In Bruce Haynes’ thought-provoking, persuasive, and thoroughly entertaining book “The End of Early Music“, he devotes a chapter to a comparison of Baroque Expression and Romantic Expression. Appropriately, Haynes begins his discussion with a quote from “La Musica” speaking in the prologue of Monteverdi’s Orfeo:
“With sweet accents I can make every restless heart peaceful and inflame the coolest minds, now with anger, now with love.”
In reading Haynes’ revealing discussion of Rhetoric, Declamation, and “Affekt”, as understood before the Enlightenment, I am struck anew that the goal of the musician in the performance of Baroque music is to engender emotions in the audience – not merely to “express” those emotions. The composer provides a blueprint, a menu, and the musicians and the audience share the experience. The performer of this music is tasked not merely with transmitting nothing more and nothing less than what the artist-composer wrote on the page, as Toscanni would say, “Com’ è scritto”. Rather as C.P.E. Bach observed,
“[M]usicians cannot move others unless they themselves are moved; it is essential that musicians be able to put themselves in each Affection they wish to rouse in their audience, for it is in showing their own emotion that they awaken sympathy.”
At least for pre-Romantic music.
The notion of the performer as a transparent “vessel” through which the composer’s work is channeled to the audience strikes me as a thoroughly 19th century concept. Surely, the circumstances in which we perform are heavily influenced by 19th century aesthetics (the very notion of “aesthetics” as we normally think of it begins with Kant) and the audiences we perform for are, of course, neither 17th nor 19th century audiences, which creates a lot of other interesting issues, but with Baroque music at least, the goal would not seem to be to offer some idealized “work” as conceived by a composer for an audience to reflect on, admire, and contemplate – that’s what you do with a Beethoven symphony or a Strauss tone poem.
I am persuaded that in pre-Romantic music (what Haynes calls “Rhetorical” music – in contrast to “Romantic” and “Modern” styles), the obligation of the musician is to experience an emotion and, through skill and technique, cause the audience to experience the emotion as well. Of course, with the music that Magnificat performs, there’s a 3 or 4 century gap between our audiences and the original audiences and while some basic emotions transcend any specific era, the range and flavor of emotions of 21st century audiences and performers alike are necessarily radically different from those of the 17th. What strikes me as critical is intention and commitment. The moment in the narrative, the instrumentation of the aria, the flat six before the cadence and the ornamentation implied by that cadence – these are all road signs indicating an emotion or “affekt”, which the performer interprets and then “feels”. The success of the performance is in some way measured by the degree to which that affekt is communicated and felt by the audience participating in the collective experience.
The Romantic philosophers who were creating an “aesthetics of music” viewed this sort of approach as manipulative or artificial and rejected it. Instead, they held up the canonic masterpieces of the genius/composers – the “Classics” – as somehow outside of time – and the performers role was to transmit them – without getting in the way. Earlier in his book, Haynes quotes E.T.A. Hoffman from 1810:
“The true artist lives only in that work which he has comprehended and now performs as the master intended it to be performed. He is above putting his own personality forward in any way, and all his endeavours are directed towards a single end, to call to life all the enchanting pictures and shapes the composer has sealed into his work with magic power.”
Haynes also quotes the New Grove dictionary article on expression, in which Roger Scruton, who encapsulate the Romantic view:
“…to describe a piece of music as expressive of melancholy is to give a reason for listening to it; to describe it as arousing or evoking melancholy is to give a reason for avoiding it.” (emphases mine)
By the 20th century, performers become necessary, but interchangeable, servants or staff (these days conveniently replaced by CD players) that presented the ineffable works of the composer for the contemplation of the listener. I’m not saying that audiences don’t have an emotional experience in a “Modern” performance – of course they do – but I do question how often the musicians and audiences are sharing the same emotional experience. We have all known performances in which that did happen and, on some level perhaps, those are the only ones that matter.
The Title of this article, quoted from Thomas More, is also drawn from Haynes’ book, which I recommend highly to all interested in music.