[Smt-talk] Clarification of..

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Thu Jul 5 18:16:13 PDT 2012

  To speak of the applicability--that's my expression, I admit--of theory to performance is only easy or straightforward if we overlook the fact that the autonomy of conceptual domains is fluid, variable, and even relative. Music theory can articulate clear and rigorous conceptions of harmonic order, for example; but so can a good music teacher, not at all conscious of herself practicing music theory instead of pedagogy. So, for that matter, can an articulate critic, perhaps even if not musically literate. I could imagine a case where the critic would complain about the flow of a particular passage and the composer, reading it, would instantly realize that deficiencies in the harmonic progression had created this impression, and soon work through to a way to fix them.
  A strategy we have seen here is to broaden the definition of theory to include such cases. Yet I think there's another way, another road to Rome (that, please God, doesn't involve driving past the Coliseum at rush hour). Theory is distinct from composition, criticism, aesthetics, pedagogy, and performance--but the inventory of mandates and tasks of all of these overlap. That doesn't make them the same, nor even versions of each other. It is perhaps for this reason that, in many cases, it could be difficult to assess the influence of any of these on the others with certainty or even clarity. The hammerklavier piano design enabled some fairly radical innovations in piano performance, which in turn enabled the harmonic innovations of Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. These innovations are not themselves theory nor, strictly speaking, the stuff of theory, at least in the sense that the rather journalistic obligation to explain everything new-fangled isn't a very comfortable definition of theory. Nonetheless, these new ideas eventually changed the possibilities and the real tasks & obligations of theory. Theory is distinct from performance and instrument design--but hardly isolated or contextually disconnected.
  Similarly, it would probably be quite tricky to decipher which conductors of Beethoven's Fifth were convinced by Schenker's argument that its base motive is composed of eight notes rather than four. Paradoxically, that's not because phrasing is hard to hear, but because it can be hard to hear ideas of phrasing in the phrasing, ie in performance. Sometimes, to be sure, it isn't. Conductors who have listened to Stravinsky's remonstrations about the proper way to play the Firebird will hammer out the quarter notes in the finale rather then legato them into the musical ice cream the composer so resented. So it's not hearing ideas that is difficult, necessarily, but hearing ideas at work beyond a certain level of abstraction and generality. And much of what counts as theory in the last century-plus dwells in that stratosphere. For that reason, I think we should retain some skepticism about claims by musicians that they are influenced by theorists. Even when Murray Perahia says directly that Schenker has affected his performances, he may not be correct. I don't mean he's being mendacious or delusional; rather, the connections of ideas from one domain in and to another may be sufficiently nebulous or intangible that "inspired" may be the more accurate term.
MW MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough, Oshawa 		 	   		  
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