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Revelations based on Historical Performance

by Kyle Miller (2010)

Hello, everyone! I graduated from the Eastman School in 2010 as a student of Carol Rodland, and I’m delighted to revisit Eastman (virtually) to share a couple of my postgraduate experiences. After I finished at Eastman, I shipped out to NYC to continue my studies, and in the Big Apple I began to get serious about something that rests upon a relatively unbeaten path: the Baroque viola. I’ve had some eye-opening experiences in the realm of historical performance over the past four years, and I’ve been mulling over what might be of greatest interest for this blog. In the end, I’ve settled on two related experiences that I would like to share with you. The first is more of a cerebral experience, an enlightening discussion that I overheard and have since pondered and will now recount. The second, which took place more recently, involved me personally as a performer. While different in nature, both experiences have helped to steer my musical thinking in a single direction. Check it out:

Tale the First: Of Slurs and Other Trifles

Last January, the students of Juilliard’s historical performance program (of which I was still a member) were invited to attend a master class given by members of the London Haydn Quartet (LHQ), a string quartet that specializes in period instrument performance. I decided to attend, and boy was I glad that I did: It was there that I had Experience the First.

One could say that the setting for the class was austere. It took place in a classroom, with a handful of students and a couple of faculty members looking on from classroom desks (the kind whose desk table flaps from a hinge so that one isn’t forced to slide into the chair from the side). Two members of the LHQ were present, also seated in desks: first violinist Catherine Manson and violist James Boyd. The master class ended with a Q & A pow-wow, and that’s when things got crazy interesting.

A couple of my fellow students grilled the two LHQers on how their quartet prepares for a performance, and the matter of performance editions arose, in particular for Haydn’s string quartets. (Given their name, it should come as no surprise that the London Haydn Quartet specializes in Haydn.) The question of the day was this: When the LHQ performs a Haydn quartet, do they use parts reprinted from an early edition (e.g.: late 18th- and early 19th-century printings such as those by Artaria of Vienna), or do they use a respected modern edition (e.g.: Henle)?

I was immediately stimulated by this question because the previous year I had performed a Haydn quartet — Op. 20, No. 4 with the Diderot String Quartet, of which I’m a member — using an early edition (that of J. J. Hummel (not to be confused with the pianist-composer J. N. Hummel)). While we (the DSQ) were preparing the quartet, it was my understanding that our use of the Hummel edition was mostly one of convenience: none of us owned a set of Henle parts, and we would have been unable to check out a set of parts from a library for more than two weeks at a time. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of performing from an early edition of Haydn’s quartets, here is a representative scan, taken from the Hummel edition, of the viola and cello parts in mm. 25-30 of the first movement of Op. 20, No. 4:

Miller Ex. 1

Hummel Edition

The parts are in alto and bass clefs, respectively. If you squint, you’ll notice that the articulation markings in the third measure are not aligned between the two parts. This phenomenon runs rampant in all four parts throughout the entire piece. Tisk, tisk, Hummel! How did all of that refuse slip past quality testing? Now, here’s the same passage as presented in the Henle edition score:

Henle Edition

Henle Edition

(The parts are still in alto and bass clefs, respectively.) Much tidier, right? One might think that performing from the Hummel edition would accomplish nothing beyond necessitating additional rehearsal time, as the players would have to align their bowings for practically every measure (and also need to squint to make out the notes). Arguments would break out over whose bowings are the best, chairs would be thrown and stands knocked over, mouths would foam with impatience, and the group would permanently dissolve in a cloud of baboon-like rage. How could Hummel allow this to happen?

Are these printing discrepancies genuine mistakes, or did he (and whoever helped him) simply not think that aligning every articulation marking was something of great value? When I worked on this piece with the Diderot Quartet, we did indeed spend quite a bit of time coordinating our bowings and even dynamic markings, which sometimes were drastically different. (I should note, though, that we still had a grand ol’ time and that no baboon-like states were reached.) Given this experience, my evaluation, at the time, of what the Henle and Hummel editions respectively brought to the table was something like this:

HENLE

– Graced by a cleaner, more spacious layout (everything large and well-spaced, with more room between staves to make pencil markings)

– Edited by respected scholars so that the work is rehearsal-ready (articulations and dynamic markings reconciled between the parts, with editorial alterations tidily marked between brackets)

– Based upon Haydn’s own autograph score

– Blessed by the miracle of measure numbers

HUMMEL

– Nothing

So, back to the master class: Why would the London Haydn Quartet, composed of seemingly well-balanced and logical individuals, choose to perform from the baboon parts? As Catherine and James began to explain their choice, it quickly became clear that their analysis of the editions’ features was roughly the same as mine but that they valued wildly different things. I suspect that their list of table-bringing would look something like:

HUMMEL

– Graced by a more distinctive and varied layout (not everything is of uniform shape and size, so it’s more fun to look at)

– NOT edited by respected scholars (a number of performance decisions have not been made beforehand, allowing the performer more freedom to decide for herself)

HENLE

– Printed on much nicer paper (probably)

It turns out that Catherine and James did not consider unified bowings to be a necessary thing. In fact, they claimed — and continued to claim, in the face of extreme hypothetical situations tossed at them by myself and others — that their quartet spends exactly 0% of their rehearsal time discussing bowings. When it comes to bowings, all four players are left to their own devices. Each person, for any given musical gesture, may play the bowings in his own part, use a different bowing that he witnesses another player use, or simply invent a new bowing entirely. The members of the LHQ exercise these rights in their rehearsals, and they do the same in live concert. It’s possible that any homophonic or imitative passage will receive four different bowing treatments. Catherine compared the effect of the alternative — four people playing the same bowing, with the same gestural inflection, at the same time — to the effect of four people suddenly saying the same thing, with the same inflection, at the same time, during a conversation. To her and to James, the painstaking care that’s poured into the homogenization of articulation markings in a modern edition produces something unnatural.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things.

Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things. Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

Tale the Second: Of Adventures in Bass Clef

This August, I — along with a few of my colleagues who also are recent alumni of Juilliard’s historical performance program — had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Thiré, a small town near the western coast of France. The eight of us were there to rehearse and to perform at a festival with members of Les Arts Florissants, a Baroque musical ensemble that specializes in early opera. The group is directed by its founder, William Christie, in whose massive and elaborate private gardens (seriously, the stuff of royalty) many of the rehearsals and performances took place. The entire trip was We starry-eyed New Yorkers stayed our nights in the nearby town of Sainte-Hermine, and we slept in a sprawling 17th-century château. There were huge, dusty tapestries, original oil paintings, massive spiral staircases, and trophy boars’ heads mounted above a grand fireplace. From reading a description of the mansion in a brochure, we discovered that our temporary home was quite definitely haunted (or so we convinced ourselves, since the notion made us giddy). At some point in the mansion’s history, a woman had murdered her husband and subsequently been sequestered at the top of a tower for seven years.

For the two weeks we were present, the eight of us were the only inhabitants of the mansion. During the day, our experience was one of non-stop rehearsing and performing, mostly outdoors and largely of operas. In the second week of the festival, the major project was Actéon, a late-17th-century opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. (If you haven’t yet heard the music of Charpentier, you might want to check it out. It’s beautiful.) The opera’s libretto is based upon a tragic story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which a hunter (Actéon) accidentally lays his eyes upon the goddess Diana while she bathes in a woods. As punishment, Diana transforms Actéon into a stag; and his own hunting dogs chase after him, eventually tearing him apart. Sad, no?

Here’s where the theme of improvisation weaves into this tale. I was playing viola in the opera, alongside two of the violists from Les Arts Florissants: Galina Zinchenko and Simon Heyerick. Our role in the opera was an unusual one. Why? Because Actéon has no viola parts. Instead of playing parts that had been written out for us beforehand, we rehearsed and performed from a slightly modified basso continuo part. There were a few passages in C-clefs in which we played along with the vocal alto and tenor parts during choruses, but most of the time we had only the following in front of us: a bassline (which was already being covered by some combination of cellos, bassoon, string bass, theorbo, and harpsichord) and figured bass symbols (again, the chords already being played by theorbo and harpsichord). Almost everything was notated in bass clef.

What I had to do that week was completely ordinary for someone who plays basso continuo lines for a living, but the experience was eye-opening for me and has made me think differently about the role of the viola as an ensemble instrument (and how its role might be fulfilled by a performer). Galina, Simon, and I spent some of our time playing the written bassline an octave (or two octaves) higher than notated, with a gentle tone that blended into the sounds of the other continuo instruments. This practice likely has precedent throughout the Baroque. The three of us also spent some of our time harmonizing above the bass, aided by the figured bass symbols. Since I’m not a seasoned thorough bass reader, I tried my hand at harmonization with great caution. That week, I had more than one nightmare in which I played a bogus note during a tender, highly exposed part of the opera, eliciting the frothy contempt of all present. I managed to avoid that fate in waking reality, but I still hope to sharpen my skills over the years so that I can accomplish more sensational feats of harmonization. There’s nothing cooler than hearing a continuo team confidently lay down thick swaths of chords in groovy rhythmic patterns.

Postlude

As someone who is beginning to specialize in early viola performance, I’ve come to enjoy being given very little information on a page of sheet music. I now view such a lack of ink as an opportunity to spice a piece of music with my own flavor as I see fit. In a pre-19th-century world where viola parts to ensemble works are sometimes written out by the composer’s students or underlings — a simple counterpoint exercise, true “filler” — a violist can’t always take the part he’s playing from too seriously. A d could have been an f, a quarter-note could have been two eighth-notes, et cetera. Almost nothing is too sacred to alter. In our own way, we violists are as liberated as the basso continuo section, free to improvise as we wish, as long as what we conjure up makes some amount of harmonic sense. The fun that I had with my basso continuo part in Actéon is in the same spirit as the liberties that the London Haydn Quartet members take with their bowings. The common thread is a sensation of musical freedom, and that’s what I wanted to share with you today. I look forward to a lifetime of evermore daring ornamentation and deviation from the ink, and I hope that you’ll join me.


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