Challenging Performance: The Book. 11.1 Obligations to the dead

11 Obligations to the dead

11.1 Piety and the dead composer

Why are classical musicians brought up to believe that the word of a long-dead composer must for ever be obeyed?

Juniper Hill (2018) has called this ‘the most profound example’ of a ‘moral imperative’ in WCM.[1] Its basis is the idea that something (some thing) is left behind, something so perfect that it must be exactly reproduced for ever. It’s striking how far back the perfection of the composer’s work has been a concern, long before (in the 19th century) composers became immortal. Richard Taruskin (2006), building on Lydia Goehr (1992), quotes Nikolaus Listenius (1533/37):

[Musica] poetica is that which is not content with either an understanding of the subject [like musica theoretica] or with the practice alone, but rather leaves some work [opus] behind after the labor, as when music or a musical song is written by someone, whose goal is a complete and accomplished work. For it consists in making or constructing, that is, in such labor that even after itself, when the artificer is dead, leaves behind a perfect and absolute work (opus perfectum et absolutum).[2]

What we see in this passage—which presumably was not an idea invented by Listenius but one that already made good sense in his environment—is the same delusion, almost half a millennium ago, that dominates our own thinking; the notion that something is made by a composer that endures, complete and perfect, beyond the death of the author; the feeling that there must be something here, rather than (as I argue) a sequence of experiences that appear to be (appear, not are) remade in each performance. My case, as must now be obvious, is that, for all its emotional appeal (indeed, because of its emotional appeal), this is a delusion. The appearance of a work is produced by repeatedly performing the notes similarly due to a tradition of practice. The practice in fact changes imperceptibly—and listeners’ sequences of experiences with it—and could be changed at any time if we let it, potentially with many artistic, cultural and economic benefits and without necessarily losing the current local practice alongside.

What I’m interested in in this section is the process by which the composer’s being dead sanctifies what He’s left behind, turning Works into sacred objects that must be faithfully and devotedly reproduced and obeyed, and the dead composer into a Being with whom one can commune in the present. In the context of this part of the book, we may also ask how the composer being dead leads us to police ourselves and one another in the reperformance of His scores. Finally, to get to the heart of the issue, I want to ask what we, the living, owe the dead.

I just described the dead composer as a ‘Being’. Similarly, performers of WCM aim to do what the composer ‘says’. As the anthropologist Bruno Nettl commented,[3] composers

are not seen as ordinary humans who accomplished something and died, but as living beings still. Thus, teachers occasionally refer to the presumed desires of a composer by saying such things as, “Here is how Bach wants this” (Nettl 1995, 23–4)

We need the composer not to be dead, gone for ever, even though we know that dead is what he is – and note how the language forces that phrase upon us: he ‘is’ dead, in the present tense as if somehow the dead are not not, but are. Unless one believes in an afterlife—in which case one’s view of all these questions will be quite different—we know that to speak of the dead in the present tense is absurd; but this isn’t about knowledge, it’s about need. We need the dead not to be dead, and composers above all: we need them still to be here watching over us, our musical guide, the reference for our conscience.

It’s easy to speak of this in terms of respect. Not to respect the dead, however awful they were in life, seems indecent. Still more, then, do we want to respect those to whom we look up, especially those who have composed scores that give rise again and again to intensely involving musical experiences. We respect their genius. We feel reassured at the thought of respecting their memory. But note how this is about our needs, not theirs. We feel reassured, though what we feel makes no difference to them. Yet, to admit that already feels disrespectful. There is a strong urge towards piety in our thinking about the dead, a feeling in which there are surely many ingredients: gratitude, awe, sanctity, thoughts of our own death, the hope that we too will be well thought of; all of which we perform as proper behaviour around the grave and in speaking of the dead. All of it, moreover, raises questions about the depth of the general population’s atheism. Residual belief in some kind of existence for the dead seems hard to shake. These feelings surround and permeate our relationship with what has been made and left behind. The idea that these are their ‘works’ adds a reassuring touch of sanctity to scores and their potential in performance: they are the dead’s bequests to us, we like to feel, and we owe them respect for that.

Jeff Warren (2014, 169) seems to be thinking along these lines when he says, ‘Two ways to unpack these second level responsibilities to music [first-level responsibilities being to people] are to consider music as an inheritance and as a gift.’ And he goes on to argue that these second-level responsibilities are responsibilities because inheritances and gifts are given by people, and a responsibility thus remains to them and their wishes. In other words, they involve first-level responsibilities (to people) just the same. Thus, ‘Those who receive such a gift need to use it responsibly…’ (170); and  ‘… if we recognise that another person composes music, we recognise that in our performance we are responsible to the composer…’ (169). For Warren, the dead composer remains a person.

We are hovering here around the notion that we owe other people respect and kindness. In everyday relationships among the living, respect and kindness are invaluable in fostering cooperation and happiness; but it’s far from clear that the same applies to the dead, to whose wellbeing no amount of respect and kindness makes the slightest difference. Even among the living, people must also be allowed to disagree, particularly in the case of art (most particularly in western art), where expression and interpretation are supposed to be personal and individual. We may choose to contradict the composer, just as we may choose to contradict anyone in the interests of promoting a view that differs from theirs. We have to be wary not to fall into the belief that no one should ever be upset by us. We may accept the ethical responsibility and still contradict them, accepting that they will be offended. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we think it’s worth it for the value of the view we wish to offer. That’s a slippery slope, of course, but in the case of art it’s not a slippery slope that leads to cruelty or murder, only to alternative visions. We don’t kill composers by playing their notes differently. They’ll survive the upset if they’re alive. And if they’re not—unless you believe in a particular kind of afterlife in which composers remain on site, listen to us and are offended—then it’s neither here nor there.

A related analogy to Warren’s is with a will. ‘Typically—and in at least one sense of the word, ideally—composers are dead, and the score is treated, as a matter of reverence and respect, somewhat as one treats a will’ (Kingsbury 1988, 167).[4] Here the composer’s intentions are a will which we’re obliged to execute. But how many times do we execute a will? Once. We do it because if everyone does, then everyone’s will will be executed meticulously in turn. It’s a contract for a once-only performance. But that’s not what composition is. Composition is a request, a suggestion, perhaps a hope, but not realistically, for all time, an order. We are not obliged to go on executing this will over and over for ever; still less when (remember Chapter 6.13) we can’t actually know the nature of the wishes it fails to inscribe. What other instructions from the distant past do we feel absolutely required to obey forever? However piously we approach them, scores are not, in fact, sacred texts.

Nonetheless, even for the ostensibly non-religious, the attempt that performers make to bring the inner life of the composer back to life by making their imagination sound again is well-intentioned and inspirational; and both those qualities count for something. It’s a wonderful idea that through sounds we can have that deeply intimate access or something of it. But honestly, is it realistic, given both that that imagination will always be inaccessible and also that, as we’ve seen, other possible readings of scores normatively are, have been and will be, every bit as persuasive? Or is, as some seem to feel, knowingly to decline the composer’s intentions to kill Him again? Is that a worry hovering around the edge of this sense that we owe Him faithful reperformance? As if death isn’t really death, in a quasi-miraculous and particularly persuasive way in the case of WCM?

Paradoxically, experience of feeling one is engaging with past composers through playing their music forces one over and over to confront the fact that they are dead. And so death is a constant topic, consciously or subconsciously, as one engages closely with canonical scores. What effects does that have on one’s thinking and feeling about what one is doing? Does it make one more inclined to conform to cultural norms (which are deeply influenced by awareness of death: Vail, Soenke and Waggoner 2019);[5] more inclined to cling to the idea of realising the composer’s intentions, for fear that others will depart from ours and that thereby a life that might have continued through repetition of some part of ourselves will be snuffed out? Is this another strand contributing to people’s anger at non-standard performances, as if they were a personal threat to one’s own life after death.

Yet what can one think, in what we imagine as a liberal culture, about a system supposedly geared towards professional, emotional and spiritual fulfillment of a particularly intense kind, that depends for its daily validation and for continuing employment on obeying the every whim of (or really, collectively imagined and currently attributed to) someone who, as often as not, has been dead for several hundred years? Is there not something profoundly unhealthy about this?

And in any case, what are we really arguing over? The performance of a musical score. It’s hardly a matter of life and death. Less sentimentality, less sanctimony, less superstition would be more in keeping with the ways in which we mostly try to interact with others in the wider (living) world.

To insist on identifying (impossible) and sharing (impossible) and being faithful to (…) the composer’s intentions isn’t historical—composers always worked through the mediation of notation and performers—it’s at best pursuing the fantasy of being one with a god; at worst (and, I rather fear, to a large extent in reality) subjecting one’s self (sic) to the financial and political convenience of those who call the tune.

Continue to 11.2 ‘Philosophical obligations’

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[1] Hill, Juniper. 2018. Becoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World. New York: Oxford University Press, 161.

[2] Taruskin, Richard. 2006a. Is There a Baby in the Bathwater?, Part 1. Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 63:3, 163–85 at 171–2. Goehr, Lydia. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. Oxford: Clarendon, 116. Taruskin (172–6) offers a history of its development from later 15th-century chansons and brilliantly ties that to the introduction of music printing (which began by publishing this same repertory), the commodification of music, and the increasing sense that some thing exists that can be reproduced and sold. For further reading see Steingo, Gavin. 2014. The Musical Work Reconsidered, in Hindsight. Current Musicology 97, 81–112.

[3] Nettl, Bruno. 1995. Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

[4] In 1976 Alfred Brendel wrote, ‘In my view, the interpreter should function in three capacities: as curator of a museum, as executor of a will, and as obstetrician’, leaving the composer in an uncomfortable position. Brendel, Alfred. 2001. Alfred Brendel on Music (London: Robson), 302.

[5] Vail, Kenneth E., Melissa Soenke and Brett Waggoner. 2019. Terror Management Theory and Religious Belief. In ed. Clay Routledge and Matthew Vess, Handbook of Terror Management Theory (London: Academic Press), 259–85.

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