Wednesday, January 31, 2007

performance practice

There is in recent scholarship a great concern with authenticity in performance practice.
Some of the most changes have been made to the way in which we perform Bach’s works. The performance ensembles have been trimmed down from the over-grown Romantic orchestras that were performing this music in the early part of the twentieth century to a smaller, more authentic, lithe ensemble.
There is quite a bit of contention over Bach’s greater works, we will specifically look at his B minor mass. First we have analysis of Bach’s original intentions based upon the number of parts copied for the first performance. This concludes that the pieces were performed with one vocalist using each score, and we can from this determine the number of performers singing at the original performance.
Bach drew his choirs from his pupils at St. Thomas, in his Entwurff , or ‘draft’ he lists all his students and their abilities. He concludes that he has only 17 students suitable for his Cantatas, (Rifkin 750) two of whom would have conducting responsibilities as prefects, there were always a number of boys who had to play instruments to fill out the orchestra, and of course someone was always sick or out of town. This would leave they choir with about two boys for each part. This was not unusual as the term choir at this point was frequently used to refer to a group of soloists. From the number of copies of the B minor Mass and the manner in which the parts split off for soloists, Rifkin concludes that there were probably meant to be sung by soloists “When pitted against an ensemble of the proper size and proper instruments”, not by 12 voices as others had concluded as this would create “a grotesque imbalance between the upper and lower voices.” (Rifkin 754).
A different conclusion was drawn by another as to the original number of performers. His conclusions are based not on the number of original performance scores, rather from the Entwurff. He says that there are normally two or three to a part, but “it would be better if there were four singers to a part.” (Marshall 21). We have here a distinct discrepancy between the number of singers available, and the number of singers desirable. The argument continues that it is preposterous to think that only one performer sang from each part written out. There was barely time to copy the desired articulation into the score, let alone more complete copies than absolutely necessary. We must conclude that more than one performer used each score.
When one steps back from these articles for a moment, one realizes that the difference between two people on each part, versus three or four makes what appears to be quite a small difference in the overall texture of the piece. If the B minor mass was indeed performed with soloists all the way through however, there would be a noticeable difference. The question is of course how should we take this into account for performances today.
I ultimately enjoy both perfomances by large choirs and soloists equally. I think that both can be masterfully done, and give good musical interpretation to the piece. This is what matters the most in performance, good musicality. This good musicality is derived from the decisions of the directors, and one condition that should come into consideration is the authenticity. One should not perform a piece in a certain fashion merely because this is how it has been performed as long as we have had recordings to allow us to document how past performances were done. We frequently make the mistake of assuming that the way in which our earliest recordings were executed are the culmination of years of ‘good’ and unchanged performance practice. This of course can in no way be the case. As such it is important to research and consider what were the composer’s original intentions when creating a piece.
The danger that this research leads to is the idea of infallibility in the composer’s intentions, and of course, misunderstanding the composer’s circumstances for his intentions. It is important to take into consideration the original circumstances of the performance, but one must make good musical decisions from this and other factors. While I enjoy listening to the solo recording, as a performer I feel that I would prefer to be part of a larger performance. The B minor mass is a tremendous work with instrument-like vocal lines that pose trouble for individual phrasing, not to mention the danger of fatigue. Therefore the decision to use soloists must be based upon the performers that one has. One must also take into consideration the type of sound they desire for the performance: perhaps one wants the lithe sound of soloists and a small orchestra, or perhaps one wants the grand sound of a larger choir and orchestra. Ultimately this is all research that ought to be done, as it leads to better informed performances, but authenticity does not guarantee a good performance, careful consideration and musicality does.

1 comment:

Duff said...

It would seem like that as a director, one would not so much wishbe a slave to the piece one wishes to perfom, but work through it to the point where the piece is no longer just the composer's, but in some sense, also the music director's, a shared ownership. But the ultimate flaw with persuing this line of attack when engaged in a music work, which is what the authenticity poeple probably smell, is falling prey to the whims of the day's fashion, once you open up the music director's role as a critic of the piece she directs. Of course, I see two replies: yours (have a good sense of style [in this case "consideration and musicality"]) that over comes such winds of fashion, and one that is more trite, that "authenticity" as a concept is itself just a fashion.