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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

In the ear of the listener

At the time Richard Strauss was writing his ballet The Legend of Joseph for Diaghilev, which was about 1914, he made a comment on what was at the time a lively and heated topic of debate -- that of emotion and the artist. He said: 'I work coolly, without agitation, without emotion even. One has to be thoroughly master of oneself to regulate that changing, moving, flowing chessboard -- orchestration. The head that composed Tristan must have been as cold as marble.' Stravinsky famously declared music to express nothing; it was only necessary to follow the graphic instructions accurately to produce a performance. Similarly, à propos acting, the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot maintained that it is only second and third rate actors who depend absolutely upon feeling; first rate actors create the illusion in their audience without themselves being a victim of that illusion.

Singers must also take the greatest care not to become overpowered by emotional involvement to the extent that the voice might be affected or the mouth distorted. A singer must remain in control of the many changes of emotional temperature in a usual recital of songs and keep a strong command over the relationship with the pianist or orchestra and conductor. In opera, the singer is much like the actor, unemotionally in control, leaving all the feeling to the audience. An artist is like a very calculating sleep-walker; the difference between the great and lesser artist is that for the great artist the calculation is inspired.

Tchaikovsky, writing to Nadezhda von Meck, tells of domestic matters that can disrupt this sleep and then 'cool head-work and technical knowledge must come to my aid, when the organic sequence fails and a skilful join has to be made so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole.' Such calculating 'head-work' is quite apparent in Beethoven and Brahms too, usually when following a traditional form, symphony or quartet, and often at the commencement of the development section of a sonata movement. But genius can override these passages without us even noticing. It is the lesser musicians, those who have enthusiasm without genius, that remain cool throughout, either ingeniously cool or ludicrously cool, and whose work never stimulates an inspired illusion among the listeners, it is these who waste our time and effort.

Copyright © 29 April 2003 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK






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