The First Mannes/Helicon Historical Performance Weekend Key Note Address
The goals of this weekend were outlined in our brochure, which read: "Musicians of appropriate accomplishment are invited to apply as participants in the First Mannes/Helicon Historical Performance Weekend, joining Albert Fuller and our Artist-Faculty to take 'A Closer Look' at:
1. What music in general has to say about composers, their audiences and about us.
2. What the original-instrument movement has taught us thus far about European musical art.
3. How present-day performances often disregard the expressive content which is the heart and purpose of musical art.
4. Ways by which we can revitalize the often ignored expressive content of great composers' music.
5. The means by which "original-instruments" can guide our search in each of these endeavors and can lead us to richer, more meaningful musical experiences."
And, so I want to address each of these issues here with you now, in order to focus on and clarify what it is that we intend to do, and, we hope, to make more precise just what it is that has brought about our present view of music’s magic.
Now, the first point invites us to look at what music in general has to say about composers, their audiences and about us today who love music so very much. Before we do that I want to suggest that we think about music in terms of our own responses to it. In that case, “What is music?” is then the very first question.
I propose, for our purposes this weekend, that we think of music as “an externalization of human emotion.” Why? How?
1) Listening to music performed by others elicits responses within ourselves.
2) We conceive these responses as emotional images that more or less represent the original externalized emotion.
3) This takes place whether we are conscious or not of these images.
4) Today we know that the mind and body are one, and, thus the emotional images that we form from listening to music cause physical reactions in us, ones we associate with feeling happy, disappointed, sad, or any other similar psycho-somatic sensations.
Now these musical images that have brought each and every one of us together here are not in their truest nature visible. Yet, especially in America, we say “Oh, I forgot my music,” meaning my notes or my score or my partition. Then, we also say "Oh, last night I saw Alicia de Larrocha. She was wonderful!" But, some of us may ask ourselves what a person who speaks that way wants to experience when hearing such a fine musician. What is it we "see" when the artistic product that has made her so famous all over the world is so quintessentially invisible. Consider: music is not the vibrations in the air (measured now by the latest technology); it is not resultant movements of the tympanic membrane (the ear drum); rather, and insubstantially, it is the feelings that these vibrations work on our souls, transforming our interior imaginations, working changes that are welcome, provoking new associations, ones that remind us of our inherited humanity.
I will add here parenthetically my remembrance of a fine performer’s admonition to me as a youngster: "Never forget” said Virgil Fox to me, “they see you before they hear you!" We all know that when a musician walks on stage scowling, or in dirty clothes, or shuffling his feet, an audience is made nervous and wonders if this person, for whom good ticket money may have been spent, really wants to appear in public as a musician. This is not a good beginning!
Times change and we change with them. People speak somewhat differently in every decade. Principal preoccupations of thought and conversation change as well as slang. All the arts change as does speech, humanity’s powerful communicative tool. Now, in 1995, it has been almost a century since Sigmund Freud began to speak of his own perceptions about emotions. Through his work, and that of those who toiled in similar fields, many aspects of human thought and behavior have now been brought out from the unconscious darkness where they have lain since the beginning of humanity. An elaborate vocabulary about the unconscious has developed, allowing us to speak of previously unspoken emotions. Knowing this, none should be surprised to discover that the emotions of Brahms are not the emotions of Bach or Ravel or Prokofiev. Therefore, when we attempt to externalize the emotions of these very different composers by performing their music, we screw up terribly when we don’t recognize the profound differences between them, and their means of projecting their own emotions.
Not recognizing the direct connection between the composer and his music, and its relationship to the emotional life of every other human on earth, has been one of the causes of the great gulf that has come to exist between what we call popular and classical music today. But that is an inappropriate subject for us here now. What is more to the point, is now, many of us understand that when music is updated to please contemporary tastes it can lose the message of its own time, the sense of its own individualism, and becomes subsumed into the most ordinary emotions of today. (Stoky’s D minor T&F) This is how so much music has become boring to conductors, performers and audience alike. As we look around watching opera directors and orchestral conductors, wondering what they can do to revive a faded piece, the last thing most of them usually think of is trying to re-approach it as if were new, using what Freud and his followers have taught us to let us know about the constant unfolding of the human soul.
The second point of our historical performance weekend asks us to consider what the original-instrument movement has taught us thus far about European musical art.
For one thing, the original-instrument movement has shown us much further than we had previously understood how to distinguish musics of different times and different places: how Italian music is different from French music, and when these differences occurred. That in turn opens the door for us players to bring the uniqueness of French style to French music, or, more simply, to sing French pieces with a French accent, and Italian works in their Italian accents.
Consider the following social example: we New Yorkers, with so many different nationalities making up the population of our city, and with so many varieties of cuisine distributed through our city, we are able to flit around among restaurants with cuisines of so many different countries, maybe all within a few blocks’ radius, and that seems natural and quite normal for us. But food can be seen and smelt before it is tasted. Music is invisible, and before it is heard, it exists only in the imagination or ever so frailly in the dots of ink on paper.
If we understand "seeing" musicians perform as perceiving the stimulated interior imagination, then we are in another quite different ballpark. J. Bronowsky, the great 20th-century thinker, believed that it is the possession of imagination that distinguishes human beings from all else on this planet. That, at least for now, seems axiomatic. A great performer in any artistic sphere is great because he can activate the imaginations of his audience. They, in turn, leave the performance with a sense of having been engaged in new experiences; they are somehow different, and will most likely return until this stimulation of the imagination is no longer operative. Horowitz, Callas, Landowska, Toscanini, Pinza, Heifetz, Kreisler, Aretha, Madonna, and on and on—these and all great performers have excited the imaginations of their listeners to become followers of the ever-changing imaginations of the best performing artists.
Music's invisible nature has made it a tough nut for human understanding throughout the ages. Whatever records we have of music of the ancients are either so skimpy as to be meaningless, or they are confined in large numbers to visual depiction. Thus, we know that musical performances, treasured as they were in the distant past, were all memorized, not unlike most 20th-century jazz. In the same manner were all the tales of ancient bards passed on. All of what we call Homer had been created before it was written down, being handed from generation to generation by those who memorized it. Finally, I posit, when some poet/singer bards simply gave up on trying to memorize more, but at the same time wanting to go on performing more, what was to be done? They borrowed the system developed by Phoenician commerce to keep track of goods bartered and exchanged, and began to take notes to aid their memory. These notes developed into what we call the alphabetical, written realization of our spoken language. The identical situation overcame the memorization of melody, and ‘notes” began to appear, slowly developing over the centuries into what we call musical notation.
Now, in spite of our feelings about its permanence, our 20th-century musical notation is young, indeed, very young, quite modern, especially when compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs, or even Greek and Roman letters. At the same time, the most ultra-modern contemporary musical notation is scarcely intelligible to many contemporary musicians, unless one knows the music, that is, and has some idea of how it goes. Likewise, only the new, electronically produced, notational, maddeningly detailed version of a 'blues' or 'jazz' performance can indicate what the real tradition of their performance sounds like. The notation of “swing” is, likewise only possible in the fashion of this new technology. Thus, our notation of music, like that of spoken language always lags behind the practice of it. And that relates absolutely directly to the French conventions of, as François Couperin says, not playing as the notation suggests, but rather with notes-inégales, unequal notes. Maybe it’s not coincidental that New Orleans, la Nouvelle Orléans, is the birthplace of American jazz.
The ultimate lesson here is to learn that our present musical notation is not, as we are invariably taught, a precise set of recreative directions. Our notation never means only just what we are taught it says. Teaching on that order is much too narrow in meaning to be strictly obeyed, especially when we intend to achieve the maximum of richest and most satisfying performing results.
You must understand that I am not making a call to renounce modern-day technology. Without it none of us would be in this room together, especially those on the cutting edge of Internet. I speak of all the electronic tools that are the foremost examples of the new communication in our lives. The scores, and original manuscripts of previous composers, some entirely ignored or scarcely known, others of the best known like Beethoven can now be studied in different manners. According to different publications of the same materials, we can see how a composer changed his mind in growing with his idea. On the other hand, we can see how publishers, in the interest of sales, sometime incorporated previous errors, even to distort the composer’s original intent.
Our knowledge today of all this could not remotely have happened without the Xerox machine. And just as the greatest peaks, such as Mt. Everest, cannot exist without their lesser neighbors, so we have had Etienne Nicolas Méhul (1763-1813) and his symphonies reintroduced into our consciousness. So what, you might say? I respond that Beethoven wouldn’t sound the way he does to us if Méhul had not existed. A number of traits that we consider echt-Beethoven were directly inspired by passages in Méhul. Thus we see the influence of French taste in the German giant that is Beethoven. My experience shows endless examples of such cross-fertilization. The investigations of the original-instrument movement has been responsible for producing them to our great joy by the dozens.
The third point of our weekend together asks us to look at how present-day performances often disregard the expressive content which is the heart and purpose of musical art. Oh, let me count the ways!
I would like to start with an oversimplification but one that does, indeed, describe a general trend. After the heyday of the baroque giants, whose phrase structure were all relatively short, composers of the past began a long experiment in creating longer and longer musical phrases. Originally instrumental phrases were all modeled on the relatively short phrases created for singers who generally used one breath per phrase, as in today’s pop style. As composers increased their phrase length, the attention span of audiences was also increasing, and listeners were able to focus their imaginations, and, as we say today, they were able to dream, while listening to music for longer and longer periods. The musical phrases, even in their smallest parts, became ever longer, taking even more time, while the movement or flow of musical ideas began to be expressed in slower and slower tempi. The short, concise phrasings of Bach, Handel and Couperin, (delineated so aptly by gut strings and baroque bows) were rejected by Bach’s sons and Grétry and their contemporaries, and the new 'classical' style of Mozart and Haydn passed on ever-longer phrases to Beethoven and Berlioz. It wasn't long before audiences were able to admire along with Schumann his description of the 'heavenly lengths' of Schubert’s C Major Symphony.
The works of Bruckner from the second half of the 19th century prepared for the climax of size and lengthiness of the symphonies of Mahler. By 1907 Mahler produced his Symphony No. 8, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand.” The second part of this symphony can be described as a vast synthesis of forms and media, embodying his setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust as an amalgam of 1) dramatic cantata, 2) oratorio, 3) song cycle, 4) Lisztian choral symphony and 5) instrumental symphony.
With this and other similar works, the patience and attention spans of early 20th-century 'avant garde' composers and listeners finally snapped. Their intolerance created new and quite different ways of musical expression, invented as absolutely necessary to convey contemporary thought. The old patterns had ceased to inspire new creativity. The old was not bad; it had simply been carried to its limits. Now Schoenberg and Stravinsky burst upon the scene with their own new languages to express new ideas, just at the time when Einstein, Edison and Freud did the same thing in their worlds. The new thought of the 20th century was now in full swing.
Obsessed, as was the entire world with the concept of progress, there were even many musicians who felt that ever-greater musical art was being created, and that the Edwardian period of the 20th century before WW I, was the glorious apotheosis of the 18th-century Enlightenment. As happened with so much human behavior across the centuries, up-to-date musicians tended to forget all about the music written before Beethoven.
There were, of course, a few outstanding exceptions to that. Mendelssohn, for example, inaugurated the modern appreciation of Bach by performing a much truncated and rearranged version of the Matthew Passion in 1826. The Benedictine monks of Solesmes became the center of the Gregorian chant revival since its abbey’s re-establishment in 1831. The Bach-Gesellschaft was founded in 1850, and produced an edition of the composer’s entire works that served as a model for subsequent editions of it kind. Brahms collaborated as editor of the first modern edition of the harpsichord works of François Couperin, and let us not forget Wanda Landowska, who began to play the harpsichord in public in 1903.
Apart from figures such as these, our early-20th-century musical forebears behaved like the 17th-century Venetians. They gave no thought to blowing up Athens’ Parthenon in 1687, thinking it was old and, therefore, no good any more.
When the music of the past was forgotten, so was what that music told of the human psyches of those who made it. With that psychology forgotten, the precious concept of the continuity of growth of human understanding developed, yet again, a big hole. This period of musical works that were forgotten was precisely the period of musical creativity that brought about what is called The Enlightenment. (To refresh our memories, the Enlightenment was the 18th-century philosophical movement characterized by a reliance on reason and experience rather than dogma, superstition and tradition, while emphasizing humanitarian political goals and social, emotional progress.) Yes, by the end of the 19th century, the glorious, always startling new musical creations of those who participated in the Enlightenment were no longer a matter of public consciousness. With a very few notable exceptions such as Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, most 17th- and 18th-century music was thought to be old, used up and no longer relative to modern, industrialized society.
Meanwhile, another factor, of future world-wide importance entered the picture at the early part of the 19th century. Then, when the French revolution seemed finished and the prosperous middle-class of citizens burgeoned in influence, the idea arose that many more, almost anyone, might possess the artistic abilities that had previously been at the beck and call of only the noble, rich and powerful. The new society was ripe for the idea of a Conservatoire, and its new methods devised to teach “fundamental music appreciation,” along with understanding of the grammar and rhetoric of music.
Ear-training and solfège came into being, in an attempt to show to those who did not have the natural skills of invisible music memory, how to break down and analyze the musical components—how correctly to parse them. This, in turn, brought about a method of how to commit them to memory, and thus, how to be able, through Cartesian methods of logic, to allow those, even of the least talent, to reiterate the outward manifestations of musical performance—to play the correct notes in time.
Many of today's centers of musical learning continue to instruct with these aims in mind. Beneficent as such intentions are, nevertheless, they have focused on the outward signs of performance—the playing of the right notes in the correct time. That is, the focus has almost exclusively been on creating the package, the outward, visible sign of music, without regard for the contents of the package, what we might call the inward, spiritual grace. In doing this, the understanding of the emotional feelings or affects that music contains, was shoved to the side. These feelings, oraffeti as the Italians say, are the raison d’être, at the very center of the entire world of musical expressivity. It is by forgetting this that the common complaint has arisen that so many performances sound 'alike,' that they are devoid of the spontaneity of lively emotional interchange. It was just this situation that provided the rich, fertile soil for the emergence of the original-instrument movement and the possibility that it can do much to restore music’s messages to the coin of the soul.
This descriptive phrase, the original-instrument movement, seems to focus on the instruments used, as does the other common phrase “period-instruments.” Meanwhile, those of us who have undergone the experiences of learning to make meaningful musical performances with the instruments for which the music was written have come to understand that it is not so much the instruments themselves that are important. Rather, and much more important, it is the world of musical affects that they reveal to us. The ENRICHMENT OF OUR AFFECTIVE PERCEPTIONS is the golden benefit of the original-instrument inquiry.
The treasure of this newly revealed world, is, of course, not new at all. This treasure consists of a world of emotional affects that have been ignored or set aside in the race to invent the new, especially in America, where “new and improved” and “bigger is better” have been such common guiding principals. Present-day large crowds of people are unthinkable without the presence of electrical amplification. Meanwhile, young musicians have been goaded to project, project to larger and larger audiences, with messages that are strong enough to be heard in vast spaces by crowds. Larger and larger halls for larger and larger audiences for our concerts have been the result of such thinking. No wonder we are evermore on quicksand when we bring into the immense halls music that was intended to express intimate thoughts to audiences gathered in intimate spaces.
The scale of human musical communication has grown beyond human capacity and the newest instruments are all dependent on amplified electrical current to make their statements. Thinking thus, electrical amplification is the next logical step for our own instruments. Think of the immense rock concerts with their immense TV screens, set up with the sole purpose of allowing the performers, who look like a flee circus to the naked eye, to be visible by visual amplification to the thousands who are their immediate audience. I think of this as an ironic fantasy precisely because, even in the world of international Olympics, we cannot do very much if anything (outside of using steroids) to alter the size of our bodies. Therefore our world’s understanding of the words “human scale,” is related to everything we produce, conceiving every chair, every automobile, every street and the rooms of every building in terms of the size of the human body. We forgot human scale. The original-instrument has helped restore that.
Point four of our weekend five-point program addresses ways by which we can revitalize the often ignored expressive content of great composers' music.
The problems encountered here are more complex than they seem to be at first glance. Consider: only a few years have passed since many well-intentioned performing musicians developed what we think of today as attitudes of personal superiority to our great creative geniuses. Many of them often followed such astonishingly arrogant dictates as: “we know better about some of these things than did their creators (sic!).” “Well,” you might say, “who on earth would want to act that way?” I give you here three examples:
By any who ever came in contact with them, it was always admitted that Bach's works for solo violin were excellent examples of the composer's art. Nevertheless, the general thinking went that many of Bach’s directions for bowing were poorly considered by the genius who brought these very works into being. Yes, many performers and teachers meant to say that Bach’s own bowings were inadequate to express the music that he conceived. Consequently, many teachers and performers alike have changed the composer's bowings to conform to the way they liked them.
Alas, doing this often altered important parts of Bach's musical message. Those that did this said something like “After all, he didn't know of our 'new and improved' understanding of the modern bow!” Such “improved” understanding could alter and distort a dance movement so as to make it unrecognizable to those, like Bach himself, who knew how to do all the dance steps of the world in which he lived. Yes, Virginia, old Bach understood and loved dancing, and the simplest way to draw closer to what old Bach had in mind is to use the kind of bow for which he wrote his glorious, albeit difficult, solo violin works! The concept of “new and improved” has been a false goal here, leading many who loved the works ultimately to abandon them as being hopelessly irrelevant to us and our world. What a pity that is!
A second example shows how it became a general habit to believe that Beethoven, being somewhat crazy and certainly deaf, couldn't know what sixty seconds in a minute were in human experience, and therefore he couldn't possibly have understood what his metronome marks meant. (And don’t forget: Beethoven also was personally acquainted with J. N. Maelzel who refined and patented the metronome in 1815.) Consequently, Beethoven's unique tempo markings were not only completely ignored as irrelevant, but rather they weren't even noticed. (In fact, in many editions, new editors have even substituted new metronome indications for the original ones, new ones they felt were more appropriate for the composer's own creations!). Behaving thus, much of Beethoven's expressivity was quite altered, along with traits that tell so much of how his music related to human movement, both then and now. Efforts to learn from his metronome marks are laughed at by musicians and critics alike. The vast majority of them can play no instrument whatsoever, and can’t artfully perform anything for an audience gathered to listen.
A third example of this kind of misrepresentation comes to mind, this time with the erosion of meaning in the works of Brahms. Brahms, one thinks, is so close to our own time we couldn't possibly not know what his intentions were. Wrong, again, at least in my experience! Today, the general tempo of performances of the first movement of the B major piano quintet (Op. 8) is approximately ? When I produced a recent performance of this work, one of my own previous pupils, a successful musician who should have known better, asked me why the tempo of this first movement was “so fast.” I responded that it seemed just right to me, the complainer asked me how I arrived at that conclusion. I pointed out that Brahms, without a metronome marking, had written this piece with an alla breve time signature, that is, C with a vertical line through it, and wrote the movement direction Allegro con brio! Now, Allegro is taken generally today as meaning fast, although its literal translation from Italian is simply merry. Alla breve indicates two half notes in a bar, and thus a quickish tempo, its time signature being 2/2 and not 4/4. And finally, con brio , literally translated as “with vivacity or energy or fire” indicates a playing style of brilliance and dash. Therefore, Brahms’ directions cannot be construed as “leisurely” in any body’s language. Familiarity has indeed bred contempt.
The situation I have just described comes as a great shock to those to whom I am forced to point it out. Even my former successful pupil was amazed, once again, to discover what he had seen before his eyes and had so completely ignored. When those whom I coach behave similarly I often say “Now, without turning the pages of your scores, can you tell me what are the original time signature and tempo markings?” Almost always, those who make such complaints are forced to admit that their understanding of the piece in question had fallen in a slump and they didn’t know the time signature or the written descriptions of the character. This example shows to what extent we must rethink so much of what we think we already know. It can sometimes be dangerous, or at least arrogant, to assume we know what it’s all about. As Daniel Boorstin has pointed out, “ the history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”
The final point asks us to understand how the world of "original-instruments" can guide our search in answering the questions prompted by the previous points, leading us to richer, more meaningful musical experiences. After all, none of us wants thinner, weaker musical performances. We all want to be touched and spiritually moved. We all want music, and all artistic human communication in its richest, most colorful and most memorable form. Learning more about the various messages that are in our music for communication to others, takes nothing away from us. Rather, it enriches our reception and transmission of the messages themselves.
It is unlikely that the three “misconceptions” I demonstrated under “Point IV” would have been righted without the kind of reappraisal that the original-instrument movement has forced us to undergo. It can be seen how such simple changes, ones that certainly draw us closer to the composers, can produce performance results little short of “astounding,” especially to those who were sure they knew the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and knew them well enough so that little else of importance was needed for their own recreations of the composers’ musical messages.
I will finish up here by offering to you a very personal recipe, one I have used to help students create for themselves an historically informed performance, a "HIP" performance we can now say.
In the end, outside our own absolutely essential and supremely important contemporary music, and I mean all of it, including the world of Earl "Fatha" Hines, Satchmo and the Duke, Aretha and Madonna, the musical messages from our dead composers remain there for us performers to quicken once again with our imagination. What a glorious task to see the immense variety of character and expression from across time and space, from what we call then, and to see how that variety of then corresponds to the different and to the same variety that we see around us now. If we learn everything humanly possible about the expressed genius of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms who dwelt in the then, and, if we add to that everything that we can learn about our own needs and our own personal style in the now—at that point, we will be prepared to become a bridge to anyone who has ears to hear.
Our bridge will cross time, plugging the 17th-, 18th- or 19th-century messages into our contemporary experience. Our bridge will cross space, plugging even more French, or German or Italian sensibility into our American consciousness. Our bridge will also be able to go far toward healing the wounds of ignorance and lack of self-awareness that disfigure so much of the musical psyche of our civilization, and even those psyches that lie outside the world of music.
Remember, it is true that music hath charms! The bridge itself of which I have been speaking is imaginative persuasion, and our motto as we build it in our own now might very well be the advice of the Latin author Horace from 16 B.C., his own then:
If you want me to cry, than you yourself must grieve.
Here we are talking about human feelings, not the physical realities of the universe, which we have come to learn so much about during the past few centuries. In the end, as we sow, so shall we reap. We cannot give to others what we ourselves do not possess. Alice Tully said publicly that the object of our efforts is continuous emotional growth and study, which never ends, and should not end. I agree with her, and, therefore, wish to say in closing that for us musicians the now of then is inescapably us to us!
Daniel Boorstin has pointed out that “the history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. . . Perhaps we could call ours an age of negative discovery. Marc Davis, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, has provided us with a convenient summary of the progress of cosmology over the last four hundred years:
The Earth is not the center of the Universe.
The Sun is not the center of the Universe.
Our galaxy is not the center of the Universe.
Our type of matter is not the dominant constituent of the Universe (dark matter predominates instead).
Our Universe (seen and unseen) is not the only Universe.
Our physics is not the only physics. There might exist separate universes with completely different physics.
You are always entitled to be nervous the first time you approach the creations of great geniuses. You may find that this nervousness continues in some form always. This is where one feels the risk factor. But feeling such risk is always necessary in order to move forward.
In the beginning it may seem like fear and, in this case, it can lessen one’s ability. However, the struggle to join the great geniuses and to perform their music in spite of it ultimately lessens its threat. We must all remember that everyone has experienced nervousness, and we are not alone when we are conscious of it. It should be used as the great emotional drive which carries us all—the life-giving connection.
The object of your efforts is continuous emotional growth and study, which never ends, and should not end.