Friday, 4 December 2009

Punctuating Music

This week we would like to revisit the theme of a book we published last year, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century, by cellist and teacher Stephanie Vial. In this post, Ms Vial takes up the subject of her book and demonstrates how punctuation has remained an important element in the way she interprets and plays music.

This past June in the Washington DC area, violinist Elizabeth Field and I directed the first Modern Early Music Institute: a chamber orchestra seminar designed for professional string players who wish to explore historical performance practices using their own modern instruments. As part of our introductory lecture, I read to the group an eighteenth-century sentence from the work of elocutionist Joshua Steele, his Essay Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech (1779). A firm believer in the close relationship between the expression and notation of music and language, Steele's writing itself - and particularly his lively use of punctuation (my pet subject) - proved to be as eloquent as his words. To enhance the sentence's effect, I verbalized each punctuation mark.

The puzzling obscurity relative to the melody and measure of speech [comma] which has hitherto existed between modern critics and ancient grammarians [comma] has been chiefly owing to a want of terms and characters [comma] sufficient to distinguish clearly the several properties or accidents belonging to language [semicolon] such as [comma] accent [comma] emphasis [comma] quantity [comma] pause [comma] and force [semicolon] instead of which five terms [comma] they have generally made use of two only [comma] accent and quantity [comma] with some loose hints concerning pauses [comma] but without any clear and sufficient rules for their use and admeasurement [semicolon] so that the definitions required for distinguishing between the expression of force [open parentheses] or loudness [close parentheses] and emphasis [comma] with their several degrees [comma] were worse than lost [semicolon] their difference being tacitly felt [comma] though not explained or reduced to rule [comma] was the cause of confounding all the rest [period]

My recital garnered quite a few laughs and made the point I intended. No one writes in this elaborate manner - a single sentence the length of a paragraph, containing no less than three semicolons, sixteen commas, and a pair of parentheses! Today we prefer our sentence style to be succinct, to the point, and with a minimum of punctuated stops along the way. As Lynn Truss states in her clever and highly anecdotal book on the subject, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation: “Nowadays the fashion is against grammatical fussiness . . . People who put in all the commas betray themselves as moral weaklings with empty lives and out-of-date reference books.”

My book, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century: Punctuating the Classical “Period,” explores the analogy, frequently drawn by eighteenth-century musicians, between the use of commas, colons, and periods in language and the way musical phrases are distinguished and combined to create both simple dance forms and larger, more varied compositions. Part 1, in particular, is devoted to exploring the historical shift in attitude towards punctuation usage described above. This is key to understanding both the theories and applications of musical punctuation as well as why eighteenth-century musicians were so fond of the analogy. For performers, such an understanding is absolutely crucial.

The way our modern ears hear music is, I believe, very similar to the way we write and speak. We are goal oriented, unwilling to pause lest we lose sight of that goal, pushing ever forwards over bar lines towards harmonic resolution, which is usually to be found on a near-by, strong down-beat. Yet eighteenth-century musical phrases operate in essentially the opposite manner. Emphasis is generally felt at the beginnings of measures, releasing away from the bar lines. In addition the pauses of punctuation often occur at the point of dissonance, creating moments (to greater and lesser degrees) of suspension and anticipation. As I emphasize repeatedly in Part 2 of my book (which explores the interpretation of the written and unwritten rests which belong to musical punctuation), while it may seem natural to pause after a dominant chord has resolved to the tonic, to do so (with repertoire of this period) has the tendency of ending sentences prematurely. Instead, if the pause is allowed to occur before the resolution, a series of smaller punctuation points can be used to create a sense of energy, expectation, and forward motion. Far from resulting in the choppy style of which music from the classical period is so often accused, much longer sentences are achieved than otherwise would be.

Without punctuation, Steele's sentence simply makes no sense: words need to be changed; emphasis must be moved; the whole cadence and flow of the language must be altered. As we discussed with our MEMI group, the same must be done to eighteenth-century musical sentences if their punctuation is similarly misjudged. Because over time our instruments have become increasingly powerful with greater sustaining abilities, and our performing venues ever larger, our aesthetic of sound production has also changed. With it we have developed a new set of performance conventions such as beautifully seamless legato playing and the continuous use of rich vibrato to the point that in essence we employ an entirely different musical language than we did in the eighteenth century. New elements of expression must be found to replace those which the older language relied upon. It is no wonder that instructive editions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, detailing additional accentual and dynamic nuance information for nearly every note, proliferated in the late nineteenth century. It has now been the effort of decades to clean up these well-intentioned, but misguided “excesses.” Yet in the end we will have achieved very little unless we face the challenge (and obligation) of relearning a language at once familiar but nevertheless distinctly foreign.

As a performer, what continually amazes me about the subject of musical punctuation is the constant care and attention one must give to it. It is not enough to merely read and understand the nature of a language. One must also be able to speak (or perform) it. Earlier this year, in February, I was working on a project developed by flutist Mary Oleskiewicz with keyboardist David Schulenberg to record six largely unknown, but remarkable flute sonatas by J.J. Quantz. As we worked, we found that though seemingly straight-forward, the minuet and dance-like forms proved to be particularly problematic. Unless we delivered exactly the right character, the precise degree of strong and weak accents on the beginnings and endings of the phrase units, and especially just the right amount of pause to convey the simple commas between the two-bar and the larger four- and eight-bar phrases, the movements fell completely and utterly flat. It was astonishing, when listening to playbacks in WGBH's new state-of-the-art recording studio, to realize how much more poised and skilled we had to be in our execution. It is not surprising, really, as simplicity can be difficult to convey. I devote the first chapter in Part III of my book to the punctuated nature of such movements, likening their form to the poetic verse of language, and as the opposite of that which is prose, or in music, recitative. The latter is irregular in its accent and meter and prone to sudden and unpredictable starts and stops. Verse on the other hand exhibits a contrasting rhythmic regularity. Both its punctuation and layout (its meter and scansion) has to literally leap off the printed page and become almost visible to the ear. To convey this orally requires an eighteenth-century like attention to the internal rhythm and structure of language ―a savoring of its beauty and elegance that is not at all goal oriented.

Recently, too, I had the privilege of performing three of C.P.E. Bach's extraordinary and dramatic string symphonies with The Vivaldi Project ensemble and guest conductor John Hsu. This often prose-like music with its striking juxtapositions of plaintive statements immediately followed and interrupted by dramatic, and at times harsh responses, can seem quite strange, even bizarre. How then do we make sense of it? With careful attention to the character and structure of the phrases and the nature of their relationship, of course. John Hsu's skill in perceiving and communicating such ideas is unparalleled. Although I must admit that I am not unbiased in this opinion as Hsu was my teacher when I was a graduate student at Cornell. In fact it was the desire to understand the why and how of what he knew that led me down the path to musical punctuation. It has been a year and a half since my book on the subject was published, but I do not believe I will ever be “finished” with it. The concept of musical punctuation, and the vast array of expressive devices associated with it, necessarily remains the foundation of my teaching, my exploration of unknown eighteenth-century works, and all my performances. It has become an undeniable and fundamental part of the musician that I am.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

About "Musical phrasing":

Interestingly... a performance needs phrasing, in order for it to be "expressive, in a particular style and culturally aware".