What Makes Any Music Classical? Tradition!

Hans Knappertsbusch used the mangled Schalk version of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony to make one of the greatest recordings ever of that music.
Hans Knappertsbusch used the mangled Schalk version of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony to make an indelible recording.
By Richard Nilsen

COMMENTARY – In a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the NBC Symphony Orchestra kept repeating a ritardando that conductor Arturo Toscanini didn’t want.

He stopped them: “Signori, perché? Why? Is written so, eh? Ancora.”

They did it again, playing it the way they had learned it, and Toscanini exploded.

Si, tradizione! The first asino, the first jackass, did it that way and everyone follow him.”

Then he pointed to the score.

This is my tradizione! So play like this.”

Just the notes, ma’am: It is the Joe Friday approach to music, and it has been the governing prejudice in classical music for at least the past half century.

“Tradition is just the last bad performance,” Toscanini said, and his dictum has become dogma. (At right, Toscanini conducts Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.)

Toscanini was often a great conductor, and it should be noted that he didn’t always follow his own advice. But his dictum has become a piety that many a musician utters even in the face of the evidence of his own performance.

In 1995, Gunther Schuller made recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Brahms’ First to accompany his book, The Compleat Conductor. Schuller was an influential musician and writer, but his recording only gives the lie to his argument: That a conductor should not “interpret” the music, but just present what is written in the score. It is not surprising then, that this recording is one of the most vapid ever made of those two symphonies.

Because, pace Toscanini, tradition is not the last bad performance, but the heart of classical music. And I don’t just mean European classical music. It is tradition that makes any music “classical.”

Whether it is Chinese classical music, Indian sarod, or Arabic oud or Japanese Noh-play music,tradition is the soul of its existence: It is handed down over generations from master to student. They imbibe the nuances and techniques from their teachers.

And it can be no different playing Mozart or Wagner. There is a tradition for playing their music. You learn it and transmit it.

If you have ever heard an English pianist and orchestra play Rhapsody in Blue, you know the pain of hearing music divorced from its tradition: They don’t have the American idiom in their bones.

It can be learned. After all, Pittsburgh-raised Lorin Maazel soaked up the Viennese tradition like a sponge. When Leonard Bernstein first led the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart, his first words to the orchestra at the first rehearsal were, “Teach me; you know this music better than I do.” It was not only a calculated moment of flattering a famously stubborn group of musicians, it was also true.

Listen to Toscanini’s notorious recording of the “Blue Danube” and you hear music with the tradition sucked out of it: Without that tradition learned in the bone from an early age, there can be no early second beat in a Viennese waltz, no paring of dotted notes from fourths to thirds in jazz. Learning the tradition, getting it in your blood, is why American orchestras do Copland and Ives better than a German orchestra, and why, if you want to hear the “Blue Danube” played correctly, you have to go to Vienna, or hear musicians trained in the Viennese tradition.

Toscanini advocated for fidelity to the score, even when he diverged.
Toscanini advocated for fidelity to the score, even when he diverged.

And that ritard on the first three notes of the D-major melody in the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony was taught from teacher to student from the time of the Russian composer on: It is part of the music, whether written in the score or not.

Classical music is “classical” not because it has been written down, but because it has been handed down. The score is only an aide memoire. It contains the notes; tradition and its teachers give us the music.

Otherwise, we could just read scores, like reading a play rather than seeing it on stage.

You only have to attend a master class to hear the tradition in action, as the talented student plays the notes and the teacher fills in the blank spots between the notes. “Try this bowing instead,” or “If you phrase it thus”  –  and the teacher plays a few bars that are magic – you can see how a little hitch here brings it alive.”

The score is no more the music than a skeleton is a human being.

But there is currently a common belief that the score is all there is: Play the notes as accurately as written and you have done your job as a musician. You can hear the result in any concert hall. Orchestras advertise that the conductor is using the Barenreiter edition, as though that made the performance better music.

Let us never forget that Hans Knappertsbusch used the mangled and butchered Schalk version of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony to make one of the greatest recordings ever of that music (sampled at right): It blows us away. He understood what was being said in the music. Playing just the notes is no more music than an actor accurately pronouncing the words Hamlet speaks without knowing what they mean.

All the great conductors of the past jimmied the orchestrations around when they felt it necessary to make the music communicate more directly. Even Toscanini, the poster child for the “objective” conductor, altered scores, adding brass to the coda of the “Eroica” where he knew Beethoven’s valveless instruments couldn’t play the notes that the composer clearly would have had them play if they could.

Mahler re-orchestrated Schumann. Even Mozart re-wrote Handel’s Messiah. There is plenty of precedent for using the score as a starting point, not a prison. What you’re looking for is music, not a museum exhibit. The current fetishization of the score is nothing less than Puritanism. Ideology where your ears are supposed to be.

Tradition gives heft to performance: You hear three centuries of history in a performance; you stand — as Newton had it — on the shoulders of giants. It is not your voice alone that sings, but the chorus of all humanity. You have allies.

As T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a poet must embody “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer” and it is through this awareness of 2,500 years of tradition that an artists’ “ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously.”

The idea that you can “clean away the varnish of centuries” to reveal the music is absurd: All you do is separate yourself from your ancestors and fail to learn from them. It is a self-imposed isolation, a form of artistic alienation.

None of this is to assert that tradition stands still, or that some “traditions” may be only mere Schlamperei – laziness or bad taste — but rather that tradition grows constantly through the new performances built from the old. The present is the apical meristem of a tree. Piatigorsky is not Casals; Rostropovich is not Piatigorsky; Yo-Yo Ma is not Rostropovich; Anner Bylsma is not Ma. But you can hear Casals in Bylsma.

That is tradition. That is what gives classical music its amazing depth: the depth of history, the depth of tradition. Connection, not isolation.

Richard Nilsen was critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix from 1986 to 2012. He currently writes a blog at richardnilsen.com.