This blog is, as it says, sketches for a book. This essay, like the previous entry, is definitely a sketch.
In addition to writing about the benefits of improvisation for classical musicians, and providing some starting points and encouragement for classically-trained musicians to begin improvising, I’ve been wrestling with this question: why don’t classical musicians improvise? What we now think of as “classical” musicians, especially well-trained professional musicians, used to improvise, well into the 20th century.
Reading Benson’s book has presented a dimension of the issue that I wasn’t aware of before. It turns out that the role of improvisation in “classical” music has diminished as the concept of fixed musical art works, embodied in written scores (texts), has grown.
So, inspired and fueled by ideas I’m reading in Benson and Taruskin, here’s my initial stab at articulating my own “phenomenology” of music.
How about this: the myth of the totally-complete, fully-and-exactly notated, musical artwork is just that, a myth. Both in the sense of being a fiction and also an important expression of a general principle.
In the performing arts, the performance is the artwork. The artists are not only the composer but also the performers. There is indeed creative input from performers.
And the artwork, the performance, is not just about its materials but the way the materials are used to create an effect or express an emotion.
It’s easier to understand in opera than in instrumental classical music. People don’t argue that there is an ideal, perfect version of a Verdi aria that every soprano playing Violetta must try to reproduce. Instead, we understand that every Violetta is going to be different, because the performance is a combination of the creativity of both Verdi and the soprano (as well as the director, conductor, dramaturge, etc.).
The emotional or expressive content of a work is not specific until performed, and because the emotional content is expressed through or by particular human beings changes each time. That’s the miracle of classical music: each piece is reborn with each performance.
It’s like a story being retold.
A composer, in a sense, gives birth to a piece. And while for a brief period, perhaps, the composer may hover over and control as much as possible the way the piece is treated, how it performs, and with whom it interacts, eventually the piece grows up, establishes its own identity, separate from that of its parent and its parents intentions, forms relationships with others, and, in each relationship, reinvents itself or discovers hitherto unknown possibilities within itself. And the relationship analogy is a good one, I think, because in our relationships, especially loving relationships, we receive and give gifts, and are altered.
There’s also the need to hear familiar music freshly, so performing artists create new approaches to performance.
And the cultural context. A tempo that had a certain effect in Dvorak’s day, for example, will not necessarily have the same effect today. Similarly, hearing Dvorak after hearing all the music that came after Dvorak changes the way we hear and relate to it.
And culturally, the similar individual and collective emotional consciousness is different now than it was when Dvorak composed. After WWI, WWII, the Holocaust,
The nineteenth century and the Romantic movement produced streams of individual artistry that often conflicted with each other: the Great Composer, the Great Conductor, and the Great Performer. Each thought of themselves as the primary artist in a performance.
And the sense of being true to a “work” was so much about being true to the intuited emotional content of the work, or to the emotions evoked in the artist by the piece, which the artist would express. Being true to these emotions led performing artists to take some liberties with the written text. And also to have a sense that the written text was something that could be at least slightly modified as part of the performers role in a performance. (Something like an actor or director suggesting or requesting a line change to stay more true to a character.)
There was a strong reaction against this in the twentieth century, and a trend to “objective” and true-to-the text performances which made it possible to hear the works as if for the first time. And, I’ve suspected, also, in a larger cultural sense, as a form of emotional escapism, of escape from emotion. The emotional horrors of the mid-twentieth century were such that, in addition to a probably-inevitable reaction against the individual-emotion based Romantic performance traditions, many needed to find order and purity and clarity. Spend too much time in your emotions, and you’d be overwhelmed.
We often think of the emotional content of the work being the composer’s emotions. The myth is:
composer’s emotions → expressed in/result in composition → exactly realized score → evocation of intended effect/emotion in audience
But perhaps it is more like this:
composers emotions → expressed in composition → studying score/playing music →emotions triggered in performer (which may be different to some extent than those of composer) → performer’s understanding of the work’s meaning and creative ideas for expressing those ideas through the performance → details of the performance, which may include some alterations to the score in order to create an emotionally authentic performance
And this changes slightly or dramatically from performance to performance by the same artists, and quite dramatically from performer(s) to performer(s).
There is no music without performance.
Or as Howard Hanson said (in a talk with this title that I attended at the University of Tampa about 33 or 24 years ago), the essence of music is in performance.
In the performing arts, there is simply no 100% fixed, finalized artwork. Each performance is its own artwork. The music comes into being anew with each performance.