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Going Back in Time

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This is the first We Are OCA post to be authored by OCA’s new music tutor Duncan Druce. In addition to his work as a composer and arranger, Duncan is known as a violinist and viola player, specialising mainly in the baroque and classical periods. He is also a regular contributor to Gramophone magazine.
Great artists may be immortal, but works of art are still subject to the ravages of time. Paintings and sculptures may suffer physical degradation; in other arts decay may be due to cultural change. Music, along with the other performing arts, has appeared especially ephemeral – a musical score, however carefully written, is only the template for a performance, and anyway, most music in the world has never been written down.
In the last 120 years or so, however, sound recording has provided a means of preserving musical performances. This is potentially a wonderful resource for studying music, and especially musical performance, from the past, but the unwary listener immediately meets several problems. First, there are the technical limitations of the recording process, especially in the period before electrical recording was introduced around 1925. The 1913 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch, can give little idea of the sonorous effect of a live performance by this team. Extraneous noise, imperfect balance, and lack of response across the whole frequency range – all these factors combine to limit accurate transmission of the performance. However, solo voices and instruments fare much better, and it’s easier for a listener with some imagination to make allowances for poor sound quality than to adapt to styles of performance that have long since fallen out of fashion.

Nowadays, there’s an expectation, in part promoted by the recording industry, that classical musicians will give an accurate, polished account of the notes in the score – questions of interpretation may form the substance of music criticism, but behind this is the assumption that the recorded performance is more or less perfect. A first-time listener to early twentieth-century recordings is likely to be struck by inaccurate ensemble and rhythmic irregularity, as well as by what can seem like tasteless mannerisms, such as the prominent slides indulged in by singers and string players. It’s easier to think “we know better than to do that nowadays” than to engage with the performers more deeply. It’s worth reflecting, however, that most of the recording artists of the early 1900s excited enormous enthusiasm and admiration; to their audiences they were absolutely on top of their game. And we can also reflect that maybe they were trying to do something different from their present-day successors – the portamenti would give a particular emotional colour to a phrase, and a certain kind of rubato would accentuate the character of the music. There’s also the interesting fact of many artists’ association with famous composers: Joachim premiered Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Caruso was much admired by Puccini, and Ysaÿe took part in the first performances of the César Franck Sonata and the Debussy String Quartet. So we know what these composers expected to hear and, in all these cases, what pleased them.
So it’s well worth the trouble, I think, to listen without prejudice and repeatedly to many of these records – it can broaden our musical horizons, make us think again about some familiar music, and about the reasons for changes in styles of performance.

Posted by author: Duncan
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One thought on “Going Back in Time

  • Interesting. It’s quite an eye opener listening to early recordings.
    Take the recording of the Enigma Variations with Elgar conducting for instance, you can’t help get a slap in the face when Nimrod comes blaring back at you with so much portamenti on the strings!
    However, it IS Elgar conducting, so thought must be given to what exactly constitutes acceptable practice for historical interpretation.
    Link for clip of recording: ( http://www.classicsonline.com/catalogue/product.aspx?pid=436 )

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