I remember when I did the ABRSM exams, and when reading an assessment of an old school friend (who is now a professional Clarinettist), one word that described a performance seemed exceptionally odd. That word is: musical. Sometimes musical performances are said to be ‘musical’. When I was younger that confused me. I would think to myself: surely all performances are musical, isn’t that a trivial description?
In more recent times I am starting to get an understanding of it, is a term of distinction. I’m reminded of people like WH Dray or RG Collingwood, who had the view that having an historical understanding meant really immersing yourself in the period of something. Perhaps people love period dramas because of the way that a certain zeitgeist or je ne sais quoi (literally ‘I don’t know what’), captures a period of history or culture. I laugh for example when I hear ragtime music being played in cowboy movies. Ragtime came about 15-30 years later from the old west periods that are usually the mid-late 19th Century. It’s like playing dubstep in a period drama set in the Thatcher Years.
A musical performance can have an appreciation of its period. Although not necessarily. My late piano teacher used to teach me that a piece of music should be treated as an internal unity, with its own spirit. You look at a piece of music and you see it as a living being, what you express is how you perceive that living being, and naturally people will have their own interpretations. I would often conflict with him about this, saying that period sensitivity and context were the crucial factor to interpretation, and not some inward-looking insight. What is the answer to this? Well that’s constantly an ongoing question when it comes to interpreting certain pieces of music.
Glenn Gould is often said to be an exemplar of one and both of these views to musical interpretation. Gould often spake of the importance of period and is said to be a fine interpreter of Baroque period pieces and the selected 20th century composers such as the Second Viennese camp, Paul Hindemith or Richard Strauss. On the other hand, many of his choices when performing pieces are not of the musical text. I have a bad habit of stealing a few of Glenn Gould’s quirks when sight reading the Well-Tempered Clavier, slightly adjusting speeds. In a recording of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 14 k. 467), Gould’s playing is notoriously off piste (perhaps the best way of describing bad performing for a pianist who is vastly superior to me), and perhaps an unhelpful guide for learning that piece. There are little quirks of Gould’s from the second movement that I sometimes adopt.
Sometimes reading a piece of music away from its literal text can be insightful. Sometimes I use sight-reading and going ‘off the tracks’ as a form of improvisation. I often among friends create a form of humour out of music this way. ‘Insert a Chopin reference here’ (C minor cadenza) my friend might request, or ‘how would Mozart have interpreted this?’ (alberti bass), or ‘give this a classical ending’ (V-I-I-I-I-I….I cadence). Communicating humour is one way of expressing musical sensitivity. I would think that a composer like Haydn would hate his music seen as ‘serious’. On the other hand, I think Joplin might consider the his rags played a Steinway as great respect to his music in an era where he did not get the respect he deserved.
A musical performance is one that has conviction. Some people I know that will remain nameless are sometimes a little bit more technical in their playing than I am capable of yet cannot carry conviction. This can be due to many reasons: playing-music-by-numbers; not having an appreciation of the musical text; failing to understand the construction of the music; following conventions of playing set by others.
To call a performance musical is the highest esteem. A musician takes the performance not as a text, but an organic unity. A musician takes the musical performance as an artist: this can mean a reaction to a piece of music in its context of performance, its cultural-historic location or some other factor which makes the actual physical performing of it irreducible to its mere sum of breathwork or body movements.
I think one of the problems I had in a music education is failing to understand the musical. Sure, one could learn chord progressions, fancy italian names for how to pluck a string or memorise key signatures, but where’s the musicality?
I take this question to be primitive and foundational. At the same time, it forms as a constituent in the background of more critical questions, such as the discussion whether to be sensitive to a musical text, or to take liberties at interpretation. Or whether to consider the appropriateness of use of instrument and acoustics for a venue in performance. Or specificities in the use of technique from embouchure to fingerings.