Style and Range part II- the value of all that research

I had a wonderfully provocative comment from blogger AC Douglas on my recent post Style and Range. He responded to my statement that-

I think, at the end of the day, you have to learn absolutely everything you possibly can about style, and then you have to disenthrall yourself from it. You have to totally let go of your own ideas about Mozart, Handel and everything else and look to the score, and be absolutely true to what you find, not to what you bring. At the end of the day, its about listening, not about conducting, not about deciding.

as follows-

If I understand your above correctly (and if I haven’t, you can safely disregard the rest of this), then you’re the first working conductor of my cyber acquaintance who essentially agrees with my take on this business of “proper” style.

Over the years, I’ve had an uncountable number of knock-down, drag-out online forum fights with working professional conductors who took quite nasty exception to my declaration that with any piece of music whatsoever, one does NOT approach it in performance by being true to the composer, and/or being true to the performance style of the period in which it was written as determined by musicological research, and/or by being true to the perceived style of the composer. Instead, one must *listen* to the music itself as represented in the score, and be true to what the music itself there tells us it wants to be….


Indeed, I think we are in somewhat broad agreement in principle about this, although I wouldn’t be surprised if we came to different conclusions about what sort of artistic results this kind of approach would or should lead to.

The bit of this comment I most wanted to talk about is this-

With any piece of music whatsoever, one does NOT approach it in performance by being true to the composer, and/or being true to the performance style of the period in which it was written as determined by musicological research, and/or by being true to the perceived style of the composer. Instead, one must *listen* to the music itself as represented in the score, and be true to what the music itself there tells us it wants to be.

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

However, musicological research and knowledge of style, experience of historical instruments and records of performance practice (such as timings, metronome marks and contemporary descriptions and reviews) can tell us a great deal about what the symbols in the score really mean and what we should be listening for.

Mahler used all of the notational symbols that Beethoven did (as well as adding many of his own).However, any piece of notation in Mahler almost always means something different than it would in a Beethoven symphony.

Take as an example a fortissimo whole-note for the first trumpet. In Mahler, this would be a clear instruction for a very powerful note, sustained at equally intense level throughout its entire length. In Beethoven, it would mean the player should begin the note loud enough  to create an impression that the entire orchestra, including the trumpets, are playing ff, but that the player should then release to a much softer level of intensity to allow the moving voices to heard. Of course, if  the whole-note were melodic, then the trumpet play should sustain with melodic intensity for the whole bar, but I can’t think of many truly melodic whole notes for the trumpets in all the Beethoven symphonies. Anyway, in Beethoven we assume a release unless he indicates otherwise, in Mahler we assume NO release unless he indicates otherwise (and when he made his versions of the Beethoven 9th, he indeed replaced many of the ff’s with fp’s)

In Mozart we know that the 2nd beat of a bar is always softer than the first unless specifically indicated otherwise by and accent or sf. In Mahler, it is the opposite- we assume equal intensity on all beats unless he marks an accent on the downbeat (unless he is parodying a dance rhythm, as in the 2nd movement of the 2nd Symphony).

We’re blessed to have a wonderful recorded legacy of Shostakovich’s musical collaborators. Sadly, too many Western musicians seem ignorant of the fact that his closest collaborators were players like David Oistrakh, Rostropovich and the Borodin Quartet- musicians who could generate unbelieveable intensity while still making a beautiful, colorful and multi-textured sound. When an American orchestra or quartet hacks brutally though a piece like the 5th Symphony or Eighth Quartet with tons of non-vibrato playing (something he only asks for at very special moments) crunchy, scratchy bow strokes and note lengths consistently shortened and cheated it is a sad demonstration of the fact that they haven’t done enough research to know what to listen for or learned how to read the text accurately. Likewise, we do have recordings of Mahler’s works by Fried, Klemperer, Walter and Mengleberg, all of whom knew him (and all of whom, for instance, used generous amounts of vibrato in their performances of Mahler). What can we learn about the common qualities of their performances and from the differences about Mahler’s specificity in notation and about his open-ness to different interpretations.

So, all that research and all that knowledge has its place, however, in the end the score is the ultimate reference point, supreme above research, taste and even the stated preference of the composer (think of how many composers from Beethoven through Brahms and on to Shostakovich have created unending confusion by contradicting their clearly notated musical intentions by being too polite in a social situation to point out an error to a conductor or player. And it is the ear that tells us if we’ve read the score correctly.

The problem is that not everything in a great piece of music should be pleasing and enjoyable- some music is meant to make us uncomfortable and impatient. I’m reminded of my thoughts about the Scherzo of Mahler 5 a few weeks ago, and how Mahler seems to be intentionally asking for an uncomfortable and unwieldy tempo. The evidence of that intention is in the score in all of his tempo markings, but doing the research to find out what dances he is referencing (Landlers, not waltzes) and the text of the Goethe poem he was inspired by can help heighten our sense of what to listen for. Sometimes “it sounds better that way” can lead us in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, I was struck on that same program by how much I changed details of my interpretation in rehearsal. Hopefully they were all changes of the magnitude of the small adjustments we make while driving to get around obstacles and compensate for conditions, but when you’ve spent months and months trying to develop a razor sharp mental picture it can be a shock to recognize that with this orchestra in this hall this week, it’s got to be a little faster or a little louder or a little lighter than you pictured it.

Likewise, in a piece like the Mozart Requiem, one cannot be to wedded to notions of classical performance style, primarily because this piece seems to be, among other things, Mozart’s attempt to destroy and end the classical style forever. Much of the piece is based on Handelian models, while other parts of it are infused with a violence and furry that was completely out of step with the classical virtues of balance and grace. Ticking this music, taming it or tidying it up won’t do.

Finally, AC finished his comment as follows-

“You can’t begin to imagine the intensity of the howls of outrage and the derision hurled at me for that statement, in response to which I used to have the greatest sport provoking things further by boldly and with perfectly straight face declaring that the definitive recorded version of the opening chorus of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was done by Klemperer on his classic EMI recording of the work as that reading is a reading that most truly captures what the music itself tells us it wants to be, the fruits of HIP research to the contrary be damned.”

I know the Klemperer recording well- it was the first one I owned. Beautiful as it is, and much as I admired his deep sympathy with the spiritual journey the piece evokes, I think his textures are too thick to allow all the voices to be heard and the very slow tempo does make it difficult, bordering on impossible, for a listener to hear relationships between ideas and harmonies that Bach intended us to hear because they are simply too far apart.

However, one of my fondest musical memories is my first performance of the Matthew Passion under Robert Fountain at the University of Wisconsin. Fountain knew this piece better than any other conductor I’ve worked with, and for me as his principal cellist and a young conductor it was a profound learning experience to go through the score page by page with him.

Fountain’s approach to the piece was decidedly old school- slow tempi, thick textures, large and virtato-y chorus. If I tuned in to the first 2 minutes of that concert on the radio, I would probably tune it out. However, performing the Passion with him remains one of the most moving musical experiences I’ve ever had. I was deeply affected for days and days after the concert, and I can still remember that feeling of beginning the final chorus in the concert- more so than any other interpreter I’ve worked with or seen, Fountain made us all feel the totality of the piece, the unity and the completeness of it at that moment.

I would never attempt to recreate Robert’s vision of the piece, but I am certainly conscious of the correlation between the depth of his understanding of the piece and the success of the performance. Anyone can imitate a trendy style of playing, but getting to the truth of a great piece demands much more. Depth of understanding trumps style, which is ,after all, a rather vulgar word, every time.

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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.

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