artistic-creative research and beethoven trills

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

After a recent musicological seminar, a co-listener took me aside and said,

“There should be a sign at the beginning of some of these lectures, like on those bags of sweets that may contain traces of nuts: ‘may contain sociology’.”

I have neither problems with nuts, nor sociology. But I have, indeed, come across a few  too many perfunctory footnotes in music studies, especially about cultural capital and the likes, so I think I understood what he meant. Something to be allergic for, in music or otherwise, is the buzzword.

Look at artistic-creative research, for example. Hearing that I had participated in the artistic-creative research program at Gothenburg University, someone once asked me about the methodologies we had applied in that program. It was uncannily difficult to answer that question. This is in part to be explained by the fact that everyone in artistic-creative research does a little what pleases them best, and in part it is a consequence of the discipline being relatively new.  In part, however, it is a consequence of nobody really knowing what artistic-creative research is about, while it is so nice to say the words anyway. Artistic. Creative. Research. Sounds like funding right there.

By keeping to performance practice and keyboard studies, I might have avoided some of the murkier parts of this business, so perhaps my take on it will seem humble to some of my fellow buzzers. Artistic-creative research is simply a tool to force myself to confront the problem of my own investment in my topic, my musical preferences that belligerently enter my theoretical ivory tower; nagging ideas how “it” ideally should be or sound, although the sources tell me otherwise. As soon as one uses one’s own performance experience as a research asset, one simply cannot ignore that problem; one must deal with it head-on.

Many have dabbled in this type of research without really knowing it. It is here that we encounter the nicest examples of oblivious circular reasoning; the mentioned confrontation with the personal artistic identity has never really taken place. Good examples can, for example, be found in Beethoven trill research, a topic that has been especially dear to me. The literature abounds in theoretical explanations and score studies of any length and depth. In spite of all that work, the proclaimed “correct” solutions for Beethoven’s trills, especially his oft-debated problem trills, are all over the map. Why? Because each writer cannot let go of what sounds best – to him (occasionally: her).

One example from a controversy between William Newman and Robert Winter will serve to illustrate this observation: William Newman gives the right hand trill of the piano part from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op. 30/3/ii, bar 3 as an example for a trill that should start on the main note (Newman, William S. “The Performance of Beethoven’s Trills.” Journal of the American Musicological Society XXIX, no. 3 (1976), 452-3, example 4b):

Earlier in his article, Newman discussed the supposed relevance of main-note trills in Beethoven, based on J.N. Hummel’s piano school and on the increasing occurrence of upper-note-exception rules in the piano tutors of the time. According to Newman, this trill is approached from below and hence must begin with the main note, after a rule given by Czerny.

In his reply to Newman’s article, Robert Winter explains his own trill start theory, based on the principle of downbeat dissonance (Winter, Robert. “Second Thoughts on the Performance of Beethoven’s Trills.” Musical Quarterly 63/4 (1977): 483–504). Winter illustrates this with a selection of music examples. The observant reader concludes that, according to his theory, the example above (not named in Winter’s text) should be played with an upper-note trill.

Newman now replies to Winter. He questions the downbeat-dissonance theory, asks whether Winter’s examples are “representative,” and refers to his own original examples (including the one above), which in his words constitute “five representative instances of confirmed consonant starts” (Newman, William S. “Second and one-half thoughts on the performance of Beethoven’s trills.” Musical Quarterly 64/1 (1978), 90). A main note trill in this example naturally provides a consonance, and, according to Newman, thus serves to disprove Winter’s theory. The problem lies, of course, in the word “confirmed,” since Winter just tried to establish a system that would overrule the application of Czerny’s rules in this particular case, or at all.

In his reply (Winter, Robert. “And Even more Thoughts on the Beethoven Trill….” Musical Quarterly 65/1 (1979), 113), Winter notes Newman’s problematic use of the word “confirmed”, but fails to provide new relevant information from outside the system of his argument to further support his view. Instead, the date of op. 30 (1802), and the affinity of the sonata with the “post-Classical language … in which the concept of strong beat dissonance is still useful” (ibid., 112) are now invoked as support.

Basically, thus, after reducing these arguments to truly “confirmed” information, Winter explains the need of a dissonant start by the need of a dissonant start, whereas Newman defends main note starts, because the trill starts with the main note.

We see here two eminent scholars, lost in their systems, who do not seem to realize that they ultimately defend what, simply, seems best to them. “Best” on the basis of what? Surely not Czerny (who is dead, was no scholar, and was for many reasons a doubtful advocate for Beethoven performance practice), or the ghost of Mr. Downbeat Dissonance (who, according to my knowledge, never truly lived). No, “best” according to their upbringing and musical taste.

As an artistic-creative researcher, the first thing I had to do, was to analyze and question the premises that made me believe (at the time), that Beethoven’s trills always begin with the upper note (the question “what else” took me an entire book chapter to answer; I will not try that here). So here is my simple methodology: artistic-creative research in music is a tactic of self-confrontation, that happens at the line that divides analysis and performance practice. It serves to heighten the awareness of the workings of one’s musical background, taste, or rather, musical stubbornness. The confrontation well endured alleviates the consequences of the researcher’s inevitable bias, as it makes it visible, wieldable (my dictionary says that there is such a term), and sometimes even defensible.

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One Response to “artistic-creative research and beethoven trills”

  1. Ibo Ortgies Says:

    Many points, well-deserved to be pondered about by artistical researchers-.

    The great motto
    “Artistic. Creative. Research. Sounds like funding right there.”
    would be an extended version of “Cui bono?” or also “Money talks”

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