Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sing it as written (by whom?)!

One of the things that I love about scientists and real scholars is that they know what their assumptions are when they discuss issues and they are generally not prone to having a black and white view on issues that are essentially gray. Many lay folks I interact with don’t even recognize it when they are making an assumption... let alone knowing what the assumption is.

What I’ll address today, though, are the opera enthusiasts who go around condemning anyone who doesn’t perform their part in the opera ‘exactly as written on the music score’... Come scritto-ists, I call them (‘come scritto’ is Italian for ‘as written’). They operate under the mistaken notion that what the opera composers throughout the ages had written down on the score always represent the exact music that they had in mind and are carefully preserved as is from the day they were committed to paper to this... And that any performance deviation from what is written on the score is disrespectful and would be disapproved of by the composer if he were around today. They couldn’t be more wrong...

While it is generally true that today’s composers tend to commit every details of how they would like their opera to be performed on the score, that has not always been the case. The further one looks into the past, the sparser the score becomes. The surviving score of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, for example, only has the basic vocal line accompanied by a bass continuo... And that’s it. The rest of the performance just has to be re-orchestrated and arranged by the conductor. Many different versions of the score for an opera can exist in the periods since then (up to modern time) and not every details is written on the score until Rossini started the practice around 1815 (when he realized that the performance style was changing and he wanted to preserve the style of his days on paper).
When Western music had only entered its development, when nothing had yet been written down, the composer and the performing musician were identical. Music was simply improvised in public, as we would say today. The separation between these two functions, i.e that of the composer and that of the performer, developed gradually as a result of the devising of more elaborate means of notation to describe a composition in a concrete way, and the desire of the composers to give their works a definitive form.

Only recently has the absolute separation been reached. Musicians today ordinarily have no knowledge of the art of composition; they have a downright slavish relationship to the written music they receive from the composer. Their task is simply to perform the compositions of others as perfectly as possible in terms of technique and expression. The precise designation of all the ornaments which were to be played, a compositional practice which began in the late Baroque period was initially regarded by musicians as a degrading insult. During the Middle Ages, composers were performing musicians and almost every musicians was also a composer. In any case, every good musician had to master the rules of composition and improvise, and so it was taken for granted that the latest form of a work would emerge only on the occasion of its current performance.”
- Nikolaus Harnoncourt, The Musical Dialog (translated by Mary O’Neill), P. 9-10
On top of that, the surviving autograph manuscripts often don’t completely agree with the distributed printed score (which can come in many different versions), and one can’t use the same rationale in ones’ articulation of which version is the most ‘authentic’ for different composers (while you can generally trust the Rossini autograph score to represent perhaps his final thought on it - if there was ever such a thing considering his penchant for
music-swapping and fine-tuning to fit specific productions - rather than the printed score since he didn’t have much control over the printing and reproduction process, Puccini was a lot more involved in the printing and proof-reading process so that often time the printed score is more accurate to his last musical intention than the autograph score is).
Copies of the full score and printed orchestral parts were prepared quickly. They had to be, since prompt fulfillment of business contracts depended on it. When gross errors existed in the model from which this material was prepared, *Ricordi’s copyist made marks in the margin. Sometimes corrections were introduced by the composers, but most of the time copyists did their best to interpret the notation, glossing over lacunae or ambiguous signs. In theory, a manuscript score and parts would go off to a theater and come back to Ricordi unchanged; in practice, changes were regularly introduced, often by well-intentioned musicians of a later generation unable to understand or interpret properly what they had in front of them. Some changes were incorporated into later scores and parts, though not into the autograph manuscripts (which could be used for archival reference).

It soon became impossible to tell where a composers’ notation ended and a copyist’s or an orchestral musician’s began.
- Philip Gossett, Divas and Scholars, P. 104
(*Casa Ricordi is the leading publisher of musical scores)
Also, how practical is this notion of always having to absolutely stick to what the score says when the performance conditions today can be so different from those that existed when the music was composed? Richard Wagner orchestrated his post-Ring operas with the precise acoustic of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus in mind (click here to see just how special the acoustic of that particular opera auditorium is). It doesn't make sense to stick to the same instrumental requirement when the opera is performed at a different venue that doesn't boast the same sort of voice-friendly acoustic while expecting to hear the same result!

And neither does it make sense to impose what today's popular notion of 'stylistic tradition' on performances of opera is on works from a different period where the audience of the days had different expectations than what we do today. I suspect that had Händel been able to expect total attention from the opera audience of the Baroque period (who did not sit quietly in a darkened hushed hall for 5 hrs to hear every note of his music but loitered about socializing and eating in a seatless and well lighted auditorium), then he would have gone for a vastly more concise and dramatic route in his composition... with less room for virtuoso show-off moments (it took spectacular vocal acrobatics from the castrato singers to attract and hold the attention of that distracted an audience). Had the bel canto composers and audience expected to hear their singing actors (after all, opera has ALWAYS been a musical theater art form and never just a concert one) singing in seamlessly beautiful tone through out their vocal range, then they wouldn't have composed music that was clearly meant to exploit not only floridity but also vocal colors, often indulging in leaps and scales that require greater than 2 full octave of singing range from the performers.

One doesn't serve the opera's composer when one blindly cries for a strict adhesion to the score without first asking 'which score and by whom?' and knowing about its' musicological problems. Often time, what a lay opera fan considers to be 'stylistically correct' is really nothing more than his own preference of it (usually based on his first hearing of the piece). Many operas of the Baroque and bel canto periods suffered from such a prolonged lack of performance that we no longer have a sure knowledge of what the applicable performance traditions of the original periods actually were.

This, of course, doesn't mean that any sort of variation or improvisation is fair game when performing non-modern operas. It just means that it is not any more virtuous of one to deify every note that appears on the printed music score than it is to totally corrupt what is on it. Since when has going to an opera became such an exercise in musicology? What is really served when the purpose of an opera is subverted in the name of its pedagogy? Even in the court of law, wise judges are always mindful of the spirit in which a law was written (that cannot always be accurately represented in the letters of it) and allow a room for judicial judgment.

Surely, in a performance art, whose purpose it is to communicate a story to its audience via musical and theatrical media, getting across to the audience the spirit of what the musical notations were put down to describe must be more important than just getting all the instruments (voices included) to sound the notes on the score in the right sequence at the 'right' tempo (even when the score was written before the invention of the metronome). Else, we reduce a creative art into nothing more than bookkeeping (no offense intended for bookkeepers).

"Er staat een huis aan de gracht in oud Amsterdam... There's a house on the canal in Old Amsterdam
Waar ik als jochie van acht bij grootmoeder kwam... where 8 yrs old me used to visit grandma
Nu zit een vreemde meneer in 't kamertje voor... Now there's a stranger in the front room
En ook die heerlijke zolder werd tot kantoor..... and an office where the attic used to be.

Aleen de bomen, de bomen, hoog boven het verkeer... Only the trees, swaying above the traffic
En over het water gaat er een bootje net als weleer... and the boats on the canals remind of the old days.

Aan de Amsterdamse grachten.... On the canals of Amsterdam,
Heb ik heel mijn hart voor altijd verpand... I forever pledge my heart
Amsterdam vult mijn gedachten... Amsterdam, I always regard
Als de mooiste stad in ons land.... as the nicest city in our land.

Al die Amsterdamse mensen.... All the people of Amsterdam,
Al die lichtjes 's avonds laat op het plein... All the evening lights at the squares,
Niemand kan zich beter wensen.... What more can anyone ask,
Dan een Amsterdammer te zijn.... than to be a native of Amsterdam!"
How nice would it be if going to a classical recital in the USA is as natural an event as it is for the Dutch in this snippet of Vesselina Kasarova's recital there in 2004 (Prinzengracht Concert)! She's singing 'Aan de Amsterdamse grachten (On the Amsterdam Canals)' with the Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans... with the enthusiastic crowd singing along with them. Now... THAT's what music is all about! A real two-way street of shared experience.


Mimi Lenox said...

My opera director in college taught me more with three words than any class or scribbled classical score ever could. He simply said, "Tell the story."

I never forgot it and revert back to that advice when I'm searching for the missing link to any creative endeavor. His brilliant direction has served me well.

Loved this post!

Geisslein said...

Just wanna wish you a great start in this new week! sunny greetings, geisslein!!! :o)

Smorg said...

@Mimi: How beautifully concise your college opera director was. :o) And dead on the money, too! It has to mean something rather than just sounded indeed. Thanks for stopping by!

@Geisslein: Thanks very much! :o) I hope your week is off to a sunny start as well! Gruess aus dem San Diego. :o)

Purity said...

Great post Smorgy thanks (god Musical Dialogue is such a thought provoking read isn't it!).

I love your VK on the canals snippet, and right one re. the audience interaction. In the UK we have a Campaign for Real Ale... I'm think of starting the Campaign for Real Baroque where we all get to stand around drinking, jigging about and chatting each other up while the music is performed. I get so frustrated when the musicians get to dance around the place and we are expected to sit there like people in church worshipping the music. Music is for your soul, and souls like to dance, cry, laugh, and sing along... About time we took control of this stuff back from the guardians of high culture (though sadly they have the biggest cheque books so I suppose that won't be changing any time soon...). But we can dream eh?

Smorg said...

Hiya PM:
Yup, I learned loads from reading The Musical Dialogue and Divas and Scholars. Must say that the former isn't exactly lay-friendly, but for those who've taken some music theory, it's an awesomely eye-opening read.

Hey, I'll join the Campaign for Real Baroque (with ale attached) anytime! ;o) And let's abolished the ban on flowers-throwing at the curtain, too. I'd love to be in an audience that outdoes the Argentinian opera fanatics who flooded the stage of Teatro Colon ankle deep in roses when Regine Crespin sang an Isolde there!

Going to the opera can be so business-like sometimes. All efficiency and not much passion. And... man, isn't that weird? The more passionate opera fans were from our dad's generation! And I used to think of them as a bunch of killjoys! ;oP

Thanks a bunch for stopping by. Hope the weekend is going well your way!

Smorgy :o)