Summary and Info
Elizabeth LeGuin is the third in a dynasty of brilliant women writers. Her mother is the popular science fiction novelist Ursula LeGuin, and her grandmother was Theodora Kroeber, author of "Ishi". In this complex study of the music of Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), LeGuin discloses a "secret" that every skilled musician already knows:
Composers write music for performers, not audiences. More cautiously, one might say that composers necessarily write with performers in mind. It's the composer's ability to sense the performer empathically, to imagine her hands as his on the instrument or his voice resonating in her larynx, which enables him to write in a musical idiom that she can also `speak', even if he is long dead. This notion of composer and performer occupying the same physical space is a central thesis of cellist Elizabeth LeGuin's musicological biography of cellist/composer Luigi Boccherini.
Here's another way to express it: Performers, even if they perform only for their cat or their begonias, experience music on several levels not accessible to passive listeners. Ergo, performers comprise the composer's most satisfying audience, in that only the performers can "get" the whole experience that the composer conceives. I realize that this might be an invidious distinction, and an offensive one, for non-performers who are passionately moved by music. And can it possibly be true or apt for ALL composers? Perhaps we can ignore that question, since we (i.e. Dr. LeGuin) are concentrating our thoughts on one specific composer, Boccherini, who indisputably wrote the bulk of his music for the pleasure of --and purchase by-- performers. But Boccherini lived and composed in a milieu where a major percentage of "the better classes" were somewhat competent at music; they sang and/or played for recreation, among their own families and friends. I could get into troubled waters here by speculating that the paucity of active performers, professional or amateur, in the later 20th C, and the nexus of all cash with passive concert-hall listeners, have fatally disrupted the social bonds of composer and performer. Be that as it may, author LeGuin calls attention to some of the ways that only a performer necessarily experiences music like Boccherini's.
First, there is a visual experience. The performer looks at the score, reads the notes. The `Early Music' movement of our era has made a considerable point about the value of seeing the music as the composer saw it, in original notation. When the music is 15th C polyphony, with its neumes and colorations and total absence of barlines, the point seems indisputable. But even music of the later 18th C, the era of Haydn and Mozart as well as Boccherini, often `looked' quite different from modern editions. In a modern edition, nearly all the music is notated in the treble G clef, the G clef indicated as sounding an octave lower, or the bass F clef. A cellist in Pomerania who purchased a print of a Boccherini sonata published in Paris would have confronted, and would have needed to comprehend, a plethora of G, C, and F clefs with various conventions governing the choice of register. And those clefs woould have changed plunk in the middle of a line of music! LeGuin reveals what those vagrant clefs would have meant to a contemporary of Boccherini's in terms of the `voice' elicited from the cello, that is, the `role' the cello was required to play in the rhetoric of the music. Now then, would a listener perceive such shifts of voice/role? Yes, if the cellist were any good, but only indirectly. The cellist `sees' the music as well as hears herself playing it.
Even a more critically difference in the performer's experience is that she "feels" the music with her entire body. Specifically, a cellist performing a work by Boccherini will feel stress, perhaps even pain, in the positions of her fingers and thumb required from certain passages, and then sequentially feel `release', recovery, pleasure. Or the converse, of course. Boccherini's characteristic repetitive figures surely `mean' something to the physical body of the performer, a meaning which the skilled performer must attempt to convey to the listener. LeGuin continues to examine the culturally framed physical responses of a listener qua performer in the last decades of the 18th Century; she hypothesizes that such a listener `heard' music according to the conventions of dance, theater, and "tableaux vivants". The latter art, so cherished during Boccherini's lifetime, is particularly unintelligible -non-experiential- for a modern audience, as are the ideals of upright posture and carriage enforced on the bodies of men and especially of women by the costumes of the times. LeGuin finds that contemporaries of Boccherini, as they expressed their impressions in letters or published comments, often related Boccherini's music to opera seria. In other words, what a modern listener might hear as `charming' and `light-hearted', an 18th C listener might have felt in his body as grave, perhaps even tragic. There's a hint of the method of the French historian Michel Foucault in this discourse; the whole `grid' of perceptions of a given society in a given era is only abstractly and academically accessible to observers caught in the `grid' of their own times.
A warning to the reader might be in order now: if you can't read music, this book will be unfathomable for you. Going further: if you don't usually listen to music with complete concentration, not only in the concert hall but in your home on your electronics, I fear this book will be dry and unprofitable reading for you. Going even further: much of the discussion in this book relates quite specifically to the physical experience of playing a bowed-string instrument. That discussion presents a challenge even to a musician like me, one who doesn't wield a bow. I'm a wind player -- cornetto, bassoon, recorder, shawm, and modern saxophone are my daily companions -- and at a certain point, I simply have to take LeGuin's word for experiences I don't share. I have, fortunately, played in lots of ensembles with bow-wielders; I've had to hold them movements in the corner of my eye. That gives me some hope that I "know where she's coming from."
But wait! Here's a fresh thought! Music historians have struggled to explain the transformation of the typical early baroque instrumental ensemble, in which winds were equal partners with strings, into the string-dominated `classical' ensembles, the symphonic orchestra and the string quartet/quintet. More vexing to explain is the rather precipitous disappearance of the cornetto, which in the early 17tth C had rivaled the violin in prominence as the virtuosic `front' voice of the ensemble. LeGuin's text does not address this evolution, but it suggests to me an answer, a plausible explanation for the triumph of the violins and cellos. That answer is physical, the visible movement of the bow, a kinesthetic communication to the passive listener from the performer. LeGuin does examine this concept of the bow-movement as an expressive device; she admits that their is no direct correspondence of bowing arm movement to musical affect, and she finds evidence that string players of the 18th and early 19th Centuries were explcitly coached to `reveal' such correspondence by gesture and stage presence. We wind players, cornettists especially, have no recourse to such communicative gesture. `Watching' a cornettist is comparable to watching ice harden; the ideal of cornetto technique is minimum movement, the stillest possible posture and the shortest possible finger stroke on the holes. No wonder we cornettists went extinct! Our audiences couldn't `feel' our vistuosity.
Forgive me now for another independent reflection on the implications of LeGuin's concept of the Musical Body: Feeling a mite defensive toward her descriptions of fingers curling on the neck of her cello and bow arms gesturing to an empathic audience, I had to ask myself how and if wind players (and to some extent, singers) experience music bodily. After some hesitation and doubt, an answer flashed on me. We breathe! We hear music in the rhythm of breathing, in phrases constructed and delimited by breath. The stress and release that LeGuin discovers in the hand positions of the cellist are tantamount to the stress and release of breath control. How obvious, now that I think of it! But I'd never noticed that I tend to breathe in synch with music, especially vocal music, when I sit in the audience. Of course, violinists and cellists will say, "we" also play in phrases that have evolved in the musical vocabulary of winging words; "we" also breathe. Excellent, I answer, but in this YOU are the necessarily empathetic recipient of the singer's or bassoonist's physical enactment of music.
"Boccherini's Body" does incorporate a biography of the composer in the course of its examination of the changes in the cultural nexus of composer/performer/listener that made Boccherini's music less appealing to the next several generations. But Boccherini was an elusive figure who lived in provincial isolation; it would take a sensational imagination to craft a popular film based on his life. Much more interesting is LeGuin's "biography' of the culture of "sensibilities" within which Boccherini thrived -- `sensibilities', that is, as the word was understood by the writers Richardson and Smollett, or by the French painters of the 18th C, whom we now tend to dismiss as sentimental and affected. If, as Michel Foucault hypothesizes, the worldview of one era is unintelligible to another, better evidence could not be found than in our disdain for rococo Sentiment. Hence the change in meaning of that word `sensible', from receptivity to practicality!
There's much more to Elizabeth LeGuin's book than I've extracted here. She al
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