Challenging Performance: The Book. 4 Identity

4 Performing identity

As performance style changes over decades, so score and composer identity change.

Before we start to look at some of the specific delusions on which WCM ideology rests (Chapters 5 and 6) it will be helpful to consider for a moment the identity of music at the level of a piece and a composer. I’m using ‘identity’ here to mean one’s sense of who one is, or tries to be, the values one holds and performs, and the tastes and behaviours and interests that both reflect who one is and signal it to others. Most of the research on identity in this sense concerns (typically, living) people, but it’s useful to apply a similar notion to (typically, dead) composers  and their scores to the extent that it reflects who they seem to be, and to the extent that each composer and each score seems to have an identity of their own. In this latter sense, identity is close to character in the descriptive (more than moral) sense. In all these senses, identity is inextricably bound up with performance. One performs one’s own identity and recognises others’ through their performances of themselves. And so it’s quite easy, even unavoidable, to experience composers and specific pieces as having recognisably different identities which one perceives through performances. The fact that music is made by performers introduces another partner into the process, and so the identity of the performer can in theory play a significant role in forming the identity of a piece and, through it (and other performances), of its composer. This is what WCM ideology seeks to control, pursuing the fantasy that performance can be transparent, leaving the listener in direct communication with the composer. There will be much more to say about this later.

In a helpful study of the performer’s experience of musical identity, John Rink discusses Edward Cone’s notion of ‘the musical persona’, which is somewhat similar to what I have in mind here in that he sees each composition as having a unique persona.[1] His view is that the performer must (i.e. has an obligation to) recognise this persona and perform it. My view, however, is that, since it cannot be found save through (real or imagined) performance, it is constructed by performances in the first place, from the first performance onwards, and can equally be changed by them, and over time inevitably is. I think the history of changing performance style bears that out. Cone of course recognises that the performer contributes, but has to argue that that contribution must be restricted to the personification of the music’s own persona, put there by the composer. I argue during this book that the process is much more collaborative; that the size and shape of the field of possibilities for the affordances of any score cannot (at the moment, perhaps ever) be known; and that performers may always, if they wish, be explorers at and beyond the known boundaries of that field. They have much more to show us about the identity of a piece, indeed about the variety of identities it may sound, than has been recognised. The identity imagined, even performed, by the composer, each time they imagine or perform that piece, is just one of those.

So what I mean by the identity of a piece involves the character of music normally arising from performances of its score. The identity of the composer, in this sense, lies in the character of that composer’s music as perceived through performances of their scores.[2] Character is obviously a complex amalgam and sequence of effects that change from moment to moment throughout a performance, and so I am using the word here in a more amorphous sense that refers to an overall impression left in the listener’s memory by performances of a score. That is likely to change over a lifetime, and change very much over longer periods. Focusing at the level of composer, one wouldn’t think of the identity of Wagner’s music in the same way if one stopped after Lohengrin; and the impression left by even that slice of his work is unlikely to be very similar to that left on Wagner’s contemporaries in 1850, or musicians in 1950, and so on. But whatever one thought about his musical identity it would be inevitably and substantially determined by the way his scores have been performed recently; the way one is used to hearing them. Similarly, what we’re used to hearing in performances of ‘L’ombre des arbres’ or ‘Zefiro torna’ (Chapter 3 above) powerfully shapes our sense of the identity of those scores and everything we think and write about it. I’ve looked at this in more depth in a study of changing performances of Schubert and Boulez.[3]

Comparing recordings of Boulez’s own Pli selon Pli, made in 1969, 1981 and 2001, shows very clearly how he increasingly used the orchestra to link together adjacent events in the score that had previously been separate, paralleling radical changes in his work as a composer from pointillist to harmonic and linear thought; and also how the sounds he generated through digital synthesis at IRCAM begin to appear in his balancing of orchestral colours in the 2001 recording. It seems that his conducting and composition style developed together, performing that changing identity in both domains. Of course, at the same time he was changing the character of other scores he conducted, mostly by other composers covering an increasingly wide period of musical history, getting them to reflect his new priorities. No one in 1969—least of all Boulez who had more than enough intellect, and was always ready, to explain his current view as unavoidably right—could have anticipated the Boulez of 2001; and it is unrealistic, when these musical worlds are so different, to assume that there are not equally different other identities that this score can persuasively adopt, just as we know there are for everything else he conducted. The article went on to show that the way Boulez performed in turn influenced the way commentators wrote about his music, and that both reflected more general shifts in musical thought.

The Schubert case is similar. Looking at how performance changed on either side of the Second War it’s easy to see how writing about Schubert song followed on behind, turning an innocent songster into the victim and chronicler of psycho-sexual trauma. This is another huge change, spread over half a century, in which the identity of a composer and his music has shifted by an unimaginable distance. Both were entirely convincing in their different music-cultural contexts; both can be entirely convincing to listeners now provided that their expectations are not fixed by ideology or by taste that is too narrowly period-bound.

I’ve written elsewhere about Barber’s Adagio for strings, once merely ‘serious’, now used as a performance of deepest national grief.[4] And Anna Scott has written with great insight about identity in Brahms, on the basis of the changing character of performances of his late piano music.[5] Modern Brahmsian identity, she argues, is characterised by control (as opposed to Romantic, in other words Wagnerian, disorder), health (as opposed to Romantic sickness), restraint (as opposed to Romantic excess), leading

to performances of his works that are described as intellectual, serious, profound, restrained, structural, stoic and spiritual; while his corporeal control is communicated by performances described as robust, solid, healthy, German, modest, masculine, athletic, robust, vital, vigorous and powerful. (Scott 2014, 60)

Few of these adjectives can sensibly be claimed—at any rate not by a modern listener—for the performances by the pianists, particularly Ilona Eibenschütz and Etelka Freund, whom he is said to have admired in his music, or for his own recording in so far as one can make it out.[6] The scores haven’t changed. What’s changed are the ways they are imagined and sounded by performers and thus imagined and understood by listeners. And along with them inevitably there must have been change also in the kind of imaginative musician Brahms seemed to be. Eibenschütz’s and Freund’s are not the only Brahmses from that period. There seem to have been other, more regular identities for Brahms made by other, more regular players, who may have included Clara Schumann (Scott 2014). But we have Brahms’s apparent approval of these two, and that may give them, at any rate for his final years, special status if we are interested in the composer’s wishes. As Scott says,

All of this leads even the most ethically inclined pianists to shape the detail and structure of Brahms’s works in temporally, tonally, expressively and technically controlled ways that likely never occurred to the composer, while still believing in the historical gravitas of their performances. … This impulse to protect Brahms’s identity and through it our own however, informs a fundamental absurdity in modern Brahmsian thought: namely, that if inner and outer restraint are the most essential indicators of historically-valid Brahms style, then the composer and his own pupils could be considered to be the most unBrahmsian pianists of all. (Scott 2014, ix-x)

But at least as interesting, in fact more so for the purposes of this book, is the coexistence of substantially different approaches during Brahms’s lifetime. Their age seems to have been more tolerant of diversity, when it comes to composer and score identities, than we are. There may be a lesson for us there too.

One can see in these examples, and their relationship to their admirers and contexts, an interpenetration of many different aspects of identity:

  • personal identity, the sense of oneself
  • the sense of the music with which one engages as a reflection of oneself [7]
  • the sense in which experiencing music changes one[8]
  • and therefore the sense in which a changed performance feels as if it is attempting to change one’s self, to force oneself into alignment with the score’s changed identity
  • or even in which a performance may challenge one’s sense of self by seeming to switch allegiances to some other person more like it

Both the last two points may tend to lead one to blame the performer, because these are changes that go deep into our selves. When one performance may confirm that all is well with the world, another may seem to turn it upside down. Music is a serious business, then, requiring us to attend seriously to difference. One has to decide whether to resist or listen, with listening’s potential to change oneself. We’ll see later just how much intolerance even small differences in performance can trigger, and how institutionalised such resistance to change has become (chapter 9). Why these reactions are so strong we shall return to near the end (chapters 29–32). But even now, you can see how dangerous musical performance can be to any view of the world in which we are supposed to know how all these scores must sound.

Continue to Chapter 5: ‘The actual music, the music itself, musical’

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[1] Rink, John. 2017. Impersonating the Music in Performance. In Raymond MacDonald, David J. Hargreaves and Dorothy Miell (eds.), Handbook of Musical Identities (New York: Oxford University Press), 345–63 at 357.

[2] The sense that a composer’s personal (autobiographical) character is expressed in their compositions is something else. On the 19th-century construction of this idea see: Bonds, Mark Evan. 2020. The Beethoven Syndrome: Hearing Music as Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press).

[3] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2009c. Musicology and performance. In ed. Zdravko Blazekovic, Music’s Intellectual History: Founders, Followers & Fads (New York: RILM), 791-804.

[4] Warren (2014), 72, reports that Barber’s Adagio ‘has been rated ‘world’s saddest sounding classical music’ (BBC 2004; Higgins 2006).’ But compare Desmond Shawe-Taylor responding in 1945 to the first recording and finding that Barber had ‘a charming, serious simplicity’: Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2012. Compositions, scores, performances, meanings, Music Theory Online 18(1), para 3.10. Warren, Jeff. 2014. Music and Ethical Responsibility (Cambridge University Press).

[5] Scott, Anna. 2014. Romanticizing Brahms: Early Recordings and the Reconstruction of Brahmsian Identity (PhD thesis, University of Leiden).

[6] On the CD accompanying Musgrave, Michael. 2003. Early Trends in the Performance of Brahms’s Piano Music. In ed. Michael Musgrave and Bernard D. Sherman, Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style (Cambridge University Press), 302-26.

[7] Influentially discussed in DeNora, Tia. 2000. Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press); and DeNora, Tia. 2017. Music-Ecology and Everyday Action: Creating, Changing, and Contesting Identities. In Raymond MacDonald, David J. Hargreaves and Dorothy Miell (eds.), Handbook of Musical Identities (New York: Oxford University Press), 46–62.

[8] Musicians’ experience in relation to identity during performance is well-discussed in Rink 2017 (note 1 above).

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