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In Praise of Mediocrity

Mediocrity rises early and goes to market. Her daughters: Superficiality, Banality, Vulgarity, Triviality, Vanity, Frivolity, Vacuity, and Envy accompany her. One may recognize them by the way they walk, putting on airs. They move quickly, so they seem to be everywhere, making a lot of noise. Of all of them, Envy is the worst; her face is always sour. Mediocrity and her daughters call attention to themselves. They dress a bit loud and enjoy showing off. Little by little, they infiltrate every field and often appear as pseudo intellectuals or supposed great authorities. (Los eruditos a la violeta, to follow the brilliant phrase that is the title of Jos’e Cadalso’s book of 1772 ( Los eruditos a la violeta,)

Yet, Mediocrity and her daughters are not entirely without merit. The Creator, in His Divine Wisdom, ordered that they be present perhaps to try our patience, perhaps to make us appreciate talent and excellence so much more. By the principle of contrast, they enhance the workings of Talent, Art, Science, Beauty, Excellence and Industry. They do not need such excesses. They observe the comings and goings of Mediocrity and her daughters from afar,and joke about them among themselves.

And it so happened that Mediocrity and her daughters were in Merseburg when Quantz returned to that small town in the Fall of 1714. He realized during his stay there that if he accepted the offers for musical posts that were coming his way, he would only be “the best among bad”. Quantz specially dreaded playing dance music, which he was forced to do during a certain period to earn a living. Yet, the contemplation of Mediocrity and her daughters sparked in Quantz a greater desire for excellence, and he yearned for the company of kindred musical spirits, people from whom he could learn or with whom he could be one among equals. He labored incessantly to learn all he could to become an excellent musician and instrumentalist. By the time he arrived in Dresden, he already knew that merely hitting the notes as the composer wrote them was still far from the greatest excellence of a musical artist. The musical life in Dresden was stimulating for the young Quantz, who was surrounded by excellent musicians with whom he had much in common and from some of whom he could learn. He expressed his enthusiasm and admiration for some : Pisendel. for example. Stimulated by their excellence, Quantz refers in his autobiography:

Hearing those celebrated people I was profoundly impressed, and my zeal to inquire further into music was redoubled.

Quantz’ later activities in Berlin and his travels throughout Europe provided further enrichment, as he met, played with or/and listened to the greatest performers of his time. He admired both great singers and instrumentalists. Surely he had the opportunity to listen to a good share of the good, the bad and the ugly among contemporary performers. And how great that the element of contrast helped Quantz learn to distinguish and discriminate between the mere mechanical performers and the greatest artists of his time. And the best he heard, some of the greatest composers, singers and instrumentalists of his time: including Johann Sebastian Bach, Friedrich Haendel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Johann Adolph Hasse, Franz Benda, Farinelli, Senestino, Tesi, Berselli, and so many more that would be impossible to enumerate.

Today I finished re-reading Quantz’ chapter on Musical Execution. That phrase sometimes takes me to its funny meaning, and makes me think of the crimes perpetrated sometimes on musical compositions, or even on the composers themselves. How many times have we heard a performer literally execute Mozart?

Here I enumerate some of Quantz’ ideas. I freely paraphrase some that stayed with me after the reading. For a more detailed reading, please consult his Versuch. It is a goldmine of information on performance practice and other subjects having to do with music and musicians.

• Quantz compares the performance of music to the delivery of an orator and stresses that the aim of both is to arouse or still the passions in the listener, and to transport him or her to this or the other sentiment.

• The good effect of a piece of music is largely dependent upon the performer.

• The performer must make the musical ideas intelligible by means of good execution.

• Good execution is

o True and distinct

o Intelligible

o Rounded and complete

o Varied ( light and shadow, piano and forte, not everything in the same color)

o Expressive and appropriate to each passion: in Allegros liveliness must rule; delicacy in the Adagio

o Easy and flowing (I am reminded of Mozart’s expression: it went like oil)

o One must guard against all grimaces!!!!!

o Musical ideas that belong together must not be separated, but separate different musical ideas.

o One must find the dominant sentiment,

o One should regulate oneself in accordance with one’s own temperament, that is make up for it by imitating the necessary qualities of other temperaments better suited to a particular passion.

Quantz finishes the chapter by describing poor execution (or good execution, rather, if you follow the funny meaning), telling all the things a good rendition should not be.

How wonderful that Quantz pursued his desire of becoming a great performer and composer! We are all indebted to him for taking the time to write his Versuch and for sharing his knowledge and immense experience in the service of music. Over 200 years later this great work is still so relevant. Since it has been translated into many languages, it can be enjoyed by many. Let us derive great learning from its pages.

© 2014 Daniel Daroca/The Opera Atelier

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