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The Compleat Academic?
 
by
 
Arthur Butterworth  


In 1653 was published that most celebrated book on the art of fishing: Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler”. The quaint antiquarian spelling has been retained in a very contemporary account indeed of the art of orchestral conducting: Gunther Schuller’s “The Compleat Conductor”. Although aware of its then recent publication in the late 1990s, it is only within the past few weeks that, belatedly, have I at last acquired a copy and got down to studying it with the attention it deserves. This was brought about largely because I had begun to have some self-questioning concerning the tempi I had adopted when conducting. Listening to recordings - not commercial CDs - I had made thirty years ago or more, compared with more recent performances of my own, it seems that as I have grown older the overall tempi have shown signs of getting that bit slower. Probably this is evidence of a natural slowing of the pulse experienced by all of us.
 
It is well-known, for example, that Klemperer’s last years as a conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra were highly acclaimed on account of the insight his performances of the classics demonstrated; yet these legendary performances were also noted for being on the slow side compared with his much earlier ones, of - say - the 1920s and 1930s. An acknowledged fact of modern “rehearse-record” practice is that the very nature of the process, where a recording engineer, directing the conductor as it were, from behind, asks for numerous re-takes of a passage just played in order to achieve flawless perfection with regard to dynamics, minutely heard wrong notes, inaccurate ensembles and so on in order to achieve the perfection which will be - literally - on record for all time. This is so different from the live and once heard, gone for ever, performance where minor flaws and even big ones, eventually are forgotten, leaving perhaps but a pleasant if hazy memory of an otherwise satisfying performance. Under such modern recording conditions it seems that there just might be an inclination to play things more carefully, and, especially on the part of conductors, maybe to adopt tempi that can be a bit slower than they would otherwise take in a live concert performance with all the frisson of the presence of an audience and the awareness that there can be no stopping for a re-take if things seems a bit less than perfect. Listening to one or two recordings - some of which I have conducted myself - and other conductors’ performances of music (for instance Brahms and other familiar classics) there is this ever so faint suspicion that many of us are inclined to be a bit wary and take things rather carefully.
 
How then should we perform any kind of music of which we have the score in front of us? How literally should we take the composer’s written or printed symbols? Gunther Schuller is exceedingly critical of almost all the great conductors of the past century and even those of the nineteenth century. His general thesis is that virtually none of them ever perform in the way that the composer has actually indicated. Since there are no recordings before about 1890 we shall never really know just how performances were before this time. Those legendary artists - Bach’s organ playing, Mozart or Liszt at the piano, Mendelssohn or Berlioz conducting - all we have to go by are observers’ - critics - of the time and their written accounts of how they found such performances, but we shall never really know whether they were too fast, too slow, too loud, too soft, or whether they truly represented what the composer intended. The metronome was unknown before Beethoven’s time so that tempo must, by comparison with today, have been a somewhat hazy affair; lacking the computer-like precision which we expect from everything.
 
Do composers - did they ever - expect this kind of nano-technology, this kind of exactitude in the way their music is actually performed and thus heard? Is it possible for notation and thus its resulting performance in sound, to be absolutely and exactly as the composer ideally seems to demand? Schuller gives the impression that this is how it ought to be. It leaves little or no room at all for interpretation; that indefinable quality with which we accept that every musician who undertakes to bring to life the no more than dead, lifeless, and utterly silent, written symbols printed on paper. The very charm and fascination of real, live sounding music is that we are captivated by each performer’s personal way of bringing the otherwise dead printed symbols to life in a way that tries - even if it often appears not to succeed - in re-creating what the composer appears to have intended.
 
Much of what Schuller expounds is indeed true: for example the way that orchestral players, worldwide tend to view conductors, the nature of common experience in the making of music, but he tends to adopt an incredibly arrogant, self-opinionated stance that only he really knows how a composer’s musical symbols ought to be brought to life, and that virtually all the conductors of the past - from Bülow to Bernstein, from
Furtwängler to Toscanini, have somehow got things wrong. He appears to give little credit for the notion of the validity of different temperaments’ interpretations and that only his (Schuller’s) unyielding computer-like reading of the score being truly admissible.
 
Like this writer - who, (perish the thought!) is two years older and therefore of just as much, if not even more experience than Schuller, we have both been experienced professional orchestral players before becoming composer/conductors. Schuller, however makes no bones about his claims, for he says in the preface to his book: “Since I am a composer of some reputation…” Oh ? we tend to think (at least in Britain, but perhaps not so in the USA) that “self praise is no honour”, this statement seems unduly arrogant.
 
While undoubtedly there are some very searching and relevant points that he makes, the overall tone and manner of this book is maddeningly irritating. The literary style itself is bogged down by a constant profusion of un-necessary parentheses, italics, distracting footnotes which side-track the main argument of the sentence, and a mannerism reminiscent of two other one-time well known books on music: Constant Lambert’s “Music Ho!” and C.S. Terry’s “Bach’s Orchestra” in which the authors constantly use a foreign language: Lambert’s obsession with quotations in French (when the point has already been made clearly enough in English) and Terry’s insistence in quoting long passages or even single words, in German after he has already - like Lambert - expressed the notion in plain English.
 
In almost exactly the same way Schuller quotes from earlier German writings such as Carl Junker (1782): ‘the politics of conducting’ (“Von der Politik des Kapellmeisters”). This kind of academic pedantry goes on time and time again, as if we really needed to know what the original German expression was. This seems merely an intellectual showing off and is quite superfluous. The whole book must have been an irritation to the compositors who had to set it all in print. There are copious music examples of how Schuller thinks the phrasing should be. These are interesting, but seem to be of little or no practical application when it comes down to actually playing the passages in a live performance. Orchestral players, and conductors no less, are more concerned with performing the notes in front of them as seems most natural and indeed obvious at the very moment rather than being obsessed by the dry academic theorising of just how a phrase “ought” to be played. Practical rehearsal and performance cannot be pedantically bogged down by such theoretical niceties; there is never time to do this; far better that there should be a spontaneous and compelling interpretation, even though this might vary considerably from one occasion to the next, and certainly between one conductor and another; we do not perform like computerised robots producing faceless, identical sounds from one year to the next.
 
One might expect an illuminating and painstaking account of how orchestral conductors ought to go about their profession, but in practice hardly can or even need to. It is more a kind of dry-as-dust academic’s pedantic view of how music should be approached. Despite its earnestness; in the end I found this book utterly tedious and boring.
 
Arthur Butterworth
Summer 2011

Index of Arthur Butterworth Writes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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