KATE AGOSTINO - COLLABORATION THROUGH TIME
It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time, and the instrument will play itself.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
In the early stages of music learning, one could be forgiven for believing that all that is required to play a piece is to know the sequence of notes along with the correct rhythm – especially if the student is very young. It took me many years to realise that being a musician did not simply consist of learning all the notes to a violin concerto. As I matured as a music student, I began to learn that there is so much more to convey, express, explore and communicate in music making.
More often than not, higher education and inspiring performance environments bring about more questions than they are usually able to answer – and this is a great thing as it means we are able to reflect and question on the process and preparation of music. During my time at the Royal College of Music, I was involved in a wide variety of projects from early music to contemporary performances and many genres in-between. Due to the varied nature of my music making, I began to draw comparisons between different genres of music and each individual performance along with its preparation. I began to explore the extent to which the interpretation of historical texts is comparable to the collaborative process of working with a living composer.
As musicians, many of us strive to perform music in a way that not only pleases our audience but also fulfills what we determine the composer would have wanted, or in contemporary cases does want. When we - specifically as historically informed performers, performing on period instruments - prepare and perform baroque music, there is little interpretative instruction to follow except the score and the treatises, or what we call the “primary sources”. For the purpose of this article, I have given music and texts written between approximately 1600 and 1750 the general label of “baroque.”
When talking in terms of collaborations, we can examine the baroque music process and observe the “collaboration” that occurs between the composer and performer. Whilst it might be an oversimplification, essentially two elements are interacting at this time. The first of these is the score, which contains the notation of the piece. And secondly, the performance practices from that time - some of which are captured in documentary sources.
There are literally hundreds of treatises from the baroque era; however, some have become more popular than others. There are a select few that are widely used and often referred to when making performance decisions, such as Johann Joachim Quantz On Playing the Flute (1752); Leopold Mozart A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing (1756); C. P. E. Bach Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753); Georg Muffat Florilegium Primum (1695) and Florilegium Secundum (1698); and Francesco Geminiani The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751). When we prepare works by non-living composers we must delve into these treatises to gain a better understanding of music making at that time.
For example, when selecting a tempo for a particular movement, we can turn to C. P. E. Bach who hints that the use of excessive speed is likely to erase the expressive nature of the movement:
“More often than not, one meets technicians, nimble keyboardists by profession, who possess all of these qualifications and indeed astound us with their prowess without ever touching our sensibilities. They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it.”
(C. P. E. Bach, page 147, 1753)
We may also wish to exaggerate the dynamic contrast in our performance, in order to bring more expression to the music, as instructed by Quantz:
“The exact expression of the Forte and Piano is one of the most essential matters in performance. The alternation of the Piano and Forte is one of the most convenient means both to represent the passions distinctly, and to maintain light and shadow in the execution of music.”
(J. Quantz, page 274, 1752)
For violinists, Leopold Mozart advises that notes bound under a slur should not be played equally and Muffat has strict instruction as to where to place the down and up bows:
“But often three, four, and even more notes are bound together by such a slur and half-circle. In such a case the first thereof must be somewhat more strongly accented and sustained longer; the other, on the contrary, being slurred on to it in the same stroke with a diminishing of the tone, even more and more quietly and without the slightest accent.”
(L. Mozart, page 220, 1756)
We must compare and sometimes combine the opinions and instructions offered in these sources, as well as use our own musical insight. Below you can see Geminiani gives two examples of a trill. In some cases, the former would be more appropriate, in others the latter, and certain movements will call for a combination of the two.
We can continue in this fashion, using the primary sources to inform our decisions, until we have analysed entire works. However, we should bear in mind that the treatises and other documentary materials that survive today may or may not be truly representative of practices from the time at which they were written. To paraphrase the director of RCM - Colin Lawson - we must find a balance between historical accuracy and practical expediency.
Secondary sources are those documents written after the baroque era. They are even further removed from the initial composer and may be even less reliable than the primary sources, however many people find them interesting and often useful when preparing for a performance. I often find Judy Tarling’s Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners to be a useful secondary source as she covers all aspects of performance, drawing information from the primary sources and compiling them in clear sections. These types of secondary sources are an interpretation of primary sources, so I try to use them in a way that directs me back to the original treatise.
What links my baroque performance practice to my contemporary one? After the baroque period, where freedom of interpretation included variations and ornamentation, the classical era becomes more the domain of the composer. We see less room for interpretation by the performer, perhaps with the exception of the cadenza. As we continue further towards the present day, I’d like to present a case study on the relationship between composer Igor Stravinsky and the Polish/American violinist Samuel Dushkin. Using somewhat of a broad-brush stroke, I will write in very general terms as I discuss musical characteristics whilst moving from 1750 to the present day.
Dushkin had previously fashioned arrangements of short pieces for selected Stravinsky works, but the two collaborated closely on the 1933 edition of Suite Italienne, an arrangement of Stravinsky’s original work Suite for Violin and Piano (based on his Pulcinella Suite.) This relationship between the two was a deviation from Stravinsky’s usual practice, as he did not normally allow the performers to have a say in his music and was very meticulous with his compositions. By allowing Dushkin to arrange and collaborate, Stravinsky afforded him the opportunity to have an active input into the sounding result and notated score of this work. See below the clear contrast between the two editions of Serenata, a movement from Suite Italienne:
Many times Stravinsky’s score was very elaborate and difficult, while Dushkin simplified a lot of the part and introduced many of the melodies back to the violin parts that had originally been written for piano. The edition edited by Dushkin is far more idiomatic for the violin and is usually the choice of edition for performers today. Without this collaborative process, who can say what reputation Stravinsky’s original edition would have now without this input of a violinist.
We begin to see an altered relationship between composer and performer including an altered role and function of the performer. Take a moment to look at composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, who were using graphic scoring - see below. We can observe that they were essentially forcing performers to take part in the compositional process. By not defining all choices in the score, they leave the interpretation of the graphics to the instrumentalist. Each performance of their work differs as the interpretation of each individual performer changes.
A similar effect can be seen in the performances of “choice music” – for example Terry Riley’s In C:
The compositional material is all written on the page, but the performers determine the outcome of the piece by choosing to move through the musical cells at his or her own pace. In these cases, pseudo collaboration is forced between the composer and the performer. Take the following two recordings, both recordings stem from the same score and yet have completely different sounding results because of the performers.
Nowadays we have abundant opportunity to collaborate and many opportunities for composers to write with the assistance of a performer. In the current climate, musicians are usually trained to a high level in either an instrument or composition, with exceptions of course. However, in times gone by the composers would often be well versed in several instruments and therefore they themselves were the main interpreters of their own music. It seems there is more room now for the performers to guide the composers, which allows instrumentalists to collaborate with composers and bring our expertise to the table.
During my time at college, I worked closely with composer Benjamien Lycke – a Belgian composer who has now graduated from RCM with a Masters in Composition for Screen. Ben approached me in early 2015 to give the London premiere of his work for solo violin entitled Trapped, written the previous year. I gave the initial performance of this work in a showcase of RCM musicians at our residence hall but our end goal was to workshop and record the piece, which we completed and released online in January 2016.
Below is an excerpt from the score Benjamien originally presented me alongside the same excerpt from the revised edition, which I used in performance.
The changes you see are partly due to the collaborative process that took place between the composer and myself, with Ben instructing how he would like certain sections to sound and me giving advice on how best to get this result whilst utilizing the idiosyncrasies of the violin. It was my hope that through collaboration, I could contribute a substantial amount to the compositional process and sounding result of Trapped. Ben was able to have a live player to experiment through trial and error the phrasing and techniques well suited to the violin. I have observed now, as I continue to work on projects with Ben, that his writing for string instruments - in particular violin and viola - has become more idiomatic, perhaps partly due to collaborative processes such as ours.
So, is there a link between working with historical texts and working with a living composer? There is an extent to which baroque collaboration and performance choices might have been similar to today’s practices, but we cannot access enough solid evidence. I wonder, what light does my music-making shed on collaboration through time? Although we are able to communicate in a more immediate way with living composers, I believe it is still possible to collaborate through time (with composers of the past) by using the widest range of source materials as possible. However, the further we go back in time, the more difficult this becomes. The musical intention of the piece should be the priority – whether we use historical sources or a direct collaboration – and each performer must strive to achieve that goal. The onus is on the performer to assimilate all available resources and combine this with their musical insight and intuition to achieve a great performance.
As a musician in the 21st century, the whole history of music lies before me. I find it invigorating to work on repertoire over such a long period in history, and we as musicians in 2016 are very fortunate to have these opportunities.
As autumn fades into winter - and we begin to spend more and more time indoors - I hope I have inspired you to investigate and discuss musical resources and continue to question and explore your own musical process.
©Kate Agostino, 2016
Kate Agostino is a freelance violinist living and working in London. Having obtained First Class Honours from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, presenting a thesis that explored the use of tempo rubato in the major violin works of J. S. Bach, Kate moved to London to pursue a Master of Music at The Royal College of Music – graduating in July 2016. During her time at RCM she was concertmaster of the Film Orchestra and winner of the Historical Performance concerto competition. Kate is very grateful to Kyra von Schottenstein and Douglas Downie for supporting her studies.
Bach, C. P. E. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Translated and edited by William J. Mitchell. London: Eulenburg Books, 1974. (Original date: 1753)
Geminiani, F. The Art of Playing on the Violin. New York: Performer’s Fassimiles. (Original date: 1751)
Haynes, Bruce. The End of Early Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Kaufman, Louis. A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
Lawson, Colin & Stowell, Robin. The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Mozart, Leopold. A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Translated by Editha Knocker. Second ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1951. (Original date: 1756)
Muffat, G. On Performance Practice; The Texts from Florilegium Primum, Florilegium Secundum, and Auserlesene Instrumentalmusik – A New Translation with Commentary. Edited and translated by David K. Wilson, 2001
Quantz, Johann Joachim. On Playing the Flute Translated by Edward R. Reilly. Second Edition ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1985. (Original date: 1752)
Roth, Henry. Great Violinists in Performance. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1987.
Tarling, Judy. Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners. Hertfordshire, UK: Corda Music Publications, 2001.
Feldman, M. Solo Piano Works 1950-64, Edition Peters, 1962
Stravinsky, I. Suite for Violin and Piano, Boosey & Hawkes, 1926
Stravinsky, I. Suite Italienne; Transcription for Violin and Piano by S. Dushkin, Boosey & Hawkes, 1934