Rediscovering Voices of Authority in the Performance
of 19th-Century Music
Fortepianist and musicologist Andrew J. Meyer maintains that it is essential for today’s classical musicians to immerse themselves in the largely lost expressive languages preserved on early gramophone recordings. Only in this way can demonstrably 19th-century musical concepts and nuances be restored to contemporary performances.
The rise of ‘authentic performance practice’ on period instruments during the second half of the twentieth century has had an immense influence on the performance and reception not only of early music, but equally of the canonical concert repertoire. ‘Correct’ performances are understood to be derived from readings of Urtexteditions of scores and historical treatises on performance contemporaneous with the composition in question. This is a largely philological conception of the transmission of music which early recordings demonstrate to be conclusively false: simply put, what theoretical treatises written at the beginning of the era of recording say, and what the recordings acoustically document, are frequently at odds. The implication, as ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger wrote nearly seventy years ago, is that ‘without a very vigorous oral tradition of writing, neither speech nor music writing can be learned.’ It is only logical to assume that this dynamic held in earlier periods, as it does across cultures today. For ‘Classical’ or ‘Baroque’ music, there is simply no way of verifying that modern interpretations of historical texts correlate with past performance traditions. Given the incompleteness of textual source material, very probably they do not.
Early recordings document the performance practices of many of the greatest musicians in Europe during the final decades of the Romantic era (c. 1900-1940), some born as early as the 1820s and 1830s. They are the only truly historical performances available to modern ears. Despite the sustained efforts of collectors and a handful of scholars to preserve, disseminate, and promote this legacy, early recordings are typically written off by the musical establishment as being at best ‘quaint’ documents of outmoded performance styles in highly questionable taste. This historical chauvinism is misguided and it is time to recognize the unique value of these ‘windows’ into our collective musical heritage.
Andrew J. Meyer was born in Wisconsin, USA in 1980. He studied fortepiano and historically-informed performance practice with Sally Sargent in Vienna, and musicology and cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Currently he is a PhD candidate at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts at Leiden University. A specialist in the burgeoning field of practice-based research, his thesis emerges directly out of his own musical training. During his studies with Sargent he was exposed to living pedagogical traditions that can be traced directly to Anton Rubinstein, founder of the 19th-century ‘Russian’ school of pianism. He also taught cultural history at Webster University, Leiden.