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Research Seminar: ‘Every man sings for himself’: What we can learn from/about the principles and practices of nineteenth-century orchestral string sections

Wednesday 13 January 2021, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Claire Holden (University of Oxford)

Much of the scholarship available on 19th-century historical performance focuses on virtuosi, conductors and composers; consequently, the historical performing characteristics of large ensembles have been largely neglected. This paper considers several related questions: How and why did 19th-century string sections sound different to those of modern and 'period-instrument' orchestras today? What can we know of the artistic priorities and decision-making processes of 19th-century orchestral string players? What are the challenges for 21st-century performers as they experiment with 19th-century approaches to individual agency within string sections? How do such approaches affect timbre, timing, technique and expression?

One particular challenge of 19th-century orchestral performance practice is expressive asynchrony – the deliberate misaligning of instrumental lines to communicate urgency, passion, melodic freedom, or to create a distinctive sound. Ensemble precision and 'togetherness' became primary aspirations only in the mid-20th century. I argue that differing artistic priorities meant that 19th-century musicians would have regarded performances with exact alignment in ensemble, mathematically accurate realization of rhythmic notation, and non-fluctuating tempi as strangely inexpressive. The sound of both modern symphony orchestras and period-instrument orchestras performing 19th-century repertoire bears little resemblance to that evidenced in early recordings and seems at odds with 19th-century written accounts. I argue this is partly because historical approaches towards (a)synchrony, expressive timing and individual agency are no longer understood or employed. 

My research team and I devised an experimental research project to investigate how common characteristics of timing, expression and timbre in 19th-century ensembles might be realized by instrumentalists today, with the aim of contributing to innovative and engaging performances of 19th-century repertoire. I directed an ensemble of 22 professional string players who have specialist knowledge of, and interest in 19th-century historical style, as we rehearsed, performed and recorded late 19th-century serenades by Robert Fuchs and Tchaikovsky specifically to explore and collect empirical data on the effect of expressive asynchrony on string-section sound. This paper documents the journey from historical research to practical preparation, public performance, and finally the creation of a studio recording, as we questioned whether 'together' is always the most historically apposite or artistically interesting expressive option for orchestral musicians.

Location: Meeting ID: 915 8006 2656 Passcode: 840125