Challenging Performance: The Book. 8 Musicology

8 Musicology and editions

This could easily be a very long chapter, looking right across the musicological scene at scholarship that oppresses performers. Some of it is now very obvious. Do we need, for example, anyone to say more on the ways in which HIP depends (or pretends to depend) on the musicological study of texts from the past? For that we can have more than enough fun rereading Richard Taruskin’s work which already uncovers so many of the absurdities of the way we talk about and practice ‘informed’ performance.[1] A case remains, of course, for using texts from the past to guide choices in the present—the case being that, like any choice of starting-point, it can make devising a reading a little easier by restricting the huge range of possibilities (the heuristic argument from Chapter 6.19 above). But the usual arguments of those who would make it an obligation have no reasonable basis. Part 1 has made that clear enough, I hope. A more pertinent question asks who has the power to force others to perform in particular ways, and that’s the question addressed here in Part 2.

It’s true that at second or third hand musicology does have a large role in the policing and oppression that I’m writing about here in Part 2. It instils ideas in people either through academic teaching at university/conservatoire which then shapes their behaviour in the profession (its second-hand influence); or its ideas are absorbed in watered-down form in the studio by people who go on to teach young musicians. And so ideas about ‘correct’ ornamentation, to take a crude example, seep through into general practice, supported by what’s heard in concert and on record.

Maybe I’ll come back to this, or maybe someone else would like to: I’m very happy to put up material by others here that’s pertinent. But at the moment I’m much more concerned with looking at the forces that performers encounter directly in their daily work, the factors that don’t get much discussion because they’re taken for granted as belonging naturally within the WCM state and its system of beliefs. Musicology is quite a minor factor in that scheme, after all, as the model in 7.1 tried to show.

I should, though, say a little about editions, because they are ever-present—a starting-point for so much everyday work—and the beliefs around them have not been sufficiently challenged. (If you are an editor you may prefer to look away at this point.)

The editor who wishes to provide a new edition of a canonical composer can become the most fanatical of the many oppressors of the WCM performer. He (usually he—why is that? Because it takes a sense of entitlement?) is the biblical scholar of WCM. It’s no coincidence that some of the techniques of music editing were taken over from biblical scholarship. The aim is to provide the composer-god’s text exactly as He intended it. For of course He must have had a very precise intention. Indeed, there are few things quite as embarrassing for a fanatical editor as a composer—Chopin, say, or Liszt—who kept changing their mind or who seems to have been relatively unbothered about being precise or consistent, who perhaps saw a piece as something that should always be changing in performance. (NB we must even here be careful about ‘should’, lest we start damning performances that don’t change the notes. Though I don’t expect that happy day to dawn anytime soon.)

And so we arrive at competing ‘Urtext’ editions, each claiming to be the most correct; and at examinations and competitions in which using the correct edition is necessary for one’s musicianship to be heard at all. And yet what is the difference between all these editions, and between these and those that preceded them? A note here or there. Or just a phrase mark or a dot. Are these the grounds on which we damn a musician’s reading of a score? Well, yes, they are; but that says more about us than about the music-making, and what it says is not pleasant. Humans’ capacity for pedantry generating law-making, with punishment for those who don’t think it matters, is horribly exposed in attitudes to WCM editions.

In 6.7 I cited, hidden in a footnote, the rather telling video from publishers Bärenreiter entitled ‘Searching for the True Beethoven’, the title reminding us of how naive these beliefs still are, and of a highly-regarded publisher’s unthinking (though commercially rewarding) assumption that ‘es muss sein’: this is how it must be. Well, it needn’t be. What matters isn’t the notes, it’s the experience that arises out of a performance of whatever notes are sounded. Let’s try to keep that in mind and resist the oppression of the text or rather, for this is really the point, oppression by those (not just editors) who like to use a text as a (police) baton.

Continue to Chapter 9: ‘Criticism’

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[1] Taruskin, Richard. 1995. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ____2009. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press. ____2020. Cursed Questions: On Music and its Social Practices. Oakland: University of California Press.

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