The Performance of Music by David Barnett

Barrie & Jenkins


The thesis is that composer, pianist and listener are mystically indivisible and equipotent, interlocking in a subtle and complicated relationship. This concept, “unlike the Trinity of Christianity, has not been closely studied”. But here comes Professor Barnett to show us how to atone for that, by replaying old scores (mainly Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin). The pianist ought first, he feels, to study the personality of the composer (despite hearsay, “Debussy was a strong, masculine person”) and then elicit the central purpose of each piece (for example, the epigraph of Brahms's op. 117 no.1 opens our eyes to its lullaby mood). Thus in­structed, the performer can begin to qualify for the necessary degree of what is called “coauthorship”. But he still has a lot to learn about his own joint work. He is exhorted to follow three further courses; analysis, poetic description, and technique. Schenker, Cortot and Matthay are the tutors respectively recommended. They open another threefold path to enlightenment; analytical, contextual, muscular: a pledge of head, heart and hand in the years to be.

   All this is salutary and acceptable enough, if not very novel or striking. But such themes, even when recapitulation (pp.201-22) has been added to exposition (pp. 1-61) do not make a complete work. So on to this small stock is grafted a mountainous scion, which seems to me to remain obstinately dry and fruitless. It is mainly about the concept of “salience” (some notes are more significant than others, e.g. louder, or longer). This notion may be quite helpful in theory, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in practice – “…a high degree of salience, which we shall call poetic salience. Poetic salience then is the high degree of salience…”. And so on; and on. Some relief is afforded by the arrival of “asynchronization” (notes written together are not always so played). But then that word is repeated 50 times and more in a few pages; after which salience reigns again. Such inflation tends to devalue the whole text, from the style (“the intensity of my musical approach”) to the title (which might just as well have been “Notes for Pianists”).

   All this is a great pity. Professor Barnett sounds a truly devoted and perceptive musician, if one inter­prets his notes between the lines. But a book remains a verbal performance. Serious and sympathetic students will applaud this one; others may be tempted to clap it - if at all - shut.      


The Musical Times, Oct. 1972 (p. 975) © the estate of eric sams