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Music & Letters, Vol. 85 No.

4, November 2004, 602613


By Rachel Beckles Willson
This is for Kimas, at three score and ten, without apology
And so for all our high flown talk about art for art's sake, we all of us are guilty of
assuming an approach which tends to a very large degree to be art-for-what-itssociety-was-once-like sake.
Glenn Gould

I n a r e c e n t a r t i c l e , Leon Botstein reviewed attitudes to Artur Schnabel,

drawing attention to the way his ideals strove to counter what he felt to be romantic
excesses, but how his acolytes subsequently created an orthodoxy of puritanism and
(spurious) fidelity to a text.1 The critique is cogent, although the notion that `the
compositional intent and content of a great piece [is] permanently out of the reach of
any performer' is by no means an unusual belief but rather a popular ideal, with roots
in Idealist aesthetics.2 For at least a century, performers with apparently diverse styles
of performance and repertory have claimed to be concerned with the piece, the whole
piece, and nothing but the piece; and they have more often than not scorned `others'
for their appropriation of music as a vehicle for performative projection.3 And while it
is questionable whether the `faithful' category does not include some kind of
narcissism, and an exhibitionist may actually come closer to a work's original ethos
than any attempt at an `objective' realization of the printed text, nonetheless the
aspiration to an intractable `truth' is prevalent. Yet if, as argued persuasively in recent
research on performance, `faithfulness' is not to be found in a quantifiable relationship
between text and sound but rather only in narratives told by performers, critics, and
historians, the region between printed text and sound must be a mesh of overt and
covert agendas.4
His article is a response to an exhibition catalogue, Artur Schnabel: MusikerMusician 18821951, ed. Heibert
Henrich and Daniela Reinhold (Hofheim, 2001). See Leon Botstein, `Artur Schnabel and the Ideology of Interpretation', Musical Quarterly, 85 (2001), 58794. The epigraph at the head of my article comes from Glenn Gould, `Forgery
and Imitation in the Creative Process', GlennGould, 2/1 (Spring 1996), 49, dated approximately by editors as `early
1960s'. Also published as `Contrefacon, imitation et processus createur', in Contrepoint a la ligen: Ecrits, ii, ed. Bruno
Monsaignon (Paris, 1985), 287300.
Attributed in Botstein's article to the ideals imputed by Schnabel's pupils, and emblematized by Claude Frank's
introduction to the catalogue (see n. 1) entitled `Great Music Is Always Better than It Can Be Played'. See Botstein,
ibid. 5912.
The performative dimension of music has long caused embarrassment, the `virtue' of virtuosity oft forgotten. Even
pianists renowned for the technical demands of their own compositions and for their own phenomenal acrobatic skill
have taken care to express their commitment to musical `essence'. See the remarks by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and
Samuel Feinberg in `The Liability of Virtuosity', in The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and The Eight (Portland, Ore., 2002),
20720. Some of the complexities of the concept of `virtuosity' are explored in Jim Samson, Virtuosity and the Musical
Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt (Cambridge, 2003).
`Truth' is generally felt to be located either in history (instruments, ornamentation, etc.) or in iconic performances,
of which Schnabel's Beethoven is a good example. Arguments regarding a performance's quality are generally
underpinned by these two types, whether or not acknowledged as such. For recent work on the ideologies of

Music & Letters, Vol. 85.4. # Oxford University Press 2004; all rights reserved

Perhaps that is too harsh. Nevertheless, even if a performer genuinely (innocently?)

conceives performance practice as a simple space between text and sound, even if he
or she consults historical sources for heuristic purposes and maintains a responsible
attitude to a composer's ideals, interpretation cannot take place through a clean,
isolated beam of light on the text. As Botstein makes clear, for instance, Schnabel's
stance is part of a general swing away from ornamental elaboration that finds a parallel
in Biedermeier architecture. But one can push the enquiry much further into the
social domain. Drawing on Alfred Schutz's phenomenology, Nicholas Cook has
recently proposed that performance is actually an enacting of `social relationships' in
response to a `script'.5 Read as such, the score (the main evidence of the script) is not a
set of instructions but rather a field of possibilities. It will be read by each interpreter
in the context of a particular cultural setting. In this way interpretative practice
embodies a society's beliefs, and must be open to anthropological observation and
analysis as such.
To take two simple examples, the singer Jane Davidson, in an essay attempting to
define the solo performer, is in agreement with the Oxford Dictionary's description of
` ``an exhibitionist'' engaged in ``carrying out notable feats'' for the ``thrill of
adulation'' and a sense of personal achievement'.6 Her account emphasizes the
experience of `peak emotions' and the `personality', also considering the visual
dimension of that personality's communication with the audience.
A contrasting example demonstrates how the concept `performance' may be
invested with a more transparently political slant. In a meeting of the Concert and
Drama Department of the Hungarian Communist Party in 1950, the leading pianist
and piano pedagogue Istvan Antal claimed that `Performance has nothing to do with
showing off, conjuring tricks, and swaggering gestures; we do not appeal to the baser
instincts, but seek humanity . . . Art is not a territory outside society . . . the podium is
the meeting point between artist and the masses.'7
There are vast differences between the two: Davidson writes as a singer, Antal as a
pianist; Davidson supports an individualist approach, Antal a socially committed one.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference, though, is their relation to context and to
tradition. They each speak to a certain group, within an invisible but agreed mode of
thought, one sustained by an ongoing argument.8 This is their tradition. The one in
which Davidson operates is constructed around `the performer' and the audience's
response to that performer: her emphasis is on the `identity' of the individual, the
individual's entertainment and gratification. Antal's trajectory sought an ethical role
for the performer and placed firm emphasis on society: of central concern was the
function that performers may usefully have in it. They serve, then, to illustrate my
point. As Botstein observes, performers are ideological; but their constructions are in
fact embedded in the practical circumstances and discursive patterns of their locality.
These two represent extreme positions that all but caricature Cold War rhetorical
performance practice see John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge,
2002) and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance (Cambridge,
Nicholas Cook, `Music as Performance', in Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (eds.), The
Cultural Study of Music (New York and London, 2003), 20414 at 214.
Jane Davidson, `The Identity of the Solo Performer', in R. MacDonald, D. Miell, and D. J. Hargreaves (eds.),
Musical Identities (Oxford, 2002), 97113 at 98. (She does not state which Oxford Dictionary.)
`Jegyzokonyv a hangverseny- es drama szakosztaly 1950. november 22.-en tartott XV-ik uleserol', 4. Hungarian
National Archive: MOL P2146/ 62. doboz. I am grateful to Lorant Peteri for drawing my attention to this document.
This understanding of tradition is indebted to Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (London, 1991), 20425, esp.


stances regarding individual and society, form and content, appearance and substance.
In what follows I shall attempt to define an interpretative tradition that lies at
neither of these extremes, while relating to both, one that has much in common with
the ideals of Schnabel. Through this case study I seek to demonstrate some of the
ways in which not the work but the performance practice can be read as evidence of a
geographically and politically delimited set of beliefs. I understand performance
`practice' as a set of ideals and activities with a history, a system of values, and a set
of rules: it is a sort of game that does not require, although it may be supported by, an
institutional framework.9 It has products that are entirely internal to its workings, as
well as some that are partly external. For example, the internal products of learning
how to play chess (a clear example of a practice in this sense) are various analytical
and strategic skills; they are only comprehensible to those who understand chess and
can only be really valued by those taking part. The external, contingent products
might be prestige or financial gain. Similarly, performance practice has, in certain
places and at certain times, more or less identifiable internal products, valued only in
terms of the practice itself, and judged most expertly by its practitioners. Within an
institution (a `school', even), there will often be competing notions of the correct way
to performin other words there will be no agreement as to the proper internal
products of the practice of performanceand one group of performers may well
challenge the values of another.
The argument below is intended to describe the ideas of one group of musicians as
to the practice's proper internal products, and their consequent actions in preparation
for performance. To begin with, I map out a discursive setting for them, termed, for
the moment, `Central Europe'. Then I present some detailed observations of their
`game' or `practice', exploring it as a past participant and observer, while analysing its
underpinning ideals and contextualizing them in a social setting.
geography: central europe?
Inspired by an article by Milan Kundera published in 1984, a number of East
European intellectuals came to define themselves as `Central European'.10 Kundera's
aim was to clarify his own separateness from Soviet thought and from Russian
influence in general: Czechoslovakia was neither `East' nor `West' but `Central'.
The movement generated was analysed by Timothy Garton Ash in his study entitled
`Does Central Europe Exist?'.11 Exploring the essays of three writers taken as
representatives of the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and PolandVaclav Havel,
Adam Michnik, and Gyorgy KonradGarton Ash was able to describe a set of core
beliefs that the writers did indeed share. For example, each presupposed the
irrefutable and immutable rationalized power of an authority against which they
needed to define themselves and their art. Each denied the material domain of
existence. In its place, they offered a cultural-political anti-hypothesis of life, something Garton Ash referred to as a Kingdom of the Spirit: it was an alternative to living
the `lie' of modern society.
Underpinning these notions are at least two patterns of thought that precede the
Soviet takeover of Central Europe. The concept of Central Europe itself has a long and
See, again, MacIntyre's After Virtue, which proposes such `practices' as the sites of conceptions of virtue,
pp. 18791.
See Milan Kundera, `The Tragedy of Central Europe', New York Review of Books, 26 Apr. 1984, p. 33.
Timothy Garton Ash, `Does Central Europe Exist?', in The Uses of Adversity (London, 1989), 16191.


contested history.12 Kundera and his followers could readily be compared with the late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cosmopolitan, westward-looking intellectuals
of Middle Europe, a tiny minority that fought against the nationalism that fractured
the region. But Kundera's move was calculated to appeal to readers not living in
Central Europe; or at least (given that its borders are intractable in geographical
terms) to those readers not living in the communist regions of Central Europe. That is,
he appealed to a readership responsive to Orientalist ideas about the pre-Soviet `East'.
For, since the eighteenth century, Eastern Europe had been exoticized by travel
writers and novelists, who portrayed it variously as Western Europe's barbarous or
primitive other and also as the location of a culture less tarnished by Enlightenment
rationality.13 Thus Kundera's stance was not only oppositional to the communist East,
but also to the capitalist West. He managed to touch the nerves of a yet broader
prevailing ideology characteristic of modernity, in which the modernizing forces of
society were perceived to be alienating to humanity and thus as corrupting forces to be
If this nexus of beliefs has been influential on aesthetics in general, it is probably
through the writings of Theodor W. Adorno that it has gained greatest currency in
thought about music. Adorno's aesthetics was profoundly influenced by this vision of
the world, his theory of art, in essence, a theory of art's capacity to redeem modern
society from its overpowering alienation. In Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of
Enlightenment a historical theory emerges within which art is seen as developing from
magical origins to quasi-autonomous modern works.14 The creative dialectic between
instinctive mimetic impulses and rationalizing forces could be traced in art, it was
argued, in different constellations at different points in history. In its earliest forms,
mimesis dominated, as primitive man chanted invocations to ward off evil spirits and
likened himself to his perceived opponent. Yet even then, the mimetic impulse was
one striving to dominate nature, and thus had rationalizing power.15 Adorno and
Horkheimer observed that at a later historical point, the age of ancient myth, art had
increasingly rationalized strategies of keeping nature at bay. During the seventeenth
century, technological developments and the challenge that science presented to both
religion and social life stimulated a surge in ratio at the expense of mimesis in art.
Society's drive for progress led mimetic impulses to be seen as retrogressive to such an
extent that the subjective ingredient in art was all but annihilated. Distinct from longstanding aesthetic theories of mimesis, Adorno's idea was anthropological. As if
representing the humans who defended themselves against the threats of nature by
imitation, art works were supposed to demonstrate a critical process in which they
assimilated to, yet (subjectively) revealed the flaws of, rational society around them.16
Primarily focused on German music, Adorno nonetheless examined some music
A thumbnail sketch of these issues is provided in a new, aptly named journal. See the editorial `Preface', Central
Europe, 1/1 (May 2003), 3.
See Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, 1994).
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972).
See also Walter Benjamin, `On the Mimetic Faculty' (1930), in One-Way Street (London, 1979), 1606, in which he
argues that mimesis played a greater role at an earlier stage of human development historically.
This emerges equally clearly in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: `If in fact no differentiation between magic and mimesis
had been prepared over a long period of time, the striking traces of autonomous elaboration in the cave paintings
would be inexplicable'; Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. and intr. Robert Hullot-Kentor
(Minneapolis, 1997), 329.
`Art is a refuge for mimetic comportment. . . . That art, something mimetic, is possible in the midst of rationality,
and that it employs its means, is a response to the faulty irrationality of the rational world as an overadministered
world.' See Adorno, ibid. 53.


from the `peripheral' regions, penning a number of shorter articles on Bartok and
referring also to Janacek.17 Generally Adorno was disparaging about art music in
which folk music was significantly influential: he saw it as nostalgic and unable to
engage critically and productively with modern society. Or he perceived folk music
itself to be tarnished with rationalized forces, thus no longer true to nature but of the
`secondary', dead nature created by modernity itself. Yet Janacek and Bartok were
largely spared his vitriol in this respect, and his justification is revealing. Since the folk
music they drew on was from an undeveloped region of Europe, relatively unscathed
by modernity, he argued, it contained precisely the very pure, primitive impulses that
could indeed critique modern society. His own argument thus intersected with, and
even contributed to, the discourse on which Kundera and the other self-declared
`Central Europeans' drew.
`tradition': shared interpretative practice?
This section combines anthropological observation with analysis of discourses to
demonstrate how two leading musical instructors, Gyorgy Kurtag and Ferenc
Rados, operate within the belief system discussed above.18 They are linked partly by
their national and institutional association (both were students and then professors at
the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest for various extended periods between 1946
and 1996); but they share an antagonistic relationship to the institution, having in later
life been rejected rather than supported by it.19 They also share the attribution of
exceptional significance by a younger generation of musicians. Figure 1 demonstrates
this particular quality. For each, an older generation of musicians is referred to with
respect, gratitude, or admiration: musicians and teachers such as Sandor Vegh and
Leo Weiner are thus the figures from the past whose values they believe themselves to
be perpetuating. Analogously, a younger generation, including Zoltan Kocsis and
Andras Schiff, has `claimed' them as its models or at least the objects of its greatest
musical debts.20 Figure 1 thus maps out a sort of `tradition', a system whereby artistic
Adorno's writings about Bartok are in `Uber Bela Bartok', collected by Rainer Riehn in Bela Barto k (MusikKonzepte, 22), ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn (Munich, 1981), 11828. The belief that Bartok effected a
productive confrontation between the rational and the irrational is presented particularly clearly in Adorno's review of
his String Quartet No. 3. This is published in a translation by Susan Gillespie in `Bartok's Third String Quartet', in
Peter Laki (ed.) Barto k and his World (Princeton, 1995), 27889. Adorno's references to Janacek were always made in
the context of his category of `stabilized' music, which was generallybut not in Janacek's casereactionary.
My activity as ethnographer might be compared with a position theorized by Marwan M. Kraidy, who went
`home' to Lebanon to do anthropological research, having trained and lived abroad for many years. He described
himself as neither entirely out, nor entirely in the society he was observing: he was a `halfie'. See `The Global, the
Local, and the Hybrid: A Native Ethnography of Glocalization', Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 16 (1999), 456
76. My musical training took place in London, Glasgow, and Hanover, before I found what I was looking for in
Budapest. Spending three years there, I had the sense of finally laying the foundations of my musical thinking:
Budapest became a sort of musical `home', or at least a place where the ethos, or practice of performance, was what I
found most satisfactory. Ironically, I became an academic immediately thereafter and returned to my original `home'
to do research. Years later I revisited the Budapest experiences as a musicologist, applying the tools of historical and
cultural analysis to my records of training and continuing observation of musicians connected with music life there.
The first phase of work was thus weekly lessons (as a pianist) with Kurtag from Oct. 1992 to Apr. 1993 (some lessons
were conducted entirely privately but in general there were one or more auditors: all lessons were open to auditors);
then auditing rehearsals and master classes at infrequent intervals between 1995 and 2001. Likewise, my studies with
Rados from October 1992 to May 1995 were part of the first phase. The second phase comprised more analysis of
discourses, in part published material but also a correspondence (over email) with Rados between 2001 and 2003.
From the institutional perspective, the problems stemmed from the teachers' inability to respect timetables and
teaching space. On the other side, the inflexibility and prioritization of such practical concerns was offensive, as was the
lack of interest in the actual content and quality of the teaching (and its practical requirements). The issue is summed
up with the archetypal incapacity of institutions to accommodate exceptional qualities and circumstances.
Andras Schiff has reflected on the tendency in a book published since I wrote this article. While greatly admiring
his teachersespecially Kurtag and Radoshe is critical of the society in which they functioned and, in part, still


Erno Dohnanyi (18771960)
Bela Bartok (18811945)
Leo Weiner (18851960)
Sandor Vegh (191297)
Lorant Fenyves (19182004)
Andras Pernye (musicologist and critic, 192887)
Gyorgy Kurtag (composer, pianist, and teacher, b. 1926)
Ferenc Rados (pianist and teacher, b. 1934)
Andras Mihaly (composer, cellist, and teacher, 191793)
Albert Simon (conductor, musicologist, teacher, 19262000)
Andras Schiff (b. 1953)
Dezso Ranki (b.1951)
Zoltan Kocsis (b.1952)
Fig. 1. The construction of a pedagogical tradition. Arrows indicate
the admiring, and yet appropriating, backwards gaze

principles are believed to be handed down from one generation to another. Yet such
traditions are constructed not only on musical bases but also on personal sympathies
and perceptions of moral values. The relations are thus as much conceptual as
`practical-musical'. The main questions posed here are whether the musical practices
of Kurtag and Rados can be found to share anything that would constitute a tradition,
and what their attitudes tell us about the social content of performance practice.
Kurtag's rehearsal practice has been described by several commentators. A
member of the Arditti Quartet provided an account in which he learns the concept
of `agogic', a speech-like conception of temporal flexibility thus far unknown to the
group;21 Katarina Weber gave an awe-inspired description of Kurtag's child-like
immersion in the musical qualities from seriousness to playfulness, emphasizing
above all the expressive engagement with music.22 Paul Griffiths invoked a process by
which the relationship of performers to music was transformed such that `By the end
of the morning, Ms Narucki looked different. She had begun with her weight on her
function. The problem he identifies is its domination by a `guru system'. If Leo Weiner was `the first guru', Albert
Simon, Kurtag, and Rados followed. The society's excessive reverence for gurus renders the `growing up' process of
breaking out of the teacherpupil relationship difficult, if not impossible. See `Schiff Andras beszel', in Schiff Andras a
zenero l, zeneszerzo kro l, onmagaro l [Andras Schiff on music, composers, and himself ] (Budapest, 2003), 897. Schiffa
leading international pianist of Hungarian birth who lives abroad but nevertheless performs regularly in the country
and has now published a book thereis probably aware of the way he himself may be regarded as a guru of a slightly
different kind.
David Alberman, `Beyond the Conventional (Technical Tips with Musical Examples for Playing So-called
Contemporary Classical Music)', Strad, 109 (Apr. 1998), 374.
Katharina Weber, `Material fur ein Lebenswerk: Zum 1. Satz des Quartetto per archi op. 1 von Gyorgy Kurtag',
dissonanz, 56 (May 1998), 1318.


heels, stable, in command of the music. She ended poised, ready, the music in
command of her.'23
A more detailed vision of Kurtag's practice can be found in his Op. 30 of 1991,
which bears the long title `Samuel Beckett Sends Word through Ildiko Monyok in the
Translation of Istvan Siklos (Samuel Beckett: What is the Word)'.24 Its performance reenacts a human struggle with catastrophe and asserts the recuperative power of
musical activity; its rehearsal blatantly attempts to resource a putatively `original',
essential human expression in the struggle. Setting a text by Samuel Beckett, the last
he wrote, on the most basic level it presents an extended stutter, a striving for
vocalization against physical obstacles. While this in itself makes it characteristic of
Kurtag's output as a whole, its exploration of the theme is of a peculiar nature.
Inspired by the composer's encounter with the renowned singer Ildiko Monyok, who
lost the ability to speak in a car accident but who relearnt through singing, (Samuel
Beckett: What is the Word ) dramatizes the painful process of learning to speak through
the intonation of Beckett. The singer is accompanied by a player at an upright piano,
whose role is `teacher', prompting and urging her to stutter into speech. In the later
arrangement of the work, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991), `teacher'
and `pupil' are surrounded by groups of instruments and singers positioned around
the concert hall; these forces amplify the notion of the outside world because their
contributions seem to scorn the stutterer's efforts. The piece is to be performed only by
Ildiko Monyok: the inspiration for the work and its realization are indivisible.
Performances thus carry a particular sort of authenticity.
Just what that might be, however, is exposed by rehearsing the work. As Kurtag
expressed it, `it is not the same thing to stutter in real life as it is in music'.25 The
preparatory route to performance, nonetheless, is a sort of exploration in memory:
having once stuttered her way back into speech, Monyok must attempt to relive that
process, on a stage, within a work of art. The rehearsal consists of assistance in this
respect; it is an encouragement to rediscover the suffering once undergone and display
it as if real. As often as not the experience produces renewed grief, and Monyok actually
weeps. In fact, this event seems to be a desirable part of the process for the composer,
not only in rehearsal but also in concert. Following a recent London performance, he
went backstage and harangued her, complaining that he hadn't sensed her pain. As she
broke down, sobbing with defeat, he said `that is it! That is what you should be', and
asked with considerable frustration where she had been before.26
The desire to create performance through returning to the work's originating
emotions recalls the thesis presented by Walter Benjamin in `The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'.27 In the modern age, wrote Benjamin, art could
be reproduced anywhere and anyhow, but wrenched from its original time, location,
and reason for being, it lost its `aura'. The only way art could recover such an aura was
through a ritualized practice, which might restore something of its mystical quality. In
fact, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word is an attempt to make an art work out of (1) a
Paul Griffiths, ` ``The voice that must articulate. . .'': Kurtag in Rehearsal and Performance', Hungarian Quarterly,
36, no. 140 (Winter 1995), 1414.
The most detailed examination of this work to date is Michael Kunkel, trans. Alan E. Williams, ` ``. . . folly for
t[w]o . . .'': Samuel Beckett's What is the Word and Gyorgy Kurtag's mi is a szo Op. 30', Perspectives on Kurtag, ed.
Rachel Beckles Willson and Alan E. Williams = Contemporary Music Review, 20/23 (Basingstoke, 2001), 10928.
Judit Kele, The Matchman (Gyorgy Kurtag). A film by Judit Kele (Paris: Les Filmes D'Ici, France Supervision/
ZDF/ARTE/Hungaria Film Studio, 1996). This film shows a typical Kurtag master class.
Royal Academy of Music, London, 10 May 2002.
Walter Benjamin, `The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), repr. in Illuminations
(London, 1999), 21144. See also `On the Mimetic Faculty' (1930).


woman's inability to make rational utterancesit is an attempt to capture the

irrationaland (2) a ritualized process of a man leading her to conquer the irrational
through music, as if through mimesis of (his) rationality she can conquer it and
become her (truer) self. That much of the ritual is evident from the work in
performance; but in rehearsal a further ritualistic practice is at play. Rehearsals
frequently take place in a didactic setting: the composer is explaining the process not
only to the performers but also to an audience. He presents his own and the
performers' new journeys into the work as a crucial part of understanding it. The
occasion is highly artificial and replete with a theatrical display of power, despite the
evident ambition to find an `essential' and primitive spirit. It is every bit as much of a
performance as the performance itself.
The closeness of the rehearsal to the performance is paralleled in the work of Ferenc
Rados, but in inversion. In his practice the rehearsal is not ritualized and mystified;
rather, the concert is considered no differently from any other encounter between the
player and the work. No regard is given to the visually dramatic or metaphysical
dimensions of performance. The belief that the focus should be elsewhere is clear from
Joseph Horowitz's account of Rados at home, in which he emerges as a devoted
believer in the power of the autonomous work: `Rados prefers to ``hear'' unmediated
musicby reading it', writes Horowitz, `holding the score in his lap.'28 Rados's
collection of turn-of-the-century postcards feeds into Horowitz's discussion, these
revealing a sort of iconography of musical emotion through presenting exaggerated
gestures of musicians being `expressive' while playing Chopin and Liszt (among
others). Rados attaches significance to the fact that one composerHaydnwas not
amenable to such performative `acrobatics'not, at any rate, in the imagination of the
postcard painters. The significance of Haydn's distance from romantic exhibitionists
will emerge below.29 For the moment, it is sufficient to observe that the physical
dimension of music-making does receive attention in Rados's work, but in a rather
particular way. Central to the practice is the conception of a `natural' relation of body
to music, folk music held up as an ideal for the desirable union between human
nature and human expression, devoid of artificiality or theatricality. The idea is that
music sprang originally from bodily action, whether singing or engaging with an
instrument. Rados's aim is thus to recapture an original and `natural' bodily contact
with the music.30
Setting himself fundamentally against mechanistic piano tutors that prescribe a
correct arm, hand, and finger position for pianists, his suggestion is that the body
should become engaged with and negotiate a dialogue with the demands of a piece of
music. It should embark with a playfulness that does not stop with an acceptance of
`given' form (whether body physiognomy or musical shape) but takes an active role in
manipulating it, specifically in order to bring about new natural forms. The activity
recalls Huizinga's concept of play, which was set against rationality, logic, causation,
determinism, and materiality.31 Huizinga's `play' was simple, innocent, natural,
Joseph Horowitz, The Ivory Trade (New York, 1990), 2457 at 246.
The irony of this stance in Rados's aesthetic is clear in Horowitz's account, in which, although derided, `extra
musical gestures are shown to be indispensable'. See The Ivory Trade, 246.
The romantic notion of body and soul united is clear here. Not by chance, Kleist's famous 1811 essay `On the
Puppet Theatre' was considered an important text. In this essay, which compares the ease of movement of puppets,
human beings, and a bear, it is proposed that for humanity to rediscover innocence, it must eat, once again, the
forbidden fruits of the tree of knowledge. The essay is reproduced in An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist
with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes, ed., trans., and introduced by Philip B. Miller (New York, 1982).
Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London, 1949).


intuitive, and mystical. It was an escape from the world of obligation, separate from
real life, yet in its seclusion it found a new perspective on real life: it created order. In
Rados's conception of `music' as a bodily activity it is frequently unclear whether his
suggestions regarding a shape or gesture relate to the music or to the hand.32 The
music is seen to be subsumed by the hand, but since the piece came from a hand in
the first place, playing it should amount to the music rediscovering itself in the hand.
Such bodily engagement, however, is not approached by Rados in isolation from
the poetic; the poetic is simply conceived as a movement, or a type of bodily gesture.
The conflation of body and meaning renders, of course, the whole question of
practising the instrument problematic, for mechanical difficulties are seen as essentially poetical difficulties; or, as Heinrich Schenker analogously saw them, `the
difficulties fate brings in life'.33 Furthermore, the demystifying of the piece of
musictreating it as a set of bodily gestures that are to be rediscovered and embodied
through playalso makes a mockery of the archetypal romantic, spiritual quest on the
concert platform. Indeed, while apparently involved with an individual's dialogue with
a piece of music, the approach is actually a utopian stance on society. It places music
in the real world of bodies and action, calling, implicitly, for a return to a time when
music practice was living in day-to-day existence.
In one respect this reaffirms the attitude's debt to a view of folk music. Yet it has an
extension into the field of classical music that can be traced in the writing of the
musicologist Andras Pernye.34 Pernye's numerous books and concert criticisms represent an attack on the state of modern concert practice, using the spontaneous,
improvisatory ideal of folk music as a weapon. On another level they represent a
lament on the rise of the work concept, and the assertion that the Baroque period was
the last time when classical music was a truly living part of society. The two levels are
conjoined with the help of a concept coined by the founding father of Hungarian
musicology, Bence Szabolcsi, namely the `zenei koznyelv', usually translated as
`musical vernacular'.35 As Laszlo Somfai has demonstrated, the concept was not the
theoretical tool Szabolcsi set it up to be, but rather a purely ideological construct that
fused `classicism' and folk music and championed each and both.36 As such, `musical
vernacular' is appropriate enough (retaining some of its essential opacity); but
translated more precisely it becomes the `communal musical language', which
conjures up the way in which it appeared in Pernye's concept of musical practices.
Typical of this problem is the concept of `homogeneity', something Rados often misses in his students' playing.
He mocks a student's hand position on the keyboard, pointing at the way fingers seem to be uncomfortable in their
relationship with one another, for instance, while simultaneously referring to the texture of the music in the score,
pointing out that it has a unified quality. Another example stems from his interest in musical iconography (see the
discussion of postcards above). One student playing a melody in her right hand had her elbow grabbed by Rados as it
rose well above the level of the keyboard when she played a melodically curving line. He mocked both its rigidity and
its positioning in relation to the pianist's body. When the student defended her elbow, arguing that it had moved in a
reflection of the expressive gesture in the score, he ironically suggested that the elbow might be a model for the future.
In fact, he said, he could imagine that in a future time, when in a post-apocalyptic world people tried to reconstruct the
life of an earlier humanity, the elbow might become a museum exhibit. Rigid, separate from its body, and remote from
its music, it would represent, and be labelled as, `legato'. The museum separation represents the artificiality, the idea of
`legato' the myth of romantic expressivity in which performing becomes a sort of visual rhetorical gloss, and the notes
in the music are forgotten about completely.
The Art of Performance, ed. Heribert Esser, trans. Irene Schreier Scott (Oxford, 2000), 77.
See e.g. Elo ado muveszet es zenei koznyelv [The art of performance and the musical vernacular] (Budapest, 1974); A
nyilvanossag: zenei rasok [Publicity: writings on music], ed. Janos Breuer (Budapest, 1981).
The concept shifted with the political tide, but the clearest exposition is perhaps to be found in his A muve sz e s
kozonse ge [The artist and his public] (Budapest, 1953).
Laszlo Somfai, `Zenei koznyelv a 18. szazadban: Kutatastorteneti visszatekintes Szabolcsi Bence gondolatanak
utoeleterol', in Zenetudomanyi dolgozatok 2000 (Budapest, 2001), 259.


Pernye, one of Szabolcsi's first students, used the notion to hint at how music evolved
within communities of composers, performers, and improvisers: the communal musical language was a set of gestures and shapes that were accessible to all. Behind his
own use of the term was a socialist utopia, his writing conjuring up a community in
which the language evolved in improvisatory performance as if an ever-developing,
shared discourse; he found such a community only in jazz circles.
While the question of public music-making is less foregrounded in the teaching of
Rados, both his and Kurtag's preferences for musical activities reveal a tendency to
prioritize this less public, dialogue-like art form. For rather than teaching their
instrument, each taught chamber music; in other words, rather than being drawn
into technical and methodological questions of technique and virtuosic display, they
focused on a genre in which musical communication and its attendant emphasis on
musical meaning was the most likely focus of attention. Not only did they perceive
chamber music as central to musical activities but alsocruciallyas part of their
tradition. For these musicians it is not Liszt the virtuoso who is the originator of the
tradition, but Erno Dohnanyi the chamber music pianist, and Leo Weiner as chamber
music teacher.37 Their heart lies, then, in a music that represents a community, albeit an
individualized one that is an alternative to the untruth of the grand socialist synthesis.
The notion of a society in which chamber music was a living practicerecall Haydn!
is understood here, a society pre-dating not only romantic excess but also the
solidification of the concert hall industry and the institutionalization of the professional
musician in the nineteenth century. It is, surely, the world of the eighteenth-century
Liebhaber, Mozart and Haydn's Vienna: the discourse is a rather particular type of `neoclassicism'. In terms of the practice's internal and external products introduced above,
implicit here is the idea that its internal productsnatural musical responsiveness and
sophisticated communication through musicmight actually expand beyond the
practice's boundaries: in other words, it is a utopia in which a chamber music practice
might one day, some day, re-enter society proper and transform it.
negativity: determined to fail
At this point it may seem that the two musicians discussed thus far are irreconcilably
estranged: one has what we might term a `mystical cultic' approach to music, the
other an attitude better summed up by `everyday play'. One denies the physical realm
of musical practice; the other focuses on the physical as if denying a spiritual one.
Nonetheless they are united in some respects.
As outlined earlier, they share an attitude to their past, their selection of precedents
indicating core beliefs about musical quality. They also share a rejection of `empty'
performance, whether diagnosed because of a feeling that the performer is not truly
`living the moment' or because of a sense that the performer is lying. This emptiness is
associated with showbiz and flashiness. Such purely discursive formulations are clearly
a symptom of an identity construction, self and other carved out in rhetorical stances.38
It maps neatly on to the `Central European' identity discussed above, in that the
Balint Vazsonyi claims Dohnanyi as `the first among world-famous pianists to play chamber music regularly' (see
New Grove II, vii. 425); he also celebrates him as a chamber musician in Dohnanyi Erno (Budapest, 1971).
Horowitz exoticizes Rados's self-image with entirely characteristic tropes: `Rados's droll, affectless manner; his
curious way of peering upwards while dipping his chin; the slight play of mirth on his compressed lipsall this
projects a mixture of teasing intellect and fatalistic marginality mainly to be found in Eastern Europe.' Horowitz, The
Ivory Trade, 245. A clear theoretical model for the various stages in musically imagined identity is presented in Georgina
Born and David Hesmondhalgh: `Introduction: On Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music', in Born
and Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Western Music and its Others (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 2000), 137 at 316.


musicians set themselves against `inhuman', `intellectual', and `flashy' approaches,

seen as products of a society where there is a lack of investment in the relation between
performer and work; rehearsal time is compromised by financial pressures (capitalism)
and an emphasis on `show' at the expense of substance (Hollywood).39 In `Central
Europe', the relationship with the immanent qualities of musical works will be the
primary force shaping the performer's life; rehearsal time will be governed by the
requirements of that relationship, and the performer's theatrical potential in any
respect not perceived to be a reflection of the music's immanent qualities will not be
considered. The irony of this last requirement in relation to the performance practice
of Samuel Beckett: What is the Word is clear, but simply underlies the constructed
identity of this `Central European'.40 And, doubtless, for some the spectacle would
actually represent the immanent qualities of the work. Samuel Beckett: What is the Word
presents an unconventional layout of players: its spatial arrangement confronts the
audience with a dimension of the inner struggle of the text. And representation always
depends on stylistic convention. As Michael Riffaterre expressed it, even literary
description only `seems to relate to a reality external to the text, but only because it
conforms to a grammar'.41
It is the attitudes to the gulf between content and its representation that reveal the
delicate relation between the interpretative tradition and the identity construction. For
Rados, as discussed above, there is to be no distinction between hand shape and
musical shape; rather, one merges into the other in a `natural' union. For Kurtag, the
difference between stuttering in real life and stuttering on the stage is a chasm to be
overcome through rehearsal. Each, then, denies elements of representation in
performance, choosing instead to imagine a complete `presence' of the music in the
performer.42 Nonetheless, while these aspirations are clear, the possibility of success is
barely conceded. Rather, the post-performance attitude is what Botstein criticizes as
being demoralizing: the musical work is unreachable; each performance is a doomed
attempt. However, in `Central Europe' there is particular reason for standing by the
attempt; and also by the failure. This is the cultural `resonance', as it were, of the
practice; or, this is what gives the lie to the notion that its ostensibly internal products
really are `internal'.43
This is where the most ambitious part of the practice resides. For, just as Adorno
conceived a dialectic between work and society in which the work would perform a
critical mimesis and reveal society's hidden fractures, the notion here is that the
imperfection of performance reveals the untruth of the modern world (and modern
performance).44 Rather than presenting a perfect, finished product, `Central Euro39
As Horowitz expresses it, `Hungary is exposed as never before to a chill wind blowing CDs and celebrities,
popular culture and music competitions, in which young musicians strive to impress'. See The Ivory Trade, 146.
The concept of `Central Europe' is particularly appropriate for the two: Kurtag grew up in a Hungarian minority
in Rumania and both are Jewish. Each is more likely to oppose than to support as loaded a construction as
Quoted in Raymond Monelle, The Sense of Music (Princeton and Oxford, 2000), 119. My italics.
The affinity with Stanislavsky's so-called Method Acting is clear, and not coincidental: Stanislavsky's principles
are upheld as performance ideals.
I take the concept of `resonance' in Stephen Greenblatt's sense, namely a cultural text's power `to reach out
beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which
it has emerged and for which as a metaphor it stands'. `Resonance and Wonder', in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early
Modern Culture (New York and London, 1990), 16183 at 170.
Adorno did not seem to conceive performance in this way. Nonetheless, his notion of works as `critiques' hinges
on a concept of their unfolding in time; it requires that works represent a process, rather than a finished, rationalized
whole. As such it requires a colossal imagination to envisage music's critical capacity, when music is conceived as a
text on a page. However, his aesthetics is relatively comprehensible as a vision of music as heardor, music in


peans' illustrate a process, a behavioural type of mimesis that Michael Cahn has
termed `correlating behaviour', by which the processes of modern society are
unravelled as a bitter reminder that the smooth surface of modern rationality is but
an illusion.45 It is the early Greek meaning of mimesis that is important here: rather
than a visual `imitation', mimesis is understood as an embodiment and impersonation
akin to drama.
To return to the opening two examples, while Davidson and Antal seemed different
at the outset, they nonetheless share a belief that Kurtag and Rados do not have,
namely, that performance should `succeed'. Davidson's success is that of personal
achievement and consequent admiration, these being key elements in the entertainment industry today. Antal's success would be a performance in which the artist
communicated a higher meaning to a large crowd, which was enriched and inspired
by the event. Set in opposition to these ideas is the attitude of Rados and Kurtag,
which consists of a negative utopia. `Success', after all, would risk capitulation to the
very forces that must be opposed, whether commercialized degeneration or communist lies. Kurtag and Rados insist on a negative dialectic with their surroundings. In
their envisioning of an impossible truth, they elevate the condition of failure to a
`necessary condition', a `vision' prerequisite for anyone striving to perform a piece of
music. Their stance embodies both a Central European identity construction and an
interpretative `tradition', the latter defined by local influences on musical practice.
There is, then, a social function to the glorified failure on which their interpretative
practice depends.

Responding to recent work on historical performance and to cultural anthropologies of
music, this article presents a case study in performance practice within the Western
classical tradition. It argues that the methods of performance preparation characteristic of the Hungarians Gyorgy Kurtag and Ferenc Rados share underlying beliefs
that, while by no means representative of a `school', nonetheless indicate a common
tradition of thought. Through observation and analysis, I demonstrate that this is
characterized by a shared sense of ancestry, an emphasis on `nature' and spontaneity,
and a rejection of artifice and rationality.
Typical of a strand of post-Enlightenment thought (represented most prominently
in musicology by Theodor Adorno), the belief system is yet more specifically
congruent with modern ideas of `Central Europe' as projected by Milan Kundera
and subsequent writers from the former Eastern Bloc. In that it shuns rationalized
commercialism (artifice, showbiz) it comes to celebrate imperfection. A celebrated, or
`necessary', failure emerges as a critique of modernity's reified slickness. In other
words, performance practice equals social utopia.

performance. The process of working through a piece, making a discovery of a work's stages of development in
performance, allows for reflection on the illusion of wholeness, of surface perfection, and so on.
`Subversive Mimesis: T. W. Adorno and the Modern Impasse of Critique', in Mimesis in Contemporary Theory, i, ed.
Mihai Spariosu (Philadelphia and Amsterdam, 1984), 35.