6 Further WCM delusions

6.8 Texts document sounds


We’ve already seen that early recordings can be an embarrassment for HIP, partly because the last thing anyone wants at the moment is to have to copy them. It’s immensely demanding as a process of learning. As Slåttebrekk and Scott both found,[1] you have to copy at first mind-numbingly slowly and repetitively; and then as you begin to embody the whole approach to performance style, so that it becomes part of the way your body makes music, you at the same time inevitably give up much of the musicality you’ve spent so many years building up for yourself. It’s generous, self-effacing, and psychologically challenging, potentially even damaging unless you’re wholly convinced that you have gained as a musician. That’s one obstacle. Then there’s a question of period taste. It’s one thing to listen to early recordings, even to experience them sympathetically, enjoying the (for us) extreme rubato and portamento and non-synchronicity of lines. It’s quite another to go on stage and play and sing canonical scores like that. Yes, these awkward facts challenge the whole morality of HIP with its claims to value a period approach above any other: they show how flimsy that morality is when confronted with real sounding evidence. But still, few HIP performers will go as far as properly adopting late 19th-century performance styles until it’s clear that there really is a large audience willing to pay to hear them.

And so we can begin to see just how convenient it is that recordings start so late, only right at the end of the 19th century, leaving us entirely reliant on written texts and surviving instruments and pictures for evidence of how people made music before then. At least that allows performers to make styles that make sense to us today, and allows HIP to change over the decades as tastes change: and it has changed, hugely, despite apparently being faithful to the same evidence all along. The reason there’s so much more latitude before recordings is simply that, as the latitude itself shows, words are seriously insufficient to describe performance styles. We can confirm this with a thought experiment. (It could be a real experiment, but it’s hard to imagine any performer being willing, or sufficiently well-funded, to undertake it. Prove me wrong, please!) Take a late-19th or early-20th century textbook on how to play your instrument: do your utmost to adopt the techniques it describes (this will take some years); and then perform some of its canonical repertoire for us and let us compare your performances with those recorded by the textbook’s author, which you’ve been strict with yourself in never having listened to! Let’s see if you arrive at a musicality that’s anything like theirs. Leopold Auer’s (1921) or Carl Flesch’s (1924) books on violin playing would be possibilities, or better still Lilli Lehmann’s How to Sing (1902) which (as its title suggests) is exceptionally detailed in its physical information and refers to a performance style even further from our own.[2] Is there any chance that after all this detailed work with the most detailed text you would end up sounding anything like this? (Wonderful if so!)

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


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[1] Slåttebrekk and Harrison (2010). Scott (2014).

[2] Auer, Leopold. 1921. Violin Playing as I Teach It (London: Duckworth). Flesch, Carl. 1924. The Art of Violin Playing (Boston: Fischer). Lehmann, Lilli. 1902. How to Sing [Meine Gesangkunst], transl. Richard Aldrich (New York: Macmillan): audiobook with electronic(!) examples at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAy5liMJVlY

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