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15 May 2023

53. Lost (and found) in translation

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detail that a composer did not trouble to notate, knowing that certain conventions would be observed; some of these are no longer current or have undergone significant changes of meaning.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 todays 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-speakerwe 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 musics 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 framewanting to know what I'm looking at, maybe even what Im 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 youre 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 innocencethe possibility in the trippers brittle laugh.  Theres the past, and theres 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.

The CD cover features a close up of Bob Dylan's face, circa 1960s, in sepia tones
SOURCE:  discogs.com
A few years ago, I heard a fascinating paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Textual Scholarship.  Alan Galey (who is in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto) was addressing what he called digital streaming lacunaehow audio streamed from platforms such as iMusic or Spotify may lack information that would be heard on the corresponding compact disc.  The example that has stuck with me was from the fourth volume of Columbia Records Bootleg Series of Bob Dylan recordings.  The cover says The Royal Albert Hall Concert, although the source recording is actually from the May 17, 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall concertand the quotation marks around Royal Albert Hall acknowledge that there has been fan confusion about this recording for decades (noted, too, on the back cover).  In any case, this CD release preserves the famous heckling fan shouting Judas!  

SOURCE:  discogs.com

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].  

Mendelssohn goes on to state that the music would arouse the same feeling in one person as in another.  Im not as sanguine about that, but I do agree with him that we are wrong to assume that our words are infallibly communicating what we intend.  

I ran across an example of this recently, working on a review of Breitkopf & Härtels impressive new edition of Mahler's third symphony.  Near the beginning of the second movement there is an interesting footnote in which Mahler endeavors to clarify his poco riten. instruction:
In the fourth measure of the excerpt the instruction "Poco ritenuto" has an additional instruction for the 2nd violins, cued by an asterisk to the footnote in German and English.
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 isnt 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:  enlarged detail of image of above

A previous editor, Erwin Ratz, tried to fix this in his 1974 edition.  He decided to replace Mahlers word Pausen [rests] with Punkte [dots (i.e., on the eighth notes)]:

First edition reads "das rit in die Pausen zu verlegen."  The 1974 edition reads "das rit in die Punkte zu verlegen."
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.

Ratzs solution does indeed clarify, but it remains unclear whether this is indeed what Mahler intended.  The effect of Ratzs reading is (I think) that one should hold out the dotted-eighth notes longer and longer, while keeping the 16th-notes the same.

Riedel illustrates that instead of a series of dotted-eighth - sixteenth pairs, that he thinks it should be played as eighth - sixteenth rest - sixteenth note.
SOURCE:  detail of the corresponding critical remark in Riedel's edition (p. 70). 
An alternate readingand the one which Riedel favorsis that Mahler's use of the word Pausen is a clue to his intentions of the performance of the dotted notes.  Riedel declares in his critical remarks that Pausen doubtless indicates that the dots were really intended to be performed as if 16th-rests.  

Maybe.  Certainly there are many other moments in the same movement where Mahler opts to notate with a rest in place of a dot; but throughout he employs a variety of combinations of dots or rests (with and without slurs) for this basic division of a beat into a longer and a shorter note.  What at first glance appears merely inconsistent may also be regarded as exactly what is intendedthat each of the various instances is notated as Mahler wanted it, and that what applies to one instrument need not apply to another..  There would not then have to be a stylistic shortening of the dotted-eighth to make room for a 16th-rest (which would be lengthened in the ritenuto); instead both the dotted-eighths and the negligible gaps between the two articulated notes could be gradually lengthened.  That is, both sound and silence are stretched, just not the 16th-notes (which remain the same duration).  I struggle for what word Mahler should have chosen if this is what he had intended:  Lücke [gaps], perhaps?  The lack of an obvious word might explain why the word that he uses seems particularly unsatisfying in this case, so that both editors have had to devise a way to make the musical text and the verbal text agree.  Ratz changes the word; Riedel leaves the word but argues for its literal meaningand thank goodness he doesnt alter the musical notation to agree with his reading!

This Mahler lost in translation issue is perhaps instructive because the it appears to be wrought from the difficulty in finding the right verbal instruction to make sense of the musical notation.   We might also encounter the divided by a common language issue, where an instruction means different things to different people, even close collaborators.  I ran across this several years ago in my work on Gilbert and Sullivan.  For Gilbertthe librettistthe word recitative indicated that he was breaking from a verse prosody into a different kind of declamation, generally switching to Italianate endecasillibi.  (If you want more on thisand there is a lot moresee my article, "Recitative in the Savoy Operas.")  Heres an example from Princess Ida (1884), the eighth of their fourteen collaborations. Gilbert’s label recitative in the middle of this longer musical number denotes a shift in topic as well as prosody, as Florian changes the subject:
An excerpt from a trio in the middle of Act II of Princess Ida.  The prosody changes in the middle, where Gilbert labels it "Recitative."  This lasts for 6 lines, and then a new poetic meter is established.
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 librettothe verbal textto the vocal score of Sullivans musical setting, we find quite a different use of the term recitative:

An except of the vocal score of the same passage; Sullivan uses the word "recitative" only starting at the FIFTH line of Gilbert's "recitative" form.
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.

Florians outburst (A woman's college!) has no “recitative instruction.  That doesnt 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 textnot necessarily following notated rhythmic patterns strictly.  

One would not know from listening to the music or looking at the score that Gilberts 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.

But it doesnt take two people to use a word to mean different things.  For Handel, it seems that Adagio could be both a mood and a gesture.  The gesture occurs frequently at the end of a movement as a transition to the next:  after a full cadence, then a new instruction (Adagio), and then a few chords (often above a descending tetrachord) framing a Phyrgian half-cadence, over which someone presumably extemporizes some sort of embellishment.  This is a common enough Baroque convention, of coursenot at all limited to Handel.  I associate it with the Corellian tradition, but Handel turns it almost into a mannerism.  Probably the most talked-about example is Bachs third Brandenburg concerto (BWV 1048), where some have tended to refer to the transitional half-cadence as the second movement.  (If you dont believe me, Google it.  Only as a heuristic do I think we can regard it as a movement unto itself; that or as a CD track.)  The transition at the end of the slow movement first Brandenburg (BWV 1046) is more remarkable still:  the tonic chord is denied us, and as the bass gives the notes of the tetrachord in isolation, each is followed by an exchange between oboes (presenting a diatonic chord we might have expected), and the strings (presenting an increasingly intense chromatic alternative).  A haunting moment.  At the slow tempo (Adagio, of course) and with the silences around each of the chords, we stand gazing into the abyss.   
A score reduction of the last four measures of the second movement of Bach's first Brandenburg, showing this descending tetrachord and the chords above it.
SOURCE:  my own score reduction of BWV 1046/ii bb. 36-39.

(Continuing this digression, for my money a much more intriguing Phrygian half cadence is the one that concludes the aria Behold and see in Messiah.  Handel employs the cadence dramatically, leaving this crucial moment pointedly unresolvedwilling the music on.)

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:

The significance of the image is the placement of the instruction "Adagio" above the final measures (in a movement already marked Adagio).
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.
In case this is a little hard to read (and Handels writing often is), here is the same passage as it appears in the (revised) volume of the HHA:
This image shows precisely the same thing as the one above, but is easier to read because it is from an edition rather than a manuscript.
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. 
Note the adagio instruction for the cadential transition in b. 30.  (Or is it really in b 29, as it seems to be in the autograph?)  But this movement is already marked Adagio from the start.  Significantly, Handel is not using the word to indicate a return to the tempo in b. 28 after the improvisatory cello passage.  There is no marking at all at b. 28 (i.e., a dog not barking in the nighttime); thus, he must have considered even an a tempo marking superfluous.  But the second adagio in b. 29/30 is a new instruction, not at all superfluous, nor (it would seem) merely redundant.  Handel moves from the Adagio mood of the movement to the Adagio gesture of the transition after the cadence.  (There is a similar situation in the first movement of Op. 7 no. 4 (HWV309), although in that case Handel was reusing a slightly longer movement, truncating it and adding the half cadence and the seemingly redundant Adagio instruction at that time.)

The editors of the HHA volume, Terence Best and William D. Gudger, evidently thought that the second adagio seemed out of place; their solution was the editorial footnote = più adagioalthough, as in Riedels interpretation of the Mahler Pausen this instruction is an interpretive prescription which seems to be speculative at best.  More Adagio?  Says who?  Granted, my reading is also speculative; but Id argue that 1) a blogpost is a fitter venue for speculation than a critical edition, and 2) mine is not an ad hoc solution to a unique textual problem, but seems more consistent with Handels usage generally.  (Does Handel ever use the instruction più adagio?  I wonder.  I dont know nearly enough Handel to pronounce on that, but something about it doesnt sound quite right.)

If Lawson and Stowell are onto something with their linguistic metaphor for musical instructions of the past, Id argue that there is no shortcutno Google translatefor 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 Ive 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 were 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.