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Saturday morning quotes 7.2: Intentions

March 31, 2018


“…[M]usic can never under any circumstances but electronic speak for itself. In the case of notated music there is always a middle man, even if it is only ourselves as we contemplate the written symbols.”

–  Richard Taruskin

One’s ideas evolve over time, and our years of tireless research into honest and effective performance of early music have served to refine our ideas and make our performances more sharply focused.  We have written about transparency in performance in the past, and like to think that as performers we step back and allow the music to rise to the surface.  But we are well aware that the effective performance of any music demands a considerable and informed investment of the performer’s personality—performance with intention.

Today’s quotations are from a source briefly referenced in our post last Saturday. Richard Taruskin is a prolific author, and of his rather copious oeuvre we make particular mention of The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009; the very useful compilation of source material by Taruskin and Piero Weiss, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, Schirmer, New York, 1984; and of course the massive six-volume Oxford History of Western Music.

We have previously quoted Taruskin’s sometimes provocative but always distinctly individual ideas in past offerings, but current quotes below are drawn from a single important article, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 338-349.  Taruskin’s ideas are so well developed and his logic so sequential that it is a challenge to slice and dice his prose to create excerpts readily absorbed by the 21st-century attention span.  But give it a try.  We quote liberally.

“…[I]f impossible to realize absolutely, “letting the music speak for itself” may still be a worthy ideal to aspire toward. What does it mean, though? For the moment, let us assume it means realizing the composer’s intentions as far as our knowledge of them permits. What we are really being told, then, is to let the composer speak for himself.”

“I will not rehearse here the familiar epistemological impediments to learning what the composer’s intentions were, especially a composer as remote from us as Ockeghem…And I am not even talking about what are sometimes called “high level” versus “low level” intentions, that is, specific intentions with regard to individual pieces as opposed to assumptions based on prevailing conditions the composer took for granted. No, I mean something even more fundamental: that composers’ concerns are different from performers’ concerns, and that once the piece is finished, the composer regards it and relates to it either as a performer if he is one, or else simply as a listener.”

– p. 340

“What is this thing called authenticity and why do we want it? While most of us would by now agree with the premise, so elegantly and humorously set forth by Michael Morrow in Early Music a few years ago, that authenticity of the kind we usually have in mind when talking musicologically about performance practice is a chimaera, most of us are nevertheless no more deterred by this realization from seeking it than was Bellerophon himself. Again I ask, why?”

– p. 341-42

“Music has to be imaginatively recreated in order to be retrieved, and is where conflicts are likely to arise between the performer’s imagination and the scholar’s conscience, even (or especially) when the two are housed in a single mind. Verdi, speaking ironically about the aims of verismo, said, “it’s to reproduce reality, but how much better to create it.” In a similar spirit I would say, “it’s fine to assemble the shards of a lost performance but how much better to reinvent it.”

– p. 343

“But even at their best and most successful—or especially at their best and most successful—historical reconstructionist performances are in no sense recreations of the past. They are quintessentially modern performances, modernist performances in fact, the product of an esthetic wholly of our own era, no less time-bound than the performance styles they would supplant.”

“Like all other modernist philosophies, historical reconstructionism views the work of art, including performing art, as an autonomous object, not as a process, not an activity. It views the internal relationships of the art work as synonymous with its content, and in the case of music it renounces all distinction between sound and substance: to realize the sound is in fact to realize the substance, hence the enormous and, be it said, ofttimes exaggerated concern today for the use of authentic period instruments for all periods.”

“The artist trades in objective, factual knowledge, not subjective feeling. His aim is not communication with his audience, but something he sees as a much higher, in [T. S.] Eliot’s words “much more valuable” goal, communion with Art itself and with its history, and he enlists musicology’s aid in achieving it. To return once more to the starting point, this is what is meant today by “letting the music speak for itself.”

– p. 346

“The paradox and the problem—or is it just my problem?—is that this way of thinking about art and performance has no demonstrable relevance to the ways people thought about art and performance before the twentieth century.  Applied to the music of the Renaissance and the Baroque, to say nothing of the nineteenth century, it all seems exquisitely anachronistic. And what seems to prove my point is that with the possible exception of the rather ambiguous case of continuo realization, the modem reconstructionist movement has produced many scrupulous realizers of musical notation but has yet to produce a single genuine master of improvisation, which we all know to have been nine-tenths of the Renaissance and Baroque musical icebergs.”

– p. 347

“…[W]hen thinking of the relationship between the musicologist and the performer we usually assume that the former teaches and the latter learns. But good performers can teach receptive scholars a great deal, and communication both ways is needed if a real symbiosis of musicology and performance is to occur.”

– p. 348

Speaking of musicology, Taruskin closes with a quotation attributed to Dmitri Shostakovich from Nikolai Malko, A Certain Art (New York, 1966), p. 180. Shostakovich gave an apt definition of a musicologist:

“What’s a musicologist? I’ll tell you. Our cook, Pasha, prepared the scrambled eggs for us and we are eating them. Now imagine a person who did not cook the eggs and does not eat them, but talks about them—that is a musicologist.”

– p. 349

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.3: Improv | Unquiet Thoughts

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