Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Limits of Surprise

Mona Lisa

Credit: Mona Lisa Pictures

Earlier this month, Greg Sandow reported here and here on a new recording of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 “Surprise”, wherein the so-called “surprise” fortissimo chord is left out of the second movement, creating a fresh “surprise” for the modern listener. As is often the case when reading Sandow’s posts, even the ones with which I don’t agree, I felt the familiar rumble of musicological mischief in the back of my mind (mischief on my part, that is). I regret that various writing assignments have kept me from blogging about this in a more timely manner, but I hope that the relevancy of the issue will outlast the month of July 2010.

Sandow writes:

A tired old issue: How dare we change the notes Haydn wrote? Isn't our job to realize his intentions? Even assuming that was true (and I think -- speaking as a composer myself -- that it's a very limited idea of what performance is), Haydn's most important intention here was the surprise. The notes are only his way of achieving it. So if the notes no longer can surprise us...do we really honor his intentions by stubbornly playing exactly what he wrote?

I don’t think the issue is tired at all, but is at the very crux of the continuing polemic dialogue between historically-informed performance, teaching of music history, “canonical” models, etc.

There are a few aspects here to consider. First and foremost is the issue of audience. It is true--I am no longer ‘surprised’ by the loud chord in the second movement, and yes, I’ve never seen a student jump out of their seat at a first hearing. I disagree with Sandow that Haydn’s most important intention was this one chord in the Andante. He was too good a composer to rest the success of a piece on an experience that can truly only be had once. I also don’t believe that Haydn was writing with the 2010 audience in mind, but instead was quite content to offer a surprise for his 1792 audience (as Griesinger confirms). As a musicologist and teacher, the success of the piece for me does not ride on that moment, but instead on the fact it exists at all. It is, as Steven Paul offered in 1975, “…a masterly surprise within a surprise, a practical joke, the musical equivalent of the punchline” ( Larsen/Serwer/Webster, eds. Haydn Studies, 452). Part of what defines Haydn is his contribution of wit to eighteenth century music. This is a fantastic example, but just one of many.

Sandow says of the recording:

For a while I listened with refreshed ears. But then I sank into the familiar non-expectation with which I listen to so many performances of standard repertoire. I know the music. The performance sounds fine, but it doesn't show me anything.

This opens up a second can of proverbial worms. I agree that every performance of any musical work should bring something new, but I probably disagree with Sandow about what that should be. Unlike traditional painting, for instance, music isn’t static and there is this dynamic aspect of performance that creates the work anew in some sense. One might offer that viewing the Mona Lisa would be a truly fresh experience if the painting were placed in a different frame, a different room, or with different lighting. But do we display the Mona Lisa upside down just to “show” something?

So this brings me back to the example at hand: Haydn’s “surprise.” I still smile knowing that Haydn is defying convention and throwing in a little laugh in the middle of a fairly trite theme and variations movement. The second movement is an entire package, not just that chord. Paul, with input from Walter Gerboth, calls the “surprise” a “gratuitous addition” and it is the gratuitousness of the chord that is the true surprise, rather than the force of Paukenschlag itself. Haydn’s point was just to insert a “novelty,” according to Griesinger, and while I think Minkowski’s recording offers a witty commentary on a brief moment in the piece, I also believe we should be careful about our expectations for performance. I may know every note of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but that does not make the impassioned C Major affirmation of the fourth movement any less relevant to the piece than is the insistent four note motive. I don’t need grace notes added to the motive or a resounding C minor arpeggiation in the last movement as a postmodern commentary on what actually happened to Beethoven. While “as the composer intended” is indeed tricky terrain through which to navigate, there are limits to what we can “change” about a piece and still have it be a performance of THAT piece. The challenge of performing classical repertoire is that we maintain the preservation obligations of a museum, but the curatorial contexts are ever-changing and invite an unending dialogue between performer and listener.

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Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea