Musical Rantings and Ravings


Another Beethoven’s Ninth!!

Beethoven CDs

Attribution: Flikr, Some rights reserved by scchiang

(Alert: most musical examples require that you either be on campus or have your computer set up to access library resources from off campus)

I am often asked by musicians, librarians, and administrators, “why are you buying yet another performance of a particular work?” At one point in my life, Ii thought it was so I could pick and choose various ways of performing–to get interpretive ideas.  And that is still true…but there is more.

If a piece of music is worth studying?… If it can reveal something about the place, time, circumstance, or environment in which it was originally formed?… If it can reveal more about the culture and environments that might still revere it?…then it is worth studying at a deeper level.

But that still doesn’t answer the question…Why yet another recorded performance of this or that work?

Well the answer might lie outside of music.  Let’s look at how we study other “things”.  First, lets look at how we might study… dragonflies.  “But wait,” you say, “a composition is not like a dragonfly!”  And you are right.  But we can and do study them in similar ways.  When we examine a specimen of either a dragonfly or a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations we can examine and document the tempo (speed of wings), the type of instrument it was played on (color and iridescence), the dynamics used (the size of various body parts), we can even investigate the score (genetic code).  All in all, the way we might look at that specimen can, and often is, similar.  And in this way, we get to know that particular dragonfly specimen, or recorded performance very, very well.

But what if we wanted to understand the entire species of dragonfly–not just the one we have, but what does the word “dragonfly” mean everywhere?  Are dragonflies always the same size and color and move exactly the same?  Do they have the same behaviors everywhere, or eat the same diet?  We can ask similar kinds of questions about a musical work.  Has it always been performed in the same way?  Is there a difference in traditions?  Is it always performed at the same tempo or dynamics or on the same instrument?

How do we do that?  Well the answer is simple.  We examine a lot of specimens.  We increase the sample population and note where they came from and when.  We soon discover that from the original conception, our dragonfly (or musical work) has evolved.  We can see then that the time and place influences how a piece is performed, just as environment influences the genetic expression of our little dragonfly.

I chose the Goldberg Variations as it is for one person to play (usually), it is less dense (often no more than two notes being sounded at any given time), and, I hesitate to say this but, accessible in musical style.  Additionally, there are scores of great interpreters and each has brought his or her own history, culture, and tradition to their performance.  Each performer has influenced the evolution of Bach’s original genetic code.  Consequently, each performance reveals new meanings, opens up new vistas of emotion and reveals something about the culture the performers, themselves, arose from.

For example, while listening to many performances of Aria (ends at 1 minute and 53 seconds in this recording),

which is the basis of Bach’s subsequent variations, we find a range of performing time from under 2 minutes to almost 5 minutes!!

Some play on Bach’s original instrument, the harpsichord,

others on the modern piano, and even a few on the organ.

It has been arranged for just about every kind of instrument and ensemble including guitar

Jazz Combo

and string trio

each requiring subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, changes in the original articulation, dynamics, tempi, and meaning.

To understand the difference that those dynamics, tempi, articulation, and performing venue can make, I offer two video comparisons.

Glenn Gould as a young man in 1955.

And then from 1981

Both are rightly considered great performances.  But, what a difference a lifetime makes.  Not only is the tempo radically different, but the articulation is crisp and crystaline early and filled with rubato and legato touch later.  The lower line that is relegated to “harmonic support” in the early recording takes on its own life and expression in the later recording.  Its as if, the elder Gould has found that it is the left hand representing the inevitable years of life ticking away–slowly, methodically–that is now the primary motive.  The right hand has become the busy-ness that often gets in the way of the deep and lasting.  Emotionally, they are completely different genuses (to revive the dragonfly metaphor).

At JMU we have access to scores of performances of this piece at and Naxos.  And if you want a round object to play off of we have plenty of different versions of this same work for checkout (including Glenn Gould’s early and late recordings).

So why do we need to hear many different performances of the same work?  It does help young musicians, who hear interpretations of great artists, begin to find their own voice.  But more importantly it offers a more complete picture of what a “species” of music is– how it is expressed in its fullness, the range of meanings and emotions that are inherent in the basic code (score).  And by doing so, it frees us, as musicians and as listeners to come to musical works anew (like Glenn Gould)–to understand that we bring as much to the work in our performing or listening as the composer did in the creation.  And so we see that the evolution of a musical work is continuing through us.

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