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The Musical Code: The Musical Enigma

To the uninitiated -the inexperienced musician- the musical score can represent an enigma. The score guards its secrets from the inexperienced, who baffled by its code, retreats after merely scratching the surface, or ends up all puffed up, thinking himself already a master. The uninvited must admire the gardens from outside; the privileged few are invited to dine with the composer.

Yet, how is the uninitiated to unveil the musical code? First, by learning the code. But what is this mysterious code? Simply that “artificial language” of which Quantz speaks: “a language through which we seek to acquaint the listener with our musical ideas”. And in whom would the composer trust, a lowly artisan or a supreme artist? Quantz assures us that “the good effect of a piece of music depends almost as much upon the performer as upon the composer himself. The best composition may be marred by poor execution, just as a mediocre composition may be improved and enhanced by good execution”. But how is the performer to earn a place?

A composer writing within the system of tonality lived, breathed and dreamed melodies, chords, textures and lines in complex relationships as naturally as we use speech. It is within this system of references and functions that the work must be understood: hearing it internally, through knowledge and imagination. The prerequisite: serious study, and then distillation- much of which must happen in solitude.

Great artists aptly realize in sound the gestures and content of the music. Some aspiring musicians approach music solely through their mechanical or melodic element, oblivious to the relationships present within the musical fabric. It is no wonder that their renditions ring empty and untrue. The “notes” are there; the music is not.

A great part of the responsibility rests with us teachers. Quantz wanted teachers to train skilled musicians and not just mechanical players. In his words: if then, all teachers of music were at the same time connoisseurs of it; if they knew how to impart proper notions of artful music to their pupils; if they had their pupils play pieces that are skillfully worked out soon enough, and explained their contents to them……. Music would be more highly esteemed, and true musicians would earn more thanks for their labors.

Mikuli reports that: “above all, it was correct phrasing to which Chopin devoted the greatest attention. On the subject of bad phrasing, he often repeated….that it seemed to him as if someone were reciting a speech in a language he didn’t know, a speech laboriously memorized by rote, in which the reciter not only did not observe the natural length of the syllables but would even make stops in the middle of individual words. The pseudo musician who phrased badly revealed in a similar way that music was not his native language but rather something strange and incomprehensible, and must, like the reciter, fail to produce any effect on the listener through his performance.

Chopin emphasized serious musical studies. and recommended “ thorough theoretical studies…” as early as possible”.

To become excellent performers we must study music in depth as well as the renditions of master performers. What are the elements that make their renditions great; Which can we borrow or “lift” as Quantz say? True to the spirit of the work, and with thorough understanding, let us activate our inner hearing and artistic imagination to achieve the Music Possible, our own new great performances.

May we then earn the right to be invited to the musical banquet!


© 2014 Daniel Daroca/The Opera Atelier


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