Approaching a Performance Style

When we speak, we shape and group sounds. We do this in many different ways, often quite unconsciously, as we talk, as we communicate with others. It is an essential tool for the intelligibility of the language. Even when we read aloud a written text, there are a number of ways of doing it – and even more ways of not doing it. If our communication is to make any sense at all to the listener that is. If, for example, a Norwegian without a knowledge of the Polish language were to read aloud a Polish text, they would be able to pronounce most letters in the text and group them into words – as the Norwegian and Polish alphabets are basically the same, and we both group the letters into words in the same way. There are even some common semantic rules and some common ground when it comes to pronunciation. But the sound of this Norwegian-Polish would still be very strange and probably rather comical to any Pole, because there are intonation rules and ways of grouping sounds into words and phrases that we are totally unfamiliar with. There is a performance style with every spoken language which is a prerequisite to effective communication.

In the same way, music relies on a performance practice. We have different performance styles, with differences relating to intonation, phrasing and grouping of sounds. If we go back to the earliest days of recording history at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, we are in fact able to hear how the greatest musical poets of the time ‘spoke’. We may even try to speak their incredibly rich and highly nuanced language, and wish to communicate all the wisdom hidden in the text, but we are not in close contact any more with the tradition – we don’t really speak their language, certainly not as a native. To put it succinctly, it’s a little bit like us reading Polish, where some things are very intelligible to a Pole even when we are reading it aloud, other things not at all. Some things just sound very strange, even if we have taken the trouble of translating the words and know the precise meaning of them.

It does of course take a Pole to reveal how awkward everything sounds, and our Norwegian friends are probably very impressed anyway. But then they wouldn’t really be capable of appreciating our skills either, or if our Polish actually made any sense. There are of course millions of people speaking Polish that we can learn from, but the musical language we hear in the recordings a hundred years ago is not the same as our language today. We are reading from the same text, but the aural result is very different, often far less nuanced, less rich and stiffer.

In his own recordings, Grieg speaks his language, with all of its rich inflections. Even better, we have his written score along with his performances. In a way they are our musical Rosetta stone – the key to our true understanding of the language. Although Grieg has his own dialect and personal style, there are also many ways of intoning, grouping and phrasing that relate him directly to many of the other great performers of his time who, perhaps unsurprisingly, basically all speak the same language.

‘Marked’ and ‘Unmarked’ elements of a style

If we are really to master any spoken or musical language, it is essential that we are able to differentiate between what we might call the ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ elements of the style. This terminology was introduced by Michael Shapiro and later developed by Robert Hatten in books such as ‘Musical Meaning in Beethoven’ and ‘Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes’. We would here describe the ‘Unmarked’ as the elements that are normal; although usually very complex, they are mostly digested by a listener unconsciously and do their immense task unseen. ‘Marked’ are events that are exceptional, flagged up, and very noticeable, often consciously so.

In many ways, the understanding or internalisation of the unmarked elements is the most important; What is the ‘normal’ way of expressing oneself when it comes to intonation, grouping and phrasing? The same rule applies here with a spoken language as it does with a musical language; if the unmarked is not fully internalised, but needs careful consideration and planning, the communication will be stiff and awkward. Only when we have a thorough understanding of the unmarked elements of a style, are we are able to understand how to make a point – how we mark a statement in a specific context. Some elements seem to be marked in one style, others not. The marked elements draw our attention, being something other than the normal state of things. We all mark various elements of a performance to give a point some special attention, such as an increased emotional effect, or when new material is introduced. For example, when is a string portamento marked and when is it not? When is it simply creating a melodic continuity and when is it a point of heightened expressive effect? And what are the various ways of marking a portamento? The understanding of this is a key issue in mastering the use of the string portamenti, and our uncertainty in this respect, particularly in orchestral playing, makes almost all string players of today shy away from it for the most part. The result is that one of the most important expressive and structural elements of string playing, an essential part of every string players ‘tool box’ up until the 1950′s has today been largely downgraded to a position of ‘local colour’, a little occasional spice to add just before the food is served.

We should of course emphasise that many of the performance elements we are dealing with here, are not at all alien to most musicians. Don´t we all appreciate some level of flexibility, an open phrasing and rhythmic swing? And of course none of us play to the bars all the time. But when listening to most of the great masters of the early twentieth century, it is still true to say that the incorporation of the ‘schwung’ (cf. ‘Tempo Modulation, Swing, and Structure’), the asymmetrical phrasing, and tempo modulations – the consistency in the way they treat these elements – make a stylistic footprint which is very different from what we normally hear today, and certainly the way I listen to my own performances. Most of us like to think that our phrasing is relatively free and non schematic – and ‘multi-layeredness’ is something we always strive for in art. There still seem to be elements rooted in our playing – and in our respect for the written score – that stop us from going all the way with the phrasing, giving it that fully independent, sculptural dimension which we hear so clearly with musicians such as Paul Pabst, Rachmaninoff, and Cortot.

On a very general level, we could actually say that all the individual elements we find in Grieg’s performances could be found in many modem performances. But when Grieg and a performer such as Percy Grainger introduce for example an evenly measured ritardando, with a consequent diminuendo and a prepared turning point of the phrase, this is quite remarkable – it is marked in the style. One of the most common transitionary strategies of today is in fact marked in the style of Grieg, and reserved for very special situations. In a similar way, there are a number of performance elements that are marked in a modern style of playing, but unmarked in Grieg’s. There is for example a triplet quaver in the third movement of the Piano Sonata – an important rhythmic characteristic of the movement – which appears on paper to be a very straightforward triplet quaver. A modem approach to this would probably be playing the triplets fairly regularly – as a ‘normal’, unmarked state – and then introduce agogics at moments that need special attention. With Grieg, it is just the other way around: he introduces agogics in the triplet figure throughout the entire piece – and in a number of different ways – but reserves the straight, measured version for special occasions.

Another element is the use of the spread attack or spread chords. We see a great difference in the way pianists use this effect. To some pianists, like Paderewski, it is basically unmarked and totally integrated into his playing style, although it sometimes appears as a marked feature. We see the same unmarked treatment of the spread attack in the Piano roll recordings of Reinecke. With others, such as the great contemporary of Paderewski, Ferrucio Busoni, we only see the spread attack used for local, structural purposes – it is to a greater degree marked in his style.

The internalising

After recognising what is marked and unmarked in a style, the next, and crucial step is the internalising of the unmarked features of the style. This is a crucial point because the internalising of a style means making what is marked – and perhaps unfamiliar to us – into the unmarked. One cannot fully master a style until the unmarked elements have become unmarked to us as performers as well. We have to understand first, but in order to make the marked into the unmarked, the cognitive processes have to be made into instinctive processes – the performance strategies have to be moved from the higher to the lower levels of our consciousness. Or to put it simpler: from head to body. This of course is a major challenge, and it is where we are the most likely to fail. If we fail this, the result can never be entirely successful.

Now we are at the very core of the recreation process. The recreation process is unique, because it not only helps us understand what is going on in the performance on an intellectual level, but the process makes an imprint on our musical instinct – it helps us make the marked into the unmarked.

When considering the marked vs. the unmarked, we of course have to be aware that there are individual differences and different schools. Certain elements can be marked in one personal style, and in the hands of another contemporary performer, they are not. In our view however, one of the rewarding results of this project has been the understanding of some common tendencies of the period – tendencies that we don’t find to the same extent in most modern performances. These are strategies that seem to bridge a number of great performers, even though they represent various traditions or schools. Our awareness of this is to a large degree the result of the process of recreating and trying to internalise Grieg’ s performance strategies.

In the following articles we will describe more thoroughly various marked and unmarked performance strategies of Grieg’s, and compare with some of his contemporary performers´, to some extent even relating to modern performances, and finally show I have tried to incorporate this knowledge into my performances of Grieg.

‘Inverse characteristics’

In trying to understand the marked and unmarked features of Grieg´s style, it is actually a very useful exercise to sort out some things that he never or hardly ever does as a performer: – Grieg’s ‘inverse characteristics’. Some of these are elements totally alien to his style, and should be avoided. Others are used very sparingly, but to great effect – and are marked in the style.

In this way, when studying Grieg’s ‘footprint’, we are not only looking at the actual area and pattern which is covered, but also its ‘negative’ – where does he not step and where are the borderlines? This is in fact somewhat similar to the way an astronomer would describe the properties of the light surrounding a black hole in the universe in order to characterise the properties of the black hole itself.

In some way or another, most of these ‘inverse characteristics’ relate to various aspects of the form:

- Grieg seems constantly to avoid any obvious combination of strategies at phrase endings or transitions. A combination of for example relaxation, diminution, and retardation with a clear cut, prepared turning point of the phrase is virtually non-existant in his performances.

- Another element, never found in Grieg’s performances, is the usual procedure today of emphasising a single note or a chord by adding time immediately before them. This ‘holding’ or waiting in order to heighten the effect of an accentuation, intensifying the expression or adding general weight to the performance, is very alien to Grieg. Quite the contrary, Grieg’s impulse to a new phrase or the placing of the climax of a phrase, is almost inevitably slightly before the projected beat, a projected beat being where we would expect the beat to appear. This is one of the fundamental features of Grieg’s performance style – an aspect of the performance which would probably be considered to be ‘rushing’ or too forward and pushed by most musicians today. In reality this communicates a special kind of immediacy and urgency, and together with his frequent rushing of a phrase towards a point of emphasis, it adds a freshness to the performances which we have seen gradually disappearing from generations of cultivating the ‘correct’.

- In Grieg performances, there is a tradition of searching for metaphors or musical images from our rich natural scenery, trying to realise – sometimes even imposing – a programmatic content on the compositions. There are obviously very good reasons to think in those terms, considering the great number of pieces by Grieg which clearly are of a programmatic character, such as Once Upon a Time, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, etc. There is also no question that programmatic ideas often initiated the creative process with Grieg.

In his performances however, Grieg never seems to dwell on the programmatic effects, bringing them forward to display the beauty of the imagery. In our view, Grieg seems to be playing his pieces with a total confidence in the autonomy of the music, without a hint of the pedagogic approach many of us impose on these pieces. The imagery is certainly there for us to see, but Grieg never ever holds it up in our face. In contrary to his process of composing, this seems in his performances to be something of a secondary element.

In Grieg’s music we find a lot of sequencial material; material where a musical idea or a motive is repeated and chained, usually in some kind of build-up. This is in fact a very general feature of his composing style, as it was with many of his contemporaries. When performing these sequences, many of us emphasise the repetitive element of the sequence – building block by block, making sure that every entry is marked, perhaps successively stronger – or perhaps trying to make the sequence more interesting by sudden changes of voicing, dynamics, space, or alteration of sound.

This is in fact directly opposite to Grieg. He never emphasises the schematic or repetitive element, never inserts time between the blocks of a sequence, and never separates or distinguishes each block dynamically. The sequence is never treated as a separate musical idea – as an independent development of a sequencial motive, but always given a formal function in a larger context – which is the bridging between more significant material on either side. The material grows organically throughout the sequence.

- Grieg never loses the vocal qualities of his piano playing. Perhaps with the exception of the most virtuosic passages, there is an ever present singing quality to his piano sound. One could very well point out the instrumental or orchestral qualities to his playing as well, but more apparent in our view is the strong relation to the human voice. This is not just a matter of a singing, basic piano sound, but even more due to the beautiful ebb and flow of the line which so much resembles the natural breathing, and the strong relation to the human gesture.