“Music was a passionate thing. Why should we soften the edges now?”

Scrolling down the musical cyberspace, on April 29th I ran into Kate Molleson’s article for Herald Scotland titled “Conductor Richard Egarr: It’s hip to be historically informed.” This article was based on Molleson’s interview with Maestro Egarr.

I must say that the article was very interesting, even more so when we include in the equation early and baroque music interpretation; of which Maestro Egarr is quite acquainted with to say the least. Whether it should be played “clean,” “muddy,” steady tempo, rubato, with vibrato, without vibrato, etc. That said, what really caught my eye was his comments on early and baroque music:

“You only have to read a tiny bit about what music meant to people in the 17th century, about the way people reacted, to know this was supposed to be seriously emotional stuff. There are so many examples of people bursting into tears. Music was a passionate thing. Why should we soften the edges now?”

This quote had a very direct jolt to my musical senses. I might be getting away from the central topic of the original article, but that quote made me think about some things in our musical actuality. The way we listen to music, what the academy teaches us about music, what we expect of music and new music, and most importantly what music means to us.

As Maestro Egarr clearly stated, one only needs to read and do some simple research to know that music meant serious emotional stuff to people in the 17th century, and I would dare say earlier and later in history too. But today… how do we listen today?

In the musical world there is a usual outline of how we listen to music. It is almost in a musicological and/or theoretical way, always looking for structures, patterns, and even flaws in order to classify musical works in whatever groups they may fall into. From early to contemporary, from juvenile work to masterpiece, from experimental to traditional, and so on. It’s very palpable in concert critiques. It is almost done like it done with a template, the atmosphere the music created, how accurately was interpreted, how effective was the tempo choosing, and when it comes to new music, how effective and up to date was the compositional style used, what colors or textures may it be matched with, what other composer may it be compared to, how relevant it was… But… does it transcend that? Certainly that is an individual question, but my years in the ivory tower and conversation with my musical colleagues who study and/or teach in the tower (same and different from the one I attended) confirm one thing: that is the way we are taught to listen to music. I must make something clear; the analysis of music, the analytical hearing exercise, and the musicological approach are very needed, very informative, and even illuminating when it comes to understanding theory aspects of music and it's historical surroundings. But… is that all?

With the birth of the “standard repertoire” and the intense focus on the “let’s-get-in-the-dead-composer’s-mind” exercise our expectations of music changed. We sit down in a concert hall to compare our musicological research to what the interpreter(s) offer to us. This is even more severely done with new music premieres, which we attend almost with a juridical approach unconsciously expecting some sort of Time-dependent Schrödinger Equation in contrast to the “standard repertoire” masterworks catalogue. But again… is that all? 

Time-dependen Schrödinger Equation  (single non-relativistic particle)

Time-dependen Schrödinger Equation (single non-relativistic particle)

When it comes to the meaning of music, I highly doubt that all the musical convoluted theories could even be near to what music means to a living being. How it talks to our souls and how it quakes our emotions, how it changes our perspectives and the experiences that gifts us; that is the true meaning of music. We need to approach music with the deference and commitment that Nadia Boulanger taught her students: We listen with responsible theoretical and musicological approaches, but---and most importantly---we need to cultivate and develop our inherent human emotional approach to music. We need to remember, in the words of the renowned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, that art “is part of what makes being human worth being human.”