Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Rules

A few years ago, I was rehearsing with a pianist for an upcoming concert, and I couldn’t remember what the rule was regarding whether to approach a trill from above or directly on the note when singing a certain composer’s music.  I asked her if she remembered the rule, and she said to me, “I don’t do rules.”

While her response seemed hilariously rebellious at first, I came to see a lot of logic to her point.  Much like Italian cuisine, which varies so much from region to region, so do people’s ideas of “rules” in music.  Encounter an Italian from one region of Italy, they will tell you that unequivocally you do not use garlic when preparing a certain sauce.  Travel just an hour south, and ask an Italian from that region about said sauce, and they will tell you unequivocally that you MUST use garlic when preparing that sauce.  Both are equally convinced that they are telling you the rules, despite the fact that they are telling you the opposite.

Much the same thing happens in music, particularly when musicians speak of the music of the dead.  After my pianist friend’s comment above, this strikes me as also hilarious, because let’s be reasonable – how can we really know?  I always want to say, show me your time machine and let’s go talk to those composers.

Now I understand that we do know some information about how this music was performed – most composers that are in the standard canon of performed classical music have left writing and documented evidence of their tastes.  Rossini wrote often of his distaste for his singers ornamenting his music, and he is documented as being highly critical of what has become the standard, modern-day technique of tenors to carry our chest voices up to the very tops of our ranges.  Nevertheless, when was the last time you heard Una voce poco fa without any ornamentation or a tenor singing Count Almaviva without heroic high notes?  These things are generally accepted as “rules” today and are expected in performance.

Then again – these dead composers were once flawed, imperfect human beings, too, and often contradicted themselves.  Handel was also a bit critical of singers overly ornamenting his arias, but then again, you look at some of the ornaments he himself wrote, and you get a mixed message in terms of “performance practice”.  My colleague, Ann Hallenberg, showed me some of the ornaments he wrote for her arias in Ariodante while we were on a concert tour of the opera this summer, and I tell you, they are crazy.  Sure, they are beautiful and exciting to listen to, but they look slightly insane at first glance.

Handel’s Messiah is one of these pieces that is often subject to “rules”, yet interpretations of it widely differ. To say that the piece is performed in a wide variety of styles is an understatement, and it is performed in many different versions with different cuts and different singers singing different arias.  Just to give you a taste of the wide range of possibilities, here are two examples of the many ways the first tenor aria can be performed:

The first time a younger version of myself encountered a version of Messiah that didn’t conform to my expectations or the set of rules of the piece that I had in my hot-headed, young noggin, I reacted initially with a very closed mind.  But what I quickly noticed is that whether a particular style or version is to my taste or not, each one, when performed with conviction, brings out something new in the piece that I have never heard before.  I’ve sung the piece in so-called “authentic, period-style” performance with period instruments, and I’ve sung performances of the piece with modern-instrument orchestras that approach the piece with more of a romantic flair, and what I can say is that the piece is never the same for me.  This weekend with the Baltimore Symphony, I experienced yet another interpretation, and yet again, there were new aspects of the drama of the piece that the conductor brought out that I had never heard in the piece before.  The piece was yet again kept fresh for me – this is part of what I find so amazing about this music.  There is so much in it to be brought forth and emphasized, and there are so many ways to interpret it.  In the end, whichever "set of rules" the performers choose to subscribe to, the performer has to decide what is to their taste and commit to it.  The point isn’t the rules, but what it is that you want to say.

Just for fun, here's a video of one of my favorite moments in the piece:


Gary said...

And that's the magnificent beauty of art, whether you approach it as a creator or as an observer/listener/participant. And it's why I have so many different recordings of the same piece. I would be embarrassed to admit how many complete cycles of Mahler's symphonies I have in my music library!


nick said...

Don't be embarrassed! I think it's great that you are able to appreciate so many different interpretations!
Thanks for your comment, Gary!