Friday, September 16, 2011

Composers and Musicologists

Lots of great fodder over at Norman Lebrecht's blog today. Here is one thought-provoking post. I love the title: "Teachers who think they know better than the composer". It is one of those phrases that presells the argument with a not-so-subtle ad hominem. Mere teachers vesus great composers? Well, let's not pre-judge it, shall we?

The New England Conservatory is going to put on a performance of the first Mahler symphony including a movement that Mahler later dropped. So, as several commentors have pointed out, that should be of historical interest. However, as other commentors have pointed out, this has already been done, both performances and recordings. So, not quite so historically interesting. Plus, as Norman Lebrecht points out, they are falsely promoting this as an "American Premiere". So it is really all about the marketing.

Seems to me as if there are plenty of errors to go around here! First of all, the fact that a composer does something is no guarantee of aesthetic quality. Just among the works of Beethoven we have Wellington's Victory, Fur Elise and the variations on God Save the Queen. And musicologists, to choose a more appropriate term, are not guaranteed to make poor choices. Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say. And we are all free to come to our own conclusions about Mahler's choices and anyone else's. The one principle that should be observed is that if important alterations have been made, the audience/listener be informed.

So let me issue my own confession. I have made modifications to a significant percentage of the music I have performed in my lifetime. Often it is just a case of making technical modifications to fix an awkward or unplayable passage written by a composer who was unsure of how to write for guitar. There are certain concertos, for example, that are modified by virtually every performer. But on occasion I have not hesitated to fix an example of compositional failure. There is a particularly clumsy modulation in a piece by Faure that I changed. And I'm not even counting countless examples of obvious and not so obvious misprints.

Let me offer one example where a little musicology would be a real benefit to performers. In the violin concerto by Alban Berg there is a passage, several bars long, where the engraver mistook the clef or something and placed the notes a fourth away from where they should have been. Given the complexity of Berg's harmonic language, it escaped notice and violinists have been playing these wrong notes for decades. Even Anne-Sofie Mutter does this. But a little research would reveal that a musicologist discovered this misprint quite some time ago. Another example: there are some wrong notes in the Villa-Lobos etudes for guitar that 'teacher' Abel Carlevaro discovered from studying the original manuscript. Quite useful to know, wouldn't you think?

But in the absence of clear evidence such as that, what guides me? Briefly, understanding the music. If you really do have a depth of musical knowledge, that will shape your taste. It should help you to make choices that can improve the performance. I have no idea if the New England Conservatory has made a good choice here, but I don't think we can say beforehand if they have or have not.

Let a hundred flowers bloom. Then pick the good ones.


Anonymous said...

Bach used to touch up his old work all the time. In fact it was part of a musician's training to take older scores by other musicians and edit/arrange them. Bach did that with virtually every published composer in Europe (his personal library was huge) and that's why he was such a master of all musical traditions, from Italian opera to French keyboard and dance music to Dutch organ music. Great poets often used to hone their skills by translating foreign language poetry, which when you think about it is a very challenging literary endeavor. All wonderful practices.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! Bach is rather a special case: I cannot think of another composer who studied so thoroughly the works, not only of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, but also music going back a hundred years. This is what enabled his project of truly summarizing the Baroque by synthesizing French dance and ornaments, Italian crisp harmonies and German contrapuntal complexity.

Learnedness is rather less admired by contemporary composers.