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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of updatable e-books and JSTOR, it is harder and harder to see the virtue of committing to print what is likely to be out of date within a few years.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 music evolved into the study of the notes on the page rather than the immediacy of a performance. During this time the field of “musical analysis” took firm root, climaxing in copiously annotated editions of the late Beethoven piano sonatas by figures such as Heinrich Schenker and Ferruccio Busoni. Great works could now be fathomed without needing to hear a single sound. While few would deny the usefulness of the close study of scores, it is hard to defend the literally thousands of seminars offered to legions of performers in which Augenmusik (“eye music,” i.e., seen rather than heard) obviated the necessity for any actual listening—much less to a live performance.

Hence we must be grateful for the publication of a hefty volume devoted for the first time in any language to a history of musical performance. The Cambridge History of Musical Performance has endeavored to invest a genre largely associated with specialized scholarship—and it is in fact a collection of essays by scholars—with the appeal, if not of a trade book, then the reliability of a trusted friend.

The volume opens in promising fashion with Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s highly personal, often first-person essay “Performance Today.” The putative dean of British experts on early music, a former controller of the legendary BBC Radio 3, and the director of the celebrated Proms Concerts for over a decade, Kenyon paints a kaleidoscopic picture in which he finds “the availability of everything” to be at once “fascinating, disorienting and disturbing.” Few progressive developments in performance escape Kenyon’s notice; he reports that “students from the Royal Academy of Music travel to Bosnia with schoolchildren to create a new version of [Igor Stravinsky’s] The Soldier’s Tale across the ethnic divide.” He notes unapologetically:

Classical music has had to contend in recent years with a change from its privileged position in our society to one in which it is repeatedly, and in my view rightly, challenged by pop music, world music and a vast range of alternative mass entertainment.

Although musicians such as Pierre Boulez and Nikolas Harnoncourt receive mention, most of Kenyon’s references are to British musical figures, British musical institutions, British arts funding, and the British early music movement. Kenyon is actually catholic in his geographical coverage compared to other contributors. David Wright’s “Music and Musical Performance: Histories in Disjunction?” explores the historiography of British music—British choral societies, British brass bands, and British municipal music—with a single-mindedness that belongs in a more specialized volume.

Indeed, twenty of the thirty contributors are Brits, four more come from former British colonies (Australia, New Zealand, and Canada), and one of the two Italians is British-trained and works there. (On a brighter note, almost two thirds of the contributors are performers themselves.) Only four Americans make the cut.

An ambitious multiauthored project on this scale faces choices between chronology and musical concepts, and the Cambridge history tries to supply both. Alas, neither quite works. After Kenyon’s upbeat kickoff, the next five chapters address issues not directly related to the study of actual performance. In his essay on the political processes and social structures within which music is performed, William Weber’s neat categories of location (the “dialectic between the court and the city”), production (the gradual “division between amateur and professional musicians”), and taste (the growing “authority of the composer over the performer”) draw, in spite of the author’s best efforts, largely from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Robin Stowell (one of the volume’s two main editors) provides, in his essay “The Evidence,” more than a dozen varieties of historical evidence, ranging from musical instruments to recordings, practical and theoretical treatises to autobiographies. He dilutes illuminating quotations from primary sources with stretches of vacuous prose:

Evidence relating to the history of musical performance is wide-ranging and ever-expanding in line with the discoveries of musical research and the continued progress of music as a creative art. If it is to be used beneficially, such raw material must be amassed, criticized, arranged, evaluated and interpreted in accordance with its origin, content, quality and purpose.

Stowell is scarcely the sole offender; careful copyediting could have reduced the volume’s weight from more than four to three pounds.

It seems odd that the most direct discussion of the central topics of improvisation, tempo, and rhythmic flexibility should occur in American Corey Jamason’s essay “The Performer and the Composer.” Jamason—the sole composer in the present volume—describes improvisation as a “creative collaboration” between performer and composer, which seems misguided on two counts. First, many of the most famous improvisers were also major composers, and it is doubtful that Frescobaldi, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, or Liszt (whose legendary powers of improvisation are discussed nowhere else in the volume) thought of themselves as collaborating with themselves. It is equally doubtful that pre-1850 performers improvising on someone else’s composition thought of themselves as in a collaboration. Improvisation was part of every performer’s expressive repertoire, just as phrasing or dynamic shadings were. It was not a matter of either respect or disrespect toward the composer but simply knowing the language.

More germane to performance—and a question neither Jamason nor any other contributor addresses—is why improvisation gradually disappeared. The responsibility, beginning with admirers of Beethoven such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, rests largely with the claims of German high culture that its music, if not prettier, was more profound and ultimately demanded the kind of veneration that made any tampering unacceptable. This shift away from improvisation coincided with the misplaced high modernist belief that the performer’s sole duty is to fulfill the “aims” of the composer. One misses a thoughtful account of this crucial debate.

Natasha Loges and Colin Lawson’s “The Teaching of Performance” offers the clearest account yet in English of how musical pedagogy developed. Yet their careful tracing of the history of conservatories from the ospedali of Venice and Naples (seventeenth century) to the Paris Conservatoire (1795) to London’s Royal Academy of Music (1822) to Leipzig’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater (1843) masks the pivotal importance of Felix Mendelssohn and the violinist Ferdinand David in Leipzig: their Hochschule was the first institution focused (however unrealistically) on producing virtuoso performers groomed for concert (or at least orchestral) careers—still the prestige backbone (however unrealistic) of every school of music or conservatory across the Americas, Europe, and now Asia.

Mendelssohn’s Germanic curriculum put firmly in place the seemingly indestructible three-legged stool of instruction in performance, music theory, and music history that still accounts for the vast majority of courses taken by Western music majors across the world. The Leipzig Conservatory (as it is informally known) proved enterprising enough to put heavy emphasis on Musiktheorie as a parallel to emerging—and prestigious—fields in science. In practice, of course, there is absolutely nothing theoretical about the language of Western music still being dished up to music students. Much of the way it is traditionally taught—in a historical and cultural vacuum—has been irrelevant for at least half a century; its worst feature is that the hapless student bears the burden of integrating the three legs of the stool.

One hundred and seventy years after the Leipzig experiment a few intrepid institutions (including London’s Royal College of Music, which receives a free commercial on the last two pages of the chapter) are finally seeking to discover the best ways to teach—and reach—their postmodern students. It is ironic, and perhaps inevitable, that the challenges faced by Mendelssohn bear an uncanny resemblance to those faced by even the most renowned conservatories today: if you admit only the most gifted (musically, that is—not just those who have achieved a shallow virtuosity), then you risk falling short of the critical mass required to keep the doors open.

The remaining twenty-five essays offer a chronological survey that generates its own string of oddities. Jamason’s earlier references to Baroque, Classic, and Romantic find no counterpoint in the book’s organization. The sole conventional historical “period” is the Renaissance. Otherwise we have “The Ancient World,” “Music before c. 1430,” and each of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. In his overview of seventeenth-century music, Tim Carter considers several views of “Baroque,” but none of his fellow contributors seems to have noticed.

After Eleanora Rocconi’s essay “The Ancient World,” each subsequent chronological section opens with an overview followed by essays on vocal and then instrumental music. The best of these bring performance to life. Jeremy Summerly’s happily compact “Vocal Performance Before c. 1430” sparkles with the wit and wisdom of an experienced conductor and producer:

But what is raucous? Would, for instance, the vocal production of today’s dramatic soprano appear to be a cultivated form of musical expression to the medieval musical ear? The answer seems obvious—no, it would not.

In his discussion of “Instrumental Performance in the Renaissance,” Keith Polk balances generalizations and specifics nicely:

The court of Burgundy had trumpets for ceremony, and a wind band to provide the fifteenth-century version of instrumental art music. Therefore all courts felt the need to match the Burgundian model. Moreover, the trumpeter, dressed in impressive livery, represented the stature and grandeur of his lord.

Will Crutchfield—drawing on three decades of research into nineteenth-century vocal performance—renders this delectable repertoire with remarkable clarity. Relying largely on sound recordings extending back to the 1890s, Crutchfield glides with deft elegance through vibrato, pitch range, registration, vocal types, legato, and technical agility—all with a specificity and urgency that should make his essay required reading for not just every professional singer but anyone who has ever hummed in a shower. The well-chosen music examples will make sense even to those who do not read music. In this regard Crutchfield is almost alone in his comparison of period and modern performances; a rare 1903 live-from-the-Met recording of the aria “O sommo Carlo” from Verdi’s opera Ernani, sung by Luigi Mancinelli and led by a conductor that Verdi greatly admired, contains a wealth of performance gestures—especially a rhythmic ebb and flow—that have all but disappeared in a live 1969 recording from La Scala.

These gems are, alas, exceptions. So jellied and cautious are many of the contributions that most readers will not make it to Roger Heaton’s “Instrumental Performance in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.” This opens with a sentence—“Modernism has released its icy grip”—that should force the reader to respond. Heaton spares us the naming, with birth (and death) date, of every instrumental composer and performer of the last hundred years. There are no bland subheadings that purport to impart organization to meandering lists. Instead, each paragraph stakes out a position that propels the reader on to the next:

It seems to me that the great electronic pieces have been written: Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–6) or Denis Smalley’s Pentes (1974). The cheapness of technology and the proliferation of music technology degree courses do not reflect a surge of interest in electronic composition: the courses are simply servicing the mammon of the media industry.

Thirty contributors each doubtless required their own space in which to maneuver, but nothing explains an editorial policy in which Peter Walls’s article “Instrumental Performance in the ‘Long Eighteenth Century’” (Bach through Mozart) needs only one music example and forty-seven footnotes, while Ian Pace’s on the nineteenth century (Beethoven through Rimsky-Korsakov) demands twenty-five music examples and 308 footnotes. While we can only admire Pace’s bibliographical erudition, the density of his footnotes attains comical proportions, in which virtually anyone who has ever written on a subject is cited; an avalanche of information spews out without any discernible point of view.

  1. *

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

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