When people ask me how my PhD studies here at Durham are going, I usually tell them (a) that they’re going well, and (b) that I don’t know what I’m doing. These two statements may sound contradictory, but they’re not. As far as I can tell, the first few months of a PhD program are often spent wandering in a proverbial desert—in fact, some people have even told me that that’s how it’s supposed to be. If so, then I’m right on track.
So, while I can’t tell you exactly what my research is in—as I said, I don’t know what I’m doing—I can share some things that are piquing my curiousity and making me excited. Here’s the first such example.
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Neal Peres da Costa, Professor and Chair of the Early Music Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in Australia. Prof. da Costa’s specific area of research is nineteenth-century performance practice. In other words, he’s trying to better understand what happened when a musician in the nineteenth century sang or played their instrument. What did they sound like? How did they approach their craft? There’s a subset of classical musicians that is really passionate about historically informed practice (HIP, for short), and while Prof. da Costa certainly qualifies, some of his conclusions are—shall we say—unique.
As an example, let’s listen to the first few minutes of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. I’d recommend this recording by the great Christopher Hogwood, one of the giants of the HIP movement, released in 1987.
It’s terrific, isn’t it? There’s a lot that could be said about this recording, but let’s start with its rhythmic intensity. Yes, there are moments where it slows down, like at the end of phrases, but the rhythms are usually steady and precise. And keep in mind that Hogwood and his players are trying to play this music much like it would have been played in Beethoven’s time but using period instruments or reproductions and basing their interpretation on what was, at the time, current research.
Now, let’s listen to the first recording ever made of Beethoven’s Fifth, recorded in 1910 by the Großes Odeon-Streich-Orchester, Berlin, and conducted by either Friedrich Kark or Eduard Künneke.
Obviously, the recording quality isn’t as clear, and the tuning leaves something to be desired, but if you can listen past those imperfections, what do you hear? Here’s one thing that I hear: It simply doesn’t have the same rhythmic integrity that Hogwood’s recording does, or that other modern performances would have. It’s slowing down and speeding up all over the place, sometimes abruptly. What’s going on here? And before you assume that the musicians in this recording aren’t very good, let me point out that this was orchestra made up of some of the finest musicians in Germany at the time it was made. What’s more, they were musicians who were steeped in nineteenth-century performance practice, who were as little as a generation removed from when the symphony was premiered in 1808. (Just think about it: The time that has passed between the composition of the symphony and this recording is less than the time that has passed between this recording and us.) In other words, is it possible that this recording, moreso than Hogwood’s, is a good indicator of how this music would have been played in the nineteenth century, of how Beethoven would have expected—maybe even wanted—it to be performed?
This is just one example, of course. Prof. da Costas has been studying this for about twenty years, and he has many more sources than a single out-of-tune recording of Beethoven. But his research has led him to believe that nineteenth-century musicians approached music much more freely than many musicians do today, that there was not the degree of faithfulness to the written score that has defined so much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This freedom of interpretation was applied not only to tempo and rhythm, but to many other aspects of music-making, particularly how a soloist might approach their part.
Prof. da Costa is also a keyboard player, and he shared an example of his performance of a Mozart piano concerto. But before we get to his performance, here’s a recording featuring the great Murray Perahia. You can just listen to the first minute or two to get a feel for it, but I won’t blame you if you listen far beyond that.
Now, here is Prof. da Costa’s version, which is his attempt at approaching the music more like a nineteenth-century soloist and orchestra would have. And keep in mind that his ornamentation—that is, the places where he deviates from the written score—are based on his research.
It’s like a totally different piece of music, isn’t it? Some people don’t like it, believing that he’s taking too many liberties, but I for one love it. I might even prefer it to more ‘traditional’ performances, if only because it’s so consistently surprising.
Now, I’m studying music composition, not historically informed nineteenth-century performance practice, so it’s not like I’m going to be doing research in the exact same field that Prof. Da Costa is in. But his presentation struck a chord in me, and it got me thinking about the nature of performance and the role of interpretation and improvisation. And it got me asking this question: How can a twenty-first-century musician be encouraged to think more like a nineteenth-century performer?
Here’s what I’m thinking: If we want to give a musician more leeway to interpret and improvise over a piece of music, it’s not enough to simply say, ‘You don’t have to follow the music.’ Most likely, that isn’t how they’ve been taught, and through no fault of their own, they’ll end up sticking to what’s on the page. So, what if I would try to write music that encourages—even requires—a heightened level of interpretation? What if I would write music that didn’t tell the performers everything they need to know? What if I withheld information from the performers who were playing my piece so that they had to improvise in order to perform it? What would be the end result?
I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, or what I’ll be doing next, but I do know that, whatever I write, these questions around interpretation and improvisation will be a part of it. Time will tell, of course, but I think it’s pretty exciting.
Chris Massa is a US-born musician based in Durham, England. You are on his site right now.
Copyright © Christian David Massa