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Musical Performance and the Historical Imagination by Edward Klorman

The following post is by Edward Klorman.

Musical Performance and the Historical Imagination
Let’s begin with an analogy: A master chef crafts a recipe for her signature dish, drawing from her own personal taste, style of cooking, and years of training and experience. The beauty of culinary arts is that, each time she prepares the dish, it is created anew—yesterday with a pinch more salt, tonight a touch less cilantro, or tomorrow substituting a fresh catch of trout for the usual salmon. But when our chef attempts to capture this dish in a written recipe, she faces a challenge, since the recipe renders the dish’s steps permanently in a fixed, unchanging form, and it is impossible for a recipe capture the sum total of her experience and intuition. Home cooks who use the recipe may approach it literally (following the instructions to the letter), more freely (interpreting the recipe creatively to match their own taste), or somewhere in between. (These ideas are loosely adapted from Adam Gopnik’s brilliant book The Table Comes First.)

To some extent, the relationship between our chef, recipe, and home cook is analogous to that between a composer, written score, and performer. As performers, we are charged with reading the score and transforming it into musical sounds, just as the cook transforms the recipe into a dish. But a musical score has its limitations; it cannot communicate every nuance a composer might imagine, nor should it, if the performer is to have room for expressive freedom. Yet, just as a cook who is at home with Italian cuisine might need to master new flavors and techniques to undertake “authentic” French or Asian cooking, a violist immersed in modern performance styles has much to gain from exploring Baroque and Classical styles of performance. (On the other hand, another cook might be more interested in creating a new fusion cuisine than mastering the traditional preparation of a dish—just as Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach offers a thoroughly twentieth-century take on Bach’s eighteenth-century music.)

This post explores what violists may want to learn to develop a feel for the “flavor” of music from different historical styles. Even though we can never reproduce exactly how music was played in the time of Bach, Stamitz, or Schubert—to be sure, we may not even want to—our performances of their music are nevertheless enriched by learning about their musical worlds. For more recent viola composers, recordings by Hindemith playing his own music, by Walton conducting his concerto, or by violists who studied Ligeti’s or Kurtag’s works with these composers may inspire our own approaches, even if we probably don’t want to directly imitate or reproduce these recordings.

To begin to get a sense for the musical worlds of the Baroque and Classical eras, I offer the following historical accounts:

A 1702 description of Arcangelo Corelli’s violin playing

“His eyes will sometimes turn red as fire, his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look the same man.”
Click here for to hear Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr perform the Sarabande from Corelli’s Sonata for Violin in D Minor, op. 5, no. 7 (NB: Manze improvises his own ornaments on the repeats)

Excerpt from W. A. Mozart’s account of the premiere of his Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297 (“Paris”); letter to Leopold Mozart (dated 3 July 1778)

“I prayed [to] God that it might go well—it is all for His greater honor and glory—and lo and behold, the symphony began…. Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a passage I was sure would please. All the listeners went into raptures over it [and] applauded heartily. But as, when I wrote it, I was quite aware of its effect, I introduced it once more toward the end and it was applauded over again.

The Andante pleased them too, but the last Allegro even better. I had heard the final Allegros here [in Paris] must begin the same way as the first ones, all the instruments playing together, mostly in unison. I began mine with nothing but the first and second violins playing softly for eight bars—then there is a sudden forte. Consequently, the listeners (just as I had anticipated) all went “Sh!” in the soft passage—then came the sudden forte—and no sooner did they hear the forte than they all clapped their hands. I was so glad that, the minute the Symphony was finished, I went to the Palais Royal, ordered a good ice cream, said my Rosary as I had vowed to do, and went home.”

Question: In your opinion, which of these two performances captures the spirit that Mozart describes in his letter?
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Böhm (NB: Spotify account needed)

Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart’s description of the Mannheim Orchestra and Karl Stamitz’s viola playing (1784)

“No orchestra in the world has ever surpassed the one in Mannheim in beauty of execution. Its forte is a thunder, its crescendo a cataract, its diminuendo a crystalline brook babbling from afar, its piano the breath of spring….

Stanitz [sic] the younger [i.e., Karl] is the most celebrated viola player in Germany and one of our most charming composers. He has made a profound study of the peculiarities of the viola and therefore plays this instrument with a suavity never heard before…. Surely nothing better has yet been written for the viola than he has produced. One finds so much truth, so much beauty and poise in his instrumental pieces, that he is generally regarded in Germany, Italy, France, and England as a darling of the Graces.”

Some observations:

The performances described in these three accounts clearly made strong impressions on their listeners—Corelli’s fiery playing elicited a vivid description from Raguenet, the wittily unexpected opening to Mozart’s finale surprised and delighted his audience, and Schubart was impressed by the Mannheim Orchestra’s powerful dynamics and Karl Stamitz’s unprecedented viola virtuosity. Eighteenth-century musicians were deeply concerned with music as a form of communication and music’s ability to depict the affects or moods, but we shouldn’t assume that their approaches to musical expression were the same as our own. Some basic principles of eighteenth-century musical expression include the following:

  1. Musical performance was often compared to the art of rhetoric. The musician, like an orator, strives to stir the passions of the listeners.
  2. In the Baroque era, most movements explore a single main affect or emotion; later in the century, musical style increasingly featured contrasting affects or styles within a single movement. (For example, compare the fugue—the quintessential Baroque genre, which adheres to a single primary subject—to sonata form—the quintessential Classical genre, which often presents contrasting themes.)
  3. Most musicians in the eighteenth-century were trained, at least to some extent, in composition and improvisation. Performance and composition were conceived as two aspects of the same discipline, not separate disciplines.
  4. Members of the nobility, as well as musicians, were trained in the art of dance. Even stylized dances, such as those in Bach’s suites (which were not meant for actual dancing) would conjure associations with real dances and choreography for musicians and listeners in the eighteenth century. This is especially true of dances that were still in vogue, such as minuets, bourrées, and gavottes.
  5. Solo works, sonatas, and chamber pieces were most commonly played in aristocratic domiciles or in salons, often for the players’ own enjoyment. Our modern concert rituals have their origins mainly in the nineteenth century. (See images below.)
  6. The Baroque bow naturally fosters a non-legato, “spoken” style of playing. Slurs generally signified an emphasis on the first note and a release at the end (especially on two-note slurs). This contrasts with the more sustained style of playing that emerged during the nineteenth century. For instance, Beethoven described Mozart’s playing as “choppy and staccato” (according to Beethoven’s student Czerny).
  7. Vibrato was described as an ornament, that is, a way to enhance expression on selected notes at the performer’s discretion. Different eighteenth-century authors encouraged more or less use of vibrato, but no author described it as a basic part of the tone to be used on every note.


Painting of Haydn (right) leading a string quartet in a salon. Julius Schmid, 1907 (Vienna Museum).

Joachim Quartet performing in the Berlin Singakademie. Engraving after painting by Felix Possart, c. 1900 (whereabouts unknown).

What is a modern violist, playing on metal strings and in modern concert halls to do with this information? While it would be naïve to attempt to reconstruct or recover a single correct, “authentic” performance style from a bygone era, it is equally naïve to think that our instincts alone tell us everything we ought to know to read scores intelligently, with a sense for the style and all expressive possibilities. Basic questions, such as “What might the composer have meant by dolce as opposed to espressivo?” or “What was an appropriate tempo for a gigue?” warrant a little research to gain a sense for the style, after which point we can make informed choices and trust our instincts. Perhaps experimenting with using less vibrato may open new possibilities for expression with the bow. Or exploring Schubert’s Lieder may deepen our sense of phrasing and articulation in the “Arpeggione” sonata.

George Szell wrote: “In music, one must think with the heart and feel with the brain.” Perhaps, then, there is no competition between our desire as performing artists to rely on our own instincts and intuition (to play with heart) while also seeking to gain the knowledge of music history, analysis, and performance practice to understand the repertoire we perform in a deeper context (to use our brain).

I’ll close this blog post by listing a few books about music history and historical performance practice that may inspire your own historical imagination. Happy reading—and happy music making!

Primary Sources
NB: many of these are summarized in the secondary sources below.

Bach, C. P. E. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments [Berlin, 1753–62]. Translated by William Mitchell. New York: W. W. Norton and Company 1949.
Baillot, Pierre. The Art of the Violin (Paris, 1843). Translated by Louise Goldberg. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.
Mozart, Leopold. A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing [Augsburg, 1756]. Translated by Editha Knocker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Quantz, Johann Joachim. On Playing the Flute [Berlin, 1752]. Translated by Edward R. Reilly. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
Türk, Daniel Gottlob. School of Clavier Playing [Leipzig, 1789]. Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Source Books (excerpts from a range of historical texts)
McClintock, Carol, ed. Readings in the History of Music and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
Weiss, Piero and Richard Taruskin, eds. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 1984.
Treitler, Leo, ed. Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Secondary Sources: Introductions to Historical Performance
Lawson, Colin and Robin Stowell. The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Stowell, Robin. The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
. Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Tarling, Judy. Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners. St. Albans, Herfordshire: Coda Music Publications, 2000–01.

Secondary Sources: The “Authenticity” Debate
Butt, John. Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Secondary Sources: Other
Bartel, Dietrich. Musica Poetica. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Bilson, Malcolm. “Do We Know How to Read Urtext Editions?” Piano and Keyboard Magazine (August 1995): 24–30.
Drabkin, William. A Reader’s Guide to Haydn’s Early String Quartets. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Ledbetter, David. Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Lester, Joel. Bach’s Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. [Not about historical performance, but highly stimulating analyses and ideas about performance.]
Little, Meredith and Natalie Jenne. Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
McCreless, Patrick. “Music and Rhetoric,” in Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Edited by Thomas Christensen, 847–79. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Musgrave, Michael and Bernard D. Sherman. Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Ratner, Leonard. Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style. New York: Schirmer Books, 1980.
Sherman, Russell. Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Stowell, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


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