Note: This unlisted post is an "Easter egg" linked from the post “Lost (and found) in translation.” It is unlisted only because it will not interest most of my readers, even though to me it seems not at all tangential to the substance of the blog; indeed, I regard it as absolutely central, the motivating force behind everything I’ve written here. If you stumbled on this post out of context, you are very welcome—but please read more.
My first teaching job was at what was then Calvin College. (Like so many other schools, it has upgraded itself to “University” in the years since.) It is an institution with a particularly well-focused sense of mission, and over the years its faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees have expended a lot of mental energy in considering and articulating what it is that this school is and should be doing. The Calvinist tradition tends toward (as Hamlet says) words, words, words; truly, of making many books there is no end. In my second year there, two very significant institutional documents appeared, the culmination of a lot of dialogue between various constituencies that hold Calvin dear. One was an Expanded Statement of Mission; the other, From Every Nation, was a manifesto that called for a wholly new focus on “racial justice, reconciliation, and cross-cultural engagement” in an institution that had for a long time existed within its own subculture—the remnants of a nineteenth century Dutch emigration to the American Midwest. For its time (2004) and place, From Every Nation was a pretty radical document. It certainly shook me up in ways that I needed.
I stayed at Calvin for only four years. It did not take me long to realize that I would always remain an outsider in that community (my Dutch-heritage last name notwithstanding). This was not because of any significant theological differences, but rather the ways in which that theology was expected to manifest itself in the lives of the faculty. I won’t go into that here, as I am keen not to write anything that would inadvertently put this institution in the wrong light. I treasure my time at Calvin and the many friends I have who continue the good work there. At the same time, I am very thankful to have been called elsewhere.
That said, I was thrilled to be invited back to Calvin across several summers for a grant-funded study group of Christian musicologists (from several different Christian traditions). At first we gathered without a set project in mind, but it soon coalesced around the intersecting topics Crisis, Justice, and Peace, with the idea that a specifically Christian perspective on the complexities of music’s place in these fraught domains would, at the very least, be revealing. We went away after the first summer to consider our own projects that would connect with this theme. As virtually all of my work to date had been on British topics, I invested my energies on Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem; nevertheless I soon felt at sea, completely out of my depth to say anything useful. By the time we met again the next summer, I had shifted to looking at the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a cross-cultural reconciliation project that was the brainchild of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Eventually, however, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to have anything more useful to say about this than had not already been better said by Rachel Beckles Wilson, and I was on the verge of dropping out of the group altogether. But then came a suggestion from Philip Bohlman, who had come as an external consultant to our group, that we might compile a sort of handbook aimed at music students in Christian liberal arts colleges, articulating connections between faith and what we do in music.
[An aside: once, soon after the AMS Newsletter came out with the schedule for the upcoming annual meeting, a friend posted on social media “What in the flying f*ck is ‘Christian scholarship’?” (This friend had seen a listing for the reception sponsored by the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music.) To this friend, the acknowledged bias of Christian absolutely undid any claim to scholarship. But scholarship generally has come to recognize (and sometimes celebrate) the subjective positioning of the scholars themselves. A scholar may exist with many intersectional identities and perspectives, some even at odds. I would argue that we have a better chance of understanding if we don’t pretend that we're standing on the same ground and facing in the same direction. (This is not to say that the points I am making are distinctly Christian, but rather that I recognize a consonance between my faith and what I do here.) Thus we were not trying to find a spot at the table; the spot is there (and we and so many others are already in it), but perhaps we aren’t used to speaking in a way that reveals this particular bias. My sense is that this is not so much out of fear of being dismissed, but rather—as indicated in the prefatory note to this post—the assumption that no one will care.]
When I was on the faculty at Calvin, I was expected to think deeply (and write more words) about the question “How does your faith affect your scholarship?” I found, however, that I was much more interested in the inverse: “How has my disciplinary training affected my faith understanding?” But that question seemed to make them nervous: if my faith could be shaped by my schooling, maybe it was not strong enough. I will own to the weak faith (“help Thou my unbelief”), but I still think my version of the question is much more interesting—precisely because it is my real life. Restated, I became acutely aware of questions I would ask myself in church because of the ways I had been taught musicology. And any time I saw a footnote in a Bible indicating something to the effect of “the earliest manuscripts lack this passage,” my musicological bells started ringing.
So, following Bohlman’s suggestion, I started drafting a chapter for the handbook idea. At the time, the work which I had found most gratifying was the critical editing that had yielded two volumes in the William Walton Edition. (One tidbit from that project has come up in this blog thus far.) So I thought my chapter should focus on textual scholarship, and why music students should even care what the musical text says. The majority of students who opt for the sorts of Christian colleges where the faith connection is foregrounded are surely Evangelical, and the Evangelical community has a reputation for holding the biblical text—the Word of God—very high indeed. Surely, I thought, that would be a useful hook to get students thinking about why the (musical) text matters.
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I revel in a multiplicity of texts. I am interested in how different translations present the biblical text, each with their different particular agendas. I have known congregations for whom the ESV is the only acceptable text; and then there is the so-called King James Only movement (not withstanding that its adherents are using the 1769 version of the text... but I digress). For me, just as I am interested to see how the musical text may be manifest in different sources, I find different nuances afforded in comparing translations invigorating. The comparison is not exact; but as I am accessing scripture already though translated text, more versions will chip away at the miscommunications latent in the transmission of ideas through such an imperfect system as human language. Mutatis mutandis, the same in music.
And so in 2009 I drafted my chapter, following up on all sorts of rabbit trails: it was the first time that I had really paid attention to Jonathan Del Mar’s new editions of Beethoven’s symphonies, but they proved a very useful case study, as some of the readings printed therein upset musicological apple carts. (A good example of this can be found in a number of exchanges in Beethoven Forum, particularly between Del Mar and David B. Levy. Do look them up, if you’re interested.) But when our study group next met, there was no real enthusiasm for continuing with the handbook project. I wasn’t really sure what to do with my chapter, as it didn’t feel like an article for any journal I was aware of and I knew it wasn’t a book. And so it was shelved. (My colleagues’ work on Crisis, Justice, and Peace ultimate saw the light of day in disparate places rather than a single, unified volume. We figured that the ideas of our group would get a wider readership if dispersed.)
I knew nothing about blogging. I felt I was dragging myself, rather belatedly, into the very late twentieth century. And yet this medium has been the best for me to chip away at these thoughts about what it is that the musical text conveys, the apparent fixity of notation, and the myriad of variants that confront those who care to see them. Most importantly: so much of the essence of what is conveyed isn’t in the notation, but in what we bring to it. (Naturally, I’d say the same thing about the Bible. To put it another way, even Holy Writ isn’t wholly writ.)
As I look back at that draft chapter of 2009, the content that has unfolded in this blog is implicit there, even if the explicit Christian contextualizing has not been a focus here. Here’s a sample of what I wrote then:
That Urtext editions continue to be the default for so many teachers (and consequently pupils) is significant, because they are substantially more expensive than the reprints of out-of-copyright editions widely available. There seems now to be a prevailing notion that serious musicians use Urtext editions, that the starting point for the performer should at least be a text the composer would have intended, and that this is assumed to be what appears on the page of such an edition. Here we run up against a tension between publishers and the editors: the cleaner the text on the page, the easier it is to reprint it in more marketable off-print editions, but the harder it becomes to indicate the degree and nature of editorial decisions. Stripping such an edition of its critical apparatus is akin to taking down the scaffolding after hanging the chandelier: the beautifully-presented text dangles unsupported for all to admire, but not to examine closely. Moreover, the label Urtext on the cover suggests there is nothing more to examine; that work has been done, and the rest of us can get down to the real business of appreciating it.This is precisely what happened to the Authorized Version of the Bible, more familiarly called the King James Version. The extensive prefatory essay “The Translators to the Reader” and the more than seven thousand marginal notes of the 1611 editions were eliminated by almost all subsequent publishers—a practical decision that surely saved a considerable amount of paper, but not without other consequences, as David G. Burke has argued:
“The effect of this loss was to give the King James Bible a kind of Qur’anic aura. The KJV appeared in its published editions with no sign anywhere of actual human involvement in its production. In contrast to any modern Bible translation, always well furnished with a preface providing context and with notes indicating textual uncertainties and ambiguities wrestled with, the KJV shows no indication anywhere that its translators shared the same sense of risk and uncertainty about their text decisions. But they did, and they expressed in their Preface what it meant to make a Bible translation. They carefully documented their text decisions in marginal notes, and what they did with those features set the standard for their successors for contextualizing translation work responsibly and forthrightly. But today’s published editions of the KJV, which give no indication of any of this aspect, in effect lead readers to conclude that the KJV (unlike recent translations with their notes ‘Hebrew obscure’ or the like) is simply perfect because there are no indications that its translators had any difficulties with obscure texts. Indeed, for some KJV users, the effect of having no access to the translators’ thinking has meant that they experience the KJV as a kind of original text” [p. xiii].
As Susan Hellauer of the ensemble Anonymous 4 has remarked, “you can’t sing a footnote” [p. 50]. A performer does not have the luxury of presenting multiple variants simultaneously: a performance presents (and represents) a single version of a piece—the version determined by the performer(s) to be best suited to that specific performance context. In fact, a similar dilemma is faced by an editor, too: the main text of an edition can only represent one version. Regardless of footnotes and small type that might indicate alternative readings, these are nonetheless alternative to main text established by the editor. A performer may choose to incorporate such readings (or introduce wholly new ones) and consequently depart from the main text, but neither performer nor editor is free from the practical constraint of a single text elevated by default to a primary status, if only temporarily.My discussion thus far has concerned text as notation (what we might think of as the letter of the law) and not the text as its meaning manifested in sound (analogous to the spirit of the law). Musical notation as such is a handy reminder that notated texts themselves are lifeless until they are enacted. A performer is required for a performance to be realized, and, by the terms of my analogy, the faith must be lived out by believers for it to be manifest. Words on the page, like notes in the score, have a value of a certain type, but they await practical application for that value to be consummated.There is no room here for detailed discussion of the nature of a “musical work”—a topic much discussed and deconstructed in musicological literature of the past few decades. I want here, however, to offer an idea from author Dorothy L. Sayers which I believe can add a useful nuance to our understanding of the concept. In her book The Mind of the Maker (1941), Sayers argues that a crucial aspect in which we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) is the ability to make things—and, for the creative artist, the ability to make without necessarily destroying something else. Moreover, and more importantly, she outlines a trinity-in-unity in the work of the creative artist which she says is consonant with the Trinity-in-Unity of God. As an author, she illustrates her idea with author as her chief example. Having discussed 1) the generating idea that governs an author working on a book, 2) the energy (or activity) which manifests the idea in a material form through the writing of the book, and 3) the power that the book has as others read it, she writes“If you were to ask a writer which is ‘the real book’—his Idea of it, his Activity in writing it, or its return to himself in Power, he would be at a loss to tell you, because these three things are essentially inseparable. Each of them is the complete book separately; yet in the complete book all of them exist together. He can, by an act of the intellect, ‘distinguish the persons’ but he cannot by any means ‘divide the substance.’ … All he can say is that these three are equally and eternally present in his own act of creation, and at every moment of it, whether or not the act ever becomes manifest in the form of a written and printed book. These things are not confined to the material manifestation: they exist in—they are—the creative mind itself” [p. 41].Sayers’s book captivatingly develops this analogy at great length, but it is essentiallyFather : Son : Spirit :: idea : energy : powerShe translates this into the terms of her example as
book as thought : book as written : book as read
If we try to convert this to apply to music, the “text” in the sense I have been discussing it seems at first to be the energy—the score as written—and we can recognize the musical work as existing well beyond that, as a generating idea in the mind of the composer, and as a performance in sound (power) that reaches the ears of the audience and lasts in the memory.I believe that Sayers’s analogy is extremely useful, but I think that in music the situation is much more complicated. I would follow Sayers to argue that we can speak of music (and, I think, even a “work” of music) “whether or not the act ever becomes manifest in the form of a [score] or [performance].” For the purposes of this essay, however, I am concentrating on music which can and does become realized in both text and sound. In this very common situation, we recognize that between the composer and the audience the work is mediated through the interpretation of one or more performers (to say nothing of the intervening hands of publishers, textual editors, recording engineers, instrument makers, or anyone else who might be involved). In simplified form, we might describe the mediation through which the music proceeds as six distinct moments:
- a psychological state in the mind of composer
- that state converted (to whatever degree) into notation on the page [bracketing for now any editorial intervention in the presentation of the text ]
- the meanings the notation implies to the performer, in turn generating
- a psychological state in the mind of performer, within conventionally-accepted parameters for what the notation can or cannot represent
- that state converted (to whatever degree) into sound
- the meanings of those sounds to the hearer
Sayers’s trinity-in-unity could easily be applied here to 1-2-3 (describing the composer’s relationship to the performer via the score) or 4-5-6 (describing the performer’s relationship to the individual listener via the sound). In this description, the musical work assumes material form (energy) twice—first as a notated document, second as vibrations through the air. It is important to recall Sayers’s insistence that these are latent from the beginning, “equally and eternally present in [the] act of creation.” Indeed, the creativity is spread across all six moments: the composer, performer, and receiver are all involved in creative engagement with the work—and thus it is no wonder that not only will performances differ greatly, but that listeners of a single performance will perceive very different things. But this is hardly news, and many before me have linked composing, performing, and listening as a single creative activity.I may posit another analogy: that believers live out their biblical faith in much the same way that performers realize a musical score. The recognition of music’s two manifestations—the notated score which serves as a pattern for the performer, and the performance in sound which is the communication with the listener—implies a similar double manifestation in the first analogy: God was made physically manifest first in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ; but now the faithful are charged to abide in Christ (John 15), to love one another as he has loved us (John 13), to be the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12), to conform to his holiness (I Peter 1). This idea is encapsulated in an oft-quoted epigram:Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world,
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.Following this line of thinking, the analogous mediating “moments” might be expressed as:
- the eternal will of God
- Jesus Christ made incarnate in time and space
- the gospel as recorded through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit [bracketing the work of text critics and—more significantly—translators]
- the reader’s understanding (again through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit)
- the will of God lived out again by believers (in varying circumstances)
- the meaning of such lives to those who encounter them
The musical and spiritual moments do not correlate exactly. As above, moments 2 and 5 are material manifestations, but in this case 3 is material as well—and moreover is the “text” in the most literal sense. The analogy is not perfect by any means, but also serves helpfully to subvert too literal and limited a use of the term text. Indeed, it accords with recent theories of text criticism which argue for a concept of the text of a work stretching far beyond the mere text of a document. In the view of Jerome McGann, for example,“texts are produced and reproduced under specific social and institutional conditions, and … every text, including those that may appear to be purely private, is a social text. This view entails a corollary understanding, that a ‘text’ is not a ‘material thing’ but a material event or set of events, a point in time (or a moment in space) where certain communicative interchanges are being practiced” [p. 21].Naturally the understanding of the text will vary widely from one interpreter to another; similarly performances of the same score can sound very different in the hands of different performers (or even the same performers at different times). Not only is this inevitable, but it is good. Just like the different members of the body of Christ (even in the limited sphere of musical interpreters), the members have individual identities. Isaiah 43 tells of a preserved Israel called “by name” to be a witness. Individuality is not lost, even in corporate calling.C. S. Lewis writes that the Christian’s “whole destiny is in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not its own” [p. 7]. Lest I seem to be at odds with this, a concrete example may help to clarify my point. A pianist learns a Mozart sonata; she commits it to memory, developing an interpretation that is faithful to the musical notation such as she has it, and also satisfies her own musical sensibilities. When she goes onto the platform and sits before the instrument, she is an incarnation—her body will be the means which translates the interpretation of the music into sound; and in a sense she “dies to herself”: she becomes wholly consumed by the communication of this interpretation, which speaks for her although she did not conceive the notes. She has become a reflection of a face not her own; but at the same time, the reflection is her own, and the auditors may relish the subtle or striking differences between Alicia de la Rocha, Maria-João Pires, Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida, or Hélène Grimaud. We are called to be like Christ—“little Christs,” to quote Lewis again [p. 54]—but due to our many different gifts and contexts, those little Christs will look a bit different. Vive la différence: Christ is too big for anything that any one little Christ could manifest.In the discussion above I have set aside the role of editors, text critics and translators in the mediation of the text between its source and its ultimate recipients. Just as surely as performers and readers interpret the texts before them, however, so too do the scholars who establish the text to be presented. And just as any one “little Christ” cannot exhibit the whole Truth, the whole “work” is well beyond the scope of any of the parties involved. In an interesting review of the Del Mar editions, scholar and editor Clive Brown makes just this point, coupled with a corresponding concern over an obsession with literalism:“Despite Beethoven’s concern to see his works published without palpable mistakes, his concept of what was essential in them was very different from that of a modern editor. It seems clear that Beethoven did not see the musical impact of his works as being so closely tied to the literal meaning of their texts as we have been inclined to do for much of the twentieth century…. Del Mar’s propensity to endorse one version of the text to the exclusion of all others suggests a misplaced sense of duty toward Beethoven the creator, and sometimes flies in the face of our increasing understanding of the relationship between text and performance in Beethoven’s time. In this, as in many other areas, truth may well lie in variety rather than unity” [p. 915].Establishing a credible text is a crucial interpretive element in the chain of mediation; very often the editor’s dilemma is choosing between different competing truths. Just as performances differ, editions will naturally differ as well. Neither the editor nor the subsequent users should not be deceived into a false sense of objectivity. Walter Emery insisted that an editor’s musical sense is useful“only so long as he never allows himself to imagine that his work is primarily a form of applied musicianship. The question uppermost in his mind must be not ‘Which is better?’ but ‘What happened?’ He should use his aesthetic judgment as little as possible, and work as much as possible like a scientist: or more accurately, like a detective, since he has to deal not only with facts, but also with human habits and motives” [p. 35].I disagree: to be involved in editing at all is to be motivated by a desire to make available a better text. The pursuit of that text is to be done with great scientific rigor, and decisions must be made based on the evidence at hand, but the interpretation of musical evidence requires musical sensibility. I agree with Brown: confronting diversity brings us closer to the truth. If my editorial work on texts has done nothing else for me, it has forced me to confront the insufficiency of musical notation to record what is truly vital about music. A good performance is not one which mechanically translates the symbols on the page into some conventionally-accepted sonic equivalent, but one in which the musicality and personality of the performer meet the musicality and personality of the composer via the text (and then ultimately communicate that to the audience through the sound). A very similar thing might be said of a good edition. To put it glibly, perhaps, Beethoven has no hands but ours, but multiple hands will yield not only multiple but indeed different Beethovens....