Playing Music: The Lost Freedom

Before 1900 in Europe and America, it was at home that music was most often experienced, by family members who played some instrument or sang, and by, willingly or unwillingly, the rest of the family and friends. (In Western society among the lower middle class and upward, most music was made by women, who were generally expected to learn to cook, sew, and play the piano. The majority of professional musicians may have been male, like the majority of professional cooks, but most of the cooking and piano playing was the lot of women. Music, like breakfast and dinner, was part of life at home.) More exceptionally, music could be heard in some public places—concert hall, opera house, or church. The public realm was essentially a complement to the private. It set standards and added glamour.

By the twenty-first century, all this has changed. Both private and public music are being displaced by recordings. Few people make music themselves at home anymore. Because of more cramped living space, it is now inconvenient to house a piano, a once indispensable piece of furniture for any household with even modest pretensions to culture and the instrument that for more than a century was the mainstay of classical music. Outside the big cities, live public music is disappearing as well. Most of the smaller towns that used to have a classical concert series have lost that, and if they are too insignificant to sponsor a popular rock group event, their public music must be confined to clubs. Even live symphony and opera broadcasts have been largely eliminated. At home today we play records. Classical and pop radio stations play records. And often ballet companies and theatrical productions play records in place of hiring musicians.

Robert Philip’s Performing Music in the Age of Recording is a brilliant analysis of how this has affected performance style. It is also incidentally, for much of the time, the best account I know of how musical life in general has changed since the introduction of vinyl and long-playing records in the 1950s, which made it possible for records to invade everyone’s home. But it starts even further back with the end of the nineteenth century, when recording was invented by Thomas Edison, who recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his new machine. The book is full of fascinating detail cogently presented on rehearsal practices and standards, recording on piano rolls, the different instruments used in orchestras, the way records are edited, and the contrasting musical ideals of performers. Philip is large-minded, tolerant, and sympathetic to various positions, and consistently judicious.

His main thesis is that recording has directed performance style into a search for greater precision and perfection, with a consequent loss of spontaneity and warmth. Various expressive devices once common in the early twentieth century have been almost outlawed: “portamento” (sliding from one note to another on a stringed instrument); playing the piano with the hands not quite together (Philip calls this dislocation …

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