Shadows of meaning: Webern's Piano Variations on record
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Has co-investigator Nicholas Cook
Has principal investigator Nicholas Cook
Impact This research is primarily conceived as a specialist contribution to academic study of musical performance, but while its principal outputs will accordingly be articles in peer-reviewed musicological journals, I propose a number of supplementary outputs to engage additional beneficiaries. It is a positive characteristic of research in this area that there is potential for dissemination to a wider circle of beneficiaries than is the case for many musicological projects; for instance, captured performance data will be placed on the web for open access while the archive of digitised recordings will be made available within the constraints of current copyright legislation, and it is anticipated that these will be of interest to researchers within such fields as psychology, MIR (music information retrieval) and computer science. Outside the research sphere, however, the principal beneficiaries are expected to be (i) performers, particularly pianists, and (ii) members of the general public with an interest in classical music. The AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM) had some success in engaging performers in its research, and engagement with professional musicians has been designed into its successor centre (CMPCP, the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice). The choice of Op 27 facilitates such engagement, because performers specialising in twentieth-century modernist repertory are typically more closely aligned with academia than others, but interest in the historical development of performance style, and in the multitude of often unexpected stylistic options which the heritage of recordings makes available, is becoming more widely disseminated throughout the profession. Moreover the discussions with two performers of Op 27 (Peter Hill and Ian Pace) which I will conduct as an integral part of the research process will not only inform my analytical and critical interpretation of the work and its performances, but also give me a better sense of those aspects of the research which are of potential interest to performers. As part of the dissemination strategy, and alongside other possible seminar and conference papers, I intend to present my research at one of CMPCP's high-profile events, as these are specifically designed to bring together academics and performers, and responses to this presentation will feed into a further output targetted at beneficiaries outside academia: this will be an article on changing performance practices in Op. 27, with a particular emphasis on Glenn Gould, set into the context of the larger academic thrust of which CHARM and CMPCP are part, for a specialist (non-refereed) journal. An obvious choice would be International Piano, with which I forged a relationship at the time of my directorship of CHARM. Interest in musical modernism is relatively limited among the broader public, but makes up in enthusiasm for what it lacks in numbers. Those with a particular interest in piano music may read International Piano, but a more effective means of dissemination to a non-professional audience will be radio: effective not only because it will reach a wider audience, but also because radio presentation will make it possible to present the excerpts from a wide variety of sound recordings necessary to bring the subject alive for this wider public. The intention however will be not simply to document changing styles in performance, but to situate them within the broader framework of negotiations between competing conceptions of modernism: the key points, which are as yet insufficiently appreciated outside academia, are that performance style varies radically between different times and places, is a focus of musical creativity, and is inseparable from larger processes of aesthetic and cultural change. While dissemination through Radio 4 would maximise exposure, Radio 3, where I have a number of contacts, is probably a more realistic option.
Status Closed
Identifier AH/J003417/1
abstract The history of music is traditionally written in the form of the history of compositions, yet it is as performance that music enters most people's experience and becomes meaningful. This research will attempt to sketch a history of musical modernism as embodied in recorded performances of a single, emblematic work, Webern's Piano Variations Op 27. Webern composed Op 27 in 1935-6, and envisaged its performance in terms of the hyper-expressive style characteristic of pre-war Viennese modernism, but a performance tradition became established only in the context of the post-war avant-garde centred on Darmstadt. The music was now seen in terms of a quite different conception of modernism, in which values of emotional expression gave way to those of structural complexity and integrity: performers treated Op 27 as a kind of sacred text, to be reproduced in performance in much the same sense as a religious ritual. By the 1970s, however, post-war modernism was itself giving way to a new, more interpretive approach that can equally be characterised as more historically informed or as tending towards postmodernism. My research will show how this broad narrative of aesthetic change is inscribed in recordings of Op 27, and how empirical analysis of recordings can give rise to nuanced understanding of the many shades which modernism has taken in music. Based on a complete collection of commercial recordings of Op 27, this research will build on computational methods for the analysis of recordings developed at the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM). It will seek to show how quantitative methods can be brought to bear on the issues of cultural change and meaning with which musicologists are centrally concerned. In addition to setting out the changing performance tradition of Op 27 and its relationship to other expressions of modernism, this will involve teasing apart aspects of composition and of performance that are frequently conflated. Music theorists have traditionally adopted a 'page-to-stage' approach, evaluating performances in terms of how they underline or bring out compositional structure. But this has never been a primary concern for performers of Op 27. While the work is well known as an unusually rigorous application of the methods of serialism, I will show through comparison with recordings of Brahms's Intermezzo Op 116 No 5 (to which Op 27 bears a striking resemblance) that even the literalist performers of the Darmstadt era drew on rhetorical and expressive conventions derived from the performance of tonal music. In this way I shall argue that compositional structure and performance style are not as directly linked as music theorists have believed: it is in the space between them that performers exercise their creative agency, and doing musicological justice to this means developing a more inclusive and better theorised understanding of how music is represented in performance. This research is intended as a contribution towards such a development. While important theoretical and methodological issues of the study of music as performance are thus at stake, it is also my intention to do justice to the richness and variety of individual interpretive approaches that Op. 27 has afforded. The collection of 69 recordings of Op 27 on which the project is based includes eleven by the idiosyncratic and charismatic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, of which two were made for televison. I will chart his interpretation of Op 27 across these recordings, investigating ways in which his performances relate to his extensive verbal commentaries on Webern and Op 27, and how far his playing was moulded by physical aspects of his engagement with the keyboard. I hope the result will be a multi-faceted study of the engagement between an emblematic performer and an emblematic work which does justice to cultural context, agency, and creativity.
Type Project
Label Shadows of meaning: Webern's Piano Variations on record
Title Shadows of meaning: Webern's Piano Variations on record

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