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General Guide to approaching musical ideas

General Guide to approaching musical ideas

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 19, 2006):
< While on topic: is there any historical, documented source (from bach's time) that stablishes the degree of accuracy of composers score writing, and/or performer's degree of concern about accuracy in performance vs. scores?? I mean: were scores intended to be a general guide to approach the composer's musical idea or the "definitive" expresion of the work? >
Bach trained his students to be improvisers and composers. The performance of written-out music (by people other than oneself) was not a separate or independent skill. This practical musicality was a comprehensive craft, of thinking creatively and realizing it in sound. Not merely following instructions. The learning of other people's music, including Bach's, was as example: not merely an end in itself. One couldn't even get into Bach's teaching studio without first showing some definite practical ability as a composer.

I think that's important.

Look at the title page of the inventions/sinfonias. The music's stated purpose is to teach by example: showing how to play two and then three independent melodic lines all with a singing sound, and as foretaste-models for composition.

How about Orgelbuechlein? Its stated purpose is to improve a student's obbligato pedal technique and to show how chorales may be elaborated. Again paramount, teaching the student how to think like a composer, and then go do it elsewhere: armed with these abilities of playing and thinking.

As for "definitive", how can any version of any of Bach's music be considered "definitive"? He kept tinkering with and improving it, himself, throughout his lifetime and each time he revisited an old piece. The concept of _Urtext_ here is a chimera. Music is a process, not a piece of paper.

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 20, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>Bach trained his students to be improvisers and composers. The performance of written-out music (by people other than oneself) was not a separate or independent skill. This practical musicality was a comprehensive craft, of thinking creatively and realizing it in sound. Not merely following instructions. The learning of other people's music, including Bach's, was as example: not merely an end in itself. One couldn't even get into Bach's teaching studio without first showing some definite practical ability as a composer.<<
“Not merely following instructions.” This is a good description of one aspect of Bach as a teacher as long as it is clear to the reader that this refers only to promoting his private music students (all keyboardists) to think creatively and learn how to improvise, both necessary skills for any potential composer.

“Not merely following instructions.” but allowing the performers to change the score by adding notes which
were not there, by reducing audibly the value of notes, by dropping notes, by changing/adding ornamentation, dynamics, etc. This does not apply to the actual performances of Bach’s concerted sacred works with choirs, soloists (vocal and instrumental). Consider how Bach would have conducted the motets from the Bodenschatz collection. Would he have allowed any deviation from the score? or let the pupils add some additional harmonies or embellishments on their own? Would Bach, during a performance of one of his own cantatas, have smiled or frowned when any vocalist or instrumentalist began changing the music by adding additional flourishes, unexpected coloraturas, different articulation [the strings have a specific type of phrasing indicated by Bach in their parts, but a few measures later the oboist decides to be creative and different by changing the same pattern he has to a different combination of dots and slurs]?

>>Look at the title page of the inventions/sinfonias. The music's stated purpose is to teach by example:showing how to play two and then three independent melodic lines all with a singing sound, and as foretaste-models for composition.<<
“a singing sound” = eine cantable Art = “a singing manner of playing”

Now have BL define what this really means! Listen to Harnoncourt’s recording of mvts. 1 & 7 of BWV 78, this week’s cantata, for BL’s definition of ‘singing sound’ if anyone can pin him down to any definition at all!

“as foretaste-models for composition” but not for actual performances involving a number of performers which is what is being discussed here.

>>How about Orgelbuechlein? Its stated purpose is to improve a student's obbligato pedal technique and to show how chorales may be elaborated. Again paramount, teaching the student how to think like a composer, and then go do it elsewhere: armed with these abilities of playing and thinking.<<
But not in performing the main musical lines in a Bach cantata. There is a vast difference between an organist learning how to improvise his own renditions of chorale preludes using Bach as a model and the performance of a Bach cantata from original parts which Bach has carefully checked and to which he has added necessary articulation, embellishments, dynamics, etc. The Scheibe-Birnbaum controversy, often referred to on this list, reveals Scheibe’s complaint that Bach insisted too much on including every ‘dot and tittle’ in his parts, thus restricting his vocalists and instrumentalists from singing and playing “according to the usual, free method of improvisation” [using a wide variety of techniques, variations, embellishments, coloraturas, etc. which were normally the prerogative of the performer in Bach’s time to include at will]. What was Bach’s answer to this [through his proxy, Birnbaum]? As a consummate composer and performer, I probably have a much better idea than anyone that I have heard performing my works as to just what it is that constitutes good taste in music. I have heard too many artists performing my compositions and using their artistic freedom to change my notation so that my music then suffers from tasteless performances. These artists insist on making many changes on the fly, often introducing inappropriate coloraturas, overladen embellishments, odd articulation, etc. while not realizing that my compositions suffer immensely from such bad musical taste. This sort of performance reflects back on me! Hearing such performances of my music, which amount to a travesty of my musical intentions, I have made it my custom to mark down very clearly what it is that I want to hear in a performance of my music, otherwise my honor and good name as a composer will be sullied by those who find it more important to make a spectacle of themselves much to the detriment of my music. By taking these extra pains with checking, modifying and adding more specific musical information to my parts, I have at least been able to assure myself, that my name and the compositions which are to represent me as a composer will be remembered favorably now and in the future.

>>As for "definitive", how can any version of any of Bach's music be considered "definitive"? He kept tinkering with and improving it, himself, throughout his lifetime and each time he revisited an old piece. The concept of _Urtext_ here is a chimera. Music is a process, not a piece of paper.<<
However, when this process is managed by those who favor artistic freedom more than the score and what it represents, there will always be a great danger that the results will be less than the good musical taste which Bach possessed. Bach’s scores and original parts represent at each stage the best he was able to accomplish with the given circumstances before him. These stages are not always on an upward path to perfection chronologically, but can sometimes reflect an attempt on Bach’s part to salvage, as far as it was possible, his original intentions for a repeat performance. This ‘process’ in itself does not open the floodgate for all performers to do as they please based upon their own current notion of which type of interpretation might be best, but rather it indicates that these stages must be approached with even greater caution, and not as a license to do as one pleases because it appears to them that Bach was indecisive.

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 20, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Consider how Bach would have conducted the motets from the Bodenschatz collection. Would he have allowed any deviation from the score? or let the pupils add some additional harmonies or embellishments on their own? Would Bach, during a performance of one of his own cantatas, have smiled or frowned when any vocalist or instrumentalist began changing the music by adding additional flourishes, unexpected coloraturas, different articulation [the strings have a specific type of phrasing indicated by Bach in their parts, but a few measures later the oboist decides to be creative and different by changing the same pattern he has to a different combination of dots and slurs]? >
I think Bach would have been delighted that his student had imbibed the spirit of his teaching and had the taste and confidence to use accepted conventions.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (August 21, 2006):
[To Bradley Lehman] So..is there any "obligato" way to go when playing?

Is it worthy a surgical analysis in music? And even if it is, has this analysis any ability to prevail over subjective, less informed appreciation or performing techniques?

My questions come to my head as I see a steep crescendo in the "expert" vs. "just have ears to listen" rules in the group.

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 21, 2006):
Pablo Fagoaga wrote:
< So..is there any "obligato" way to go when playing? >
I would just say: be able to use all the expressive and technical resources of one's instrument (or voice) in service of the music, producing clear performances that sound both confident and fresh.

But, that's just "musicianship" in a nutshell, anyway.

< Is it worthy a surgical analysis in music? And even if it is, has this analysis any ability to prevail over subjective, less informed appreciation or performing techniques? >

Hey, I'm not the one here bashing performers in public, or trying to decide when they're "wrong", or trying to justify personal preferences by a pseudo-academic and circular batch of criteria. I'm the guy who enjoys listening to Bach performed by Herreweghe, Gardiner, Matthews, Stokowski, Klemperer, Parmentier, Hill, Leonhardt, Deller, Harnoncourt, Guttler, Savall, Kuijkens, Schiff, Hazelzet, Barrueco, and many others, on the criterion that they produce clear performances sounding (to me) both confident and fresh. I prefer things on that criterion, and I'm not afraid to say so.

My academic degrees happen to be in the "early" keyboard instruments and their performance practices; but that's not how I decide what to listen to for enjoyment on any given day. The more one reads and studies directly with the repertoire and instruments, the more it's clear that it's an art of flexibility ("it" being the performance of 17th/18th century music), and requires the ability to think like an improvising composer.

< My questions come to my head as I see a steep crescendo in the "expert" vs. "just have ears to listen" rules in the group. >
If anybody actually cares how I personally approach music as a performer, with a combination of careful preparation and improvisatory freedom in reaction to it: let him/her listen to my published recordings and attend concerts, to see it done "live" (where it's different every time according to circumstances). Confront the evidence. Anything short of that is mere speculation. How do I approach the notes and rhythms that I see on the page? Do I see them as binding or freeing?

The recordings are here: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/larips/recordings.html
....along with remarks there about the repertoire choices.

And my newest academic article is here: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/larips/art.html
....with a shorter version printed as a three-page feature in the current (September) issue of _BBC Music Magazine_, pages 42-44. That article shows how I think about scales and harmony, with regard to Bach's music in particular; and it goes along with the recordings directly.

But it all comes back around to: anything done within such theory has to allow the music to sound clear, brilliant, expressive, beautiful, and more natural; it encourages fine musicians to do their job even better and more imaginatively, with the expressive resources it provides. That, to my mind, is what "expert" musicianship entails: the inspiration of creative thinking, understanding the musical language so thoroughly that anything one does within that language is natural-sounding expression. Any approach to the music short of that is merely pedantry (incomplete musicianship...), and not particularly interesting to me.

=====

Want to hear one of mine that's performed directly from the NBA's 2003 score, to make sure I can read Bach's music properly and faithfully enough? The first track on here: http://tinyurl.com/ln94q
The notes are obviously in the score (I didn't choose to improvise unwritten notes on this one, for the recording, but I do when playing it live...), and the rhythmic nuances along the way are not in the score; can't be. The score doesn't say where to change registration, or from what to what, either. The piece is so chromatic and harmonically intense, already, that I elected to play this one very simply and with only a mild level of rubato. Some might fancy it, some might not. That same track is downloadable from here: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/larips/samples.html
"Little harmonic labyrinth, BWV 591".

Another favorite of mine is track 10 on: http://tinyurl.com/ln94q
(Fischer's prelude and fugue #9), where the score doesn't say to add the tremulant on the fugue, but I felt it was appropriate anyway.

And on tracks 27-30, the score doesn't offer any clues if the hands should be on the same or different manuals, or anything about their registration, or any prescribed tempo, or any prescribed strictness of tempo.... Or if they must be played on organ, harpsichord, or something else! Only that these are keyboard duets for two melodic lines (and especially chromatic ones, at that).

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 21, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>I would just say: be able to use all the expressive and technical resources of one's instrument (or voice)in service of the music, producing clear performances that sound both confident and fresh.<<
Here is the problem: there are many HiP performances that do not sound both confident and fresh. There are HiP performers who lack complete control of their voices or instruments. It begins to sound entirely out of place for such performers to indulge in musical flights of fancy when the basic 'equipment' for performing simply what the score indicates is not sufficient to make them sound confident and fresh.

BL: >>But, that's just "musicianship" in a nutshell,anyway.<<

'Musicianship' is a word that means very different things to many different people. If it means "take Bach's scores only as a general outline and make a jam session out of it", then it does not fit the description of Bach that we can obtain from reading carefully Bach's definition of a good performance as found in the Scheibe-Birnhaum controversy. Why should Bach make such a great effort to ensure that what he wanted to hear was notated properly in the parts which were used for performing?

BL: >>Hey, I'm not the one here bashing performers in public, or trying to decide when they're "wrong", or trying to justify personal preferences by a pseudo-academic and circular batch of criteria.<<
Hey, it's Bach's scores which musicians have to rely upon first, and if the performers decide not to follow his advice, then let them say so honestly: "This is an adaptation/arrangement/fantasia based upon Bach's original compositions. They should not allow the listener to wonder whether Bach wanted it to be the way these performers have willfully changed it to become else which just does not suit Bach's manner of performance for which he gave the musicians, in numerous instances, very close, rather precise instructions.

BL: >>The more one reads and studies directly with the repertoire and instruments, the more it's clear that it's an art of flexibility ("it" being the performance of 17th/18th century music), and requires the ability to think like an improvising composer.<<
This may be true for keyboardists who are part of the continuo group in performing a Bach cantata. It is dangerous to generalize this particular situation to a vocalist who begins adding additional embellishments,ornamentation, dynamics, articulation which run counter to Bach's good taste in musical performance. There are only very few fixed conventions regarding how certain cadences in a recitative are to be sung, but even with the unwritten or not firmly documented convention regarding the shortened bass accompaniment in secco recitatives, much careful study will reveal that solid musicological scholarship is lacking and has not provided any solid proof. Caution in all these areas is more important than emphasizing free artistic license in performing Bach cantatas.

BL: >>...how I personally approach music as a performer, with a combination of careful preparation and improvisatory freedom in reaction to it... How do I approach the notes and rhythms that I see on the page? Do I see them as binding or freeing?<<
Again, with the exception of the keyboard continuo part(s)(where even here the figures are supplied by Bach), Bach has clearly indicated the binding aspects and certainly did not want his performing artists unleash their improvisatory freedoms on his Leipzig congregations. This is quite clear from the extreme care that he took in making certain that his ideal performance requirements were being met.

Lest anyone might think that the long list of revisions (corrections and additions) in BWV 78 is due to some unusual circumstances, a look at a closely linked cantata BWV 33, just recently discussed on this list, reveals that it is in this regard very similar to BWV 78 in Bach's careful treatment of the parts: Bach changed or added things in 460 measures/bars spread out over all the parts. Some measures have two or three corrections in them which are not counted separately.

BL: >>That, to my mind, is what "expert" musicianship entails: the inspiration of creative thinking, understanding the musical language so thoroughly that anything one does within that language is natural-sounding expression. Any approach to the music short of that is merely pedantry (incomplete musicianship...), and not particularly interesting to me.<<

Bach must have worked with many incomplete musicians in his cantata performances. Too bad that he did not allow them to be more inspired by thinking creatively and adding their own coloraturas, embellishments, and phrasings whenever they wanted!

Scheibe (Bach-Dokumente II, Item 442) in his satire where he has Bach write in the 1st person (also found in translation on pp. 350-352 of the New Bach-Reader, Norton, 1998):

"I [Bach] am one of those "Musikanten" (a naughty word here)....I compose so intricately and wonderfully that listening to my pieces makes people quite bewildered. Everything is intermingled. Everything is so completely worked out that one cannot tell one voice from another, nor can one ever recognize the principal melody or understand the words....I am undoubtedly the greatest artist in music, I cannot forbear to warn you that you are in the future not to make bold to find fault with me, or to condemn or make ridiculous the manifold counterpoints, canons circular songs, and all the other intricate forms of music writing that, as I have found, you [referring to Scheibe and those who think as he does] have perversely called "turgid". And my greatest pleasure and joy come when I have made a piece in which I have introduced, if not all, at least most of these artifices. What good are those bare songs that can be understood at once and remembered and sung from memory? I reserve my praise for a piece in which everything is finely intermingled, so that the listener is astonished and cannot conceive in what variegated curlicues everything is interwoven with everything else, since no melody and in fact nothing can be remembered."

Scheibe's description of Bach's music here makes clear that Bach's music is not the kind upon which musicians can easily engage upon a flight of musical fancy because they wish to show off their musicianship. Adding further intricacies to Bach's music, would, according to Scheibe, lead to even greater 'turgidity' and confuse the listeners. If, as Scheibe points out, everything (in a Bach cantata, etc.) is "so completely worked out" and "intermingled", any additional material added by a musician intent upon emphasizing "flexibility" with the musical material presented in Bach's scores will only succeed in distracting listeners and making the composition even more 'turgid' for them to comprehend.

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Cantata BWV 33 - Discussions

 

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Last update: ýAugust 22, 2006 ý09:53:06