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The Notation Is Not the Music: Reflections on Early Music Practice and Performance

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Written by a leading authority and artist of the historical transverse flute, The Notation Is Not the Music offers invaluable insight into the issues of historically informed performance and the parameters—and limitations—of notation-dependent performance. As Barthold Kuijken illustrates, performers of historical music should consider what is written on the page as a mere steppingstone for performance. Only by continual examination and reexamination of the sources to discover original intent can an early music practitioner come close to authentic performance.

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1 The Underlying Philosophy

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When reading most twentieth- or twenty-first-century scores, trained musicians can hear them quite precisely in their “mind’s ear.” The exact instrumentation is given; the characteristics of the instruments are familiar; standard modern pitch and equal temperament are presupposed; tempo is prescribed by metronome markings; rhythm, phrasing, articulation and dynamics are clearly indicated; the realization of the few ornament signs is obvious; even the playing techniques and sound colors are accurately notated. Except in pieces that include aleatoric composition techniques or improvisation, performers do not have much room for adding individual accents or textual changes. This adherence to the written text is exactly what many composers wanted. Consequently, this kind of traditionally notated composition can be studied quite accurately from the score.

In earlier compositions, one easily notices that some notational parameters seem to be absent, whereas others have a less compelling or altogether different meaning that is dependent upon the time or place of composition. Their “correct” performance cannot be documented through personal acquaintance with the composer or his contemporaneous performers, nor by studying original sound recordings. This is the repertoire I shall address as “Early Music.” However, Early Music is not only a particular repertoire, but it is also understood as including Historically Informed Performance. In my eyes, this should not be a goal in itself. It is rather an attitude, a way of reading and rendering a score, striving for historical authenticity and at the same time taking up one’s full responsibility as a performer. It certainly does not consist of easy-to-learn fixed sets of rules.

 

2 My Way Toward Research

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My passion for Early Music developed in the 1960s. I played the recorder in childhood and continue to play it, with much pleasure, as a secondary instrument next to the transverse flute. Contrary to the opinion of my flute teacher at music school, who saw the recorder as a mere toy or penny whistle, I could not help but consider it as a real instrument. Since there was nobody around to teach me the recorder on a regular basis, I had to proceed alone. This autodidactic approach became second nature, and I profoundly enjoyed inventing every next move myself. In this I was greatly supported by the general family spirit of curiosity and independent thinking, also (especially?) when this went against institutions and authorities such as school or tradition. As children we were encouraged to follow our own path but were reminded by our parents of the risk of doing so. In other words, if you were convinced, go ahead, but do not complain afterward about the consequences.

I was stimulated by the presence of my two older musician brothers, Wieland and Sigiswald, who were then having their first experiences with early string instruments. Unlike them, I had chosen wind instruments, and this gave me a field of my own to cultivate. I am very grateful to them for not having pushed me in any particular direction. At that time we were discovering and discussing the revolutionary recordings of musicians such as Alfred Deller, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Gustav Leonhardt. I remember I received Johann Joachim Quantz’s famous Versuch einer Anweisung, die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (1752), one of the most influential eighteenth-century treatises, for my thirteenth birthday. I read it eagerly, learning German language and Gothic print along the way. I consider this to be the start of my (now already more than fifty years long) Early Music adventure. Quantz’s book opened up a new world for me, and I was impatient to know more. Soon after, I was to become acquainted with other important treatises.

 

3 The Limits of Notation

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Notating everything with utmost precision, if possible at all, would ask for a very great effort and look very complicated. It would also limit the performer’s freedom more than most performers or even composers would have wanted. In Der Critische Musicus (May 15, 1737), Johann Adolf Scheibe criticizes J. S. Bach’s habit of writing out the whole “method” of playing, with much elaborate ornamentation, as being confusing to the reader. This is quite understandable, though from our point of view, we might have wished that Bach had been even more precise. Neither Scheibe nor Bach could have imagined that the generally scanty notation of earlier centuries would cause us so many problems and endless discussions today.

The desire to write down music as precisely as possible seems to be a typical concern of our Western “classical” music, culminating in the twentieth century. Schoenberg is quite radical in the preface to Pierrot Lunaire op. 21 (written in 1912, first published in 1914): the performer should not add anything that is not written down. He should give no interpretation of the music, “Er würde hier nicht geben, sondern nehmen” (he would not give, but take away). Stravinsky is not less compelling when he states (as reported by Robert Craft in Conversations with Igor Stravinsky [1959]) that his music must be read and executed, and not interpreted. Similarly in 1924, he wrote of his Octet that “to interpret a piece is to realize its portrait, and what I demand is the realization of the piece itself and not of its portrait.” The extremely complex notation of many Boulez compositions can be considered as the logical consequence of this attitude. In the last third of the twentieth century, many composers reacted against this by developing aleatoric notation, graphic notation, and so forth. Sometimes the performers are requested to improvise instead of being given a fully written-out part.

 

4 The Notation, Its Perception, and Rendering

ePub

In sections 1–13 the most important notation parameters of Early Music will be treated separately. Short texts in italics will point to the frequent overlapping and continual cross-influence between them or will lead from one section to the next in an attempt to see all these parameters not as isolated elements, but rather as interwoven parts of one integral artistic product. In sections 14–18 some aspects will be treated that have a profound impact on the way the notation is read, received, and rendered to the audience.

Tuning and temperament have an immediate impact on the listener’s ears. Research has shown that traditions and standards—and thus also their appreciation—have changed very much over the years. They kept changing until today, though through the introduction of electronic tuning devices, uniformity and repeatability are favored. I am not sure that this must be considered a gain.

(All Hz figures should be understood as “ca.”; especially for the organ, the influence of the church temperature should not be neglected.) Much of the factual information upon which this section is based can be found in Bruce Haynes, A History of Performing Pitch (2002), to which I contributed many pitch data of historical flutes and recorders. Haynes’s conclusions coincide with my own research and experience.

 

5 Outlook

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The notation gives us the raw but lifeless material from which we have to reinvent the actual music, applying the reading and performing conventions of different times and places. This quest will, of its nature, be a long one without easy, conclusive answers. It can continue to bear fruit if we stay close enough to the questions rather than to the answers. Some answers, though easy, tempting, fascinating, and fashionable, prove to be only temporary. They might blind us and lead us away from the essence of discovery. I am convinced that questions are more important and more interesting than answers. Over centuries humankind keeps asking the same questions; only the answers vary.

Sterility has been a fundamental criticism toward the Early Music movement because it appears to be more backward- than forward-looking. One cannot recreate the past, so the argument goes; therefore, it makes no sense to make the attempt. The argument continues to claim that historically informed Early Music performance is a typical late-twentieth-century phenomenon that says more about its practitioners than about the Early Music itself, and that it is condemned to failure in its attempt to reach its apparent goal. I can understand this criticism, but I would respond that no Early Music performer would be such a fool as to claim that he plays exactly like Bach or whomever else. Only the worst commercial publicity for recordings or concerts will sometimes state this, and Early Music specialists should be the first to stop it.

 

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