Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1


Understanding the history and literature of music is as essential to performance as talent, tuned instruments, and technical skill.


The Scholar and the Score
By Nick Riddle

 

 

Let’s begin with a seduction scene. . . .

In Act One of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira, one of the Don’s former lovers, comes upon the old rascal pitching his woo to a peasant girl named Zerlina. Indignant, Elvira takes the girl aside and sings “Ah, fuggi il traditor (Flee the traitor)” before whisking her off to safety. A simple scene on the face of it, but one with a twist, a layer of irony that gives Elvira’s motivation a different slant. It’s a comic touch that many productions miss entirely.

The aria is written as a pastiche of the Scarlatti or Handel style from several decades before Mozart’s time, explains J. Peter Burkholder, professor of musicology at the IU School of Music in Bloomington. Its first audiences would have recognized it as old-fashioned.

“If you don’t hear the anachronism, you miss the point of the aria,” says Burkholder. “I’ve seen performances where it’s performed straight, but it’s supposed to be comic. It’s a pose—Elvira is pretending to be dignified and old-world, but she’s not quite pulling it off. Mozart is saying she’d drop everything in an instant if Don Giovanni came back to her.”

Clearly, a modern audience cannot be expected to notice the difference in styles in this scene. Which is why, says Burkholder, “the performer needs to have either a background in music history or the assistance of a musicologist in order to understand that there’s a point to get across.”

Burkholder uses the Don Giovanni aria to demonstrate to his undergraduate students the importance of music history. It can help performers—and their audiences—to “get it,” whether the “it” is a joke, a reference, or an insight into the style or origins of a piece of music. But music history isn’t just an occasional resource for the performer. It’s an essential component of any musician’s education—whether the musician likes it or not.

“Academic research and musical performance don’t naturally intersect,” says Daniel R. Melamed, professor of musicology at IU Bloomington. He is also director of graduate studies at the School of Music and an authority on the works of J. S. Bach. “The pressures of practicing, rehearsals, and performance are great enough as it is,” Melamed continues. “So we try to make sure that this intersection happens for the students.”

At the School of Music, students at every level are required to take music history and music theory classes. The theory side is just as important as the historical aspect, says Melamed, because “it gets them thinking about pieces of music in ways outside the technical approaches their performance studies require. Being able to think intelligently and insightfully about the notes of a piece—to understand what’s going on in the composition from an analytical point of view—is just as crucial as looking at historical and stylistic context.”

Indeed, Melamed stresses that music history and music theory go hand in hand: “Musicians should be able to apply both to the pieces they play,” he says. “It brings them to a level beyond the technical and expressive.”

Musicology informs performance in countless ways, from subtle issues of notation to major questions regarding the composer’s own conception of a work. Many repertoires depend on academic research to make music available in the first place—for example, to interpret early notation and prepare editions or to track down manuscripts thought to be lost. The presence of the Musicology Department at IUB enables students and faculty preparing for performances to draw on the expertise of world-renowned scholars. Likewise, the musicology faculty are given the opportunity to hear their research translated into music.

Take last fall’s performances of the cantatas of J. S. Bach, for instance. Every Sunday throughout the Fall 2000 semester, students and faculty at the School of Music performed Bach cantatas in commemoration of his death 250 years ago. Approaches to the music varied according to the conductor, from period-instrument renditions to modern arrangements. As part of the series, doctoral student conductor Christine Howlett assembled a program of two Bach cantatas—Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 38 and Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben BWV 109.

“I took some classes with Professor Melamed,” Howlett says, “and when I was preparing to conduct two cantatas for the Bach series, I went to him for advice. He suggested that I go back to the original parts that Bach’s musicians used in Leipzig.”
The musicologist Joshua Rifkin was the first to suggest that returning to these parts would provide the best evidence of how Bach performed his vocal-instrumental works. The conclusions from Rifkin’s work called into question many accepted ideas about the use of singers in Bach’s cantatas.

“Bach and his contemporaries had a very different approach to vocal forces,” Melamed explains. “Instead of our modern arrangement of soloists and a chorus, they would use four principal singers, called concertists, who handled all the vocal lines. In certain tutti ensemble movements, they might be reinforced with additional singers, called ripienists.”

Howlett wondered how this smaller group of singers would be heard over modern instruments. She consulted with Melamed again.

“His response was that one shouldn’t think of the singers as soloists,” she says. “Everything is equal. Having singers be part of the texture rather than projecting over the instruments is a challenging idea. It makes for a very different sound.” Both Howlett and Melamed were pleased with the final performance, which took place in front of a packed and enthusiastic audience.

Professor of Musicology Daniel Melamed, right, confers with student conductor Christine Howlett on the history behind the notes.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

“Trying out these different approaches in a university setting is ideal,” says Howlett, “and to have an authority like Professor Melamed to consult is tremendous. I think this combination of scholarship and open-mindedness is one of the great strengths of the School of Music.”

T he need to reconstruct work from the distant Baroque period comes as no surprise. But even music written in the last 100 years can present problems of interpretation for the performer. “Somehow,” says Burkholder, “the idea arose in the nineteenth century that a piece of music is its written text. But there’s a lot about a musical work that can’t be rendered in notation.”

When Ray Cramer, professor of music and chairman of the Department of Bands, was preparing to conduct the University Orchestra in a performance of Charles Ives’s Symphony no. 2, he contacted Burkholder. “I knew he was an expert on Ives,” says Cramer. “I asked him if we could collaborate. The students in the orchestra were mostly freshmen, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to find out something about the composer and his work, and about the symphony itself.”

In 1987, Burkholder had published an article on Ives’s Symphony no. 2. He demonstrated how the composer, intent on writing “The Great American Symphony,” used quotation and paraphrase to create a synthesis of European and American musical traditions.

“He makes extensive use of popular American tunes, but he never quotes directly,” says Burkholder. “Often he switches things around, repeating a bar and truncating a segment or splicing two segments together.” Consequently, the original sources for many passages—marches, songs, fiddle tunes—are often obscured. Cramer asked Burkholder to uncover them during an orchestra rehearsal.

“It was supposed to be a fifteen-minute chat, but it ended up much longer because the orchestra was having so much fun,” remembers Burkholder. “I had them play a passage, then I pointed out the themes in that passage and how they were used. We worked through the whole piece like that.”

Cramer was delighted with the session. “The students got a close look at the music and how it works,” he says, “and at a deeper level than they were used to.”

Burkholder’s insights were not simply of academic interest—they changed the musicians’ awareness of the music they were playing and had a direct effect on the performance.

“Many of the countermelodies are based on fiddle tunes,” Burkholder explains. “When the musicians know that the source is a fiddle tune—not, say, a polonaise—they play it differently, in a nineteenth-century popular style with a little jauntiness.”

Burkholder also pointed out Ives’s use of transitions. “He uses transitions from Bach, Brahms, and Wagner, because the American music he’s borrowing from has no transitions—it’s all marches and songs and fiddle tunes,” he says. “So he comes up with a synthesis of old-world Europe and new, vibrant America. Looking at it on this level gives you an idea of how he conceived of the work and of how it should be performed.”

One passage in particular benefited greatly from Burkholder’s scrutiny. “There’s a section that Ives wrote in a very baroque style,” says Cramer. “To me, the whole passage demands baroque instrumentation. So I reduced the orchestra for that passage until it was almost a string octet, which is much closer to a baroque arrangement.”

But then Burkholder showed the musicians exactly how the baroque and popular-song elements in the passage intertwine. “It moves from fiddle music to a Bach fugue and from that into a Stephen Foster song, ‘Camptown Races,’” he explains. “And Ives blends them so nicely because part of the melody from ‘Camptown Races’ is very similar to a figure from the E Minor fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The orchestra’s performance of that passage, says Burkholder, was “quite stunning, especially with the reduced orchestra. It stripped away the late Romanticism and gave the lines a beautiful clarity and lightness. I’d never heard it performed that way before.”

After the performance, many members of the orchestra expressed their gratitude to Cramer for the perspective Burkholder’s talk had given them. Cramer has since asked other members of the musicology faculty to share their expertise in various ways.

“It’s very instructive for student musicians to learn about historical background,” he says. “The musical techniques for which Haydn was writing, for example, differ hugely from those that Shostakovich was used to. Musicologists devote their careers to studying that kind of thing. It’s only right that we should try to put their knowledge into practice.”

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