We’re Not Playing Classical Music All Wrong- We Are Doing Just Fine, Thanks
Note: This article has been edited since it was originally published on 20/1/2015. See the notes below for more details.
Is Classical Music Dying?
As a classical musician I have often had to grimace through many incarnations of the argument that classical music is elitist or dying or, most irritating of all, that it is now much worse than it used to be back in some perceived golden age from the past. These arguments have always annoyed me, because those who argue such things are often more keen to believe their pre-formed notions than understand facts. They are typically regurgitating some nonsense they have heard from a relative or friend, or some tripe they saw being heavily implied on a cheap documentary, or most commonly, some flimsy propaganda they read on Slipped Disc or any number of similarly themed click-hungry blogs.
Imagine my consternation then when yet another version of the “it was all better in the past” myth appeared in the form of an article called “We’re playing classical music all wrong- composers wanted us to improvise.”
Though it is based on a truth (composers from earlier centuries did indeed improvise as a matter of course) the conclusion it attempts to draw is in no way defensible. We are not “playing it wrong”; apply a little scrutiny and this whole idea crumbles.
Playing It “Wrong”
Let us start with the title: “We’re playing classical music all wrong – composers wanted us to improvise.”
Who is this mystical “we”? Does the author seriously propose that all musicians today play the same way? Is he qualified to speak on our behalf? Is he included on the list of notable performers who are showing us, all of us world-wide apparently, the one and only way forward?
I am not being twee; this is an important point. I don’t believe a musicologist has any place telling a performer what is “right” and “wrong”. Their job is to do research, make connections and insights, and communicate those findings to the world. It is not their job to decide how I or any other musician should or should not play. If they want to put forward such a claim they must play it that way themselves and influence musicians by the force of example. Research, theory, and musicological knowledge is only the gateway to the main act: the music.
There are other musicologists working today who do this job very well. I have read almost half of Richard Taruskin’s mammoth Oxford History Of Western Music and I cannot recall a single passage in which he offers an edict on how something should be played. (If you find such a passage, please let me know- I am happy to be proved wrong.) He offers many insights regarding the history of music, offers an erudite and brilliant perspective on many subjects, particularly 20th century and Russian music, and is merciless in his attacks on various sacred cows of musical history and historiography. As such, he is doing a vital service to our art, and he does it without ever telling me how to play.
Robert Donington offers another great example with his book Baroque Music: Style and Performance: A Handbook which consists almost entirely of primary sources (thus letting the period speak for itself, in its own words, with all of its contradictions). Jean-Jacques Eidildinger did it with his book Chopin, Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils which collates all the information we have on Chopin’s teachings, covering everything he said and wrote himself as well as the subsequent testimony of his pupils, and presents it with as little conjecture as possible. These are both fantastic, useful books, and are of indispensable value for a performer.
That does not make them books of edicts, nor can they be used as an ideological weapon against “the way everybody plays”. Knowing something about period performance practice does not entitle you to make that knowledge a rule.
It is, of course, very useful if you can prove that Chopin himself always trilled from the upper note; however, it is not useful to then claim that “everybody plays it wrong” if they do not trill from the upper note. We will decide how we want to play, thanks. If you are the sort person who listens to Martha Argerich and gets upset about which note she is starting her trills, God help you.
Chopin is a particularly good example because all the research indicates that he viewed rubato as something exclusive to the pianist’s right hand, while the left hand stayed perfectly in time. Absolutely no one plays like this. I doubt anybody but Chopin ever did. And I’m reasonably sure that Chopin himself did occasionally bend the rhythm of the left hand in subtle ways, but wanted his students to be much more rigorous than they were in their lessons. Whether our current double-handed rubato is right or wrong doesn’t matter, it’s the way it is. (And anyway, there are as many styles of rubato as there are pianists, so who cares?) If you believe in Chopin’s way, make a recording that shows how you think it is done. Otherwise, get over it; the great pianists of the world are going to play it the way they want, and if they are really good musicians it will probably be great whether they adhere to Chopin’s own style or not.
Classical Music Is Stuffy!
Classical music has always been the music of the educated classes, but today, despite the much more equal distribution of education in first world society, it is seen by many as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing
This is so offensive to me I can hardly contain my rage. Saying that other people see something a certain way does not constitute an argument. It does not represent a truth, it is a useless and meaningless thing to say, and the discussion around “the fate” of classical music would be immeasurably improved if we stopped saying it.
If you personally think classical music is stuffy, say so, and do not hide behind the views of others. If you think it is not stuffy, say so, and help dispel a misconception. Quoting what is perceived to be an established view merely reinforces a worthless bit of gossip. We can do better than this.
Also, it isn’t stuffy; more on that later.
It Is Too Expensive. Right?
Current performance conditions do little to help this – tickets to opera theatres and concert halls, where the audience listens in unbroken silence, are generally expensive…
This is one shibboleth that just won’t seem to go away. I’m sorry the tickets are “generally” expensive. This, I suppose, counts as evidence that classical music is stuffy. Have you ever been to see U2? Coldplay? Andre Rieu? Were the tickets cheap? I doubt it. Hell, a ticket to a TED talk costs thousands of dollars and TED is somehow seen as a trendy, popular thing that everybody loves for some reason. Ticket prices, funnily enough, reflect a business model based on supply and demand, not elitism.
“Generally expensive” obviously refers to concerts at the upper end of the spectrum, as well. When the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, featuring possibly the best opera orchestra on earth and some of the best singers on earth, wants to put on a production of Puccini’s La Boheme, one of the most popular operas ever written, I guess it is quite an astonishing mystery that the tickets are somewhat expensive. How could this be? Could it be that thousands upon thousands of people want to see it? Could it be that the expensive tickets might actually suggest a thriving audience of people desperately eager to see music they love dearly? Could it be that an expensive ticket is proof of demand rather than stuffiness?
Regardless, there are free concerts all over the place. I have lived in small towns and big cities and there have always been free concerts available to those who look for them.
In London you could happily see a concert every day and never pay for any of them. You might never see the highest performance standards as you would at the Royal Opera house, but you can’t complain there’s an elitist price barrier blocking you from attendance if you only want to see the best the world has to offer. Even then, you probably can see some of the best the world has to offer, for free. Pop down to St John’s Waterloo and see some of the best young musicians from across the globe perform in the Southbank Sinfonia, for free, every Thursday night. And as you sip on your free glass of wine they provide for you, you can think about how hard it is to see good music without paying for it.
And on the matter of having to be “silent” in concert halls and how this supposedly represses a love of music…I am so, so, so sick of hearing this argument. So you have to be silent at a classical music concert. Do you know where else you have to be silent? Everywhere. If you go to a cinema, you have to be silent. If you see a play, you have to be silent. If you go to see a musical, you have to be silent. When I saw Memphis at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London last year the lady next to me was checking Facebook on her phone after the interval had finished. It took about five seconds before an usher flashed a light in her face and angrily shouted “phones off, phones off!” That sort of draconian order has never been imposed at a classical concert (and that’s a shame, in my opinion) and yet nobody claims that the music theatre world is elitist. It is efficient, and it wants audiences to listen without disturbing the people around them. Why? Because that is a decent and polite way to behave in a public space.
Where is it that these mythical audiences exist that are allowed to make noise? Jazz clubs? Right, because everybody wants to be compelled to offer bland, tepid applause after every solo; that’s the very definition of a thrilling concert experience, I suppose. This sort of feigned freedom hardly even constitutes not being silent, it is just a slightly more clap-friendly code of enforced audience etiquette. And anyway, opera audiences readily clap after arias, so again the supposed silence of classical music is really not a thing.
Apart from a mosh pit (which is a rather different animal altogether) the only context I can imagine in which audiences are even remotely allowed to express themselves is at a stand-up comedy gig, and that is under the implicit assumption that the comedian will mock you mercilessly for it. Why? Because audiences are supposed to be silent. Please stop telling me that this is somehow related to classical music. (Also, something tells me it is not the noise-making freedom of a mosh pit which appeals to musicology professors and classical music commentators.)
Get Behind The Notes Rather Than…Something Else?
Pre-20th century musicians approached performance much more like popular musicians still do. For them, it was more fluid, more personal – composers expected them to understand the hidden messages behind the notes. Even in the great music of the late 19th century such as that of Brahms, options in performance were hinted at rather than prescribed. The notation was merely a starting point – a great performer was expected to go beyond it.
Where to begin. I’m not sure if these comments are bad generalisations or successful inanities.
Firstly, all performers are expected to understand what’s “behind the notes.” What type of concerts are there in which performers do not do that? Bad ones? Primary school gala concerts? A midi-keyboard showcase? Even a sentimental shlock film like Mr Holland’s Opus is based entirely around the idea that we musicians need to play what’s behind the notes. Every lesson I have ever had has been about what’s behind the notes. All the musicians I love to listen to are able to play in a deeply personal way, offering their own interpretation of what is behind the notes. If you play everything boringly and correctly you might have a career but people won’t be that interested in your performances; you are supposed to play “what’s behind the notes.” I have no idea where this amorphous mass of bland, pedantic performers is supposed to exist. (Take Lang Lang, for example. Say what you will about his histrionic style, he is the most popular pianist alive at the moment and you certainly can’t say he doesn’t go “beyond the score.”)
It also does not help to bring up popular musicians of today as if they are emblems of people who go “beyond the score”. Newsflash: most pop musicians don’t write scores, and they certainly don’t refer to them in performance. I was in a rock band myself in my undergraduate years and we never once wrote any music down. We rehearsed, workshopped, recorded, and changed things whenever we liked, but all the music was in our memories. Most bands working today are the same: whatever they write is little more than a cheat sheet to jog their own memories. Comparing 19th-century performance practice to 21st-century popular music is either fatuous or severely misguided.
If this comparison is supposed to refer to a freer approach to music that only pop musicians exhibit, this too fails. I have seen the band Muse perform live several times and each time I was blown away by their musical precision, tight ensemble and immaculately perfect performances. They were far more unflinchingly accurate than many classical concerts I have seen. Matt Bellamy, the lead singer, guitarist and pianist of Muse, has quite the reputation for unrelenting perfectionism: if you are his sound technician and something goes wrong in a concert, you are unlikely to have a job at the end of the night. To say that popular music is somehow more free of technical demands than classical music is bizarre.
(For an example of the sort of precision and tightness I’m talking about, take a look at this video in which Brian May looks at the original mix tapes for Bohemian Rhapsody. The entire foundation track was done live (2:00-7:30 in the video) and Freddie Mercury did not have a click track in his ear to guide him. Yet he played with extreme accuracy, perfect rhythm, and with the “score” all in his head.)
Perhaps the supposed argument is supposed to evoke musicians like Bob Dylan, who expects his band to know every song he ever wrote from memory and be ready to play any of them at an time. Dylan will just announce the song he wants from the stage, along with the key and style he wants it to be performed in, without prior warning. He can do this because he has always played them differently himself (as evidenced in his many bootleg tapes) and also because his level of fame attracts the best musicians it is possible to have, so such a musical feat is possible. This is a truly amazing performance practice but, crucially, it is also extremely rare. It is as rare a talent in the pop world as the improvisational genius of Gabriela Montero is in the classical world. Pining for a trend that has only ever existed in a handful of extremely talented people is a waste of time and brain-power. It is almost as foolish as believing there was a golden age where all pianists played like Vladimir de Pachmann simply because recordings of Pachmann are memorable and we have forgotten all the pianists who weren’t as good.
It’s All Stiffly Formal
But classical performance has lost much of the improvisatory element that was an essential part of its original character. This has resulted in a stiffly formal distortion of what the greatest composers and performers of the past expected.
Again, what concerts does this refer to? This does not apply to literally any of the concerts I have seen in my life. Sure, sometimes people play unmusically. The problem in that case is not stiffly formal distortion, but unmusicality. There are saints and sinners in every field, and good and bad musicians all over the world. Maybe they are unmusical because they care too much about the score- who cares? If this argument has any truth it only applies to musicians who are mediocre or worse, in which case the headline should be “bad musicians are playing it all wrong.” That, I agree with.
Tempo was often expected to be more flexible. Rhythms could be bent in a manner we still hear in jazz and other types of popular music. Notes weren’t always be taken cleanly, but often approached with various kinds of slides and tonal inflections. Vibrato was an ornamental effect rather than a continuous and regular oscillation of the sound. Parts that are notated vertically together in the score, were frequently expected not to be together in performance. In keyboard playing, chords that appear to be vertically together were mostly performed with various degrees of spreading.
All those things still happen today. Spreading piano chords might be more rare but it still happens, as does dislocating bass notes from the chord, bending rhythms and changing tempos. All the best performers still do these things, just not as much as they used to. The implication here seems to be that the less of these things you do the worse your performance is, which is a deeply problematic assumption. Putting more mannerisms into your performance does not by definition make it better. Perhaps it is a better performance, perhaps it isn’t- you find out by playing, not theorising, and in any case a perfect answer will always be just out of your grasp.
My Type Of Better
And, as I said before, this isn’t up to musicologists anyway. Here is a performance by an extremely brilliant musician, Neal Peres da Costa, who did similar research into 19th-century performance practice and put his money where his mouth is:
I happen to quite like that performance. I’m very, very glad it exists. It’s fascinating, beautiful and interesting. And, crucially, I don’t want to play like that. I certainly don’t want to play on that piano, because I don’t like the sound. I don’t care if Brahms played like that- I don’t want to. Shoot me.
I will happily start my classical trills on the upper note, I will happily arpeggiate figured bass chords on the beat rather than before it, and I will happily employ a terraced approach to dynamics in a Poulenc song. I will be grateful that research has been done to tell me about these things, and I will not really mind if others play very convincingly even without doing such things. But I will not arpeggiate every chord in a Brahms sonata. I don’t want to. Telling me it’s “right” is a waste of time and comes with a hierarchy of value judgments that are at worst wrong or at best impractical. Showing that it can be done, however, opens up new possibilities, ones that I can accept or reject freely. An opportunity is not an obligation.
There is no future where this style of performance is going to become standard; even if it did it would immediately engender a reactionary movement, for orthodoxy of any kind breeds challengers. What works beautifully in very skilled hands easily becomes mannered and ugly in the hands of imitators. Do it yourself if you think it’s right, and I will listen with great pleasure. Who knows, maybe I will change my mind in a few years. (In any case, Neal’s accompanying book is an excellent example of good research and sensible, well-informed pronouncements. You can bear a torch without burning the house down.)
These are just a few of the ways that musicians built on the raw notation in order to turn a merely correct performance into a fine one, making concerts much more exciting and vibrant events.
Does arpeggiating chords immediately make a performance better? What if you do it badly? What if you are unmusical and have no style? Is your clumsy attempt to capture a performance practice from another century going to be “exciting” by default? At worst, this is an invitation to rationalise terrible playing and is particularly problematic if it allows you to ignore or generalise about the many amazing musicians today performing in the most incredible way. What is wrong with a brilliant, convincing, well-executed interpretation that sticks to the score?
Already in the 1930s, voices were raised against this growing prioritisation of the literal meaning of the notation. In 1933 a reviewer in The Musical Times criticised rhythmic rigidity in a performance of Brahms’s Violin Sonata op. 78…
Is it really possible to make a point about the way we perform in 2015 by quoting a concert review from 1933? Does this really make any sense to anyone? I missed the memo that said you can quote a concert review written the year Hitler became chancellor if you want to suggest that Bryn Terfel doesn’t sing Wagner with enough freedom.
Why did I mention Terfel, you ask? Well, who exactly is are these precious “few” performers are truly “responding to the messages” in the approved way? Who gets to decide who these performers are? The article implies that virtually all of us are failing, and I will have to presume that this includes even the most famous artists performing today; maybe it’s just me, but generalisations like this make me want to tear my hair out.
So it is hardly surprising that many genuinely musical people are now deterred from engaging with classical music by a perception that it is formal, rigid, and lacking in emotional vitality.
Again, restating a perception is not an argument. It is basically worse than not thinking: “Well, the collective wisdom that I have absorbed without question says this thing, so I shall allow myself to be beholden to these misconceptions instead of arguing for it or against it.” This does is not contribute to the debate. Telling other musicians how to play does not constitute an argument, either; it represents an attempt to offload responsibility.
If classical music is to regain its cultural significance, musicians must engage with it more courageously, learning once more to read between the lines of the score. Only then will they recapture the full measure of freshness, beauty and excitement that composers expected their notation to convey to skillful performers and, through them, to the listener.
And here is the main problem: most of the “classical music is dying” school of thought rests on a belief that there was a golden age where classical music was culturally significant and everybody played with freshness and poetic vitality. Any self respecting person who is about to cross the threshold into this sort of intellectual wish-fulfillment should take a moment of pause and ask a few questions: what cultural significance exactly did classical music once have that it no longer has? How do we know it was more culturally significant in the past? What about popular musicians of the past who surely represented the majority of musical performances throughout history, certainly throughout the centuries prior to the invention of music notation, yet have faded from the history books? Were there really hordes beating down the doors of the concert halls desperate to see the latest Beethoven piano sonata? Was the gaunt appearance of Paganini of any real importance outside of musical circles? Was it ever even important inside musical circles, or was it primarily useful as a way of selling tickets? Is it possible that we remember and recycle the popular narratives of Western music history more at our own peril than in the service of truth?
Not only is the assumption questionable but it also works against the whole argument: you can’t complain that classical music has always been the domain of the educated classes and then bemoan its loss of cultural significance; to do that, you would at least need to qualify the definition of cultural significance by limiting it to the educated classes, which is rather less culturally significant than it is, dare I say, stuffy and elitist. Classical music was not more significant in the past, its elitist presumptions were dominant and unchallenged by other musical forms. If we are truly upset by the idea that classical music is stuffy, irrelevant, and unappealing, we shouldn’t be reverently invoking a time when its stuffy unappealingness was exactly what made it the culturally significant focus of an aristocratic elite that arguments like this apparently want to revitalise.
I hear a these types of arguments a lot, and they often sound much the same. This article is actually incredible in the way it distils and crystallises many of them, and to be honest I just don’t want to hear them anymore. They represent a glorious type of unthought: things that seem true, as if that’s enough. It really, really isn’t enough.
I certainly don’t want to be told that all performers play things incorrectly by someone who is not a justly renowned performer themselves, and even then, I will take a performer’s views with a grain of salt because every musician is going to play differently and what works for one might not work for another.
I take as my credo Taruskin’s comments at the end of essay four in his book Text and Act. He discusses an interview in which Christopher Hogwood said that “a lot of what one says to try and make the topic acceptable, explicable and attractive to the average consumer will not stand up to logical scrutiny,” Taruskin insists that “it is important for musicologists to put their expertise at the serve of ‘average consumers’ and alert them to the possibility that they are being hoodwinked, not only by commercial interests but by complaisant academics, biased critics, and pretentious performers.”
Indeed. Quite aside from the musicological problems of the original article, the basic idea that an author can inevitably let generalisations slip in is unacceptable. The guardians and the gate-keepers of knowledge are supposed to know better, and this absurd notion that we should take the logic out of music in order to make it appealing really needs to be abandoned.
I hope that by offering this critique I at least make people pause before they offer another platitude to the world like “performers these days just don’t play like people used to in the past.”
UPDATE, May 15: One of my readers pointed out that Taruskin’s book Text and Act has quite a few examples of an injunction to performers on how they should play, but there is no such injunction in that book, I’m afraid (apart from saying people should be convinced of their own approach, which is exactly what I was saying). In the book’s final article he comes closest to issuing a direct injunction, but he then goes on to repudiate such youthful naiveté in the postscript.
NB, June 2016: This article has been edited since its original publication early last year. The edits reflect a general softening of tone, and an attempt to make the argument much clearer.
The original article was a rather fiercely polemical. At the time I thought this would help sell what I was trying to say, but now that I have had the time to see how people have responded to the article in various forums over the past year, I have learned a rather pointed lesson about that sort of writing style: rather than helping convey a point, it actually only weakens the argument. After all, if the argument is valid, why does it need to be reinforced with strong language? After removing a lot of the emotionally charged tone I think it represents a considerable improvement.