2/05/2015 Peter Durantine

NEH Recipient Explores The Culture of Serious Music Performance

The tradition of the self-effacing musician performing a composer's work without showmanship has been a source of debate that dates to the 19th century.

Bernard Holland, chief music critic for the New York Times in 2008, once took to task young classical pianists for "lugubrious gymnastics" -- exaggerated expressions that "advertise the feelings of performers, not of Beethoven. Responsible teachers ought to be [weeding] these kinds of histrionics out of their students."

Franklin & Marshall Assistant Professor of Music Karen Leistra-Jones has been researching the subject for her book project, "Curating the Musical Museum: The Brahms Circle and Modern Performance."

"Before the 1800s, the performer was supposed to add a lot to what the composer wrote," said Leistra-Jones, a musicologist and pianist. "In the 19th century, that was fading; there was a new idea that the performer had to faithfully perform only what was in the score."  

  • "Music as a secular art-religion has been well documented, but I want to show how the Brahms circle redefined performance in terms of contemporary religious concepts," Leistra-Jones said. "Music as a secular art-religion has been well documented, but I want to show how the Brahms circle redefined performance in terms of contemporary religious concepts," Leistra-Jones said. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

With the aid of a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leistra-Jones will travel to Germany and Austria this summer to compile research on a small group of performers that largely influenced the establishment of this self-effacing tradition, known as Werktreue, a German phrase that roughly translates to "true to the work."

That group included violinist Joseph Joachim, pianist Clara Schumann and composer Johannes Brahms. They favored self-restraint, seriousness, and strict adherence to the composer's work, Leistra-Jones said.

"Music became a secular religion in a way," she said.

In her research, Leistra-Jones cites Adolf Weissmann, a newspaper music critic in early 20th century Berlin. In describing Joachim's violin performances, he wrote, "A temple of art has risen, and in flowed the bright crowds of believers, in order to hear the new teachings from the mouth of a priest."

With her NEH summer stipend, Leistra-Jones will conduct research for the third chapter of her book, examining the metaphor of the performer as "priest," which she said was often applied to members of the Brahms circle.

"The priest's role is to interpret the music and spirit of the composer for the audience, or 'congregation,'" Leistra-Jones said. "Music as a secular art-religion has been well documented, but I want to show how the Brahms circle redefined performance in terms of contemporary religious concepts."

Leistra-Jones will delve into the extensive newspaper collections and archival materials related to Schumann and Joachim at Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Germany's largest scholarly library. The library is in Berlin, where Joachim lived and worked.

In Vienna, where Brahms spent most of his career and died, the musicologist will mine newspapers, music journals, personal accounts, and institutional records documenting concert life in the city. This archival material is housed at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, a concert-giving organization founded in the 19th century, and the Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek, one of the city's largest libraries.

Leistra-Jones said she looks forward to her book contributing to the current discussion among performers, critics and scholars about the Werktreue tradition.

"This is a discussion of the cultural stakes and consequences of practices and ideas that, until recently, had been accepted unquestioningly" she said. 

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