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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); arpeggiating chords (not playing all the notes of the chord at the same time but one after another), and flexibility of tempo.

All this is largely true and fully documented by Philip. It needs shading, however. There are other forces at work in this change of approach to musical style that are independent of recording, and the development is more complex than it might appear. What I have to add here should be seen merely as footnotes to Philip’s book, and not as qualifying my high regard for his achievement.

An intimation of the greater complexity of the subject is suggested by Philip’s quotation from a letter of Johannes Brahms to his friend the violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim:

Joachim was to conduct an early performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in Berlin in 1886, and he had written to the composer asking for more guidance about tempi. Brahms then sent Joachim a marked-up score of the symphony with a letter: “I have marked a few tempo modifications in the score with pencil. They may be useful, even necessary, for the first performance…. Such exaggerations are only necessary where a composition is unfamiliar to an orchestra or a soloist. In such a case I often cannot do enough pushing or slowing down to produce even approximately the passionate or serene effect I want. Once a work has become part of flesh and blood, then in my opinion nothing of that sort is justifiable any more.”

This does not mean that Brahms wanted a rigidly metronomical performance of one of his works when it became better known, but he believed that in the end his music would not benefit from exaggerated freedom of tempo and needed a sober, less emphatic, and more unified approach.1

A well-known story tells of Arturo Toscanini’s visit to Giuseppe Verdi to prepare the first performance of the Stabat Mater. The young conductor asked the aged composer for permission to make a slight ritardando (slowing down) at one point. “You have to make a ritardando there,” replied Verdi. “But you didn’t write one,” said Toscanini, and Verdi remarked, “Can you imagine what most conductors would do if I wrote one?”

It is obvious that the freedom of tempo so valued by Philip was both necessary and often disastrously abused. The reaction against it was not just caused by recording, although hearing a particularly unintelligent use of it on a disc that may be played over and over again may have reinforced the prejudice. An impression of a relative unity of tempo remained an ideal even after the advent of the Romantic movement. Beethoven once said to Anton Schindler (who was a pathological liar, but there is no reason to doubt his word on this matter) that the necessary changes of tempo in the largo slow movement of his Sonata Opus 10 no. 3 should be perceptible only to connoisseurs. Of course, variation of tempo was needed for expression (in Beethoven’s last piano sonatas, the direction espressivo is almost always accompanied by a ritenuto, a direction to slow the tempo slightly at once, or the espressivo is followed eight bars later2 by the direction a tempo, indicating a return to the normal tempo).

The string players’ old-fashioned device of sliding from one note to another, or portamento, has, as Philip remarks, a double purpose: “for deliberate effect and as a routine manner of changing position.” The loss of an expressive device, above all one inherent in a musical style, is always regrettable. The reaction against it, however, has a double root: badly used, portamento can have a somewhat soupy effect, making the violin sound as if it were not singing but crooning; and as an easy way of getting from one note to another it often adulterates the purity of pitch. As an expressive effect, however, it should certainly be restored. It is clearly suited not only to much music of the late nineteenth century but also earlier: in certain places in Chopin’s Cello Sonata and in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, for example, it is essential to the phrasing. I doubt there is much to be said for it as a routine way of getting from one note to another now disdained by string players, but Philip has a soft spot in his heart for the practice on old symphonic records:

Just as slight roughnesses in ensemble make one aware of eighty individuals struggling to achieve unanimity, so the old-fashioned habit of portamento makes one aware of the physical process of individuals sliding up and down the fingerboards of stringed instruments…. The orderly, smoothly blended sound of the modern orchestra, in which everyone moves neatly and apparently effortlessly together, has become more machine-like, and less obviously human, than it used to be.

This overlooks the fact that portamento was banished for musical reasons, which may or may not be valid in particular cases. Philip loves recordings and yet, paradoxically, deplores the fact that they are made by machines. I would be willing to settle for a little less routine and more perfection, but Philip’s campaign for the restoration of portamento should be listened to.

A similar ambiguity attaches to the pianistic device of playing the left hand on the beat and the right hand just afterward, which Philip calls dislocation. As Philip knows, Mozart and his contemporaries called this rubato, and it was a Central European expressive form of decoration (when he was traveling in Italy, Mozart wrote to his father that the Italians were astonished when they heard him play rubato). The word “rubato” later acquired the meaning of any rhythmic irregularity, so Philip’s change of terms is a justifiable attempt at clarity. “Dislocation,” however, sounds slightly pejorative, while the word “rubato” has a more favorable effect. In the early twentieth century the practice was widespread, largely among pianists trained in Vienna, but was used in a more discriminating manner by the Russian school.

Dislocation has at least three purposes. It is originally derived, I believe, from an opera singer’s slight hesitation in producing an important and expressive note, as if he or she were momentarily overcome by emotion. It should be more generally recognized that a note can be given expressive quality and importance by making it appear not too easy to produce, for that is the unconscious logic behind the most traditional use of delaying its appearance. (One can see the powerful emotional effect of this kind of rubato when the principal theme is repeated in bars 86 to 87 of Mozart’s great Rondo in A minor.)

The origin of another purpose of dislocation can be traced to the sonority of the piano. Playing the bass note in the left hand before the melody note in the right allows the melody note to enter into an already prepared harmonic frame and also allows the bass string’s overtones or harmonics to be reactivated sympathetically when the right hand enters a split second later. This gives the melody note greater sonority and cantabile (or singing) quality. This was important for performances given in large public halls, an essential part of musical life that came into being only when Liszt invented the piano recital in the 1830s. The unremitting use of vibrato by string players, a modern innovation that Philip regrets with good reason, has a similar cause: the vibrato carries better and with greater intensity in large concert spaces.

The third purpose of dislocation, which comes into play when it is used systematically over a long passage, is to vary the texture by making it more lively: that is the way Mozart uses it in the return of part of the main theme in bar 19 of the slow movement ofhis Sonata in C minor. For the late-nineteenth-century pianist, the extensive use of dislocation throughout long passages or even whole pieces transformed the texture into something more fluid, less hard-edged, blunted the sharp edges of the rhythm, and made the atmosphere beautifully vague.

  1. 1

    Brahms, indeed, disliked the metronome (although he did give indications for the Second Piano Concerto), saying that a metronome mark was only valid for about a week.

  2. 2

    See the second movement, prestissimo, of the Sonata Opus 109.

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