Classical Music 101: What you see isn’t what you hear with printed score

It makes for a great soundbite, but when a musician modestly says “I’m only transmitting the notes from the composer to you,” he or she is lying.

Western music notation — staff lines, key signatures, clefs, sixteenth notes, slurs, ties, rests, pianissimos, et al — is the product of and vessel for a long series of compromises between what a performer and their instrument is capable of and what a composer might have heard in their mind.

Play a pop or rock or jazz piece straight from the music and it will be clear from the first measure that something is terribly wrong. In these genres, the problem is usually rhythm-related, where fractional shifts in how long certain notes are held are impractical to translate into print (something like triple-dotted quarter notes, for example).

There’s a gap between printed and performed rhythm in Baroque music — something that most musicians and audiences weren’t aware of until historically informed performance became the norm in this generation.

Baroque style also needs to deal with the da capo, when a singer repeats the opening section of a Handel opera aria or when a soloist repeats the original subject and exposition in a Vivaldi concerto. On the second pass, the singer or soloist is supposed to embellish the subject with extra trills and turns to add drama and interest.

The manuscripts for early Baroque opera accompaniments show only the most basic harmonic outline. Through  apprenticeship the musicians filled in the blanks — just as musicians of classical Indian, Persian and Chinese traditions have always done.

To illustrate, here is the opening page of a lament from an opera by 17th century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli (Erismena, in a contemporary English translation no less), followed by a lament from Il Giasone (from Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp) to show how the single notes in the bass become the delicately embroidered arpeggios played by the lute:

By the time we get to the 18th century, art music composers are leaving less and less to chance. They augment suggested speeds at which a movement is to be played with instructions on the emotion to be expressed. An extreme example is Gustav Mahler, who left detailed instructions everywhere.

But the interpreter still has their own layer to add — even an interpreter who is playing under the (hopefully) watchful eye of a conductor. Here is Heinz Fadle giving advice to tenor trombonists performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, this one concerning the second trombone solo in the first movement:

Although Mahler has written the two phrases in bars 11-13 the same, it is legitimate to play the second one as an echo. This will help to increase the dramatic effect and build-up that begins four bars before rehearsal number 34.

Is the trombonist executing the composer’s wishes with the echo, or without?

In the late 20th century, art music notation explodes with all the experiments going on. John Cage, born a century ago, came up with scores that are unreadable without coaching from someone steeped in its genesis. Here’s a fairly straightforward (for Cage) example:

Going the other way on the timeline, Medieval plainsong — one melodic figure directly attached to text — should be simpler. But it’s not. Here are the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos singing Salve Regina set on a simple tone Gregorian chant from the 1961 Liber Usualis:

Now that we have dozens and dozens of recordings of the main works of the Western classical canon floating around on millions of MP3 players, most of us are so comfortable and familiar with, say, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, that it’s easy to forget that each performance — live or recorded — is a sequence of decisions made well after the interpreter has read the printed score.

When a work is so popular and so well known as the Violin Concerto, the differences become much more subtle, but they are still present, and even the most minute changes in phrasing or intonation add up to the difference between a nice and an awesome listening experience, much of it up to our individual taste.

Using the second movement as an example, here are David Oistrakh , Itzhak Perlman, Augustin Dumay, and Vadim Repin:

Because we are a culture of readers, what is set out in ink or pixels is the source of legitimate information, fact, gossip and even entertainment (a bit of E.L. James, anyone?).

Bridges and planes and nuclear power stations are designed and built on careful reading of careful writing. But anything that is art or craft uses a mix of history, technique, theory and tradition in addition to the artist’s own imagination. Not all of these elements translate into print.

John Terauds


2 thoughts on “Classical Music 101: What you see isn’t what you hear with printed score

  1. We are indeed a culture of readers, especially when it comes to music … and in the process of subordinating ourselves to the printed page, the classical music community forgot how to improvise. One wonders what our 18th and early-19th century musical predecessors would think about using written-out cadenzas in performance.

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