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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Repeats

From:

Chris Bonds <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 14 Mar 2000 00:16:55 -0600

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Christopher Webber wrote:

>Jocelyn Wang writes:
>
>>Part of the premise of being a musician is not to place one's self above
>>the music.
>
>Aha!  Is it really? I think with this astounding phrase we reach the heart
>of Jocelyn's underlying presumption about performance.

I would put it thus: as it stands the statement is meaningless.  What
is the self that one might "place above the music?" To venture any opinion
as to interpretation of a printed document, or such scraps of verbal
communication alleged to be from the creator? To suggest that these
evidences might be wrong at times? Or, does not placing ourselves above
the music mean that we are relegated to caretakers, studious drudges who
practice our art only to the greater glorification of the composer? Skilled
copyists is all we yearn to be? I know of people who can duplicate a
painting--or a Stradivarius--so perfectly that experts are confused.  But
in those cases there is no question as to what is to be copied, so it's a
poor analogy.  Here we are expected to take our knowledge of style and
apply it judiciously to the markings of the score, which become less and
less explicit as we go back in time until any idea of the original sound of
the work is pure speculation.  At what point should we refuse to perform
music because it's impossible to know the composer's intent?

I confess to not reading all of Ms. Wang's posts on the subject.  Perhaps
somewhere she admits that even widely varying renditions of a work can
still represent the composer's intention.  And I really should limit myself
to a discussion of repeats here.  But this side issue of the sacredness of
art kind of gets to me.  You can even establish a sort of infinite regress
where if you say "the performer shall not put him(her)self above the
music," then what do you say when the performer is also the composer?
"The composer shall not place her(him)self above the music" is as valid a
statement if you believe that composers are mere conduits for ideas that
come ultimately from God, or the Infinite.  Bach is said to have believed
something of the sort--he was a devout man--but I would guess he had
moments in which he took a good deal of personal satisfaction in his
abilities.

I agree there is reason to be suspicious of the notion that the purpose of
art is to produce a canon of inviolable masterpieces.  This is not to say
that we should abandon the search for the Holy Grail of Urtext at all--far
from it.  Works need to be preserved in as accurate a state as possible.
If a composer wrote in a repeat, by all means that repeat must stay in the
score.  That doesn't necessarily mean that it always needs to be observed.

I ran across a pretty good example in a class I taught today.  In Gluck's
Orfeo et Euridice there is a little orchestral interlude where the violins
are rushing violently around for a minute or so.  The segment is in a
three-part structure, and each part is marked with repeats.  The third part
is only 5 or 6 measures long, and it is the only part that ends on a half
cadence, half note followed by a quarter rest.  It is obviously a set-up
for the tonic chord that begins the next section.  The effect of repeating
these measures is strange--the orchestra blasts up to this big dominant
chord, there is a pause--and then it's "deja vu" for a few bars, and you're
back at that dominant.  THEN you go on to the next section.  It would be
"natural" to consider this section in binary form with a 5-6 bar codetta
leading into the next scene, and were it not for the repeats of section 3
most people would I think hear it that way.  But taking the repeat forces
us to reassess the matter, and start asking questions like "Well, since I
don't understand why he did that, I have to wonder what he might have meant
by it?" If I thought for a while, then rationalized something, I might be
satisfied.  But look at what he has done--he has set up all our
expectations based on convention, i.e., that we will go on, but he DOESN'T
GO ON!  I could imagine stage activity that would justify it--Furies
looking first one way, pausing, and then running the other way, and pausing
again--and maybe he did intend something of the sort.  But if so, it
doesn't make very good musical sense.  But I won't put myself above the
music--I won't presume to judge the Master here.  He knew what he was
doing, because he was a Master.  If I don't understand, it's my failing.
And if I hear it enough times, I may learn something.  Perhaps it's a
stroke of genius.

But then the nagging thought sneaks in: Suppose that after I've learned to
hear it the way Gluck intended it, it turns out that that third set of
repeats WAS A PRINTER'S ERROR???!!!

Charles Rosen points out a famous instance not of a missing (or wrongly
inserted) repeat, but a misplaced repeat in Chopin's Bb Minor Sonata.  The
repeat of the first section should go all the way back to the beginning,
not to the Doppio movimento in bar 5, as marked in "all 20th century
editions" that Rosen knows of.  He cites both the Warsaw manuscript (not
autograph but containing corrections in Chopin's hand) and the internal
evidence of the music itself--it simply doesn't make sense to take the
repeat as written in the incorrect editions.  He further states that the
only performances he's heard that don't take the incorrect repeat do not
repeat at all, thus making the movement too short, but he believes this is
preferable to "musical nonsense." [Rosen, C.  The Romantic generation, pp.
279-282]

The Scherzo to Beethoven's 5th is another case in point.  Recent
scholarship points to Beethoven's intent to have two trios, as does the
scherzo of the 7th; but I am sure most performances even now still do it
the old way.  Doesn't make it right, of course; I happen to like the 2-trio
version better.  My point is that composers and publishers don't always get
it right, and therefore any work is potentially a work-in-progress as long
as musicologists have to put bread on the table.

Chris Bonds

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