Sunday, October 8, 2017

classical rumble

Here's a couple of articles about classical music that I take some dispute with.

First, Anne Midgette on classical music in the movies. My points here are relatively minor:

1) to note that her painfully-enunciated distinction between music "as a regular soundtrack" and music "as a plot point" is a standard concept in film criticism, and is described as non-diegetic vs. diegetic;

2) to express surprise that she considers it noteworthy when bad characters in Apocalypse Now and The Silence of the Lambs are shown as loving classical music, thus "subvert[ing its] wonted role as signifier of the good"; per contra, love of classical music has long signified villainy in the movies, from Alex the Beethoven buff in A Clockwork Orange (a movie which Midgette mentions) down to the stereotyped mad scientist who passes the time playing Bach's Toccata in D Minor on his haunted castle's handy organ;

3) a matter of taste concerning the use of diegetic music in the movie Margaret. Midgette accuses writer/director Kenneth Lonergan of essentially outsourcing the trigger of the viewer's emotional response to two scenes where the characters go to the opera. I see what she means by that; but I found the scenes effective, as unlike her I found the music, even though one of the pieces was merely Offenbach's "Barcarolle", capable of carrying the emotional weight it was handed. Since Midgette's criticism includes terms like "trite" and "a hundred times," maybe the movie was more effective for me because I don't attend the opera as much: a great performance is a special occasion for me.

Then there's this piece on the history of performance practice. It was actually written over four years ago, but I only found it recently. Though the author, Gerald Elias, is a professional orchestral violinist, the history in it is irritatingly inaccurate.

First off, I'd like to know who are these advocates for "Historically Informed Performance" who insist on using no vibrato whatever. Nobody I know in the field eschews it entirely; they use much less of it than modern performers do, but it is employed as an ornament. In arguing for its presence historically, Elias is defeating a straw man.

Then he mocks the term, H.I.P. You can't win; the term was adopted as a more modest substitute for the earlier term of "authentic performance," the arrogance of which tended to irritate people. Elias says that all professional musicians are historically informed, but they're not: not in the sense that H.I.P. means. They study the score, which is a historical document, yes; they may study the composer's life and the context in which the music was written. But the entire difference between H.I.P. and regular performance is whether you incorporate (our best surmises at) performance practices not in the score which are different than the normal ones of today. H.I.P. players do; others don't.

In order to push the case for the practices of Francesco Geminiani over those of Leopold Mozart, Elias derides Leopold as a country bumpkin who'd be forgotten were he not father to his famous son. That's historical malpractice. Leopold was a respected musician and composer, and his violin method was a major work of its kind. Had his son never existed, Leopold would be about as well-remembered today as Geminiani, and for the same reasons.

Despite Elias' claim that near-continual vibrato has been a regular historical practice, we know for a fact that it was not. While we only have documents for earlier periods, and most of them do request limited vibrato - Geminiani, who used it extensively, was considered an eccentric violinist in his day - we know for sure that string players trained in the mid to late 19C were very sparing in their vibrato. We know this because we have recordings of them made in the early 20C, and that's how they play. Listen to Joseph Joachim, considered the most intellectually sublime violinist of his day, playing Bach. By our standards it sounds pretty awful.*

And, contrary to those who'd like to claim excuses, that's not an artifact of the primitive recording, either. As far as we can tell from the recorded evidence, the modern vibrato-heavy style was introduced around the 1910s by Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals, and became standard practice over the next 20-30 years. Here's an early (1915) acoustic recording of Casals playing Bach, and despite the truly dreadful recording and playback quality, he sounds like a cellist of today.

*So why don't H.I.P. string players sound like that? From what I've heard at and deduced from conferences I've attended on the subject, they don't have the nerve. H.I.P. is always a compromise with the present, and not just consciously. Other things string players and singers of the past did that have since vanished are the use of portamento and expressive ritards. Today's musicians know they're supposed to do these things when performing historically, but they're so drilled in modern practice that they can't do it. I've heard them trying: they make some gestures, but they just can't entirely do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment