Category Archives: Classical Music

Wrong Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Fidelity to the score is a defining characteristic of classical music. Pitches, values, tempi, volumes, and articulations are clearly written for meticulous enactment. In translating these symbols into sound, the musician ensures the piece’s survival even centuries after the composer’s death. There is, of course, room for (slight) variation. Because elements such as dynamics and tempo markings are at least moderately open to interpretation, no two performances will be exactly the same. Still, the faithful and accurate rendering of notes is key to the integrity—and the very existence—of a classical piece.

The foregoing outlines the nominalist theory of classical music, which defines a work in terms of concrete particulars relating to it, such as scores and performances. Because a musical piece is an audible and experiential phenomenon, which is symbolically represented in the score, it can only truly exist in performance.

This position raises two issues. The first concerns “authentic” performance. Is it enough to simply play the notes as indicated, or do those notes have to be played on the instrument(s) the composer intended? Does a cello suite played on double bass or a reduction of a symphony played on the piano qualify as an instance of the same work? How essential is the use of appropriate period instruments? These questions look for elements beyond the written notes.

The second issue centers on the notes themselves. Most performances of concert works include several wrong notes. However, we generally do not discount these performances for that reason (and we may not register the wrong notes as they are played). If all of the notes are wrong, then the work has not been performed, even if the intention is sincere. But what percentage of the notes can be wrong for the performance to qualify as the work? We might argue that the work is independent from any performance of it; but that does not satisfy the nominalist’s position.

Most discussions of musical ontology—addressing the big question, “Do musical works exist?”—are confined to classical music. Score-dependent arguments do not lend themselves to jazz, for instance, where the improvising performer composes on the spot, or certain kinds of folk music, where embellishments are commonplace and written notation is absent.

Questions about music’s ontological reality do not have easy answers, and the various philosophical camps have their weaknesses: nominalists, Platonists (who view musical works as abstract objects), idealists (who view musical works as mental entities), and so on. Whatever fruits such discourse might bear, it points to the uniquely “other” nature of music, which is both recognizable and ineffable, repeatable and singular.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Conductor as Performer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Felix Mendelssohn is credited with popularizing the use of a baton for orchestral conducting, beginning in 1829. Louis Spohr claimed he introduced the practice in 1820 while guest-conducting the large and spread apart London Philharmonic Society. Accounts of wooden batons appear before the end of the eighteenth century, but the device was slow to catch on, largely due to resistance from orchestras. Seventeenth-century ensembles were typically lead by violinists (concert masters), who kept groups together by playing loudly, bowing vigorously, and occasionally tapping with the bow. Other tactics emerged as ensembles grew in size. In a 1752 treatise, C. P. E. Bach advised leading from the keyboard. When orchestras were first joined with choirs, the violinist would often lead one section, while the harpsichordist led the other. Opera conductors sometimes stood off to the side, pounding a staff on the floor. By the early nineteenth century, conductors positioned themselves in front of orchestras, brandishing rolled-up sheets of paper. They typically faced the audience, not the players, so as not to appear rude.

As this sketch suggests, the history of conducting is not uniform or altogether clear. The stable position as we know it today masks a gradual and convoluted development. Mendelssohn was key in establishing the conductor’s independent role. According to Leonard Bernstein, a famously kinetic twentieth-century conductor, Mendelssohn founded the “‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.” The two styles are not necessarily diametrically opposed: there can be passion in elegance, and elegance in passion. Nevertheless, they represent contrasting aesthetics, as outlined by Phillip Murray Dineen of the University of Ottawa.

The first is resident aesthetics, or functional beauty accrued from gestures associated with the music performed. These include fixed beat patterns and their modifications: accelerandos, ritardandos, fermatas, dynamic changes, and the like. The second is sympathetic aesthetics, or beauty derived from decorative contrivances apart from the task at hand. Dineen describes it as “a largely non-functional set of gestures unique to a given conductor, which often accomplish little or nothing mechanical in and of themselves, but instead either work to elicit a particular and specialized affect from the players or serve merely as interesting bodily motions for the aesthetic satisfaction of the audience.”

Bernstein is representative of the latter class. As music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 (and conductor emeritus thereafter), he was praised and criticized for his ecstatic, dance-like style. His statement in The Joy of Music took some by surprise: “Perhaps the chief requirement of all is that [the conductor] be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience.” Gunther Schuller considered it “saddening and perplexing that Bernstein rarely followed his own credo.”

Of course, some music demands more exaggerated gestures than others. Compare, for instance, a quasi-spontaneous avant-garde composition with a predicable Classical chamber piece. In the former, demonstrative conducting is more functional than self-indulgent. Still, whether the movements are staid, effusive, or somewhere in between, the modern conductor adds an important visual dimension to a largely aural phenomenon.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Timeless and Time-bound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Western classical music, as a generic term separate from the segmented musical chronology, has a quality of timelessness. Works spanning more than three-hundred years—from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond—are grouped together in concert halls, radio programs, and the public’s imagination. Judged as outstanding specimens of their kind, they exhibit wide stylistic variations and expressive techniques, yet reside comfortably side by side as “classics.”

Leonard Bernstein, speaking at a Young People’s Concert,  pinpointed key contrasts between classical and other types of music: “The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing them—even to the exact number of instruments or voices. He also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up.” Contrastingly, Bernstein argued, “there’s no end to the ways in which [a popular tune] can be played or sung.”

Variations in classical performances stem not from self-initiated diversions, but from trying to interpret what the composer meant as closely as possible. Despite nuances of tempo, mood, and accentuation, the notes and instrumentation remain largely intact. These stabilized traits departed from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, when instrumentation was flexible, improvisation was integral, and notation was under-prescriptive. The meticulous directions and normalized expectations of classical music have ensured its transmission as a repeatable and recognizable art form.

Such timelessness comes into focus when confronted with its opposite. Beginning in the late 1960s, several attempts were made to “update” classical music for contemporary audiences. Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter Carlos (now Wendy) initiated the trend with ten Bach arrangements for Moog synthesizer. Carlos followed it up with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), featuring electric versions of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach, and her soundtrack for Clockwork Orange (1972), with synthesized renditions of Beethoven’s Ninth. Part of the appeal of Bob Moog’s instrument was its contemporariness. Space Age listeners resonated with its “future is now” aesthetic and “orchestra-in-a-box” convenience. Elites were equally enthralled, handing Switch-On Bach three Grammies in the classical category: best album, best performance, and best engineered recording.

Meco’s disco album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, released in 1977 (the same year as the film), is an illustrative offering from that era of classical retooling. Its showcase piece, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” topped  the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, owing to the popularity both of the film and of commercialized orchestral adaptations. Ironically, with his scores for Star Wars and other pictures, John Williams spearheaded a resurgence of classical film scoring, which had largely been replaced by pop soundtracks in the 1970s. Yet, as much as his writing convincingly retrieved an earlier genre of film music, it could not evade the sonic stamp of its age.

What unites these examples—and all pop treatments of classical music—is their time-boundedness. That which is “up-to-date” only remains so until that date has passed. The Moog sound is passé, disco is dead, but classical music is timeless. Its preservationist ethos—of instruments, interpretations, substances, and forms—has ensured its survival against the vicissitudes of taste.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.