We're playing classical music all wrong – composers wanted us to improvise

by Clive Brown

Professor of Applied Musicology at University of Leeds
After a very drawn out and fraught construction, the Philharmonie de Paris is finally open. The 2,400 seat concert hall was conceived with ambitious plans to democratise classical music, and is situated, in line with these aims, on the boundary between the city’s affluent centre and its banlieues. Whether it will succeed in these ambitions remains to be seen.

Classical music has always been the music of the educated classes, but today, despite the much more equal distribution of education in first world society, it is seen by many as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing. The term “classical music” – coined in the 19th century to describe material that had been judged worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great art – is now used somewhat misleadingly to apply to everything that might be performed in a concert hall or opera house, rather than in more informal venues. The old assumption that “classical” music has more cultural value than “popular” music is no longer orthodox – it has become one genre amongst many.

Current performance conditions do little to help this – tickets to opera theatres and concert halls, where the audience listens in unbroken silence, are generally expensive, and performers adhere conscientiously, yet often uninspiringly, to the notation in the score. But it wasn’t always like this. Performers of the past approached their task much more like popular musicians today, and this shift in style has almost certainly contributed to classical music’s lacking appeal to much of the population.

The popstars of the 1800s

A major factor in the diminished popularity of classical music is the failure of modern performers fully to understand what the musical notation of the past was expected to convey to them. Pre-20th century musicians approached performance much more like popular musicians still do. For them, it was more fluid, more personal – composers expected them to understand the hidden messages behind the notes. Even in the great music of the late 19th century such as that of Brahms, options in performance were hinted at rather than prescribed. The notation was merely a starting point – a great performer was expected to go beyond it.

But classical performance has lost much of the improvisatory element that was an essential part of its original character. This has resulted in a stiffly formal distortion of what the greatest composers and performers of the past expected.

The old musicians understood that there were many aspects of an effective and engaging performance that could not be embodied in the score. Tempo was often expected to be more flexible. Rhythms could be bent in a manner we still hear in jazz and other types of popular music. Notes weren’t always be taken cleanly, but often approached with various kinds of slides and tonal inflections. Vibrato was an ornamental effect rather than a continuous and regular oscillation of the sound. Parts that are notated vertically together in the score, were frequently expected not to be together in performance. In keyboard playing, chords that appear to be vertically together were mostly performed with various degrees of spreading.

These are just a few of the ways that musicians built on the raw notation in order to turn a merely correct performance into a fine one, making concerts much more exciting and vibrant events. But these practices were gradually eliminated in the early 20th century.

Classical musicians increasingly equated fidelity to the composer’s “intentions” with reproducing – to paraphrase a well-know judicial phrase – “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text”. This transformation partly reflected the ideals of modernism, in which the rejection of the past was a first principle, but it may also have been motivated by a desire to distance “culturally superior” classical music from the popular styles in which these freedoms were retained.

Formal, rigid, unemotional

Already in the 1930s, voices were raised against this growing prioritisation of the literal meaning of the notation. In 1933 a reviewer in The Musical Times criticised rhythmic rigidity in a performance of Brahms’s Violin Sonata op. 78, complaining that it ran contrary to the composer’s tradition. And, with regard to another performance, the same writer, after remarking that it “pleased by its modest competence”, continued:

Neat as to technique, the players had so eliminated all superfluity from their performance that their Mozart sonata struck one as less interesting than they or it deserved to be.

But such mild admonitions failed to prevent classical performers from renouncing their old freedoms, in the misguided belief that the music on the page contained virtually everything the composer expected. So it is hardly surprising that many genuinely musical people are now deterred from engaging with classical music by a perception that it is formal, rigid, and lacking in emotional vitality.

As yet, few professional musicians have begun seriously to experiment with responding to the messages that lie behind the notes on the page as their predecessors did. But this core repertoire of great music must now be recreated in ways that return it to its quasi-improvisatory roots. It needs more than family friendly, state-of-the-art concert halls with innovative programming – though this is a good start.

If classical music is to regain its cultural significance, musicians must engage with it more courageously, learning once more to read between the lines of the score. Only then will they recapture the full measure of freshness, beauty and excitement that composers expected their notation to convey to skillful performers and, through them, to the listener.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Clive Brown read History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and following graduation in 1969 stayed on to take part 2 of the Music Tripos. After a period teaching music and performing as a violinist, he turned to research, gaining his D. Phil in 1980 at Oxford, where he was a member of the Faculty of Music and lecturer at Queen’s and Brasenose Colleges between 1980 and 1991. After a period of freelance work, concert planning both for the South Bank Centre, London and the Official Edinburgh Festival, he accepted a post at Bretton Hall, College of the University of Leeds. There he has served as Head of School (1997-2002) and after the merger with the Department of Music on the Leeds campus, Director of Research (2003-5) and then Head of School (2006-9) of the newly formed School of Music at the University of Leeds.

He has published widely on 18th- and 19th-century topics, particularly performing practice, and remains active as a concert violinist specialising in the historically-informed performance of Classical and Romantic music. He is regularly invited to direct historical performance workshops and give guest lectures at universities and conservatories internationally; since 1997 in Germany (Berlin, Leipzig, Carlsruhe), Austria (Vienna), Switzerland (Bern, Lucerne, Basel), Netherlands (Utrecht), Belgium (Brussels), Spain (Barcelona, Alcala, Seville), Italy (Venice, Cremona, Padua, La Spezia), USA (Washington D.C., Stanford Ca.), Australia (Sydney).


To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.




Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Added 26.03.2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Added 15.03.2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Added 09.03.2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Added 21.02.2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Added 04.02.2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Added 31.01.2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Added 26.01.2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Added 13.01.2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Added 30.12.2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Added 29.11.2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Added 29.11.2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart. 

Added 03.11.2017

A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better. 

Added 30.10.2017

Ukrainian-born Evgeny Ukhanov, based in Australia for the past 20 years, is an established performer of new music originating in his adopted homeland. Now he has teamed up with friend and Melbourne composer Alan Griffiths on a new CD of selections regrouped under the title “Introspection”. 

Added 09.09.2017
 

If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel.

Added 31.08.2017

Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression.

Added 16.08.2017
File 20170815 15219 g8geue

Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 yea

Added 02.08.2017

Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers.

Added 24.06.2017

I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think.