At last I’ve gotten to the last part of my long disquisition — which was longer than I meant it to be, and maybe longer than it should have been. Loyal readers will remember I said that the highest priority for the classical music world should be to build a new audience, and that this would require doing three things: making performances feel more lively, playing repertoire that reflects contemporary life, and — finally — playing all music, but especially the old masterworks, more vividly.
That last point bothered some people, including one commenter who just about foamed at the mouth. So let me clarify what I mean. Most likely I put the point badly when I first stated it, because I said we should play better. That makes it sound like I’m saying we play badly now, which isn’t what I mean. We play very well now. So well, in fact, that our musical chops can be a problem, because they may well block us from seeing that our playing isn’t vivid enough.
I’ll make this point in two posts. In this first one, I’ll give some general reasons for what I’m saying. And in the second post, I’ll give specific examples of what playing more vividly might mean. Plus I’ll offer a suggestion Brahms made, about how to play music your audience doesn’t know, a suggestion that would be wildly heretical now, but which was routine when Brahms was alive.
But first, general points. One problem we often have when we play classical music is that we know it’s classical. So we supply a classical music subtext. Beyond whatever the music expresses, whatever the composer put into it, whatever expressive response we have to what the composer did, we’re also saying — though of course not in words — “we’re playing classical music.”
Which can make our performances restrained and respectful. Dignified. Pious, at times. Which might conflict with what the composer intended. Think of Mozart, who planned his music to make his audience applaud. Would he want a restrained, pious performance?
Or think of countless moments in Beethoven. The end of the Ninth Symphony. The wild place in the first movement of the Seventh, where the cellos and basses spiral through the same few repeated chromatic notes, like a serpent coiling at the bottom level of the music. Or the wild writing in the storm in the Pastoral, where the cellos play five notes to the beat while the basses play four, creating something close to pure noise. How dignified is any of that?
Or Rossini! That insane ensemble at the end of the first act of L’Italiana in Algerí, where the soprano sings that she has a bell ringing in her head, and the bass has a booming drum inside him. If you make that piece dignified, you’ve missed the entire point.
And then there’s musical style. Of course it’s important to know how Haydn differs from Brahms, and Brahms from Debussy (or fill in whatever names you like). But too often — especially in music school — these stylistic points, which ought to ignite the music from within, instead become commands and prohibitions. You must play the music like this! You must not play it like that! All of which can make musicians hold back, out of a mixture (different, of course, for each player) of caution, respect, obedience, and just plain covering their butts. I’ve had many students tell me how careful they are to play the way other people want them to, lest they displease their teachers, fail their juries, or not get jobs they audition for.
I’ve also had students tell me, for years, that they’re told not to move when they play. Which also can make their playing restrained, because (not in every case, of course) it stops them from putting their whole bodies into their playing. Then they might see the Berlin Philharmonic, and be amazed (as I’ve been) at how freely those musicians move, to the point that the basses just about dance with their instruments, each bassist doing it differently. After one Berlin Phil concert at Carnegie Hall, a musician I knew in the New York Philharmonic rushed up to me and said, “Did you see how they move? I’d be reprimanded if I played that way!”
I could make this much longer, but I’ll end with just one more point. Part of classical music orthodoxy, in our time, is the belief that performance is about the music, not the performer, and that the goal of performance is to realize the composer’s intentions. These things, too, can make musicians hold back.
Which can lead to deep contradictions. How, for instance, can you play Liszt on the piano, if your performance isn’t about you? Much of Liszt’s piano music, after all, was about him — about him playing it, about him knocking your shoes, socks, and toenails off. So if you subordinate yourself when you play it, how can you be doing what he wanted?
At the start of the score of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven wrote, “From the heart. May it reach the heart.” So clearly this was his intention — that the music should touch its hearers, deep in their hearts. How can you make that happen, if your performance is, in some deep way, impersonal?
And what about the Mahler Second Symphony? At the end of the first movement, Mahler writes in the score, “Here follows a pause of at least five minutes.” Not an intermission. A pause. Silence. Overwhelmed silence, I’d think. Because why not go directly on to what follows? Because you can’t. Because you’re transfixed. Taken far out of yourself. Overwhelmed. You can’t go on.
And how can you feel that way, if the performance is full of respect? Respect, in this case, for what Mahler wanted means going all out.
I know there are musicians famous for giving us just the composer, only the composer. Musicians who let themselves be channels for something higher. Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode. Schabel. But the fact is that even musicians famed for this play pieces differently. Differently, I mean, from each other. So in the end, the sense that someone might create of playing only what Beethoven wants is itself an interpretive thing, something the person projects, something impersonally personal (so to speak). It’s part of a myth. A powerful myth, a good myth, but still a myth. There is no music — or at least no music communicated to an audience — without a performer. And so performers embody the music for us, each doing it differently, each doing it personally.
And the idea of realizing the composers’ intentions is tricky. Who can say what they are? The obvious ones, in fact, are expressive. Webern (as we know from a pianist he coached) wanted his music to sing and to dance. That we can know. But how he wanted particular phrases to go, how long pauses should be — that’s something we very likely can’t know. Except that, as he told that same pianist, he wanted his music to be very flexible, with great contrasts of dynamics and tempo. But still, how we render details is speculative. And even more so for composers way back in the past, who worked in a cultural and musical context unimaginably distant from ours. How, for instance, did it affect performances of Lully’s operas, when
- people in the audience talked while the music was playing, shouted things at each other and at the performers, and prostitutes circulated in the theater
- personal hygiene was, by our standards, pretty much nonexistent, so that in the Versailles royal palace, people went behind the stairs to relieve themselves
- Lully conducted by banging a stick on the floor
We can find all kinds of noble restraint in Lully’s music, but how that expressed itself, under the conditions of his time, is something hard (to put it mildly) for us to know. So let’s be careful about thinking we can, in our performances, realize composers’ intentions. Our notion of these is, to put it mildly once more, quite subjective. So what we’re giving people, when we play classical music, is ourselves.
Joyful footnote: historically informed performances are often major exceptions to what I’ve been saying. They can be personal, free, vivid, even (René Jacobs!) wild. Which suggests a happy evolution. You start with the idea of doing exactly (or as exactly as you can) what was done in past centuries, using the instruments of the past, learning whatever can be learned about articulation, phrasing, and ornaments. And then, maybe, the rigor of your research shows you how little you really know, how impossible it is to simply do what (let’s say) Bach’s musicians would have done. If they even did what Bach wanted! (And of course musicians in past centuries disagreed about how to play. When Leopold Mozart said that secco recitatives should be accompanied very simply, surely that meant that many people didn’t do it. Nobody’s going to say “play simply” if everyone already does that, and the point doesn’t need to be made.)
Which then leaves you free to kick butt on your own.