4. Absent Performance

Performance used not to really figure at all in histories of music. (Amazingly, for years there wasn't even an entry under 'performance' in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Broadly speaking, older writings tended to see the history of music as a goal-directed story of progress, marked along the way by great works and great men, yet (somewhat paradoxically) underpinned by a concurrent belief in gradual, organic change. Perhaps in the same way that aspects of the old symphonic tradition migrated from the concert platform to the cinema soundtrack, quite a lot of these ideas – which are now pretty unfashionable in scholarship – moved into the public domain, and can still be found in programme notes, promotional material and TV and radio broadcasts.

It's worth noting that this familiar way of writing about Classical music makes a small but important imaginative leap: from thinking about what a composer wrote (whether in notation or words) straight to the effects on listeners. Which listeners, though? Indeed, quite a large part of the story of composition has encompassed changes – often quite radical ones – in how famous pieces were received over time, and this angle often pops up in modern programme notes, too. (The riot at the premiere of the Rite of Spring is one of the best-known examples, but it can be found almost everywhere). Although it isn't always the case, this mode of writing frequently casts the progressive composer in opposition to a reactionary public, the implication being that responsible audiences catch up with the composer's genius in the end. Given that it's the promoter's job to advocate the music being played, this tone is as pragmatic as it is expected.

Interestingly, these differences in reception are only rarely thought to have anything to do with performance. It used to be 'the music itself' that was seen as the object of historical enquiry, and so it's also 'the music itself' that was considered to be subject to these interesting changing receptions. But does performance have anything to do with it? And if it does, how on earth do we think (or write) about it?

In terms of history, it's clear that the majority of performance events, which are obviously so central to the actual experience of music, necessarily have to be parsed into something more intelligible and bitesize. For one thing, there are just too many of them! One way of achieving this kind of useful 'chunking' - which, incidentally, human brains seem to rely on for all sorts of tasks - is to model the 'pastness' of Classical music in terms of direct transmission between (sometimes dead) composer and (always living) listener that I've already mentioned.

Being socialized into modern Classical concert life partly means absorbing key knowledge networks: things like composers' styles, key biographical details, where they lived and worked, other musicians they knew (and perhaps even musicians we'd have liked them to know). Much of this is also built into the early years of music education, either through instrumental exams or the academic curriculum. And the historical infrastructure of a composer's life actually does much more than provide incidental interest: its constant presence in concert life sustains the sense that the composer-listener transmission is ultimately trustworthy, providing a vivid imaginary thread to the creative minds of the past.

Experiencing performance through the lens of 'ideal transmission' has some important results. One of these is that it usually emphasises the absent, historical composer, and de-emphasises the present, living performer(s), to varying degrees. In the Nineteenth Century, some musicians and critics even went as far as to imagine performance in terms of a mystical invocation of the composer, a kind of creative séance or musical transubstantiation. In fact, some of the most influential recent metaphors for making music are underpinned by the notion that the ideal musician is essentially invisible. The powerful combination of these two ideas - 1) the transparent performer, and 2) the need for historical background to 'the music itself' - means that from a listener's perspective, much of what performing musicians do on stage gets mapped directly (and obviously retrospectively) onto the imaginary figure of the composer.

Lots of recent work in musicology has built on this observation, noting that many of the traits that we habitually associate with famous composers and their music often owe a surprisingly large amount to recent consensus, not just among historians or analysts, but among performers and listeners. These are the sorts of feedback loops that are as fascinating as they are difficult to unpick. In fact, once you start off down this rabbit-hole things tend to get so complicated that it's no wonder music history was configured around narratives of great composers and great works! Reifying music like this, and so bypassing knotty issues of performance, makes the story a lot easier to tell.


But as we've already heard on early recordings, the nature of musical performance has changed a huge amount, in terms of sound and meaning as well as the kinds of events at which it was experienced. And in practice, it's hard to imagine a situation in which a piece's reception was not affected to a significant degree by the kind of performances that listeners heard. It's just that these impressions, a large part of which were derived from real performances, started to be mapped onto composers and compositions so habitually that the distinction was submerged, and the abstraction of 'the music itself' become the main location for critical responses. This is not to say that one ceased to comment on performances, just that ‘performance’ and ‘the work’ became configured relative to each other. This was not always the case; for instance, as Elizabeth le Guin has eloquently explained, in the Eighteenth Century the idea that a sonata could be in some sense 'better than its performance' would have seemed entirely nonsensical.[1]

Far from being absent, then, “performers… have been doing a very large part of the meaning making all along”, as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson explains.[2] But so much of the infrastructure of the modern Classical music world makes a neat division between composers and performers, and a correspondingly neat mapping from composer’s notes onto listeners’ responses, that the true extent of the role of performing musicians has tended to get lost in the cracks. Performers have acquired their own histories (sometimes, in the case of the most famous, every bit as mythologised as any composer’s) yet these have usually been seen to occupy a separate narrative, in parallel, as ‘interpreters’ of composers’ (more genuinely creative) intentions. In fact, as I’ve been saying throughout, a great deal of what we think we know about composers and compositions is really derived from performances, and these have changed considerably more than we like to think. To consider performance and its history entirely separately from composition, therefore, is to buy into an artificially simplified and idealised narrative of music history. Bringing them into closer dialogue is as vital as it is interesting.

I’ll finish this chapter, then, with a terrifically alarming example that’s now quite well known amongst performance researchers: Carl Reinecke’s piano rolls of Mozart. Reinecke, a composer in his own right, had a reputation in Leipzig for a rather conservative pianism that was said to have captured something of Mozart’s style. Whether this is true or not, it’s undoubtedly a challenge to modern pronouncements about ‘Mozartian’ music-making. What sorts of things have shaped our assumptions, instincts and judgements about our favourite composers' sound-worlds? Performance and listening, which for so long were conveniently absent from discussions about music, in fact make up a crucial part of the story.




[1] Elizabeth le Guin "A Visit to the Salon de Parnasse" in Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric, eds. Tom Beghin and Sandor M. Goldberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp.14-38

2] Daniel Leech-Wilkinson "Classical music as enforced utopia" Arts & Humanities in Higher Education (2016), Vol. 15 (3-4), pp.325-336 (p.326)


© Chris Terepin 2018