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01 June 2019

44. Bedtime stories

A few weeks ago I was skimming through Christopher Smalls Musicking:  The Meanings of Performing and Listening in search of something I recalled reading years ago and wanted to mention in this blog.  I did not find what I was looking for; maybe it will turn up eventually and that post will get written.  It was very good, though, to open Musicking again; my skimming quickly became a more extensive perusal.  The book appeared while I was in graduate school.  Although it was never assigned reading for me, it shaped me more than just about anything else I read.  I would put it on any shortlist of the most important books on music of the last century.

I used to assign Musicking in my introductory music course, but I gave it up because my students regularly complained that it moved too slowly.  I think that is actually one of its virtues:  Smalls writing is wonderfully lucid, and filled with so many fascinating observations.  Most of the book consists of a thick descriptionabout as thick as possibleof an orchestral concert.  He starts with a long consideration of an audience member's approach to the concert hall,  eventually making his way through the lobby into the auditorium.  He fills five chapters before the conductor is even in a position to give a downbeat, and even thereafter he writes not so much about the music being played as about the relationships established between the notes and the people involved (composer, performers, listeners), in search of what is really going on here.  In a chapter of that name he makes a compelling comparison:
I intend no insult to either the ceremony of the symphony concert or to the works that are played there when I characterize them, at least in part, as bedtime stories told to adults.  The two ceremonies have features in common.  The first is that what is going on in both is the telling of a story and that the story partakes of the nature of the great meta-narrative.  The second is that the stories have become so familiar through repetition that they have lost whatever power they might once have had to disturb.  The third is that in both there is an insistence on perfect repetition of a series of actions that are prompted by a text, which in one case is the reading of words that comprise a story and in the other is the performance of sequences of musical sounds that comprise musical works. (187)
I cannot do Small justice here; if you find this anywhere near as intriguing as I do, do yourself the favor of reading him cover to cover.  I want to extrapolate from the issue he raises about accumulation of a concert repertoire to consider how the bedtime story analogy illuminates further textual situations of music.  I have spent a lot of hours in the last ten years reading bedtime storiesand maybe that's why I have a new appreciation for Smalls comparison, a detail I had completely forgotten from my previous uses of this book.

I suspect that my family's experience is a common one:  a repertoire of bedtime stories develops over time, and while there are differences between the preferences of different children, there are some stories that become canonic family favorites.  This may not be related to any intrinsic quality of those stories: it may be just that the reader (me) enjoys reading them, and thus the child is used to hearing them before they have a say about what will be read.  Some books are tried once and then go back on the shelf or back to the library.  Others linger around on the floor beside the bed because we know we will be returning to them time and time again.  There are hints of a seasonal calendar to the repertoirestories that relate to Thanksgiving or Christmas or summertime or the beginning of schoolbut most of the stories could be read at any time.  (The parallels with the development of a concert repertory are very interesting, but that is Smalls topic more than mine.  Again, I encourage readers to go directly to him; what matters here is that the texts become canonic by repetition.)

Different Texts, Same Story
As a core repertoire of bedtime stories develops in a family, both the reader and the listener inevitably become more attuned to textual details.  Sometimes I have to improvise my way through an already-familiar story because the book is not at hand.  In such cases, if the story is very familiar to the child, I will get critiques about the bits I omitted or over-embellished.  This is even more piquant when I read an already-familiar story in a new-to-us account (one of those as told by books); the child recognizes that the printed texts themselves differthat the story and the text are not one and the same thing.  I have lost count of how many Star Wars books we have checked out of the library that would fit this situation, but of course it is also common with fairy tales and fables generally.  Perhaps the characters have names where they did not before (Cinderellas stepsisters, for example), or new characters and scenes are introduced; certainly different texts emphasize different aspects of the story.

Often these differences are literary, having more to do with the construction of the story and the use of imagery or foreshadowing.  Sometimes they reveal different ideological perspectives.  I have seen this most in books of Bible stories for childrenthe sort of things well-meaning friends gave us when each of our kids were born.  The selection of stories included is revealing enough:  the Bible is full of sex, violence, gore, war, plague, pestilence, and massacre.  Many childrens versions instead tend to focus on the peace and love aspects, although these to me seem so disconnected from real life that I wonder if children will find anything relevant in them.  No, I think the bad and scary stuff needs to be there, and I am always interested to see how such is told.  That said, the storybook that, in narrating the story of David and Goliath, read because David didnt have a gun... went straight into the trash.  (I wish I could include an image of it here, but I dont even remember which it was.  That line, however, is indelibly imprinted on my memory.)

There are musical manifestations of this sort of textual variety.  Very common, surely, are different arrangements of the same tune (like so many albums of holiday music, each artist putting their own stamp on it in one way or another).  But this can also be seen in the most audible differences between different versions of standard works.  I can remember, for example, when first hearing Richard Maunders completion of the Mozart Requiem, the absence of Süßmayrs trombone/woodwind chord at the beginning of Rex tremendae majestatis” gave me a sensation akin to the slapstick gag of  leaning back against a wall that was not there.
SOURCE:  composite of the opening of Rex tremendae from K. 626:  (l.) Süßmayr's version, as given in the  NMA Ser. II Vol. 14, p. 83; (r.) completion by Richard Maunder (1988), full score, p. 61.  To hear this moment of Maunder's version in performance, click here.  (Robert Levin makes a similar choice in his completion.)
Or, for a similar example, in the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565, generally attributed to J. S. Bach):  when an organist is using the NBA (or the new Breitkopf edition as well), there is a rest on a downbeat where older editions accustomed me to a concluding low D.  Im not sure that I totally agree with the source argument for leaving out the D:  there are no authentic sources for this work to link it to Bach, nor even to anyone else.  We have different versions as told by different copyists.  Either is effective.   So what?
SOURCE:  composite of bb. 12ff. from BWV 565: (top) BG vol. 15, detail of p. 268 (from ISMLP #01335); (bottom) NBA Ser. IV vol. 6, detail of p. 32.

Textual Preferences
In practice, all sorts of textual changes in a familys bedtime story repertoire might creep in just in the repeated telling of the stories.  The result is something like the liturgical concept of a useessentially a local variant to an established text.  The best known (because best preserved) of these is the Sarum Use, the variant of the Roman rite that evolved in Salisbury around the twelfth century and lingered until it was supplanted by (and adapted into) the vernacular service in the English Reformation.  This variant wasnt limited to Salibury:  it got picked up by other British and Irish dioceses, and even some further afield.  While basically in accordance with the Roman tradition, the Use of Sarum accrued supplemental bits and pieces and different ways of doing things.

As I say, I have observed this sort of thing in my own bedtime storytelling.  I have made local improvements (as I would like to think of them) which have become part of the textus receptus for my kids.  Thus, when I read Joan Heilbroners 1962 Robert the Rose Horse, I modify her refrain that leads up to the allergic horses increasingly explosive sneezes:
Something about the word itch twice in such close succession strikes me as weak.  I invariably substitute twitch for the second:
His eyes began to itch.  His nose began to twitch.
As I reflect on this now, I note that I also add a rhythm and even a hint of pitch inflection to my recitation of this phraseprobably because it is a repeated figure in the book, with an internal textual repetition as well.   As I read it, it comes out something like
By changing the text, of course, I am usurping the authority of the author herself.  And musicians have done thatmade unauthorized changes to a textas long as we have any documentation that could confirm it.  They (we) still do it today, and I dont think it is a problem.  I am more troubled, I suppose, by those like David Zinman, whose recording of the Beethoven symphonies was proclaimed as being the first cycle to use the new Bärenreiter urtext edition, but exactly how Zinman uses it is not clear:  I suppose anyone is free to use an edition however they like, but if one doesn’t agree with the Bärenreiter main text, what is the point of putting the name on the label?  Perhaps I can return to that for a later post.  Even if Zinman reverts to more traditional readings in many instances, he is in any case closer to the composers text than is (say) Barenboim, whose Beethoven still seems to be that which was in vogue at the time of his own birth.  Still, the Barenboim Use (or is it Furtwängler?) has as much a right to exist as any number of others.  Vive la différence.

Performing Texts
At even a more micro- level, the ritual of bedtime stories extends beyond just the verbal text (which I may or may not intentionally alter).  Do the voices! says my four-year-old, and I am compelled to read a childrens book as if it were a radio drama, with a cast of characters and a Foley effects man.   Thus this page from Tim Egans superb Metropolitan Cow (1999) requires from me the falsetto of Henrietta Gibbons (gasping for breath after a search all over the neighborhood for her missing calf, Bennett), followed by the stentorian basso of her distressed husband, Frederick.  Somewhere along the line, I see that I have made another textual alteration, as now alter the word just in Fredericks second line to simplyI [simply] dont know!
This reminds me, too, of the entire complexes of ornaments that manifest the teacher/pupil lineage across multiple generationswhether it be Carnatic ragas or Rossini arias.  The textual fossilization of accruing ornamentation marries tradition and evolution.
SOURCE:  scan from Will Crutchfield, "Early Vocal Ornamenation" in the Critical Commentary of Il barbiere di Siviglia in Works of Gioachino Rossini (Bärenreiter, 2008), pp. 361-420; the pages shown collate sources from singers relatively close to the composer for bb. 96-106 of Rosina's "Una voce poco fa"; I have added red brackets to mark the staff which gives Rossini's text (as edited in the WGR).

Ritual Action
In some instances, my enactment of the story goes beyond audible (i.e., radio drama) to physical embodiment.  I go through particular motions at key moments in the story, not unlike those actions specified in the rubrics for the eucharistic celebrantagain recalling the Sarum variants.  Thus in Roger Duvoisins Donkey Donkey (1933), I can hardly resist giving the child a gentle pinch on the ear when the wicked nail caught the eponymous donkey on his way into his stable.  (If only he had kept his ears up as donkeys do....)

I have found Smalls reference to the ritual of the bedtime story to be wonderfully illuminating because it is applicable far beyond the narrow context to which he applies it.  It is an excellent analogy for how and why concert etiquette and expectations have evolved as they have.  Beyond this, however, I recognize that it also exemplifies the evolution of text and textual practices generally.  Texts do not replicate themselves; people replicate texts, and in so doing there may be all sorts of individual reasons to change ( = corrupt) the text to new ends.  This must surely happen often with family recipes, handed down over generations.  Somewhere along the line someone replaces the lemon with rum, and your great-grandmothers pound cake is not quite your great-grandmothers pound cake anymore, even if it is regarded as such.

But, like baking, bedtime stories require someone to realize the text.  Your great-grandmother's pound cake doesn't really exist on an index card, nor does The Tale of Peter Rabbit quite exist merely on paper (save for the illustrations).  Bedtime stories are performance artlike musicrequiring performer(s) to bring them to life.  As several times before in this blog, I find myself quoting Dorothy L. Sayers:
From experience I am inclined to think that one reason why writing for the stage is so much more interesting than writing for publication is the very fact that, when the play is acted, the free will of the actor is incorporated into the written character.  The common man is aware of the conflicting desires within the playwrights mind, and often asks questions about them.  Sometimes he asks:  Isnt it exciting to see your characters coming alive upon stage?’  Sometimes he inquires sympathetically:  Isnt it maddening to hear the actors ruining your best lines?  The playwright can only reply that (unless the production is quite unnaturally good or superlatively bad) both propositions are undoubtedly true.
A good deal, of course, depends upon the temperament of the playwright.  If he is of the egotistical kind, finding no satisfaction except in the autocratic enforcement of his sole will, he will find actors maddening almost beyond endurance.  This is the type of person who, in the sphere of procreation, tends to become a Roman parent.  But if he is the more liberal kind of creator, he will eagerly welcomeI will not say bad acting, which is altogether sinful and regrettablebut imaginative and free acting, and find an immensely increased satisfaction in the individual creativeness which the actor brings to his part.  [The Mind of the Maker, pp. 6465.]
Smalls bedtime story analogy allowed me to confront directly some ways in which I have been complicit in textual corruptionand indeed to see that this is the natural entropy of texts.  If in this blog I am sometimes baffled by certain textual variantsWhat were they thinking?it is now easier to see that, at the very least, they werent thinking of me.  One can corrupt a text with not only the best of intentions, but with perfectly justifiable results, entering into the creative collaboration of performance.  Some of this came up in my second post, where I considered how much authority the author deserves.  Heresy?  I dont think so.  If you can only countenance one possible reading of a textas if set in stone for all timeI think that your concept of art is much too small.