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.

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