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Performance of Bach’s Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 7



Continue from Part 6

Platonic music, and recipes

Zev Bechler wrote:
You wrote that the reason you "cant accept the Platonic viewpoint in the case of art ( Bach's music)" is that " it was "created" and not "discovered" by Bach. It seems to me rather hard to accept that it somehow existed before Bach. " There can't be any dispute about that point, so let's forget it. This means that we must adopt a modified platonism, saying something like this: Once the composer created his work it exists in itself, even if no one ever performed it. If the performer is not a clown aiming to entertain his audience, he is aiming to capture that thing which the composer aimed to > create. "That thing" is from the moment of its creation an entity that exists independently of me and you and of the performer. Some such assumption seems to me to be necessary if we pretend to say anything objective in our assessments and our performances. Otherwise all we do and say about any of Bach's, say, works is merely an emotive ejaculation. As to mathematics - well, why not say it is merely a string of verbal transformations of some initial arbitrary definitions, and so has nothing to do with truth at all ? All the features you mention will still hold and no platonism is needed here.

Bradley Lehman
wrote (November 20, 2003):
[To Zev Bechler] Zev, I disagree with one of your main assumptions here: the one that music exists apart from its performances.

A musical score is just a recipe. It's not very fulfilling to eat a recipe; much better to eat the food that is prepared according to its parameters.

And, a master chef will usually come out with a more satisfying dish (taste, texture, appearance, perfect balance, served at exactly the right time) than any indifferent Joe Blow working from the same recipe: the chef knows better what to do with the myriad details that are not written.

And it's an interpretive art: sometimes a chef might even deviate from a written instruction to get better results for a given situation (ingredients, tools, patrons, time of day...), from experience and improvisatory skill, where Joe Blow can do no better than "hope for the best" from the instructions.

Would anyone really rather eat Joe Blow's unremarkable meal (to the letter) than something really nicely done (to the spirit and most of the letter) by a good chef?

And does it really matter so much who wrote the recipe, against the way the food itself came out? So much is in the hands of the cook or chef....

Brad Lehman
(not a good cook)

Johan van Veen wrote (November 20, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] There is an important difference between a recipe and a musical score: a composition is a way of communicating an 'idea' - I don't think a recipe can be understood as a 'message' or a 'statement' from the person who wrote it.

Therefore a deviation from what the writer of the recipe has prescribed - or 'suggested' is perhaps a more correct description ofhis intentions - can't be considered a 'violation' of the 'author's' intentions - in contrast to a musical score.

I agree to a large extent with what you are saying in regard to interpretation, although I believe that the interpreter's creative freedom should always stay within the limits of what is 'historically justifiable'.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 20, 2003):
Chefs, Cooks & Recipes

Brad Lehman (not a good cook) asked: >> And does it really matter so much who wrote the recipe, against the way the food itself came out? So much is in the hands of the cook or chef....<<
Brad, you are ‘over-estimating’ just how ‘much is in the hands of the cook or chef.’ When Bach ‘writes a recipe’ [a phrase which deliberately belittles Bach’s true genius as a composer], he provides much more than simply a ‘roadmap’ through a maze of musical possibilities. His rather detailed instructions ‘for a recipe’ indicate his wish that even great chefs, if they are to successfully repeat ‘his solutions,’ should follow his directives, unless they desire transcriptions ‘a la’ [name of another conductor/composer], variations and deviations which will yield very different (not necessarily better) results.

It is admirable that you have admitted that you are not a good cook. A good cook would inform you just how important it is to follow to the letter every instruction in a good recipe that has been given. Any deviation from the excellent cook’s recipe will bring about results that fall short of the expectations envisioned by the excellent cook and will prove not to be of the same high quality of cooking. Unless you can ‘cook’ at the same high level of proficiency of the excellent cook who provides a marvelous recipe, it is certainly best not even to consider deviations/variations until you fully understand the recipe [i.e. be able to come up with a completely new recipe of the same high quality as that of the excellent cook.]

To Jack Botelho’s comment: >> In a word, I think our approach to baroque music performance should be characterized by an overall sense of moderation in all performance aspects. If we find such moderation boring, the fault lies with our listening sensitivities (lack of) rather than a problem with the music.

The repeated recordings of the same works currently on the market hint at a desperate attempt by modern listeners and musicians to make these same ancient works sound as exciting as possible. Instead, we should devote our attentions to recording the thousands of fine works of baroque music that are laying in silence. In my opinion, we are specializing ourselves out of historical reality.<<
Brad answered: >>- Jack is expressing discomfort with musicians who even try to help the uninitiated “get it", through an imaginative approach or a focus on the music's appeal. Rather, musicians should aspire to a mediocre and workmanlike ("unremarkable") style of performance that downplays the music's features, and makes the listener do the work of trying to get it. [In short: once all the notes are presented accurately, that's the complete content of the music. Just the cold hard facts. It's entirely the listener's job, not the performer's, to try to make them meaningful.]<<
My comment:

I think that Jack has a very valid point here, a point which I can illustrate with an example from a ‘new’ (for me) recording of Bach’s Magnificat BWV 243a by Thomas Hengelbrock with his Balthasar-Neumann Choir and Instrumental Ensemble. This recording was made just 3 years ago (Nov. 15-18, 2000), but just released recently this year. The accompanying booklet explains that the singers and instrumentalists perform “new interpretations of well-known repertoire” “in accordance with historically informed performance practice and with the appropriate instrumentarium.”

Since I recently posted for study purposes both NBA versions of mvt. 10 (Suscepit Israel) of Bach’s Magnificat, it might be easier for those reading this message to compare the lowest line [Bassetchen] marked ‘Violini e Viola all unisono’ which consists, for the most part of quarter notes with occasional eighth-note passages. How does Hengelbrock, who, BTW, was a member of Harnoncourt’s Concentus musicus, treat this line musically? With all the interpretative freedom which Brad would arrogate to himself and others who wish to change ‘the recipes of the master chefs’ according to their own whim and fancy as based upon their own skewed vision of interpretative freedom, Hengelbrock has decided to treat the individual quarter notes as punctuated/staccato 16th-notes, thus depriving the notes of their full value (losing 3/4s of their original value) as notated by the ‘master chef.’ This newly and drastically modified recipe, typically a Bach-a-la-Harnoncourt mixture now copied by one of Harnoncourt’s apprentice chefs, Hengelbrock, is completely at odds with the sublime atmosphere that Bach was trying to create here. Instead, we have the cheap ‘effect’ (or is it now an ‘affect’ that belongs to the musical cliché/gesture/figures that Brad referred to as appearing evenin film background music?) of ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ where the repeated, staccato, heavily accented notes emphasize the difficulty of making one’s way across the ice.

Johan van Veen was not far off the mark when he stated:
>> I think his [Jack Botelho’s] point is that some musicians - in particular some Italian ensembles - are just exaggerating and that they are not communicating the message of the composer but rather try to 'show off'. Every time a new recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons appears the interpreters come up with new ideas, and in the end the new recording is even more bizarre than the earlier ones. I think Jack believes some recordings are just attempts to sound different from everybody else, not for the music's sake, but for the sake of the musicians. I don't think he questions their sincerity. Maybe those musicians really believe they are answering the composer's intentions.<<
I will concur with Jack that there are already too many examples of these interpretative extremes [not only in Italy], where the performers/conductors are catering to a listening public by providing grotesque interpretations which no longer come from the music itself (the original recipe) but spring from the minds of those unwilling to bend their minds and attention to achieve a well-balanced, reasonable performance that would do better justice to Bach’s original intentions. It is one thing to experiment with OVPP or perhaps even do a Moog-Synthesizer version of Bach’s Magnificat (the expectations are different and discoveries are to be made here), but to provide the listening public with a version that would lead one to expect some sort of authenticity and meaningfulness in terms of the text that is being illustrated musically by Bach, and then to indulge in ‘cheap trickery’ that distracts and destroys rather than enhances the musical message, is simply unbearable or unendurable and underestimates the listening public which should be uplifted and not ‘catered down’ to.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. write (November 20, 2003):
Listeners and Historically Informed Music.

[To Thomas Braatz] I think along the same lines, but there is a problem with the two extremes. Here is my solution (for what it's worth).

I have constantly said in posts about this same issue that I thnk that the music has its own language. With Bach (especially in his later Klavierwerke/Orgelwerke and his Vokalwerke and Kammerwerke and even [to some degree] his Orchesterwerke), there is little left to the imagination, or at least to the imagination of the performers. In this aspect, I think he was very much closer than some of his contemporaries to the Rococo and later Classical style of writing (from what I understand of it). That is not to say, however, that it is dry. If the performer let the music "speak for itself", I think one would find that there is a rich treasure-trove of images and experiences that is opened up in it. This, I believe, can be done almost exclusively by "Historically Informed" procedures.

However, there is a risk one runs by too much of this way of performance. The uninitiated would be listening with very troubled brows. They would not understand what the connoiseur does. Along with that, there is a risk of making the music dried-up (which was, coincidentally, the argument used by the Pietists of Bach's day against the current mode of Evangelical worship and instruction). It should be lively and in a way that even a child of 3 would understand the music. The music lives with the audience. Once one performance is done, it seeks another. Therefore, I do favor multiple recordings of a work, but also favor the expansion of material performed. For instance: why is there only 1 recording of a Markuspassion by Telemann out there on the market? And which version is it, since the 1 that is out is not marked with Catalogue Number? What about the Johannespassion Versions 1 and 3 of Bach or the version of Nr. 39 that was used by Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach after Sebastian Bach's death with the text of that movement? Also, what is the text of the movement? The only version I have found of it was an English translation on Z. Philip Ambrose's site. Along with that, where is the recording on the Capriccio label of Harmann Max conducting a performance of the Passionspasticcio "Wer ist der, so von Edom kommt" to be found? Or recordings ofthe two Leipzig versions of Bach's Passionspasticcio on the Keiser/Bruhns Markuspassion?

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 20, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:

Braatz here shreds Thomas Hengelbrock for not holding notes long enough, according to the literalistic opinion of Braatz...and blaming it (predictably) on the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Braatz has shown many times in the past, both here on this list and on the BachCantatas list, that he is uncomfortable with musicians who change what he (Braatz) sees before him on the pages of the hallowed NBA conflated Urtext: well-informed musicians operating according to musical decisions, and operating according to documented conventions outside the realm of scores. And Braatz is especially uncomfortable with any situation where Harnoncourt is involved; the record on this is clear in the list archives.

We've been over this Werktreue vs Buchstabentreue issue before (fidelity to the work, vs fidelity to the score).
I'm not going to be embroiled in it again, arguing against a person who distrusts (and disdains!) musicianship and scholarship. This is a waste of time.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 20, 2003):
Brad Lehman writes: >>Braatz here shreds Thomas Hengelbrock for not holding notes long enough, according to the literalistic opinion of Braatz...and blaming it (predictably) on the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.<<
Brad, as usual, misses the point entirely in this matter of Bach interpretation and demonstrates once again his penchant for rampant subjectivity which prevents from answering some simple questions: “Where does Thomas Hengelbrock find any basis for his irrational, bizarre, grotesque interpretation of BWV 243a/10 in the sacred text which Bach set to music? Is he not simply being perversely independent and subjective when he treats Bach’s score in this manner?”

BL: >>well-informed musicians operating [read ‘operate’] according to musical decisions, and operating [read ‘operate’] according to documented conventions outside the realm of scores.<<
Don’t be so secretive and evasive about this important issue that impacts every recording/performance of Bach’s music that we hear. For my sake, and for the sake of many others who read these postings, explain specifically and thoroughly, if you can, what ‘musical decisions’ a ‘well-informed musician’ such as Thomas Hengelbrock is making here and why they are appropriate to this specific situation in BWV 243a/10. Also explain which ‘documented conventions outside the realm of scores’ have a direct bearing upon Hengelbrock’s interpretative choices here.

BL: >>Braatz has shown many times in the past, both here on this list and on the BachCantatas list, that he is uncomfortable with musicians who change what he (Braatz) sees before him on the pages of the hallowed NBA conflated Urtext….<<
In most instances regarding Bach’s scores, the NBA remains the best, most reliable source, notwithstanding some corrections that scholars have undertaken during the past half century. The reason for this is found primarily in the KBs [the critical reports] which outline and describe the details of all the evidence that has been taken into consideration. Important variants are listed as well, so that an astute musician might compare the choices which the editors made with those that did not make it into the printed score. If necessary, a variant reading could be reconstructed. Brad seems to think that each of these variants should be printed separately as a score, although the chanthat such a reconstruction would be used in performance may be quite slim indeed.

Conflation = the combination or fusion of two variant readings of a text into a composite reading, the composition or blending of different things into a whole. [OED]

By using the word ‘conflated,’ Brad wishes to imply that there is confusion regarding the sources and their variants (later copies, etc.) hence this should mean that a performer/interpreter deserves a greater latitude in how the music should be presented, should have greater interpretative freedom in working with the score.

In regard to BWV 243a and BWV 243, the only truly reliable sources are Bach’s autographs. Occasionally, however, [particularly with BWV 243a because it was a ‘composing/working’ score] the editors are unable to ascertain in all instances with great certainty which note(s) Bach actually intended. For this the editors turn to known copies of the score (copies determined to have been made from the autograph score) for verification of some otherwise doubtful/unclear notes. This is a very special form of ‘conflation’ (if this is the correct term to use here at all) unlike some cases in language studies where a word from one source and a different word from another source end up side by side in the final version without the reader knowing where they came from. It is interesting to see Brad, who has already amply demonstrated the weakness of his scholarly research methods, accusing the NBA [and anyone who might believe the veracity of their findings and presentations] of slipshod inaccuracies in research methodology.

BL: >>arguing against a person who distrusts (and disdains!) musicianship and scholarship.<<
Why are statements and accusations such as this necessary, if all that is necessary is clear, understandable explanation of what Thomas Hengelbrock might have in mind in the instance that I cited and for which the “Urtext” is available? What knowledge regarding Bach’s performance practices does Hengelbrock possess, knowledge which ought to be available to other musicians [such as Brad] who truly possess musicianship? Certainly this knowledge is not entirely esoteric and a listener ought to be able to make the connection between the ‘poking’ notes of the ‘Bassetchen’ and the text being sung by the voices and being ‘hinted at’ by the tromba c. f. [I do not believe that Hengelbrock uses a tromba, but may have substituted an oboe or Zink instead.]

Zev Bechler wrote (November 21, 2003):
Brad wrote: "Zev, I disagree with one of your main assumptions here: the one that
music exists apart from its performances."
This is not my assumption . It is an assumption of anyone who wishes to argue for his judgment, as many of us here sometimes do.

We music listeners are classifiable into Wowers and Arguers. The first have only one kind of reaction to music: Wow and Yech. The second kind, after having wowed and yeched their fill, proceed to the serious business of justifying their verbal ejaculations. Here they begin to argue on various grounds - historical fidelity, good educated and acquired taste, intuitive vision etc. The important point is that no wow and yech is part of the argument.

Now, whoever undertakes arguing can only intend to show just one thing: that his wow and yech are objectively grounded and must be accepted by anyone who has the same kind of good senses and common sense.

Therefore such intention can be held and understood only if the arguer has some facts to show us. But what can these be ?

No historical information, no evidence about the composer's intention, or proofs of educated taste, or whatever else there is, will carry any real weight unless they also convince us of the one ultimate fact - what the work is in itself. Because no reasoning that stops short of this clinching condition is better off one bit than just another prolonged Wow-Yech, and can have no claim to objectivity whatsoever.

My kids, to whom I proposed this, reacted with a unanimous Yech. So much for the genetic myth.

Andrzej Kozlowski wrote (November 21, 2003):
[To Zev Bechler] Zev, I completely sympathise with your desire to find "objective criteria of truth" particularly when things we feel strongly about are concerned but I also believe it is a hopeless quest. I think the age of such objectivity is passed: it is now known as "The Age of Belief". We find it difficult to agree even about objective criteria of truth in science, even more so in ethics and it is even harder agree about the "correct" way to play the Goldberg Variations. In fact, I think the only people who probably have no such problems are people with firm religious convictions about such matters (I think there are some on this list). I actually sometimes wish I was one of them but I don't think it is a choice for me. I am often firmly convinced in the correctness of my judgements (more so in ethics than art) and I hate "relativism" but I also realise that when all rational argument has been exhausted (and it happens pretty quickly in most cases) there is nothing I can do to convince those who I feel sure are wrong. And I am not even counting the cases when I myself can see no way of making any "objective" value judgement. Given that, I suppose you can still go on believing that objective judgements about such matters are possible but remain beyond our reach, but it seems to me that at best it can give you some psychological comfort without being helpful in any practical way.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 21, 2003):
Two parts here: skip down to the Babbitt part if you don't want to read about the classic Brad and Tom debacle.

Thomas Braatz wrote:

As he has done often before, Tom Braatz wheedles and pleads for a free education from Brad, instead of being willing to invest in an academic education from a fully-staffed accredited institution. Brad has erred TOO MANY times before in generously offering such tidbits, even though--regularly--Tom has done nothing but sling dung at the ideas presented, or try to discredit both the messenger and any inconvenient evidence, or try to overrule everything with his own amateur "findings" from the purchase of authoritatively-researched materials.

According to Tom, Brad is just a rampantly subjective person who cannot answer simple questions; yet he continues to beg that Brad be not so "secretive" and "evasive" about important issues. Brad, for his part, has answered the questions as directly as can be done, and pointed to myriad sources and leads where Tom could learn more if he chose to get a serious education.

Tom has often expressed gratitude for this, while continuing to badger Brad for more...and continuing to try to shoot down whatever is said in response.

This is a dysfunctional situation.

Tom is clearly not interested in REALLY learning any of this supposedly "esoteric" knowledge; as Brad has seen over the past three years, Tom is too stubborn in his own (20th century, not 17th or 18th) literalistic methods of score-reading, and too enamoured of his delusions that all experts are wrong except the few he's allowed to choose for himself. To Tom, despite his pleas for assistance, the only reliable thing is the material he has purchased for himself, filtered through his own untrained methods of reading it. He refuses to listen to assistance, generously offered; but he occasionally pretends to have listened, that his further questions may elicit more free tips.

Brad has been through this ridiculous wringer so many dozen times before, it is absolutely a waste of Brad's time and energy trying to explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain things to a person who WILL NOT LEARN THEM, and who refuses to go do things properly by enrolling in university studies in musicology. Tom knows where to find all of Brad's explanations are in the archives; he does NOT want to hear Brad's interpretatof anything, but merely to collect the free facts doled out.

There is nothing secretive or evasive about any of this. Brad has given out more free information (and maybe even "esoteric" information, but only because it's little-known outside academia) than anyone has a right to expect; it's out there, go look it up. Brad has explained basic musicianship, and advanced musicianship, and music theory, and harpsichord technique, and organ technique, and tuning theory and practice, and composition, and improvisation, and thoroughbass, and counterpoint, and organology, and too many other things to list here.

And all of it has been disdained and belittled, at one time or another or many times, by Tom Braatz and by a few other individuals here who refuse to go get a formal education in music, and who refuse to trust that professional musicians and researchers know what we are doing. The amateur opinions about music--from reading CD booklets, or dabbling in score-reading, or picking up a few books, or listening to favorite recordings--trump everything that is offered by a specialist; specialization is essentially worth zero to these people.

The anti-academic climate is remarkably hostile here. Brad really has been arguing against a motley group of Knights of Ni. There are the metal helmets covering the ears, so that no valid arguments (or music!) can get in. There is the regular nay-saying and ni-saying to any who would simply pass through the wood. There is the vicious protection of the road against casual passersby. There is the voracious yet basically indifferent collection of shrubbery: recordings that sound nice and are not too expensive, and books that are not really understood but which give prestige in the ownership, and which make the knight seem more formidable. There is the assertion that no one else's quest is as important as the Knight-of-Ni's own quest to hold power (and protect the shrubbery collection). There is the way gifts of shrubbery are greeted only by demands for more shrubbery, and for cutting down a tree with a herring. There is the knights' hypersensitivity against even HEARING straightforward words, such as the word "it" or a direct explanation of a musical or musicological point. There is the way that Knights of Ni are self-appointed, not really in service of anybody but themselves. This whole thing is a stupid farce, and extremely low-budget entertainment. The Knights of Ni get what they came for, while the onlookers are either irritated or amused. A person who actually knows things probably shouldn't have even ventured into the wood in the first place (as Douglas Amrine pointed out recently).

THAT is why Brad has said it's pointless to argue against "a person who distrusts (and disdains!) musicianship and scholarship." There's only so much Ni a guy can take.


Milton Babbitt wrote a very well-known essay in 1958, one which is required reading in graduate programs in music. I duly read it during my program of study. I have reread it this week. The essay is about specialization in modern music, and specifically the way composition is now a niche field, one that is not even intended to be intelligible to anyone but other specialists. But my favorite part of the essay is the middle section, where he points out that in no other field (save politics) are laymen so willing to assert their own opinions, insist on being heard, and use mumbo-jumbo pseudotechnical language (picked up from wherever) to explain WHY the experts are wrong. [I think Babbitt would also have to include armchair sports management to that rarefied list, since the rise of television, but his point about lay musical criticism holds. Politics, the arts, and sports.] A copy of Babbitt's essay is readily available here:

Babbitt is right about some of that academic type of composition today, certainly about his own music; but the observation about deliberate unintelligibility does not automatically hold for the arts created before our own time. We specialists in recreating past arts take our job seriously, and try to do our best, despite the ridiculous slings from anti-academic patrons (and the especially patronizing patrons) who disdain the whole endeavor. Some of us are more generous than others, in offering free insights into the craft. Probably the wiser ones among us learned a long time before I did that there really is little value in attempting to educate others outside formal circles.

Meanwhile, in a forum such as the current one, this is the daily diet of suggestions and angles of criticism [NONE OF WHICH I AGREE WITH, TO BE CLEAR!]:

- People with academic training don't have ears anymore, to distinguish good taste.

- Musicologists are not as smart or well-prepared as real scientists, either in the content knowledge directly related to their field, or the ability to formulate a valid argument; dilettantes can bring up ill-thought-out and unresearched points that trump all.

- Consumers who buy the right things will see immediately that experts with specialized training in 17th and 18th century music simply cannot read music correctly.

- The quality "incisive" is a worthy goal for music that is explicitly marked Adagio, a word that literally means "at ease." (Intriguing! Say more! Seriously! Music can be effective when done against its own grain; let's hear more about how an exemplary performer has achieved it.)

- Baroque music should be intelligible only to specialists. Listeners who just don't get it are not being enterprising enough.

- Historical and linguistic tidbits can be conflated and reshuffled in any way that makes sense to the person writing them down, and especially to one who is greatly concerned with a pure approach to the music.

- Experts are wrong more often than right. It is really only the consumer who knows what is right.

- Experts are wrong more often than right. The experts should just concentrate on giving more facts instead of trying to explain the ones already known.

- Experts are wrong more often than right. Especially when they try to use analogies to explain concepts. Just shoot down the analogy, and poof, everything the expert said on any topic becomes meaningless.

- Experts are wrong more often than right. University is a complete waste of time that merely turns ordinary people into insensitive asses, unequipped to explain their own field, and it gets worse the more expertise one acquires. Nobody should bother with education at all; the correct way of thinking is wide open to anyone's guesswork and instincts and habits.

- There is no way to assess artistic work qualitatively, with objective criteria; value comes only from reputation and novelty and enterprise and quantity. Every consumer's opinion is equally valid in the assignment of value judgments; and specialists are merely elitist snobs.


Brad Lehman, who has already said much more than enough; there's probably a lot more I could say, but what would be the point?

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 21, 2003):
Babbitt, homeomorphisms, and Anna Magdalena's notebook

I wrote: < Milton Babbitt wrote a very well-known essay in 1958, one which is required reading in graduate programs in music. I duly read it during my program of study. I have reread it this week. The essay is about specialization in modern music, and specifically the way composition is now a niche field, one that is not even intended to be intelligible to anyone but other specialists.(...) Babbitt's essay is readily available here: >
Also interesting in that article is Babbitt's quip about pointwise periodic homeomorphisms; he could have picked any mathematical topic whatsoever to illustrate his point, but he picked that one. It's rather like the mapping of a composer's ideas (traditionally) onto paper, and another mapping from paper through a performer into sound; and then the whole process is possible also in reverse, transcribing a performance through a homeomorphism onto pa, and then the composer's reading of that paper being another homeomorphic transformation such that he recognizes and affirms the idea. (Or, in Babbitt's case, since he didn't trust performers, it goes from idea through an electronic medium onto tape, and then that playback of the tape is the performance. No middleman to screw things up.)

Applying this same line to Baroque music, to get an accurate performance, we performers have to learn appropriate homeomorphisms to interpret the written clues, as well as a homeomorphism back from paper into the composer's idea, to figure out "what was he thinking" as far as can be determined; and then play THAT insight to the best of one's ability in the given situation. One can't just throw in different homeomorphisms (such as styles and conventions and instrumentation inappropriate to a piece's milieu) willy-nilly, and expect decent results. The transformations might render the work unrecognizable. If the composer is already dead, this all of course includes plenty of investigation and hypothesizing, sifting all the clues; but that's what scholarship and university are for, to clear up the stuff that doesn't have to be guesswork (or perverse distortions, as Knights of Ni would put it).

Another nifty thing about this homeomorphism business is that there doesn't have to exist one-and-only-one valid homeomorphism at any stage of the process, in either direction; multiple approaches can work. The science of it is the determination which homeomorphisms are valid at all; and the art is the selection of the ones that get the job done best. (For example, if somebody is transcribing a performance, the same sound could be written in down many different ways, and really SHOULD be written--for the sake of least confusion--according to the reading habits of the people who will use the transcription. In that way the idea will be clearest and most reproducible. A case in point is the B-flat Rondeau in the AMB, where Bach re-notated a published Couperin piece. To play that piece accurately, a performer has to overhold some of the notes of Bach's notation far beyond the written values to get the super-legato and two-voiced effect that Couperin notated a different way; a player who does not know that will introduce improper distortions into the music just by playing Bach's notes TOO LITERALLY!)

The Knight of Ni problem, of course, is that such a knight assumes without close study that his own customary homeomorphisms regarding any generic piece of music are (1) valid at all, and (2) better than those of the experts in the field, and (3) the only ones that should matter, and (4) unchallengeable. As Babbitt pointed out, such a person then reaches for some acceptably circular method of criticism to give the impression that he knows what he's dealing with, or at least to cover up the uneasiness of "I don't like it, and I cannot or will not state why."

(Not that circular methods are valid, but they're so fashionable that they pass as "acceptable" in a society such as ours.)


Just as I was saying, more simply and variously over several years here: "to play and sing the music, one must learn how to read it according to the expectations of the composer and his contemporaries. What did the notation mean TO THEM, not assuming it means the same thing it does to us looking at a piece of Stravinsky (or whatever)."

John Pike wrote (November 22, 2003):
[To Andrzej Kozlowski] I am one of those with religious convictions but I also strongly agree with Andrzej that one cannot be objective about most things in music, least of all the relative merits of performances of the Goldbergs.

However, I was reminded of another facet of Murray Perahia's recording, which I recommended yesterday. In his notes on the music enclosed with the recording, he draws interesting parallels between variation 25 and the Crucifixion, between variations 26-29 and the resurrection/ascension, and between variation 30, the quodlibet (with its folky/rustic background) and a return to earth. This makes a lot of sense to me. No-one would claim any objective truth in this but, given Bach's mindset, it is certainly a possibility and a valid way of trying to discern the heart of the music.

Jack Botelho wrote (November 22, 2003):
"the Knights of Ni”

[To Bradley Lehman] I must say, I was laughing so hard (in a library) reading on this that my hands were covering my face and tears streaming down from my eyes. Haven't laughed so hard in months. Such humor saves this list, IMO. Nice to see you discussing a historically informed approach too.

Zev Bechler wrote (November 22, 2003):
[To Andrzej Kozlowski] Andrzej, my point, and this should not be missed, is not to try and re-establish some absolute criteria. I wish I could, but this wild goose is beside the point. What I am trying to impress upon you is that quite irrespective of the accessibility of criteria, we are forced to assume the existence and reality of works of music, that is, in themselves and independent of us, if we ascribe to our judgments any status beyond sheer subjective reactions. And since we usually wish to ascribe such status to what we say - either as teachers, or as parents, or as human talkers to each other - we are forced to assume such realities as "the true meaning of the KdF" as well as "the KdF in itself".

True, our age is the age of chaos where everything goes. If we were to accept any of what our age is all about, we wouldn't be posting any thing on this list. So why bother about our age? Why bother about any of its conventions?

If you hate relativism, as you say you do, then you should also see that you don't have any way out of fulltime objectivism, I mean, there is nothing in the middle. And if you see this, then you can also see that the availability or lack of working criteria of objectivity is irrelevant to the reality of objective things like the KdF in itself.

For that matter, science has never had any criteria of objectivity and yet its mainstream drive is towards nothing less than some theory of everything. So what if it finds itself in deep error time and again? At least it can be in error. I suggest the same here, i.e., if we can at all be in error about the true meaning of the KdF, the rest of my suggestion follows.

As to the linkage we use to make between accessibility and reality ( of criteria, say,) well, that should have been a thing of the past ever since 1931, when it was discovered that every formal system contains true theorems which are neither provable nor refutable. So truth is independent of the criteria for its identification.

Nor is there any link to practicality: the notion of "KdF in itself" is completely useless, but what of it ? So is the KdF , and the whole thing called art and music criticism. So we quit there too ?

What is a modern preference

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 22, 2003):
<< The fact remains that, before the subjection of Bach's scores to the latest musicological findings (from about the 1960's on), the world's greatest musicians tended to play the scores with notes at annotated length. This proves to me that the (then) modern musicians and listeners found this to be what they thought was the the appropriate and satisfying method. (I still do.) >>
< What you are saying is that the performance practice intended for 'modern listeners' is the performance practice originally intended for the listeners before the 1960's. Who is 'modern', then, the listeners who still like the style of performance before the 1960's or those who prefer a performance in line with the most recent musicological findings? >
And on that question (and its history and philosophy), some essential reading is:

- Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance by Richard Taruskin

- Playing With History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance by John Butt

- Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology by Joseph Kerman

- The Early Music Revival: A History by Harry Haskell

- Authenticity and Early Music edited by Nicholas Kenyon

- Foundations of Music History and Esthetics of Music by Carl Dahlhaus

- The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg (about way phonograph records themselves, as a medium, affected 20th century society)

Those are the ones I've found most enlightening, during and after grad school. Uri will probably have some to add to this list, from his bibliography....

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (November 23, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Don't forget all the different treatises made by the composers themselves, such as Couperin's L'Art de toucher le Clavecin, Emanuel Bach's Versuch ueber das wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen, and Berlioz's treatise on Orchestration.

Some points of interest

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 24, 2003):
Brad Lehman, recently, in a discussion about Gould’s playing style commented:
>>That is the essence of that style, and really a defining characteristic of Baroque rhythm: that a melody can flow freely before and after the beat, unconstrained. (And it's also a basic technique on harpsichord, letting things not quite line up so the listener can follow multiple lines at once, more easily. But the most important angle to this is the singing one.) "Whoever does not know how to steal the Time in Singing, knows not how to Compose, nor to Accompany himself, and is destitute of the best Taste and greatest Knowledge." - Pier Francesco Tosi<<
It is of interest to read Johann Friedrich Agricola’s commentary on this statement by Tosi, whose book on singing (1723) Agricola [who had studied with and performed under Bach’s direction for a number of years] (“Anleitung zur Singkunst” Berlin, 1757, p. 225) translated into German:

„Diese ziemlich räthselhaften Worte des Verfassers zielen alle auf das sogenannte ‘Tempo rubato:’ aus solchem man, zu seinen Zeiten, fast zu viel Wunder machete.“

[All of these rather puzzling words of the author [Tosi] refer to the so-called ‘tempo rubato.’ Almost too much {unnecessary amazement} has been made of this {rubato technique of a singer} in Tosi’s time.]

It would appear that Agricola’s training under Bach did not allow him to accept easily this primarily Italian mode of expressiveness. Because Agricola is translating Tosi, he gives Tosi’s explanations and recommendations, but Agricola also expands or comments personally on many of the ideas that Tosi presents.

The connection which I make here is that Bach would have been much more conservative in regard to the use of ‘tempo rubato’ than the texts by Tosi, Quantz, etc,. as interpreted by a number of musicologists, would want to have us believe. Agricola’s direct connections with Bach’s performance practices carry greater weight compared to most of the other more remote descriptions we have from this period.

On another matter concerning the temperament(s) which J. S. Bach may have used,

Mark Lindley (Grove Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2003, articles on ‘temperaments’ and ‘well-tempered’) comments as follows:

“No unequivocal conclusion can be established as to the attitude of his [C.P.E. Bach] father, J.S. Bach, towards the relative merits of equal temperament and a mildly unequal one.
Moreover, while many theorists, including Meckenheuser (1727), Sorge (1748) and Marpurg (1756), referred to equal temperament as a good tuning or even as the best of the good tunings, other influential theorists from Werckmeister in the 1680s to Bach’s former pupil Kirnberger in 1776 held that a good temperament ‘makes a pleasing variety’ (Werckmeister, 1697) or does not ‘injure the variegation of the keys’ (Kirnberger, 1776–9).
There is no proof that Bach explicitly endorsed the latter view, but there is clear evidence that had he done so he would still have rejected the tunings advocated by his former pupil Kirnberger.<<

Standard of 18th-century performance

Douglas S.A. wrote (December 17, 2003):
If anything, the evidence suggests that the standard of performance in the 18th-century was higher than it is today. How many organists or music directors today, with their PhDs or DMAs and relatively comfortable salaries and modern conveniences, would be able to write a cantata every week, rehearse it and perform it, in addition to teaching duties and all kinds of other demands? How many schoolboys could comfortably make their way through a Bach recitative? Bach may have been the greatest, but in Germany at that time, there were plenty of other kantors with similar responsibilities and lots of them were very good at their jobs; some of their music is still performed today.

The obbligato parts which Bach wrote for trumpet and violin, and the very demanding arias for the vocalists, suggest that he had a very high calibre of performer to draw upon. Yes, he did complain sometimes about the resources he had, but at least some of his musicians were virtuosi; I believe that one of his trumpeters, for example, was very well known and accounts of his virtuosity still survive.

The evidence makes it clear that Bach was a practical musician writing for the resources he had at his disposal. Sometimes, no doubt, he was let down, just as conductors sometimes are today. And sometimes his patrons or employers did not appreciate the enormous scope of his talent; you will find scores of artists through the ages for whom the same was true. But this did not deter, for example, Michelangelo or Rembrandt or van Gogh from painting as well as they did, and my guess is that JSB did not just "go through the motions" on a Sunday morning even if he thought no one in the congregation was listening. He was, after all, a very devout man who was often writing in praise of God, rather than in hopes of rapturous applause (I'm sure that there was no clapping in the Thomaskirche anyway).

As for whether Bach favoured a "literal", metronomic, un-nuanced performance of his works, just take a look at 18th-century treatises on music. You will find that, before all considerations of style and technique are even discussed, performers are told that they must learn how to provoke an emotional reaction from their audience. Music was intended to make you feel happy, sad, triumphant, desolate, envious, shy, exuberant etc etc etc. And the writers of the treatises made it clear that this could not be done simply by mindlessly playing the notes on the page.

So, while we have some very boring performers today - playing on harpsichord, piano or whatever instrument - I am not inclined to consider them revivers of any 18th-century practice. They are simply musicians who do not communicate well with their audience - whether out of ignorance, lack of skill, laziness, lack of imagination, shyness, misguided "scholarship" or for some other reason.

If you spend some time looking, you will find plenty of historically informed players, using original instruments or good copies, who give incredibly exciting performances. Just to cite one example: Pierre Hantai's new recording of the Goldbergs is spectacular. And, in my opinion, his playing has more imagination and nuance and sparkle than that of Andras Schiff on piano (although I like some of his new recording as well).

Carol wrote (Decembewr 18, 2003):
[To Douglas S.A.] Thank you, Douglas,

I found that very informative and in addition, clearly written.

Jack Botelho wrote (December 18, 2003):
[To Douglas S.A.] I appreciated reading your post and have asssumed that it has been at least partly addressed to me, so therefore I provide the following reply:

It is certainly true that Bach had enormous responsibilities for providing and teaching music at Leipzig, for example, but I'm not sure that high quantity equates to high quality performances. Bach's cantatas were reported to be poorly performed; and it is no secret that Bach's writing for voice and winds did not cater to the abilities of the musicians he had available. I urge you to read those posts from the Webber article I provided earlier: Bach did not live an easy life sorrounded by ample musical means. As for Bach favouring dull, metronomic performances, I am sorry you have misunderstood my point of view on this issue. I completely agree with your appraisal of the expertise of certain musicians who have specialized in baroque performance practice today: couple this ability with multiple-take recording and splicing techniques, and the result is a finished product on cd that is in the stratosphere compared to live music as heard in the 18th century (in my opinion).

Your opinion of the Goldberg recordings by Schiff on piano and Hantai on harpsichord I find very interesting, and please feel free to share more of your insights on these recordings if you wish.

Nice to have your expertise on this list, and I look forward to your future posts.

Continue on Part 8

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