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Avior Byron will present a paper on Bronislaw Huberman in the 2010 'The Embodiment of Authority' Conference at Helsinki, Finland.   


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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Huberman and the divine: report by Edmondo De Amicis

Huberman and the divine: report by Edmondo De Amicis

Edmondo De Amicis
Edmondo De Amicis (1846 –1908) was an Italian novelist, journalist, poet and short-story writer. His best-known book is the children’s novel Heart. (source: wikipedia)

In one of my previous posts I wrote about Max Brod’s review of a concert of Huberman in Prague. In this post I will continue to review how Huberman was perceived with relation to the theme of the divine in music. The Italian journalist, poet and writer Edmondo De Amicis wrote in the summer of 1904 about an experience he had meeting Bronislaw Huberman (the text that was translated from Italian, appears in The listener Speaks by Ida Ibbeken (1961)). In the following excerpt De Amicis relates to the question of suffering during performance:
You have the glory – I said to him – dear Huberman – but what about your health? – "Good Lord – he answered with a smile – my health leaves to desire as the glory. But it is all the fault of the violin, I assure you. Unlike many others, who are excited before appearing before the public and quiet down as soon as they are there, I myself am quiet up to the last moment, and I become agitated when I begin to play. One would not believe it, don’t you think so? It seems to everybody that I am impassive, because I do not move when I am playing, except when necessary. But this relative immobility is the effect of a great effort, and the effort I am making to suppress my emotion reacts on my stomach and ruins it. All my suffering is restrained passion. But it is only just that I pay in some way for the inexpressible joy which my art gives me." – Well – I said to him – I have guessed it. (The Listener Speaks, p. 16A)
Huberman’s playing, according to the De Amicis report, is a result of retrained passion and emotion. The consequence of this is great suffering that has implications on his health. Yet the source of this passion is not clear at this stage of the article. De Amicis, however, leads his reader to an impression that this passion is related to metaphysical entities. He responds to the passage I quoted above in the following:
Your quite attitude could not mislead me. I watched you intensely when you played. I saw when your eyes sparkled and when they grew moist, and I saw the shiver running through the muscles of your pale face. Sometimes, when you pressed the violin, you seemed to press a living and adored thing, which inebriated and tormented you; and when you took it from the shoulder, you made a movement as if you were tearing off a vampire sugging [sic.] your blood; and then you took it back to your breast and re-embraced it with even more passionate love and pressed it under your chin with the tenderness of a mother who presses her face against the face of her creature. Oh, I was not misled. I understood, I felt when from the depths of the soul welled up the lamentations, the sighs of love, of joy and sorrow, the sound of the nightingale and the voices of angels, which you poured forth into the theatre; and which out of your two thousand listeners made one single soul; a soul which palpitated, throbbed with you and which loved you.
Performance is not something that happens between a violinist and members of the audience. It is a meeting of metaphysical subjects. The violin is simultaneously adored by Huberman since it grants him moments of joy. Yet it also cases him great pain. Here again one accouters a romantic view of art that grants the artist both joy and suffering. Moreover, the audience is not a group of individuals that perceive the music in different ways. They are united by the elevated experience into ‘one single soul’. Huberman, as in Brod’s description, is a mere medium that communicates emotion, vibrations and energy from an active and divine source to the passive and astonished listeners. De Amicis ends his article claiming that he will always remember ‘the profoundest emotions which my heart received by that instrument which speaks most humanly about the most divine art.’



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Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

I am a great admirer of Glenn Gould. I always loved the two versions of the Goldberg Variations that he recorded (as usual I have included in this post several video that you might find interesting).
However, the first time that I was really amazed from his interpretation was when I heard him play Schoenberg’s Piano Piece Op. 33a. In his performance I heard something that I cannot describe in words. It is simply magic. As he often does, Gould deviates from the score. He does it on purpose from the reason that I will mention in a moment.

I bought several months ago The Glenn Gould Reader (edited by Tim Page. Published by Vintage Books, 1990). It includes essays written by Gould to journals such as the Piano Quarterly and texts that accompanied his recordings. Some of the texts are funny and light hearted. Others have incredible insights into music, performance and musical history.

Gould on Stokowsky

His essay ‘Stokowsky in Six Scenes’ is a master piece. A passage from it may give you an idea why Gould himself had the habit of deviating from the score as well as give you a taste of his literary style:
‘Stokowsky was, for want of a better word, an ecstatic. He was involved with the notes, the tempo marks, the dynamics in the score, to the same extent that a filmmaker is involved with the original book or source which supplies the impetus, the idea, for his film. “Black marks on paper”, he would say to me a quarter-century later. “We write black marks on white paper – the mere facts of frequency; but music is a communication much more subtle than mere facts. The best a composer can do when within him he hears a great melody is to put it on paper. We call it music, but that is not music; that is only paper. Some believe that one should merely mechanically reproduce the marks on the paper, but I do not believe in that. One must go much further than that. We must defend the composer against the mechanical conception of life which if becoming more and more strong today.”’ (p. 264)
This, of course, could represent not only Stokowsky, but also Gould himself. At another place in the essay Gould tells us that Stokowsky modified his studio interpretations so that they will suite the living-room acoustics where the music will be heard. Indeed, when Gould writes about other performers, he often gives valuable and interesting information about himself.

Gould on Schoenberg

Another excellent essay is ‘Arnold Schoenberg – A Perspective’. This is was originally a monograph published by the University of Cincinnati (1964). What I love about this essay is that it makes an interesting overview on Schoenberg’s compositional development, yet it also tries (as early as 1964!) to understand his significance on the history of music. Gould raises questions such as ‘what will happen to Schoenberg in the year 2000?’ He notes the fact that Schoenberg’s technique had entered the grade-B horror movies and that it is much more acceptable in operas than in the concert hall.     
Gould had a deep understanding of the aesthetics, philosophical and technical problems that occupied Schoenberg. When he deals with technical issues, he usually does not divorce them from social and historical events (although he takes caution not to suggest too strong connections), and he describes in a very lively way what might have been the composer’s feelings when embarking on new and unknown paths of composition.


Gould on  Rubinstein

In his essay on Rubinstein he includes a conversation that tell us volumes about Gould’s philosophy of recording:
‘…when you begin, you don’t quite know what it is about. You only come to know as you proceed… I very rarely know, when I come to the studio, exactly how I am going to do something… I’ll try it is fifteen different ways… I don’t know at the time of the session what result is finally going to accrue. And it does depend upon listening to a playback and saying “That doesn’t work; it is going to go that way; I’ll have to change that completely.” It makes the performer very like the composer, really, because it gives him editorial afterthought…’ (p. 287)
It is interesting to read this, since Gould had a dream of being a composer – a dream that was fulfilled only in his performances.
Gould was an incredibly knowledgeable musician. He writes about people such as Byrd, Gibbons, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Hindemith, Boulez, Terry Riley, Rubinstein, Menuhin, Barbra Streisand and many others. I the book one can find essays about technology, recordings, Gould various broadcast and TV projects, and other interesting things. I recommend reading this book to anyone who is interested in classical music in general and Glenn Gould and performance in particular.    

Gould on Recordings and Media

Some of the most interesting essays can be found in part three of the book, which is entitled "Media". The first article, "The Prospects of Recording", is perhaps the most interesting. In it Gould explains his views on editing, the affect of recordings on the listener in particular and art in general. I also recommend reading the next essay: "Music and Technology". In this section one can find texts that Gould used for some of his broadcasts. For example, for The Idea of North. One can listen to these broadcasts, as they have been released two years ago on CDs on CBS Records.

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Further Reading

McClary on analysis, historical conditions and rationality

Yesterday I read again Susan McClary’s chapter “Excess and Frame: The Musical Representation of Madwomen” in Feminine Endings. One of the subchapters in this book deals with Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg. During my recent research trip in Berlin I did not have time to read the whole chapter, so I returned to it now, and I was amazed by McClary’s virtuosity, her breath of knowledge in music and other contemporary theory, and the way she builds her arguments. This chapter is a good example to authoritative writing.

Due to some of the issues that I have spoke about in recent posts (such as The difference between a poor critic and a good scholar, Musicology, Science and Postmodernism, Performance and Analysis: a response to Zecharia, and Heinrich Schenker and his followers) I thought it would be useful to quote the following from McClary’s chapter:

“That analysis is an indispensable ingredient in out study of music is beyond question. Yet we need to supplement bare formal analysis with information concerning the historical conditions that give rise both to particular repertories and also to the metatheoretical discourses that serve and explain away the ‘problematic’ aspects of music. If – as clearly is the case – a fascination with madness and transgressive behavior motivates much of the music we care about, then surly we need to take that into account before we jump into our graphs. Otherwise, what precisely are we doing? Whose rationality are we attempting to establish, and why?” (109)

What I love about this passage is that is does not go against analysis. It states clearly that analysis is “an indispensable ingredient in out study of music”. However, it suggests that scholars must go beyond the score in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding of music.

Moreover, it suggests that some of the motivation behind formal analysis is to demonstrate a supposed rationality of music that is actually motivated by irrational things (such as madness and transgressive behavior). Western culture celebrates rationality as one of its highest values and goals. It is postmodern authors (such as Michel Foucault) that demonstrate that this is nothing but a myth.

This is one of the things that I find extremely attractive about the epoch after modernism. Irrational issues such as madness, gender, identity and religion can be discussed in the open. These are the things that touch most of us and make us, at least partly, obsessed about the music that we love.

Musicology, Science and Postmodernism

There is something annoying about being a musicologist and a postmodernist. As a musicologist one is expected to be a scientist, to reach an objective truth and to say things with authority. As a postmodernist, one is expected to doubt the idea of one truth, to show various perspectives of a phenomenon and to deal with the elusive thing called: meaning. Being a musicologist and a postmodernist may seem a contradiction in terms.

There is something extremely attractive about science. It tells us stories about the truth: one truth. It gives us a sense of revelation, almost a religious one. It gives us miraculous power to control the world and to dominate it. It cures illness (often creating new ones) and promotes technological progress (are we happier?). For me, the notion of “progress” is nothing more than a superstition. Glenn Gould was aware of it, as are many others.

In the realm of music, many are still worshiping idols. It may be the romantic notion of the composer-idol. It may be a cold notion of cognition, by seeking the “grammar” behind the music. The common act of this idol worshipping is that it bypasses the concept that music meaning is something that is affected by performers, listeners and the social and cultural contexts that they live in.

Dr Flora Jersonsky-Margalit kindly pointed out an article that is relevant to this discussion. Avshlom Alizur wrote what seems to me as a simplistic article about postmodernism. I will not spend my time demonstrating why it is simplistic. Who ever is interested in reading a more comprehensive understanding of postmodernism in welcome to read first chapter of Religion Without Illusion (in Hebrew) by Dr. Gili Zivan. דת ללא אשליה

It is shocking how much time is spent on teaching how music is built while ignoring how it is experienced. A music student learns hours of harmony, counterpoint, and ear training (of the type that teaches you how to identify simple building blocks of music). The music student learns about the history of the composers (less about the history of music). Music analysis often focuses on analyzing what the composer did in his score. A better way to do things is to teach how harmonic grammar changes its meaning in different contexts. How context affects the meaning of counterpoint rules in the music of Bach and others (yes, also other composers used counterpoint…). How the same chord receives different meaning in different contexts and how very different chords sound the same in certain contexts (the music theorist Edward T. Cone wrote in 1967 a wonderful article called “Beyond analysis”).

It is true that some students start learning music with the aim of becoming composers. Yet, others simply want to play music or learn more about it in order to further enjoy it. As Eric Clark suggests in his recent articles, the crucial question is what music means. In order to deal with this question one needs to speak about performance. Performance is something social. It is a scene where certain things become more important than others. Performers, no matter whether they admit it or not, no matter whether they are conscious about it or not, always emphasize things in their performance.

Dealing with performance is one of the ways to deal with musical meaning. It is not by chance that performance studies became such a vibrant and important field in the world, when much of the academic world is increasingly influenced by postmodern thought.

Why does one cry from music? Is it because of Schenker? Is it because of the score? The score has something to do with it. However, it is only one important factor among many that play a role in the creation of musical meaning in performance.

It seems to me much more reasonable that students should compare recordings with the score and discuss the issue of interpretation. Why one interpretation is good and one is bad (the postmodernists will not like this…). Not only whether the performer is “faithful” to the score, but whether the score is “faithful” to the performer. I find both questions slightly ridiculous.

Musical meaning is a negotiation between cultural signs that are interpreted and reinterpreted. The scene is fluctuating and the “truth” depends on the performers and listeners. We can write all day about the “structure” and the “rules” of perceiving it. Yet, if one redefines in performance what in fact the structure is, than how “objective” can one be a priory to performance?

So what is the difference between a poor musical critic, who may speak about food when writing about music, and a musicologist who is supposed to transcend personal subjective metaphors and speak with slightly more authority? I will deal with this question in one of my forthcoming posts.

Performance and Analysis: a response to Zecharia

Shalom Zecharia. Thank you for your interesting comment. You wrote that Roger Kamien “organizes his Beethovenian thought and music according to Schenker. It does not matter that nobody […] understands what the Schenker formulas are about. […] Kamien knows Schenker intimately and very well, and apparently understands Beethoven through him. No doubt his excellent and convincing performances are a product of this knowledge […]. Everyone hears Kamien’s convincing Beethoven, therefore Kamien’s argument for Schenker’s necessity is passively corroborated by everyone who listens to Kamiens’ Beethoven. The opinions of other musicologists or commentators do not constitute any sound argument in this regard. Would Kamien’s Beethoven sound less convincingly – and Kamien would nonetheless argue for Schenker’s necessity - then we could start citing other musicologists. Kamien is right in his position (it does not mean that his truth is the only one).”

I am not sure that Kamien’s performance (I am speaking about the one I heard in his lecture in the Tel-Aviv University about three years ago) sounded ‘convincing’ to everyone. Moreover, I am not convinced that it sounded so to everyone from the same reasons. You assume that if Kamien ‘understands’ Beethoven’s music via Schenker and plays ‘convincingly’ than it is necessarily due to a Schenkerian analysis. What about the other things originating from performers? These are also an integral part of the performance. Why do you assume that ‘the’ structure that is analyzed from the score is more influential on the listener’s experience than other things such as performer’s character, mood, performance tradition, and interaction with the audience (etc.) that influence the flow of time, articulation, tension, body language (etc.)?

The fact that Kamien relates his achievements in musical performance to the composer and to a certain analytical method does not mean that we must accept his explanation. We might, instead, choose to give him more credit than he gives himself, and to assume that Kamien is more than a faithful messenger or a tool in the hands of others. Perhaps there is something in his personality or momentary choices that make his performances as they are.

Recent post-structural research in music and in other fields demonstrates that from the point of view of perception, score originated structure (there are other structures are you know) is an important factor. Yet it is only one factor in a large net of factors that create musical meaning in the heart of the listeners.

If you are interested to read something I wrote on the subject in Hebrew you are welcome to look at my publications and press the link on a review I wrote on Eric Clarke that deals exactly with such issues.

Heinrich Schenker and his followers

I am no Schenkerian. My knowledge of Schenker is limited and I never really did any analysis using his methods. I read criticism on Schenker’s theory, I read about his method and I know quite well several books and articles that are highly influenced by his theory. It is quite clear that Schenker is the most influential music theorist since the second half of the twentieth century. He has fanatic followers who believe in his theory and spread it. He has admirers that are influenced by him, yet are also critical to his thoughts. And there are people, like me, who highly respect his work yet feel far from it. Perhaps in the future, if I learn more about his work, I might be converted.

Recently, a book on Schenker call The Schenker Project was written by Nicholas Cook. I read parts of it and I think that it is very good. Cook has extensive knowledge on Schenker in particular and music analysis in general (he has a very good book which is ‘a must’ for anyone interested in Musical Analysis). Here is part of the abstract of the book: ‘This book aims to explain Schenker’s project through reading his key works within a series of period contexts. These include music criticism, the field in which Schenker first made his name; Viennese modernism, particularly the debate over architectural ornamentation; German cultural conservatism, which is the source of many of Schenker’s most deeply entrenched values; and Schenker’s own position as a Galician Jew who came to Vienna just as fully racialized anti-semitism was developing there.’

It is well known that Schenker’s theory ignores things such as rhythm and orchestration. Some of Schenker’s followers continued his work in very interesting ways. When I was young and naïve, I wrote a negative review on Harald Krabs’s book on Schumann (Fantasy Pieces). I still stand behind most of the criticism that I wrote at the time (a different version of part of this review can be found in my PhD in one of the chapters on Pierrot lunaire). Yet today I am capable of appreciating even more his achievements in this book.

John Rink, who was my Ph.D. supervisor, is influenced by Schenker. His is one of the theorists that include quazi-Schenkerian methods in research on performance. A fascinating article that he wrote doing this is: ‘Analysis and (or?) performance’ in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). It is interesting that this article in meant to assist performers. It advocates a middle way between those who think that one must do comprehensive Schenkerian analysis in order to perform and those who are against any kind of analysis before performing. He uses the term ‘informed intuition’.

Apart from the problems mentioned above, Schenker’s theory in misguided in the following (this is not meant to be a comprehensive list):

1) It claims to be the only truth.
2) It suggests that a work of Genius is based of certain structural definitions.
3) It claims that works of Genius are German.
4) It ignores the cultural and social aspects of music making.
5) It is based on the concept of organicism which is anachronistic.

It is important that every serious musician learns about Schenker. However, this must be conducted in a critical manner.

Since this blog deals alot with issues if performance, I would like to mention an important book that was published lately: Heinrich Schenker, ed. Heribert Esser, The Art of Performance (USA: Oxford University Press, 2002) This book includes unpublished writings on performance by Schenker. It is facinating and not expensive.

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Copyright Avior Byron 2023 .