An excerpt from Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers
(Oxford University Press, 1997) by
Bernard D. Sherman


Chapter 20 "Re-Inventing Wheels":
Joshua Rifkin on Interpretation and Rhetoric

Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. Front and end matter revised, Jan. 1999. This material may not be copied or distributed without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

To many early-music enthusiasts, the name Joshua Rifkin brings to mind a single association: the renegade who argues that Bach generally used only one singer on each of his choral lines. But that association obscures the sheer variety of Rifkin's career. His work as conductor, harpsichordist, and pianist has taken him from Busnoys and Josquin through Mozart and Haydn to Stravinsky, Weill, and more recent composers. It has also included a healthy dose of Scott Joplin, whose revival in popularity began with Rifkin's recordings in the early 1970s. Rifkin has appeared as guest conductor and keyboard soloist with many leading modern orchestras, such as the English Chamber Orchestra, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, and San Francisco and St. Louis Symphonies. Along the way, he has found time to record his spoof The Baroque Beatles Book and some lovely instrumental arrangements for Judy Collins.

Rifkin studied composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and theory with Milton Babbitt at Princeton. He is also a musicologist, who has specialized in Renaissance and Baroque music, particularly Josquin and Bach. His research on the B Minor Mass has produced several coups, including his deduction, since proved correct, that the Credo chorus was originally written in a different key than the familiar one. His revisionist work on the dates of the St. Matthew Passion (demonstrating that it was premiered in 1727, not 1729 as previously believed) won quick acceptance among Bach scholars when Rifkin published it in 1975.

Rifkin used a similar style of philological analysis to arrive at his argument that Bach typically used one singer per part. When Rifkin presented this argument in 1981, of course, it won nothing like the acceptance of his earlier publication; if anything it made him something of a pariah. It is clearly gaining ground today, however. The idea is discussed in Chapter 15 by John Butt, Jeffrey Thomas, and Philippe Herreweghe, along with other aspects of interpreting Bach's choral music. (Click here for a short article I wrote about the persistence of the one-per-part idea)

Early-music enthusiasts have at least some reason for their association of Rifkin with Bach, then, especially since Rifkin has performed a great deal of Bach using one singer per part. The Bach Ensemble, which he founded in 1978, has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe and made a number of recordings.

Rifkin preferred not to discuss the one-per-part debate in his interview. Instead, our conversation touched on more basic issues of historical performance, going beyond the specifics of scholarship to the foundations of the whole enterprise.

BDS: How much "interpretation" and inflection should go into a performance of, say, Bach or Mozart? Some early-music performers have advocated a great deal of these, others far less.

JR: There's a soft underbelly to a lot of what we do in historical performance, in that there are profound discrepancies between our modern interpretative practices and what we can determine about musical practice in the eighteenth century and earlier (and somewhat later, for that matter). By calling attention to these discrepancies, I don't mean necessarily to criticize what we do, but merely to try to heighten some awareness and promote some reflection.

It's pretty obvious and well known that "interpretation," as we have inherited this idea in the performance of standard repertory in the twentieth century, was foreign to most earlier music making [1]. I think it was Nicholas Kenyon who said that, by all the evidence we have, music making in the eighteenth century was more like what we would call "readings" than what we would call "interpretations." Except for operas, we know that they were lucky to have two rehearsals of a piece, or even one, and a rehearsal basically meant a read-through. When I try to imagine how this all went, I think of the jingle session—a modern situation in which musicians come in to a performing space of some sort, are handed a newly written piece of music, read it once or twice through, play it more or less flawlessly with a sense of its basic stylistic assumptions, and then go home. Of course, this notion is quite distant from the way we think of performing the great masterpieces, which we imagine to require much more profound insight born out of years of reflection.

This much is easy and obvious enough, I think, but there are aspects that are less easy and obvious. To get at these I would refer to an experience I had a couple of months ago, when I recorded several of the "London" Symphonies of Haydn [2]. I was dealing with an extremely good period-instrument orchestra, very experienced, technically very capable; yet we all found this music exceedingly difficult. I myself had underestimated its difficulty, not simply in terms of the individual parts (particularly the violin parts) but also in terms of the ensemble demands and even the directorial demands that they posed. In the course of the sessions the producer and I had a conversation which led to some further thought. He asked, "What must this have sounded like in London at its first performance? Given the lack of rehearsal, what kind of effect could it have made?" In fact, by all evidence, it made an absolutely stunning effect, and people just loved it. The reviews were enthusiastic beyond measure.

In part that may reflect our much higher expectations today for technical perfection.

JR: Partly, but there's more to the issue than that. As I was thinking about the Haydn premieres, I was recalling that I had recently heard the premiere of the new Partita for Orchestra of Elliot Carter. In the talk before it Carter praised—quite rightly—the accomplishments of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Daniel Barenboim. But then Carter said that as his pieces live and are performed and re-performed (he's one of the few contemporary composers to have the good fortune to see his music develop a performing tradition), performers continue to find more in them, and find ways of playing not just the notes but really the music—to find a personal slant on the pieces. He has, at least in principle, clearly welcomed this. And I know from other circumstances that Carter has felt the performance of his music to improve regularly. Every ten or twenty years most of his pieces get freshly recorded and, he tends to feel, better recorded.

Well, this is where our Haydn question and what Carter was talking about started to meet. There's no question that a lot of first performances are very bad, but not all are that bad, and a lot of pieces have triumphed at their premieres, as did the Haydn symphonies and, in fact, the Carter Partita. But in a sense, the quality of the first performance is not really at issue, because no matter how bad or how good it may be, subsequent performances are going to change things. Subsequent performances are going to assume an increasing familiarity with the work and its language, and are thus going to be able to achieve a naturalness that first performances cannot achieve. And it is precisely on the basis of this, of really speaking the language, that one begins to develop insights into the particular utterance of the language and begins to develop interpretations as opposed to simple readings.

The dilemma I want to return to is that in the general practice of the eighteenth century they didn't yet have a standard, regularly repeated repertoire, and thus could rarely have reached the interpretative phase. We, by contrast, can't avoid interpretation—given the increasing familiarity of the works, both in our own performances and in our inherited traditions of performances and composition, even if they are traditions from so-called mainstream practice. Moreover, we may need interpretation in a way that the original audiences did not, because we have heard the pieces so often. Mozart's audience was hearing the "Jupiter" Symphony for the first time, so a competent run-through was sufficient for them; but we have heard it a hundred times, so a mere run-through would bore us.

BDS: The example you gave of Carter comes from our century, in which there has been no central musical style that all composers use; in learning a new piece, we often have to learn not only the piece, but also its unique style—what you called its "language." By contrast, in the eighteenth century composers had a more unified style, or language. Would that common style mean that even with limited rehearsal there could be not only more insightful performances but also more interpretation?

JR: It would have improved certain things without question. I think in principle we can imagine that performers would, in general, understand the significance of a lot of musical gestures, expressive devices, and so forth, in ways that modern performers dealing with contemporary pieces might not. It's perhaps akin to how jazz musicians today can take a chart and know how the written lines are to be realized without being told—or, to mention it once again, the jingle session. I think this can stand as an example of a larger sense of "speaking the language." I think what familiarity with the language does make possible is giving a much better delivery right off the bat. But delivery and interpretation are not exactly the same thing, although locating the boundary between them is a difficult matter. I think we can probably imagine a good level of delivery, even if the technical level sometime may have been problematic, as in the Haydn. I think in many instances this could have taken care of a lot of the issues. With much of the repertory it would have taken care of all the issues; there are pieces that we generally accept are not the most profound under the sun but that with the right performance can be quite wonderful. Well, there you have delivery pure and simple, unclouded by these other issues. But for the great pieces, the issue remains.

So the historical performer is facing a contradiction. The questions with which he or she has to grapple are, How far does interpretation take us from the original, how much of that is legitimate, how much is not legitimate, and what means do we have for deciding? At the same time we have to reckon with not only how far this is taking us from the original, but to what extent we can reconcile all this with the supposed and, in part, actual foundations of the use of "historical" instruments, practices, etc. There is an interesting set of muddles.

BDS: One response to the dilemma you mentioned—how much to interpret, how much that is related to the original practice and how much not—has been to develop a common style of playing Baroque music. David Fuller describes it as

"a kind of generalized rubato intended to clarify the metre and highlight important notes and events. . . . Its salient characteristic is an exaggerated lengthening of the downbeat—sometimes every downbeat, no matter how clear it may already be from the harmony or other factors of its context. Further rhythmic distortions may emphasize dissonant or climactic notes, thematic entries, or any feature the performer fears his audience may miss. Sometimes all sense of the beat, far from being clarified, disappears in a fog of nuance.
"It is true that liberties far beyond overdotting and inequality were cultivated in certain Baroque styles. The few mentions doubtless only hint at a wider reality. . .
"What is certain, however, is that the ‘audible analysis' practised by modern players of Baroque music has nothing to do with notes inégales. . . . Any connection with old performance is purely speculative—which is not to say that it may not have corresponded exactly to the way some players performed."

Could you comment?

JR: It's a very well-taken point. Let's turn it around for a second. Let's give this phenomenon its most charitable explanation. We could say that we have learned something about this music. It's wonderful that people know something about what the harmonic points of a piece are, where the phrases are going, and so forth. This is a level of knowledge that's not to be gainsaid. I remember coaching a chamber music masterclass in a serenade of Max Reger that is basically tonal but is not as familiar in its syntax as other late Romantic pieces might be. These were very capable performers, extremely gifted; any one of them could render a dazzling Brahms fiddle concerto or its equivalent. But they made hash of Reger's music, because they didn't know where the phrases were falling, where the weight lay, and so forth. It had to be painstakingly pulled out of them by consideration of questions like, How are we going to make this palpable, and how are we going to project this? Now, in repertories where this has not been so self-evident—and even Bach may be considered as being such a repertory—the fact that musicians have become sensitized to these things, so that they really have a sense of how the language is working, is something to celebrate.

BDS: What you've just described sounds like, essentially, good "delivery." Where does interpretation fit into understanding this style that Fuller describes?

JR: Well, the next question is, of course, What do you do with this knowledge of how the language works? Here opinions may differ, and here again we're entering this dimension where the historical evidence leaves us in the lurch. It's a very subjective matter, because one person's violently stretched-out, meterless performance is another person's weighting of the proper moments in time; one person's well-proportioned performance is another person's dull, uninflected reading. We have no way, really, of telling. And here is where we become very personal, and have very little choice but to be so.

Although here again is where we might want to ask about objective foundations, at least in the interest of keeping in touch with them. To take a simple, trivial enough question, does it make a difference whether the kind of thing that Fuller describes is happening in a solo harpsichord piece or in a piece for large ensemble? If it's happening in the latter instance, is it reconcilable with what we know about the sources of the time—about the orchestral parts of the time, with their minimal performance instructions, and about the performance practices? Is it reasonable to assume that a bunch of even extremely skilled musicians very familiar with the style would have sat down in real time in the eighteenth century, with real eighteenth-century performance practices, and produced the kinds of results that Fuller described? If not, does that mean it's a bad thing to do so now?

That brings us back to the initial point of departure about interpretation. These pieces have progressed and changed through performance, and through the way that they gradually divulge secrets to performers, and the way that performers gradually find new secrets to tease out of them. Where does one call a halt to this process? I don't know the answer. In a way it's akin to what happens to folk music—you can never keep it in its pure state. I think I've tended to become something of an extreme relativist on these issues, in principle. In actual practice, I hate many of these performances, but that's just my private taste, and I try to do my own performances.

BDS: Behind many of these performances is a particular way of understanding the concept of musical rhetoric, which looks upon it as involving a kind of musical lexicon. One major conductor said that in the Baroque era, "a repertory of formulaic expressions (musical figures) was available for portraying emotions and for figures of speech; a vocabulary of musical possibilities, so to speak." Through such means, music "was always expected to speak" [4]Could you talk about the current use of this idea of rhetoric in Baroque performance?

JR: Rhetoric is one of these areas where we have to clear out the stables a little bit. Rhetoric should be a very simple matter. The first point is that the treatises from the late fifteenth century to the eighteenth are addressed to composers, not performers or analysts; they have to do mainly with composing pieces of music, not usually with performing them. The second point is that their significance has been misunderstood; indeed, it is a sign of misunderstanding that they are thought to have such significance.

Rhetoric has, first of all, almost nothing to do with content and meaning. The use of rhetorical terms in music theory was simply a way of labeling certain devices in compositions for which there was not a commonly accepted terminology. This is obvious if one reads the treatises. So-called compositional theory up until the late sixteenth century was in fact contrapuntal instruction, concerned with the relationship of notes against each other, and with the basic contrapuntal devices—canonic writing and the like. What is never addressed in the theoretical literature of the time is how actual pieces behave, even in such simple descriptive terms as "here there's a bit of imitation, here there's homophony, there the line rises and the line falls." Now, the first great musical treatise to look at rhetoric, Joachim Burmeister's Musica Poetica [1606], undertakes the praiseworthy enterprise of trying to come up with descriptive terms for what actually happens on the surface of musical pieces. Lacking a terminology of music, such as the technical terminology that we have, he simply goes to the sister discipline that already has a developed terminology for describing surface phenomena in a performance medium, and that is rhetoric. Rhetoric is not grammar, and it's not the basic tools of speech; the basic tools of musical speech were already part of traditional compositional theory. Rhetoric dealt with delivery, and with the shape of sentences in terms not of grammatical parts but of whether you repeat words for emphasis and so forth. It is a kind of taxonomic business, on the level of the sentence, and also in terms of the parts of an oration, showing how B follows A and how C follows B. First you have this theme, then you have that theme, then you have the development. Burmeister, needing terms for this kind of thing in music, simply appropriates the terms used in rhetoric. A line goes up? Well, in rhetoric you have a term to describe a climactic situation. A line goes down? You have a term to express this. The voices come together in what we would call homophony? Well, you could borrow rhetorical terms for that. Two significant things about this are that it has only tangentially anything to do with meaning, and that the terms themselves have absolutely no significance. Indeed, if you look at the history of rhetoric in musical theory you discover that different terms are used by different authors, and that even the same author will borrow different terms from rhetoric at different times trying to get to a closer analogy. But there's absolutely no mystical significance to the terms themselves. You could just as easily call them Ginger and Fred as anabasis, catabasis, or any of them.

Now, let's go to the end of the rhetorical tradition and consider the most famous example, in which Mattheson says a piece of instrumental music is like a Klangrede, "oratory in sound." [5] This became the title of a famous book, Musik als Klangrede, [6]by a very famous conductor who cut his teeth in the early-music world. There the proposition is made (and it's very widely held among modern performers of Baroque music) that somehow there is a fundamental difference between music before the French Revolution and music in later eras. Later music is held to be just notes and their relationships, but early music—ah! that's an oration! Well, come on. You read Mattheson, and he's saying, Look, a piece of music has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that's all he's saying. It shows that Mattheson was no dummy about music. If, as Birnbaum says, Bach could expound on the relationship of music and rhetoric [7], it would also suggest that he understood that a piece of music had to be coherent and well made. But let's not kid ourselves that it means anything else. Again, none of this has anything to do with some different style of performance. The kind of "rhetorical" performance that we have been blessed with over the last twenty years—which sometimes milks every little gesture for all it's worth, and finds deep meaning in rhetorical terms that really just describe standard musical phenomena—has no historical basis.

In some ways performers are not to blame, because they have been misled by the scholars. There is a pernicious tradition of German scholarship that has created the fiction of rhetoric and meaning in music—Hermann Unger, Arnold Schering, Arnold Schmidt, and in our country Ursula Kirkendale[8]—and it's widespread. It certainly has created the notion of a kind of secret language. Performers have turned to them as scholarly authorities. And let's face it, it's an attractive idea. We are all attracted by secrets and hidden meanings, meanings that are more profound than what has been accessible to all of us (and might now be accessible only to some of us). It's understandable; but, as Dorothy Parker said, there's less there than meets the eye.

I think sensitive musicians, when they heard underinflected, motoric playing of Bach, intuited that "we're not getting at something; there is more to this." Reading some treatises, and hearing things from some musicologists, they found that in a way the rhetoric idea, even if it was misconstrued, reinforced and helped them come to grips with this thing that they were intuiting. And then perhaps they produced some ridiculous performances, but nevertheless that served as a means to help understand the speech better.

BDS: Of course, while acknowledging the ridiculous performances, some would say it also produced a few great performances.

JR: Indeed, it may seem that I think no profound truths about the eighteenth century were being discovered in this emphasis on rhetoric. On the contrary: if one can understand rhetoric properly, not as it has been misapplied to musical performance, then one can in fact find it rather meaningful—although basically it should be telling us nothing that we do not already know. Rhetoric is simply effective speech—good public speaking, if you will. I've referred often here to the idea of knowing the language—knowing how, say, Haydn's or Carter's language functions. That is precisely what rhetoric is supposed to deal with—not with hidden meanings or anything like that, but with knowing, when I want to make an effective statement about something, how to make it clear, how to set it off from something else, which words carry a certain affective weight in themselves, and so forth. It is what any native speaker knows, and what any good actor knows, and what any good musical performer performing his or her native "language" of music knows. In that way any good performance is rhetorical, be it Toscanini conducting Beethoven's Third, or Horowitz playing the Liszt Sonata, or Stravinsky conducting his own music. You listen to Stravinsky conducting his music and it sounds coherent, while with a certain level of conductors it doesn't always. In that unchallenging sense, rhetoric is very much at the basis of all that we do, but it's at the basis of what any decent musician in any repertory does.

I have to stress that for the most part the significance of these things is purely musical and syntactic. It has a semantic dimension, but not one you can put your finger on. An unusual leap, a chromatic fourth, or a special chromatic alteration—it's something that you have to understand has a certain meaning because it's not the everyday plain occurrence in a piece. Because it is an elaboration effect, an unusual construction, it means that you have to be aware of its unusualness, its relationship to the usual, and that you have to have some understanding of how you might project this, how you might make this make sense.

I'm reminded of a story I heard from Chris Krueger, the flautist in the Bach Ensemble, about having coached in the Berg Chamber Concerto under Rudolf Kolisch. He said that what was striking about Kolisch when he would sing them examples from this piece is how highly inflected the singing was, in an unmistakably Viennese fashion. It was instantly clear, when you heard Kolisch sing it, what Berg had in mind with all these lovingly detailed markings of his, which are so often just completely wrongly played today because they are played without any understanding of what lies behind the notes. Berg's was a Viennese dialect, and Kolisch spoke that language, so he inflected naturally in that style. Again, it's knowing where Max Reger's cadences fall, knowing where he's interrupting and evading a cadence, knowing that you have to project both the sense that it is going towards something and that it is evading it. All that is linguistic understanding—all that is, in the true meaning of the term, rhetorical: it's how to put the point across. But much of this other stuff—treating each little pattern of a few notes as a meaningful rhetorical gesture whose meaning is coded in a Latin term—is without foundation.

For that reason, I would prefer just for a while at least to avoid the word "rhetoric" until it can be shorn of this extraneous baggage. At which point I'd be very happy to use it once more, because, properly understood, it's something that every good performance has and needs.

BDS: Let me pursue some qualifications. John Butt writes that rhetoric was an aspect of German Baroque performance as well as composition, and in a way that did differ from later styles of playing. In the performance sphere, he says, it had to do with using ornamentation to increase the eloquence and emotional power of the presentation. [9] But he agrees with you that the various ornamental elements had no specific meanings or connections to sung texts.

He writes elsewhere that the added ornaments, musically, were elaborations of a fundamental structure—there was a hierarchy—and that these figures were therefore given some form of delineation in performance. [10] How do you respond to the idea that in the earlier Baroque—the text-centered post-Monteverdi style, which we still find echoing in early Bach—rhetorical performance was different from performance later, and that it involved some kind of articulation of smaller units for added effect? [11]

JR: If one qualifies the meaning of the word "rhetoric" carefully here, so that it doesn't suggest the esoterica we've just discussed, I can agree with him. Nevertheless, even when one says, "This is the elaboration of a simpler figure, and therefore it must be delivered in that way," the question of course is how? If you don't understand it at all, you will probably ride right over it. But in the first flush and joy of discovery, you may think that you really have to communicate your discovery and enthusiasm to the listener, i.e. pump it for all it's worth. Again, real speech lies somewhere in between, even in highly rhetorical actor's speech. Again, much of the stuff in rhetoric is just making conscious to us what good speakers and good musicians do. As musicians we are like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain—we're constantly discovering that we're speaking prose, or even poetry perhaps. Any halfway sensitive musician does this. In a sense, the awareness of this can heighten your doing it. But I wonder if there's an obligation to make it noticeable.

BDS: Even if there's no obligation, an artist may prefer the result.

JR: Absolutely, and that of course is their prerogative. But it's another question when people speak of what happened in the past. We can never know, of course, but I like to think that the best performers in those days did it intuitively. I really do not believe that there was any conscious notion of this in performance. What theorists were saying about it, insofar as it had any applications to performance at all was in a sense more descriptive: they were putting a magnifying glass to what happens in a good performance, just as the science of rhetoric was fundamentally putting a magnifying glass to what good orators did.

BDS: George Barth writes that Beethoven played much of his music in a "declamatory" style, delivering the phrases like someone declaiming, rather than someone singing a long, mellifluous line or maintaining a moto perpetuo. He relates it to the more detailed, "speaking" articulation that many people see in pre-nineteenth-century music. He believes that the speaking style lost some footing in the course of the nineteenth century and has been neglected in much Beethoven playing in recent decades. [12] Do you have any comments?

JR: It strikes me as, on the face of it, a well-taken point. In a sense, though (and I'm sure George would be the first to agree with this), all good singing is declamatory and all good declamation sings. I suppose my personal idea of good performance style, which is of course purely subjective, is always wanting somehow to gain the advantages of everything at once. Good singing speaks; there's Callas. And if you don't speak well, you end up with Monty Python's parody of a BBC announcer, with uninflected sentences starting and stopping in mid-sentence. So, it's a question of emphasis, or of being aware of a side of it of which we perhaps had not been aware—of developing a sense of how intelligibility is a matter of seeing what the gestures are, what the moves are. Very often these things have been lost.

I'd add that it's not just in the performance of Beethoven. Where George Barth and others might use the word "declamation," I tend to use the word "inflection." It is my sense that this "declamation" or "inflection" was more characteristic of all musical performance before the Second World War. You listen to Kreisler or Furtwängler, and you hear highly inflected performances; Schnabel's Beethoven always seemed to me a very speaking kind of playing. All three are in many ways examples of what a lot of people in the so-called early-music business have been trying to rediscover and recover. The music making of these pre-war artists is indeed speaking, saying things. In that sense I think that we are re-inventing a particular wheel—which I don't say as criticism, because wheels constantly roll out of sight and have to be reinvented. But maybe what all this is about is that while we may need all the historical apparatus and all the PR, in a sense we're just trying to plug into some home truths.

The problem, I think, is that we all like structural cohesion and continuity, we all like detail, we all like declamatory speaking, we all like beautiful sounds, we all like guts, we all like sensitivity—but we can't do full justice to any one of these elements without glossing over another one. In practice, what happens is that each of us likes these elements in various proportions at various times; and similar shifts take place, from decade to decade, in the fashions of musical reception. There are many ways of slicing it; every era will slice it differently, and so will every performer, each time he or she performs. I was just reading some interview comments I made eight years ago. I was astonished to see myself saying some of the things I said. Whether I have really changed my beliefs or fashion has dragged me out of them I don't know; but one comes to other places—thank God.

Selected Discography

Rifkin's 1982 recording of the B Minor Mass (Nonesuch 79036, 2 CDs) was the first to use the one-per-part approach he advocates. The recording won the 1983 Gramophone Award, and in the book Choral Music on Record (Cambridge University Press, 1991) Teri Noel Towe prefers Rifkin's B Minor Mass to any other. Towe calls it "intensely powerful [and] revelatory," adding that the participating musicians have "the guts to sing and play with vigour and sensitivity, warmth and understanding."[13] A dissenter, Nicholas Kenyon, says that Rifkin "just lets the music happen . . . and to my mind misses many of the opportunities offered by one-to-a-part performance."[14] Peter Williams, occupying middle ground, says that "the singers simply sing: no rhetoric, no showmanship," but he likes the result, saying, "the chamber performance, quiet and undemonstrative, brings out the wonderful inherent melodiousness of Bach's music most beautifully," and tends to "bring out a flavour of sadness in many parts of the mass."[15] Still, he thinks the performance is undermined by the instrumental work, which "in rejecting Harnoncourt's constant cresc-dim effect . . . replaces it with nothing." Stanley Sadie couldn't disagree more: he finds the performance "more personal, more intimate, and more intense" than choral performances. "Numerous passages make sense as they never did before," he writes, and "Rifkin shapes the cadences delicately and with feeling, an object lesson to 'authentic' performers in how to mould the music." [16] I, too, disagree with Kenyon: while the phrasing is not as inflected as that of many historical performers (for reasons Rifkin discusses in the interview above), it conveys, paradoxically, a special intensity.

Kenyon complains about the tempos, which seemed unusually fast in 1983. The intervening years have changed our expectations about Bach performance, and Rifkin's tempos now seem remarkably apt almost throughout. (Click here for a detailed article of mine about performance of the B Minor Mass.) My own latest research interest is tempo in Bach; from what I have been able to gather about the topic, Rifkin's tempos are (overall) the most historically plausible of any B Minor Mass recording I have heard. (Click here for my article on tempo notation in Bach.)

By "plausible," I mean consistent with the sketchy evidence we have about tempo in Bach. I recognize that plausibility is far from the most important criterion in choosing a tempo; but historical information can, in the right hands, have artistic value. For example, Rifkin takes the "Crucifixus" significantly more slowly than the preceding "Et incarnatus" chorus. This contrast of speed may well be implied by the change from a 3/4 meter in the "Et incarnatus" to a 3/2 meter in the "Crucifixus." The effect is, in any case, powerful, and if one arrives at it (as Rifkin undoubtedly did) by thinking about the implications of time signature in Bach's notation, such thinking is artistically vindicated. (I know of only one other period-instrument recording, that of René Jacobs, which also slows markedly for the Crucifixus. Thomas Hengelbrock slows for it, but much less noticeably.)

Reviewing Rifkin's 1985 recording of Cantatas 147 and 80, John Butt finds that the advantages of one-per-part "are manifold. . . . balance and ensemble are superb throughout." Butt also says that the alto aria in 147 is "beautifully interpreted."[17] Cantatas 147 and 80 have been reissued along with excellent performances of Cantatas 8, 140, and 78 on L'Oiseau-Lyre 455-706 (2 CDs, at half-price). Nicholas Anderson writes that Rifkin's Bach cantata series "at its strongest (Nos. 8, 78 and 99) illuminates Bach's music with a gentle radiance and a clarity seldom found among its rivals" (Gramophone, Sept. 1991). Anderson also states that the recording of BWV 82 may be his first choice on disc. George Chien, writing in Fanfare (March/April, 1994) singles out Rifkin's recording of 106 (L'Oiseau Lyre 417 323) as "outstanding" among competing versions. A second Decca half-price reissue includes Cantatas 106, 131, 99, 56, 82, and 158 (Decca 458-087-2).

Rifkin's recordings of Scott Joplin, made between 1970 and 1974 (reissued on Nonesuch 79449), effectively launched the revival of the composer's popularity. Twenty years later, the recordings still have strong advocates: Gramophone, in November of 1997, said, "for the real thing, on the piano, there is no substitute for Rifkin, who provides the authentic Joplin experience." In Rifkin's latest contribution in this genre, a collection of rags by Joplin contemporaries and tangos by Ernesto Nazareth (Rags and Tangos, Decca 425 225), Malcolm Macdonald finds deep insights that are "aided and abetted by [Rifkin's] exceedingly resourceful piano-playing."[18]

For Further Reading

Richard Taruskin's writings on authenticity and historical performance, referred to so often in this book, are collected and updated in Text and Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Another significant collection features various authors: Authenticity and Early Music, ed. Nicholas Kenyon (Oxford University Press, 1988). Peter Kivy's Authenticities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) is an important philosophical discussion of the topic. Click here for my essay in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1998) on "Authenticity in Musical Performance." [Update, 2003: John Butt's Playing with History (Cambridge, 2002) takes the debate on historical performance to a new level of insight.]

A particularly insightful discussion of the application of rhetoric to Bach is in Laurence Dreyfus's Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). The book is, for many reasons, among the most important and illuminating books yet written on Bach's music. [Click here for my review of it.]

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1. A good discussion of this topic can be found in Donald Mintz's "Mendelssohn as Performer and Teacher," in The Mendelssohn Companion, ed. Douglas Seaton (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, forthcoming). Mintz gives references to the most important German discussions of this issue, especially that of Hermann Danuser, in his Musikalische Interpretation (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 1992), Section 1. It appears that musical "interpretation" in the modern sense began to be discussed only as recently as the 1840s.

It could be argued that the second half of the eighteenth century saw the publication of numerous books on musical performance, and that these sometimes indicate something that sounds a lot like "interpretation." These books, and the music of such treatise writers as C. P. E. Bach, may well represent the first sproutings of the concept of interpretation. But it's likely that concept postdates J. S. Bach, at any rate—which does not mean we should avoid interpretation when we play his music.[back to text]

2. Nos. 96, 97, and 99, with the Capella Coloniensis.[back to text]

3. Fuller, "The Performer as Composer," in Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. H. M. Brown and S. Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1989, and New York: Norton, 1990), pp. 138 - 39.[back to text]

4. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech (tr. Mary O'Neill; Portland, Oregon: Amadeus, 1988), p. 119.
An influential source on the relationship of music to rhetoric is the article "Rhetoric and Music," by George J. Buelow, in The New Grove Dictionary. A skeptical voice is that of Peter Williams—see, for example, his discussion in The Organ Music of J. S. Bach, vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 69 - 72, and his essay "The Snares and Delusions of Musical Rhetoric," in Alte Musik/Praxis und Reflexion, ed. Peter Reidmeister and Veronika Gutman (Winterthur: Amadeus, 1983), pp. 230 - 40. [back to text]

5. Mattheson, Der volkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1736; facsimile, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1954); English translation, Johann Mattheson's "Der volkommene Capellmeister:" A Revised Translation with Critical Commentary, trans. Ernest C. Harriss (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), p. 425.[back to text]

6. Harnoncourt, Baroque Music Today: the original title is Musik als Klangrede.
Many do believe that music changes, around this time, from a mimetic ideal (art as a mirror up to nature or to emotion) to an expressive one (art as expressing one's unique inner feelings). This differs from but is not unrelated to the change Harnoncourt argues for. [back to text]

7. In his second (1739) defense of Bach against the attacks of Scheibe (discussed in John Butt's interview, Chapter 9), Bach's friend J. A. Birnbaum, a Leipzig rhetoric teacher, writes: "[Bach] understands so thoroughly the parts and benefits which the composing of a piece of music has in common with oratory that not only does one listen to him with a satisfying pleasure whenever he directs his profound conversation to the similarity and conformity between the two, but one also admires the clever application of the same in music." Translation taken from Peter Williams, The Organ Music of J. S. Bach, vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 91.[back to text]

8. Kirkendale, "The Source for Bach's Musical Offering: The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian," Journal of the American Musicological Society, 33 (1980), pp. 8 - 141, argues that Bach structured the work to follow the parts of an oration as set out by Quintilian. Christoph Wolff and Peter Williams deny her claim; see Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 421 - 22, Williams, "Encounters with the Chromatic Fourth," Musical Times 126 (1985), pp. 276ff, and Williams, "Snares and Delusions," pp. 235 - 38.[back to text]

9. See Butt, Musical Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 46 - 51. See also his interview in Chapter 9 of this book.[back to text]

10. "When it is considered that Bernhard and Walther viewed the added figures as the elaboration of a fundamental prima prattica structure—in other words there is a hierarchy of diminution within the music—and further that such a style resembled a rhetoric, it is not unreasonable to infer that figuration in performance would have been given some form of delineation" (Butt, Bach Interpretation [Cambridge University Press, 1990], p. 19).[back to text]

11. David Schulenberg, "Musical Expression and Musical Rhetoric in the Keyboard Works of J. S. Bach," in Johann Sebastian Bach: A Tercentenary Celebration, ed. Seymour Benstock (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 95 - 109, sees Bach's style changing in this regard. He says that Bach's early cantatas, written in the language of Buxtehude, illustrate important words musically, declaiming them in a rhetorical way; Schulenberg also finds elements of this approach in Bach's early instrumental music. In later Bach, though, he says that formal architecture becomes more important than such rhetoric, and the response to text is less detailed.
Another consideration, as far as historical foundations go, may be nationality. Butt suggests in Chapter 15 of this book that German singers articulated the figures more than did Italians.[back to text]

12. Barth, The Pianist as Orator (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).[back to text]

13 Towe, "J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor," in Choral Music on Record, ed. Alan Blyth (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 57 - 58.[back to text]

14 Kenyon, "Bach's Choral Works: A Discographic Survey," Part 1, Opus (December 1985), pp. 14 - 17; quote p. 16.[back to text]

15 Williams, recording review, Early Music 12 (February 1984), p. 139.[back to text]

16 Sadie, Gramophone 60 (March 1983) [back to text]

17 Butt, recording review, Early Music 15 (November 1987), pp. 575 and 577.[back to text]

18 Macdonald, Gramophone 69 (April, 1992), p. 120 [back to text]