Category Archives: Performance practice

Julian Bream, autodidact

bream 1947

As a child, Bream first learned to play the guitar along with his father from “an extraordinary little book, and that was great fun.”

When he was around 11 Boris Perrott, the president of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists, heard him and, duly impressed, offered to teach him. The boy was honored, but soon found that he disliked the outmoded technique that Perrot insisted on.

Bream stopped the lessons and never took another one; instead, “I watched how Segovia did it and made up my technique as I went along.”

“Actually, I think I must have been quite a little horror because I was very instinctive about things. I only did what I wanted to do. I didn’t care a damn what other people wanted me to do.”

This according to “Julian Bream at 60: An interview” by Gareth Walters (Guitar review 96 [winter 1994] pp. 2–15).

Today is Julian Bream’s 80th birthday! Above, Bream with a harp guitar at the age of 14; below, his arrangement of Danza del molinero from Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performance practice

Library of Greek Musicology

In December 2011 the Laboratory of Greek Music at the Ionian University, Kerkyra (Corfu), launched the book series Ellinīkī Mousikologikī Vivliothīkī (Ελληνική Μουσικολογική Βιβλιοθήκη/Library of Greek Musicology) with a volume curated by Charīs Xanthoudakīs and Arīs Garoufalīs on the relationship between the great Greek conductor and composer Dīmītrīs Mītropoulos and the Athens conservatory Odeio Athinōn.

Mītropoulos studied at the Odeio Athinōn from 1910 to 1919. Returning from a period of study in Berlin in 1925, he served as conductor first of the orchestra of the other Athens conservatory, Ellīniko Odeio, then from 1927 to 1937 for his alma mater, where he also taught composition. He also created a combined orchestra from the two schools in a Syllogo Synafliōn (Club Concert) that achieved considerable glory in its brief existence, featuring guest appearances by Richard Strauss and Alfred Cortot and a 1933 performance of the “constructivist” Zavod (Iron Foundry) by Aleksandr Mosolov.

The book, O Dīmītrīs Mītropoulos kai to Odeio Athinōn: To chroniko kai ta tekmīria (Dīmītrīs Mītropoulos and the Odeio Athinōn: Chronicle and archival materials, ISBN 978-960-86801-8-0), consists of two parts: a biography of Mītropoulos, and a collection of 85 reproduced documents from the Odeio’s archives illustrating the narrative of the first part, including meeting minutes, personal correspondence, and texts of speeches, together with excerpts from the most recent scholarly studies of Mītropoulos’s life and works before his emigration to the United States and international fame.

Below, Mītropoulos rehearses and performs Liszt’s Faust symphony with the New York Philharmonic.

Related article: Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896–1960)

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Filed under New series, Performance practice

Basse danse with attitude II

The letters of Andrea Calmo, a 16th-century Venetian actor and playwright who wrote of having been taught the bassadanza by wolves, highlight how dance was regarded by a member of the middle classes in Venice.

As well as having a general appreciation of dance, which he saw as an enjoyable and moral activity, Calmo was knowledgeable about dance specifics and accurate in his use of dance terminology; in fact, his knowledge of dance practices was extensive enough to enable him to use specific dance references as a tool in creating the humor in his letters.

In a letter wooing a fine dancer, Calmo’s praises include the following:

“Now you can perform well the salti a torno, performing capriole, dancing on only one foot for half and hour, and moving the other foot so quickly it is as if your feet were tickling.”

“Alas, that to go behind, in front, those riprese, those clever steps and turns on joined feet, and all with mesura, with design and grace, in addition to the beautiful, grand, well-rounded and well-proportioned bosom.”

This according to “Learning the bassadanza from a wolf: Andrea Calmo and dance” by Jennifer Nevile (Dance research: The journal of the Society for Dance Research XXX/1 [2012] pp. 80–97). Above, Ball in Venice in Honor of Foreign Visitors, c.1580 (Italian School). Below, bassadanza with attitude!

Related article: Basse danse with attitude I

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Humor, Performance practice, Renaissance

Beethoven does the details

The increasing range of Beethoven’s performance indications paralleled the growing depth of expression in his music. While his predecessors had been content with four basic tempos—adagio, andante, allegro, and presto—he began to add qualifiers, indications of gradual tempo change, and descriptive words and phrases in German.

Still unsatisfied, he began to rely on metronome markings, although he stressed that they only provide a point of departure for a performance in which “feeling also has its beat, which cannot wholly be conveyed by a number”.

He started to favor graphic treatments of crescendo and diminuendo, ensuring dynamic shapes that would not necessarily be intuited by the performer. He used sforzando in structural as well as expressive ways, and expanded volume markings beyond the range from pp to ff.

His pedaling indications usually reinforce harmonic contexts, though sometimes they cause harmonic areas to overlap; this might explain why some of Beethoven’s contemporaries complained that his pedaling resulted in a confused sound. His articulation markings often reinforce motivic structure and development.

All of these performance indications are most fully understood in the context of the particular instrument he was using at the time.

This according to “Interpreting Beethoven’s markings: A preliminary survey of the piano sonatas” by Tallis Barker (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 169–182). Below, Sviatoslav Richter demonstrates his approach to Beethoven’s performance indications.

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Filed under Classic era, Performance practice

Improvised vocal fugues

Sethus Calvisius (1556–1615), one of the very small number of specialists in the improvised vocal fugue, provided a discussion of the practice in his Melopoiia (1592), illustrated with 21 notated examples of fugæ extemporaneæ—tricinia, or two-part canons, over a cantus firmus.

These pieces were improvised as a third voice sang the cantus firmus, with the two improvising voices entering a minim or semibreve apart; the first of the two singers was effectively the composer. Analysis of Calvisius’s works shows that his mastery of the technique was complete and he was capable of creating canonic improvisations of surprising originality.

This according to “Harmonia fvgata extemporanea: Fugenimprovisation nach Calvisius und den Italienern” by Olivier Trachier, an essay included in Tempus musicaetempus mundi: Untersuchungen zu Seth Calvisius (Hildesheim: Georg Olms 2008, pp. 77–102). Below, the Dresdner Kreuzchor performs Calvisius’s Freut euch und jubilieret.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performance practice, Renaissance

Jimmie Rodgers and semiotics

Jimmie Rodgers’s recordings present nearly all of the yodel types used by hillbilly singers, including nonsense-syllable strands, breaking voice registers while singing words, and brief falsetto grace-note descents into his natural voice. His yodels contain influences from both African American (falsetto upward leap at the end of words) and European (word-breaking) traditions.

Home tropes evoke themes of home, family, regret, return, or nostalgia; subdominant tropes represent carefree cheerfulness; blues tropes conjure masculine braggadocio themes.

Rodgers applies grace notes according to the pathos of the lyrics, and his hummed or moaned yodels are toned down for mainstream appeal. He was a carrier of tradition—his yodels connect to ragtime and blues, as well as to nineteenth-century European yodels, song types, and decorative devices.

This according to “Jimmie Rodgers and the semiosis of the hillbilly yodel” by Timothy Wise (The musical quarterly XCIII/1 [spring 2010] pp. 6–44).

Above, Rodgers with his 1930 Model A Ford in Kerrville, Texas. Below, the Yodeling Brakeman offers a semiotic exegesis on the letter T.

Related article: Romy Lowdermilk redux

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Filed under Performance practice, Popular music

Berlioz’s aborted premiere

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which was first performed on 5 December 1830, was originally slated for a concert on 20 May of that year. Musicologists have been trying to piece together the circumstances of the cancelled premiere, but until now two factors have eluded them: the size of the orchestra and the number of rehearsals that were held.

Recently discovered documents shed light on both questions. A prior advertisement from the performance venue called for a specific number of additional string players, settling the first question.

Also, the 1830 register of the Gand instrument firm has been found to include entries for several string instruments rented to one “Mr Berlioz” on 18 and 22 May, establishing these as the dates of the two rehearsals that the work received.

Taken together, these sources indicate that the aborted premiere would have included at least 22 violins, 10 violas, 9 or 10 violoncellos, and four or five double basses.

Below, Charles Munch conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962 for Marche au supplice, the work’s fourth movement.

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Filed under Performance practice, Romantic era

In Extremo and Walther

Recent interchanges between medieval music and heavy metal open new perspectives on historically informed practice. A comparison of recordings of Walther von der Vogelweide’s Palästinalied by Thomas Binkley, Paul Hillier, and In Extremo illuminates how historic orientation and its inherent sense influence performance aesthetics.

This according to “Gothic und HIP: Sinn und Präsenz in populären und in historisch informierten Realisierungen des Palästinalieds” by Konstantin Voigt (Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis XXXII [2008] pp. 221–234). Above, a portrait of the great Minnesinger; below, In Extremo’s historically informed rendition of Walther’s celebrated work about the Crusades.

Related article: Advanced musicology

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Filed under Curiosities, Middle Ages, Performance practice, Popular music, Reception

Minuet cosmology

Gottfried Taubert’s Rechtschaffener Tanztmeister, oder Gründliche Erklärung der frantzösischen Tantz-Kunst (Leipzig: Erben, 1717) is an encyclopedic—even cosmological—work on early eighteenth-century dance, and the minuet is at the center of its universe.

Providing what is probably the most complete and accurate description of the dance of all time, Taubert discusses the minuet step, its cadence, its principal and collateral figures, the giving of hands, and the cavalier’s conduct of his hat, ending with a full description—both in words and in five notated choreographic figures—of a complete minuet ordinaire. Throughout, his information is based on French authority and follows the central French tradition; it is not a provincial German account.

This according to “The minuet according to Taubert” by Tilden A. Russell (Dance research XXIV/2 [winter 2006] pp. 138–162). Below, a brief demonstration that includes the cavalier’s conduct of his hat.

Related post: Mr. Isaac and the Union

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Filed under Dance, Performance practice

Italian opera manuals

Ricordi’s Disposizioni sceniche (1856–93) reflect the nineteenth-century concept of definitive operatic stagings. These manuals describe the scenery of each opera through plans and diagrams, and outline the entrances, exits, gestures, movements, and positions of the characters; they also provide a list of stage accessories. In most cases, the date and location of the described performance are indicated on the title page.

This practice was continued by the Casa Musicale Sonzogno, which issued seven Messe in scena manuals between 1894 and 1922; the Italian market for them dried up in the 1920s, when the concept of an ideal performance as a reproducible model waned and directorial creativity was increasingly valued.

This according to “The Messa in scena of the Casa Musicale Sonzogno: An iconography of stage direction at the end of the nineteenth century” by Laura Citti (Music in art XXXIV/1–2, pp. 245–253). Above, a sketch made for the Società degli Scenografi della Scala e del Teatro Lirico Internazionale for the Café Momus scene in Leoncavallo’s La bohème; inset, a page from Sonzogno’s Messa in scena for Massenet’s Manon (click to enlarge).

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Filed under Opera, Performance practice, Romantic era, Visual art