June 12, 2006
Episode 9: Improvised Delights
I began episode seven with more thoughts about the classical music crisis. Classical music had started to stagnate, I said. This was a fascinating kind of stagnation, because in the midst of it there was lots of vitality. In the past 60 years, since World War II, we've seen the rise of the early music movement, the rise of musicology as a serious scholarly discipline, explosive new styles of new music, new ways of staging opera, a far better (clearer, less idealized) view of classical music history, an exploration of forgotten parts of the classical repertoire, and much more, including the rise (in the US) of orchestras and opera companies all over the country, along with attempts to make classical music more accessible, and attempts to bring classical music and popular culture together.
But at the same time, classical music began to turn in on itself; it lost its popular touch. In some ways, this was the downside of some of the excitement I've talked about. The expansion of the repertoire brought with it an eruption of scholarship. Anyone willing to buy enough recordings could hear all of Haydn's 104 symphonies, all of Bach's nearly 200 cantatas, and all of Verdi's 26 operas, many of which had gotten obscure even during Verdi's lifetime. But you can't encounter this music without also encountering (in program notes, CD liner notes, and elsewhere) scholarly discussion of it. What then gets lost is the direct appeal of the music. To talk about that, or at least to talk about it without reference to classical music scholarship, is somehow low-rent. And so the history of classical music starts to take on an artificial life of its own. We're asked, for instance, to contemplate the popular appeal of Verdi's operas, at the time when they were written, when gigantic barrel organs trundled through Italian streets, playing Verdi tunes. But what does that mean? Does it mean these operas should still be vital now, because they were so popular when they were new? Does it mean that popular music now might turn out to be as great--and long-lasting--as Verdi's operas? It's hard to know, since neither possibility is ever mentioned. The popularity of Verdi, in his day, becomes what we might call an abstract fact, one that's savored by scholars--and thrust upon us in books and program notes--as if it meant something, though what it means is never quite explained.
This scholarly, detached, analytical view of classical music then gets translated into the formality of performances, the immobility and silence of the musicians and the audience, and the lack of communication, the lack of any explanation of what's really going on (which I've criticized so relentlessly in earlier episodes). All this turns many people off, especially since it runs directly against almost every trend in contemporary culture. So why should it be a surprise--as a consequence of everything I'm discussing here--that ticket sales have fallen off? And so we have a crisis--a serious one, if we look at the aging, shrinking audience. Classical music could become financially unsustainable.
Which brings me to the first part of the book proper, after the introduction. In that first part, I'll look in detail at the dimensions of the crisis, giving as much data as possible on how bad it really is.
But before I do that, it's worthwhile--very valuable, in fact--to see where the crisis comes from. And in fact it's part of a longer history. To look at it, we have to roll the clock back to an earlier time, when Bach and Handel, and then Haydn and Mozart, and of course many other fine composers, were all active, even though the concept of classical music -- as we understand that now -- didn't exist. Almost all the music anyone performed was music of the present.
What was the music world like, without the burden of masterworks from
the past? It was very lively. Music was written for an audience, and the
audience reacted. Consider, for instance, the famous letter that Mozart wrote
to his father after the premiere of his
[I]n the midst of the first allegro [the first movement, at a quick tempo] came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away--there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last--and then it came again, da capo! The andante [the second movement, at a slower tempo] also found favor, but particularly the last allegro [the last movement, which like the first was fast] because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano [softly] for eight bars only, then forte [loudly], so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said "Sh!" and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.
Here are two things that don't fit our present notion of classical music. First, Mozart wrote this piece to get a reaction from his audience. And, second, the audience reacted right in the middle of the piece. The people in Mozart's audience didn't remotely understand our concept of musical etiquette. They clapped as soon as they heard something they liked.
What did this audience look like? [This is the start of episode eight.] There's a 1754 Canaletto painting ("London: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh.") that shows an orchestral performance. The people in the audience, as Christopher Small writes in his book Musicking, "are standing or walking about, talking in pairs and in groups, or just coming and going, in much the same way as people do in the foyer of a modern concert hall....[B]ut there is a knot of people gathered around the musicians' platform, as in a later day jazz enthusiasts would gather around the bandstand in a dance hall when one of the great bands was playing for the dancing." (Or as we'd see today in a rock club.)
Another 18th century painting of a musical performance (Giovanni Paolo Pannini's "Musical celebration given by the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld at the Theater Argentina in Rome in 1747 on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV") shows what looks like a highly formal occasion, with more than 70 musicians in the orchestra, plus singers, and many churchmen in the audience. And yet people are chatting, and vendors are moving through the crowd, selling drinks.
And things got crazier than that. When Handel ran opera companies in London in the early 18th century, he ran them as commercial enterprises, and nothing about the performances was decorous. People in the audience shouted at the singers. On stage there was spectacle, including flying, fire-breathing dragons. The singers seemed exotic, even scandalous. And when Handel made the mistake of engaging not just one, but two Italian prima donnas to sing at the same time, "a great Disturbance happened at the Opera," as a London newspaper wrote, "occasioned by the Partisans of the Two Celebrated Rival Ladies....The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies." It ended, as a pamphlet from the time put it, with the "two Singing Ladies pull[ing]each other's coiffs?... it is certainly an apparent Shame that two such well bred Ladies should call Bitch and Whore..."
Our ideas of opera in this period -- Baroque
opera -- don't allow for anything like what I'm describing. Until very
recently, the conventional classical music wisdom (printed in books, taught in
music schools) was that Baroque opera was stylized and restrained. Which can't be true! Just look at how Richard Taruskin, in his five-volume
The liberties singers were expected to take with the written music, and had to take or lose all respect, would be thought a virtually inconceivable desecration today. But that was the very least of it: the great Neapolitan castrato Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli (1710-83)...was actually arrested and imprisoned, according to the police report, for "disturbing the other performers, acting in a manner bordering on lasciviousness (on stage) with one of the female singer, conversing with the spectators in the boxes from the stage, ironically echoing whichever member of the company was singing an aria, and finally refusing to sing in the ripieno [the concluding "chorus" of principals] with the others...."
Now what sort of public would
tolerate such behavior, let alone delight in it?... That
audience, a mixture of aristocracy and urban middle class...was famed throughout
[At the request of a reader, I've added citations for all my references. You'll find them at the very end of the episode.]
So what would the musical performances have been like, in these insane surroundings? (Or at least insane by the standards classical music has today.) Of course they couldn't have been stylized, restrained, or (often enough) even very decorous. Vivaldi, one of the great composers of the 18th century, led performances of his operas by playing the principal violin part in the orchestra. In keeping with the circus atmosphere of Italian opera houses, he'd interrupt the singers by playing long, wild improvisations, in which (to quote the liner notes for a recording of his opera Orlando finto pazzo) "he flabbergasted audiences with sounds never before heard from a violin." Or as an 18th century observer wrote, "Vivaldi played a solo--splendid--followed by a cadenza that quite amazed me...he raised his fingers until they were only a hair's breadth from the bridge, scarcely leaving room for the bow--and this on all four strings, with imitations and incredible speed." To put it more simply, he played as high and fast as possible, on all four strings at once. Why would he do this? The answer seems obvious. He wanted to put on a show, and to make himself the center of attention, so he'd be hired to write and present more operas.
the greatest Baroque composers--also seized attention when he led his operas
from the harpsichord in
How do we know that they improvised? Because people wrote descriptions of what they did, textbooks on how to do it, and transcriptions into musical notation of what musicians actually played. Corelli, yet another of the great Baroque composers, composed violin music that, as he wrote it down, often looks very simple. But he didn't mean it to be played that way. He himself played it--especially in slow pieces--with cascades of unwritten notes, which he'd make up on the spot, and play differently in each performance. Here's an example, printed in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the leading classical music reference work. It comes from a 1710 edition of Corelli's violin sonatas (reprinted in 1716), which stated, in no uncertain terms, that this is "how Corelli wants one to play these pieces." Not, of course, that any serious musician would simply copy what was printed, but (as the New Grove writer stresses) instead would take the printed score as an example "to be emulated by the performer in his or her own manner." As you can see, the musical notation vividly shows--even if you don't read music!--the difference between what Corelli wrote down, and what he expected to be played. The middle line shows what's written; the top line shows how it should be played. (The music on the bottom is the bass line.)
How could these embellishments change at every performance? Just look at the examples of improvised music published in a famous 1752 book, Essay of a Method for Playing the Transverse Flute, by Johann Joachim Quantz, an important 18th century musician. In one chapter, Quantz gives 20 pages of examples, ideas of what someone might do with simple musical passages. And I do mean simple--the first of them is nothing more than the same note played three times: dah dah dah. Quantz suggests 21 ways to play those three notes, or rather to enhance them. It's as if you got up and took three steps forward, 21 times, sometimes waving your arms, sometimes spinning around at each step, sometimes adding steps sideways, sometimes walking on tiptoes. Quantz's first variation simply adds a flourish to each note: da-da-da-dah, da-da-da-dah, da-da-da-dah. Other variations involve scales running up and down, or complex little twists and turns, but always starting and ending on the same note, and rhythmically dividing into three parts, so the relation to the original idea is always clear.
And of course these examples could be endlessly multiplied, because so many of them have come down to us. Baroque opera, it turns out, was all about vocal embellishment, quite apart from whatever fireworks composers like Vivaldi and Handel could set off in the orchestra. Operas consisted almost exclusively of solo arias. Each aria was divided into three parts, an opening section, something else that contrasted with it, and then a repeat of the opening. In the previous episode, I mentioned a basic misunderstanding of Baroque opera, and it's all about this way of constructing an aria. As we see it now, it's rigid, unyielding, stylized, even undramatic. Once it begins, nothing's going to change. The music always comes back to the place it started from.
But to 18th century audiences--the people who sometimes screamed their approval, and sometimes didn't pay attention to the music at all--this aria form (called the da capo aria, because da capo meant to repeat from the beginning, and that's what these arias did) was nothing less than explosive. The whole point was to see what the singers would do with the repeats. Of course they'd vary them. Of course, if they were very good singers, they'd very them differently each night. So the da capo aria wasn't rigid, wasn't stylized, and above all, wasn't boring. The variations could be wild; purists repeatedly complained that the composer's melody would entirely disappear. Whenever a singer stepped out to sing, anyone listening would wonder, "What's he going to do this time? How wild is he going to get?" Or how touching, how noble, how virile, how yielding, how melancholy, how furiously angry, or how utterly despairing, depending on whatever emotion the music was meant to convey. No wonder these audiences--or at least the people who were paying attention--sometimes screamed. They were ravished, excited, taken by surprise. And no wonder the singers tried so hard to amaze the audience. How else could they make people pay attention?
But there was art in
all this, too. Stendhal, the great 19th century French novelist, loved opera,
and, to judge from some of his writing, must have gone to the opera every night
during a time when he lived in
In days gone by, the great singers, Babbini, Marchesi, Pacchiarotti, etc., used to compose their own ornamentation [all the italics in this passage are Stendhal's] whenever the musical context required an exceptionally high level of complexity; but in normal circumstances, they were concerned with extempore invention. All the various categories of simpler embellishments (appoggiture, gruppetti, mordenti, and so on) were theirs to dispose and arrange as they thought best, spontaneously, and following the dictates of their art and their inner genius; the whole art of adorning the melody (i vezzi melodici del canto, as Pacchiarotti used to call it, when I met him in Padua in 1816) belonged by right to the performer. For instance, in the aria
Ombra adorata, aspetta .. [from Vaccai's opera Giulietta e Romeo].
Crescentini would suffuse his whole voice and inflexion with a broad and indefinable colouring of satisfaction, because it would strike him, while he was actually standing up and singing, that an impassioned lover about to be reunited with his mistress probably would feel something of the sort. But Velluti, who perceives the situation rather differently, interprets the same passage in a vein of melancholy, interspersed with brooding reflections upon the common fate of the two lovers. There is no composer on earth, suppose him to be as ingenious as you will, whose score can convey with precision, these and similar infinitely minute nuances of emotional suggestion: yet it is precisely these and similar infinitely minute nuances which form the secret of Crescentini's unique perfection in his interpretation of the aria; furthermore, all this infinitely minute material is itself in a perpetual state of transformation, constantly responding to variations in the physiccal condition of the singer's voice, or to changes in the intensity of the exaltation and ecstasy by which he may happen to be inspired. At one performance, he may tend towards ornaments redolent of indolence and morbidezza; on a different occasion, from the very moment when the sets foot on the stage, he may find himself in a mood for gorgheggi [cascades of notes] instinct with energy and life. Unless he yield to the inspiration of the moment, he can never attain to perfection in his singing.
A book by Manuel Garcia, Jr.,--a top 19th century singing teacher, and son of the man who created the leading tenor role in Rossini's Barber of Seville--gives many examples of 19th century vocal embellishments. In one of them, while the orchestra rests, a tenor holds a long note, trilling on it, and three times swelling his voice to make it louder, then pulling it back to sing softly again; after this (and still, presumably, on the same breath), he launches into gorgheggi. No singer could do that today; the sound must have been astonishing. In other, simpler, examples, singers take the written music, and--sometimes with very small changes--make it wonderfully personal. Giuditta Pasta, who created the title role in Bellini's Norma, takes little groups of four notes from that music, and turns them into unexpected groups of five. Garcia's father, in an excerpt from his Barber role, adds a charming little flourish that bursts out like a delighted smile (it's on the word "stral"):
Sometimes, Garcia shows singers changing the rhythms the composers wrote, as if they were singing jazz, in one case even losing the rhythm in the orchestra, and going off for a moment on their own. This was a well-known expressive effect, which pianists used, too, letting the melody in their right hand diverge from the accompaniment their left hand played. In an 18th century book on singing there's a touching example, reproduced in musical notation. Over a simple bass line, a singer descends from a high note to a lower one, singing a scale downward, but varying the length and loudness of each note, and lingering over the descent, so that she makes the music entirely her own, feeling free to finish a beat or two after the bass line does. As the writer, Pier Francesco Tosi, says (with his 18th century Italian translated into 18th century English),
When on an even and regular Movement of a Bass, which proceeds slowly, a Singer begins with a high Note, dragging it gently down to a low one, with the Forte [loud] and Piano [soft], almost gradually, with Inequality of Motion, that is to say, stopping a little more on some Notes in the Middle, than on those that begin or end. Every good Musician takes it for granted, that in the Art of Singing there is no invention superior, or Execution more apt to touch the Heart than this...
And so it goes. Bach improvised. Mozart improvised. Beethoven improvised, sometimes for an hour at a time, sometimes making people cry, sometimes bringing a performance of his chamber music to a halt:
...he played his Quintet for Pianoforte and Wind Instruments with Ramm as soloist [wrote someone from his time]. In the last Allegro [the final movement, played at a fast tempo] there are several holds before the theme is resumed. At one of these Beethoven suddenly began to improvise [on the piano], took the Rondo for a theme and entertained himself and the others [the audience] for a considerable time, but not the other players. They were displeased and Ramm even very angry. It was really very comical to see them, momentarily expecting the performance to be resumed, put their instruments to their mouths, only to put them down again. At length Beethoven was satisfied and dropped into the Rondo [resumed the final movement]. The whole company was transported with delight. [Though probably not the musicians.]
But then Beethoven wasn't alone. Improvisation was a normal part of piano performances. Pianists in the 19th century commonly improvised preludes to the notated pieces they performed, a practice so widespread that there's even a name for it, "preluding." And even late in that century, when many of these practices had mostly disappeared, a singer, finding a note in one of Brahms's pieces too high to sing comfortably, asked Brahms if he could change it, and Brahms said yes: "As far as I am concerned, a thinking, sensible singer may, without hesitation, change a note which for some reason or other is for the time being out of his compass into one what he can reach with comfort, provided always that the declamation remains correct and the accentuation does not suffer." [emphasis in the original]
So what does all this mean? First, I think we misunderstand the music I've been talking about. Nothing I've written here will come as surprise to musicologists; everything I've mentioned (except perhaps the piano preluding) is very well known. And yet performers today rarely do what would have been done when the music was new. Singers singing Baroque opera, or Bellini or Rossini, barely ornament their music, at least by 18th or 19th century standards. Da capo arias are meticulously staged (the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Handel's Rodelinda provides a lovely example) to show some kind of motivation for the first-section repeat. The idea, now, is to show how canny a dramatist Handel was; I've never seen a production, or heard one on any recording, that treated the repeats first of all as occasions for vocal display, and let Handel's drama emerge through that. René Jacobs, in his recording of Handel's Rinaldo, at least lets the orchestra improvise (or play written ornaments of the kind that would have been improvised); the result is wonderfully fresh, a great surprise, both terrific art and irresistible entertainment.
And so we lose the spirit of the music, and, I might argue (Christopher Small certainly does), a lot of the spirit of musicmaking itself. Why did this happen? Because of the concept of classical music, which, as we'll see, emerged in the 19th century, and put the composer at the center of the musical universe. The purpose of playing music, at least in the classical world, was to realize the composer's intentions, and that meant playing the notes the composer wrote. And only those notes--even when the composers themselves expected performers to add something of their own. Historical research reveals, beyond any doubt, that this was expected. But research is trumped by the orthodoxy of the present day, and even some scholars get caught up in the contradiction. An important Mozart scholar, Frederick Neumann, starts a discussion of improvised changes in Mozart's works like this: "Mozart lived at a time when composers still gave the performer license to make certain improvisatory additions to the written text." License! Wham! Changes to the written text are, by their very nature, evidently suspect. No wonder Neumann concludes that these changes should be very rare, as opposed to other scholars (the pianist Robert Levin, for instance) who welcome them. Compare that Neumann sentence to Neil Zazlaw, who in his book on Mozart's symphonies happily talks about "Mozart's ornament-loving instrumentalists."
So am I urging us to return to some 18th century (or early 19th century) paradise? Hardly. There were many problems then. Performances, by our standards, were very likely bad. Again by our standards, they were barely rehearsed. Writers of the time complain about singers and instrumentalists who introduced too many ornaments, making the music unrecognizable. (Note Brahms's caution: Singers should only change the music if their changes didn't hurt it.) Singers carried around "baggage arias," as they were called (because their music was, as Stendhal says, "carried around permanently, as it were, like a change of underwear"), which they'd introduce into every opera they sang. 18th century orchestras seem to have improvised, with, sometimes, all the violinists individually--and, you'd think, cacaphonically--adding their own embellishments of the written violin line.
But let me say it again. The spirit of those long-lost days is something we ought to recapture. At the very least, we ought to know that we've lost it. And by losing it--by evolving the concept of classical music, in which improvisation was all but illegal--we may have sown the seeds for classical music's current decline.
This is the last book episode I'm going to post until September. As I've said, I'm taking July off, and (with apologies to everyone) will close this website to comments. If you find you're able to post them, they won't show up on the site. I'll be back at work in August, but I'll delay any further episodes till after Labor Day--when I'll talk about the idea of classical music, and how it evolved. I suspect much of what I've been writing in this episode and the last two will be shortened in the final book, or at least I'll make them a little less academic. Have a terrific summer, everyone, and feel free to make comments during the rest of June. I'll be happy to greet you all again in the fall.
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Music that got me through this episode:
Comparisons between cut and uncut recordings of three operas, for an article on cuts I'm writing for Opera News. The recordings:
Wagner, Die Walküre, Solti studio recording,
with Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson, Wotan's
monologue in Act 2, uncut. I compared this to a live performance from
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Furtwängler
studio recording with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus, first part of the love duet from Act 2, uncut.
Compared it to a 1936 live performance at
Donizetti, Anna Bolena, studio recording with Beverly Sills, Act 1 duet for Giovanna Seymour (Shirley Verrett) and Henry VIII (Paul Plishka), uncut. Compared to live 1957 La Scala performance with Maria Callas (Giulietta Simionato and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the duet), not just heavily cut, but virtually sculpted into a new opera written in a different musical style. The most striking musical moment in the duet, in this performance--an abrupt and bracing appearance of a new melody--is actually created by one of the cuts.
Richard Taruskin, The
"Coping with Life
After Juditha," by Alessandro De Marchi
( translated by Charles Johnston), in liner notes to Vivaldi,
Corelli ornaments: Michael Collins/Robert E. Seletsky: "Improvisation/Western Art Music/Baroque period/(iv) Later italianate embellishments," Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed June 11, 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>
Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing
the Flute [this is how the title is given in the English version], translated by Edward R. Reilly.
Stendhal, Life of Rossini, translated and
annotated by Richard N. Coe.
Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on
the Florid Song, or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers, translated
by J. E. Galliard.
Manuel Garcia Jr., Garcia's New Treatise on the Art of Singing
[Traité complet de l'art du chant].
piano right and left hand: Robert Philip, Early recordings and musical style: changing
tastes in instrumental performance, 1900-1950.
Thayer's Life of Beethoven,
revised and edited by Elliot
Valerie Woodring Goertzen, "By Way of Introduction: Preluding by 18th- and Early 19th-Century Pianists. The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer, 1996), pp. 299-337.
Michael Musgrave, A Brahms Reader.
Neumann, Ornamentation and Improvisation
in Mozart. Princeton:
Robert D. Levin, "Improvised Embellishments in Mozart's Keyboard Music." Early Music, Vol. 20, No. 2, Performing Mozart's Music III. (May, 1992), pp. 221-233.
Neil Zazlaw, Mozart's
Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception.
John Spitzer and Neil Zazlaw, "Improved Ornamentation in Eighteenth-Century Orchestras." Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 524-577.
Posted by gsandow on June 12, 2006 03:14 AM
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