Sunday, April 23, 2006

Why Classical Musicians Don't Improvise, Part III: Textualism

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s Baroque Music: A Practical Guide for the Performer is one of my favorite books on making music. (And so, of course, it is out of print). Rangel-Ribeiro is a novelist and short-story writer as well as a musicologist and impresario (former director of New York’s Beethoven Society).

He opens the first chapter of his book with an anecdote that sums up the “dark side,” so to speak, of the textualist approach to classical music making that so dominated the second half of the 20th century.

In a recording studio in Europe not too long ago, the big-maned, big-named conductor sat in his high rehearsal chair, clothed in authority. The virtuoso recorder soloist, renowned in his own field, sat alert and waiting. The musicians leaned forward in their chairs, instruments at the ready, eyes on the conductor. The music began to flow, smooth and professional; the solo line soared—and within seconds the conductor stopped the orchestra, incredulous.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Why, I’m ornamenting the melodic line,” said the soloist, rather taken aback.

“And you’d better stop! shouted the conductor, suddenly enraged. “If Handel had wanted the solo line ornamented, he would have written in the ornamentation himself! We’ll play the music as written!”

“I’m sorry,” said the soloist, bristling, “but to play this music as written would be barbaric. I must play it with the ornaments that the style calls for.”

“I’ll be damned if you do!” cried the conductor.

“God rest your soul!” retorted the soloist.

And the conductor stomped off in a rage, expecting that the recording company would have the soloist replaced. Instead, a new conductor took the chair half an hour later, and the recording proceeded without further incident.

Fiction? The dialogue has been fictionalized, but the incident did occur. (1)

And this was very much the state of affairs in the early 1980s. Older, established musicians unaware of and offended by the very idea of adding ornamentation, teaching (with the best of intentions) this attitude to their students, and finding themselves greatly upset by performers who, informed by scholarship, had been seized by the ornamentation demon.

I had been fortunate enough to have one cello teacher, Denis Brott, who was aware of ornamentation and made use of it, so by the time I began studying at Juilliard and then Peabody (Denis was my final high-school teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts), I was aware that ornamentation was an important part of the performer’s art during the Baroque period. I don’t remember any discussion of ornamentation and improvisation in my music history classes at Peabody. There may have been some, but it didn’t make a strong enough impression on me that I remember it. And certainly none of my post-Denis cello teachers discussed it.

After graduating from Peabody, I began occasionally working with the extraordinary organist Philip Manwell, then the music director at Christ Church in Baltimore. Philip was one of those extraordinary organists who could improvise a fugue, and was well-versed in Baroque ornamentation. He encouraged and helped me to develop ornamentation when I played Vivalid and other Baroque sonatas. My work with Philip motivated me to buy Rangel-Ribeiro’s book, which I see was $30.00, nothing to sneeze at even today, and certainly a major expense for a free-lance cellist in the early 1980s.

In the fall of 1986, I had my first full-time college teaching job, replacing the cello teacher at a major graduate university while he was on leave. One of the doctoral students was playing the Francoeur Sonata, a five-movement work, from which early 20th-century cellists often excerpted two movements (a slow movement and a very showy fast movement). I worked with the student to develop ornamentation for the slow movements, just as Denis and Philip had modeled, and I had read about in Rangel-Riberio and elsewhere. By the end of the term, we were quite pleased with what she’d worked out.

Then her cello teacher returned from his leave. When he heard her ornamentation, he demanded she remove all of it. Unlike the recorder soloist in Rangel-Ribeiro’s story, she could not demand a new teacher and had to comply. She told me later she explained why she had added ornamentation and why it was historically appropriate to do so. He was unconvinced. He had just returned from the Tchaikovsky competition, where the Francoeur had been a required piece (or on a list of pieces from which contestants could select). He’d heard many cellists play the Francoeur, and no one added ornamentation!

As with the recorder soloist story, this was an example of historical ignorance and late 20th-century textualism run amok. “We will play what the composer wrote exactly.” Never mind, or never learning, that this is a concept articulated much later in music history.

It is also an example of the horrible influence of music competitions. No one at the Tchaikovsky competition ornaments, so you’d better not either, because it won’t be accepted. My colleague, you see, was being protective of his student. (I heard the story from his point of view as well.) He didn’t want trouble to befall her should she enter a competition. (He was in his late twenties and, as most of us tend to do that age, was projecting his ambitions on to her; she was the least likely person to enter an international competition I ever met.)

The competition mentality engenders all sorts of fears and self-imposed rules. Don’t be different. Don’t be original. Don’t be creative. Don’t offend anyone. How I hated competitions when I was young enough to enter them! I’d go crazy trying to prepare performances that I thought wouldn’t offend anyone. (I probably carried this to a neurotic extreme, but there you go.)

It’s always been interesting to me that many of the most successful concert artists did not come to prominence through competitions. With my own instrument, Janos Starker, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline DuPre, and Lynn Harrell never won a major competition. And Mstislav Rostropovich won some in the Soviet Union, but his rise to fame was not through winning a major international competition.

One thing all these greats have in common is that they have strong performing personalities. They put their own stamp on the music. Some people love their playing. Some people hate their playing. But there’s never any question that it is their playing.

But this is not seen as a virtue by all. Countering what can be a performer-centric view of classical music performance has been its antitheses, which I find myself calling textualism and those who adhere to it to one extent or another textualists.

It turns out that while these terms seems quite obvious to me, they are not in as widespread use as I might have imagined. I picked them up from discussions of Constitutional law; the debates about how to interpret the U.S. Constitution have long struck me as having obvious parallels to musical interpretation.

But a JSTOR search turned up a scant few uses of “textualism” or “textualist” in relation to music. And even Richard Taruskin uses “textualist” as an adjective once, and as a noun twice, in all of Text and Act, and never uses “textualism.” (Or so Questia, bless it, tells me.)

Lawyers and legal scholars use “textualist” and “textualism” most frequently. And Gregory Currie, in “Work and Text” (Mind, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3 [Jul. 1991), pp. 325-340), uses them exactly as I mean them:

Sometimes we speak indifferently of interpreting texts, and of interpreting literary works. But it is not a matter of indifference how we speak, for text and work are not the same. [Emphasis added] Nor fo interpreting texts and interpreting works differ only with respect to their objects. They are different kinds of activities, and it is a source of error and confusion that we use the same word for both. Interpreting workis is the common practice of literary specialists and lay readers, though it can be approached with different degrees of skill and sensitivity. Interpreting texts is an uncommon enterprise which most of us have neither the occasion nor the skill to engage in.

The view that work and text are one I shall call “textualism”, and those who hold it I call “textualists”. (325)

And it is this view that “work and text are one” that came to dominate so much understanding of the nature of (classical) music in the twentieth century. And along with the confluence of “work” and “text” arose the gradually intensifying ideology that it is the performer’s job to “realize” (as Ravel put it) or “execute” (Stravinsky) the score.

Perhaps ironically, this diminishment of the creative role of the performer is, as Richard Taruskin explains, rooted in the ideals of Romanticism.

So, Bowen argues, authenticity is not "modern' but "romantic." Well of course it is. That is just what I have been implying all along. Modernism, as Leonard B. Meyer memorably puts it, is "the late, late Romantic ideology." 9 Its beliefs and practices, as enunciated and implemented whether by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, whether by John Cage or Roger Norrington, are all maximalizations of a nineteenthcentury inheritance. The specific move Bowen traces is that associated with the emergence of the concept known as "Werktreue" ("fidelity to the musical work," as he translates it), which, as explicitly confirmed in essay 11, is the best possible access to the nebulous cluster of concepts intended by the tainted A-word when contemporary musicians use it. But before there could be a notion of Werktreue there had to be a notion of the reified Werk -- the objectified musical work-thing to which fidelity is owed. The emergence of that concept was the crucial philosophical move, coeval with musical romanticism and virtually defining it. Without it there could be no notion of "classical music." The "museum ideology" which I identify and deplore in essay 4 (and again in essay 6) as the main prop to our modern concept of authenticity could never have arisen until there was something to store in the museum.

The "work-concept," as Lydia Goehr so excellently shows in her recent treatise on the philosophy of musical museum-culture, 10 regulates not only our musical attitudes but also our social practices. It dictates the behavior of all members of the classical music community, whether composers, performers, or listeners. It imposes a strict etiquette, for instance, on audiences. 11 On performers it inflicts a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had formerly been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.

The Romantic notion of the autonomous transcendent artwork entailed a hierarchized, strictly enforced split between emancipated creators, beholden (in theory) to no one but the muse, and selfless curators, sworn to submission. The producers of timeless works are the gods, exulting in their liberation from the world of social ("extramusical") obligation and issuing peremptory commands. The recipients of the commands are the Nibelungs, bound scrupulously to carry out the masters' intentions for the sake of their glory, their own lives pledged to a sterile humdrum of preservation and handing-on. That is the mythology of our concert life. There is also a class of Alberichs, of course, Nibelungs (chiefly of the podium, the keyboard, and the larynx) who aspire to godlike power, and who are dependably crushed for their hubris by critics and pedagogues, the priests of the Werktreue faith, though their fellow Nibelungs secretly egg them on and they enjoy wide sympathy among the mortals in the outer darkness of the hall. 12 [1]

It’s very difficult for us to accept that the ideal of a “autonomous” musical artwork, solely the creation of its composer, is a comparatively recent one and was not the paradigm in which many composers of the past existed. Bruce Ellis Benson writes, “The very idea that performers [in the Baroque era] were essentially expected to reproduce what was in the score was a foreign notion, for the idea of musical works – as completed and carefully delimited entities – did not exist.”

This concept of the musical “work” brought forth the ideal of being true to the work (i.e., Werktreue) and therefore true to the text. Again, Benson:

While there are various factors that define the practice known as classical music, I think there are two basic concepts or ideals that are particularly prominent in that practice, and thus in our thinking. They are (1) the ideal of Werktreue and (2) the ideal of composer as “true creator.” (3)

. . . .

The idea of being “treue” – which can be translated as “true” or “faithful” – implies faithfulness to someone or something, Werktreue, then, is directly a kind of faithfulness to the Werk (work) and, indirectly, a faithfulness to the composer. Given the centrality of musical notation in the discourse of classical music, a parallel notion is that of Texttrese: fidelity to the written score. Indeed, we can say that Werktreue has normally been thought to entail Texttreue.

So there we have it: there is a work, and it is one with its text and to be true to the text is to be true to the work.

The dominance of Texttrue, which I'm calling textualism, is a twentieth-century movement, one that seems to have gained the most steam in the second half of the twentieth century.

There was an earlier Werktreue which focused more on the spirit of the work and less strictly on the text. Taruskin points out that conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be exponents of Werktreue, yet took enormous liberties with tempo, rubato, and other details. These older generation conductors were products of a Romantic Werktreue ideal that stressed intuiting the emotions and spiritual states to be expressed and communicated to an audience. Rubato, inflection, and an improvisational spirit were an integral part of what it meant to perform a musical work. The notes, and the notation, were not seen as unimportant, but as a means to an end.

Yet as the twentieth century unfolded, there was a reaction against this idea of the performer communicating the emotions of a work and, indeed, reaction against the very idea of music having any expressive content.

The difference between [Furtwangler’s] performance of Beethoven's Ninth and Roger Norrington's, set out in great detail in essay 9, illustrates the way in which the notion of the work, and of fidelity to it, has narrowed over the course of the twentieth century, squeezing the spiritual or metaphysical dimension out of the work-concept until work-fidelity did finally become coextensive with text-fidelity. (Taruskin, op. cit., 12)

I don’t mean to suggest that there is no emotional or aspect to Norrington’s recording, with which I am not familiar. Nevertheless, Taruskin makes what I think is a very important distinction. He says that within the “big tent of Werktreue” there are two camps, the “Romantic” and the “Modern.” And he writes that, “It has been the particular contribution -- or fallacy, or sin -- of modernists (including Early Music modernists) to cut the philosophical Gordian knot by finally identifying the Romantic work-concept purely and simply with the text.” (12)

Speaking of Beethoven’s Ninth, I am reminded of rehearsing that work, and the Beethoven Sixth, under Arthur Weisberg in the spring of 1985 when I was a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook. Weisberg, I now understand more fully, was a prominent conductor and pioneering proponent of contemporary music in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and authored both Performing Twentieth-Century Music : A Handbook for Conductors and Instrumentalists (Yale University Press, 1996) and The Art of Wind Playing (Satco, 1993). Weisberg at that time was surely caught up in an textualist, objective approach to music performance. I realize that it saying this it sounds as if I felt he had some sort of disease. And indeed, at the time he struck me as cold, impersonal, and not so much unmusical as antimusical. I had been trained by a series of cello teachers to think of musicality as expressiveness, and that the art of the performer consisted as much or more in feeling the emotional content of the music, and expressing those emotions through largely intuitive choices of rubato, phrasing, timber, vibrato, etc., as it did accuracy and technical proficiency. Not that my teachers ever urged actual improvisation of notes or changing texts, of course. But the whole point of playing, it was constantly stressed, especially by students of Piatigorsky, was to make music.

Weisberg, though, seemed uninterested in making music. (He may also have been depressed by the poor quality of sections of our orchestra, especially by the lack at that time of graduate violin students. We actually had local high-school students playing violin in the orchestra along with a very few actual violin majors, all of whom would be supplemented at the last minute by “ringers” from New York City.)

I was quite severe in my judgment of him, since to me the highest value in performing music was this impossible-to-describe, deeply personal and interpersonal phenomenon of making music. I now understand that this expressivistic, personal approach, the ne plus ultra to me, was most likely anathema to Weisberg’s philosophy of music. As I recall our rehearsals, he seemed absolutely opposed to any rubato whatsoever, and would object should the orchestra collectively make a rubato.

This is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, one that I have often marveled at. An orchestra, like any large group of people working together, I suppose, can form a sort of collective consciousness and awareness. And nuances, such as rubato, can spontaneously occur in a way that I experience as a result of a group energy.

Weisberg, however, was not interested in what was then and remains to me now the miracle of group energy and inspiration of the moment. He was an examplar of professional, objective performance, an extraordinary craftsman, who had us keep strict and unyielding tempos. This sort of nonpersonal, nonexpressive musical performance I know realize was, quite clearly, what he valued. And what many other musicians of the time valued as they worked to strip the Romantic, highly personal traditions of performance from the great works of the classical canon just as they dedicated themselves to “realizing” scores as objective “executants.”

Taruskin writes at length about the this approach and its pitfalls, and the point of this book is not to lay out arguments and explanations made in a much more informed and thorough manner elsewhere.

What I’m getting at is the answer to this puzzling question: why don’t classical musicians improvise when so many highly-trained musicians did for much of the common-practice period?

And so, coming back to Rangel-Ribeiro’s fictionalized account of a true incident, I think we see in it so many elements:

  • the paradigm of the fixed, complete, and unchanging art work
  • the paradigm of Werktreue, or being true to the work
  • the resultant impulse of Texttreue, of being true to the text
  • the view that performers are not and cannot be co-creators with composers

Rangel-Ribeiro’s anecdote doesn’t speak as directly to the anti-spiritual, anti-emotional form of Werktreue which Taruskin so aptly describes. But this latter phenomenon, born of course of the best intentions, has been a major factor in causing many classical performers to ignore or even be unaware of their own creativity.

The rise of the fixed-work, Werktreue/Textreue paradigm brought with it the death, in classical music, of the paradigm of composer and performer(s) as co-creators of a work that exists in a single instance, not as a text, but as a performance. Performing and creating (composing) were now understood as two entirely separate activities. Some people did both, of course, but seemed to exist as distinct composer and performer selves.

Take Leonard Bernstein as a prime example. Bernstein the composer and Bernstein the conductor/pianist were, it often seemed, at odds with each other. Fans of Bernstein the composer were, it sometimes seemed, more than a little irritated with Bernstein the conductor taking up so much of the composer’s time that he didn’t compose more great musicals.

In an earlier era, a musician of Bernstein’s gifts would have not just composed and performed, but have mixed the two by giving performances that were all or partly improvised. That earlier era, however, began coming to an end with the post-Beethoven consciousness of fixed, unchanging works, composed by composers and performed by performers.

I am not arguing against being true to “the work” or being true to the text, insofar as it can be established as an historical document and that the composer’s intention was that it be regarded as fixed and unchanging. Gunther Schuller, puts it very well, I think:

Mere ‘correctness,’ in fact, accomplishes very little. The truth is that I have in my lifetime heard many performances with which, in terms of a certain kind of correctness and factual evidence, I had intellectually to disagree—performances by, say, Furtwängler, Mitropoulos, Walter, to name a few very famous ones—which nonetheless were in various ways transcendent, even sublime aesthetic experiences and in some profound ways revelatory performances.

In the end, my preference is ultimately for a transcendent rendition which also involves the utmost respect for the composer and his score. For let us never doubt that respect for and full explicit knowledge of the score are compatible with a ‘great’ interpretation/realization. It is only lesser minds and talents that would have us believe otherwise.[2]

Schuller goes on in his book to call for such a severe and unyielding textualism, however, that if fully followed would not allow many to achieve the sort of “transcendent” of “revelatory” performances of which he speaks. For these sorts of experiences, these synergies of the spirits of composers and performers, must allow for spontaneity and flexibility and trust in one’s instincts which a zeal to be correct inhibits and blocks. And what Schuller promotes are idealized, hypothetical performances; he has so few examples of strictly-realized yet transcendent performances that his book, is, to me, it’s own worst enemy when it comes to making a case for his ideals carried out to the extreme.

What is so valuable, though, in the work of Schuller and others, is to start with an understanding of the text as the composer wrote it, and not as filtered through generations of performance editions and oral traditions.

In performing classical music “works,” Schuller’s point that “mere correctness” is essentially useless is well taken, and often overlooked. We must remember, however, that an individual performance is it’s own unique artwork, born of the combination of composer and performer(s), and that to experience the miracle of making music one must allow the performance its own identity, its own self and spirit, and that this living creation momentarily transcends the text of even a work regarded by its composer as fixed.

The extent to which one should allow what sorts of “liberties” is, of course, subject to much debate and is often a matter of personal preference and taste.

To develop the creativity and self-trust and openness to interpretive ideas, spontaneous and otherwise, that genuine music making entails, we need to develop our creativity. Understanding that the notion that there are composition and performance are two distinct activities, and that the role of a performer is to serve and realize works, is a fairly recent one can help us to accept that we classical performers are indeed creative beings.

And improvisation, among its many other joys and benefits, is one of the best, perhaps the best, way to develop one’s creativity and self-trust. There is no fear that one is damaging the (intellectual) property of another (the composer) when one is creating one’s own music.

Having developed that creativity in the realm of improvisation and composition, one can then return to the canon of fixed-work classical music, adding imagination, creativity, spontaneity, and self-trust to the ideals of Werktreue and Texttreue, making performance not about “mere correctness” but being lively and sometimes transcendent experiences.

It becomes possible then not to be correct or creative, but correct (to the extent possible) and creative.


Scott Spiegelberg said...

As a somewhat synonymous substitute (hey, I love alliteration) for 'textualism,' you can try "scriptism." Nicholas Cook used that term in an essay in Musical Perceptions, which I have seen echoed in other places.

Eric Edberg said...

I like that, esp. since "scriptism" sounds so much like "scripture", bringing to mind Taruskin's characterization of Stravinsky's approach to a score as "fundamentalist."