or Classical convention decides it hates a piece of music and disrupts the performance? This is a rhetorical (ha-ha!) question because, as stated by Harnoncourt above, the nuances of performance style in a particular period of music have been obsured by the centuries and through competition with so many other styles of music.

But all is not lost. While it's not possible for the performer in a multi-tasking symphony orchestra to bring the kind of knowledge and experience of a Harnoncourt to a piece by Bach or a Hogwood to a piece by Mozart, there are still some rhetorical devices with life left in them that have survived the ravages of time. These, when recognized and properly acknowledged in performance, can still stir emotion and recognition in listeners.

Some of these date from Early Music, some come from the woodwind, string and brass pedagogy of the past century, some come from what I'll call the American Symphonic style.

More about this in my next post.