Thursday, April 4, 2013

Law and Music

I find a lot of really interesting perspectives on music are hard to categorize except with my kitchen-sink tag: "aesthetics"! And so with this one. I just ran across a fascinating little discussion of the relationship between a high 'C' note in Verdi and the nature of legal argument. The author looks at it from the law perspective, but I would like to have a look from the musical side. Here is the basic idea:
This article continues the discussion that Sanford Levinson and I began over twenty years ago about the relationships between law, music, and other performing arts. It uses as its central example an actual controversy that occurred at the La Scala Opera house in December 2000, when a tenor failed to sing the high C in Verdi's Il Trovatore and the audience erupted in boos, blaming the conductor for a failure of interpretation. Maestro Riccardo Muti defended his choice on the ground that the C does not appear in Verdi's original score; however there is a long tradition of Italian tenors displaying their abilities by signing [sic] the high C, and audiences have come to expect it. In fact, one Italian music critic argued that even if Verdi had not written the high C, "it was a gift that the people had given to Verdi"-- an assertion that sounds remarkably like democratic constitutionalism.

The article proceeds through the many arguments that have been offered for and against Maestro Muti's interpretive position. They turn out to be virtually the same as the arguments that lawyers make about constitutional interpretation. This similarity is not accidental. Like (certain genres of) music and drama, law involves a text that has to be put into action by interpreters before an audience. And all three practices involve a "triangle of performance"-- an intricate set of relationships and duties between the creators of texts, the interpreters of texts, and the audiences before whom the texts are performed.
As this was written for legal scholars, not musicians, the most important bit of information is left out: what aria are we talking about? A little research reveals that it is probably "Di quella pira". Here is Wikipedia:
a few tenor roles in the standard repertoire call for a "tenor C" (C5, one octave above middle C). Some (if not all) of the few top Cs in the standard operatic repertoire are either optional (such as in "Che gelida manina" in Puccini's La bohème) or interpolated (added) by tradition (such as in "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il trovatore).
Here is the score of the opening of that aria:

It is in the key of C, so replacing a high 'G' with a high 'C' means replacing the fifth of the chord with the tonic--harmonically pretty much the same, but melodically different, of course. And a lot harder on the singer! I strongly suspect that tenors might do the high C one night and not the next time just because the voice might not feel quite as solid on one night as another. Let's hear Pavarotti with the aria. Here he is at the Met in 1988:

He hits that high C right at the 57 second mark. Here is the score at that point:

What happens is, in the third measure where the score reads G, G, G#, then A, he replaces the second G with the high C a fourth above, then instead of going to the G#, he drops to the B, which leads naturally to the A that begins the next bar. Musically a trivial change, but highly dramatic if you can do it!

It is always the prerogative of a musical virtuoso to heighten the drama of a performance by going beyond what is literally written in the score. This is exactly where the tradition of the cadenza in concertos comes from. Originally it was entirely improvised by the soloist. Only in the later 19th century did it come to be typically written down by the composer. And when it comes to dynamics, phrasing, tempi, all these things are adjusted by the performer according to their taste and understanding. This is the performer's role! A composer does not necessarily work out the exact details of the interpretation of a piece and he is not always the best performer of his own music.

Another thing that is really interesting about this story is the extremely intimate involvement of the audience with the details of the score and interpretation. True, high Cs are a pretty prominent part of the interpretation, but still, I am hard-pressed to think of another example like this. Do string quartet audiences boo if a quartet takes a movement too slow? Or leaves something out? Do they know the score that well? The most famous guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, has a number of performing traditions, all having to do with editing notes out of the score. Triplets in the original are often reduced to double notes and there is one particularly awkward chord that is often taken down an octave. But the only people that ever know what is going on are other guitar virtuosos. An ordinary audience, even of guitar aficionados, will not likely notice these changes.

Here is a  performance by John Williams in which he does all these modifications and simplifications of the score, but to excellent effect: [UPDATE: I originally posted the wrong clip of Williams. This is the correct one, but you need only listen to the first movement.]

On the other hand, here is Pepe Romero playing all the notes that John Williams leaves out:

What do you think? Is it better for the concerto to be a bit less relaxed, a bit more heroic? Which fits better with the "intricate set of relationships and duties between the creators of texts, the interpreters of texts, and the audiences before whom the texts are performed."

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