V (not) for Veracity
October 12, 2017 12:22 AM   Subscribe

Make sure to read the comments, too; some thoughtful stuff there...
posted by Namlit at 1:38 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

Both the article and comments are good reads, but I have admit some amusement over the debate as well since, from what I've read, it only trails "How do we get more young people interested in classical music?" as a topic for articles about the genre. It seems it's a question that is not going to get a definitive answer any time soon, but I appreciate hearing musicians debate the topic anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:20 AM on October 12

I'm in the Melbourne production of Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History of Popular Music and the description of the early Beethoven concert sounds just like our show. Long, exhausting, full on, what even is happening. (The musicians get a little more than just one rehearsal but not like a LOT more.)
posted by divabat at 3:14 AM on October 12

Lots of hate for Papa Mozart!

And I love this nugget from the first comment:

"If the music itself is expressive, that should be enough; the number of affected listeners is irrelevant[.]"

1958 called, it wants Milton Babbitt's essay back.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:27 AM on October 12

I love the fact that there are roving conductors with these H.I. bona fides pretending that they have the insider knowledge.

It's like Kung-fu, neo-shamanism or any other weirdo subculture that does some kind of ancestor worship. I've even heard stories about this kinda thing showing up in BDSM culture: "I was trained by a Mistress who was part of a secret coven that traces itself back to the Marquis!". Hilarious, sad, and a little frightening.

It's nostalgia for what never was.
posted by jonnay at 8:18 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]

I've long suspected that if you dig deep enough into any "tradition" it won't take long to find creative nostalgia. Actual human culture is a bit messier and less linear than our desire for a golden age and a true path will accept.
posted by idiopath at 9:59 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

"I am interested in the specific way things were done in $YEAR and the messy set of influences that converged" - likely legit

"I want to rediscover the lost wisdom that our wise ancestors had but has been lost in our decadent age" - probably BS
posted by idiopath at 10:03 AM on October 12

This essay attacks a giant strawman that never really existed in classical music, and certainly hasn't for the past couple of decades; it reads to me mostly like a violin player who's tired of being asked to play in ways he does not approve of, or something. In the 1970s and 80s, a few of the first, then-radical period-performance folks were strident and demanding, but my read on that is because they had to be, to cut through the culturally-monolithic and uncompromising dogma of classical music performance. (Truly, the culture among professional musicians in the concert ("classical") music world is unlike any other I have ever encountered in its degree of severity, and is as likely to be ignorant and exclusionary as it is highly-educated and considered.)

When Hogwood and then Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Norrington advanced their scholarly and aesthetic perspectives, they were pushing back against a world where Beethoven's symphonies had been utterly appropriated by industrial, mass-producing 20th-century culture, and treated ahistorically and anachronistically by a couple of generations of narcissistic and self-indulgent German/Austrian conductors (like Furtwangler and van Karajan), with results being that the music was distorted far beyond its initial conceptions, to fit a then-modern aesthetic.

The historically-informed performance ethos was (and is), generally speaking, to peel back as much of the stuff we've projected onto these abiding musical works, and try to hear what, for instance, Beethoven's conception and intent may have been, as closely as one may ever get to that goal. The people who initiated and/or became involved in this philosophy and movement--and frankly rescued a whole bunch of repertoire from us ruining it over and over--struggled to grow and change as their essential perspective became more established and accepted, though some remain dogmatic, some become hipsters about it, etc. But the headline, that the author of the posted essay neglects even to address, should be: historically-informed performance, as a movement, has been so successful that it struggles to continue to exist as a separately defined approach to concert performance of composed music.

As a conductor who was trained in the 1990s and 2000s, that perspective was taken as foundational to performance practice generally, and that's become more true since, not less. A similar, parallel struggle among musical scholars happened at the same time, with radical, rebel "ethnomusicologists" asserting that musical scholarship must fundamentally consider music in the cultural context in which it was made, which necessitates a profound value shift in what music is considered worth study and how it is studied. Today, it's actually a bit odd that Ethnomusicology exists as a separate and parallel discipline to its parent, because that radical perspective from 50 years ago is now so embedded at the center of the subject, that it's now all called Musicology rather than Music History. The author here writes only from his perspective behind his stand in the violin section of the orchestra; the perspective he's arguing must consider the vastly larger context, and the fact that the professional culture he's part of has changed a great deal since he entered it.

The false dilemma of the essay's concluding sentence frustrates the most: one does not need to choose between performing a close approximation of what the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (may have) sounded like, or using our fancy modern-ness to give us all the real, high-tech thrill of what everyone's imaginations made the music feel like. There are vastly more choices in between those two poles. But don't rely on my words to be persuasive on this (no one dances about architecture that well), here are a few examples for your ears to hear what these thoughts are about:

Mainstream 20th century practice:
1. Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic (1954)

2. Herbert van Karajan with the BPO (1966)

H.I.P. rebels:
3. Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music (1996) (Hogwood is the establisher and first mover on this, started the movement in 1968)

4. John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (2016)

Mainstream performance practice following H.I.P. movement:

5. Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic (2001)

6. Parvo Jarvi with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (2009)

With each, you'll notice that the orchestras are getting smaller, the sound is getting more focused and precise (even allowing for variable recording technology), and the style of playing is metamorphosing, from a sound that is luxuriously thick and rich throughout, to one that can be that, but is also variously lean, transparent, nimble, and more. You'll also notice that tempos become not only much closer to what Beethoven wrote, but also much more consistent throughout the length of the piece (which reveals more of the composition to the listener: most 20th-century conductors tended to be mercurial and inconsistent with tempo, using that musical element to respond to shifts in mood and feeling, as common in later 19th century music and practice; but with most symphonic music, that can undermine the presentation of musical ideas, and listeners may not make important connections about, e.g., structure or etc.--the differences in the second motive of this movement are an example). To my ear, as the performances work toward "what Beethoven wanted" and move away from "how we play every day because we live in year 19/20xx," the more thrilling and moving the music becomes, and the more radical and revolutionary it sounds, even 200 years later. (Those videos also show a snapshot of the evolution of conducting technique over the past 50 years.)

For a fuller take on where conductors are with this, here is Sir Simon Rattle discussing the fluctuation in size of orchestra used in performances of Beethoven's symphonies, and where he is on the question (from 2015).
posted by LooseFilter at 11:36 AM on October 12 [17 favorites]

Well put! The strawmannery goes in fact back to Taruskin (although he did the cause of thinking critically about historically informed performance a great service), and beyond, backward in time.
Having grown up right then and quite in the middle of it, listening to private conversations with Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen and a bunch of others about music making, it has always been clear to me that these people weren't interested in a narrow idea of authenticity (as in: a one to one replication of a historical musical experience). Historical information can be used to enhance the expressive toolbox, and to make relevant artistic choices. That's all, and was all, there's to it.
Of course, the concert-goers of the seventies were sometimes more radical. For them, or some of them, the things they heard in these early music concerts, and perceived and defended as "right", was the holy grail. But that better-than-thou-ness was not, or not only, the musicians' responsibility.
Then, when I think back to the syllabi of early music education (in The Netherlands, during the eighties), authenticity was kind of a non-topic. We tried to learn a craft, or an art, in order to be able to play concerts. Convince an audience or, typically Dutch perhaps: sell what you've got.

It's interesting that this guy, thirty years on, still hasn't gotten it and keeps beating some long dead horses that weren't even truly alive when the debate about historically informed musicianship was still fresh.
posted by Namlit at 12:04 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

I liked LooseFilter's comment but I feel compelled to disavow "narcissistic" and "self-indulgent" and "ruining."

When it comes to recovering original intent, classical music shares with all art the problem of the primal unknowability of any human's intent, but it also shares with, say, film--as opposed to literature--the characteristic of lacking a determining creator. That is, it is effectively impossible for any composer to realize a work in the classical repertoire in any meaningful way by him- or herself. (Exception for solo pieces performed by a proficient composer, but that's a small exception and obviously is irrelevant for pieces composed prior to sound recording.) A score is a script. You need multiple performers and, in the case of larger-scale pieces, a conductor to bring it forth in a form that can be perceived by most people. In a more attenuated sense, you need a "set designer" to create the acoustic environment. (If you are merely score-reading, your imagination fills in all those roles.)

Further, while we know performance preferences for some composers, the areas of ignorance remain large. It seems likely that many pre-modern pieces were composed with an expectation of freedom of interpretive gesture by the performer, meaning that insisting on a particular narrow interpretation may itself be contrary to composer intent. And, of course, no one can know how any given composer would have responded to changing technology and availability of resources.

Considering all this, I can no longer maintain any sort of dogmatism about the primacy of composers' "conception and intent." I instinctively do want to give special distinction to HIP (insofar as it can even be distinguished from the mainstream of practice today), but intellectually I can only make a tepid case for its unique primacy. And I imagine that, if classical music still exists in 50 years, performance styles sounded "fresh" or "clean" or "transparent" in the 1990s will sound "constrained" or "flat" or some such in that new musical context. New orthodoxies will replace old, and new performers and conductors will revolt against styles that seem outmoded or out of step with the times.

It will always come down to what gives individuals pleasure. Which is to say, I have a bunch of John Eliot Gardiner Bach recordings, but you will have to tear Hans Hotter's performance of Ich habe genug out of my cold dead hands.
posted by praemunire at 12:48 PM on October 12

It will always come down to what gives individuals pleasure.

This is definitely true (and I think is the basic reason why concert music organizations, performers and music schools/conservatories continue to struggle to adapt to the cultural changes of the past half-century: when culture becomes market-based, there is no longer any objective 'right' or 'good' or 'better,' because we now place primary value in the experience of each individual--see also: Enlightenment political philosophy...so really, this challenge was seeded into that cultural world order before Beethoven ever wrote a symphony).

I feel compelled to disavow "narcissistic" and "self-indulgent" and "ruining."

OK, I'll cop to my writing being enthusiastic to the point of exaggeration, but I don't think that the first two adjectives are out of line describing a culture of large ensemble, instrumental conducting whose most famous figure literally conducted with his eyes closed. The difference here--between making eye contact with the players whom one is leading or keeping eyes shut to better transmit your expressive ideas--is significant, because it indicates how one conceives of the act and role of conducting, i.e., are you conducting music or are you conducting people.*

But 'ruining' was a bit much, I'll admit. Though it's hard to stay away from some sense of that when you compare performance of more compositionally complex symphonic works, for instance:

Brahms 1, Bruno Walter & Columbia SO (1959) (differences are even more noticeable if you start at the allegro)

Brahms 1, van Karajan & BPO (1973) (allegro here)

Brahms 1, Gardiner & ORR (2010) (allegro here)

*My own perspective is that the conductor is the only person on stage during a concert who makes no actual musical sound, and therefore obviously does not conduct music itself, because no music results directly from what they do. So to me, the act of conducting must influence human behavior to be effective, so that the people doing the things to actually generate the pressure waves make an ongoing series of specific decisions and changes that influence the music being created. Which is pretty amazing if you can do it well, but if conducting is about influencing human behavior, and not literally making musical sounds, to conduct with one's eyes closed nearly all the time is to omit one of the most powerful means of human connection, in a collaborative setting where that is profoundly important and influence is all that one ultimately has.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:57 PM on October 12

when culture becomes market-based, there is no longer any objective 'right' or 'good' or 'better,'

I think it's rather disingenuous to suggest that, to the extent it's meaningful to refer to "culture being market-based," this is a new phenomenon. Also not sure how, if one does distinguish, that that would be worse than its being, say, Hapsburg-emperor- or thug-Pope-based.

I do not consider a world in which middle-class people are browbeaten into consumption of certain goods they don't really understand or care for as a status marker an actually preferable state of affairs. Culturally compulsory attendance is for church, not for symphonies.
posted by praemunire at 7:32 AM on October 13

were people ever brow-beaten into going to symphonies, any more than we are currently pressured to watch GoT or the latest superhero movie or The Wire? People collectively have favorite things and will judge you if you opt out, it's human nature. Things that are coded as "intellectual" or "classy" end up carrying this eat-your-vegetables-its-good-for-you baggage, but I don't think it's any more pushy or pernicious in practice than the have-some-fun-and-get-the-stick-out-of-your-ass pushiness you get with rock and roll and pop culture.
posted by idiopath at 9:54 AM on October 13 [2 favorites]

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