Faithful to the Letter or the Spirit?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Yellow Barn is thrilled to welcome pianist Marisa Gupta for a week-long residency exploring the ways in which recordings have shaped playing styles and the culture of performance. This Yellow Barn Artist Residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, continues Marisa’s study of recordings held in the British National Sound Archives. Her project is made possible by a British Library Edison Fellowship and a grant from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Alongside violinists Philippe Graffin and Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, cellist Jonathan Dormand, and double bassist Lizzie Burns, Marisa will culminate her residency with a concert at Next Stage in Putney on Sunday, May 1 at 3pm.  

We invite you to read Marisa’s initial thoughts on her project, post your own comments, and look for future postings from Marisa as her residency progresses.

Having learned Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109 during my studies at the Royal Academy of Music, I played the piece at the time for a fellow student. Upon finishing, she marveled at my meticulous adherence to Beethoven’s detailed and sometimes perplexing indications. ‘You observe every indication in the score!’ she exclaimed. I feigned modesty but was, in fact, self-satisfied, having put the music first; above all capturing, as best as I could, Beethoven’s desires, passed down to us through his hallowed score. In hindsight I look back on the incident with amusement and slight chagrin at my deferential naivety and complacence, having misconstrued a faithful reading of the score for artistry and a historical respect for Beethoven’s music.

Over the past few years, I have been immersed in the music of a composer much less revered than Beethoven, but whose understated music has, nevertheless, enchanted some of the greatest artists of our day: the Catalan composer Frederic Mompou. Whilst studying and performing over 2 hours of previously unpublished music by the composer, I came across rare recordings of Mompou playing his own music (dating from 1929 to 1974). In doing so, I accidently stumbled into the world of early recordings, changes in playing styles during the age of recording and the debates surrounding the topic. To what degree this has impacted my own performances is difficult to measure. But, it has profoundly changed how I think about music. I have come to a better understanding, not necessarily of historical performing styles of the era, but of something of greater importance: how we interact with music today, and some of the conditions responsible for our modern perspective.

I have decided to expand this exploration into the realm of chamber music (in conjunction with the British Library and Yellow Barn). The starting point for this project is a little known enterprise called the National Gramophonic Society, created not long after Gramophone magazine in 1924 by the publication’s founder Compton Mackenzie. The NGS made the first complete recordings of important pieces of chamber music (including major works by Debussy, Schubert, Brahms, Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Ravel, and others), often in consultation with the composers. It folded in the 1930s and has been largely forgotten, though its sister publication Gramophone still thrives. The NGS gives us a glimpse of musical life before the influence of recordings took hold, and its little known performances tell us something about the spirit of music making that words and notated scores cannot.

In writing Miroirs, Ravel was inspired by a quote from Julius Caesar: ‘the eye sees not itself/But by reflection, by some other things’. This encapsulates the raison d’être of this project. Through ‘some other things’ (in this case early recordings, the surrounding musical culture and philosophical debates) can we make sense of our current culture of music making.

By transforming the ephemeral into a lasting object, the evolution of recordings has contributed to a strict musical orthodoxy, though we are hardly aware of it. If we can re-discover what used to be (and by proxy, understand what is now) we can possibly breathe new life into music making and the experience of listening to classical music today. It is helpful to understand some of the transformations that occurred because of recordings. Some shifts were already in the process of taking place, but it is likely that recordings accelerated the pace of these transformations towards extremes that define much of mainstream classical music making and listening today.

Before recordings, concerts were rowdy, exuberant, riotous affairs. This contrasts with today’s mostly somber presentations of predictable pieces, performed in their entirety, and experienced in reverential silence.

There has also been a shift in attitudes towards performance. Prior to recordings, performances could be improvisations, adaptations – even approximations of composers’ written works. This has evolved to what the music journalist Alex Ross labels the ‘cult of precision’: clean, literal and an often un-historical respect for the score that characterizes performances today.

Many of these shifts and their philosophical underpinnings have been well documented and much debated by scholars and other commentators. In spite of this, these debates have had little impact on the world of mainstream professional performance and audiences. So whilst this project encompasses a number of complex topics, beyond the scope of a humble blog, I (along with the other musicians taking part and guests) will endeavor to bring the dialogue out of the scholarly world into the awareness of mainstream performers and listeners. We will also share live performances from Yellow Barn. The hope is to instigate a re-thinking of certain aspects of music making that have become too rigid for performers and audiences alike, and that are far from what earlier composers and audiences would have expected.

—Marisa Gupta


Beautiful writing on a very compelling topic! It's a fresh insight to me that the advent of recordings accounts for the somber atmosphere of concerts these days, and it makes perfect sense. The riotous events of yesteryear could only happen if the works were relatively unknown and deeply in-the-moment, thus stimulating more powerful and immediate reactions from the audience. The performers would have had much more freedom to delight, shock and surprise, using the score as a springboard for individual creativity and even improvisation, rather than something carved in stone, a kind of sacred ritual rooted in aficionados' rather rigid expectations.