In the past decade or so, the whole question of musical performance has become a matter of contention in a way it has not been since the rise after World War I of the pianist Artur Schnabel, the violinist Joseph Szigeti, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and, especially, the conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Though each of these immensely successful performers had his own characteristic personal style, they all were perceived as in some sense “modern” rather than “romantic.” In this battle, “modern” came to stand for a literal and cool (if, for many, austere) approach to the music, with an emphasis on playing each note, and realizing each performance instruction, as written by the composer. The result was an imposing presentation of the overall outline of every composition, and a corresponding refusal to exploit particularly affecting individual moments.
By contrast, “romantic” connoted an approach to the music sometimes perceived (for example, in the cases of the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the conductors Serge Koussevitsky and Leopold Stokowski) as imaginative and warm, and sometimes merely brilliant (in the cases of the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz). Whether thought to be imaginative and warm or merely brilliant, the result was a musical effect created by treating the notes as clay in the performer’s hands, with a corresponding refusal to sacrifice individual features to considerations of architectonic structure.
It quickly became clear that the battle between the “moderns” and the “romantics” was not a battle between mind and heart, between science and emotion, but rather a battle among different kinds of sentiment and different means of conveying sentiment. By the 1970’s, however, instead of a fierce contention among schools of performance, the struggle had degenerated into a generalized cult of personality, with each increasingly less individual performer measured artistically by commercial success in concert halls and in record stores.
One of the main efforts to fill the resultant vacuum has been the authentic-performance movement. This movement has been many years in the making, and goes back at least to the beginning of our century. It is an offshoot of the early-music revival—the pushing back of the chronological frontiers of the performed repertory from Bach to the Middle Ages and even before. But while the early-music revival was concerned first with the rediscovery of unknown works and only then with their performance, the currently fashionable authentic- performance movement concentrates. on finding a different way to render music that is already widely known and indeed much loved.
The authentic-performance movement has three components. First, there is the required employment of original instruments—instruments resembling as closely as possible those on which the music was to be played at the time of its composition. Second, there must be a reliance on what remains of the composer’s original text, freed of all inadvertent error in transmission and publication, and of all subsequent editorial emendation. Finally, as currently defined, authentic performance necessitates the use of original performance styles—the complete observance of the composer’s explicit indications, and an untiring attempt to recover all that can be known of the unwritten, customary, and taken-for-granted methods of deciphering and implementing his written notation.
Thus, superannuated instruments are sought out and, if unavailable (or too far gone to restore), are closely copied: these extend from early organs, harpsichords, and pianos, to discarded and often difficult-to-play winds, brass, and drums. Even new string instruments are not exempt from replacement by old—for though there has in fact been little if any development in the basic design of the instruments themselves since the time of the great 17th-century Italian craftsmen, in music written before 1750 or thereabouts forms of the viol family were called for that are now obsolete, and the shape and weight of the bows, as well as the materials from which strings are made, have also greatly changed over the years.
In the area of texts—the notes from which musicians play—the emphasis is on discovering the composer’s intentions. To do this, it is necessary to separate, in as rigorous a fashion as possible, the composer’s bare notes and directions—very much including his tempo indications—as well as the additions and modifications his earliest performers have supplied unbidden, from what later generations of editors and performers alike might provide in the way of explication, amplification, and deciphering.
Authentic-performance specialists are aware, as musicians have always been, that notes, to live, must be interpreted. The rules that guide and control this transition from printed symbols to vibrant sound make up what is called style. In authentic performances the sought-after styles, including details of rhythmic execution, instrumental techniques, and concert pitch, are those contemporaneous with the composer—the exact way a composer might have heard his works when they were first rendered, at the time of their composition or shortly thereafter, by the best and most representative executants of the day.
What I have just written, schematic as it is, is enough to suggest just how vastly different the authentic-performance movement is from what has until now been the accepted method of musical performance. Whereas the new approach is based on the use of scholarship to recapture a lost material reality of physically existing instruments, written texts, and definable styles, the best that has gone on over the past century and more in concert halls and opera houses has stressed spiritual insight—the empathic projection of the minds and talents of performers into the creative souls of great composers. In an older day, the greatest of performers were regarded, and regarded themselves, as quasi-divine beings who knew no rules to guide their instinctive furthering of the essence of the music and therefore could not be bound by them; now, despite many glib references to inspiration, for the most active of the new breed of performers, just as for the academic historians whom they so much resemble, everything is facts and rules of evidence.
The authentic-performance movement gained its first foothold in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. This body of immortal music qualified in every way as a subject for scholarship: it was great; it was vast; it was well documented; it was intellectually complex; it was successful both with an educated nucleus and with a large public. The beginnings of authentic Bach performance go back as far as the monumental late 19th-century German editions of his works; the movement took a quantum leap forward after World War I, when Wanda Landowska’s concerts and recordings on a specially built Pleyel harpsichord, with a tonal power and a timbral flexibility previously unknown, severed the century-old linkage of Bach’s keyboard music to the formerly ubiquitous piano.
Another leap in the number of authentic performances of Bach solo and ensemble works occurred with the post-World War II explosion in electronic technology, when the introduction of magnetic tape and the LP made possible easily produced, cheap, and noise-free recordings—often by little-known artists—of the entire musical corpus. The surest sign of the triumph of the historical approach in Bach performance (in addition to the highly visible increase in the number of putatively authentic performances) has been the use of traditional instruments—in particular the piano—to sound bright, dry, and in every other possible way like the historical instruments which they so long ago replaced.
Once Bach performance had been colonized by the authenticists—and this process was essentially complete in the 1960’s, by which time Bach-playing on the piano or by large orchestral forces, with the inevitably heavy dose of “feeling,” was already seen as intellectually infra dig—it was only a short step to rolling the new historico-scholarly approach forward to classical and early romantic music: Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.
As far as Haydn is concerned, a veritable ocean of research, much of it done by the American scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, has affected the performance of all the areas in which this composer worked, including his operas, symphonies, and string quartets. The musical effect, which can be noticed by comparing the spacious recordings of the past with the emblematically tight-sounding new recordings of Haydn symphonies by the Academy of Ancient Music under the English conductor Christopher Hogwood, has been to replace the traditional idea of the conductor as musical visionary with the up-to-date figure of the conductor as historical researcher, administrative agent, and time-beater.
Mainstream performances of Mozart, though perhaps not quite so taken over by the imperatives of scholarship, now increasingly display a thinness of sound, a stiffness of rhythm, an avoidance of sentimentality—and a laboriousness of instrumental execution—directly traceable to the new intellectual currents. For their part, the historically authentic Mozart performances now available fully demonstrate the new rationality. Once again Hogwood (who has recorded all the Mozart symphonies) is illustrative of the trend; another is the Dutch early-music specialist Frans Brueggen. To understand the immense changes in Mozart-playing that these contemporary versions document, one need only compare them with the pre-World War II recordings, at once sprightly and weighty, of the inimitable Sir Thomas Beecham.
In Schubert’s music, the new development these days is the use of the fortepiano, a predecessor of the modern concert-grand piano that flourished in the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th. The fortepiano, often mechanically inefficient and unreliable, is now widely praised as rich in color and vibrant in tone. As played on new recordings by one of its foremost contemporary exponents, the Singapore-born Anglo- Chinese pianist Melvyn Tan, this instrument brings to Schubert keyboard works all the spuriously fruity twangs characteristic of generations of poorly maintained upright pianos. Even if Mr. Tan is not to be held responsible for the sound of the instrument he has chosen, his performances remain flat, unfeeling, and clumsy; in this music, the pre-World War II recordings of Edwin Fischer and Artur Schnabel, for all their lack of modern scholarship, remain touchstones.
Though the conquests of the authentic-performance movement in the music of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart have been undeniable, it is the application of this new ideology to the playing of Beethoven that seems to me to raise the most important issues for our musical life. Now, more than two centuries after his birth in 1770, Beethoven has become the central composer of our Western musical tradition. In purely chronological terms, Beethoven occupies a position, looking at once backward and forward, in the middle of Western musical development from 1600 or thereabouts to the present day. It is highly likely that in concert programs his music is played more than that of any other composer. And beyond mere popularity, there can be no doubt that Beethoven’s compositions, as individual works and as a total achievement, form both the basis and the very definition of three fundamental musical genres: with his nine symphonies Beethoven created our idea of the symphony, and the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of his thirty-two piano sonatas and his sixteen string quartets (to which must be added the Grosse Fuge op. 133).
Opinions may differ as to why this primacy of Beethoven in our musical life should be so universally accepted. The simplest answer will stress Beethoven’s unique greatness as a composer, but this explanation hardly suffices. For whatever the exact nature of his greatness, there can be little doubt that in complexity of workmanship, Beethoven stands a distant second to Bach, and in refinement of expression, he stands a distant second to Mozart. By contrast, the cynical will no doubt say that Beethoven is so popular because he is so much played, but surely this easy answer only begs the question. Others will point to the historical connection between the rise of Beethoven’s popularity and the rise of the European middle classes in the 19th century and after, but this confuses temporal association with cause, and in any case runs the risk of reducing truly great art to mere sociology. Still others, arguably closer to the mark, will speak of the atmosphere of courage, heroism, and frequent triumph which Beethoven’s music breathes and exudes. For the advocates of this position, even Beethoven’s rapt and contemplative lyricism only completes the marvelous strength with which his music abounds.
But whatever the reasons for the place we accord to Beethoven, the fact of his primacy remains. And so any movement in performance that itself strives to be central must offer a convincing solution to the ever-repeating riddle: how is Beethoven’s music to be performed?
Not surprisingly, given the close relationship that has always existed in England between intellectual and musical activity, many (though not all) of the new Beethoven performance currents have come from London, and from there have made their way, mostly via recordings, to America and the rest of the world. To date, there are two complete recorded versions of the Beethoven symphonies (and many of individual symphonies as well) satisfying the present criteria of authenticity. They come from Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band1 and Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players2; a third complete version, not yet available as a set, is by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.3 All these recordings use period instruments, texts purged of later editorial accretions and followed zealously, and performing styles formed by the latest scholarly reports of what the available documents reveal of the codified and/ or merely understood practices of Beethoven’s own time.
On the whole, the critical reaction to this approach has been ecstatic. Here, we have been told in publications from the prestigious English record magazine Gramophone to the equally prestigious New York Times, is Beethoven’s music wie es eigentlich gewesen (as it really was). Still, there are distinctions drawn among those praised, and the clear critical winner thus far in the authentic-performance derby has been Roger Norrington.
Now fifty-five, and for many years the musical director of Kent Opera, Norrington (in addition to his work with the London Classical Players) is currently chief conductor of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and also a busy guest conductor in England and abroad. He has been discussed in the Gramophone in the company of Toscanini and Karajan; for the now-defunct High Fidelity, too, he was “the most talked-about Beethoven conductor since Toscanini”; for the New York Times, “No one is more admired in this [Beethoven] repertory than Mr. Norrington”; the musicologist Richard Taruskin, writing in the also defunct Opus (and despite his many reservations about authentic performance in general), has no doubt “that Roger Norrington is to be the next great Beethoven conductor.”
So enthusiastic is the praise for this new arrival on the scene, and so inevitable is the final hegemony of the movement he represents made to seem, that the music lover may well feel he has no other recourse than to learn to like what is being offered. There is no better cure for such intellectual conformity than a bit of tough-minded listening.
As one makes one’s way through Norrington’s recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, one soon recognizes that they indeed sum up the authentic-performance movement. Here, to begin with, are all its characteristic tonal features: string sounds, especially when unaccompanied by the other sections of the orchestra, reminiscent of what is produced by a harmonium; raucous wind playing, marked not just by shrill tone but by gross unevenness and unpredictability; clumsy brass playing, by turns muffled and shrieking, tympani sounds resembling what happens when a bean-bag is dropped on a tabletop. Overall balance between sections, assisted by the weakness of the string playing and by the brute force of (especially) the trumpets and the horns, so favors the winds and the brass that essential melodic features when played by the strings (the opening theme of the Eighth Symphony is a case in point) are often blotted out. Taken together, these attributes produce a choked, clipped sonority dependent on the booming acoustics of the recording space and on the addition of electronic resonance for any life whatsoever.
Though difficult to separate from the sound-ideal of authenticity, all the now much-admired features of the new phrasing are on these records as well: short note durations; much attention to detached playing in fast passages; strident accentuation; over-regular organization by bar-lines as a substitute for the natural flow of melodies. Tempos, as always proudly fulfilling Beethoven’s own metronome markings, seem most strikingly to be chosen from a range restricted to fast, faster, and fastest. The use of the ritardando—the predictable slowing-down at ends of phrases and sections, omnipresent in romantic musical performance—is limited to the relatively few occasions when explicitly required by the composer; elsewhere—which means almost all the time—the foundation of the performance, in a way Beethoven could hardly have desired or even imagined, is the tick-tock of the metronome.
So prevailingly headlong is the pulse in these Norrington records that Beethoven’s music is made to seem a perfect representation of the sign in Barnum’s circuses, “This way to the egress.” Everywhere, there is a lack of breadth and space. Though the performances are short-winded, the music does not breathe. Because the music does not breathe, this quintessentially passionate music conveys no passion. All the reviewers, it is true, speak of the coruscating excitement they seem to get out of Norrington’s work, but this verdict only proves how indistinguishable in modern criticism true excitement is from mere panic.
These performances are, in short, consistently bad—and what is bad about them is precisely the result of the fleshing-out of all the absurd musico-intellectual pretensions of the authentic-performance movement. Instruments existing only as copies of broken-down originals, and made with modern materials and by modern techniques, are seen as authentic; they are played by musicians trained on modern instruments, and not by the very best musicians either; implicit reliance is placed on texts of varying reliability; performing directions are taken from conflicting treatises written in many cases by pedants.
What is striking about the badness of these performances, however, is not their inadequacy as music making or their relative inferiority to many other available recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, but rather the sameness that is made to suffuse these very different works. In Norrington’s performances, there is not a jot of aesthetic or affective difference between the First Symphony (1800) and the Ninth (1822-24); for this conductor, evidently, everything must sound as if it comes out of the same hurdy-gurdy. The impression of consistency is remarkable in that it constitutes a total rejection of the principle of development in Beethoven’s music. In our formerly benighted age—the period, that is, from Beethoven’s life to the coming of authenticity and, now, of Roger Norrington—the composer was thought to have begun as a young man infusing classicism with the stirrings of heroic romanticism; in his middle period he was thought to have shaken his fist at the world, substituting for its rejection of him (and, in turn, for his rejection of it) his own will; as he approached death, it was thought that he had come to embrace life and the world, writing the unforgettable closing movement of his last great work, the String Quartet in F major, opus 135, under the motto Muss es sein? Es muss sein (“Must it be? It must be”).
If one finds the miracle of development in Beethoven to lie at the core of his musical persona; if one expects performance to fulfill the duty of making this development explicit in all its scope, variety, and depth—then these Norrington performances are not merely bad, but scandalous. Of course, to call any artistic product a scandal today is, I am well aware, to run the risk of paying what will be taken by many as the highest compliment. But the scandal I have in mind is nothing less than Norrington’s all-out attack on the foundations of Beethoven’s greatness. Thus, in an interview in the Gramophone in April 1989, he spoke of the pleasure he takes in the widespread recognition that he has succeeded in adding humor to Beethoven’s seriousness:
This is something Victorians and puritans and followers of the Ayatollah just can’t understand: that you can be deeply serious and humorous at the same time. It’s the heart of the matter. I think this idea that music should be sehr ernst [very serious] and not a matter for humor all began in the Victorian era when music was an upper-class activity that separated you from the trogs. Also, the time when all this heaviness set in was the time religion was really being challenged in a major way, and for a while music took over the significance of a religion—it acquired stained glass—and Wagner was the arch-priest. Now it was the “mystical world of German music”—it had to be seen to be difficult, heavy, plush, an embodiment of authority—everything that Beethoven was against. And certainly any authority that stands up and says “We are right, my boy” I can’t stand.
It is Plain, then, that the source of the consistency with which these records are suffused is Norrington’s attempt to reconstitute Beethoven not in the authentic terms of the reality of his times and of his artistic and human persona, but in terms of the postmodern effort to humble once-mighty artists, thinkers, and values. The musical—and, I would venture to add, the human—result of Norrington’s success in cutting Beethoven down to size is to be found in the utter failure of his hasty and heedless presentation of the most sublime moments of this music: the epic Funeral March of the Eroica, the hushed transition to and triumphant arrrival of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, and above all the pity-laden Adagio and the hymnic finale of the Ninth.
It is no defense, either of Norrington or of his devotees, to adduce Beethoven’s metronome markings as justification for these musical crimes. Any musician with experience in playing music by living composers knows that of all their performance directions, metronome markings are the least viable, consistent, and trustworthy. The reasons, very much applying to Beethoven, include distance in time from the work’s actual composition, inexperience with the requirements of performance, a frequent disdain for the very fact of performance, and above all the composer’s preexisting and complete knowledge of the content and structure of the music, a knowledge which no audience—and few performers either—can be expected to possess. Here, then, in the area of tempo, is ultimately where the entire ideology of authentic performance comes apart: ultimately, the interpreter must find the right tempo for himself.
If there is no composer-provided certainty of tempo, it remains true that tempo in itself, in its direct ability to express mood and clarify structure, is the single most important determinant of the effect of a performance. The experience of listening to this music in Norrington’s execution, with its slavish reliance on Beethoven’s metronome markings, while at the same time remembering the performances of such conductors as Toscanini, Furtwäingler, and Bruno Walter is, in a sense perhaps different from that which Shakespeare intended in Henry V, an experience of “minding true things by what their mockeries be.”
If we have had the good fortune to hear Beethoven in great performances, we can indeed mind true things. But what if we have not had this fortune? What if the prospective new audience—young, and for the most part ill-educated and often ignorant—comes to music believing what it reads in reputedly prestigious publications? What, in other words, if the future audiences for these treasures of our civilization think, as they are incessantly told, that they are being given the true Beethoven, when it is really, in the most important sense, a mockery?
I do not know where the flood of contemporary performances may be found that are now so needed to communicate this great music once again. I do know that for all their presumptive newness, the Norrington Nine are merely the latest version of an old assault on the corpus of beauty.
1 Nimbus CD 5144/48.
2 Angel CD A26 49852.
3 The Hogwood Ninth has just been issued on L'Oiseau-Lyre 425 517-2.