Dr. Ross W. Duffin

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Performance Practice: Que me veux-tu?

(What do you want from me?)

revised from Early Music America Magazine 1 (1995)

by Ross W. Duffin

     The title refers to the remark, “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” attributed in Rousseau’s Dictionnaire(1755) to a man named Fontenelle. What is performance practice and what is it good for? And what does it require of you as a performer of baroque music? These are questions that my students and I have grappled with for many years, so I thought it might be useful to share some of my thoughts and experiences. A lot of what I have to say might be applied to both earlier and more recent repertoires as well, but I’ll use baroque music as a kind of nexus – a place where the early music movement and the mainstream coincide and occasionally conflict.

The obvious answer to the first question I posed is: Performance practice is a way to make performances more “authentic”, especially in combination with the use of “original instruments.” To use a contemporary analogy, performance practice is the “software” and the instruments are the “hardware.”

Actually, the terms “authentic” and “original instruments” are currently out of fashion in the field. “Authentic” implies a monopoly on the truth and inside information on the composer’s wishes…well, maybe not his wishes but at least his intentions…well, perhaps expectations would be a better word…or how about the kind of thing he might have expected on an average day in a radius of about 200 miles from his house. You get the idea. Also, the claim of authenticity implies that everyone who does not strive for the same ideals is perversely striving for inauthentic and inappropriate performances.

Advocates for awareness of performance practice issues – for historically informed performance – have been fortunate to have some eloquent critics within our own ranks. First among these is Richard Taruskin, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley but also a frequent writer for the popular press. His writings include a contribution to a forum in Early Music Magazine entitled “The Limits of Authenticity,” an article in the Journal of Musicology, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself,” and more recently, “The Pastness of the Present,” in Authenticity and Early Music, a collection of essays published Oxford University Press. Another American, Laurence Dreyfus of King’s College, London, wrote a Musical Quarterly article entitled “Early Music Defended against its Devotees.” This is attack from within, and yet it has all been extremely healthy in my view.

So when Christopher Hogwood (for whom I have great admiration in many ways) claims the primacy of the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica and attempts to recreate its every detail in performance right down to the acknowledged lack of rhythmic and dynamic nuance – almost certainly due to the large number of amateur players who had to be used – this is truly using performance practice, and yet we can say “no thank you.”

Similarly, early music performers sometimes state a desire to “let the music speak for itself” (Taruskin’s phrase) or to “let the composer’s voice be heard.” Such performers often see their role more as mediums than as interpreters. But this, too, is a fallacy. We cannot know what the composer wished to say or exactly how he/she wanted it said. The thought that this should be first and foremost in the performer’s mind is not an historical view of the performer’s role, by any means, but rather one that Taruskin has traced to Stravinsky and Hindemith in our own century. However much Beethoven’s piano music must have seemed like scripture in the 19th century, when Franz Liszt played it, the written notes were heavily glossed: musical exegesis and marginalia. And it is also true that the very act of performing is an act of interpreting – something that even Taruskin has failed to recognize sufficiently in some of his writings.

Yet another aspect of performance practice awareness has been the tendency to look for historical justification for every detail of the interpretation. “If a theorist didn’t say it, then you can’t do it.” Well, you can, but somebody is likely to announce that you’re wrong. The trouble with this approach is that it can give rise to historiographical dogmatism: “What are the rules? How do I apply them in this measure, and in the next measure. Will my performance then be authentic?” The problem here is that we can never have enough information about what early performances were like, and if we require written documentation for everything, or if we simply wish to avoid criticism altogether, we must be silent (I have heard this recommended in all seriousness). The other problem is that if we follow every known precept of performance (after reconciling any contradictory information), what do we do when another treatise is discovered next year? This is one of the things about performance practice that gives rise to the changing fashions in historical performances and marks them truly as artifacts of our own day. The modern, popular music term for this is “flavor of the week.”

Now that I’ve aired all of the performance practice dirty linen, as it were, I need to build up the positive side. The historical performance movement has a lot to offer or it wouldn’t have so many passionate adherents right now. But is it so much an artifact of the present that performers should just throw up their hands and say, “Well, it really doesn’t matter how I do it. The more we know, the more possibilities there are. I might as well do it the way it feels right to me.”? After the hardware question has been decided, that, basically, is the heart of the question: Are the interpretive decisions based on a study of performance practice better than the evolved mainstream ones?

In class, I begin to answer this question by playing two recordings of the Corelli Trio Sonata, Op. 4, No. 8. 1st mvt.: Preludio. The first performance (Odyssey 32 26 0006) is by what I will characterize as a mainstream ensemble – it includes, for example, a member of the Guarneri Quartet. The playing is perfectly adequate: the notes are all there and they’re in tune. In addition, there is a measured gravity about the performance as if the performers were showing a great respect for the music. The harpsichord is a little soft, however, and it’s hard to tell if the cello is playing along or not.

Mainstream Ensemble



The second (Philips CD 416 614-2) is a historical performance rendition of the same movement and, to me, it’s a much richer musical experience. For one thing, vibrato isn’t used constantly as it is in the first performance. It’s more like an ornament, used especially on longer notes. The continuo accompaniment – calling for improvised textures above the bass line in the harpsichord – is realized in an imaginative and expressive way that seems to compliment what the upper parts are doing. They in turn, along with the cello, shape their lines with nuances of articulation, dynamics, and accent, and add ornamentation in a manner consistent with the improvised character expected in a prelude. In short, in paying attention to aspects of historical performance practice, it is a more meaningful musical experience from moment to moment and as a whole than is the first performance. Are the interpretive decisions based on a study of performance practice better than the evolved mainstream ones? In this case (and, I would argue, in most cases), yes.

Historical Performance Rendition




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Page last modified: February 2, 2017