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.

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