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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 1

What it takes to perform Bach choral works

Bradley Lehman
wrote (March 11, 2003):
I hope this isn't too out of place, as it's not directly about a recording, but list traffic is slow today; and I thought it would be helpful to give some perspective on what it takes to put together performances of Bach's vocal music (or instrumental ensemble music, which takes a similar amount of work). Maybe that will give a context of Bach's own working methods, plus a healthier perspective on the perfectionism we typically expect from recordings (and the dismissiveness when we're not fully pleased with what we hear, and the complaints about music that is "too expensive")....

On 3/29 in Charlottesville VA (USA) we're performing a program of four of Bach's [quite difficult] vocal works: the motets "Komm, Jesu, komm" and "Jesu, meine Freude"; the Cantata BWV 49 "Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen"; and the half-hour Mass in F, BWV 233. The choir is "Zephyrus" which has been in existence for a dozen years. The members and director invest huge amounts of their own time and money year-round just to keep the ensemble going, and for the love of the music, and to do several performances per year.

For the performances that need instruments, such as this Bach concert, they hire in professional players (one per part) from Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, North Carolina, plus some locally, etc....period-instrument specialists who can come together on minimal rehearsal (because of the expense) and put together a decent program. The director hosts the out-of-town people in his own home for the weekend. I have about a 75-minute drive myself, each way, from my own house to rehearsals and the concert. I'm the keyboard player: improvising the basso continuo on harpsichord and/or organ, and helping the singers learn their parts, and sometimes doing the tuning, and all-around helping out with anything the director is too busy to do himself. All of us are grateful to be playing at all, professionally; although we're not earning enough money from it to live on, or to go much beyond travel expenses.

And the director does a huge amount of work: he usually prepares his own performing editions for all or most of the pieces, and plans/researches the program, and writes commentary, and of course runs all the rehearsals, and hires all the players, and schedules everything months in advance, and coordinates the transportation and tuning of both his own harpsichord and a positiv organ; and, as I mentioned above, he hosts and provides meals for the out-of-town players and vocal soloists. And he does most of the keyboard work in rehearsals himself, simultaneously playing and teaching and conducting; it's a luxury to have a separate keyboard player come in. The choir members handle the publicity, and ticket sales, and all the other little things that have to be done.

All of us who will be playing don't really know how our own parts fit in, until we come together for rehearsal the afternoon of the concert (or, if lucky, the night before). Yes, we can study the works on our own, and practice our parts separately, but that does take time and enterprise. [With the keyboard parts I need to put in several extra hours of preparation, since the figured bass lines often have no figures at all (or incomplete figures)...the composers didn't trouble to write it all out...basically, this process is going all the way through each piece as a composer, learning the harmonies and counterpoint, writing in any needed cues, studying and practicing to be able to improvise something suitable when it all comes together.] In rehearsal there might be time to go through each piece twice (on average) and fix minor problems that come up, but that's about all. It takes every performer's years of training, experience, and complete concentration just to hold it all together without "train wrecks"...especially when the music is as difficult and unpredictable as Bach's is. (And this is with top professionals!) As the director said last night during a choir rehearsal, the Gloria section of the Mass is going to go as fast as the natural horn players can play it....

Now think of Bach's own situation. They had all the same problems, and some others as well: all parts had to be hand-copied (with pen and dipped ink, and hoping there weren't errors); Bach himself had to compose the music as well as coordinating everything; the organ could not be played at all without somebody hired to pump its bellows; deadlines were tighter (not knowing six months in advance, as we do, what works would exist and be on the program). Perhaps even more than now, it was difficult to find at least one competent player for each part; and the singers' parts are also extremely taxing, by any standards. And the buildings weren't well-heated or consistently humidified; this was not only a discomfort for the players/singers, but also horrible for the tuning and well-being of all the instruments. And the organ was in a different key from everybody else (the singers couldn't learn their parts by having the organist play through them all patiently in rehearsal...it was with harpsichord, or nothing); the organist had to play from a transposed part, and/or transpose it all as it went along. And they didn't use measure numbers in rehearsal. And the choir members couldn't see one another's parts, or any handy piano reduction of everything. The only people with any clue of the overall design of the piece were the composer/conductor and maybe also the keyboard player (from having the basic harmonic sketch as the figured bass, enough to fake it). Everybody else just hung on for dear life and trusted that it would all hold together. Nobody could prepare their parts several weeks in advance with recordings or by studying scores. All night work was done by the light of lanterns and candles.

In perspective of all that, we today have it so much easier than Bach did. But, it's still a tremendous amount of hard work and expense just to put together one performance, even with all the choir members looking at identical books where they can see good context, and all the players using neatly printed parts.

And recordings have spoiled listeners to expect "perfection" and be disappointed if the results they hear aren't completely smooth or "precise" or inspiring. For approximately the same price, a listener can come to a one-time performance that will be of several dozen people all trying their professional best (but still not perfect), or can go buy a CD that is "perfect" and can be enjoyed as many times as one wants to; or can go rent five movies on videocassette or DVD and be entertained for ten hours. With all that, it's difficult to bring in enough people even to cover the expenses. But, for love of the music and the joy of participating, we do it anyway.

Thomas Radleff wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Many thanks for your detailed decription of the conditions for a single concert performance. (Many of them are quite similar in off-institution theatre.)

For example, that the tempo of the Gloria is determined by your horn players abilities: this is what makes a concert unique; the "interpretation" is a product of so many factors, and many a decision is not taken for artistical reasons, but sometimes done by quite profane conditions; but the result might sound organic, even ingenious. So the director´s flexibility is challenged even more than the single performers´.

Thanks again for pointing out the difference between recording and live performance...

...and all the best to all of you who can´t stop spending their creativity & energy for such wonderful, oldfashioned and non-profitable events as concerts.

I`m with you,

Robert Sherman wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad's thoughtful discussion omits a key argument for live music: Even the best state-of-the-art audiophile sound system still falls noticeably short of the sound of the real thing.

Matthew Westphal wrote (March 11, 2003):
Brad L. says: >>> On 3/29 in Charlottesville VA (USA) we're performing a program of four of Bach's [quite difficult] vocal works: the motets "Komm, Jesu, komm" and "Jesu, meine Freude"; the Cantata BWV 49 "Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen"; and the half-hour Mass in F, BWV 233. <<<
You're doing the Mass in F? Where are you getting horn players?!?

>>> I have about a 75-minute drive myself, each way, from my own house to
rehearsals and the concert. <<<
You're 75 minutes from C'ville?! I thought you were in New Jersey!

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal]
[1st question] University of Virginia music faculty: Dwight Purvis and somebody else he knows.

[2nd question] Shenandoah Valley, just across a mountain range from C'ville; and a two-hour drive from Washington DC in a different direction. I've never lived in New Jersey....

Matthew Westphal wrote (March 11, 2003):
Instruments in tune

Brad says: >>> And the buildings weren't well-heated or consistently humidified; this was not only a discomfort for the players/singers, but also horrible for the tuning and well-being of all the instruments. <<<
Are we really sure it was bad for the tuning of the instruments? Are we sure that, say, the relative lack of difference between outdoors and indoors -- and the lack of sudden changes between outdoors and indoors -- didn't make it a bit easier to keep the instruments a bit better in tune than now?

I've heard it said over and over again that the lack of climate control must have made it extremely difficult for the instruments Bach (or most other composers before the 20th century) used to stay in tune.

As I understand it, the logic seems to go like this:

1. When we work with period instruments, we find it a challenge to keep them in tune. Temperature changes just make tuning harder.
2. Musicians in (e.g.) Bach's time didn't have climate control.
3. Therefore, they must have had a much harder time keeping the instruments in tune than we do.

Obviously Brad has actually worked with period instruments more than I have (Make that any instruments -- I was a singer!), so I have to defer to his experience. But there seems to be a basic (and largely unexamined) assumption that because we are more technologically advanced than earlier eras, it must be easier for us to do various things (like keeping in tune) than it was in earlier eras.

I just don't think it's necessarily the case that because it's not easy for us to do a particular thing that people in earlier times did, that thing must have been even more difficult for them. In particular, I've always been uncomfortable with the assumption (which I think is unstated but widespread, though I'm not suggesting that Brad in particular holds it) that Bach's or Händel's musicians must often have been out of tune, just because we find it difficult to play their instruments in tune.

Brad is undoubtedly right about the difficult physical and logistical circumstances under which Bach composed, rehearsed and performed his sacred vocal works. But he and his musicians were completely accustomed to those circumstances, and we're not.

Just some thoughts ...

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal] Any instruments that are made of wood, whether they are period instruments or not, are susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.

Here's the situation with harpsichords (although it applies also to lutes, violins, cellos, and the woodwinds that are really made out of wood): for best health, a harpsichord needs to be kept at 50% humidity, +/- 10%, year-round. That way it stays most stable and develops the fewest cracks in the soundboard. Steady temperature is also important; if it goes up and down and up and down day and night, the tuning is shot every time the temperature changes 10 degrees (and sometimes even less than that). When the temperature comes back to where it was when the instrument was tuned, the tuning "sort of" comes back into shape, sometimes, but not always: if the wood in the instrument has changed tension in a different direction, some of the notes will be out.

And if the temperature goes way up, the tension can change so much that strings break spontaneously...especially bass strings...with the instrument just sitting there. Or, the whole instrument can warp and twist so the legs no longer all touch the floor; this is especially common with virginals, which are rectangular.

And harpsichords have to be kept out of direct sunlight. A sunbeam coming in through a window as the day progresses will ruin the tuning and possibly cause the other damage mentioned above. I've been in situations where somebody set up a harpsichord for a concert or wedding, I tuned it, and an hour later the sunlight moved directly onto it; I had to start over. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, with stage lights that are hot: if they weren't on when the instrument was tuned, there it goes during the concert. (An audience coming into a large hall can also raise the temperature or change the humidity enough that some of the notes have to be re-tuned.)

Organs are susceptible to similar problems: not just from the wood and metals changing with the elements, but also those long columns of air. Air with a different temperature or humidity has a different pressure (this is basic physics) and therefore resonates at a different pitch. The flue pipes (which are whistles: the principals and flutes, etc.) change pitch more than the reed pipes do; therefore, whenever the weather changes, the organ goes out of tune with itself, and then back into tune when it's back
to the weather conditions at which it was tuned.

Recorders, wooden flutes, and oboes also change pitch as they get warmed up, as the player's breath changes the humidity and temperature inside the instrument....

< Brad is undoubtedly right about the difficult physical and logistical circumstances under which Bach composed, rehearsed and performed his sacred vocal works. But he and his musicians were completely accustomed to those circumstances, and we're not. >
We're accustomed to different circumstances, yes...and still Bach's music is very hard to play and sing, in any circumstances. Not only because of weather and tuning, but because the music makes more demands on a player's physical technique (and concentration!) than does most of the music of Bach's contemporaries and predecessors.

Steven Guy wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal] I've played in old churches with groups of modern instruments that go out of tune! (I was a violinist for a while!)

Of course, some instruments are more susceptible to tuning fluctuations than others. I played in a wind group with cornetts, shawms, sackbuts and dulcian. Once we'd basically warmed up (before the show) we were okay for the rest of the night and we normally played in churches. We might need to look at tuning again around halfway through a show, but all ensembles need to do that!

Pete Blue wrote (March 11, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad's post is, I'm sure, a representative account of the experience of putting together a Bach concert today, at least in the U.S. and by other than a flourishing institution (such as the Gabrieli Consort, which I will be seeing here in Manhattan in Easter week).

Brad's approach strikes me, however, as to some extent a half-empty one. I can't speak as a performer of Bach, but I can certainly speak as a member of the audience. As Bob Sherman's post points out, nothing compares with hearing Bach in a live performance. I would add that performed anywhere, under whatever conditions, it works BECAUSE it's Bach.

Bach's music invites such veneration and requires such concentration that it seems to me that it can by itself elevate the performers' limitations and transcend such circumstances, vividly described by Brad, as short rehearsal time and precarious logistics. There's something more on the half-full side, IMO, than "for love of the music", to quote Brad, although that's there, too.

I don't mean merely that, for example, a singer or a player of a (non-keyboard) instrument can listen intently and make crucial adjto his/her intonation as he/she goes along (I speak from personal experience -- try playing outdoors in the Florida Panhandle in July!), though such things can help "save" a performance. What I do mean I can't verbalize, exactly. I can say I've attended many Bach concerts and recitals, and I can't recall even one that failed to move me, that seemed perfunctory, tath didn't give me that spinal tingle (despite my best putdown efforts!). The music is so great, so transcendent that, whether you're performer or listener, it seems to get to you through anything, in live performance anyway.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] That "for the love of the music" is the all-full side, not half-full. :) For all the reasons you've pointed out here, the joy of experiencing this music first-hand is what keeps us going.

I remember back in college the first time I performed the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), at a small liberal-arts school. We hired in a top-rank choral conductor, and enough professional players to cover the wickedly difficult parts that nobody on campus could play; and we rehearsed the chorus weekly over several months. And we rewrote the bassoon parts since we didn't have any: gave those two lines in the "Quoniam" to me, on continuo organ. And we all worked like the dickens, putting in extra rehearsal time with everybody whenever we could. Pretty much everybody in the whole town who could sing or play anything was involved in this production. And it all came together, magically, with a packed gymnasium of listeners. Plenty of un-ideal circumstances there, but boy, what a thrill, everybody giving it their best shot. It was an afternoon performance, and I couldn't settle down from it until late that night. It was like crossing over into a different universe, having played that piece. When we got to the "Dona nobis pacem", and the trumpets and timpani came in for the big finish, I could hardly play anymore, I was so overcome with tears in a good way...I still am, right now, thinking back and remembering it. For me, that experience has been equaled or surpassed only by the similar one of playing
the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) in concert for the first time, and getting to the end and suddenly realizing what it's taken to get there. There's something transcendent in the process of DOING this music that goes far beyond the notes.

Gene Hanson wrote (March 12, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: It was like crossing over into a different universe, having played that piece. >
An apt description of what the listening experience can be like, as well.


Intrinsic Value of Any Bach Performance

Brad B.
wrote (March 12, 2003):
In response to Peter Blue's recent post on Bach performances, I would second the notion that Bach's music is virtually indestructible: you can mangle it a thousand different ways and the intrinsic value of its structure will still come through.

But reliance on the intrinsic musical values that Bach managed to inculcate into his scores has gotten us into a terrible artistic bind, in which many performers shun interpretation in favor of "letting the music speak for itself," a notion that Richard Taruskin has, for my money, pretty much laid to rest (at least among those performers who read books and engage in philosophical enquiry). "Letting the music speak for itself" excludes a who host of sensuous, un-notatable inflections of the score that Bach may well have endorsed (nobody is ever going truly to know much about "Bach's way" without being willing to engage in speculation, so let's dismiss that fantasy), placing the emphasis on bringing out the structure at the expense of all else. I hold the position that the Bach performer also labors under the inperative of finding those sensuous, un-notated possibilities lurking between the lines of the score, but encounter at almost every turn the argument that the intrinsic part of the Bach experience is what really matters.

Steven Guy wrote (March 12, 2003):
[To Brad B.] I tend to feel that although Bach's music can be played in a number of ways, we should endeavour to respect this music - as the intellectual property of a human being who lived a few centuries ago. I've heard Bach played on or by saxophones, synthesizers, Swingle Singers, African instruments, Jazz bands, mouth organs, banjos and kazoos. Maybe Bach's music 'works' in some of these ways and maybe it doesn't. I've made some midi files of works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Handel and Rameau and it is easy for me to hear these pieces with weird synthesizer noises too. Switched-On Rameau? Sure! Why not?!

The fact is that I feel that Bach's music is suffering from 'Interpretation Fatigue' (at least for me!), and I have no strong desire to hear this music messed with any more. I know that people are going to clobber me on the head for saying this - but I am not going to rush out and buy any recordings of Bach played on instruments unknown to Bach any more - no matter how good other people tell me they are! I have limited amounts of cash and I am interested in Bach's music (and Rameau's, Handel's, Lully's, Purcell's, Biber's, Schmelzer's, Fux's, Monteverdi's, Hasse's, Charpentier's, Schütz's, etc. as well!) and NOT some bloke's proof that his music still sounds okay (or is recognisable) when played by a Dixieland band! Bach may sound great when played on the koto or piano accordion - and I'll believe you when you tell me! - but I am just not interested in hearing it any more. Okay?

There are an infinite number of ways of performing this music on the instruments Bach knew and that satisfies me.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2003):
< Steven Guy wrote: music 'works' in some of these ways and maybe it doesn't. I've made some midi files of works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Handel and Rameau and it is easy for me to hear these pieces with weird synthesizer noises too. Switched-On Rameau? Sure! Why not?! >
Bob James' album of Rameau played on synthesizer does sound pretty good. (He's also done an album of Scarlatti, similarly, but I think it's less successful.) I had the LP of this when it was new, and then bought it again on CD....
http://shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=product&id=1921518975

And Don Dorsey's "BachBusters" and his similar Beethoven album are also very good.... These guys really bring out the beauty and the joy of the music, whatever instrument they're using. That's what counts.


Reading the instructions

Bradley Lehman
wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Hugo Saldias] Last week I brought a plumber into our house to help with the installation of a water line into our refrigerator, to run the ice maker. He studied the problem, did the work with the pipes and hoses, drilled the necessary hole in the floor, and set everything up. When the time came to connect the new hose to the refrigerator, he admitted he had not worked with this model before, and he asked to see the instruction manual. I showed it to him, he studied it carefully, and he installed my refrigerator connection correctly. He did a good professional job.

I respect my plumber more for admitting he needed to consult the instructions, than if he had simply guessed from his prior experience. When one hires a professional, one expects the job to be done well, and appropriately to the situation at hand. My plumber read the manual to find out what the markings on the unit meant TO THE MANUFACTURER rather than simply guessing at what they meant to him, or to me.

So it is with musical performance, another craft. Even for the most experienced musicians, it is worthwhile to consult expert opinion (the musicologists, and other musicians who have solved the same problem) whenever it is feasible to do so, in case there is something the performer would not know to look for. The manual (or a well-researched article about a specific piece of music) might or might not say exactly what should be done: whether it does or not, it's worth a look. The performer does a more respectably professional job that way, than by simply guessing.

What is to be gained by an attitude of arrogant hubris, assuming that a notthat looks like a certain sound for one composer will automatically mean the same sound for another composer, or for the same composer at a different point in his/her career? Yes, the musician must of course use his/her own judgment and musicality in the final interpretation of the note, doing something convincing in the situation...but it's worth knowing in the first place all the available clues to what the composer's intention for that note was! Even in music that is half-improvised (such as basso continuo), it is worthwhile to find out what the composer meant, and what the composer might have played, rather than simply making up something from generic experience.

Or, another field: software. In my other professional job, I write business software. Our documentation person interviews me and looks at my technical notes to find out what my intentions were for the various options in the program, and writes a manual. Our support people read the manual so they can help the customer troubleshoot any problems, and if they really get stuck, they come back to me and ask for better clarification of my intentions. This is good business. Composers of music do the same things as software engineers. Music is software, written in a code. It pays to read the manual to find out what the composer was thinking, and what his/her encoded marks meant to him while working on the program. The program and the business run a lot more smoothly that way, using the documentation, than if the customers and the support people just guess. The manual can also help everyone save huge amounts of time, since the problems that have already been solved might already be explained there, so one doesn't have to solve the same problem again. The worst problems in support come up when somebody (not having read the manual) does something enterprising and creative but extremely wrong, even with best intentions, and messes up the design!

So...."a good AND PROFESSIONAL musician" DOES rely on musicologists for playing music!

Neil Halliday wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad concluded a message with the words,

"....a good AND PROFESSIONAL musician" DOES rely on musicologists for playing music!"

This statement is too restrictive, IMO.

Glenn Gould, in presenting a new manner of playing Bach, on a new, brilliant and flexible instrument, the modern piano, relied mainly on his own genius to give us some great musical experiences - how much can musicologists really be thanked for Gould's work?

Likewise, other brilliant musicians ought to be free to present Bach's music in a modern idiom, and for the results to be jugded on musical, non-musicological, grounds. That's why some of Karl Richter's work, for example, will always be considered great - and why other musicians of the future ought to be free to perform this music in other than (as well as) 18th century idioms. (Some will go too far, with synthesizers and the like, but the genuinely musical examples will go down in musical history.)

Please, no restrictions!.

On the matter of secco recitatives, I dislike the minimalist (a few short notes on the cello, and a few short organ chords) approach; so I would not like to see hard and fast rules in this regard, regardless of what musicology might like to dictate.

Peter Bright wrote (March 17, 2003):
< Neil Halliday wrote: [snip]
Glenn Gould, in presenting a new manner of playing Bach, on a new, brilliant and flexible instrument, the modern piano, relied mainly on his own genius to give us some great musical experiences - how much can musicologists really be thanked for Gould's work? >
There is an interesting essay on Gould's influences and methods at:
http://www.gould.nlc-bnc.ca/docs/epsycho.htm

Neil Halliday wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] Thanks for this very interesting article, Peter.

I hope Aryeh does not mind this tangential discussion - all part of coming to grips with the issues involved in the performance of, and listening to, the Bach cantatas.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (March 17, 2003):
Brad Lehman wrote: <What is to be gained by an attitude of arrogant hubris, assuming that a note that looks like a certain sound for one composer will automatically mean the same sound for another composer, or for the same composer at a different point in his/her career? >
Why are you judging "arrogant hubris"? Why would the rule be applied "automatically"?

< Our documentation person interviews me and looks at my technical notes to find out what my intentions were for the various options in the program, and writes a manual. Our support people read the manual so they can help the customer troubleshoot any problems, and if they really get stuck, they come back to me and ask for better clarification of my intentions. >
But this is not the same as musical performance, where the interpreters of the "software" and "documentation" would be the same. It is the computer, not the user or programmer, that interprets software.

< The program and the business run a lot more smoothly that way, using the documentation, than if the customers and the support people just guess. The manual can also help everyone save huge amounts of time, >
In real performance conditions, perusing the "manual" might easily be prohibitively expensive, and guessing would not only save much time but might also produce better results.

< since the problems that have already been solved might already be explained there, >
You optimistically assume that the composer knows exactly how the music is to be played.

< The worst problems in support come up when somebody (not having read the manual) does something enterprising and creative but extremely wrong, even with best intentions, and messes up the design! >
As several of the contributors here have witnessed, performers have sometimes done something "extremely wrong" by obeying the supposed composer's intentions!

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 17, 2003):
<< Bradley Lehman wrote: "....a good AND PROFESSIONAL musician" DOES rely on musicologists for playing music!" >>
<Neil Halliday wrote: This statement is too restrictive, IMO.>
Well, I certainly didn't intend it to be restrictive. I was simply reacting to the implication that performers should not be well-read, that the performances are somehow "better" if the performers are beatifically clueless about the composer's notational intentions.

A healthy use of musicological findings is not restrictive, but rather, freeing. The more that a performer is aware of valid options, including options that might not occur to a casual reader of a text or score, the better-placed he/she is to choose a convincing interpretation for any given performance situation! (And a performer with his/her head buried in the sand, like an ostrich, simply has fewer options. The refusal to read scholarly work betrays either laziness or arrogance, or both.)

Musicology does not "dictate hard and fast rules." It attempts to show us (as far as can be determined) what the composer probably knew, and probably did himself. This is a perspective to inform musicians, who then sift that along with everything else and come up with a way to perform a given piece.

I think we need to be careful here about bashing musicology, from a standpoint such as "the musicologists have come up with something that I personally think sounds like crap, and therefore all musicology is a horribly restrictive influence that is going to kill the music I love." Such a bash (and I'm paraphrasing here, of course) suggests that the basher is putting up musicology as a convenient straw man, to be knocked down in defense of one's own preferences. That's not fair. Musicology is a science, not an art; it applies the modern scientific methods as far as can be done to determine what was done in the past. It does not tell us what we "must" do in the present or future. But, awareness of that historical "truth" about the past can indeed suggest some productive avenues of exploration, and we serious performers find it valuable to try them out. If anybody is being restrictive here, it is people who insist that we must not listen to musicological findings!

"Hard and fast rules" (whether historically-based or not) are not in the realm of good performers, or good musicologists. Rather, they are crutches for performers (and critics!) who are unwilling or unable to do the work (whether beginners, dilettantes, arrogant, lazy, whatever); and they are convenient measuring-sticks for critics who would rather categorize (and dismiss) results into generalized boxes than listen to them. Beginners are given rules as a place to start inquiry, as a technical jump-start until they pick up their own experience in a field. The strongest people in any field—not only music--are those who refuse to be bound by any "hard and fast rules". They know what those guidelines are, and know when to go beyond them in reacting perceptively and creatively to the situation at hand. That's the art of it.

=====

And I'm a Gould fan, too. Some of his interpretations work well because they are sui generis and interesting, not because they might be confused with any sort of historicism. Gould's performances, when he is at his most imaginative, challenge the status quo: they serve as analytical commentaries about the music, and about other performance practice. That makes them interesting, and worth hearing. A fair way to assess the value of such work is: does it make us pay closer attention to the music, or doesn't it? As Gould himself said, one shouldn't bother to make a new recording of a work if it doesn't contribute a different perspective on the music.

=====

Here are some excerpts from the book Authenticity and Early Music, edited by Nicholas Kenyon. (Oxford University Press, 1988.) The book is a set of essays by Kenyon, Will Crutchfield, Howard Mayer Brown, Robert P Morgan, Philip Brett, Gary Tomlinson, and Richard Taruskin. (IMO, this whole book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the history and practices of "authentic" performance, or for anyone who engages in HIP-bashing! And another good one is Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival: A History.)

Howard Mayer Brown, pp54-56:

"It is only in the past decade [mid-1970s to mid-80s], then, that questions about authenticity have been raised in such detail that we are forced to ask: is the quest for authenticity resulting in the dead hand of scholarship forcing performers into corners and quelling their creativity? Or is it itself an act of freedom, freeing the conservatory-trained student to think for himself about questions of style and history and helping him to present the music in the best light possible? Is the point of playing music in the way the composer intended it (which is an ultimately impossible goal) to intimidate the performer and force him to change his playing style in ways he cannot easily accept? Or is it rather to help the performer to introduce audiences to new repertories and to new ways of playing that can enlighten us not only about the particular repertories in question but also about the nature of all music?"

"(...) Scholars of performance practice and editors, it seems to me, ought also to be committed to the ideal (whether it is realistic or not) that they are engaged in the positivistic task of discovering wie es eigentlich gewesen, 'how it really was.' But on the other hand, they should have a complex and sophisticated attitude towards the idea of commitment. To a good scholar, no question can ever be closed. All our most cherished notions should always remain open for discussion, debate, and correction. The editor who imposes his own solution to a difficult problem in an edition without helping the reader to find out on what basis his decision was made and what the alternative possibilities are may get high marks for personal commitment, but should be severely criticized for obscuring the difference between what can be known for certain (very little) and what is more or less fanciful reconstruction.

"The luxury of alternative possibilities and endless debate is clearly not one that can be enjoyed by a performer, who needs to know what he must do at a particular performance, and who also seems to need the psychological protection of actually believing in what he is doing. Personal commitment is a necessary virtue for performers (who ought not to play music in a particular style unless they are in sympathy with it), but it may be a luxury to which scholars ought not to aspire. Intelligent performers, of course, will inform themselves about the possibilities open to them, and the playing of the most intelligent will almost certainly these days, be 'historically informed.'

"But the whole purpose of playing early music authentically is for the sake of the music and not for the sake of the performance. Dolmetsch certainly understood that, and so have the best of the musicians mentioned here, although in the last decade we have sometimes lost sight of that simple idea. I would be reluctant to criticize severely a performance purely on the grounds that it was not authentic. But this is a reluctance not shared by everyone, and such widespread criticisms of 'inauthentic' performance have brought their own backlash of controversy. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons why the present volume of essays was commissioned. Many have objected to those critics who, failing to be stirred by a particular performance, gave as a reason the fact that it was 'not authentic'. But the critics should probably have said that they objected to the performance because the interpretation of the music--whether done for reasons of authenticity or not--seemed to destroy some essential features of the work. Very few performances stand or fall just on the question of whether or not they are authentic. We should take care not to confuse historical with aesthetic questions, for the latter are often simply questions of personal taste. But they often involve, too, matters of propriety, decorum, and imagination. The test of a good performance more often than not is surely whether or not the music was projected with vitality and musical imagination, or whether or not the performers have in fact brought the music to life. The relation between that process and the rediscovery of past instruments and past playing techniques is a controversial area."

And Richard Taruskin, pp200ff:

"Now it was just around the time that the shift to what I call authentically modern performance was completed that academic musicologists began turning their attention in a conspicuous way to performance practice. This can be viewed as part of a larger picture, the modernist take-over of the universities. In academic music studies, it was the heyday of logical positivism, symbolized, if you will, by the Princeton music department, which in the 1950s and 1960s was presided over by Milton Babbitt in composition and theory, and by Arthur Mendel in musicology. (...)

"Performance research as Mendel practised it was a vastly different kind of enterprise from what it had been with Dolmetsch or Landowska. Positivist scholarship is interested in letter, not spirit. It sets up research experiments--'problems'--to be solved by applying rules of logic and evidence, the goal being avowedly to determine 'What was done', not 'What is to be done', let alone 'How to do it'. Direct application to actual performance is not the primary aim of such studies. They are not 'utilitarian' but 'pure research'. Howard Mayer Brown has accurately characterized the nature of such scholarship in Chapter 2 of this book, especially where he insists upon the 'dispassionate' suspension of 'personal commitment' in the quest for a truth that ultimately represents--in the words of Leopold von Ranke, the father of Historismus--'the way it really was' (wie es eigentlich gewesen). (...)

"In one sense this agnosticism is quite salutary. It deconstructs the historiographical dogmas of the Dolmetsches, and throws some cold light on their rejection of the unloved specious 'present'. But as Howard Mayer Brown has pointed out (tongue, one hopes, in cheek), a performer 'seems to need the psychological protectioof actually believing in what he is doing'. He cannot settle for a survey of the problem, he must, by performing, propose a solution. A performance simply cannot merely reflect the sketchy state of objective knowledge on a point of performance practice, it must proceed from the conviction that a full working knowledge is in the performers' (subjective) possession. While generations of scholars chew over Mendel's seven pages of problems, what is the poor performer who wants to sing some Josquin des Prez to do? Wait till all the evidence is in and all the articles are published? He will probably never open his mouth. Rejoice that the answers have not been found and he is free to do as he likes? That is certainly one solution--but he would do so risks rebuke these days from scholars whose implicit attitude seems to be, 'Shut up until we can tell you what to do.' This kind of destructive authoritarianism is rampant in reviews of performances of medieval and Renaissance music, where just about any performance at all is open to the charge of 'mixing...musicology and make-believe', if that is the kind of tack the reviewer wishes to take. (...)"

"Really talented performers are always curious, and curious performers will always find what they need in the sources and theorists--what they need being ways of enriching and enlivening what they do."

[And there is also an anecdote about a showdown between Mendel and Harnoncourt.......]

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (March 17, 2003):
Brad Lehman wrote: < A healthy use of musicological findings is not restrictive, but rather, freeing. The more that a performer is aware of valid options, including options that might not occur to a casual reader of a text or score, the better-placed he/she is to choose a convincing interpretation for any given performance situation! >
I would concur with this view, but for the continued profusion of articles which seem to promote a minimum of "valid options" while disclaiming the validity of others. Some writers are so arrogant as to claim that it is the purging of tradition that grants musical freedom.

< It attempts to show us (as far as can be determined) what the composer probably knew, and probably did himself. This is a perspective to inform musicians, who then sift that along with everything else and come up with a way to perform a given piece. >
Quoting Richard Taruskin again: "We now think, for example, that we possess knowledge both of how Bach performed his concerted vocal music and of how he wished to have it performed. The two are not the same. Which one gets the privelege? The one represented by the surviving performance parts, of course, because (we think) they tell us what Bach did, not what he 'intended' to do. Bach's unrealized (and therefore unheard) wishes are treated by performance practitioners exactly the way musical text critics treat the conjectural products of classical text editing: they are despised as representing (in the words of the New Grove) 'nothing that existed at or soon after the period of the work itself.' Documents outrank people, no matter who."
(Text and Act, p. 45)

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] A good example here is in Bach's keyboard partitas #4 and #6. He published these himself, at his own expense, and it's quite clear what he actually did...those publications still exist.

But, it's been argued (convincingly, IMO) that the movements might well be played (and intended by Bach) in a different sequence! Namely, the Air and Aria should be played after their respective Sarabandes [at the traditional place for optional movements in suites], rather than before them [where they appear in Bach's prints]. In such a theory, why would Bach do this, putting the movements in a sequence he didn't necessarily intend them to be played? The answer is simple and elegant: to avoid page-turns within movements. The Aria and Air fill up otherwise blank space on a page before the Sarabande, and the player would "know" to finish the Courante, turn a page, play the Sarabande (the normally-expected movement after a Courante), turn back, play the Aria/Air, turn forward, continue with the next movement after the Sarabande.

And why would Bach be so stingy with pages? Because publication was horribly expensive. The book of Partitas cost as much to the consumer as the acquisition of a harpsichord.

A performer who has never heard of any of this will simply go blithely through the book in published sequence, perhaps not even noticing that the Sarabandes are in unexpected places. A performer who has heard of this will at least seriously consider swapping the movements around: both because it (arguably) sounds better in the context of the suite as a whole, and because it is (arguably) closer to Bach's intentions.

Brad Lehman (and yes, I do swap the movements around in this manner)

Johan van Veen wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I can understand the arguments. But how can one exclude the possibility that Bach would like to do something different, for whatever reason? I suppose the argument would be: this was convention, therefore Bach didn't need to specify his intentions. If he would like the movements to be played in an 'unconventional' order, he would have stated so. My question is: do you know any recordings which follow this theory? I have the recordings by Leonhardt, Ross, Belder, Weiss, Pinnock and Suzuki, and all are playing these Partitas as they have been published. Didn't they know, or did they have differend ideas?


Listening to listeners

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 17, 2003):
< Hugo Saldias wrote: [To Bradley Lehman] You give the perfect example of what is going on now:
What about if after spending lots of money in your education,years of study and effort. You give a concert and some BODY comes and tells you: You know something Brad: you played it too fast, you had exagerated articulation,your singer sound operatic, too much vibrato,your played non legato,or you did not played it legato, and more and more... I know what you will think or say: Have a good day, BY... And turn and keep on going with your music...>

When somebody comes up to me after I've played something, and tells me they didn't like it, I LISTEN TO the criticism and take it seriously. That is the only way to learn: to listen to how one's work comes across to people of varying expectations. If the people who came to the show (and paid money for it) didn't have a good time, I need to know about it and improve myself if possible for next time.

Such criticism is helpful if the person can spell out something specific I should work on, or perhaps say exactly why they didn't like it. (The type of criticism a colleague can offer.) Or, if they found it boring, I'll know to put more character into it next time. Or too fast, or too slow, or whatever. Listeners at all levels, whether trained in music or not, can have important things to say that we musicians should listen to. I get some of the most useful comments from people who don't know music!

On the other hand, the criticism is not helpful if a person's comments make it clear they weren't actually listening, or if they were pre-judging the performance by conditions or circumstances beyond my control.

I remember a concert I attended last year, a voice recital accompanied by a good pianist (a university professor of piano, a colleague and friend of mine). Afterward, I went up and said something like, "Steve, fantastic job given that impossible piano they gave you to work with...what an awful treble it has, those harsh notes! I could see you really had a rough situation to deal with, and dodged the problems beautifully." He loved this perceptive comment; of the people who talked to him, I was the only person who recognized what he was actually dealing with, and who understood the behind-the-scenes stuff performers have to deal with. And we spent the next ten minutes discussing the reasons why the university gives him such terrible instruments for these occasions, because almost nobody recognizes good quality from bad. That type of comment after a concert is far more helpful (and uplifting) saying, "Steve, ugly sound, man."

Hugo Saldias wrote (March 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes Brad.

Because that is a positiv critic,or a way to disagree polite and with respect. What I read here is not. And does not give the other side a chance to answer... But is also wrong AND a fallacy: the difference for me is that a fallacy makes listeners think that the crictic is correct when it is not. A lie is different.A fallacy hurts more.Everybody can be wrong.Why put it on the player and not in the listner?


Unstemmed white notes

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 17, 2003):
<< Brad Lehman wrote: What is to be gained by an attitude of arrogant hubris, assuming that a note that looks like a certain sound for one composer will automatically mean the same sound for another composer, or for the same composer at a different point in his/her career? >>
< Alex Riedlmayer wrote: Why are you judging "arrogant hubris"? Why would the rule be applied "automatically"? >

Perhaps I overstated it.

But there appear to be contributors here who look at an unstemmed white note in the basso continuo line of a recitative, and automatically assume (from the appearance of the note, and from general musical knowledge) that it MUST be sustained for all or most of the given time value, because such a note would mean that in some other contexts. It looks that way on the page, and therefore it "must" be played that way.

Indeed, for most Western classical music notated since about 1800, such a "hold it all the way through" interpretation is correct in almost all situations. (There are plenty of other musical features that can never be shown on any page, of course; but, at least, the durations of the notes are pretty well fixed.)

BUT: such an assumption is not correct in earlier music, including Bach's. There are plenty of situations where such a notation does not indicate exactly how long a sound should be sustained, but simply means "do not play the next note until this much time has passed." The exact sustained length of the note is determined by musical context, and it might be much shorter, or approximately the whole notated length, or sometimes even longer! There is NOTHING automatic about it. The performer has to know much beyond the page to make an intelligent musical decision about it, and it will also vary from performance to performance. The performer has to have that flexibility to interpret it appropriately. (Neither is it correct to reduce it to exactly 1/4 or 1/2 of its notated value, stiffly.)

Typically, the composers before about 1800 wrote an unstemmed white note for convenience: because it makes the score much less cluttered (and more quickly copied) than if he had written a finely-grained set of rests showing exact durations...and, there was little danger of confusing his own colleagues or students, both because they knew the same performance conventions beyond the page, and because he was there to explain anything they might question.

The "arrogant hubris" I mentioned above (which, again, may be an overstatement for effect) is anyone's modern assumption that "that looks like a 'whole note' and therefore it must always be held for this whole length." Everyone who has taken two months of music lessons "knows" what a whole note is, right, and how long it must be held?

[This point of variable lengths is overlooked, by the way, whenever somebody blithely takes a Bach score (or whatever) and scans it into a MIDI program, and lets the computer play it all exactly as notated. EWWWW!]


«Good» interpretation?

C. Songeur
wrote (March 8, 2003):
How should you qualify a good interpretation? That attracting your attention (and fitting in with your aesthetic feeling I'd hope) on an unknown (or not yet appreciated) composition? That most embellishing a composition? That to which you most comfortably listen? That which is the most joyful, the most rhythmic or has the most of another characteristic you think is important? That is my question.

And this too: Shall a «good» interpretation be the same when your are sitting in a concert hall and when you are listening to a recording at home?

C. Songeur wrote (March 20, 2003):
For me a good interpretation isn't necessarily the one I like most, because I sometimes skip little errors or disappointments when the music is played by a musician very near to my aesthetic feelings; and on the contrary I can appreciate qualities of a musician or a performance I do not like.

Neither is it an interesting interpretation because interest and musicality aren't always complementary. A problem for all interpreters is to balance originality and musical sense when playing very well-known compositions; and I have a feeling that nowadays originality seems to have become "too" important for many musicians... and through their playing, for many amateurs?

A good interpretation isn't a satisfactory memory-support either: Our listening is of course influenced by our aesthetic feelings and by some listening habits; listening to something close to our musical leanings may be very pleasing, even reassuring. But that is not enough.

I think a good interpretation is a concert or a recording in which the interpreter(s) clearly show the listener that the choices he made while studying the parts, even though I don't agree with them, seem to me to be convincing, true and aesthetically taken care of (that is not: subjectively pleasing). Beauty is good but truth in Art is the most important.

Of course there's something like "emotion", "feeling", and we can be impressed by a concert or a recording... but if you don't mind, I think music is foremost and mainly an Art: I mean it's a human realisation who can open a higher world to the human spirit, who can help people be better and more sensitive. Therefore I think a reaction, a feeling isn't enough: the important of this all is, what can we do with this and what can it do unto us? If a performed music leads us to a deeper feeling of something true in us and in humanity, it is worthy of Art; we should then listen to it with a fully opened mind and let it embellish our spirits.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 20, 2003):
[To C. Songeur] I believe that good (and great) performances have dimensionality to them: several levels of interest available simultaneously. This dimensionality allows the listener to "jump around" mentally as the composition progresses, or even to follow several threads simultaneously, without losing a sense of inevitability either; and to find additional things to enjoy each time the listening experience is repeated. In contrast, a one-dimensional presentation (or an inferior composition) uses up all its content the first time through, and quickly becomes boring and predictable.

See also the essay I wrote several years ago about some of these aspects of quality: elegance, reaction to moments, preparation, flow, irrationality, letting things happen that transcend the performer's apparent abilities....:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/sprezza.htm

And another essay about bringing out the irrational and unexpected features of a piece, rather than emphasizing an already-obvious structure or too much consistency...in this one, I also brought in some thoughts about extremism, physics, polarization, and more....
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/why.htm



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