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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Repeats

From:

Dave Lampson <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 1 Mar 2000 20:47:22 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (90 lines)

Helen Duggan wrote:

>...  Can a performance of 18th century music ever be right if the
>audience is a 20th/21st century one?

Right or wrong doesn't really come into play here.

Frankly, I've been fuming over this thread since this notion of
audience-relativity came into the discussion.  It's perhaps natural in
our ever-more-complex lives that we so eagerly latch on to sound bites
and specious simplifications.  After all, if everything can be reduced
to a single sentence, then our decisions become so much simpler.  The
trite Taruskinism that we, as 20th-century listeners, can never hear
music in the same way as an 18th-century listener is, on the face of it,
obviously true.  But what does this apparent truth tell us? I would claim
absolutely nothing, for the statement is based on several assumptions, all
of which are demonstrably false.

The first assumption implicit in this statement is that there was
an 18th-century way of listening.  With very little reading of history
the abject falseness of this becomes crystal clear.  The audiences in
Salzburg were different, sometimes radically so, from the audiences in
Prague, Paris, London, etc.  We have account after account of music being
well-received in one location, and completely rejected in another.  Did
Bach listen to Vivaldi's concertos in the same wayas a Venetian of the day?
Would an audience at the Esterhazy Estate hearing a Haydn symphony in 1780
respond similarly to an audience in London two decades later? In any of
these examples can we be sure that the listeners in the same audience
possessed similar experience with music in their past and present? Of
course not.  Their cultural backgrounds, and therefore their perceptions
of the music and their reactions to it would be very different.

The second implicit assumption is that there is a 20th-century way of
listening.  In the 18th-century the main reason for audience variation
was geographical - it took a long time for new music to be disseminated, if
in fact it was widely disseminated at all.  Someone living in 1750 could
reasonably have a completely different background in music (especially when
it comes to recently composed works) from a contemporary living in a town
100 miles away.  Today the main culprit is the extreme variety of music we
have available.  Innovations or fashions in music can travel around the
globe at the speed of sound (or so it seems sometimes), but only if you
are plugged into the milieu.  For instance, I listen to a wide variety of
music, including jazz, new age, and lots of rock.  I'm up on many of the
latest bands, and I generally listen to this type of music for a couple of
hours a day, even now that I'm in my forties.  I know there are people on
this list that completely eschew such "garbage" as they might label it.
Do these people and I have much in common in the way we listen to a Mozart
symphony or Beethoven sonata? Likewise, the same comparison holds even
if we confine our parameters to "classical" music.  I have a voracious
appetite for new music, but when I read a post praising the music of Berio,
Ligeti, Birtwistle, etc.  I have to wonder how in the world could anyone
be so affected by this music.  It baffles me, and perhaps always will.  I
would submit that we are listening to and for very different things.  That
we happen to live at the same time amounts to little more than coincidence.

The last fatal flaw in this reasoning I'll address is that though we
might agree that there are differences in perception, we do not have any
idea how these differences (either across the centuries, or across the
miles, or across cultures) affect our reactions to music.  We simply don't
know how the brain processes music, nor do we have anything beyond
anecdotal evidence for how past musical experience affect the brain's
interpretation of either familiar or unfamiliar musical information.
That experience does affect the brain is undeniable, but how it does so
for any given individual, and what this might mean when comparing reactions
to a particular work of art, is completely beyond us at the moment.  The
concepts and explanations we have right today are quite interesting, though
primarily philosophical, even metaphysical, in nature.  One day we will
almost certainly understand more fully, but having read much of what's
available on the subject with a critical eye I believe we have a long
road to travel before we can draw any specific conclusions about past,
present, or future reactions to music.

For these reasons (and several others I'll leave to the reader) I think the
statement that we can't hear music as they once did is simply meaningless
when trying to come to grips with specific performance choices.

I also feel that many of the arguments against HIP (and in the way this
idea has been misconstrued by some, it is an anti-HIP argument, make no
mistake), and even some of the discussions we've read here against taking
repeats are, fundamentally, anti-intellectual in nature (something of
a profound irony for a certain elitist editor of a well-known review
publication who loves to ride that anti-HIP horse).  Sort of a "we can't
ever be really, really sure what any composer intended in their heart, so
what the heck, if it feels good just do it!" attitude.  Once you buy into
this, all counter-arguments are instantly negated.  How simple and
convenient.  How completely deceptive and misguided.

Dave
[log in to unmask]
http://www.classical.net/

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