Here’s what I found myself writing while gathering my thoughts for our Baroque unit. (Note they continue–click on the “more” link.)
We started the semester off by discussing, among other things, Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking.” In his book Musicking: the Meanings of Performing and Listening (we read a lecture presented before the publication of the book), Small gives the following definition of musicking:
To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composition), or by dancing.
Those of you who find yourself annoyed by our occasional dance sessions, take that!
Small also asserts,
[P]erformance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform.
He also tells that the question, “What is the nature or meaning of this work of music?” is an insufficient one, so “trapped in the assumptions of the modern Western concert tradition” that “it will give us answers that are at best partial and even contradictory.” The more useful question, Small argues, is “What does it mean when this performance (of this work) takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?”
These issues can be argued ad infinitum. Small is rebelling against a hundred years or more of intellectual tradition which views music through the nineteenth-century western European “work concept” (as Lydia Goehr has named it). As rebels tend to do, he takes a firm, one sided stand. Works exist for performers, not the other way around as it is usually assumed.
In my view, it’s not an either-or situation. It’s a paradox. Many performances, especially of classical music, do indeed exist to present musical works. A the same time, works do exist in order to give performers something to perform.
In classical music, neither the works nor the performers can exist without one another.
Or at least this was the case until the advent of high-fidelity recording. Now we listen to recordings (that most often are not representative of a single performance). The note-perfect recording, human flaws removed, is something many people find to be a sufficient experience; indeed, some find it to be a superior experience to that found in a concert hall. For all its other virtues, though, a recording is music depersonalized, sound separated from the activity of the living human beings who made the sound.
Recordings, like photographs and films, are a twentieth-century creation. An illusion, one could argue, made possible by modern technology. Recordings allow us to think of a performance as a thing. A product that is essentially unchanging over the course of time.
Looking back at musicking in the Baroque period, we gain a new understanding if we put aside the work paradigm, if we understand that it the idea that “performances exist to present works” had yet to develop. Compositions still existed, as Small puts it, to give performers something to perform. They most often served as a skeleton or basic plan, rather than a scrupulously detailed blueprint which the performers were to follow to the last detail.
Until J. S. Bach came along and started writing out all the ornaments and other details in (many but not all of his) scores, composers, even those writing for publication, did not write out all the notes to be played. While in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the role of the performer came to be understood as making the score audible (adding or deleting nothing), in what we call the Baroque period the focus was on the live (and only live, in a time long before the thought of recording arose as a dream in Edison’s imagination) music making of human beings. It was all about the performance. And to completely compose a piece, to dictate every note, was almost unthinkable, especially with music composed for professional musicians. It would be putting them in a straightjacket. Confining them. Insulting their abilities. And ruining much of the adventure of the musical experience for everyone.
Everyone, including the “audience.” The audiences of the Baroque era were much different than the well-trained and well-behaved audiences of today. Here in the School of Music, we have concert after concert after concert performed in a “recital hall” (Thompson) or “auditorium” (Kresge) specifically designed for the performance of art music. The performers sit or stand on an elevated stage, a stage made of different material (hardwood) than that on which the audience sits. The performers sing and play. The audience sit. The audience clap when custom dictates. Any other sound or motion on the part of the audience is a (serious) breech of etiquette.
But concerts as we know them in the early twenty-first century did not yet exist. For example, a staple of modern concert life is the recital. Yet the Grove Online tells us that “performing alone or with only an accompanist was virtually unknown until the late 1830s” (Concert II). As with so much of what are now-standard conventions, the public solo recital appears to have been invented by the virtuoso pianist/improviser/composer Franz Liszt.
Before the late 1700s, art music was centered in the church and then in the church and the royal court. As we saw in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, instrumental music, devoid of text and therefore religious meaning, was viewed with suspicion and often hostility by authorities.
Sidenote: Interestingly, the controversy continues, and most likely will forever. This afternoon I heard a program on NPR about Thomas Dorsey, considered the father of gospel choirs. Dorsey combined elements of blues with hymns and spirituals. I downloaded the transcript of Every Voice and Sing, episode four. Dr. J. A. Williams says on the program, “…and so the folk in the church got nervous that we were bringing the devil’s music in the church , it sort of made them nervous.” Dr. Horace Boyer explains,
Dorsey does one thing that upsets the whole area of black church music. Dorsey adds piano to gospel music, see. The a cappella, if we had just had a cappella gospel, nobody would be talking about the blues. Nobody would be talking about jazz. But when you bring that honky tonk piano in here, the Lord goes to California and leaves Chicago out there by itself and the people just go bonkers…
Dorsey’s niece continues, “He went all over America and organized gospel choirs in churches. First he was kicked out of most of them.” Dr. William Garcia comments, “During that time, late 19th Century or early 20th Century, the use of the banjo and the guitar and the percussion instruments, even the piano, were considered to be instruments of the world because they were associated with the secular black music, ah. what I mean by that is the blues….” Garcia adds, “But initially the gospel music was not accepted in the African American church… because these churches patterned their worship after the white congregations that they sprang from…. And then afterwards, that music was really kind of frowned upon. As the spiritual was, initially.”
Then, quite interestingly, Dr. Eurydice Osterman chimes in. “I think it was a moral issue of mixing the sacred and the secular and that became problematic for those who were morally conscious.” Osterman seems troubled today by Dorsey’s work.
And the moment he crossed the line and tried to connect the two, it created a disturbance in the church. And I think it was from a moral sense, that it was problematic for the churches, because the environment in which the blues and jazz and all of these other secular forms had been born were so different. The lifestyle of those who patronized those types of places…
But Dorsey was sincere in his re-conversion and return to the faith of his Baptist-Minister Father….Dr. Boyer…
DR. HORACE BOYER:
Mr. Dorsey told me this, because I interviewed him. He said a preacher came to him and said, Mr. Dorsey, you are not as sick in body as you are in mind. If you’ll stop playing the devil’s music, and play the Lord’s music, you’ll be all right. That was in 1929, and Mr. Dorsey told me this in 1964. And he said I’ve never been sick a day since.
But his use of the musical language of the joints and clubs that showcased this secular music was, and still is, anathema to many equally sincere believers.
I think his conversion was a very sincere conversion.
…. And while it may have been an ingenious creation, still music speaks louder than words because music goes directly to the emotions. So long before words are filtered through your master brain to determine whether they are sacred or secular, the music has already decided and has sent the message of what that is. And so when he combined them, people were hearing sacred words, but they were hearing secular music.
“I think his conversion was a very sincere conversion.” That’s what the transcript says, but as I listened I was sure she said, “I think his conversion was an insincere [emphasis added] conversion.”
M. NORRIS [the host]:
Reverend Eugene Palmore is a Program Coordinator in the Arts Ministry at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He’s a graduate of Morehouse College and he sang in its glee club under the direction of Wendell Whalum.
[xfade Aretha TO Morgan State U’s…”PRECIOUS LORD”]
Thomas Dorsey was a blues pianist. His wife died. He didn’t know how to deal with it. He sits down and he writes Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Is he going to use Bach’s language? No, he doesn’t have Bach’s musical vocabulary. Is he going to use Chopin? Is he going to use anybody else but his own language? No. He has to use what’s available to him. So he takes his blues and puts on top of the blues a sacred appeal. An appeal to God, a prayer, you’re going to criticize him for that…
Yes, some continue to criticize Dorsey for that. This tension between sacred music and secular music goes back to the Renaissance and the use of secular songs (I’m sure you took note of the L’homme armé phenomenon in Music History) instead of a chant melodies for cantus firmus purposes. Slaps on the hand ensued when the practice was discovered. And the increasing practice of vocal ornamentation caused great frustration in the Catholic church to the point where all post-chant forms of polyphony came close to being banned in the counter-reformation.
Music took its big step forward as the Florentine Camerata, in its attempt to recreate the original practices of Greek drama, developed the monodic style and creates plays set to music. Or as they put it, works in music, which in Italian is opera per musica, quickly shortened to opera.
As the 1500s came to a close and the 1600s began, this secular dramatic music, and then genuinely idiomatic instrumental music, flourished. But it was not flourishing in concert halls, which were not invented until the nineteenth century. The new “opera” music was performed in large rooms in homes and palaces and eventually theatres. Instrumental music was performed in homes and palaces, too, but perhaps “played” would be a better word, for the idea of sitting still and listening quietly was still a long way off. Most instrumental music was (the classical “artist” in me shudders as I type) background music.
Background music! I got so burned out on playing background music gigs for a living that I went back to school, got my graduate degrees, and became a college teacher. And once I started my college teaching career, I refused to play background music for years. Part of me feels insulted when I’m asked to play background music, and until recently part of me felt humiliated when I did.
It’s not just ego (although there is some of that). I’d also feel guilty about playing “great works” of chamber music and allowing them to serve as musical wallpaper. This all goes to the reverence which we afford classical music. When I was in school in New York, I’d been to dinner with a cello buddy, Danny, and we returned to his apartment. Danny was horrified and enraged that his roommate (an actor who didn’t know any better), had put one of Danny’s Beethoven symphony records, was sipping a glass of wine, and working on lines for a play. Danny (OK, emotional stability has never been one of Danny’s strong points) was nearly overwhelmed with disbelief at the sacrilege taking place. He turned off the stereo, put the record away, and with hurt and betrayal in his voice, fighting with himself to contain his rage, explained the enormity of the crime which had just been interrupted. (The roommate listened to this with the careful air of one who knows he’s living with a dangerously irrational artist. I found the incident both silly and thrilling—I was not that passionately fanatic about anything.)
Ah, but background music it was. Playing music for others those hundreds of years ago was much like playing a background music gig now. A few people might be sitting up close, listening attentively. Others would be walking around, chatting, eating, drinking. Depending on the formality of the occasion, this other activity would be more or less respectful.
It was all much more like hearing a rock band at club, or going to a jazz club, or walking around an art gallery where musicians are playing, or a wedding reception, than what we know today as a concert. The emphasis was not on the music but on the music’s function and, at times, the entertainment provided by a virtuosic performer.
The important thing here, the reason I’m dwelling on it, is that this new secular music had yet to establish itself as great art. It was functional. It was dramatic, sensational, fun.
I can’t recommend enough that you read the entire Grove Online article on the history of concerts. How fascinating this is:
England led in the development of secular, commercial concerts, which originally took place in taverns and public rooms. Concerts flourished in London because the political instability between the 1640s and the 1730s kept the government from enforcing monopolies over non-theatrical music. The collapse of court and church music during the Civil War and the favouring of French music after the Restoration led musicians to give public concerts; listeners were charged a fee for regular events, an outgrowth of the long practice of offering gratuities to performers. Such events seem to have developed as early as the 1650s in Oxford and the 1660s in London, where the most prominent such musicians were Ben Wallington at the Mitre Inn in 1664 and John Banister in his rooms in 1672. The York Buildings, established in 1676 near Charing Cross, became the most important concert venue. Probably the most celebrated series of concerts took place in the rooms of the prominent coal and book dealer Thomas Britton in Clerkenwell until his death in 1714. The most important commercial concerts, the model for efforts elsewhere in Britain, was the series begun by C.F. Abel and J.C. Bach in 1764 and administered by others, most prominently the Earl of Abingdon, up to 1793, as well as the Salomon and Professional concerts of the early 1790s for which Haydn wrote his London symphonies.
“Probably the most celebrated series of concerts took place in the rooms of the prominent coal and book dealer Thomas Britton in Clerkenwell.” In his rooms!
The quais-religious formality and work-centeredness of the modern concert are quite different than the musicking atmosphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A sense of this context helps us often bewildered present-day classical musicians understand why compositions themselves were less formal, before they evolved into “works,” and why treating them as “works” doesn’t work.
The compositions existed to give performers something to play. The interest was in the performance and the performers. Musical language was developing. The ethos was one of invention, not preservation. Inventiveness in composition, inventiveness in performance.
A composition was a game plan or battle plan. Think about it: a football or basketball coach gives his team a plan. She or he calls particular plays which have been practiced—so and so runs here, passes the ball to another person, who throws it to another, etc. The basic play may be run, but it always turns out differently. Someone gets in the way. Someone falls. An opportunity arises or another is lost.
While a game or a battle is planned (and the higher the level of the contestants, the greater the planning), but it is far from choreographed. So perhaps we might look at the difference between a Baroque aria or sonata and a late-Romantic one as being similar to a the difference between a real basketball game and one staged for a movie, in which every specific action has been planned in advance.
As the focus of all concerned was rarely directed to the music being played, the need for rehearsals, especially extensive rehearsals, had yet to develop. Rehearsing did not become di rigeur in classical music until the second half of the nineteenth century. If you haven’t practiced together, well, a lot of things are going to happen in the moment. And if a lot of things are going to happen in the moment, then who needs to rehearse?
As we look at the improvisational aspects of Baroque music making, we will look several pedagogical works, and two specific pieces in some detail:
- The Preludio to Corelli’s violin sonata, Op. 5 no. 9.
- A cantata by Bononcini.
I’ve chosen the Corelli because there is a wealth of documentation regarding the way they were ornamented not only by Corelli but also a host of succeeding violinists. And this past summer, Prof. Jay White and a crew of other area musicians performed the Bononcini here in Greencastle, so Prof. White, Allison Edberg, and I will be able to discuss the process of creating a performance from the score.
We’ll not pay as close attention to the Ferand, or the Grove Online, as I’d originally hoped. But we will read the portions of the Goehr as indicated in the Syllabus Part II.