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.<a href=”#fn->

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.


Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Le Piano), circa 1948

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of updatable e-books and JSTOR, it is harder and harder to see the virtue of committing to print what is likely to be out of date within a few years.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.

Such an approach inevitably misses the bigger picture as well. In his discussion of tempo in the music of Franz Schubert, for example, Pace cites David Montgomery and footnotes him five times on a single page without referencing the lively and illuminating 1997–1998 debate between Montgomery and fortepianists Robert Levin and Malcolm Bilson over the central issues of ornamentation and tempo flexibility in Schubert. Montgomery’s textual literalism, given a free pass by Pace, crumbles next to Levin and Bilson’s powerful arguments for a tradition in which tasteful ornamentation and freedom of tempo remained paramount. To read Ian Pace you would scarcely believe that differences among musicians exist.

You also get a sanitized view of history. Pace writes:

The most prominent piano teacher in 1820s Leipzig was Friedrich Wieck…. Wieck’s emphasis was upon a legato tone, a flexible wrist without use of the arm…. He strongly disliked overuse of either pedal, was disparaging of young virtuosi, and urged a reverential approach to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Weber. His most prominent student was of course his daughter Clara….

While much of the above is true, missing is Wieck’s role—taking his cue from the Italian-turned-English entrepreneur Muzio Clementi—in establishing the template for the domineering, authoritarian teacher who exercised a manipulative control over his students, and who dominated piano instruction for over a century (and still in some quarters today).

Pace characterizes Wieck’s Klavier und Gesang (Piano and Song), published toward the end of his active teaching career, as an “important treatise,” but this piece of transparent self-promotion was clearly designed to recast Wieck as a kind, fatherly progressive. Even so, its preface ends: “And so go forth into the world, dear book! Teach the willing, warn the erring, vex the wicked, and punish the sinners.” He wasn’t kidding.

A surer guide is Wieck’s earlier Klavier Studien (Piano Studies), whose seventy-four lifeless exercises imposed on his students were guaranteed to extinguish the musical flame in all but the most gifted. Such were Clara Wieck and her eventual husband Robert Schumann, himself briefly a student of Wieck’s. Any reading of the easily available contemporary documents unmasks Wieck as the abhorrent emotional abuser he was from even before Clara’s birth. We can only marvel that after all his mean-spiritedness, libel, and slander the Schumanns ultimately found it in their hearts to forgive the man whose behavior so traumatized Clara that she barely spoke before she was five.

To compensate for the volume’s focus on details, six “Case Studies” explore complete works. While scarcely representative, at their best they bring the big picture and the supporting details together. John Haines examines a highly unusual “ballade” in four voices by the great fourteenth-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut. Reaching back 650 years with deceptive ease, Haines describes not only the sexagenarian Machaut composing his only dual-text ballade for his nineteen-year-old lover, but traces how twentieth-century scholars recreated Machaut in the image of a sentimental nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Jonathan Wainwright assesses Monteverdi’s opulent 1610 Vespers by means of more conventional categories (pitch, instruments, and voices, etc.). Colin Lawson examines the enigmatic performance history of Mozart’s three final symphonies, driving home Paul Hindemith’s contention that we can never hear them as Mozart’s contemporaries would have.

Robin Stowell’s portrait of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is as crowded as a Victorian drawing room (he lists thirty Isoldes born between 1857 and 1936) but brings together more historical performance data than has ever been assembled. William Mival’s case study of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen provides a brisk account of this perpetually avant-garde work’s reception history: the original difficulties of coordinating three instrumental groups, each with its own conductor; the surprising number of past and current performances; the ease with which contemporary ensembles now deliver the work; and Stockhausen’s performance demands that require a live audience.

Yet references in all of these essays to actual stretches of music in actual performances are too few and far between. We long for more Berlioz moments of being “physically” involved. When they occur, as with the vivid account of Richard Strauss conducting the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, we imbibe them with the relish of a desert survivor downing a cold Perrier.

Given the volume’s length, readers will be dismayed at glaring omissions. Scant attention is given to “reading,” i.e., interpreting scores from various periods. Malcolm Bilson’s highly informative and entertaining 2005 DVD, Knowing the Score, which addresses both basic and subtle performance conventions in solo keyboard music from C.P.E. Bach to Bartók and Prokofiev, escaped the editors’ dragnet. In 2010 Bilson followed up with a more extensive and equally provocative DVD entitled Performing the Score with violinist Elizabeth Field that, ironically, includes a delightful interview with Sir Nicholas Kenyon.

The transformation, as outlined by Bilson, of the enormously varied fortepiano into today’s monolithic Steinway-type forms one of the central narratives of nineteenth-century music; you would never know it from the Cambridge volume. Indeed, given the inclusion of a music CD in everything from Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation to a volume on the performance of early Brahms, why would a massive book on performance itself—especially with its roster of distinguished performers—not include such a disk?

Only passing mention is given to performance directions (tempo and expressive indications, phrase markings) that, with the seventeenth-century Italian formation of the modern string band, began to creep in ever greater specificity into scores. From Corelli to Cage there is a fascinating story here, but the uneven and watery references are sprinkled so unpredictably throughout the volume that no reader will be able to find a thread.

More than one essay acknowledges the importance of recordings, but, as I have indicated, only Crutchfield actually exploits their riches, and he limits himself largely to Italian repertoire. Stephen Cottrell provides a solid account of the impact of recording, including the gradual “internationalization” of performance styles, but in maddeningly general terms. There are no references to early Beethoven or Wagner performances, or to a dozen recordings made between 1902 and 1930 of the once-ubiquitous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, or to the first recording of the complete Beethoven sonata cycle by Artur Schnabel. Readers looking for serious discussions of living, breathing performances are left largely to fend for themselves.

Influential performers such as Schnabel appear and disappear randomly without mention of their seminal contributions. The brilliant, idiosyncratic Canadian Glenn Gould is cited three times; two make the same reference to his retiring from the concert stage at age thirty-one, and the other mentions his preference for the original version of Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben. We hear nothing about Gould’s two extraordinary recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in which the piano was regulated to produce in his hands a thrilling kind of steely clarity—not to mention his influential essay “The Prospects of Recording” (1966), which predicted by more than two decades many of the conventions we now take for granted in digital recording and editing.

Richard Hudson’s important Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato (1994) is buried in the sixty-page “Select [!] Bibliography” but receives not a single mention in any of the abbreviated discussions of rubato. The lack of a clear and useful organization might have been redeemed partially by a comprehensive and accurate index. Sadly, the inconsistencies of the main text are only amplified by an index that is sloppy and woefully incomplete. For example, “piano” has no entry (nor does any other instrument, for that matter). “Verdi,” cited half a dozen times in the index, appears on at least fourteen other pages.

The final chapter, “The Future?,” points up perhaps most glaringly the volume’s vulnerabilities. The text is astonishingly naive. As evidence of the current popularity of classical music we read that “more than five billion people viewed [Lang Lang’s] performance in Beijing’s opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympic Games.” The best estimates of viewership averaged around 2.5 billion (the Wikipedia source for the “more than five billion” is a pre-opening promo piece), very few of whom would have tuned in specifically to watch Lang Lang. But who’s counting? If you watched either the BBC or the NBC feed, Lang Lang’s tentative, fifty-three-second, almost inaudible “performance” (he shares the bench with an adorable six-year old) is entirely dubbed (apparently director Zhang Yimou was taking no chances).

In a runup concert to the opening, Lang Lang was permitted to play five minutes from the inextinguishable Yellow River Concerto; in the three years since his performance was posted to YouTube it has received just over eight thousand views. As evidence that “a new era in music is dawning,” the editors cite an article more than twenty-five years old by Tod Machover—whose hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future are light years removed from the preoccupations in this book.

Who is the audience for this volume? Performers will become lost trying to find answers to basic questions. Most serious scholars will find the treatment of their fields of expertise too shallow to be useful. The music student and the hungry amateur will be too often dulled by passive and overly descriptive prose. There remains the shrinking market to which university presses cling: university and public libraries, many of which may choke on the hefty price. While this will not be the last venture on the important subject of musical performance, it is regrettable to see all the energy and conscientious effort that went into the first fail to harness fully either the potential of its talented contributors or the promise of its subject.