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On the Significance of the Title

Reprint­ed from “On the Sig­nif­i­cance of the Title,” The NBA Jour­nal, Vol. LV, Nr. 2, Win­ter, 2015.

In April 2015, I will be con­duct­ing an all-city hon­or band in San Diego and have pro­grammed Wagner’s beau­ti­ful arrange­ment of the music of von Weber known today as Trauer­musik, a work I like to pro­gram to demon­strate to oth­er con­duc­tors and stu­dents the artis­tic free­dom they are allowed with respect to Time. But as I began to think about these young musi­cians I would be mak­ing music with, I began to won­der if the title itself, Trauer­musik, would play an undue influ­ence on their think­ing. The word trauer, which does not trans­late well into Eng­lish, in Ger­man means “mourn­ing” or “grief,” emo­tions which do not rep­re­sent well the actu­al music of von Weber which Wag­n­er select­ed to arrange for wind band. At this point in the opera, Euryan­the is alone in the for­est, med­i­tat­ing on life and death but any sense of grief has more to do with hav­ing lost her lover, Adolar.

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Tenuto and Fermata: Rebels Against the Tyranny of Notation

For a mil­lion years or more, singers and instru­men­tal­ists play­ing on nat­ur­al instru­ments made music freely with the sole goal of express­ing their feel­ings. But once nota­tion appeared the “rules” of music began to be addressed to the eye rather than the ear. The cre­ation of bar lines in the eleventh cen­tu­ry cre­at­ed units of time itself which lent to the eye the appar­ent rule that music must be con­tained with­in these units and the free­dom of the ancient musi­cians was now lost for good. The sub­se­quent his­to­ry of nota­tion was a con­stant effort to allow an escape from these pre­set units of time, includ­ing such things as col­ored nota­tion and Pro­por­tion­al nota­tion. By the time of the Baroque com­posers such as Prae­to­rius and Fres­cobal­di began to write “just ignore the nota­tion; play faster or slow­er as you desire.” And by the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry it is amaz­ing to see the lengths com­posers such as Haydn went to to write music that fell between those bar lines, but sound­ed as if it were in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent meter or tem­po. By the advent of music schools in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry a new rigid­i­ty became the rule and as a result today no stu­dent believes he is enti­tled to expand a mea­sure of music in per­for­mance sole­ly on the basis of his feel­ings.

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The Maxime Principle: Thoughts on the origin of dynamic markings

In a com­mu­ni­ca­tion we recent­ly received from Pro­fes­sor Maxime in Paris, she encour­aged all instru­men­tal­ists to begin think­ing of the Ital­ian piano and forte sym­bols to mean rel­a­tive degrees of emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and not the stan­dard prac­tice of indi­cat­ing only “soft” and “loud” sound.

This rec­om­men­da­tion, that the piano and forte sym­bols should reflect “emo­tion­al inten­si­ty,” is per­haps a bit star­tling for those of us who have been taught that the pur­pose of these sym­bols was to reflect only the degrees of loud­ness or soft­ness of the actu­al vol­ume of sound itself. For those who believe that the sole pur­pose of music is the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ing and emo­tions, Pro­fes­sor Maxime’s prin­ci­ple is a wel­come reminder that in ear­li­er times the piano and forte sym­bols were also asso­ci­at­ed with feel­ing and were often the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the per­former, not the com­pos­er. But the sym­bols are intro­duced to us today as being of an objec­tive char­ac­ter with no dis­cus­sion of how these sym­bols are relat­ed to feel­ing. While Pro­fes­sor Maxime speaks of “emo­tion­al inten­si­ty,” we rel­e­gate these sym­bols to the sta­tus of being only “dynam­ic mark­ings.”

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