“Extravagance” in Performance and Analysis

by Nathan Pell (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

The starting point for my post is a lyric from the theme song from the ‘70s sitcom Happy Days, which I’m sure was formative for many of us:  “it feels so right, it can’t be wrong.”  I’d like to apply this to matters of performance and analysis, in a way I hope The Fonz would approve of.

As performers, we spend much of our time trying to do things cleanly.  So we practice tricky passages to get the notes fluent and even, and we strive constantly towards good phrasing, intonation, ensemble, diction, etc.  These things are generally construed as “right,” their opposites “wrong.”  Performances that adhere more or less to these standards are generally considered ideal.  Those that epitomize them are virtuosic, especially if carried off with ease.

But I’d like to focus on performances that, by such standards, are generally deemed wrong:  the ham-fisted, out-of-tune, misplaced, and erratic (either accidental or intentional).  Funnily enough, these bloopers are frequently my favorite part of a performance, and I will sometimes miss the messy version when I hear a “clean” rendition of the same passage.  At the heart of my “desert island” collection of recordings are many that feature faux pas in some way or another.

In other words, a performance can have moments that are “so wrong, they’re right.”  I consider this a sort of extravagance.  Of course it’s not how the passage “should go”; but the mistakes humanize the performance, and there’s a certain brilliance to the unorthodoxy that I savor.  I would not be surprised if many of us have our own personal lists of similarly cherished, extravagant moments.  I’ll share some of mine, and will then relate these comments to analysis.

The great pianist Edwin Fischer was famous for his wrong notes.  His landmark recording with Wilhelm Furtwängler of the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto is littered with them.  They handle the transition from the Adagio to the Rondo with particularly exquisite subtlety.  Less subtle, however, is the beginning of the Allegro, where Fischer’s left hand misses the mark a couple of times.  I do not for a second wish that he played the right notes:  the mistake (along with some heavy pedaling!) accords perfectly with the finale’s romping, jubilant character.

Furtwängler has long been my favorite conductor, despite his immensely complicated status as a political figure.  His performances revel in spontaneity of all sorts, including some jarring mistakes.  But I consider many of these endearing:  for example, the fourth horn’s woeful intonation in the Ninth Symphony’s notorious solo.  I find the effect rather nice, actually.  The reduced forces here remind me of the village wind band in the Scherzo of the Sixth Symphony:  inept, but very earnest.  There is something touching about the halting performance, especially in context of the pious simplicity of this movement.

Speaking of the Sixth Symphony, there is a wrong note in Furtwängler’s recording with the Vienna Philiharmonic:  in the finale, a first violinist loudly plays an E♭ where F is written.  I have always enjoyed this mistake because I like to imagine that the player is hearing the E♭ as leading towards the subdominant (of course, not what Beethoven wrote!).

Outright mistakes are not the only way a performance can be “so wrong, it’s right.”  Indeed, performance allows all sorts of heterodoxies.  My favorite performers are often those who are not afraid to do something extravagant and “wrong” in the service of the music.  The effect is usually not subtle, for this kind of transgression results from the performers intentionally flouting performance traditions.

In a performance of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore scene from the 1960 Aix-en-Provence Festival, Rolando Panerai sings Leporello’s triplets late, surely on purpose.  The contrast between the resolute Don and Commendatore on the one hand and the hysterical Leporello on the other is immensely effective, and, having heard these late triplets, I cannot be completely satisfied with any on-time rendition.  Later in the scene, Leporello begs Don Giovanni to heed the Commendatore’s calls of repentance.  The Don refuses and is soon engulfed in flames for his sins—making Leporello’s “sì, sì” the very last interaction between servant and master.  Panerai’s performance hardly resembles what Mozart wrote, but remains tremendously evocative.

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one recording that makes sense out of the finale of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony:  Furtwängler’s with the Berlin Philharmonic.  The moment I like best is an unconventional, gleefully irreverent trombone slide in a fortissimo passage (it exists in no score).  To me, it is completely in character:  “so wrong, it’s right.”

The famous Boccherini Minuet is certainly a light piece, and as such admits a great many liberties in performance.  (It is fascinating to consider the question of what makes an extravagant performance “work” in one case but not in another—this would require far more space than this post allows me.  Suffice it to say that it must be very subjective, but that there are probably some moments that call for extravagance more than others.)  Enter the idiosyncratic Russian cellist Daniil Shafran, known for his wide and fast vibrato (which my cello teacher once mimed by pretending to stick his finger into an electric wall socket).  The vibrato is on full display in his performance of the Boccherini, but it’s hardly the most bizarre thing going on here!  Of particular note are Shafran’s pecking bow articulations and very distinctive rubato (especially in pesante passages), for which his harpsichordist appears ill-prepared.  Now consider the performance by nineteenth-century piano virtuoso Francis Planté, widely considered one of the finest players of his day, who was captured on record at the age of 89.  His début, 80 years earlier, had been attended by Chopin.  It is astounding, therefore, to hear his recording and to think:  yes, people really did play like this!  The left-hand accompaniment is quite loud, and the melody whirs along until the grinding halt of each cadence, whose “plunk, plunk, plunks” sound comical to modern ears.  But a more “correct,” more virtuous performance sounds so dry in comparison!—even if it is not lacking in character, and its execution is blameless by any of the usual musical criteria.

*            *            *

All those who practice the art of analysis are well aware of its greatest danger:  over-analyzing.  We live in constant fear of explaining the special-ness out of music, of making it conform too snugly to a theory.  In reality, we know that music is always messy, irreducible, and illogical; but we must make sense out of it, reduce it, make it look cleaner.  In this way, the impulse towards “cleanliness” and “right execution” is as strong in analysis as it is in performance.

But analysts can counter this impulse in the same ways as performers.  Sometimes the best way of serving a piece is to produce a “wrong” analysis, one where the extravagant idiosyncrasies of the music outweigh any obligations towards the decorum of good praxis.

What does an “extravagant analysis” look like?  A famous example is Schenker’s graph of the C major Prelude from WTC I.  Despite its canonic status, it is not a “clean” graph.  In fact, it contains a sizeable contradiction!


Note how D4 is transferred up one octave to D5 (in red), creating a prolongational span.  The saw-toothed beam that connects E4 to C5 (blue) indicates another prolongational span.  But these two spans clash, representing two different harmonies!  The contradiction is irreconcilable, and any introductory analysis student would be marked off for it:  even more shocking when one considers that the Urlinie-Tafeln were designed to be teaching resources!  His objectively “wrong” analysis is nevertheless of true value, though, because it captures something important about the work that a “correct” reading would surely miss.

Direct contradictions are only one sort of way analysis can be “wrong.”  Just as performance does, analysis admits a veritable menagerie of extravagant possibilities.  One can see a sort of extravagance in James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s view of Mozart’s G minor String Quintet, K. 516:  the second theme begins in the tonic (!) after an extremely unusual type of “medial caesura” (“I:PAC MC”).  Rather than forcing the piece into their theory, they chose instead to accommodate its remarkable divergences.  This might make for difficult theory, but yields a sensitive analysis.  Extravagance can take the form of an adventurous analysis; in Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata, William Caplin locates the final cadence of the exposition at a point where “a literal tonic bass is not present.”  This is not a shy decision, but it is clearly made with a deep concern for expressing the work’s idiosyncrasies.  There is a stylistic “wrong-ness” in set-class analyses of ostensibly “tonal” music:  David Lewin analyzes WTC I’s F♯ minor Fugue as centered around the set class (013), and Milton Babbitt prefers to describe the “Tristan chord” as (0268).  Their extravagant analytic approach allows them to reveal latent musical relationships.

No matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the above decisions, I hope the expressive power of their extravagance is readily apparent.

As many of us attend SMT, a conference largely devoted to analysis, let’s remember the power of extravagance in music, and the dangers of over-correctness.  Our discipline places so much emphasis on the perfectly tidy theory, the airtight argument, the flawlessly consistent analysis—and rightly so!  But even as we cultivate these virtues, let’s not forget to keep a place for the slightly off-kilter, the imperfect and “wrong,” the undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s—in brief, the wonderful messiness of art.


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