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Classical Mythology 101

8. The Myth of the Old School

There are two ways to play anything -- "old school" and "new school" -- and "old school" is usually superior.

"He comes from the old school." You still read this sort of thing about some classical musicians, though maybe not as often now as you did 20 years ago. "Today's crop of musicians all sound alike." Do you instantly recognize which of the two statements is the bromide and which one is the diss? The "golden age" of yesteryear has long served as an excuse to put down the musicians who still walk among us ~ especially the ones who can still sprint. There's not a lot of empirical evidence for the binary model of "old school" versus "new school" musicianship. It's more of an anecdotal simplification than a reliable rule because the real world never truly lends itself to such easy distinctions. But it's one that's ever popular with music critics whose job is to apply their expertise to the detection of patterns and trends (though without the rigor usually required of journalists in other fields). If it sounds authoritative, maybe it's because it seems so obvious.

Consider this particular model of "old school/new school." On the one hand, you have an elder generation of musicians trained in the "old ways" (whatever those are) by venerable practitioner teachers of historical yore. Their playing is deeply rooted in 19th-century traditions. They play with greater freedom. They're more liberal with rubato, with vibrato, with this or that. Their playing is sensitive. They may not have accuracy or the composer's imagined intentions in their crosshairs, but they have a direct conduit to the soul of the listener. On the other hand, you have the whippersnappers ~ flashy young players who are stonger on technical polish than depth of feeling or imagination. Their playing is sanitized, their devotion to the letter of the urtext is absolute and precise and there's a sameness to their style of execution. Where this school of thought arose from and how these players came to be trained this way, who knows? Maybe it had to do with the dawn of the Atomic Age and brain cell mutation.

Go to a contest for young vocalists or instrumentalists ~ sit through a day of it, or in the case of the Cliburn piano competition, weeks of prelims, semi-finals and finals ~ and there's a good chance you'll come away with the sense that there's a lot of variety among the musicians of today and tomorrow. Even when playing the same score, some pianists will play like action-adventure heroes; others like characters in a soft-focus romantic movie. Some will attack the keys like boxers. Others caress the keyboard like horse trainers; some sit down at it like they're driving a car. It would be disingenuous to lump such a disparate group into a common "new school." They're individuals and their individual styles are influenced by differences of physical reach, personal temperament, affinity for the music, possibly by national affiliation and certainly by their unique circumstances of instruction and experience ~ all of which factor into stylistic stability and dynamism.

The influence of teacher on pupil, for instance, is a significant one and comparing two such players can make for an interesting case study. The late Rudolf Firkusny and his student David Buechner (who now goes by Sara Buechner) shared such similar traits in their solo piano recitals, you could practically see the torch being passed. Both have exhibited a certain delicacy of touch ~ in attack and in the way their hands and fingers rolled gently off the keys. And even in the musical works they've played; Janàcek has been prominent in their repertoires (in Firkusny's case, because the composer was his childhood mentor and because his own teacher, Ludmila Tuckova, was the pianist who premiered some of Janàcek's works). By the same token, it's possible to trace a direct line of violinists beginning with Geminiani, who taught Corelli, who taught Somis, who taught Pugnani, who taught Viotti, who taught Baillot, who taught Habeneck, who taught Léonard, who taught Marsick, who taught Enescu, who taught Menuhin, who taught Kennedy. Surely something is conveyed from one generation to the next, but there are many numerous competing influences that also affect one's personal mold and manner of performance. How many times has violin-playing changed over the course of a dozen generations? How much has the music itself changed? How about the way in which a violin is built?

This illustrates a significant point about the dynamic nature of style. Take the long view ~ say, three centuries long ~ and it's apparent that playing must change over time, as driven by the evolution of execution techniques, instrument technology and the demands of the music. This is not a degrading process but, rather, one that accommodates. At the same time, within any single generation of performers, you can still observe a multiplicity of styles. This has probably always been true and has lead to various ways of categorizing musicians, their sound and their style. Along nationalistic lines, for example, just imagine what the descriptors "French," "Russian," "Italian" or "English" say about the style of a pianist, a violinist or a singer. There's much diversity and individuality of playing in the world, and that fact ought to render it impossible to fashion a simplified model of that world which categorizes it into competing "old" and "new" camps.

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© David Bündler, 2000
Last revised: June 4, 2000