Making the old new (2)

Continuing my thoughts about how to make old masterworks sound contemporary. In my last post, I said what I think the problem is. At most classical music performances, the old works don’t immediately sound like they come from the time when they were written. (Compare reading Dickens: One paragraph and you know what century you’re in.)

But they also don’t sound like they fit anywhere in our current world. Or at least not in the world outside classical music.

So one way to fix this — such a wonderful paradox — is to go back to the past. These days, to cite just one contemporary trait, we value individuality in performances. Especially in music. I’m not going to claim there isn’t any imitative junk in pop (or in other genres), but smart people, listening to today’s music, want musicians to have something of their own to say.

That happened in classical music’s past. And does today, of course, with some performers. But more commonly, real personality is absent. And is discouraged at the schools where classical musicians are trained.

So one way to bring personality back would be to ornament or otherwise change the music we perform, as routinely happened up to at least the mid-point of the 19th century. Of course that won’t work for all pieces. You wouldn’t want to do it in a Bruckner symphony. But in music written to be ornamented, we should bring ornamentation back, by which I mean the full range of it, as practiced in the past.

We’ve lost touch

What would that full range be? It’s one of many signs of trouble in our field that we’ve lost touch with what that is, even though musicologists have shown in great detail what happened in the past. I remember reading, in a standard book on Mozart’s ornamentation — Frederick Neumann’s Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart — a remark that equates ornamenting written music with “taking liberties.”

baroque opera 3That’s not how it was thought of in Mozart’s time. On a similar note, I once asked a musicologist who specializes in Baroque opera to recommend a recording of a Handel aria, in which I might hear the kind of ornamentation we know that Handel’s singers did. The recommendation I was given (something by David Daniels) was beautifully sung, but very restrained — timid, even — in how much the music was changed from the written score.

I’ve read about 18th century performances in which the da capo repeat had almost no trace of the original melody. And I think that was the point. We tend think of baroque opera as stylized and restrained. All those da capo arias, one after the other, all with the same form, ABA. Sing something, sing something that contrasts with it, sing the first section again. Over and over, until the opera is finished.

But if the repeat of the A section is really wild — and really original — then the form isn’t severe at all, especially if singers also are going to town on the cadenzas. The audience sits, talking, taking in (or not) the A and B sections. And then when the repeat of the A section comes, the singer goes wild, and everyone cheers. Especially since all this was embedded in spectacular visuals, whether they were costumes (which could be fashion statements, or which might involve plumes many feet high on somebody’s helmet) or stage effects (which could be spectacular: someone makes an entrance on a flying chariot, pulled by dragons).

Add the orchestra improvising, and maybe conversations shouted from the audience to the stage and back again, and you’ve got a show. Here’s a recording of Eva Podles, the Polish contralto, singing “Or la tromba” from Handel’s Rinaldo, with the kind of show-stopping ornamentation Handel might have recognized. And, if it was done this well, approved of.

I can imagine Handel’s singers doing longer, wilder, freer cadenzas, and the solo trumpet in the orchestra making more than the modest changes the one on this recording does, maybe even competing with the singer. But the Podles performance is a shot of Red Bull. (It’s from an album called  Famous Ariason the Forlane label, with the Collegium Instrumental de Bruges conducted by Patrick Peire.)

Where I’m going with this

I’ll stop here, to keep the post manageable, both for you and for me. Btu consider what you’d find, if you lived in Handel’s time, and went to one of his operas more than once. The singers might sing different notes, because they might be improvising ornaments, and coming up with different things on different nights.

And think of going to a repertory opera like Lucia di Lammermoor in the 19th century. (Most operas performed then were new, at least in Italy. But some caught on, and were done repeatedly.) Suppose you heard it in Bologna, and then later on in Rome, with a different cast. You’d have singers with — as we have today — different looks, different ways of singing, different sounds, and different interpretations of their characters. (Or maybe none at all, something probably more common back then than it is now.)

But they’d also be singing different notes, because they’d all be ornamenting and rewriting their music, all in their own ways. So here we have real individuality in performance — the kind that people in our culture now expect to see.

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  1. says

    Thanks for keeping this fascinating topic going.

    I have been ranting and raving for years to the captive audience that is my wife about this topic of how very different so many of the older concepts of music performance and composition were, in comparison with our own. I’m afraid that I have to return to my “blame it on the bossa nova” theme, where, in this case, I’m equating the Brazillian dance with the very academic establishment which has “preserved” classical music in the face of the pop culture onslaught. Most of us come out of this corporate academic world, if only through having paid our dues in the form of acquiring at least the entry-level credential known as the bachelor’s degree. It’s a difficult topic to address simply because the connections between classical music and academia are so firmly established as to seem unquestionably permanent.

    I can see that I am already threatening to pontificate once more, so I’ll reign it in and cut to the chase. If we look at the timing of the demise of the improvising classical musician, especially in the case of the piano, I think we’ll see that it is partially coincident with the rise of the academic institution’s hegemony over the art form. The freak-show concerts of Liszt, Busoni, de Pachmann, et al, were certainly over the top and probably needed the astringent dosages of scholarly Austro-Germanicism which led to Schnabel and Serkin. But the baby of improvisation was thrown out with the bath water of Busoni’s Bach at the piano in two-fisted octaves. If we add to this the later rise of atonality, especially as codified in Schoenberg’s system, we can see that there was no room left for improvisation. Fortunately, no one told Charles Ives about this.

    There was also an added benefit for institutions: Once they realized that they were losing out on untold sums of money by not including the creative arts in their curricula, the plan took shape. Suddenly all musicians (in addition to everyone else) needed degrees. Who benefited (and continues to benefit) from this? In the distant past prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the solo musician who could not improvise coherently in the style of the times had no chance of a serious career. By the early twentieth century, it was a convenient coincidence that improvisation was out of style. Imagine the devastating consequences if institutions required that their professional music degree candidates be able to improvise. Since so few musicians can actually do this, it was easier to simply ignore improvisation and move on.

    We need to wrap our minds around the fact that most of those in our pantheon of “great composers” could improvise in sonata form. The resulting masterworks which they crafted from their improvisations are what we long for today. Let’s get with it. Performers, learn to do this and become a part of the resurrection of our beloved music and its possible restoration as a contemporary art form.

    Thanks for reading. (I know, I said I was going to reign it in. Mea culpa.)

  2. MWnyc says

    The funny thing about ornamentation in music before the mid-19th century is that we do have some (not many =, but some) written-out example – but as often as not, when a singer tries to follow those examples’ lead, critics (notably British ones, God strike me dead for saying it) object to “recomposing the score” or exceeding the bounds of good taste.

    Heaven knows it is possible to go overboard (especially by tossing in high notes a fifth or sixth higher, or more, than the highest note written in the role), but a lot of the ornamentation we get from singers in Baroque music, even from specialists, is too tame. (Period instrumentalists are generally not so reticent, especially in 17th-century repertoire.)

    Greg, if you really want to find out more about how 18th-century singers embellished their music, talk to Julianne Baird; that’s one of her specialties as both a singer and a musicologist. Our friend David Patrick Stearns once wrote about the way she sang “Lascia ch’io pianga” (a repetitive aria that seems to call out for embellishment that it usually doesn’t get) that she added “welters of ornaments that made her seem not so much a Handel interpreter as a Handel collaborator.”

  3. Douglas Davenport says

    I am not a musicologist, neither am I a music professor. But if my memory serves me correctly the cadenza of a concerto was left to the creativity of the performer. Improvisation was not first done with Jazz!

  4. ariel says

    Mr. Sandow is skating on thin ice, if there is any ice to support him from sinking.He assumes, if I read him correctly,that it is
    a matter of artist musical ornamentation and
    going back to some amorphous past that will
    make works from the past sound “contemporary” what ever he means by that
    connection .There is that wonderful ironic observation by Rossini (noted by Stendhal)
    congratulating a famous soprano on her
    acclaimed house stopping ornamentation to
    an aria during an opera performance. “Madame you were magnificent, I even recognized some notes I wrote .” Ewa Podles of course is a phenomenon -perhaps the only truly great singer the Met
    has had in at least a quarter of a century or more of some very good singers.She knows her art – how far is too far -few singers do .

    Canova ,Blake David ,Goya, Turner , to name a few are roughly contemporaries of Mozart yet no museum deems (dares) it necessary to “update” and make their work contemporary.How would Mr. Sandow make those artists “contemporary”, overpaint their works in acrylic day glow colours ?I think not. The question is why does it seem to be
    always open season to trash and pillage the music of the past into making it falsely “contemporary ” Mozart as an example ; we have no idea of how the music played in his time” sounded” all instruments at the time being quite different than to-day — violin for example – strings all different than to-day –style of playing -tempo -very little vibrato -(his father’s book on violin playing )
    as opposed to a certain famous present day German female playing Mozart who vibrates every note to the point of vertigo. The pitch of the
    day tells us all was different than present–
    Vienna in the middle 1700s had a documented pitch between A415 to A421
    to day much is 440 to 444 and in some orchestras even higher – the Queen of the night aria in D minor in the Magic Flute is quite doable at A415 to 421 with a well trained agile soprano to put some drama
    into it rather than screeching out the top notes at A444+ and being thankful to get through it without serious mishap If Mr. Sandow wants contemporary sound play contemporary composers simple as that and visit past composers as past composers
    and marvel at their abilities without dressing them up in contemporary clothes otherwise their works end up as “The Ode to joy ” does,
    celebrating super market openings and everything else in between to show we are a civilized society and appreciate great music .

  5. says

    I agree wholeheartedly with your article. The ultimate goal is not to play music the way it was played in the past – an impossible goal anyway. Instead, we should be pushing for music with a richer and more varied texture – in jazz as well as in classical music. (I’m active in both.) But there is more to be done than adding ornamentation. Rhythm: evenness has become the ultimate rhythmic standard, the result of academic standards. Why not play some passages unevenly to add variety? Vibrato: vibrato in classical music has been standardized. Why not have some phrases played without vibrato? In jazz, vibrato largely disappeared after WWII (Compare John Coltrane with Ben Webster). Why not have some phrases played with vibrato? Dynamics and accentuation: We have become accustomed to hearing music with little or no dynamic range, played with little accentuation.. Modern big band jazz is today played smoothly and loud. Large stretches of Bach and Mozart are typically performed in one dynamic range (perhaps because there are few or no dynamic markings). A small dynamic range and little accentuation work well on recordings, but not at all in a live performance.
    There is more, but this is just a sample of topics that we need to address.