20 October 2007

Groh’s Liszt: How ‘Originalist’ Is Originalism Anyway?

Markus Groh, Liszt CD
At alternate turns, it’s implausible and then incontrovertible that Groh is an ‘originalist’ in his interpretations (that is, his playing aspires to faithfully render the original intent of the composer). His superb performance in the Friends of Chamber Music’s Master Pianists’ Series last night provided an excellent opportunity to assess this. He played Brahms’ Op. 1 and Op. 119, followed by Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. First, listen to his playing. Then, if you get a chance, by all means speak with him about it.

Groh’s performance of the Liszt Sonata last night was thrilling, rich with meaning and implication but never descending into sentimentalism or over-the-top theatricality. In this, Groh was the epitome of a dry ‘Romantic’s Romantic’ for the appreciative Kansas City audience attending the concert at the Folly Theater.

Markus Groh
In 1844, Heinrich Heine heard Liszt play in Paris, as did Henri Blanchard. They wondered at the ‘frenetic enthusiasm stemming from disturbances pressed on the nervous systems’ of the audience and the performer and wrote that such enthusiasm must owe more to pathology than to aesthetics (Gooley, p. 208). Yes, Groh’s playing is fervent—at times, frenetic, even. But by contrast to variable public reception of Liszt’s playing, the listeners’ response to Groh’s reserved, controlled interpretation is empathetic and fully invested. The aesthetic pendulum swings. If, say, Liszt’s was a frenetic reaction to the dryness of Czerny’s playing, a renunciation of the style of his teacher—then Groh’s account of Liszt may be a renunciation of self-indulgence, extravagance, and narscissism—of whatever qualities Liszt displayed in the performances that earned him the bad marks.

The appropriate fusion of sadness and tranquility is there. And the vehemence and fervor are there when they should be. But Groh’s playing is not self-referential. His account of the Sonata is, essentially, an extroverted one: one conveying complete immediacy—touching his audience, inviting us to enter into the music, not withdrawing from the world or carping about unrequited attentions and alienation.

‘Originalism’ in the law takes each construction to mean what it would have been understood to mean by any intelligent but ordinary person who was a contemporary of the author/composer—any ordinary person familiar with then-current legal issues and the background of common law. That doesn’t mean taking everything hyper-literally, though, because such over-strict constructions will not turn out to match how the ordinary person would have understood it. As in the law, so it is in music with Groh’s rendering of Liszt. His scholarship regarding the biography and psychology of Liszt is impressive, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. Despite his burgeoning career and critical acclaim, Groh modestly presents his views on what the passages mean to him. He argues from evidence, cogently and patiently—this despite a long day’s travel, an ambitious and exhausting performance, and the diplomatic demands of an after-concert dinner.

L iszt’s reception in Paris requires an occasional turn to the narrative historical mode. His relationship to the French capital extends from 1824, when he arrived as a prodigy, to at least 1845, when he tried to make an impact with his Beethoven Cantata. His struggle to maintain a reputation in Paris over this long period is a tormented narrative, filled with upswings and downswings, ill-willed plotters, heated confrontations, and an outcome with a nearly tragic protagonist. This narrative is valuable for challenging the myth of Liszt’s easy victory over contemporary audiences and critics. The Parisian story reveals just how self-consciously he was managing his public identity. He tailored his repertory and ticketing practices to particular audiences... The Liszt that emerges from the Parisian narrative is a strategist, working within the constraints of a skeptical public to maximize his impact as a virtuoso.”
  —  Dana Gooley, p. 12.

Liszt, Groh says, undoubtedly had his different moods. He surely must’ve changed his mind from time to time. “Everyone has this right. The crossed-out bars in the original ending of the Sonata, for example. When were these crossed-out and replaced with the subdued ending as we know it today? Who now can really be certain whether this change was [a result of interior thoughts or whether, instead, a response to audience reaction to early performances]? I am more conscious of the latter possibility since my association with Michal Schmidt in New York. The importance of careful calibration of public image and communication with one’s audience cannot be over-emphasized.”

Liszt Sonata in B minor, quiet ending

    [50-sec clip, Markus Groh, Liszt Sonata in B minor,
     Lento Assai, last 11 mm, 1MB MP3]

T he interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He oughtn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he’s talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldnt dominate the music, but should dissolve into it. I don’t think that my way of playing has ever changed. Or if it has, I didn’t notice, Perhaps I simply started to play with greater freedom as I threw off the shackles of existence and rejected the superfluous and all that distracts us from the essential. It is by shutting myself away that I’ve found freedom. I might have had doubts about the extent to which I managed to play what I intended, but from the beginning I was always certain that, for each work, it was in this way, and no other, that it had to be played. Why? It’s very simple: because I looked closely at the score. That’s all that's required to reflect what it contains. Kurt Sanderling once said of me: ‘Not only can he play well, he can also read music.’ That wasn’t such a bad way of putting it.”
  —  Sviatoslav Richter.

Textualism is a formalist theory of statutory interpretation which holds that a statute's ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation, as opposed to inquiries into non-textual sources such as the intention of the legislature in passing the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or substantive questions of the justice and rectitude of the law. Likewise in music.
T  he other work he gave me to practice during my first year was Liszt’s Sonata. The essential point about this piece, he taught me, was the silences—the sound of the silences... What does the beginning consist of, in fact? A single note; that’s all: a G. What can you do to ensure that this miserable G sounds somehow special? Here's what I do: I come out onto the stage. I sit down and I don’t move a muscle. I create a sense of emptiness within myself. In my head, I count up to thirty, very slowly. This causes panic in the audience. What is happening? Is he ill? Then, and only then, I play the G. In this way, the note sounds totally unexpected, but in an intentional way. Clearly, there's a sort of theatricality about all this, but the theatrical element seems to me very important. It’s essential if you want to create a feeling of unexpectedness. I know lots of pianists who play splendidly, who serve everything up on a plate. You know in advance what's on the menu. It’s good, but...”
  —  Sviatoslav Richter.

The original form of ‘originalism’ was known as intentionalism, or ‘original intent,’ and entailed applying laws based on the subjective intention of the text’s authors. The intentionalist methodology involves studying the writings of the author/composer for clues as to their intent. Groh works from the evidence in Liszt’s score, in a copy of the original manuscript, and in Liszt’s writings. He wouldn’t give much weight to the whining of Eduard Hanslick, who hated this Sonata. Nor would he countenance the bashing by the Nationalzeitung reviewer who in Liszt’s day referred to it as “eine Herausforderung zum Zischen und Pochen” (an invitation to hissing and stomping).

N ot every composer produces this sort of performer-in-the-notation. It is certainly most evident in the case of composers who were themselves superlative performers: Josquin, Couperin, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt. Their notation works as both a record of past performances and a mnemonic for the future... Recognition of a performing persona in the notation greatly informs our own interpretative role as external spectators or music critics, but the same persona may also enliven our musical experiences as performers and listeners.”
  —  John Butt, p. 94.

In constitutional law here are two kinds of ‘intent analysis,’ reflecting two meanings of the word ‘intent’ and these have, I think, direct correlates in music performances and aesthetics. The first, a rule of common law construction in the epoch when a text was composed, is ‘functional intent.’ The second is ‘motivational intent.’ To understand the difference, consider the metaphor of an architect who designs a Gothic church with flying buttresses. The functional intent of flying buttresses is to prevent the weight of the roof from spreading the walls and causing a collapse of the building, which can be inferred from examining the design as a whole. The motivational intent might be to create work for your brother-in-law who is a flying buttress subcontractor. Groh discusses the Liszt Sonata and reveals his deep understanding of both types of intent. Coherent resolution of the ‘good-and-evil’ meme is, he thinks, the functional basis for Liszt’s replacement of the original ending with the quieter, contemplative one.

I believe it is important to appreciate the latent intentionality in music as an art to be performed, something that can be distinguished from the more local concept of ‘the composer’s intentions.’ Just as our interest in art per se rests on our understanding that is intentionally created as art, our interest in pieces of music should be directed toward the human subjectivity involved in their creation and, particularly, in the intentionality occasioned by performance. The value of a composer’s intentions for performance cannot be legislated...”
  —  John Butt, p. 94.

H is high-intensity, often frantic bravura manner provoked involuntary physical reactions—shaking, shuddering, weeping. Applause for Liszt, indeed, was less a gesture of appreciation, wonder, or joy, than a sheer corporal reflex—an outlet for great physical excitement. The effect of his playing passed over into the physical realm by virtue of its excess: an excess of vibration, of musical information, of visual data—too many stimuli. Yet Liszt's playing reached into the body of his listener by a still more direct route: their identification with his performing self. At the keyboard he appeared possessed by a St. Vitus spirit.”
  —  Dana Gooley, p. 206.

‘Strict constructionism’—requiring a judge to apply the text as it is written and no further—is used in American political discourse as an umbrella term for conservative legal philosophies such as originalism and textualism, which emphasize judicial restraint and fidelity to the original meaning (or originally intended meaning) of constitutions and laws. It could as well be used to describe any conservative musician or musicologist.
F reud writes in his 1914 essay ‘On Narcissism’ that a power of this kind, watching, discovering and criticizing all our intentions does really exist; indeed, it exists within every one of us in normal life. The delusion of being watched presents it in a regressive form... Conscience is the internalization of surveillance, just as in the broader cultural and historical context Protestant interiority is the internalization of baroque spectacle and visual control. The inner voice remains the voice of external authority. The task of emancipation is to free subjectivity, to free the voice from the bonds of those forms of external authority that are politically and psychologically harmful.”
  —  Michael Steinberg, p. 77.

The notion of a Living Constitution—a Living Score—can be defended, as Posner and others have done. The text is not static or univocal. It doesn’t need successive generations to bestow on it ‘flexibility’ in order to work: it won’t become brittle and break. So talking about strict constructionism from the perspective of the ‘insider’ performer-jurist is a political move that back-handedly seeks to arrogate authority to the critic and away from the performer. ‘Strict constructionist’ is a ‘politician-outsider-looking-in’ term—a critic’s term, not a performer’s term.

H ypocrisy is the beginning of virtue.”
  —  Antonin Scalia, UW Law School, 15-MAR-2001.

Are there sound arguments opposing originalism? Yes. For example, originalism can lead to unacceptable, morally or aesthetically indefensible results. For example, interpreting the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution only to protect liberty recognized at the time it was ratified provides no protection to groups who were discriminated against at that time, particularly women and homosexuals. With originalism, the courts are extremely limited in their power to protect against discrimination. Originalism faces hermeneutic difficulties in understanding the functional and motivic intentions of the Founding Fathers, or of the Composer. Originalism allows the ‘dead hand’ of prior generations to control important contemporary issues down to an extraordinary and unnecessary level of detail. Historically-informed performance run amok. Groh, for all his remarks that suggest that he is an originalist at heart, does not go this far. It would be fair to call him instead a pragmatist. “Playing piano is a way of life. I cannot help but learn something new each day.”
  • Textualist: An originalist who gives primary weight to the text and structure of the Composition. Textualists often are skeptical of the ability to determine "intent."
  • Intentionalist: An originalist who gives primary weight to the intentions of composers, members of commissioning bodies, ratifiers, and dedicatees.
  • Pragmatist: A non-originalist who gives substantial weight to judicial precedent or the consequences of alternative interpretations, so as to sometimes favor a decision ‘wrong’ on originalist terms because it promotes stability or in some other way promotes the public good.
  • Natural Law Theorist: A person who believes that higher moral law ought to trump inconsistent positive law.

L iszt’s transcendent technique, which depended as much on the variety of sound he was able to elicit from the instrument as from sheer virtuosity, was directly inspired by Paganini’s violin playing.”
  —  Clive Brown, p. 222.

D uring the 19th Century a number of important composers strove to produce music in which accentuation was liberated from what they saw as the restrictions of metre. In such music, structural and expressive accentuation occurred with increasing frequency on beats that were metrically weak... Symptomatic of this attitude is Liszt’s comment, in the preface to the collected edition of his symphonic poems, that he wished to ‘see an end to the mechanical, fragmented up-and-down playing tied to the bar-line, which is still the rule in many places.’ ... a conscious reaction to the conventional rhythm that underlay much early Romantic music.”
  —  Clive Brown, p. 27.

T he Constitution does not say, ‘Read me broadly,’ or, ‘Read me narrowly.’ The decision to do one or the other must be made as a matter of political theory and will depend on such things as one’s view of the springs of judicial legitimacy and the relative competence of courts and legislatures in dealing with particular types of issue.”
  —  Richard Posner, in ‘What am I? A Potted Plant?’

T  he idea of the Constitution as a binding contract is an incomplete theory of political legitimacy, not an erroneous one. A contract induces, reliance that can make a strong claim for protection; it also frees people from having continually to reexamine and revise the terms of the relationship. These values are independent of whether the original contracting parties are still alive. But a long-term contract is bound eventually to require, if not formal modification (which in the case of the Constitution can be accomplished only through the amendment, process), then flexible interpretation, to cope effectively with altered, circumstances. Modification and interpretation are reciprocal; the more difficult it is to modify the instrument formally, the more exigent is flexible interpretation. Bork is aware of the practical impediments to amending the Constitution but is unwilling to draw the inference that flexible interpretation is therefore necessary to prevent constitutional obsolescence.”
  —  Richard Posner, in ‘Bork and Beethoven’.

A fter Justice Holmes and Judge Learned Hand had lunched together one afternoon and Holmes began to leave to resume work, Hand called out, ‘Do justice, sir. Do justice.’ Holmes reproached him: ‘That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.’ Holmes did not intend to say that a judge ought to be unjust. But laws are sometimes unjust, and without being unconstitutional. When a judge is faced with one of those laws, as a servant of the law he has to swallow hard and apply it. Perhaps that implicates him in injustice. Holmes probably thought so, hence his reply to Hand. But Holmes believed that that is preferable to judges thinking of their duty as serving justice first and law second.”
  —  Richard Bostan, The Tempting of Richard Posner, 1997.

Markus Groh