The pastness of the past (2)

I want to restate here some things I wrote in answer to Gabriel Solis’s comment on my last post. Thanks, Gabriel, for getting me thinking. Classical music performances — even of music of the past — are always contemporary. That is, they smell of the present more of the past. That’s because the style of performance has changed over the years (as anyone can hear from recordings). So any performance we hear of anything in the classical repertoire is going to be done in one of our contemporary performance styles. (I say “one of,” because by now there’s more than one. Daniel Barenboim vs. Roger Norrington in Beethoven, for instance.)

And in fact the whole notion of classical music is contemporary. That’s true just about by definition. You can’t have classical music — music that has attained some kind of classic status — if you don’t have contemporary music to contrast it to. Besides, the concept of classical music (as I’ve said here many times) didn’t exist before the early 19th century, and so music written before that couldn’t be classical. Which is to say that there wasn’t any consciousness of any classicism in the minds of the composers, and thus no inherent air of classicism (in all of its aspects — a sense of importance, a sense of hoped-for timelessness, a sense of assumed grandeur, whatever) built into the music.

Even once the concept of classical music appeared, its meaning changed over time. Each new generation felt it differently. Classical music performances, then, reflect our present idea of what classical music means. And almost all classical music performances — I’m talking, just to make this clear — about the classical music mainstream — do convey a sense of “classical music,” quite apart from the sound and inner content of whatever piece is being played. For a striking (and, interestingly, non-mainstream) example, listen to performances of Aphex Twin’s “AFX237V7” conducted by John Adams with the London Sinfonietta, and compare them to the original Aphex Twin records. (Go to the iTunes music store, search for Aphex Twin, and put the songs in alphabetical order.) The Adams performances sound classical; Aphex Twin, in his original form, just doesn’t. (You could also compare the Aphex Twin arrangements with the performances by another new music group, Alarm Will Sound, which I haven’t done.)

So what happens if we made classical music sound like it came from the past? Paradoxically, we’d radically freshen it. We’d strip it of its classical veneer, and hear it with really fresh ears. We’d also unravel some contradictions that have grown up over the decades, when traits from the past in classical pieces contradict our idea of what classical music should be. More on that — and on how we might make classical pieces sound like they come from the past — in my next post.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. gary panetta says

    This is a really fascinating post.

    What you’re saying really applies to any art that has to be re-created in time. A staging of Shakespeare, for instance, always partakes of the present because — as in music –how plays are directed and acted have changed. That weird capacity that some plays and music have to always adapt themselves to new era is, obviously, what makes them timeless.

    It’s funny, though, how no one would think of watching a recorded play, but we have no problem listening to recorded music. Just recording a play would result in a dead experience (as opposed to a cinematic adaptation of a play), but recorded music isn’t dead at all. Or so many audiophiles think. To me, recorded music is interesting in the same way an artifact is interesting — it tells you something about the time it was created.

  2. Paul A. Alter says

    Ralph Vaughn Williams did not believe in the “original instrument” movement. To support his position that it was OK, for example, to play Bach on the piano, he declared, “If Bach had had a grand piano he’d have written for the grand piano.” But Bach did not have a grand piano, so he scored for what he had. If we can agree that musicians have finely attuned ears, then it is safe to say that Bach would have written differently for the grand piano than he did for the instruments for which he actually wrote, and that playing his music on a grand piano does not produce what he intended audiences to hear.

    Case in point: I’ve been listening to the Berlioz Fantastique for 60-plus years. I have heard performances ranging from von Karajan (hideous), thru Rodzinski (solid), to Golschmann (lyrical). But last week, when I played the DVD-Video of Gardiner and the Orch Revolutionne and Romantique, using authentic instruments (including ophicleide and serpent), I knew I was hearing it — for the first time — as the composer intended. (Proof: The march to the scaffold took its true place as the scherzo in a fully developed symphony rather than the high spot amid some pretty vapid music.)

    So, yes, I heartily endorse Greg’s position.


  3. says

    Paul, I’ll suggest a possibly small problem with your claim. I’m thinking of a statement I heard Helmuth Rilling make years ago in a Kantatawochenende rehearsal: our ears are unavoidably different today from the ears of people in (for example) Bach’s time.

    Ambient sound levels today are much higher; what people then likely heard as loud music from a small chamber ensemble would have much less impact to our ears, conditioned by traffic noise, amplified sounds, and the like (even by the Roomba mentioned in the sidebar to this blog and its cousins). We also interpret older music differently; likely our exposure to music of different, newer styles makes dissonances and resolutions of older music less dramatic, and the pace of life today may make original tempos sound different today.

    To the extent that is true, we can’t hear Bach’s music the way Bach’s contemporaries heard it. That’s not to say it’s bad to listen to authentic instrumentation and approaches — those can enrich our view of the music and the times and may be more enjoyable than other interpretations — but it does suggest we don’t hear what they heard.

    No, of course we can’t hear what they heard, and I didn’t mean to suggest that. Probably I didn’t write clearly enough. We can’t recreate the experience people had listening to music centuries ago. (Even decades ago. Those junior high school dances in the ’50s, with the lights out, dancing close, to “Earth Angel” — no way anyone hearing the song now could know what that felt and sounded like.)

    But at the same time, there are clues right in the music about what’s important. And if we ignore those clues, we miss something. Take an obvious example: the kind of instruments used in past centuries. When a good period instrument group plays a Mozart symphony, inner voices in the woodwinds come out, which just aren’t heard in a modern instrument performance, with modern winds that can blend seamlessly. Does this mean we’re hearing the music the way Mozart and his contemporaries did? Of course not. But it does mean that we’re hearing something Mozart actually put in the music, which up to then we hadn’t known about. Somebody then might say they prefer the modern performance, in spite of the lost inner voices, and that’s reasonable. There are losses, and there are gains. But at least we know about the inner voices now.

    With the Donizetti stuff I talked about, the differences between a smooth modern performance and a modern performance that recreates the noise these operas made in the 19th century is really large. Larger than the difference made by a few inner voices.

    I hope that’s more clear!

  4. Paul A. Alter says

    Rilling was right in saying that our ears do not hear the same way they did when Bach wrote. But I realized many decades back that it is up to us to try to develop “ears” appropriate for the music we are listening to. Thus, when I listen to Bach, I put on my “Bach ears.” But that is not because of the things that Rilling cites.

    For example, ambient noise. Cities in those days were very noisy. Many people, packed into a small area, wooden-axle vehicles being drawn by animal power, vendors shouting their wares, et al. I have read statements by acoustic people that the consistent level of noise in those days was considerably higher than today.

    As for “small chamber ensembles,” they can sound incredibly loud in the acoustical venues for which they were written. I used to attend concerts by the National Gallery of Art orchestra. It played in a marble faced hall. It produced a decible count louder than that from any symphony orchestra I have heard in a modern concert hall.

    Also, the instruments were different. I was strolling thru the Smithsonian one day when I heard a funny-sounding trumpet warming up. I tracked it to it’s source and discovered it was a baroque oboe. (Now I understand why Shakespeare specified oboes for scene changes and fanfares in his scripts.)

    If you pick up the Gardiner authentic instrument performance of the Berlioz “Fantastic,” you will see and hear a period English horn. The richness and emotionality of its tone make modern English horns seem vapid. So, when we hear hear the piece played by modern instruments, we are hearing it minus the depth of feeling that Berlioz intended.

    Tempos today are — yes — different from those in the past. They are slower. Many articles were written in the last half of the last century about the slowing down of tempi. One of the tendencies of authentic instrument performers is to speed up. But even that can be a delusion. There is a frequently repeated anecdote about a famed soloist (I forget who) and conductor (Szell or Reiner, I believe) arguing about tempo. The soloists said, “I have seen the metronome markings in Beethoven’s own hand, so I know I am right.” The conductor said, “But I have seen Beethoven’s own metronome, so I know it never kept correct time.”

    During my own lifetime, I have heard the orchestral sound of Brahms change. I don’t like it any more.

    Remember when they cleaned Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and discovered that it had been painted in broad daylight and that all their disquisitions on Rembrandt’s use of chiairusco were baloney? The moral lesson is that, during the course of their existene, great works of art acquire a great deal of crud and — if we are not careful — we end up preferring the cruddy version to the real thing.

  5. Stuart Hille says

    In one of Leonard Meyer’s classes – I seem to recall he was talking about the performance of Bach’s music, relevant to the work being analysed by the class – he cast one of many asides with: “The trouble with so-called ‘authentic period music’ is that we don’t have authentic period ears”.

  6. says

    Couldn’t agree more! When I took over the management of the Holland Festival of Early Music Utrecht in 1997, I chose as our motto: “early music is always new”.

  7. says

    To Paul:

    What does it mean to say that a composer “intended” the an audience to hear anything? I think that statement assumes a motive that cannot be easily discerned, much less proved. This also promotes a myth that composers are always in complete control of the effects their musical ideas have. Furthermore, it’s redundant–in a way–to say that by writing for a harpsichord that Bach “intended” for the audience to hear a harpsichord. You just WERE hearing a harpsichord. Does that make sense? It is more of an assumption that the audience will hear contemporary instruments (whatever era you are in), since they are the instruments we have at hand.

    Plus, sometimes composers arrange pieces of music for a variety of instrumentations, which is possible to enjoy because of music’s translation quality from one medium to the next.

    It seems anti-musical to fix a given work into only one prescribed realization. It discounts one of the greatest musical genres: the cover.

    And every performance of a classical work from the past is a cover! What a great way to think about it.

    I’d never say that there’s only one right way to perform a piece. I’d never even say that about my own music.

    But, since I’m a composer, I do feel on fairly safe ground talking about a composer’s intentions. Composers do have intentions. Sometimes they’re explicitly clear, because the composer said what they were. Verdi was very, very, very, very clear about a lot that he wanted, for instance. When he writes in the score, at one point in the first witches’ chorus, “remember that these are witches singing,” I think we can conclude that he wanted the chorus to sound like witches. What, exactly, that means is something else again, but I think it’s safe to say he didn’t want the chorus to sing in a normal, pretty tone of voice.

    When Mozart wrote his letter to his father about the premiere of the Paris symphony, he talks about a passage in the first movement that he knew the audience would like, and says that he repeated it, and brought it back at the end. We can conclude from this that he wanted to please the audience. Especially when he talks with evident delight about how the audience applauded that passage as soon as he heard it. His intentions, it seems pretty clear, were that this passage should produce an effect. That suggests a playing style for the entire symphony, in which refinement wouldn’t be the goal (as happens in some performances), but instead the performance would be aimed at creating an effect, perhaps with great contrasts in dynamics. Or we could decide to ignore Mozart’s intentions, and do the piece some other way. It’s our choice.

    But the intentions of a composer are very useful for musicians to know about. When you strart working on a piece, you have to make choices. How should each section go? Each phrase? Each note? If you’re a serious musician, you don’t take these decisions lightly, and you want as much information as possible about anything that might help you decide what you have to decide. The composer’s intentions are a part of this mix, as is information about what performances were like in the time the music was written. Here’s one example from Italian opera. In Verdi’s I masnadieri, there’s a cadenza in a soprano aria that isn’t written out. Instead, there’s just a line from a low note to a high note, with the direction “cadenza ad lib.” In one performance someone I know once heard, the soprano took the line in the score literally, and sang some kind of weird glissando from the low note to the high note. Maybe she and the conductor liked that effect. But maybe they thought it was weird, and didn’t understand why Verdi would have written it. Wouldn’t they have enjoyed knowing that Verdi didn’t in fact want that, that his problem was that he didn’t have much respect for the soprano who created the role, and just said, in effect, “Oh, the hell with it, sing whatever you want”? So the soprano is supposed to make up a cadenza in normal style. Knowing this would, in the case I’ve mentioned, given the soprano and conductor more information on which to base whatever choice they made.

  8. Paul A. Alter says

    Sorry, CC. My communication was not clear on the point about “what the composer intended you to hear.”

    My comment was limited solely to the sounds the audience hears, not what those sounds are supposed to convey.

    So, it’s like this: if the composer spends long hours writing in some inner voices in his composition, it is my understanding that — most of the time (there are exceptions) — he wanted the audience to hear those notes. One problem with modern orchestras — especially those that practice the misguided “blended” sound — is that you do not hear a lot of those notes. That is bad.

    It tends to happen more frequently when a modern 90+-piece orchestra plays older music. Considering how often those compositions have important contrapuntal line, not hearing them is especially bad. However, it could be a way for orchestras to save money: if you can’t hear an instrument, and it is not even adding to the overall timbre, just send that musician home and save the money he or she would have cost.

    As to covers: They’re fine, but only to the extent they have an inherent value of their own. For example, I enjoy the Stokowski transcription of Bach. They are not Bach — not by many miles — but they make a glorious racket. I do not enjoy the Brandenburgs played with a modern flute playing the recorder part and modern trumpets substituted for the trumpet specified in the score. Such performances are dull, logie, muddy, sleep-inducing; ie, their inherent value is minimal. In some cases, Bach wrote for whatever instrument wanted to play it; that’s cool. But a harpsichord sounds via plucked strings, like a lute, guitar, etc. A piano is a tuned-percussion instrument that somehow, by mistake, became accepted as a melody instrument. I can bear it when Glenn Gould, with his crystalline touch, plays Bach; otherwise, my feeling is, “why are you doing this!”

    In some cases, when we hear older compositions played by modern orchestras, we are not actually hearing the composers’ orchestrations. For example, it is my impression that most performances of Beethoven symphonies use Felix Weingartner’s touch up of the orchestration. Until recently, Schumann symphonies were played with no doubling of the wind instruments, as Schumann wrote it (because he lacked confidence in the ability of his orchestras). In such cases, the performances have the potential of sounding ok, although I always prefer them played the way they were written.

    My first contact with the Bolero was via a performance by Jack Hylton’s dance orchestra; it worked on its own terms and I liked it. During the 30s and 40s, I enjoyed swing-band recordings of compositions adapted from Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Rachmaninov, etc; they had a life of their own. In fact, one of my favorite musical memories is hearing Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Alfred Green, and Judy Holliday singing “Mabel,” which was based on the opening bars of the finale from the Tchaikovsky 4th — think about that.