Score Questioning- Getting to “How”

The only black-and-white, nuts and bolts questions in musical performance are “what” questions- we can say with specificity what note is being played, what the dynamic is, what instrument is playing it, even what motive it is part of, but the execution of these findings is subjective, and therefore, all the “how” questions are artistic ones.

One of the interesting recent trends in the musical world has been that finding new and interesting artistic questions to ask has become a way of building a career for some- fitting since we describe ourselves as living in a “marketplace of ideas.” Find the right question(s), and you’ve found a niche market for yourself (and, more importantly, you might learn something really important and interesting about the music)!

In performance, the most interesting example of this trend has been the emergence of the Historically Informed Performance movement, also known as the Period Performance Movement, the Original Instruments Movement, the Nonnies, the Granolas or the Cosmic Birkenstock Movement for the Restoration of Historical and Knitted-Woolly Values in Musical Performance and Performance-Related Discussion, Advocacy and Argument (okay, I made that one up).

Let’s say for the moment that the basic question at the heart of the HIPster movement is something like this:

“How would this music have been performed at the time it was written?”

Pretty good, and useful, question!Maybe a better, and more specific question would be “how would the standards and practices of all musical performance of the time have affected the composer’s choices when writing the piece in question?”

After all, it would be foolish to think that all composers were always satisfied with the performing standards, working environments and instruments of their day. We’re often told these days that Mozart and Beethoven wrote for small orchestras, but this is not exactly true. They wrote in an era when orchestras were small, but both often expressed the desire to work with larger groups- Mozart was overjoyed to hear his music played in Paris by an enormous orchestra, and Beethoven spent his entire career trying to put together a “big” orchestra to premiere his symphonies, only succeeding with the 9th (although that band was not huge by modern standards).My point is not that we should play this music in huge orchestras, but that we ought to be aware that these composers were working with an inherent friction between what they wanted (big orchestra) and what they knew they were going to get (small-to-medium sized orchestra).

I think a perfectly good case can be made for playing a Mozart symphony with a full-sized band, but the conductor would have take into account aspects of the scoring that were specifically intended to make the piece work with the smaller orchestras Mozart had to make due with. A case could be made that in some works of Mozart you can get closer to what he wanted (as opposed to what he expected) by using a large string section with judicious doubling of the winds in louder places- an approach these days that would not go far with critics. Maybe the thinner sound of some “period” instruments would be better in a huge band than modern instruments? Mozart reorchestrated Handel to make the most of the performing resources of Mozart’s era, why shouldn’t modern musicians- maybe Mozart expected more of that than we know? Lots of possibilities, and lots of questions.

For me, getting away from “yes and no” questions is all-important- you can’t answer “how?” with “yes!”The whole vibrato/non-vibrato issue is a classic example of a question that is best not asked as one that can be answered “yes” or “no.”  We’ve all heard the argument-

“Should we use vibrato in Beethoven- yes or no?”

The fact is, Leopold Mozart’s “Art of Violin” does contain vibrato exercises. Some vibrato was used back then, the questions are when, when not, what kind and how much, and, more to the point why (or why not)? Ask those questions and you’re onto something.

One of the issues at the core of the HIP movement is the whole question of tempi, for instance in Beethoven. So, is the question “should we follow Beethoven’s metronome markings- yes or no?” or is it “why did Beethoven give the metronome markings he did?”

Answer the first question and you are going to get a performance that sounds like an orchestra playing along with a metronome, regardless of whether you say yes or no to the question. Answer the second and you may come up with some genuine insights about the phrase structure, the form, the unit of pulse, the breathing, the bowing, what you conduct, and even about what the piece is actually about. (Remember- Beethoven the pianist was known for his sense of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity.)

Of course, there really is nothing new under the sun- HIPsters are not the only one’s to ask these questions, but maybe the were the first to combine a given set of questions as the central issues they were interested in. Toscanini, Carlos and Erich Kleiber and even Karajan all took careful note of Beethoven’s metronome markings, as did many others, and people have been arguing about and writing about them since the pieces were published. My worry about the HIP movement is that, 25 years in, it is starting to feel like a source of answers rather than questions. I feel like too many listeners now have a fixed idea of what a Historically Informed performance sounds like- take out the vibrato, shrink the band, speed up the tempo, amplify the trumpets and timps and you can’t go wrong. The very fact that I can tell almost any orchestra to play like a period orchestra and they can immediately do it is something I find worrying. When performance is something that can be described in shorthand, something has gone wrong. That’s copying, not interpreting.

What then of someone like Furtwangler, who’s Beethoven tempi tend to be quite uninhibited by the metronome?Many leading modern Beethoven interpreters and commentators, including John Elliot Gardiner, Gunther Schuller and Benjamin Zander have all held up Furtwangler’s performance of the first movement of Beethoven 5 as an example of “how not to do it” in our times.

What they all point out is that he does a lot of things that are not in the score- most notably changing tempo often and rather drastically, especially slowing down for big statements of the main theme. He also doesn’t do things that are in the score, like taking a basic tempo which is slower than Beethoven marks (although not always- plenty of his Beethoven tempi are actually not too far from the marking- at least plausibly in the same meter as Beethoven has marked, which is not always true for conductors like Klemperer and Celibidache).

Naughty boy, Furtwangler.

Next time, I’ll try to figure out what those crazy old dead guys were thinking. What questions were they asking?

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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