Good Listening—And Bad

To have gone [to the concert] would have meant committing himself to a personal opinion of Beethoven; it would have meant being physically involved in the tremendous excitement which Beethoven aroused. This was just what Leseur [a composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory], without admitting it, did not wish to happen.*

Such, in a pre-recording era, was the power of live performance as chronicled by Hector Berlioz in his Memoirs (1870). He would nonetheless have been stupefied at the prospect of a plump volume devoted to a history of performance.

Indeed, so might we. In a time of shrinking resources, many university presses are cutting back. But not Cambridge University Press—at least in the field of music. A decade ago it launched the first in a series of “music histories,” a sprawling 1,000-page volume weighing in at slightly north of four pounds and devoted, in essays by thirty-one scholars, to the relatively arcane field of Western musical theory. As the first such volume in English, an index of its prestige, if not necessarily sales, could be divined from the Beijing Conservatory festivities in the fall of 2011 celebrating its complete translation into Chinese.

In the interim CUP has brought forth less ambitious—and less original—histories of each of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, complemented by a volume on American music. The aims—to present the latest scholarship in digestible form—are overstated, to be sure. In an era of updatable e-books and JSTOR, it is harder and harder to see the virtue of committing to print what is likely to be out of date within a few years.

But CUP persists, and now with a volume—The Cambridge History of Musical Performance—that potentially fills a huge void. If you have access to Grove Music Online (published in 2000 by rival Oxford University Press, and as close to the gold standard in musical scholarship as any collective work comes), you might be surprised to learn that its entry on “Performance” consumes less than three thousand words plus a few dozen random bibliographical citations. It is indeed odd that the presumed end point in the chain of musical production, and the moment at which most people interact with music, should have received so little attention over the centuries from either scholars or performers. We have our urtexts and our countless recordings of both canonic and second-tier works but only the most modest investigations into the elusive world of performance itself.

Until recently a good deal of the blame could be placed on the inordinate attention afforded the printed score. With its advent in the early nineteenth century—before then only individual parts were printed—the “study” of …

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  1. *

    Hector Berlioz, Memoirs, translated and edited by David Cairns (Knopf, 1969; reissued by Everyman’s Library, 2002), p. 81.