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Music Education
Resources by Paula Downes, a lot of music by Andrew Downes

Analysis and Performance: A Survey of the Literature (2001)

Following this article, read CASE STUDY Andrew Downes' Old Love's Domain: Analysis and Performance through Film (a song cycle setting poems by Thomas Hardy) and watch the resulting  films.

A widespread opinion amongst music analysts is that the score of a musical work contains all the material necessary for a single "true performance",[1] a performance that should be determined solely though analysis. 

Wallace Berry's aim in Musical Structure and Performance is to investigate how "a structural relation exposed in analysis can be illuminated in the inflections of performance"[2], and he writes about "the path from analysis to performance".[3] Heinrich Schenker believed that the performance was already implicit within the score and that nothing should be added from without. Eugene Namour, in his article, 'On the Relationship of Analytical Theory to Performance and Interpretation', wrote, "if formal relations are not properly analysed by the performer, as well as carefully delineated in performances itself, then many negative consequences follow".[4] He concluded: "performers can never plumb the aesthetic depth of a great work without intense scrutiny of its parametric elements".[5] In his article, 'Product or Process',[6] Nicholas Cook informs us that following the publication of Berry's Musical Structure and Performance in 1989, theorists pursued the concept of analytically informed performance, which placed the analyst above the performer. The study of musical texts came to be modelled on the study of literary ones: "We are led to think of music as a cultural practice centred on the silent contemplation of the written text, with performance (like public poetry reading) acting as a kind of supplement".[7]

A very striking feature of the work of theorists such as Schenker, Namour and Berry, is that all of them have a set idea of how each piece that they analyse should sound. Charles Rosen admits that, "it is much more convenient to assume that there is only one ideal sound for each work of music [...] and the goal of the responsible performer should be to renounce the delight of the imagination and realise this musical sound as closely as possible'.[8] Theorists who believe in the 'ideal interpretation' of a work see performers as dangerous, as possible destroyers of this ideal. Richard Taruskin, in Text and Act, Essays on Music and Performance, argues that their theories imply "hostility, contempt, or at least mistrust of performers".[9] The fact that no two performances can be the same is not taken into account, even though audiences who know works well will often go to a concert in order to hear the interpretation of a piece rather than the piece itself. This is the same for the CD market: "what you sell isn't so much Beethoven's Second Symphony, but rather the difference between Harnoncourt's and John Eliot Gardiner's interpretations".(Cook)[10] Even two performances of the same piece by the same person are likely to be different. Taruskin points out the impossibility of "let[ting] the music speak for itself'[11] and of "realis[ing] the composer's intentions",[12] if one simply studies a score, because of features not specified such as dynamics, timbre, and timing - features which must be decided by the performer. As Cook writes, "no one performance exhausts all the possibilities of a musical work within the WAM [Western Art Music] tradition, and to this extent the performance might be thought of as a subset of a larger universe of possibility".[13]

Each performer will make his or her decisions according to individual likes and dislikes, in the light of other decisions made earlier on in the piece, or in the knowledge of something which will happen later on in the piece. Some of these decisions may have been made before the performance, others may actually occur as the performance takes place. Furthermore, one's first performance is a kind of experiment, whereby the performer is trying out all the decisions he or she has made beforehand, and also the ones he or she makes during it. In the second performance the performer will generally retain the aspects that went well and experiment further with the aspects that did not. Nervousness should also be taken into account: adrenaline may cause a performer to take a section much faster than in rehearsal. In these ways, a piece of music, which looks very definite on paper, will have infinite possibilities on stage.

The controversial views of Schenker, Berry and Narmour have been met with much opposition. The following writers, namely Tim Howell and William Rothstein, aim to find solutions.

Tim Howell disputes the idea that "There is an irreconcilable difference between the analyst's rationalistic view of how music functions and the performer's instinctive approach".[14] In his article on analysis and performance, he attempts to find the "middleground" between analysis and performance. "In the early stages of the work, many analysts are much more instinctive in their approach than they are usually prepared to admit, whilst correspondingly, the critical stages in a performer's preparation will involve an essentially rational process".[15] Howell describes two "chain reactions" in which a performer begins rationally and ends with a seemingly spontaneous result, whereas an analyst begins intuitively and gradually rationalises. He goes on to say that from this apparent conflict between the rational and the instinctive comes a highly creative force and that performers should exploit this to play off intuitive responses against analytical perceptions in order to shape an interpretation. Howell also argues in favour of a very careful balance between intuition and analysis because instinct is the "product of experience". "In the absence of individual analytical enquiry into the working of a given piece of music, over-reliance on instinct will result in an interpretation that is merely reflective of someone else".[16] This is backed up by Jonathan Dunsby, who explains that images and words that teachers use to help their pupils to animate a particular passage may "remain for life, impossible to eradicate mentally".[17] Musicologist Hermann Kretzschmar, writing in 1903, also highlights the importance of balance: "it is only enthusiastic amateurs who are content to make their enigmatic character the distinguishing feature of musical impressions".[18]

William Rothstein, in 'Analysis and the Act of Performance', brings analysis and performance together by making an analogy with a play. He says that acting in a play is not the same thing as analysing the plot and the characters, but in order to act well and to do the play justice, it is necessary to understand the plot and the character. "The performer's aim in undertaking an analysis is not only to understand the work for its own sake - performance is not so disinterested an activity as that - but to discover, or create a musical narrative".[19] Rothstein continues, "Analysis - which, by definition involves the resolution of an object into its parts - is not the solution but the very source of the problem".[20] Pianists who highlight entries of the subject in a fugue by Bach when Bach has attempted to conceal them, for example, probably have not thought beyond the basic analysis, and therefore do not give enough thought to the composer's intentions.[21] In his review of Wallace Berry's book in Music Analysis, John Rink complains, "Attempting to recast the findings of analysis into a performance mould seems to me not unlike translating a book into another language word-for-word, without regard to the second language's particular idioms, inflections, grammar and syntax".[22] So a performer can use analysis to chart the terrain, but rather than 'translating' this information into a performance, the next step would be to decide how to move within the terrain. If a performer disregards analysis completely, he/she is in danger of spending a great deal of time in the practice room achieving nothing more than fluency. Tim Howell describes practice as a "science" and says that "time away from the instrument, focussing on the music, can be very valuable".[23] As Jonathan Dunsby writes, "The skilled musician will know that most musical scores contain an immense amount of information that takes time and introspection to master, and this is partly what practice and rehearsal are about".[24] Constant thought about a piece will ensure a clear idea of the direction of a piece, how the piece goes. If a performer appears to be lost whilst on stage, the listener will be lost as well. In order to become familiar with the direction, some performers may analyse the structure in the same way as analysts such as Berry and Schenker would. Others may devise their own method. The performer will then perhaps take a closer look at the detail of the piece in order to make decisions regarding features not specified by the composer. Even when on stage, the analytical thought process will still be continuing. Performances, however, which are too calculated with no sense of surprise, risk being boring for the listener. If a performer lives in the music as it happens, becomes a character in the story, the listener will be part of the experience.

Both Howell and Rothstein have offered methods of preparation for the performer. The following article uses their ideas as a starting point: CASE STUDY Andrew Downes' Old Love's Domain: Analysis and Performance through FilmAfter reading the analyses of the poetry and music, you are invited to watch film realisations of the songs and you can decide how successful the relationship between Analysis and Performance has been in this instance.

CASE STUDY Andrew Downes' Old Love's Domain: Analysis and Performance through Film

Analysis and performance through Film: Song No.1, 'The Division'

Analysis and Performance though Film: Song No. 2, 'Something Tapped'

Analysis and Performance though Film: Song No. 3, 'Where the Picnic Was'

Analysis and Performance though Film: Song No.4, 'At Castle Boterel'

Analysis and Performance though Film: Song No.5, 'The Curtains Now Are Drawn'


[1] Shenker, Heinrich, cited in Rothstein, William, 'Analysis and the Act of Performance' in Rink, John (ed.) The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 217.

[2] Berry, Wallace, Musical Structure and Performance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), x.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Narmour, Eugene and Solie, Ruth, Explorations in Music, the Arts and Ideas: Essays in Honor of Leonard B. Meyer (Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1988), 319.

[5] Ibid., 340.

[6] Cook, Nicholas, 'Product or Process?  Music and Performance', Music Theory Online 7 (2001); see [accessed 9 February 2014]

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cited in Bowen, Jose A, 'The History of Remembered Innovation: Tradition and its role in the relationship between Musical Works and their Performances', Journal of Musicology 11 (1993), 166-7.

[9] Taruskin, Richard, Text and Act (Oxford University Press, 1995), 52.

[10] Cook, 'Product or Process?'

[11] Taruskin, Text and Act, 52.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Cook, 'Product or Process?'

[14] Howell, Tim, 'Analysis and Performance: The Search for a Middleground', in John Paynter (ed.), Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought (London: Routledge, 1992), 698.

[15] Ibid., 698.

[16] Ibid., 700.

[17] Dunsby, Jonathan, Performing Music: Shared Concerns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 34.

[18] Cited in Dunsby, Jonathan, p.93

[19] Rothstein, 'Analysis and the Act of Performance', 237.

[20] Ibid., 218.

[21] Ibid., 237.

[22] Rink, John, 'Wallace Berry: Musical Structure and Performance', Music Analysis 9 (1990), 320.

[23] Howell, 'Analysis and Performance', 699.

[24] Dunsby, Performing Music, 92.

Music Education
Resources by Paula Downes, a lot of music by Andrew Downes

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