Last week, I wrote about how performers prepare for the performance of a standard repertoire classical work. A well-known piece by any of the past masters from pre-Bach to Shostakovich - 300 years of music - offers both an opportunity and some potential pitfalls. Here’s my take on why this is, and how, today, the performance of new or unfamiliar pieces within the rubric of classical music presents special challenges.
As in world literature, music that has a long and cherished history is widely available both in unedited (’urtext’) form and in authoritatively edited editions. Performers who want to study and learn a score can choose to purchase a published version of the music that will offer next to nothing except the notes on the page, or heavily edited versions of the score by a respected performer or music historian (musicologist.) These edited versions add commentary, scholarship and performance suggestions - for example, what fingers to use to play a passage in keyboard music, or how to move the bow - up or down - in string music, and much more.
Why bother? Don’t performers already know how the music should be played? No. It really is essential for professional musicians, at least, to use these edited versions, and not the knock-offs found in popular anthologies that you could buy off the rack
Scholarly editions of the masters’ works try, whenever possible, to go back to the source: the composer’s original manuscripts, to ferret out errors that have inadvertently crept into the published scores over generations. Failing that, performers can often access highly authoritative reprints from the original printer’s engraved plates of a composer’s collected works. (In German, the collected works, in multiple volumes, are called a ‘Gesamptausgabe’.)
Early in the 19th century, societies, especially in Europe, dedicated to the great masters’ music sprung up, and they began to publish these ‘Gesamptausgaben’. These are all highly prized by scholars (musical detectives, if you will,) whose task it is to thoroughly research the music, beginning with the composers’ autograph score.
They continue to this day to publish these collected works for researchers, music libraries and performers who demand only the best and most accurate editions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and many, many other composers.
The case of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is particularly difficult, since he obsessively revised his symphonies throughout his lifetime. Which, then, is the definitive, or best, version of each - the one that should be performed? It depends on which edition the conductor chooses.
Ultimately, performers and listeners benefit from all this scholarship by hearing, as much as humanly possible, the most faithful version of the composer’s brainchild on paper, translated into sound. At least, that’s the idea.
So much for the venerated music of the past. What about new or unfamiliar music? Does it get the same treatment? It can’t. Here’s why:
If you’ve read this far, it should be apparent that it takes time - often 50-100 years - for a composer’s music to be absorbed into the classical canon and performed often. But, if audiences demand to hear it, that will hasten its acceptance.
Unknown or little-performed music by obscure composers presents unique problems. The style may be tangential to known, familiar styles, or unfamiliar and strange enough not to attract many adherent performers. Often, listeners, when they hear it, may be confused.
I admit to having difficulty in latching onto our friend Bruckner (I prefer Richard Strauss or Mahler,) Berlioz, and any number of others, though they may be first-rate composers, as is Berlioz. In most venues I’ve attended where chamber and orchestral music is presented, once in a while an unfamiliar composer’s work is dusted off and programmed, as a novelty; usually, the music is quickly forgotten.
Sometimes, the cause is that the music doesn’t possess a unique personality; other composers, writing in a similar style, have produced stronger works. Other times, it just takes repeated hearings to "get into" the mindset of the composer in question.
In the case of new music - (meaning, unfortunately, since about 1960) - the style can be so radical or extreme that I often feel there’s little for my ear and mind to grasp. It moves either too quickly, or too slowly. For me, that includes the music of the atonalist Elliott Carter, and Philip Glass’s use of maddening, minimalist repetition.
What then, is the task of the performer to learn and perform such, and other new music that lies outside the orbit of the beloved classical canon?
As I see it, there needs to be a sense of palpable adventure, as if the performer is saying to the audience, "Listen folks - I’ve got something different for you to hear that will take you on a journey to a new place. I believe in it, and all I’d hope is that you’ll listen to it with an open mind and ear. Who knows - in 50 years it may be regarded as a classic of our time, and we - you and I - have the opportunity to be among the first to experience what this composer has to say. I’ve studied it long and hard, on my own, since there’s no source material from the past to guide me, as there is with the old masters’ music. I hope you’ll find my performance to be an exciting journey of discovery."
Summing up, all music at first was new and unfamiliar. Even if it sounded traditional on its surface, it was still new to the performers who undertook to study and learn it and to the audience who heard it. Whether the music is old and esteemed, or new and hard to grasp, we desire of performers that they give it their all, so that every performance is an adventurous journey. If there is a watchword to follow for performers, it is "commitment." We need committed listeners as well, so that a second "c" word - "communication" - can occur. This is the only way to ensure that classical music, in whatever form, will live beyond our time.
I may yet learn to better appreciate Bruckner, Berlioz, Carter and Glass. And, with hopefully great performances of their music by committed performers to guide me, I will keep on trying. How about you?