Perfect Execution / Precision / Perfection
Bach’s goal of perfect executionThomas Braatz wrote (December 3, 2002):
In recent months, a considerable amount of discussion has been centered upon the freedom and flexibility of artists performing Bach’s music. Sometimes I even get the impression that it really does not matter too much if the artist changes the values of the notes, disregards or radically changes the articulation and allows certain parts not to be heard clearly.
The following quote [pp. 470 ff.] Christoph Wolff’s biography of Bach, “The Learned Musician,” [published by Norton in 2000] seems to substantiate the view that I hold [which does not excuse performing this music ‘without a soul’ or with a non-caring attitude:]
“…making concessions to nonprofessional music making was for him [Bach] unthinkable. More often than not, his technical requirements push the limits of both performance and compositional complexity, whether the work is a church cantata, a keyboard piece, or an instrumental concerto. The high standards and demands are typical of the young, middle, and old Bach – in fact, they represent one of his most characteristic trademarks and one that brought him much admiration during his lifetime as well as considerable disapproval (he was accused of requiring that the throats of his singers have the same facility that his own fingers had at the keyboard.)
Bach’s idea of musical perfection, as Birnbaum affirmed, included the goal of perfect execution. He was well aware, however, that performances, especially of larger ensemble works, would not necessarily match the degree of perfection represented in the musical composition. It is this aspect that prompted him to have Birnbaum, in a 1739 supplementary essay, raise a crucial point: “Allein urtheilt man von der Composition eines Stücks nicht am ersten und meisten nach dem, wie man es bey der Aufführung befindet. Soll aber dieses Urtheil, welches allerdings betrieglich seyn kann, nicht in Betrachtung gezogen werden: so sehe ich keinen andern Weg davon ein Urtheil zu fällen, als man muß die Arbeit, wie sie in Noten gesetzt ist, ansehen.“
[“It is true, one does not judge a composition principally and predominantly by the impression of its performance. But if such judgment, which indeed may be deceiving, is not to be considered, I see no other way of judging than to view the work as it has been set down in notes.” – Wolff’s translation, not mine.]
This statement is significant since it points out the value of the notated score of a composition, above and beyond its performance. It is, after all, the written text that establishes the only reliable document of the composer’s ideas and intentions, and that is particularly true of a work displaying Bach’s “unusual musical perfections.” And as a performance may only represent an approximation, the dilemma between the perfection of the idea and the perfection of its realization may remain unresolved but still provide a stimulating incentive for perfectibility. In the final analysis, only the idea can claim to be truly perfect, and Bach knew it….
Perfectly constructed and unique in sound, Bach’s compositions offer the ideal of bringing into congruence original thought, technical exactitude, and aesthetic beauty.”
[If this is true, then we should be more fastidious in examining and reexamining Bach’s scores, not necessarily in an absolutely slavish sense, but in such a way that the artist/performer returns again and again to these sources with a feeling of reverence and awe. With keen and musically educated ears, the listeners should be able to discern from these performances/recordings where this has occurred and where not. It is indeed a matter of artistic integrity and honesty to indicate transcriptions as such including the artist/composer: Bach-Liszt; Bach-Stokowski, etc., but what about those artist/performers who have ‘changed the original sufficiently’ so that the result has already moved away from Bach’s original intentions? Where does interpretive freedom/license begin to move beyond the notes and become something else?]
Bradley Lehman wrote (December 4, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Synchronicity: I was reading something very much like this today, Thomas, in Leopold Auer's 1921 treatise of violin playing. He says similar things about the proper reverence in approaching the music.
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (December 6, 2002):
< what about those artist/performers who have ‘changed the original sufficiently’ so that the result has already moved away from Bach’s original intentions? Where does interpretive freedom/license begin to move beyond the notes and become something else? >
This answer may seem very simplistic, like most things I tend to say with my level of "experience", but I think that interpretation first of all can only be completely changed from Bach if it sounds like bad music. It is impossible to say that anything of Bach was bad-maybe not perfect (although there is a strong case in my mind that he wasn't human at all but way more)-but never bad. If a performer can manage to make Bach sound like he wasn't a good composer, then that performer is doing something wrong. I know this is also very subjective, but isn't that the fun in any art-subjectivity?
Bradley Lehman wrote (December 6, 2002):
Here is Leopold Auer's (1921) chapter about "Style"...someone has prepared a web version at:
I wanted to bring out some points from his "Nuance" chapter as well:
does anyone know of a web version of that one? If not, I'll eventually scan one...along with his sections about vibrato and portamento.
Both of these are from his book Violin Playing As I Teach It.
Bradley Lehman wrote (December 6, 2002):
OK, it's now ready. Here are scans of Auer's sections about nuance ("The soul of interpretation"), vibrato, and portamento. I think he's right on the mark on almost everything he says, and it's interesting to see his comments about Bach 80 years after he wrote this....
I'm hoping this will stimulate further discussion about style and nuance: qualities that often seem so mechanized now in many of the recordings we hear. Anyone?
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 8, 2002):
Some interesting comments from the MGG on the Auer school of violin playing. It seems that he may preach one thing, but the results of his influence have brought about something else.
"Das Streben nach einem stärkeren und volleren (»russ.«) Ton, charakteristisch für die Auer-Schule, hat die heutigen Geiger zu stärkerer Spannung von Instr. und Bogen, festerem Bogengriff, Spiel in hohen Lagen (vor allem auf der G-Saite) und breiterem sowie intensiverem Vibrato veranlaßt."
[Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Violinspiel, S. 42. Digitale Bibliothek Band 60: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, S. 78415 (vgl. MGG Bd. 13, S. 1772) (c) Bärenreiter-Verlag 1986]
[This striving for a stronger and fuller 'Russian-type' tone, a characteristic of the "Auer-School of Violin Playing," has caused contemporary violinists to employ greater tension in the stringing of the instrument and the bow, to hold the bow more tightly, to play more in the higher positions (especially on the G-string) and to use a wider as well as more intensive vibrato.]
Dennoch gibt es Geiger, die das ständige Vibrato ablehnen, da es, ungeschickt eingesetzt, monoton werden muß. L. Auer z.B. vertrat ein mäßiges Vibrato und nur auf ausgehaltenen Noten. Auf jeden Fall kann der moderne Geiger eine Vielfalt von Vibratotypen in den Dienst des Ausdrucks stellen, und es ist Sache seines persönlichen Geschmacks und Stilempfindens, welche Wirkung er mit dauerndem Vibrato, Vibrato auf 2 oder 3 Noten oder den vielen Varietäten erzielt, die von ihm je nach ihrer Intensität, Schnelligkeit undBreite unterschieden werden müssen. (Bezeichnungen für Vibrato sind: »Tremolo«, »Ondeggiamento«, »Bebung«, »flatté«, »ballançant«, »tremblement«, »tremblement serré«.)
[Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Violinspiel, S. 62. Digitale Bibliothek Band 60: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, S. 78435 (vgl. MGG Bd. 13, S. 1780) (c) Bärenreiter-Verlag 1986]
[And yet there are violinists who still resist using a continuous vibrato, since such an application of vibrato, used unskillfully, will necessarily become monotonous. L. Auer, for example, was in favor of a moderate vibrato and that used only on long, held notes. In any case, a modern violinist will have an array of different types of vibrato available to use for expressive purposes, and it becomes a matter of personal taste and a sense of style, which type of effect he/she will achieve by having a continuous vibrato, a vibrato on 2 or 3 notes, or any of the many other varieties which will be distinguishable by their intensity, speed and tonal width (variation in pitch up and down.) Some terms used to designate vibrato are: "Tremolo", "Ondeggiamento", "Bebung", "flatté", "ballancant", "tremblement", "tremblement serré".]
Bradley Lehman wrote (December 9, 2002):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: Some interesting comments from the MGG on the Auer school of violin playing. It seems that he may preach one thing, but the results of his influence have brought about something else. >
That may be, but remember he taught for sixty years: from 1860 to 1920. We don't get to hear many of his pupils except from the end of that, and they have gone separate ways after finishing their study with him. He says elsewhere in the book (several times) that it's his goal to bring out violinists' individual abilities rather than to
mold all his students so they sound alike.
And I'm not sure about the way "the results of his influence have brought about something else." I think his students responded to the increasing mechanization of 20th century societies, not to mention two world wars, as much as to Auer's teaching. That's natural for any great artists: they respond to the age in which they live, taking whatever they were taught and bringing it into their own present and future.
Ignoring (if possible) the things that have happened since 1920: what do you (anyone) think of Auer's espoused principles themselves, taken as a "time capsule" record of violin playing 1860-1920? What if somebody taught directly from his principles of "Nuance - the Soul of Interpretation" today, as an approach for regular use? I think it's viable. His views on nuance are certainly very close to my own. I hadn't read him before a few weeks ago, but I've been saying similar things for year. I was delighted to find that he resonates most with interpretations that sound natural: full of a healthy diversity. And, as regular readers here know, I dislike it when players do not use enough nuance in their interpretations of Bach...such players sound to me like machines more than artists.
His chapters: http://www.vaix.net/~bpl/auer/auer.htm
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 9, 2002):
Just a few general comments on Auer’s thoughts (Brad, thanks for sharing his thoughts with the list members.)
Performance styles do change with time as we can see and hear with recordings of Bach’s music over the past half century or more, and we can also refer 19th century editions of Bach’s music which reflect strongly the performance ideals of that period. Yet despite these very apparent changes a kernel of truth and beauty that emanates from Bach’s music remained available to listeners in each period despite the exaggerations and excesses of performers. It is up to the listeners of each period to judge whether the amount of truth and beauty is sufficient for a moving performance, a performance that presents a reasonable ‘facsimile’ of what Bach intended with his music interpreted through the individualities of the performers who are ‘recreating’ the music.
The dichotomy between emerging new styles and existing traditions is one that Bach experienced keenly in his own lifetime. Why should things be different today? The question really is, “Would Bach, the innovator, always absorb every new direction in music or music performance that he came into contact with, or was there also within him a sense of standards representing that which had become a worthwhile ‘tradition’ as far as he was concerned?” Is tradition, such as a vocal or choral tradition where sustained, legato singing was upheld as an ideal, necessarily burdensome for later stylistic periods during which conductors and singers wish to express their individuality and freedom by singing in a contrary fashion?
In many ways Auer is a Romantic. Aspects of Romanticism, in various forms, continued to exist in Europe throughout the 19th century (and even into the 20th century for some artists.) Auer’s emphasis on Nature and on individualism and freedom certainly belong to the type of thinking that Romanticism espoused. However Auer also incorporates the classical concepts of truth and beauty as necessary touchstones in his ‘school of performance.’ He recognizes that, if the audience does not sense these ideals in a performance that is intellectually satisfying as well as emotionally moving (redundant?), the artistry of the performers is entirely deficient in the many factors that he enumerates.
At this point I can not help but reflect upon Goethe’s sonnets that treat this problem of the strictures of form (tradition – the tried-and-true methods of performance) vs. Nature (individualistic expression [or temperament, as Auer defines it.]) There are certain ‘laws’ governing truth and beauty such as the artist’s control over the instrument or voice coupled with a restrained expression of that which resides in the artist’s soul. By becoming utterly revolutionary and pursuing artistic freedom at all costs and disregarding certain well-established traditions of what is acceptable and beautiful, a Romantic (there are quite a few of these living and performing today although they may not see themselves in this category) runs the risk of never being able to achieve perfection: “Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister/nach der Vollendung reiner Höhe streben.” [In vain will these completely free spirits (individuals who will accept no restraints on their artistic freedom to express themselves – Auer would say that they have too much temperament) strive to attain the pure heights of perfection.]
Francine Renee Hall wrote (December 9, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] I'm hardly a scholar. However, to expouse a certain type of singing such as legato, and pursuing a restrained approach seems to me to hamper infinite possibilities. Bach himself studied cosmopolitan composers, especially Italy, which is remarkable because of his duties in the small towns and provinces. If one wants restrained perfection, we are starting to get this style from HIP performers where everybody sounds the same, and that's certainly a trap for the HIP explorer right now. And finally, I once had a discussion with a physicist a long time ago. We were talking about ideals in thought and conduct as well as 'ideals' in science. His concluding statement was: If you want perfection, then look at a dead universe or dead people.
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 9, 2002):
< …to expouse a certain type of singing such as legato, and pursuing a restrained approach seems to me to hamper infinite possibilities. >
An outward, overly flamboyant display of an utterly individualistic approach toward interpretation without any regard for an established tradition that has proven itself over time will by its own nature become nothing but ‘a flash in the pan’ among all other interpretations unless it have some of the ‘redeeming’ values of true perfection as well. Some interpretive performance practices over time reveal themselves to be more enduring than others. These ‘ideal’ performance practices also evolve albeit at a much slower rate than those presented by iconoclastic artists/performers who are more intentupon revealing something very different (almost shocking to the traditionalists) and thereby simply attracting attention to themselves than they might be if they had accepted reasonable restraints.
Accepting meaningful traditions does not imply stamping out all the elements of individualistic expression. On the contrary, it demonstrates an even greater control over the musical material, a control that might more easily disintegrate into a more chaotic presentation that becomes bizarre and a mere caricature of itself. Leopold Auer states as much in the booklet on violin playing that he wrote:
“Individuality in nuance, however, should never degenerate into bizarre affectation. There is always a borderline, easily recognizable, where the temperamental oversteps the aesthetic bounds of propriety, and turns into caricature. I have always encourage my pupils to be as individual as they could be in the interpretation of their repertory works; but I have never allowed them to carry originality to the excess of disfiguring beauty….The slightest additional emphasis, the least extension of a ritardando, the tiniest exaggeration of a rubata, will often produce the most grotesque results.”
What are these ‘aesthetic bounds of propriety’ other than established traditions of truth and beauty? Not being willing to recognize these invisible, but ever present boundaries, a performance can easily degenerate into the ‘disfiguring’ of beauty as ‘the most grotesque results’ are produced and ‘passed off’ as a genuine, viable performance.
< Bach himself studied cosmopolitan composers, especially Italy, which is remarkable because of his duties in the small towns and provinces. >
Bach was keenly aware of all the new developments in music and music performance. He recognized with an acute ear just what had enduring qualities and what did not. He incorporated into his music only that which fit his high ideals; it did not matter whether these elements came to him from the distant past or existed on the ‘cutting’ edge of modern practices. For a great mind and talent, being restricted to a relatively small geographical area is not a disadvantage. Consider Kant, the great philosopher, who absorbed the entire world into his philosophical system, and yet never left the city in which he was born: Königsberg!
< If one wants restrained perfection, we are starting to get this style from HIP performers where everybody sounds the same, and that's certainly a trap for the HIP explorer right now. >
There is no real excuse for mediocrity which abounds among the HIP recordings available to us today, just as there is no excuse for rampant individualism manifested in some contemporary performance practices. The choice here, on both ends, is between enervating monotony, on the one hand, and the bizarre, ugly, and grotesque on the other hand. Accepting the necessary restraints that lead to perfection, if properly understood, does not equal any of the extreme choices; it actually precludes them.
< And finally, I once had a discussion with a physicist a long time ago. We were talking about ideals in thought and conduct as well as 'ideals' in science. His concluding statement was: If you want perfection, then look at a dead universe or dead people. >
The notion that some people have that perfection necessarily implies death and immobility is very unfortunate. Ideals and perfection also undergo change, they also evolve, but certainly not at the same speed that our usual performance practices do. This physicist, whom you refer to, would readily acknowledge that the nature of a star such as our sun seems unchanging to a person uninitiated in the details that science can provide. This apparent unchanging nature (of course, the scientist is aware of many short-term and very long-term cycles that the sun is part of) is to a lay person a form of perfection, life-giving perfection. Hopefully scientists will be able to see this the same way: that certain ideals of humanity are higher, greater and longer lasting than the extremely individualistic expressions of some of its members.
Francine Renee Hall wrote (December 9, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful replies. I do want to make sure that when you use words like 'truth' and 'beauty' that these are both relative terms and 'value judments'. To see an original Bach score we are dealing with is a fact. The interpretation is either 'true' and 'false' or 'beautiful' or 'ugly'. Again these are personal opinions or value judgments. This is most obviously true in anthropology, the study of diverse cultures where truth and beauty are different from the European tradition. And I don't think we can equate truth with beauty either or vice versa. Again the truth can be ugly or run the entire gamut to beauty.
Bradley Lehman wrote (December 9, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Recently I watched the film "Bride of the Wind" about Alma
Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel (1879-1964). The film made the point that she left Gropius (the perfect Aryan) because his perfection was too boring...nice guy and all, but not temperamental enough for her. :)
It's a film worth seeing once for the Austrian scenery and the soundtrack's montages of Mahler themes, but the screenwriting is dreadful. And the actor playing Mahler is laughable as a conductor....
Young Schoenberg makes a brief appearance in one early scene (chez Zemlinsky), and the screenwriter puts into his mouth the line "His music is better than it sounds" referring to Mahler. IIRC, wasn't that quote originally about Wagner, not Mahler?
Here's the Kokoschka painting that's part of the plot:
Anyway, somebody with a better background than I in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Jung should have some interesting things to say here about perfection and ideals. Jim Morrison, that's your cue....
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 10, 2002):
< Young Schoenberg makes a brief appearance in one early scene (chez Zemlinsky), and the screenwriter puts into his mouth the line "His music is better than it sounds" referring to Mahler. IIRC, wasn't that quote originally about Wagner, not Mahler? >
"Wagners Musik ist besser als sie klingt."
-- Mark Twain
Wagner's music is better than it sounds.
- Mark Twain's Autobiography (re-quoting humorist Bill Nye)
Bradley Lehman wrote (January 17, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: I think I understand from your description that technically perfect playing can lack another component: soul. With this I can agree, but when you make the comparison of a solo keyboardist with an ensemble performance (I assume this to apply to vocalists as in a choir as well,) I do have difficulty 'making this jump.' >
It applies at least as much to vocalists as to instrumentalists. Good instrumental expression is derived from good vocal expression: both singing and speaking.
< Now it appears from your description (I realize that I may be forcing this issue somewhat) that an "irregularity of the attacks" is a virtue and not a vice. >
Yes. A musical virtue.
< It also seems like a case of 'reverse engineering' to maintain that those performance characteristics that, based solely upon the keyboard's unique possibilities and restrictions, should now apply to an ensemble (such as found in Bach's vocal works) where precision is truly a virtue. >
Precion is a "virtue" here only if one values homogeneous blend above contrapuntal clarity. It has nothing to do with 'reverse engineering' from keyboard techniques. Keyboard techniques emulate good singing.
< If I remember correctly, it was commonly assumed in Bach's time by theoreticians and performers alike that instruments should emulate the voice, and not the other way around. >
< Can a conductor of a choir and orchestra read your statement to mean that, on any given beat of any measure, allowing some voices or parts to enter a microsecond earlier or later than the others is a welcostep in the direction of providing a more graceful and spontaneous performance? If all the instrumentalists and vocalists attack each and every note with precision, does this preclude the fact that they are performing with true intensity and feeling? Under these circumstances, is imprecision (sloppiness) in this regard ever commendable and satisfying to the ear in, let's say, a Bach cantata?
Imprecision="sloppiness" only in a mechanical age such as our own. >
Yes, precision it is a virtue (a virtue of discipline, perhaps) if everyone attacks all notes exactly together...but not necessarily a musical virtue, in terms of being communicative.
Listen to a good solo singer (which, as CPE Bach wrote, is the way for a keyboard player to learn the art of expression). Listen closely to the placement of consonants and vowels within the meter: they are sometimes before the beat (especially with consonants), or after the beat (especially with vowels), or sometimes seem to have nothing to do with the beat whatsoever. Listen also to the ends of words, not only the beginnings.
It follows that the beat itself must be reliably steady, so the singer is free to work before or after it. Mozart's father, in his violin treatise, condemned the type of accompanist who tries to accommodate his part to the soloist's rubato. Mozart himself (in 1777) wrote home to his father about his own piano playing: "Without making grimaces of any kind I play so expressively that, according to [Stein's] own confession, no one shows off his pianoforte as well as I. That I always remain strictly in time surprises every one; they can not understand that the left hand should not in the least be concerned in a tempo rubato. When they play the left hand always follows." [Chopin also advocated this: the left hand stays steady so the right hand can be all over the place, expressively.]
Quantz in 1752 instructed the keyboard accompanist: "The greatest discretion and restraint [i.e., expressive freedom] are required in a solo; and if the soloist is to play his part tranquilly, without anxiety, and to his satisfaction, much depends upon his accompanist, since the latter can inspire his confidence or destroy it. If the accompanist is not secure in the tempo, if he allows himself to be beguiled into dragging in the tempo rubato, or when the player of the principal part retards several notes in order to give some grace to the execution, or if he allows himself to rush the tempo when the note following a rest is anticipated, then he not only startles the soloist, but arouses his mistrust and makes him afraid to undertake anything else with boldness or freedom." (p.252-3 in the English translation of On Playing the Flute)
This vocal expressivity against a steady beat is much more obvious outside today's field of 'classical' music, but also is available within it. For some of the most obvious examples of a singer being expressive across the beat, listen to people such as Streisand, Bennett, Sinatra, or the popular singers from the 1930s-1950s. The accompaniment stays steady for the most part, while the singer is sometimes even several whole beats behind (or occasionally ahead): the vocal line is like a liquid poured across the meter.
A side example where things don't quite work right: recently I received the set of Bach's solo flute music played by Wentz. I like Wentz' playing very much, especially his expressive freedom with the tempo and his fluid tone. I'm glad to hear his approach that challenges the present norms. But his expressive effects are ruined by the company he keeps: the well-meaning harpsichordist follows him into every nuance like the world's most faithful spaniel. Consequently the bending of the tempo (the whole ensemble speeding up or slowing down together) sounds like affectation rather than good singing. It's very nice but I don't think it fits the music. Didn't Wentz and friends read their Quantz? (The booklet is a long explanation by Wentz about his performances choices vis-a-vis tempo, but he leaves out that very obvious resource from the milieu of this music itself!....)
In contrapuntal music, obviously there must be some sense of order so it doesn't degenerate into complete chaos. That's why the tempo must be basically steady: so any individual parts that are bending their own lines (whether singers or instrumentalists) will arrive at the end with some agreement. The note-attacks (or their releases) don't all have to agree at every point along the way...the more there
is a bit of disagreement along the way (because every line sticks to its own expressive integrity), the more dynamic the texture is. That's true whether it's a business meeting or a play or a piece of music. Things are accomplished if there is a bit of tension along the way, a dynamic process where the characters don't agree with one another all the time. A conclusion is more satisfying if there has been some noticeable dissent that eventually gets resolved.
That's basic human communication and group dynamics.
And on keyboard: a player of a contrapuntal piece, such as a fugue, should seek to bring out the individual lines more than their confluence. He needs to pretend to be three or four people at once, all presenting their parts more or less together but not exactly together. That's counterpoint.
< If there is a variation in tempo (only slightly slower or faster), should not each instrumentalists and singer still be together on each note? >
No! No! Absolutely not! To be exactly together is is to kill the art of it, and to kill the sense of the music as a process. The music becomes a static thing if there is no conflict within it. And that's boring.
So, yes, I think a conductor should allow a bit of graininess in the choir's and orchestra's execution of their lines, rather than requiring all attacks to be exactly together. Yes, even in a Bach cantata. As you said above, there can be more soul to it that way.
Pete Blue wrote (January 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] You make excellent points, Brad, about "vocal expressivity against a steady beat". A recording which immediately comes to my mind is the old Vox mono of Guiomar Novaes playing the Chopin Nocturnes. In her hands they sound like ornamented Bellini arias. Novaes was Brazilian, but in fact, this kind of playing and singing seems to be a national trait of Italy; at any rate it seems to be required for idiomatic performance of Italian music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I guess of Bach's era, too.
l might add that in pop music the standards-singers have no monopoly on souful playing-with-note-values over a steady rhythm. Many more recent singers, in many genres, do that, one of my favorites being Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, some of the most annoying singers today -- I'm thinking of pop divas like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston -- carry it to absurd extremes in bloated ballads in which they ullulate a dozen notes for each syllable.
Thomas Braatz wrote (Jaanuary 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I read all of your interesting comments and sources. It is quite clear that there is rubato which implies that a very strict time (no adjustment to the rubato) is adhered to. I can easily imagine Mozart with an Alberti bass in the left hand, but using his right hand to go on solo flights of fantasy that must have been dazzling for the listener. Vocalists who sing solo were also allowed this aspect of expressivity (to a degree - it must be done tastefully and should sound natural and not studied or copied from another singer.)
The use of rubato is also documented in a document much closer to Bach's performance practices than Quantz or Mozart: Johann Friedrich Agricola, who was notably a student who performed, among other things, Bach's choral works such as the cantatas, passions, oratorios, etc. under his direction, wrote a book on singing "Anleitung zur Singkunst" (published in 1757) also explains the various types of rubato, based on the Italian singing tradition, which were used when the soloist sang arias; but he also makes a statement that the moment this 'soloist' idea no longer applies (he uses as an example ofwhat should not occur a duet where both soloists begin to compete with each other with their inventive rubati) a completely new and different regimen takes over at this point, an accepted regimen where none of these soloistic freedoms of rhythmic expression is allowed. Here is this statement:
"Alle Stücke mit mehrern Singstimmen müssen so gesungen werden wie sie stehen, und verlangen keine andere Kunst als eine edle Einfalt."
["All compositions written for several (more than one voice) voices must be sung exactly as written, and no other art/artistry (artistic freedoms, such as rubato, otherwise permitted for enhanced expression in the case of soloists) is needed than a noble simplicity."] This I interpret to mean exactly what it says: Strict time is followed in all of the rhythmic variations that appear notated in the score. The highest goal of non-solo singers is precision of attack and precision of release. Agricola also indicates that they should blend completely with no voice or part standing out over the others or others getting lost in the texture of the whole.
Your statement: >>So, yes, I think a conductor should allow a bit of graininess in the choir's and orchestra's execution of their lines, rather than requiring all attacks to be exactly together. Yes, even in a Bach cantata.<< goes beyond what a significant source (precisely Bach's performance practices as observed as an actual participant over the course of several years - all your sources are based on instrumentalists - violinists, flautists, etc.) has to say about this critical subject.
Trevor Evans-Young wrote (January 17, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] But isn't the point the Chopin wrote in the imprecision with his 11 against 4 and 22 against 8? One of his Preludes consists completely of 3 against 5, something which Scriabin later carried to a great extreme. This blurring of the bar line to make the melody sound more free maybe trying to make the melody more 'vocal' and therefore more imprecise? I am just guessing at this but, this does seem to be an extremely complex topic.
Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] Actually that Italian penchant for florid melody over a steady bass
goes back at least as far as Caccini, c1600.
Three well-known Bach examples that nobody plays loosely enough are the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, variation 25 of the Goldbergs, and the chorale prelude "O Mensch, bewein dein Suende gross." That and dozens of chorale preludes by Buxtehude.... And the slow movement of Bach's B minor flute sonata. And more.
Anybody who attempts any of those pieces should be REQUIRED to listen to ten hours of Barbra Streisand and Willie Nelson first, to get the right sound into the ears. That, and reading Quantz' entire chapter "On the manner of playing the adagio." Adagio = "at ease"....
I love that Novaes recording of the Chopin nocturnes. I have at least three or four copies of that on LP, and the CD reissue. When our baby was born recently, we left that set in the CD changer for more than two weeks and heard it almost every day, playing it as music for her to fall asleep to.
My favorite there is the way Novaes plays the F# major nocturne, #5. A few weeks ago I listened comparatively to about a dozen other recordings of it, including Rachmaninoff and Pletnev, and Novaes still gets it better than anyone I've heard. It's hard to top Rachmaninoff playing anything, but she does here....
Good to hear you're a Willie Nelson fan, too. I almost mentioned him in my posting. (Another list member and I have conversations about him often in this regard, off-list....) He has such a nice way of draping the vocal line across the beats, it's so easygoing and seemingly spontaneous.
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2003):
Johann Mattheson in his “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” (1739) makes the following comment about conducting a choir/orchestra (the emphasis here is on ‘choir’) and using rubato:
„Die Führung des Tacts ist gleichsam die Hauptverrichtung des Regierers einer Musik bey deren Bewerckstelligung. Solche Tactführung muß nicht nur genau beobachtet werden: sondern, nachdem es die Umstände erfordern, wenn etwa von einem künstlichen Sänger eine geschickte Manier gemacht | wird, kann und soll der Director mit der Bewegung eine kleine Ausnahme machen, die Zeitmaasse verzögern, nachgeben; oder auch, in Betracht einer gewissen Gemüths=Neigung, und andrer Ursachen halber, den Tact in etwas beschleunigen und stärcker treiben, als vorhin.“
[„The directing (by the conductor) of a beat (the tempo with its regular beat) is the most important aspect that a music conductor has to accomplish in a performance of a piece of music. Such establishing of a beat/tempo must not only be precisely observed; but also, according to that which the prevailing conditions demand, as, for instance, when a proficient vocalist (note the singular!) executes a certain passage artistically/skillfully, then the conductor will, can, and should [to accommodate the singer] make a slight exception by retarding the tempo or ‘giving in’ [to the tempo which the singer has changed]; or [the conductor will, can, and should] in consideration of a certain affect or for other reasons/causes increase the beat/tempo a little and push it forward a bit more than before [before = the established, strict tempo.]
Very free translation:
[“It is very important for a conductor of a choir and orchestra to establish a firm, deliberate, and steady beat. This tempo with its regular beats must be observed without variation except in such cases when a vocal soloist or single instrumentalist in a solo capacity takes a special liberty (which happens infrequently and on the spur of the moment) to enhance a passage with great artistic feeling and skill. In such instances, the conductor must accede to the new tempo given by the soloist whether that tempo is somewhat faster or slightly slower in order to allow for the additional embellishment or the special emphasis on a particular feeling arising from the words being sung.”]
1. Just as Agricola had indicated, Mattheson as well restricts the use of ‘rubato’ to a single soloist (is this redundant, or what?) [Already a duet, Agricola pointed out, no longer qualifies for the use of rubato.]
2. Contrary to the idea espoused by Mozart (father & son), in Bach’s time a conductor did adjust the tempo in all the accompanying parts on those few occasions where an irregularity in tempo (rubato) occurred.
3. Although Mattheson did not address the aspect of precision vs. imprecision in choral works directly, it would appear to me that he, just as Agricola did, would favor precision attacks and releases with a steady tempo being maintained throughout unless otherwise indicated by the composer.
4. Solo instrumentalists and solo singers are in a special group by themselves. In absence of these (when more than one solo instrument or singer is involved) a completely different tradition of choral music applies; and even here Mattheson distinguishes quite clearly between opera and church settings. He mentions that many of the mannerisms of an opera singer simply would not be admissible in singing a sacred aria in a church.
Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I'm reminded of the following brilliant exchange on a harpsichord list last week. Somehow they got to talking about kitchen appliances (I don't know why) and the following two lines came up:
'I hate to be such an arch pedant, but Oster never made blenders, they made "Osterizers". Waring made blenders.'
'Yes, out of solo singers. Quite an accomplishment, that.'
Whatever happened to Fred and those Pennsylvanians, anyway? I remember my parents once had an 8-track tape of them....
Are you sure that Agricola's commentary is not simply a didactic truism about the basic notion of staying together as opposed to anarchy? Everything is just a matter of degree, isn't it?
His comments as you've cited them sound to me like admonitions on how to keep an amateur group together, or if not a fully amateur group, a week-in/week-out church choir. People who are lucky get the notes at all need to learn how to count and to hit the correct pitches to begin with, rather than trying anything fancy. I don't think we can know how much they should apply to the highest levels of artistry above that: I don't buy the notion that they are supposed to be normative for everybody.
Personally I would really groove to a performance of the "Laudamus te" from the B minor mass (BWV 232) where the singer and the violin soloist both go wild: not with the goal of upstaging one another, but the goal of making it as lusciously expressive as possible. In that kind of music it's not necessary to end the phrases exactly together or line up every hemisemiquaver. Let's live a little.
The "Domine Deus," by contrast, needs to stick more strictly (but not ABSOLUTELY strictly) to the notation because the duetting in thirds between the singers is a single effect in itself (rather than contrapuntal contrast). The singers are sort of a unit there, and need to cooperate.
My point is, the character of the music should determine the degree of flexibility the performers bring. Did the composer write music where two are more parts are supposed to project a single effect together in cooperation, or music where contrast among the lines is paramount? Contrapuntal music is (almost by definition) the latter.
I suspect that Agricola and Bach, if they were communicative musicians at all, and we assume they were, would not groove to absolutely rigid performances of anything, no matter how many parts were involved. Those guys were just trying to keep the church choir from being a raggedy mess on Sunday, weren't they? That's a first priority before trying anything artistic.
I'm talking about a completely different level from that: bending the lines artistically on purpose rather than the randomness of amateur ensemble. I don't think Agricola's comments address that. Where those gentlemen were concerned, preparing performances at the last minute every week, their working schedules probably permitted very little experimentation in this deliberate bending.
I can imagine Bach, like any practical choir director, exasperated with his singers and admonishing them, "Just read the *@#*%&# notes and count the *#*&@#% thing and pronounce the words correctly, and we won't sound like total idiots on Sunday." And I don't think we can necessarily take that approach as normative on what he maybe WANTED to hear if he'd had the world's best choir and orchestra at his
I don't think we should limit the performance of Bach's music, interpretively, to the practical considerations of training and executing an ensemble performance on very little rehearsal. The music is better than that. With excellent players and singers, can't we expect them to do something BETTER than mere precision?
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad, in regard to your statements:
>>His [Agricola's] comments as you've cited them sound to me like admonitions on how to keep an amateur group together, or if not a fully amateur group, a week-in/week-out church choir. People who are lucky to get the notes at all need to learn how to count and to hit the correct pitches to begin with, rather than trying anything fancy.<<
>>I suspect that Agricola and Bach, if they were communicative musicians at all, and we assume they were, would not groove to absolutely rigid performances of anything, no matter how many parts were involved. Those guys were just trying to keep the church choir from being a raggedy mess on Sunday, weren't they? That's a first priority before trying anything artistic.<<
This argument has been used as an excuse for allowing substandard recordings of Bach cantatas to be recorded and sold cheaply (the Leusink series). My "Einfühlungsvermögen" (ability to intuit) and my imagination tell me that Bach, despite his complaints in his 'Entwurff' - (a political statement directed at accomplishing what he was after,) very likely had a very high standard of performance made possible by the almost daily music instruction at the St. Thomas School and by virtue of the fact that soloists, many of whom were no longer pupils but students or adults, became 'section' leaders for boy singers who were '1st-string' singers. There is no way to compare this primary church choir under Bach's direction with a 'church choir' as we know it today, nor can this choir be made the equivalent of motley group of singers under Leusink's direction, for instance, where the excuse is offered that Bach had extremely little rehearsal time, hence we can expect all the 'rough edges' that we can hear in that set of recordings.
To extol 'rough edges' as being laudable (assuming that the musicians involved are sufficiently accomplished and are interested in shaping phrases and bringing out personal expression) seems to me to be making a virtue out of a vice: the vice is 'rough edges' which are now being paraded about as providing the highest level of expression that a musical artist can attain. While there may be some limited validity for this as far as keyboard artists are concerned (possibly also some solo instruments as well), to extend this, however, to a choir performance is an 'overstepping,' where a performance principle for solo instrumentalists is applied too broadly. There is, as Agricola pointed out, a vast difference between a vocal soloist and a choir. Different rules and considerations apply to different situations and these are vastly different. The same is also true when one instrument is combined with others in an orchestra.
There will never be a time for me when, listening to a fugal choral mvt. from a Bach cantata, I will say, "Oh, isn't that wonderfully expressive! Listen to how the altos come in just a split second later (or before) the other sections of the choir! It's the "Permutationsphase in Comesgestalt" Isn't that great! This choir director has finally made audible what Barbra Streisand has taught him about fluid, imprecise singing."
Imprecision in choral music is nothing but 'sloppiness.' Listen to the group 'Chanticleer' or even the "Swingle Singers" or closer to home Suzuki when he uses only 4 voices (OVPP) to obtain a notion of how powerful precision in intonation and attacks (as well as releases) can be. This blending or consistency (I did not want to bring up this word for fear that you will once again unearth your favorite Emerson's quotation) arises just because the singers, who can also be considered soloists, have learned to subjugate their soloist aspirations in favor of achieving a marvelous blend and harmony with other voices. This is something which can not happen if each soloist is striving for personal self-expression by means of rubato. Even in a duet (think of Bach's Double Concerto) a phenomenon called "Angleichung" (a becoming similar or more like each other) occurs in the best recordings. This will also happen in the vocal duets, even when the two voices are not singing in parallel thirds or sixths.
All this is not about 'mere precision,' 'rigidity' or even an attempt 'to keep time' on a very basic, beginning level, but an attempt to achieve the greatest harmony among all the disparate elements. When this 'all comes together' (precision and intonation are very important factors) the effect is greater than the whole. There are no loose ends hanging out here and there because of individual musical expression. Imprecision of this sort can become a veritable inkblot on a magnificent score. Imprecision, even of the type that you describe (rubato), destroys the unity of the whole, it detracts from the harmonious whole and distracts the listener whose attention is directed at the details (the micro-managing of phrases already referred to in the cantata discussions) instead of the overall unifying effect.
Pete Blue wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] In this debate I come down in Brad's camp, based on my own experiences playing with jazz, pop and country ensembles of various sizes and both soloists and choruses. I may have misunderstood Tom, but he seems to take the familiar authoritarian approach to rehearsal and performanc. But my own experiences have taught me that the most enjoyment for audience and performers alike results when singers and musicians are the most generous with their fellow performers, when they listen to each other and respect each others' individuality Admittedly this is far from easy to do, but not impossible, even with musicians who are less than first-rate. I KNOW that you can at the same time have maximum self-expression AND all the precision you need. It's a matter of attitude combined with hard work.
Let me add: In the area of classical orchestral performance, the example of Leopold Stokowski comes to mind. He was able to work his sonic wizardry, combining perfect execution with tremendous expressive freedom, on every orchestra he conducted, even kids, and without endless rehearsals. It wasn't just charisma, or gimmickry. Musicians and audiences alike loved him. It seems Stoky had a great ear and a great attitude.
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2003):
Pete Blue related about Stokowski:
>>Let me add: In the area of classical orchestral performance, the example of Leopold Stokowski comes to mind. He was able to work his sonic wizardry, combining perfect execution with tremendous expressive freedom, on every orchestra he conducted, even kids, and without endless rehearsals. It wasn't just charisma, or gimmickry. Musicians and audiences alike loved him. It seems Stoky had a great ear and a great attitude.<<
Mattheson gives as a model for a 'Capellmeister' a certain J. S. Cousser [at least the 1st 2 initials are correct!] of Wolffenbüttel who had a special gift for conducting. This man was very generous with all those who performed under him: he invited them to his house for individual instruction during which he would sing and accompany them on the keyboard in order to show them how he wanted each note to be performed. This he did with great patience and kindness that all who played or sang under him admired him greatly for his faithful service to them in this regard. But once he led them as a group in a rehearsal or a public performance, there was immediately a feeling of reverence and fear for he had special ways of making clear to each individual where they made mistakes or fell short of what was expected of them. This went so far that some of the musicians often had tears in their eyes. After performances were over, he would revert to his former self and go out of his way to treat the same individuals with great politeness and respect in order to heal the psychological wounds that he had inflicted upon them. In this way he was able to perform works that would have been impossible for others to even attempt to play or sing.
From Mattheson's description it is clear that he was not describing a pedant (Mattheson has some very choice descriptions of what he considers pedantry in musical performance practices), but rather a true musician who realized that in order to attain expressive beauty in music, the necessary skills involving precision in intonation and attacking the notes simultaneously must be ever-present.
Pete Blue wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Cousser-via-Mattheson sounds like a wonderful capellmeister and Stokowski surely shared some of his qualities. But the point about Stokowski I intended to make but obviously didn't was that he was able, miraculously, to allow his musicians (numbering up to 100 or so at a time) individual self-expression with no loss of executory quality.
For instance, Stokowski did not require his string sections to use uniform bowing; in fact, he discouraged it. But his acoustic skills were such that merely by his positioning of the players and giving crucial instructions he achieved rich sonorities that sent audiences into raptures. He did this even with his All-American Youth Orchestra. HOW he did it is baffling to this day even to those who played under him.
I'm sure ensemble precision was a desideratum of Stoky's, as of every conductor. But I don't know if it was a specific, conscious goal of his (he is not known, as are some other notorious conductors, for having used terrorism to achieve it) or if it was a by-product of something else.
To single out one piece of recorded evidence of Stoky's success, listen to his unique Bach, recorded over many decades with a number of ensembles. I believe it's conclusive evidence.
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2003):
Pete Blue wrote: >>Cousser-via-Mattheson sounds like a wonderful capellmeister and Stokowski surely shared some of his qualities. But the point about Stokowski I intended to make but obviously didn't was that he was able, miraculously, to allow his musicians (numbering up to 100 or so at a time) individual self-expression with no loss of executory quality.<<
Well, then Cousser-via-Mattheson might be more comparable to Toscanini from the standpoint of provoking fear and respect in his players and singers, but I don't know if Toscanini was as generous in giving individual instruction beforehand as Cousser was.
Bradley Lehman wrote (January 18, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Good example about a thorough musician, but you lost me in the last half of the last sentence:
"From Mattheson's description it is clear that he was not describing a pedant (Mattheson has some very choice descriptions of what he considers pedantry in musical performance practices), but rather a true musician who realized that in order to attain expressive beauty in music, the necessary skills involving precision in intonation and attacking the notes simultaneously must be ever-present."
I agree with you up through "rather a true musician." The rest of it after that has fatal logical holes in it (IMO):
1. One-on-one coaching in parts of a choral piece will not help a singer to obtain precision in intonation: the intonation is a relative thing available only in group rehearsal.
2. One-on-one coaching in parts of a choral piece will not help a singer to obtain simultaneity of attack: the simultaneous attack is a relative thing available only in group rehearsal.
The most that could be obtained by this Capellmeister's coaching would be that the singers know his interpretive intentions, a good thing. But one-on-one coaching is almost worthless vis-a-vis training a singer how to sing exactly in tune with everybody else, or at exactly the same time as everybody else, because they aren't there!
Therefore it looks to me as if that latter half of your sentence is merely reading your own foregone conclusion into it.
A note on Stoky: I think it's interesting that he never used a baton. The sounds of his orchestras were inspired by his hand gestures, which (in terms of beat) are inherently less precise than the click of a baton beat.
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 18, 2003):
Brad, you stated: >>A note on Stoky: I think it's interesting that he never used a baton. The sounds of his orchestras were inspired by his hand gestures, which (in terms of beat) are inherently less precise than the click of a baton beat.<<
As far as I know, there are many choir directors who conduct without a baton, using only hand gestures. The results that I have heard from some of the good groups that I have heard are astoundingly excellent with great accuracy in the attacks and releases as well as intonation.
In regard to Mattheson's description, it may be that the individuals who received special preparation were the soloists, who were also by their very nature section leaders. Attaining precision in the choir was aided, as I have pointed out in regard to Bach's situation, by the additional group instruction regularly given in the schools during the week, as I assume occurred during Bach's tenure in Leipzig. These were the 'chosen ones' who considered it a badge of honor to be in this top group of cantata singers. Bach constantly 'weeded out' the unmusical, or musically incompetent singers. Their sense of a steady rhythm must have been strong indeed, for, if Bach, at a Sunday morning performance, directed the cantata while playing the violin (as has been indicated on a number of occasions), the choir would essentially need to feel an 'inner metronome' that was in harmony wall the other 'inner metronomes' in the group. All that would be needed is for Bach to initiate and end sections gracefully with his bow or with his hand (if he was conducting from a keyboard.) There are choirs and orchestras that play beautifully together without 'rough edges.' These groups are directed to begin by one individual from the group and receive only few indications from such an individual during the course of the performance. They sing and play amazingly in tune with great precision. To hear 'rough edges' in their performances would be a blemish, not a sign of a yet higher mode of musical expression.
More and more I am beginning to see a definitive difference between soloists, whether vocal or instrumental, where romantic individualism is given free reign, and groups of all sorts where this individualism must be dampened, willingly restricted for the good of the whole ensemble. In such groups the individuals subjugate and sublimate their individuality for the greater unity that is achieved in creating a glorious sound that can not occur when individuals maintain a strong hold on their right to express themselves individualistically.
I can see no reason whatsoever for allowing 'rough edges' in a cantata performance where choir and orchestra are involved. Having voices or parts 'go off on their own' to demonstrate a momentary whim of musical expression or even to signal the entrance of secondary material in a fugal structure by having a voice or part come in slightly before or after the beat can only serve to break down the overall unity of piece and the performance.
Continue on Part 2
Perfect Execution / Precision / Perfection: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3