Performance Practices and Rehearsal Techniques

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This paper was read originally at the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Society held in New Haven, Connecticut, December 27-29, 1968 as part of a ROUND TABLE discussion concerning "Rehearsal Techniques and Historical Performance Practice." The other participants, whose papers were also included in
SYMPOSIUM Volume 9, were JOHN REEVES WHITE, Conductor of the New York Pro Musica; DENIS STEVENS, Professor of Music at Columbia University and Artistic Director of the Accademia Monteverdiana; and ALFRED MANN, Professor of Music at Rutgers University and Director of the Bethlehem Bach Choir. Mr. Zimmerman also served as Chairman of the Panel.

To arrive at a classification which might help to summarize various points raised here this morning, and also to test some of my own ideas on the subject, I have decided upon a drastic step: to try to illustrate all these by an actual performance of music from the various periods discussed. Works to be performed tonight have been chosen for specific problems they present, with a view to working out certain rehearsal techniques, for purposes of discussion here and for demonstration in the concert itself.

Many modern day musicians, even some players of historic ancient instruments, are so strongly conditioned by traditional adherence to precise notational values that they feel lost when asked to improvise, or when given the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and general interpretive freedoms originally implicit in pre-nineteenth century music. Seldom can precisely appropriate authentic realization of notational symbols be set down for any particular interpretation nuance or ornament in early music. Because spontaneous creation is most important in the cognitive conception of the music of these earlier times, the performer must assume some of the responsibility which today, aleatoric music apart, is held to belong to the composer. All soon resolves to stereotype formulas when precise notation is established. As Roger North pointed out at the beginning of the 18th century:

It is the hardest task that can be to pen the manner of artificial Gracing the upper part. It hath bin attempted, and in print, but with Woeful Effect . . . the Spirit of the art is Incommunicable by wrighting.1

When we think of actual sounds, the mere application of notational ornaments according to the supposed "norms of historical authenticity" is not very helpful. Music that sounds dull when performed according to modern precepts of precise interpretation will scarcely be improved by addition of new stereotypes no matter how carefully notated. Hence written in ornaments or rhythmic nuances will not always help towards lively and imaginative interpretation.

Obviously, no matter how industriously one seeks to discover an early composer's exact intentions, nothing worthwhile in performance will happen until performers themselves understand these in relation to the stylistic tradition to which they belong. It is obvious, too, that the processes of unlearning modern responses, then learning old interpretations anew will require periods of training even before rehearsal and performance can be successfully undertaken. It is equally clear that the relative success of practice and rehearsal sessions governs progress. One should look to the tenth rather than to the first concert for satisfactory refinements.

For general improvement in interpretive understanding of early music in academic circles either by performers or audience, again it is obvious that long-term education is needed. Hence, for solution of most problems both present and future, proper training must take first and higher priority. Once stylistic vocabularies of the various periods, nations and scholars become familiar each player and singer, each ensemble can begin to achieve that sense of individual freedom which carries the tone of authentic performance in early music. The process is, of course, quicker and simpler for soloists or chamber groups than for orchestras or choruses. For audiences it is most complex and long-term.

The need for "unlearning" mentioned above springs largely from the fact that practical musical training as set up in our conservatories and schools of music has established goals for young musicians requiring incredible precision and accuracy. Flexibility in the interpretation of rhythmic melodic and expressive symbols frequently is largely rooted out as early as possible. Hence, it is difficult to convince budding professional musicians that until about 1800 musical notation actually was part visual aid, part mnemonic device, comprising relatively few precise symbols. For established professionals, the difficulty is even greater. The flexibility and freedom potentially afforded by such a system nowadays goes by the board for the most performers, who are unwilling (sometimes afraid) to relax the rules in any way.

The general attitude has grown so positivistic and inflexible that it is all but impossible to bring home to inexperienced interpreters of early music the importance of such seemingly vague concepts as affect or program. Once in coaching a group of proficient young musicians in an interpretation of Mozart's "Horn quintet" (K. 447) I recall that we had it very nearly note perfect; but the overall impression somehow seemed lifeless. Even the suggestion that in the quintet Mozart was having fun with Leitgeib (his favorite horn player) failed to produce the desired effect until the effectiveness and feasibility of a humorous interpretation were at last brought home by a short pedagogical detour through Mozart's Musikalischer Spass, where both necessity for humorous interpretation and the "joke" are unmistakable. The "lesson" required no explanation. For a different affect, as in the "Dead March" in Saul, it is often necessary, let us say, to convince a player, however talented, that his manner of playing might have anything at all to do with the mood of the overall interpretation.

On abstract aesthetic grounds the case for programmatic performance is already weakened by a general prejudice, which reduces to second-class status any music reflecting extra-musical concepts. Distrust of program and affect is no doubt increased for some by such examples as Handel's "They loathed to drink" and "The land brought forth frogs" from Israel in Egypt. Since these pieces began life as abstract instrumental works, one may well ask how such induced programmaticisms can relate intrinsically to the music. Robert Schumann's answer is probably as good as any: he insisted only that such programmatic notions not be antithetic to the nature and the style of the music.2 Here we have a topic for endless musicological research, however, for present purposes, the pragmatic solution is our main objective. This is never long in coming once sought, as I discovered recently in choral rehearsals of Purcell's "Come ye sons of art away." A simple remark to the effect that we were really singing "happy birthday" to a dearly beloved Queen transformed the whole interpretation, and greatly brightened and enhanced the sound of the group. In rehearsing Handel's early setting of the Chandos Anthem "O Sing unto the Lord" a general understanding of the whole text of Psalm 96 produced similar results almost immediately. In every case either a specific or a general program is involved, clear understanding of the notions represented add rather than inhibit the performers interpretive freedom. A little imagination leavens large masses of technical detail.

In some early vocal music "the program" must be reconstructed from a remote historical context, as in the two romances by Juan del Encina which are to be performed this evening. Por los campos de los moros, for instance, is bare narrative, too short to make its point if performed just once. So we have experimented with this little "marche militaire" gradually increasing, then decreasing dynamic levels for programmatic effect, as you shall hear. Likewise, the poignant Romance, "Qu'es de ti desconsolado?"3 requires that the performers develop a certain empathy for the state of the dispossessed Moorish king, Boabdil, who is depicted after the capture of Granada, signing away kingdom and crown. As the following melancholy interrogative quatrain reveals, this was not a happy event for the poor man:

Qu'es de ti, desconsolado?
Qu'es de ti, rey de Granada?
Qu'es de tu tierra y tus moros?
Donde tienes tu morada?

 

EXAMPLE 14

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The import of this first stanza would be misprized, however, if the interpretation were shaped by sentimental pity for this forlorn, romantic figure. As the remaining twenty-two verses show, the poem was intended as a rebuke, not as an offering of sympathy. Working up this piece had taught us that where affect is concerned, we should not jump to conclusions gained from the two stanzas of text which are usually published in modern day editions of multistrophic pieces. The lesson applies to other Villancicos, most of which require both literary and historical understanding of both texts and backgrounds for successful performances.

Conceptual formulas in other vocal works sometimes are harder to capture. It is too much to ask every performer fully to understand the Petrarchan microcosm and macrocosm as these may be gleaned only by long study of his poetry. Yet the expressive essence of several of Marenzio's polyphonic settings of his poetry cannot be obtained without full understanding of these and other literary concepts.

In his two-part madrigal on the sonnet, Solo e pensoso the chromatic portrayal of the aimless wandering of the central figure is easy enough to portray in musical terms. Yet the expression of the desolation, the fearfulness (if not actual paranoia) and the deep melancholy with which the poem is charged are not so easily brought out in musical performance. In these lines, and in their setting by Marenzio, there is a surrealistic quality which requires much more understanding and interpretive finesse for subtle performance than ordinarily can be produced by musicianship alone. Full literary appreciation of the poem also is necessary.

Solo e pensoso i più deserti E gli occhi porto per
  campi   fuggir intenti
Vo' misurando a passi tardi Dove vestigio human l'arena
  e lenti   stampi



Lonely, pensive I through waste E'er watchful for escape, swift
  and desert lands   flight intending
Go measuring my way with paces Wher'er man's traces mark the
  and wending   desert wastelands.5

Interpreting such poetry requires deep literary insight to begin with, and then calls for a clear grasp of the fusion of both style and idea in the music:

 

EXAMPLE 2

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The same may be said of Marenzio's O voi che sospirate, the well-known setting of a sestet from Petrarch's double sestina, La mia benigna fortuna. Here, though, the program seems almost musicological. To illustrate one key line in the text, Marenzio tried an interesting tonal experiment. At the words "muti una volta quel suo antico stile" ("change for once your ancient style") all voices begin intervallic cycles of perfect fourths and fifths, with the result that the total harmonic context is a modulatory cycle involving all sorts of enharmonic changes. For performers a full understanding of the programmatic basis for this passage is vital, not only for security of intonations, but so that they may demonstrate their awareness of both the means and the basis for Marenzio's pioneer tonal experiment in which he consciously "changed ancient style" through non enharmonic license:

 

EXAMPLE 36

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General poetic concepts such as these do not often merge with smaller descriptive details, or so-called "madrigalisms," as they do, however, in Marenzio's Occhi lucenti e belli. Veronica Gambara wrote the poem as a tribute to her husband's beautiful brown eyes. Again Marenzio concentrated on the illustration of this central symbol, giving the soprano symbolic pairs of whole notes to sing throughout—these notational "eyes" give us Augenmusik with a vengeance! Musically, the result is a sustained upper harmonic pedal throughout—a feature which is doubly interesting in view of the texture of the work. The relevant point here is that a performance does not shape well until the singers understand the importance of this pervasive harmonic pedal and can relate to it all other illustrative conventions and ornaments supplied, pari passu by the other four voices.

With Monteverdi's madrigals entirely new interpretive problems arise—problems which clearly reflect the criteria of his famed seconda prattica. Generally these are technically more difficult to perform than Marenzio's, perhaps because Monteverdi tended to write ornaments into the melodic lines; but effective interpretation, nevertheless, seems easier to achieve in ensemble. All this may result from the fact that with Monteverdi we cross over into the era of common style. But another factor, closely related to this, I think, is the inner musical coherence, itself closely allied to a forceful dramatic quality in the music which quite naturally gives rise to similar expression in the performance. This new expression yet today seems so spontaneous by contrast to earlier polyphonic madrigals that Monteverdi's music actually leaves the modern performer less to be done in the way of interpretive coaching than did Marenzio and his contemporaries. Once singers know Monteverdi's notes and the dramatic implications of the texts he set, everything falls into place rather easily and quickly without too much concern for authentic polyphonic performance practice.

The new performing aesthetic is clearly detectable in Monteverdi's two settings from Guarino's Il pastor fido which we will perform tonight. The first is the historically famous "unprepared dissonance" madrigal, "Cruda Amarilli" upon which Artusi vented his jealousy,7 and the second "Ah dolente partita," an exquisite example of programmatic discord and resolution to express "painful parting" (Ex. 4a).

 

EXAMPLE 4a

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There is a splendid, unforgettably expressive triple subject on the poet's final "conceit"!

 

Ah! dolente partita

  Ah! dolente partita   Ah! dolorous departing
  Ah! fin de la mia vita!   Ah! death so dire disheart'ning!
  Da te part'e non moro?   Can I part and not perish?
  E pur io provo la pena   And yet I taste the pain of mortal
  de la morte   ending
  E sento nel partire   And feel in this parting
  Un vivace morire che   Vivacious death to pain such life
  da vita al dolore   now lending
  Per far che moia immortalent'il   My dying heart t'immortal death
  core.   thus ending.8

 

Entering into the Baroque, we find performance practice (and suitable rehearsal techniques) leading farther and farther away from details of the text. The general result is a broadening of interpretive license which begins therefore to touch upon a much greater variety of musical considerations. Even the formal context is subject to flexibility. For instance, Purcell's suite from Abdelazer usually is heard in an order which cannot be that of the original performance for the revival of this bizarre tragedy by Aphra Behn, for which Purcell wrote incidental music in 1695.

Purcell supplied the usual set of nine instrumental pieces—i.e., "First music" which includes two pieces as does "second music"9 followed by an Overture and Canzona and four Act Tunes, more or less in that sequence. But the order generally known, which dates back to 1697 when Frances Purcell published much of her husband's stage music in A Collection of Ayres Compos'd For the Theatre (London, Heptinstall), differs fundamentally. It also leaves much to be desired even apart from its divergence from contemporary theatrical practices. This "suite" begins with a two-part overture followed by the four pieces of the "First" and "Second Music" and others in the following order: Rondeau in D minor, followed by an Air and Minuet in G Major, Air and Jig in G minor, Hornpipe in vol9id555 major and Air in G minor. This seems wrong, but also seems to bear the stamp of authenticity, if only because it was published so long ago.

However, we do not have to rely merely on speculation, for British Museum Add. MS 35043—the "John Channing MS.", dating from 1694—gives the following order for "Mr. Purcell's tunes to Abdelazer":

Air (originally no. 4 in g minor); Air (no. 6 in g minor); Jig (no. 7 in g minor); Overture and nota bene Curtain tune (no. 1 in d minor); Rondeau (no. 2 in d minor); and Air (no. 3 in D major).

To fill out the partial scheme shown here we need only insert one missing piece in the Second Music and end with the numbers 8 and 9 from the old order as 4th and 5th act tunes, respectively.

The new sequence is rather pleasing, with fresh contrasts of agogics, expression, mood and meter. Our suite now begins with a gracious "Slow Air" in G major (similar in style to an Allemand) continuing with a contrasting, quick-moving g-minor Air in the manner of Borry. This is the new First Music. The next pair, a minuet and Jig show similar contrast, this "second music" leading to the d-minor group, Overture, Canzona and Rondeau—the latter based on the tune Benjamin Britten took such a fancy to—and ending with a lilting air in D major. The remaining Hornpipe (in B flat) and Air make up a final contrast pair. The fifth act tune, in g minor brings us right home, ending, by means of obligatory tierce de Picardie in G major, whereas in the Airs for Theatre the suite begins in d minor and ends in g minor.

To complete this Purcellian reconstruction only the song "Lucinda is bewitching fair" is lacking. This interesting rondo-air is a setting of a love-lorn swain's pathetic tribute addressed to his haughty mistress. Its characters—Lucinda, Strephon, Philander—appear nowhere in the play, to which the pastoral scenario of the song is foreign. From the annotation in Orpheus Brittanicus I indicating that this was "A song sung by J. Bowen, at the opening of the play-house," we may surmise that Purcell was commissioned to write the song and Jemmy Bowen invited by the Patentees to sing it at the Theatre Royal on April 4, 1695. It is fairly clear that what we have is an occasional, not an incidental, song so that the "affect" is to be found not in the play, but rather in the social, or even political history of the time.

This song also sheds new light on Purcell's own style in vocal ornamentation. The two sources originating during his life time are the Fourth Book of Thesaurus Musicus and the Guild Hall MS (formerly Gresham College MS VI. 5.6) which supplies an autograph copy of the song melody. Purcell's embellishments are neither elaborate nor extensive. Indeed, they now may well serve their main purpose by teaching us something of his admirable restraint in the art of gracing10—a quality noticeably absent in many editions of several of his songs. The first ornament in the autograph replaces a half cadence in simple eighth notes by a nota cambiata figure in 16ths:

 

EXAMPLE 6a

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The second "embellishment" might be more accurately called an emmendation since with it Purcell has provided a new climax to a strophic repeat of the transposing the passage up a major third:

 

EXAMPLE 6b

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Four other embellishments are of the same nature as these two. All are quite simple and serve merely as elaborations of cadences conceived in the most restrained manner.

In performing Purcell's instrumental works similar restraint can well be exercised; the use, mainly of precadential and cadential ornaments such as shown in the Table of Graces from A Choice Collection of Lessons for Harpsichord (1696)—graces with which Purcell no doubt was familiar. (We may suppose Purcell did not see the table, however, for it has come down through the intervening centuries, reprinted several times, filled with typographical errors).

 

EXAMPLE 711

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With regard to melodic embellishments our one ornament calling for special mention is the "accelerando" trill, which seems to work rather well even with several players to a part. The trick is to begin a trill with a long appoggiatura, gradually speeding up the oscillation until the trill seems to "tuck in" at enormous speed just before the cadential note is struck. The fact that good ensemble trilling can be achieved with this ornament, even though it cannot be written out in normal notation, has furnished a perfect example for the liberal atmosphere we were seeking in rehearsal for the performance of tonight's program.

As for rhythmic nuances, discussing all the various problems we have encountered would provide matter for another discourse like this one which already is too long, I fear. But in rehearsing both over-dotted and inégale patterns, we have discovered one principle which is quite useful. In virtually every case the short value is linked rhythmically to the long value which follows it.

In the remaining piece by Purcell, as in the Handel anthem already discussed by Professor Mann, we have followed much the same policy attempting to discover new beauty and spontaneity in the music through joint exploration of phrasing nuances rather than through exchange of new "notated stereotypes" for old. Our fundamental tenet here is that fine composition, like fine poetry releases rather than predicates its deepest meanings. In rehearsal of early music, this connotative approach, is more fruitful than the denotative. It is promising—though still neglected—as a means to achieve musical growth in a liberal manner germane to institutions devoted to the furtherance of the liberal arts.


1Roger North, B.M. Add. 32533, f. 106v.

2Robert Schumann, who on the whole considered a program supplemental, not essential to a piece, had the following to say: "First of all let me hear that you have made beautiful music; after that I will like your program too." Neu Zeitschrift fur Musik 18 (1843) as translated in Leon B. Plantinga's Schumann as Critic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967) p. 154.

3Both were edited by Miguel Querol-Gavalda, in the publication cited in footnote 4.

4Both text and music are produced from Música Hispana vol. 11 Serie B Polifonía 2 (Instituto Español de Musicologia, Consejo superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Barcelona, 1964) p. 23.

5The translation is the author's and the musical example is taken from his forthcoming edition of the madrigal.

6The example is taken from the author's edition of this madrigal in the Dartmouth Collegium Musicum. Series III, no. 4.

7See Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950) pp. 393-404.

8The translation is the author's. The example taken from Malipiero's edition of the complete works, vol. IV, pp. 1 and 6.

9To be quite authentic, we actually should allow a half hour interval between "First Musicke" and "Second Musicke" and also between this and the Overture. (cf. Robert E. Moore "The Music to Macbeth" The Musical Quarterly January 1961, Vol. 47. No. 1).

10An anecdote on Jemmy Bowen related by Anthony Aston has particular bearing on this matter, since it mentions both the art of gracing and "the Boy", as Jemmy Bowen was frequently referred to:

He, when practising a Song set by Mr. Purcell, some of the Music told him to grace and run a Division in such a Place. O let him alone, said Mr. Purcell; he will grace it more naturally than you, or I, can teach him.

(As quoted by J.A. Westrup, from A Brief Supplement to Colley Cibber Esq. in his excellent biography Purcell, The Master Musicians Series [London: 1965, p. 76].)

11This corrected version is reproduced from Howard Ferguson's fine modern edition of Purcell's Lessons for Harpsichord (London: Stainer and Bell, 1964).

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