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History's Mysteries

May 1, 2007

In the last few decades, classical record bins have been increasingly filled with remastered "historical recordings" of long-past performances. Listen to some of them, particularly acoustic recordings from before 1925, and you will hear performances startlingly unlike any you would hear today: erratic tempo variations, notes played off the beat, significant slowing between sections, piano chords rolled instead of played together, strings played without vibrato but with the swooping glides known as portamento, and so on.
The style can sound strange to modern ears, raising many questions of why performers played this way, and why they stopped. Hardly anyone sounds like this today, even musicians devoted to historically informed performances. If musicians used these techniques in the early days of recording, how did they play before there were recordings? Can modern performers learn anything from these predecessors? And lastly, what if anything has the increase in recordings over the 20th century had to do with all this?

These were among the questions addressed by the "Reactions to the Record: Perspectives on Historical Performance" symposium April 19-21 at Stanford University's music department. The focus was on piano music, with excursions into chamber, orchestral, and vocal music. Some 20 musicologists, historians, performers, and teachers gave oral presentations, showed slides, played old recordings, performed live, held panel discussions, gave master classes, and enlightened those fortunate enough to hear them. An auditor of only casual musical attainment could feel like a small piece of flotsam adrift on a vast and turbulent sea of erudition, but the presentation was always clear and compelling.

There were no final conclusions. But how could there have been?

Take this question. You have the score of a famous work of piano music from the early 20th century. You also have a player piano roll, which captures the composer playing the work entirely differently, with phrasings and tempo variations not marked in the score. Which should you believe?

Pianists George Barth (a professor at Stanford and convener of the conference) and Andrew Rangell both told of having early teachers with an "ur-text mentality," who insisted on ignoring the performance and following the printed score exactly. The teachers' attitude toward composers was, "Do what they say, not what they do."
A Cathedral Resurfaces
But Barth said that he never understood Debussy's The Engulfed Cathedral until he heard the composer's piano roll. He found that it clarified ambiguities in the score about the work's tempo and the relationship of its various parts. Professor Anatole Leikin of UC Santa Cruz made a similar demonstration with a Scriabin prelude. First he played a modern recording, perfectly replicating the score. It was dull and uninteresting. Then he played a transfer of the composer's piano roll: wildly uneven tempos, altered notes, different phrasing. It was vivid and compelling.

Associate Professor Jonathan Berger of Stanford has spent years trying to uncover the original sound hidden in a badly worn 1940s acetate transfer that's the only surviving copy of a cylinder recording, made in 1889 by Brahms himself. It features a wildly galumphing rendition of one of his Hungarian Dances for piano. Berger has tried to replicate Brahms's piano style using a Disklavier.

On the other hand, musicologist Jonathan Bellman of the University of Northern Colorado pondered why Scott Joplin's and George Gershwin's recordings of their own music sound so offhand, even wooden, today. Evidence on recordings leaves us uncertain just how much freedom of interpretation composers wanted to hear in their music.

There's no one answer, no one trend. Nicholas Cook of the University of London's Center for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music and his colleagues are trying to sort out these trends through computer analysis of hundreds of recordings of Chopin mazurkas. They displayed dozens of colored charts that showed which performers were closest in style to each other. The results were complex. Sometimes two recordings by the same pianist varied more from each other than they did from recordings by another pianist.Or take this question: How did performers play before there were recordings? Will Crutchfield, director of opera at the Caramoor Music Festival in Westchester County, N.Y., argued the case for a continuity of tradition. Elements of the "historic recording" style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said, can be traced back to scores and treatises from the 18th century. Kumaran Arul, a Stanford lecturer, found evidence that the style was already fading at the time recording began, but that it was also becoming fossilized and rote, which could explain its disrepute in later times.
Instruments of Change
But Malcolm Bilson, a noted pianist of Viennese classics on early instruments and a professor at Cornell University, emphasized a profound break that he said unquestionably occurred in the 1860s, when the modern piano was developed. Bilson argued that Beethoven or Schumann, when played on an 1830 German piano like the replica he used at the symposium, has an entirely different meaning from the same score played on what he called, pointing to the Steinway concert grand that had been moved out of the way, that "replica of an 1870 American piano" over there.

Who is right? They can all be. Musical performance style is not a single variable. If modern style is in many respects drier than historical performance style, the rise of vibrato has simultaneously made it more lush. No two performers are identical, as Cook showed, but they can collectively, as Crutchfield put it, embody the shared common sense of a generation.

What the speakers all agreed on, however, was that performers must learn to assimilate any style they wish to play in, and not try to reproduce it by rote. We are children of our time, and it takes effort to adopt the perspective of another time. Bilson described the 18th-century principle that musical notation must be interpreted in light of the profound logic of the score. Crutchfield counseled performers to find what appeals to them in older recordings and absorb it by ear until it becomes natural. Arul urged them to choose the right flexibility, the right shade of unevenness.

Robert Philip, a lecturer at the U.K.'s Open University and the author of two major books in this field, agreed. Definitive evidence is usually lacking, he said, particularly when the composer is not the performer. You must make your own decisions. The authority needed for a performing style is often simply the belief in what you're doing.

The participants demonstrated how knowledge of early recordings can enrich practices today. Will Crutchfield gave an astonishing master class on Thursday afternoon. In 20 minutes each, he gave new depth and feeling to the voices of two Stanford students, a soprano and a tenor, focusing on their tone production, enunciation of consonants, and the meaning of the lyrics — and Crutchfield did it all through constant reference to the lessons gleaned from early recordings.
Inspired Performances
Violinist Geoff Nuttall, accompanied by his colleagues in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, demonstrated how their performance of Ravel's Quartet is inspired by early recordings made under the composer's supervision, but does not try to copy them. What's good for them as performers is not necessarily exactly what the composer asked for.

In any case, the "authorized" recordings don't all sound alike. Donald Manildi of the International Piano Archives made the same point, pointing to performances that Liszt's pupils made with the labels "in remembrance of Liszt's own playing." They differ quite a lot. Jazz pianist José Bowen cited the jazz tradition as a parallel. There performers are expected to remake a work as their own, even one that's never been committed to a score.

The evening concerts also demonstrated the direct relationship between early recordings and modern performers. Anatole Leikin played Scriabin in his own style, inspired by the composer's. Jeffrey Treviño, of UC San Diego, threw away the score of Cowell's The Banshee and simply followed the spirit of the composer's recording. Malcolm Bilson gave an astonishingly moving performance of Schumann's Waldscenen on the 1830 piano. Frederick Weldy, Stanford's leading piano instructor, found the pacing and tension in Liszt's Funérailles.

Jonathan Bellman demonstrated the rough Hungarian spirit behind Schubert's Moment Musicale No. 3. From a somewhat different angle, Andrew Rangell brought an intimate connection between works separated by 200 years, as he interleaved the successive movements of Bach's French Suite No. 1 and Schoenberg's neo-Baroque, but rigidly 12-tone, Suite Op. 25. Many other fine performances came from attending pianists and the St. Lawrence Quartet.
Another Turn of the Wheel
Even if performance styles have not yet changed profoundly, we are beginning to adopt some of these lessons. As Richard Taruskin of UC Berkeley pointed out informally between sessions, 30 years ago such early recordings would have been laughed out of a musicology conference. Today they are listened to respectfully. The wheel is turning again — the criticism of modern-style playing was so relentless throughout the conference that it came as a bit of a shock when one panel discussion suddenly turned around and acknowledged its virtues of large-scale stability and momentum.

The history of recording may still be affecting our views. Speakers noted that, over the course of the 20th century, the definitive form of music-making changed from the live performance to the recording. The difficulty of making recordings in the early days, and their relative rarity, may have led to an attitude that recordings were "for the record," and that they should present the work transparently, without the personal style and emotional content of the individual performer. That sentiment may be one origin of the later 20th-century style, with its intense respect for the letter of the text and the suppression of performers' individuality.

Treviño addressed this idea in his presentation, taking an information-theory approach to the problem. He outlined the assumptions by which we decode notation into performance. Thinking of the text as the primary source can lead to a view that the score is the whole of the music. Some contemporary composers have picked up this idea and write music so detailed and overnotated that performers can't even reproduce all its instructions.

Behind the words spoken at the conference were some unspoken themes about the differences between the "historic performance" style and the "modern" style, if they may be so baldly summarized. The historic performance view of instrumental music is fundamentally dramatic. The music tells a story through emotion, as song and opera can. The modern view treats music as primarily architectural. It's a cathedral of sound, glorious but rigid. Even more strikingly, people raised in the modern tradition think of the score as the true embodiment of the music, and each performance as only a realization of its content. But there's a different view: Each and every performance is a distinct work of art, and the fact that they're generated from the same score is only a family resemblance.

The latter view was alive and well at Stanford, which means that if each performance is thought of as a unique event, the presentation, attendance, and reviewing of classical music concerts has a hopeful future.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.