The old-fashioned way

I recently experienced feelings both of flattery and of irritation to discover that I am now quoted in Wikipedia as an authority on the Duport brothers’ influence on Beethoven. Flattery because they like me! They like me! I’ve heard many stories of Wikipedia’s baffling rejection of qualified contributors, so not being rejected might be worth something.

This preening almost instantly gave way to annoyance. The article they quote, a piece I wrote for Strings (1), really isn’t an authoritative source on the subject. I like to think I’m a good writer, but I’m not a musicologist writing for a peer-reviewed journal. If Wikipedia really wanted to be taken seriously as a scholarly reference site, it shouldn’t be quoting music journalism, it should be quoting the work of the scholar who has done the most original research in the field of Beethoven’s cello music. That scholar is Lewis Lockwood, author of Beethoven: the Music and the Life, and a great many articles on Beethoven’s works, such as the one that was my main source of information for the Strings piece, “Beethoven’s Early Works for Violoncello and Contemporary Violoncello Technique.” (2)

Why hadn’t Wikipedia done this? The same reason I’d never read Lockwood’s article until I was researching the Strings piece last year, despite my interest in the subject: because it’s in an obscure German publication, because it isn’t very well-known, because it took me ages to find it on a database, because it was hard to get on interlibrary loan, and so on. It’s simply more convenient to quote something you can find by Googling for less than ten seconds.

In this age of information technology that affords us near-instant gratification, I can see how tempting it is for Wikipedia authors to rely on things they can access instantly, particularly if they aren’t affiliated with a university whose library subscribes to scholarly databases. But this precisely is why college students shouldn’t be allowed to quote Wikipedia in essays. If you do have access to scholarly resources, you should be learning how to use them. Professors and librarians are there to help you; it’s their job. Google and Wikipedia are useful for a few things, but nothing replaces the old-fashioned way to find information: JSTOR, RILM, WorldCat, Grove Music Online, and so on. (Or even–heavens!–consulting a book.)

(1) Miranda Wilson, “The Cello Works that Sealed a Maestro’s Reputation for Genius,” Strings 26, no. 10 (2012), 25-28.

(2) Lewis Lockwood, “Beethoven’s Cello Works for Violoncello and Contemporary Violoncello Technique” in Rudolf Klein (ed.), Beiträge 176-178: Beethoven-Kolloquium [Vienna] 1977, Dokumentation und Aufführungspraxis, (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978), 174-182.


Original accents/original instruments?

I just came across this fascinating documentary on the original pronunciation of Shakespeare by the father-and-son team David Crystal, a linguist, and his son Ben, an actor. Although I’ve been an enthusiast of the historically informed performance practice of music for many years, the idea that there could be an equivalent in theatre hadn’t really occurred to me. (I am a little embarrassed to say that I never attended a play at the Globe during my years in London; my only excuse is that I was too busy going to concerts.)

The accent the Crystals demonstrate sounds, to my foreign ears, a lot like the West Country accent you can still hear in the BBC radio drama The Archers. (I was very fond of this show when I lived in England, although I could understand almost none of what the characters said.) The piratical enunciated R and the rustic vowels and diphthongs seemed to provoke Ben Crystal to use a deeper, more earthy tone of voice in his acting. This made me think of certain scintillatingly fast, vigorous recordings of Vivaldi concerti grossi on original instruments that have come out in the past few years. Could it be that using equipment similar to that of the composer’s time frees us to be wilder and less “careful”? Shakespeare’s plays and classical music both have an undeserved reputation for being a bit precious and prissy, but we forget that at the time they were written, they were like the latest movie or pop song.

I was also struck by Ben Crystal’s insistence that some of the in-jokey puns in Shakespeare’s plays simply don’t work if an actor speaks them in modern Received Pronunciation. Pointing to a passage that plays on the word “hour,” he demonstrates that if we pronounce the vowels the way Shakespeare apparently did, it becomes a bawdy joke that is totally lost on actors who don’t use original pronunciation (and thus is lost on audiences too). This reminds me of certain facets of HIPP that we can deduce simply by looking at musical scores of the time, such as the way we can tell that Bach wanted us to use “low” fingerings on upper strings rather than “high” ones on lower strings in the fifth cello suite by examining the way he wrote the scordatura. If you ignore Bach’s hints, you miss out on the special resonance he was trying to create.

While we will never know the answers to some questions about a long-dead playwright’s or composer’s intentions, we don’t need a time-machine to figure out others.