21 Historical examples on record


There are few things as eye-opening as the past practices of one’s own culture. Many of us have experienced recently the translation of collective delusions about the past into current government policies, institutionalising national fantasy once again (as if that hadn’t been tried before). Facing up to what our predecessors really did, as opposed to what we tell each other they did, can be difficult. But in a sense that is what this book is about: escaping institutionalised fantasies about musical tradition and attempting instead to make something new and healthier – physically, psychologically and spiritually. As early recordings have once more become easily available—first on CD, now on YouTube in particular—WCM has had to make far-fetched excuses not to take them seriously as models, despite all the standard rhetoric about performing composers’ intentions.

As you’ll have noticed, I’m not arguing in this book for historical performance (see, e.g., Chapter 6.7); but I do think that there is much to learn about ways of being musical from historical recordings.

In Chapter 3, ‘Performance changes’, we listened to Mary Garden accompanied by Debussy in his chanson, ‘L’ombre des arbres’, recorded in 1904, and we looked at the performance-stylistic features in it that might cause palpitations today.

Early recordings provide a large number of revelatory examples that are quite unfamiliar to us now. They are excellent sources of models if we want to experiment with performing scores differently, for they present styles that we know were thoroughly successful in their time. They worked. And it’s certainly the experience of those who listen to a lot of early recordings that they work now too, once one gets used to them. And so the purpose of this chapter is to recommend listening to early recordings of one’s own repertoire (or of whatever is closest among the repertoire they used) in search of approaches to tempo, rubato, portamento, vibrato, phrasing, structure, technique, ornamentation, extemporisation, synchronisation, and other aspects of style, that are as unlike our own as possible, approaches one can borrow, sample, or copy. As I suggested in chapter 20, ‘It can be highly productive to copy past recordings; not mindless, as one might imagine, but revelatory in teaching one’s body to be differently musical.’

Chapter 3 included a recording by Ilona Eibenschütz, who was close to Brahms at the end of his life and whose playing he admired: here is another, whose rubato is impossible for us to accept and yet is broadly compatible with what can be discerned of the surviving recording of Brahms playing.

You can read about Anna Scott’s copying of Eibenschütz, and hear a performance in which she pushes that historical Brahms style even further, separating the parts even more, in the page about her work here on the Challenging Performance website under ‘Interviews and Recordings’ which we’ll look at in Chapter 22. Compare her Brahms Op. 119 no. 1 to the score, if you wish, but don’t miss how much sense this performance makes in itself, however much appears to be missing or in the ‘wrong’ place.

Chapter 3 also included one of Carl Reinecke’s Mozart recordings which, because Reinecke was born in 1824, takes us nearer in time to Mozart than any other. We can’t be sure that it takes us nearer in style, but it seems more likely than not. There is much to play with here for anyone who wants to rethink their performance of Classical-period scores.


Also for pianists, but not just pianists, Chapter 6.9 discussed a performance of Liszt’s 12th Hungarian Rhapsody, by his pupil Bernhard Stavenhagen, which adopts Liszt’s practice of rewriting his scores in performance. Why only in Liszt, though? Why not anywhere at all where the results seem interesting? It’s not as if we didn’t have enough recordings of the scores as printed.

For another example, unconventional to us for its speed and extensive decoration but within the range of 19th-century norms, listen to Raoul Pugno playing the much-loved Chopin Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15, No. 2. Pugno was a grand-pupil of Chopin.

Chapter 6.8 included Lilli Lehmann singing Wagner, who coached and admired her as a Rhinemaiden and a Valkyrie in the original 1876 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. There’s little room for doubt that what we hear on her recordings worked well for quite some time and in repertoire we can hardly imagine sung like that at the moment. But why not? There’s lots to be learned from her and her contemporaries.

Lilli Lehmann, Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, extract from Isolde’s Liebestod, from “Mild und leise wie er lächelt”.


Also on this site—tucked away in an essay that this book supercedes, but let’s bring her out again here—is Elena Gerhardt singing Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’. I’ve written about this in another online book, The Changing Sound of Music,[1] where there are many more examples that are worth hearing as potential models today.

Chapter 4 of The Changing Sound of Music focuses on early recorded singing; chapter 5 on violin playing; chapter 6 on piano playing. And there are more early examples in chapters 2, 3 and 8, all with at least some indication of what might be interesting to listen for.

Also on the CHARM website, which hosts that book, is an online library of almost 5000 recordings newly transferred from the original 78rpm discs. Not many are really early, but they certainly offer a wide variety of repertoire and sounds. A valuable complementary resource, with more multiple recordings of particular scores, is the BL (British Library) Sound’s Classical Music page.

But in any case, there is so much available now online that readers will have no difficulty finding models from which to learn something new about alternative ways of being musical.


Continue to Chapter 22: Making music work

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[1] And at greater length in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2010. Listening and Responding to the Evidence of Early Twentieth-Century Performance. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135, Special Issue no. 1, 45–62.


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