Question: You are very well known for your pioneering work in performance practice. The term and all its ramifications are gaining in recognition and application today. Where does performance practice have its origins?
Clive Brown: It’s not a new thing. Already in the early 19th century people were concerned about performing the music of older composers in the style appropriate to it. When the 21-year-old violinist Spohr played in Leipzig in 1804, Friedrich Rochlitz admired ‘his insight into the spirit of different compositions, and his artistry in reproducing each in its own spirit’, which he had not observed to this extent in the playing of other musicians. Rochlitz found this particularly impressive in his quartet playing where he was ‘almost completely another person when he, for example, plays Beethoven (his darling, whom he handles splendidly), or Mozart (his ideal), or Rode (whose grandiosity he knows very well how to assume, without any scratching or scraping, yielding little to him, particularly in fullness of tone), or when he plays Viotti and galant composers: he is a different person, because they are different people.
Around the same time people were concerned that the proper tempos for Haydn and Mozart were being forgotten. In the second decade of the 19th century, Salieri provided Mälzel’s metronome with marks for Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, of which he had directed the premiere, and Gottfried Weber wrote an article about un-authentic tempos in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. During the next few decades interest in certain aspects of performing practice was also apparent in attempts by musicians such as Pierre Baillot, Ignaz Moscheles, and François-Joseph Fetis to revive earlier repertoire using old instruments. In mid-century, however, the veteran Spohr complained that people had already forgotten how to play the music of his youth in the manner expected by its composers. Towards the end of the 19th century Arnold Dolmetsch, a violin pupil of the Franco-Belgian violinist Hubert Léonard, championed the performance of Baroque music on old instruments; as his bowed and fingered edition of Corelli’s op. 5 Sonatas demonstrates, however, he seems to have played it in an essentially 19th-century style, even including portamento! The 20th-century period performance movement has been focused mainly on using period instruments and, as Richard Taruskin has trenchantly argued, the so-called ‘authentic’ performing style of the second half of the 20th century owed more to Stravinsky than to historical evidence. That style of playing Baroque music on period instruments, widely taught in conservatoires by its proponents, became such a valuable commercial product that, when interest extended to playing classical and romantic music on period instruments, it was essentially the techniques of modern Baroque performance that were extended to the later repertoire with only minor modifications. From my recent work with performers I sense a growing interest especially among talented young musicians, to experiment more boldly with the largely forgotten practices that were such an important part of late 18th– and 19th-century music making.
Q: What brought you to the study of performance practice issues?
CB: My interest in this field grew progressively during the late 1970s and 1980s. My doctoral dissertation was primarily concerned with reception history, focusing on The popularity and influence of Spohr in England, where his reputation as one of the great composer’s was particularly strong during the 19th century. Of course, Spohr’s music was of particularly interest to me, as an active violinist. I was especially intrigued by the care with which he marked up his violin music with bowing and fingering, and that, in his 1833 Violinschule, he explained his ideas about violin playing in such detail. But while I was working on my dissertation and my subsequent critical biography of Spohr (Cambridge University Press, 1984), this was of secondary importance.
Q: What surprised you? What was the first eye-opening finding or revelation that got you “hooked” on the subject?
Even before I began to come to grips with the implications of Spohr’s performance markings and the instructions in his Violinschule, I had become increasingly aware of the fact that modern violin techniques were in many respects very different from those of the past. I enjoyed regular quartet playing with a small group of like-minded professional string players; we met weekly when we were all in Oxford together and played mostly from old Peters Editions copies of standard classical repertoire, edited by 19th-century musicians such as Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim and Andreas Moser. I found that my modern bowing style, with its frequent use of the lower half of the bow for crisp separation of the notes, was obviously not what these editors expected; I would often come to a long note marked with an up-bow sign while I was playing near the heel of the bow. The fingering too seemed strange and uncomfortable, and the marking of open strings and natural harmonics on long notes was obviously incompatible with my modern continuous vibrato. There were also many places where the same finger was used in legato passages for different notes, or where position changes were marked in a legato context that could not be accomplished without sliding. Naturally, like other modern players I had become accustomed, when playing from old editions of this kind (there were fewer Urtexts available in those days), to changing most of the fingering so that I could play cleanly without audible slides. Gradually, however, all these things began to come together and rather than ignoring or changing the old markings I started trying to make them work. At that time, early recordings of musicians such as Joseph Joachim were becoming more easily available. Listening to these helped me begin to understand the sonic implications of the old bowing and fingering, and I began working with some of the musicians, such as Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Roy Goodman, John Holloway and the Eroica Quartet, who were beginning to explore the performance of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven on period instruments during the 1980s. This led me to publish my first article specifically on performing practice: ‘Bowing Styles, Vibrato and Portamento in Nineteenth-century Violin Playing’ (Journal of the Royal Musical Association cxiii/1 (1988), 97-128).
Q: Do you have a special area or period that interests you particularly?
CB: During the whole of the 1980s I was teaching academic music at Oxford University, and shortly after the publication of the article on bowing, vibrato and portamento, Oxford University Press invited me to write a book on performing practice, which I finished in 1995 and which was eventually published in 1999 as Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900.
That period has remained the main focus of my work on performing practice since then. I have learned, and continue to learn about the extraordinary differences between the ways professional musicians currently understand and respond to the notion of 18th– and 19th-century music and the ways in which Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and their contemporaries understood it. This inspires me to seek more effective ways of communicating that knowledge to practicing musicians. With the information available to us, we can never, of course, perform as they performed – nor would it be desirable if we could; but we can discover much about the parameters of performance at that time and the expressive resources that musicians employed to transform a merely ‘correct’ performance into a ‘beautiful’ one. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that being as faithful as possible to the literal meaning of the notation (an idea that is still firmly embedded in much of our current music making) is certainly not what the composers of that time expected or wanted. Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms would have been shocked at such an idea. As Joseph Joachim expressed it, an accomplished musician would not have been content with fidelity to the ‘dead note heads’, but would have learned how to ‘read between the lines’.
Q: Together with Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Neal Peres Da Costa you recently edited the complete Brahms chamber music for one instrument and piano. Is there one aspect in particular from your editions that you hear from players and teachers has affected their playing and interpretations?
CB: Since our edition appeared in print I have been invited to work on Brahms sonatas with young musicians in conservatories in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium Holland, France, Norway, the USA, and Poland, and have found not only students but also teachers very open to experimentation with unfamiliar approaches to performing these works. Many of the students, with advanced technical skills, are quick to integrate these ideas into their playing. Aspects that have initially aroused the greatest interest are enhanced flexibility of rhythm and tempo (especially agogic accent and compensatory rubato), for violinists the employment of expressive portamento and a more ornamental approach to vibrato, and for pianists the use of extemporary arpeggiation and asynchrony between the hands.
Q: You have been involved in a unique edition of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto op. 64 – which will be published by Barenreiter shortly – including a recently found important source. Brahms was still a child when Mendelssohn wrote this work. How would you describe the differences in performance practice between these two composers?
CB: There is no doubt that performing style continued to develop between the 1830s and the 1890s, but in many respects this happened in ways that it is impossible for us to envisage. Change was undoubtedly gradual, and also different for different locations and different repertoires. Many of the fundamental responses to notation by musicians that were associated with the German mainstream, however, remained relatively constant. Joseph Joachim serves as a bridge between Mendelssohn, whom he played with regularly as a teenager, and Brahms, whose music he championed throughout the composer’s career. And other prominent musicians such as Ferdinand David (1810-1873) and Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), the oldest important performer to make recordings, were associated with both composers. There is no doubt that these musicians treated their musical heritage with great reverence and sought to preserve what they regarded as its essential stylistic features.
Q: Why do you think it is important for musicians to investigate performance practice issues?
CB: Tastes in musical performance are constantly changing; more than a century of recording clearly demonstrates. The question is: where do we go in the future? If we still want to perform the great music of the past, and in doing so to get as close to the composer’s conception as possible, we could and, in my opinion, should enrich our technical and expressive resources with well-documented practices that are currently forgotten or neglected, and learn once more how to respond to the hidden messages that lie behind the notation of classical and romantic music. In doing so, we can give new life to compositions that are in danger of becoming stale through stereotypical or stylistically questionable repetition. I firmly believe that, if classical music is to retain or even enhance its cultural significance, the rising generation of musicians must engage more courageously with the historical evidence. By doing so they can hope to recapture the full measure of freshness, beauty, and excitement that composer’s expected their notation to convey to skillful performers and through them to the listener.