As the academic term winds down, I find time to get to that stack of books unwrapped at Christmas. In the preface of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Historical Performance in Music (ed. Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell), I read these words:
“The musical score itself is an imprecise mechanism, which by its very nature offers even the most dutiful performer a rich variety of possibilities. There has always been much detail that a composer did not trouble to notate, knowing that certain conventions would be observed; some of these are no longer current or have undergone significant changes of meaning. For example, musical notation can give little indication of tempo flexibility or the balance of instruments within an ensemble. Those elements of style which a composer found it unnecessary to notate will always have the character of a foreign language, but one within which today’s musicians can learn to converse freely. Using the resources and techniques for which a particular repertory was intended may well make more sense of what the composer actually wrote, recreating something of its initial impact on the listener” [p. xvi].
Indeed; and while I object to the notion of music as a “universal language” (on which see the late, great Linda Shaver-Gleason), the comparison here with a language in which one may gain fluency, with a fuller sense of idioms and subtexts, makes a lot of sense to me. Such fluency will never be that of a native-speaker—we cannot be reborn in seventeenth century Europe (nor would I wish to be)—but with eyes open and ears attuned, an immersion into as much of that music’s culture that we can find may at least lead us in the right direction. Whatever that is.
I remember years ago hearing a snide reference to a certain university music department as one in which “music is seen and not heard.” I get it. Musicologists can get wrapped up in the text and forget the experience. I recognize in myself the tendency, when in museums, to look first to the commentary before I look at whatever is inside the frame—wanting to know what I'm looking at, maybe even what I’m supposed to see. I'm probably more comfortable in the scholarly conversation (“discourse” is the word that was hammered into me in graduate school) than in the aesthetic experience. No real surprise there, as I have much more in common with the critics than the creators. Part of what has made the “historically-informed performance” movement so vibrant, I think, is the interchange between musicologists and musicians: each has much to learn from the other. Instruments can teach us what the text is saying, just as much as the philologist can seek to elucidate a particular reading within the larger context of a textual tradition.
As any reader of the blog knows, my concern here is about the musical text, almost always the notated text. The text is frozen and lifeless, rather like the specimen in the biology laboratory. Music-as-written is not the live creature in its natural habitat; that would be the music-as-sounded. The notated text is at best a translation (a transubstantiation, even?) of the musical experience into written form. Its medium is changed, and whatever new potential this new state affords, this necessarily comes with many costs as well. Something is always lost in translation. Even more than this, the notated text cannot be regarded as an end in itself, seen and not heard; rather, it is a means to another end, and it must be reawakened in a new resurrection of the music in sound. (I offer no apologies for the religious language in this paragraph; I think there are useful connections to be made, if you’re interested you can read more in this prehistory of Settling Scores.)
And this text-as-lifeless-remnant is as true of recordings as of notated music. A recording is music-as-sounded in only the most literal sense. Otherwise, it is as frozen as the most prosaic printed page. As Hua Hsu comments in a perceptive review of a lavish limited edition that presents (one is led to believe) an audio document of 1969 Woodstock festival from idealistic start to muddy end, “Listening to thirty-eight CDs brings you no closer to experiencing such felicity and innocence—the possibility in the tripper’s brittle laugh. There’s the past, and there’s the story we tell about it” [p. 73]. Memory is fickle, and whatever text survives is all we have, for better or worse. But text is also fickle. It is only what happens to have been preserved, a mixture of intention and carelessness.
Galey noticed, however, that if one accesses this recording via any of the streaming services, this most-famous moment is missing. Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that something is missing. It may as well have been intentionally edited out.
What Galey discovered, however, was that omission was oversight, not intention. On the Columbia CD, the “Judas!” exchange (as well as other things between the songs) were coded as pre-gap. (Those of us old enough to remember compact discs can recall seeing the timer display sometimes indicate negative numbers right before a track started: -00:03, -00:02, -00:01, 00:00 [start]. That is the pre-gap.) Whoever was assigned to rip the CDs to provide the files to the streaming services neglected to check off “Include pre-gap” in the dialogue box, and so those sections simply disappeared, absent from the data. Consequently the streamed version of this album is more than three minutes shorter than the CD release it purports to represent. The “non-musical” moments of the album have been lost in the translation from one digital medium to another. Even more alarming: the digital text is not quite as fixed as we might have assumed.
As intriguing as that example is, I am much more interested in the disconnect between words and music--that is, where the words used to clarify the musical idea prove utterly insufficient, maybe because they are too slippery. Felix Mendelssohn, in an oft-quoted letter of November 1842, rails about precisely this problem; I quote here the translation by John Michael Cooper (who also writes illuminatingly on the context and significance of this letter):
“There is so much spoken about music, and yet so little is said. I believe that words are entirely insufficient for that, and if I should find that they were sufficient, then I would write no more music. People usually complain that music is ambiguous; that what they should think of when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words; but for me it is just the opposite, and not just with entire discourses, but also with individual words; these, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so unclear, so misleading in comparison to good music, which fills one’s soul with a thousand things better than words.—What the music I love expresses to me is thought not too unclear for words, but rather too clear. I therefore find in all attempts to put these thoughts into words something correct, but also always something insufficient...” [p. 159].
|SOURCE: cropped page scan (p. 114), showing bb. 29-35 of the second movement from Gustav Mahler, Symphonie nr. 3, ed. Christian Rudolf Riedel (Breitkopf & Härtel, 2021).|
In case that print it is too small for you, it reads (in its English version): “The 16th-notes always in the same tempo; the rit. should be in the rests.” This is not a literal translation of the German: “immer gleich schnell” [always as quickly] for the 16th-notes isn’t quite “the same tempo,” but I think we understand what he means. As the beat slows, the length of the 16th-notes does not get appreciably longer. He explains that the slowing happens “in the rests” [“in die Pausen”]. But look at the second violin line in b. 32, where we find the asterisk indicating the foot note: there are no rests.
|SOURCE: detail of p. 106 of a) first edition (Weinberger, 1898) available as IMSLP 109864; and b) revised edition ed. Erwin Ratz (Universal, 1974), see perusal score.|
Ratz’s solution does indeed clarify, but it remains unclear whether this is indeed what Mahler intended. The effect of Ratz’s reading is (I think) that one should hold out the dotted-eighth notes longer and longer, while keeping the 16th-notes the same.
|SOURCE: detail of the corresponding critical remark in Riedel's edition (p. 70).|
|SOURCE: cropped page-scan of The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan, p. 221; showing an extract from Act I[I] of Princess Ida.|
When we compare the libretto—the verbal text—to the vocal score of Sullivan’s musical setting, we find quite a different use of the term recitative:
|SOURCE: marked up page-scan (slightly cropped) of p. 55 of the first edition (second state) vocal score of Princess Ida, available at IMSLP #331094.|
Florian’s outburst (“A woman's college!”) has no “recitative” instruction. That doesn’t come until fifteen bars later, when Hilarion responds, and Sullivan repeats the marking again three bars later. In both instances, he cancels it with the musical instruction “a tempo” (i.e., return to the tempo as it was). What this shows is that for Sullivan, “Recit.” was in this instance a musical instruction: it meant for the conductor to stop beating in tempo, and to accommodate a free recitation of the text—not necessarily following notated rhythmic patterns strictly.
One would not know from listening to the music or looking at the score that Gilbert’s recitative (with a corresponding change in the prosody) had happened much earlier. Sullivan essentially ignored that, setting the new verse structure within the prevailing musical texture. Yes, the musical style changes a bit, but in a few bars (just after “...worth knowing”), Sullivan has reintroduced the countermelody that has been going on in the accompaniment for all of the previous section. Sullivan saves the interruption for the first moment of disagreement between the three characters on stage, and it is dramatically more powerful for that reason. If we imagine all six lines set to this sort of secco recitative, the scene would have stopped dead in its tracks, and it would have been very hard to get the momentum back.
|SOURCE: my own score reduction of BWV 1046/ii bb. 36-39.|
There are transitional Phrygian cadences in Handel that lack a new tempo designation, but I've never seen him use any designation for such a transition other than Adagio. And thus, on occasion, one finds him appending this Adagio transitional gesture at the end of a movement that is already marked Adagio. Here, for example, is the conclusion of the first movement of the concerto Op. 4 no. 3, HWV 291:
|SOURCE: cropped scan of Handel's autograph ms of HWV 291, now contained within BL Kings MS 317. This detail is the top half of f. 12v, which gives bb. 26-30 of the first movement.|
|SOURCE: cropped scan of Orgelkonzerte I, HHA Ser. IV vol. 2 (which superseded an insufficient 1955 volume of the same works); this detail is the bottom of p. 54, which shows bb. 26-30 of the first movement of HWV 291.|
If Lawson and Stowell are onto something with their linguistic metaphor for musical instructions of the past, I’d argue that there is no shortcut—no Google translate—for our attempts to understand it and acquire any measure of fluency. The past is gone, and we have no real way of immersing ourselves in it. We are not the original listeners; indeed, we are not an intended audience at all. We are eavesdroppers on a sometimes static-filled line in a game of textual telephone; to some extent, like the participants in that game, our interactions with the musical texts can affect their transmission to those who come after. (In this blog I’ve regularly returned to the problems editorial misreadings have caused by narrowing the interpretive possibilities.) Returning to the earliest sources does not guarantee that we actually know what we’re reading, still less how.
If a blogpost is a proper venue for textual speculation, it may not be the best venue for pleas for humility, but that is how I will conclude. The more we approach these texts with an awareness of the chasm between the lost musical experience and the accessible musical text as notated (or recorded)—and with a willingness for the notations to mean something other than our common assumption of it, the better our chances (it seems to me) to approaching anything meaningful. Otherwise, we are merely recreating the music in our own image, just as some may do with the Constitution of the United States... or with whatever you care to name, up to and including God Almighty.