Jane O'Dea Virtue or Virtuosity

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A Book about Ethics of Musical Performance


  • Virtue or Virtuosity?

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  • Virtue or Virtuosity? Explorations in the Ethics of Musical Performance

    Jane O'Dea

    Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance, Number 58

    GREENWOOD PRESS Westport, Connecticut London

  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    O'Dea, Jane. Virtue or virtuosity? : explorations in the ethics of musical performance / JaneO'Dea.

    p. cm.(Contributions to the study of music and dance, ISSN 0193-9041 ; no. 58) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-313-31568-X (alk. paper) I. MusicMoral and ethical aspects. 2. MusicPerformances. I. Title. II. Series.

    ML3800 .034 2000 174'.978dc21 00-024936

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available.

    Copyright 2000 by Jane O'Dea

    All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, by any process or technique, without the express written consent of the publisher.

    Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 00-024936 ISBN: 0-313-31568-X ISSN: 0193-9041

    First published in 2000

    Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 0688 1 An imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. www.greenwood.com

    Printed in the United States of America

    The paper used in this book complies with the Permanent Paper Standard issued by the National Information Standards Organization (Z39.48-1984). 1 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

  • For Brian, Marcia and Deirdre


    In loving Memory of Bridget Doolan 1932-1997

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  • Contents

    Acknowledgements ix

    Introduction xi

    1. Musical Interpretation 1

    2. Turning the Soul toward Excellence: The Character of the Performing Artist 25

    3. Virtue or Virtuosity? 39

    4. Historical Authenticity: Vice or Virtue? 67

    5. Integrity in Musical Performance 93

    Conclusion 111

    Bibliography 113

    Index 119

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  • Acknowledgments

    I was fortunate in my youth to be taught by a number of outstanding musicians: Tilly Fleischmann, Aloys Fleischmann, Sean 6 Riada, Pilib 6 Laoghaire, Bridget Doolan and Margaret Dillon. Together they created a distinctive musi-cal community in Cork, Ireland, with roots both in the Western classical heritage and Irish traditional music. Virtue or Virtuosity? reflects the artistic ideals and values handed down to me as a student in the "Cork Musical Tradition." It was then that I was first encouraged to think about the issues discussed in this book.

    My thinking has been provoked, enriched and stimulated over the years by the colleagues and students with whom I have worked. I should like to thank them all here. I am indebted in particular to Professor Harold Wiens of the Uni-versity of Alberta, Edmonton, for showing me that it is possible to create a sup-portive, nurturing learning community where competition is minimized and all musical performers may prosper and succeed. I am also grateful to Aron Edidin who reviewed the manuscript for Greenwood Publishing Group. Virtue or Vir-tuosity? is much the better for his insightful and penetrating reading.

    Finally, I should like to acknowledge my continued indebtedness to my hus-band, Brian Titley, who has never failed to encourage me in my work and who has functioned as advisor, critic, and copy editor throughout the writing process. For his loving, ongoing support I am immeasurably grateful.

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  • Introduction

    Virtue or Virtuosity? addresses the ethical questions performers face in inter-preting musical works. Although not new, such questions have received par-ticular prominence in recent times due to the emergence of the historical per-formance movement and its attention to composers' original conceptions. This has prompted performers and others to ponder anew many of the hitherto ac-cepted practices of their art. It has led them to reconsider the validity of per-formers' creative contributions to the interpretation of musical works, the obligatory force of the score and of historical information, and the appropriate role and visibility of performance skills in the meaningful realization of musical compositions.

    In short, more than ever before, performers today are called upon to justify their interpretations ethically as well as aesthetically. Yet the traditional struc-tures that once afforded master teachers the time to work through such issues with their apprentice-students on a one-to-one basis, are no longer in evidence. Instead, students typically find themselves enrolled in large professional music faculties or academies where the education imparted is almost totally oriented toward technical instruction and there is little time to further understanding and resolution of the ethical challenges musical performance presents. Moreover, the exacting demands and ever increasing competitiveness of the contemporary music scene all too often promote cutthroat atmospheres that actively deter stu-dents from developing the kind of integrity needed to face and resolve such complicated issues. They are left to muddle along as best they can, a situation that leads to insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt. This in turn encourages them to engage in spiteful, jealous behaviors totally unconducive to the development of artistic excellence.

    In order to combat such destructive learning environments and promote ex-cellence in interpretation, the ethical dimensions of performance need to be rein-stated as an essential component in the education of aspiring musicians. Virtue

  • xu Introduction

    or Virtuosity? is written with this purpose in mind. It explores in some detail the ethical responsibilities of performers, the diverse patrons they serve and the challenge this presents to their artistic integrity. As the title may suggest, it ap-plies an Aristotelian model of ethics to performance. This is one that, while recognizing the value and importance of rules and principles derived from per-formance practice, gives central place to the judgment of the individual per-former and the virtuous character traits sagacious musical judgment entails. Developing this judgment and combatting temptations that undermine it consti-tute the central theme of the book. Drawing together the collective wisdom embodied in performance practice and insights from ethical theory and philoso-phy of music, it encourages musicians to examine and explore more deeply the ethical dimensions of their art.

  • Chapter 1

    Musical Interpretation

    Interpretation is a complex notion. In the context of music it is usually associ-ated with performance. But critics too engage in the interpretation of musical works. And the Historical Performance Movement has given prominence to yet another interpretive figure the historian/musicologist.

    While all of the above are legitimately described as involved in the business of interpretation, it would be a mistake to assume that they do the same thing. They do not. In a recent work,1 Jerrold Levinson distinguishes two sorts of in-terpretation: critical interpretation and performance interpretation. The first is a standardly propositional affair, an interrelated set of remarks that typically aims to explain or elucidate a composition's meaning or structure. The second is a sensuous realization of the composition, a particular way of sounding it. It highlights or effectively displays the work's meaning or structure but does not provide a determinate comment upon it.

    Levinson emphasizes the dissimilarities between the two activities. But he does acknowledge (although he does not elaborate on it) that "obviously there is some connection" between them. Stephan Davies also suggests that there are "obvious parallels" between the two activities. He contends that "both the per-former and the critic must understand the work if they are to perform their jobs convincingly, even if the performer's understanding is more practical and may be difficult to articulate."2 That is my task in this chapter. I will present and develop a concept of performance interpretation that relates it to a particular kind of understanding and that delineates its separateness from, yet also its con-nection to, other kinds of interpretation.

    In performance interpretation, the performer begins with something already created, the musical composition. This consists of sounds or tones grouped, ordered and related into coherent patterns of one sort or another, and symboli-cally notated in a musical score the interpretation and performance of which is the performer's task. On the most basic level, performance involves sounding

  • 2 Virtue or Virtuosity?

    aloud reproducing in actual sound sensation the tones indicated on the musical score.

    But performers are not typists. There is more to musical interpretation than the mere sounding aloud of tones, something clearly illustrated by criticisms that chide performers for "merely playing the notes" or for "playing mechanically." But if performance interpretation involves not just sounding aloud indicated tones but doing something else besides, the question then becomes: What is this "something else" that the performer does? And how does it relate to the concept of interpretation?

    Interpretation is characteristically linked to understanding.3 To "interpret" something is to characterize it in such a way as to make it intelligible. Mothers, for example, ordinarily interpret the crying of their newborn babies as indicating discomfort of some sort. Acting on the basis of that interpretation, they try to alleviate the children's discomfort through feeding them, changing their diapers, burping them and so forth. Interpretation in this case refers to the mothers' at-tempts to render a particular situation, the babies' crying, intelligible. And since a similar quest for intelligibility seems to be implicit in all our diverse uses of the word interpretation,4 we may tentatively characterize it as the process of bringing a thing or situation from unintelligibility to understanding.

    In so characterizing interpretation we are harking back to the origins and ancient use of the Greek verb "hermeneuein" (to interpret) and the noun "her-meneia" (interpretation).5 Both words point to the wing-footed messenger-god, Hermes, whose task it was to translate something beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence could follow. Hermes was credited with the discovery of language and writing, the tools human understanding employs to grasp meaning and to communicate it to others. Even more important for our purposes, three basic directions of meaning of hermeneuein may be distin-guished in ancient usage:6 (1) to express aloud in words, that is, to assert or to say; (2) to explain, as in explaining a situation; (3) to translate, as in the transla-tion of a foreign tongue. Interpretation, in other words, can refer to three rather different matters although they all have something in common. In each of them "something foreign, strange, separated in time, space or experience is made fa-miliar, present, comprehensible."7

    The ramifications of this for performance interpretation are clear. Bearing in mind that the musical composition reaches the performer embodied in a static, visual and silent entity the music score we may cite performance inter-pretation as the process whereby that entity is transmuted into an intelligible, aural, sonorous happening in time. In other words, like the language interpreter who renders a foreign tongue comprehensible to us, the performer translates abstract, visual symbols into aurally experienceable sequences of sound. Pre-senting the performer from this point of view as a kind of go-between, Levinson describes her as someone who "essentially makes perceptually accessible a text or code that a non-musician cannot otherwise grasp."8

  • Musical Interpretation 3

    I agree with Levinson that the performer functions something like a language interpreter. I do not agree with him, however, that this makes of her "more a transmitter than an explicator."9 I think the performer is indeed an explicator, albeit of a very subtle kind. In order to grasp the particular kind of explication at issue here, we need to look more closely at the first direction of meaning of hermenuein: "to express aloud in words, to assert or to say."

    The word "express" connotes the notion of saying. But it indicates beyond that a particular kind of saying, one that directs us to the "way" something is said. Frequently, the way we say something is as indicative of the content or state of mind we wish to communicate as any words used to describe it. When a friend phones, for example, and conveys her anger at being maligned unjustly by a jealous colleague, her state of mind is communicated as much through her vocal intonations as through the words used to convey it. What communicates anger in this case are subtle vocal intonations such things as raised pitch, quicker delivery, sharper enunciation of consonants. These are features we have learned to interpret as indicative of anger. They serve to enhance and empha-size the feeling state being described.

    Vocal intonations like this often serve to communicate effectively states of mind that are even in direct contradiction to those linguistically expressed. Our understanding of sarcasm or irony, for example, depends entirely on the pres-ence and recognition of such vocal inflections. Tone of voice constitutes, in fact, probably our most primary mode of communication. Animals incapable of language and babies before they acquire linguistic understanding learn quickly to interpret and respond to it. Although the words used in speaking to them may communicate little, the manner in which they are said clearly indicates a par-ticular disposition, and the child or animal responds accordingly.

    Neither is the use of vocal inflection unknown in artistic areas. In the Ion of Plato, for example, the young interpreter recites Homer, and in the way he re-cites the poetry through his intonations he "expresses...