Category Archives: meta-historiography

The Quest for the Other: Beyond Formalism

1) Text & Act: Essays on Music and Performance by Richard Taruskin

2) The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy by Lydia Goehr

3) Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch (trans. Carolyn Abbate)

4) The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music by Lydia Goehr

5) The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays by Richard Taruskin

6) Music, Myth, and Nature, Or, The Dolphins of Arion by François-Bernard Mâche

7) Science, Order, and Creativity by David Bohm & F. David Peat

These are seven books, dating from the turn of the century, that I consider vitally important reading for the young, twenty-first-century classical musician. Important because each brings to light some aspect of the changing ideological lenses through which the performance of classical music has come to be viewed through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries – often pre-reflectively, without awareness of the lens.

A thread running through all seven is the rise of a positivistic formalism, the hegemonic ideology of Western art music since the 1920s and practically the only “appropriate” approach to its performance during the so-called “Golden Age of Positivism” of the 1960s through ’80s. Entailing a nuanced series of ideological variations, musical formalism would require a major academic study for its holistic unpacking. Taken collectively, these seven books from the period of interregnum between the previous (modernist) and the coming era, already go far toward expounding the influence, the significance, and the dangers, of musical formalisms. They shed light on why non-formalists, appreciated by the general public, were often ostracized by opportunistic critics. (On this topic, Richard Taruskin’s The Danger of Music includes the essay “Why Do They All Hate Horowitz?” An analogous argument would explain the case of the “wayward” Narciso Yepes in the context of the formalist classical guitar scene of the late 20th century.) These books also begin to point ways toward a rebirth of Western art music beyond creativity-blocking constraints.

On my view, such a “renaissance” is only possible if awareness is fostered of the arbitrary and unquestioned formalist assumptions – including those of the so-called “authenticity” movement – that have undergirded performance since the 1960s, and only if such awareness is supplemented by novel, truly pre- or truly post-modern ways of conceiving of musical “works”. (As Lydia Goehr rightly informed us in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, “Bach did not intend to compose musical works” (p. 8) – a 19th century concept.) In other words, a paradigm shift is needed to break classical music out of the “scandalously unsaleable” rut (Mâche, p. 2) in which it has atrophied since the height of formalist hegemony. These seven very important books clarify where we are coming from ideologically, bringing unquestioned assumptions into awareness, and begin to point out ways of moving forward.

Of particular interest is Goehr’s The Quest for Voice, which argues for the necessity of an enhanced formalism – formalism enriched by a transcendent “something” extra.  The nature of this “something” – call it Other, for lack of a better term – is of great interest to me and a subject to which I will return at length. For now, suffice it to say, as have the philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the physicist David Bohm, and the literary theorist Michael Marais (also, in a sense, Kant and d’Espagnat): whatever one thinks or says something [the "work", the Other, the Thing-in-Itself, the "composer's intention", Reality, "the truth"] is, it is not; it is always “something” more and different. Thus, as Goehr writes, via the parable of Die Meistersinger: “[instead of measuring by familiar] rules that which doesn’t run by [your] rules, [it is necessary to] leave behind your treasured rules, and look instead for its rules!” For reasons to be expounded elsewhere and another time, this quest for the other necessarily entails a movement of infinition, the Romantics’ interminable Sehnsucht or quest for the “blue flower” (Novalis’s Blaue Blume), a Derridean différance or Deleuzean “either/or…or”, eschewing naively positivistic formalist notions of knowable “truth” and achievable “perfection”, thereby maintaining a more open, pluralistic, and progressive practice than the ideological fashions of the 20th century permitted.

The Quest for Voice is available to read for free via the University of California Press website:

Also, a version of a central essay from Richard Taruskin’s Text & Act, “The Modern Sound of Early Music”, appeared under an editorial title in the New York Times and is available to read online:

Note: In the above essay, Taruskin lists three salient (though not exhaustive) characteristics of the formalist style:

* It is text-centered, hence literalistic.
* It is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity.
* It is lightweight, hence leery of the profound or the sublime.

It is so easy to establish that the desiderata of the classical guitar scene of the late 20th century were undergirded by these formalist assumptions about what performance supposedly ought to be like that it inspires incredulity that no one before me ever connected the dots. Just consider a few characteristic passages from Graham Wade’s dangerously utopian Traditions of the Classical Guitar (1980):

*Formalism is text-centered, hence literalistic:
“The Utopian idealism [†] of the purists may seem tedious. It is always easy to be sloppy and unscrupulous about the demands of the past on the present … This situation is however beginning to change as the public learns that what the composer actually wrote [*] may be far more exciting than the bogus ‘improvements’ of musicians living several centuries later.” (Wade, p. 70) [*What he wrote, yes, which the better informed musician knows is not the totality of what he actually played, or what his listeners actually heard.] This text-centrism extends even to prescriptivistic attitudes to fingering, as in the case of Segovia.

[†] Note: As Taruskin rightly states elsewhere (in the lecture “Where Things Stand Now” 2009): “Utopian idealism” is dangerous for “utopian thinking can easily lead – no, … has always led – to authoritarian thinking.” (Again, the example of the Segovian ideology of forced conformance exemplifies Taruskin’s point about the danger of utopian thinking leading to authoritarian thinking.)

*Formalism is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity:
“John Williams is a great artist who drew the guitar closer to the orbit of the ulterior impersonality of art, untainted by whim, mood or individual weakness. T. S. Eliot…puts the classic attribute of true creativity into words…[it is] a continual extinction of personality.” (Wade, p. 211)

*Formalism is lightweight, hence leery of the profound or the sublime:
“Segovia’s…true expressiveness…evokes but makes no undue display. The flashy shallowness of much [?] guitar performance is eschewed and any such player is cast, artistically, into outer darkness.” (Wade, p. 189) “Williams was the least exhibitionist of all musicians… In this he was a true disciple of Segovia. His playing demeanour was that of restraint, control and order, an Apollonian” (Wade, p. 208) Also, “transcription from the four-course guitar to its modern descendant is perhaps the most fruitless and destructive of all possible types of instrumental change. … [W]hat we lose are the sonority…and the overall atmosphere of this tiny voice.” (Wade, p. 55, my emphasis)

Equally telling of the formalist views underpinning prejudices within the classical guitar community is the 180-degree flip-flopping of the opportunistic Gramophone “critic,” John W. Duarte. Committed since the 1950s to a so-called “romantic” narrative about his friend (the neo-classicist) Andrés Segovia, by the 1980s Duarte had switched openly, if tacitly, to the formalist bandwagon, by then de rigueur, denigrating Segovia’s “rival” Narciso Yepes for his unfashionably “overcooked vibrato” and “distorted” note values (i.e., for being too “romantic”), where less than a decade earlier the story was the opposite, with Yepes being charged with a merely “accurate account” of the note values and supposed lack of rubato. (Contrast these conflicting “reviews”, or propaganda pieces, about the same recording.)

Duarte conflicting reviews

Given today’s political climate in which “fake news”  abounds, it is particularly important to be on guard for agnogenetic (“ignorance-generating”) tactics like Duarte’s. (It is worth noting that similar tactics were then being used by the tobacco industry to create confusion around links between smoking and cancer. Today they are being used to deny climate change by the fossil fuel industry, or to promote right-wing agendas, with no lower limit to which some people won’t stoop to get ahead.) I am aware of one particularly obsessive compulsive propagandist or troll – going by the pseudonym of “Mike”, among other noms de guerre – making its rounds on the internet, averring in the comments sections of various web pages that Narciso Yepes was a formalist! [*] Rather desperate and clearly a frightened case of projection, lacking cogent argument or proof.

*For example (agnogenetic propaganda at work in the comments sections):

“Wayward Tempo”: How an Incompetent Critic Prejudiced Guitarists

“When a great genius appears in the world the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (Jonathan Swift. 1841. The Works of Jonathan Swift. Vol. 2. London: Henry Washbourne: 206.)

The London debut of Narciso Yepes took place on 17 February 1961, in Wigmore Hall. This is the programme that was presented:

Mudarra Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico
Sanz Suite española
Scarlatti Sonata
Albeniz, M. Sonata
Sor Theme and Variations
Bach Chaconne
Villa-Lobos Prelude no. 1
Ponce Sonatina meridional
Albeniz, I. Rumores de la caleta
Falla Homenaje
Rodrigo En los trigales
Ruiz-Pipó Canción y danza no. 1

I would like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the first work Yepes performed on that day was Mudarra’s Fantasia, and as they say, “first impressions last.” It elicited the following response from John W. Duarte, published in the April ’61 edition of B.M.G. (Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar Magazine):

“The recital began soberly with an interesting and, to us, new Fantasia by Mudarra, alternating between sparse counterpoint (and even monody) and arpeggiated passages of surprising dissonance for their period. A certain waywardness in the soloist’s rhythmic pulse was disturbing.”

Five details and historical facts should be pointed out:

1) The original criticism of Yepes’s alleged “waywardness” of tempo – or “rhythmic pulse” in its earliest formulation – applied specifically to Alonso Mudarra’s Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico.

2) This piece was unknown (“new”) to Duarte at that time, yet he chose to denigrate the soloist, not the piece, for a “rhythmic pulse [that] was disturbing”. In fact, the “wayward[]” pulsation is a characteristic feature of Mudarra’s piece, rendered faithfully by the performer. As we can see in the example below, the piece features numerous syncopations and fluctuating phrase lengths.

Mudarra's Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico
Mudarra’s Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico

Considering that we are dealing with a critic so ignorant [1] as to be “surpris[ed]” by dissonance in Renaissance music, it is unsurprising that he blamed the “disturbing” qualities of such rhythmic complexities on the performer instead of the piece, or, indeed, his own prejudice and ignorance.

[1] (What about the dissonance of Gesualdo’s Madrigal Books 5-6? Or Monteverdi’s seconda prattica? No wonder Duarte’s error-ridden transcriptions – laughably described as “impeccable editions” by Graham Wade (Soundboard) – omit the characteristic dissonances of baroque music, turning dissonant baroque trills into consonant and anachronistic “inverted mordents”. See an example below.)

An example of Duarte’s incompetent editing in which characteristic baroque dissonances (appoggiature, trills) are rendered as consonant mordents and anachronistic (non-baroque) “inverted mordents”, among other errors. (Published by Universal Edition, Australia, 1977.)

3) The part-time critic and full-time chemist Duarte’s musical training was limited, in his own words, to “about eighteen months of sporadic jazz guitar lessons” during which he learned “the basic technique” and elementary musical notation. (It would be delusional to assume that this is remotely adequate training for a classical music professional, not that it inhibits those under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) The virtuoso guitarist Philip Hii, a former student of Duarte, has attested to the fact that the critic  spent lessons dropping names without conveying any artistic insight, concluding that “He [Duarte] could hardly hold the guitar properly and what came out of his fingers were a few scratchy sounds.” (Hii, P. 2011. ‘A Lesson with John Duarte‘)

4) By the time that he initiated what would become a persistent assault on the “wayward” artistry of Narciso Yepes, John Duarte had already “tak[en] over the musical education of John Williams” (‘London’s Gain,’ B.M.G., Vol. L, No. 576, April, 1953, p. 171). Far from the so-called “dispassionate observer” (Soundboard), his vested interests did not end with promoting the career of his pupil, and by association his own – a business that necessarily involved denigrating rivals, most notably Narciso Yepes. In addition, Duarte’s “friendship” or association with Andrés Segovia dated back to c. 1948.

5) Yepes’s London debut also included Bach’s famous Chaconne as transcribed not by Segovia, but by Yepes, after considerable musicological research and work with his then teachers, the legendary Nadia Boulanger and the violinist/composer George Enescu. As Yepes recounted:

“The Chaconne is a piece I worked on a lot when I studied with Enesco in Paris [in the early '50s]. He was a great specialist in Bach. [...] I studied all of the transcriptions of the Chaconne, the one by Brahms, by Mendelssohn,  by Busoni. Busoni’s was of course too romantic, but I was interested in every version. [...] Enesco said, after I worked on the piece, that he preferred the Chaconne on the guitar. [...] I studied all of the transcriptions that Bach made of his own music. I wanted to see what Bach would have written if he had made a version for lute or for guitar. If I have a phrase that I cut because the violin cannot play it, I am sure that Bach would not cut it if the phrase could be played on the organ or the harpsichord; he would continue the phrase until the end. In the violin, he is obliged to cut the phrase because the violin cannot play the polyphonic voices together. But on the guitar, I don’t cut the phrase; I continue the phrase. There were many situations where I put something that I imagine that Bach would have written, and this is the transcription that I play, the one I worked on with Enesco.” (‘Conversation with Narciso Yepes’ by John Schneider, Soundboard, Spring, 1983)

Not only did Yepes’s approach represent a new scholarly standard, it introduced a revolutionary and conscious approach to right hand fingering that necessarily posed a challenge to Duarte and co’s vested interests. Was Segovia the ventriloquist behind Duarte’s attacks on Yepes? We may never know, but we have eye-witnesses to “the contempt of Segovia towards Yepes [...] at Santiago de Compostela. Yepes attended as a student a master class by Segovia and performed his own transcription of one of Bach’s chaconnes. Segovia showed openly his disapproval of Yepes’ transcription. Yepes very humbly excused himself saying that all he wanted by attending Segovia’s master class, was to learn something and not [to be] embarrassed.” (Leonardo Balada, personal correspondence)

Segovia’s Procrustean [2] contempt for authentic artistry (from the Greek autos “self” + hentes “doing”, in other words, “acting on one’s own authority”) and expectations of unquestioning conformity were also recorded in the now infamous Segovia-Chapdelaine Incident:

Procrustes violates alterity that does not conform to his ruthless, authoritarian framework
[2] Procrustes (Greek mythology) violates alterity that does not conform to his ruthless, authoritarian framework. He laid his victims on an iron bed: if they were too short he stretched them out to fit the bed frame; if too tall, he cut off their extremities.
* * *

Let us move ahead to a later example of John Duarte’s questionable denigration of Narciso Yepes. I quote below from two reviews that appeared in the British magazine Gramophone, in 1978 and 1989. It should be noted that both reviews are concerned with the same recording by Yepes of the music of Villa-Lobos (for its vinyl and CD releases respectively). Both reviews are in the odious and, by now, expected formula of an adversarial comparison between Yepes on the one hand and Bream/Williams on the other (a critical means of avoiding genuine intellectual engagement with either the work or the different insights offered by different musical personalities).

Duarte’s 1st review: “He [Yepes] gives an accurate account of the surface of the music [of Villa-Lobos ... ]. There is in Yepes’s playing none of the [...] rubato that Bream deploys and even his well known waywardness of tempo is absent.” (John W. Duarte, Gramophone, December, 1978, p. 1136)

Duarte’s 2nd review: “[In Yepes's playing of Villa-Lobos] there is [...] a kind of sentimentality, marked by slow tempos [...] and note-values that are too distorted to pass as rubato“. (John W. Duarte, Gramophone, April, 1989, p. 1587)

Note the following contradictions between Duarte’s first and second reviews of the same recording:

  1. an “accurate account” of the text vs. “distorted” note-values
  2. no rubato vs. excessive rubato
  3. absence of wayward tempos vs. markedly slow tempos
Duarte's conflicting 'reviews'
Duarte’s conflicting ‘reviews’

Considering these antithetical claims, one has to ask whether Duarte’s reviews were intentionally dishonest and intended simply to traduce the artistry of Narciso Yepes – indeed, Duarte displays dehumanizing violence when at one point he reduces Yepes to an “[in]sentient” object – or whether (as per the Dunning-Kruger Effect) the critic was too incompetent, and too unaware of his incompetence, to judge reliably any genuinely skilled and artistically educated performer. The 2006 edition of Soundboard that absurdly and dedicated 24 pages to Duarte’s obituary makes a point of emphasizing the critic’s “honesty” – perhaps protesting too much? – since at least three contributors to that edition insist on said “honesty”. In that case, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Then we need to look to the Dunning-Kruger Effect to explain Duarte’s contradictory reviews. This conclusion is supported by the chemist-cum-critic’s lack of an adequate artistic education (amounting to 18 months of sporadic jazz guitar lessons).

As for the comparative tempos between Yepes and Bream’s recordings of the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos, an empirical evaluation is revealing. Bream is found to have for the most part two generic tempos: a pulse of c. 132-146 and a pulse of c. 84-90 ticks of the metronome per minute. Yepes’s tempos, on the other hand, span a gamut of different expressions (a genuine expressive range): 44, 56-58, 61-68, 74-76, 96, 110, 127-130, 135, 144, 165, and 198. (See the table and graphics below.)

Villa-Lobos: 12 Études Julian Bream Narciso Yepes
No. 1 Allegro non troppo [animé] crotchet = 146 crotchet = 165
No. 2 Allegro crotchet = 135 crotchet = 127
No. 3 Allegro moderato [un peu animé] crotchet = 132 crotchet = 96
No. 4 Un peu modéré crotchet = 90 crotchet = 56
No. 5 Andantino crotchet = 135 crotchet = 61
No. 6 Poco allegro [un peu animé] crotchet = 89 crotchet = 65
No. 7a Très animé crotchet = ? (immeasurably distorted) crotchet = c. 76 ? (distorted)
” “b Moins crotchet = 84 crotchet = 74
” “c Più mosso crotchet = 132 crotchet = 110
No. 8a Modéré (80=crotchet) crotchet = 50 crotchet = 44
” “b [b. 15-] crotchet = 57 crotchet = 65
No. 9a Très peu animé [un peu animé] crotchet = 115 crotchet = 58
” “b [b. 30-] ” “ crotchet = 68
No. 10a Très animé [Très animé] quaver = c. 86 ? (distorted) quaver = 198
” “b Un peu animé crotchet = 145 crotchet = 135
No. 11a Lent quaver = 132 quaver = 126
” “b Più mosso crotchet = 132 crotchet = 126
” “c Animé minim = 89 minim = 76
” “d Poco meno crotchet = 133 crotchet = 127
No. 12a Animé dot. crot. = 134  dot. crot. = 130
” “b Più mosso dot. crot. = 134  dot. crot. = 144
” “c Un peu plus animé dot. crot. = 134  dot. crot. = 149


Yepes and Bream's Comparative Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos
Yepes and Bream’s Comparative Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos
Bream's Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos
Bream’s Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos
Yepes's Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos
Yepes’s Tempos in the 12 Etudes by Villa-Lobos

To mention just a few additional points of interest that can be drawn from this data:

No. 10’s Très animé , which Yepes genuinely plays “very lively” at a quaver = 198, Bream takes at a truly wayward, snail’s pace of a quaver = c. 86. (In fact, the note values here are too distorted to determine an accurate tempo for Bream, precisely the ‘flaw’ that Duarte ironically attributed to Yepes).

No. 12’s increasing intensity of tempo, from Animé to Più mosso to Un peu plus animé is absent from Bream’s performance, which remains essentially around a dotted crotchet = 134, within one of Bream’s two generic tempo ranges. Yepes, on the other hand, increases the intensity of the tempo as Villa-Lobos indicates, from 130 to 144 to 149 beats per minute. This too ironizes Duarte’s claim that “nowhere is there genuine tension” (1989). (What then of Bream who flouts the instructions and keeps to one tempo?)

Yepes evidently deemed No. 8’s Modéré (80=crotchet) to be an error that should have read 80=quaver (in other words, 40=crotchet) and he takes the tempo almost imperceptibly faster at 44 crotchets per minute. Here Bream’s choice of 50-51 crotchets per minute seems not to be based on a similarly discernible intellectual engagement with the text. The same goes for many of his tempo choices: His Allegro (No. 2), Allegro moderato (No. 3), Andantino (No. 5), and Animé, Più mosso and Un peu plus animé (No. 12) are all essentially one and the same tempo. Evidently technical difficulty was the major determinant of Bream’s tempos: With the exception of No. 8, Bream seems to play each Etude as fast as he can manage (simply to “impress” or to outdo Yepes?) regardless of authorial instructions.

Many similar criticisms can be raised regarding Bream’s limited dynamic range and thus limited range of genuine musical expression (as opposed to facial histrionics). Indeed, he can be counted on to flout many of Villa-Lobos’s meticulous dynamic indications, e.g. dynamic accents rendered by Bream as tempo-distorting ‘agogics’ in No. 3 and elsewhere. Then there is the bass melody in No. 10 that flounders beneath the over-played accompaniment on the trebles, the performer evidently being incapable of foregrounding a melody in the bass as Villa-Lobos instructs. (The text shows both accents on the bass notes and the verbal instruction “en dehors”, meaning “to stand out”.) In fact, many of Villa-Lobos’s expressive indications (ritenuto, ritardando, allargando, dynamics, articulations, etc.) suffer a similar fate. There is even video footage of a masterclass in which Bream derides a learner for dynamically separating melody and accompaniment in Villa-Lobos’s Prelude no. 1, and condescendingly ‘instructs’ him to “take [more] care”. (Click here for the video.)

Contrary to Bream’s ‘instruction’ we now know that Villa-Lobos originally notated his works with different sized note-heads indicating different dynamic levels (as shown in the example below). Villa-Lobos unequivocally did not write the accompaniment of Prelude no. 1 as a prominent feature (as Bream would have it), nor did he write uneven quavers, as distorted by Segovia and mindlessly imitated by others from Bream to Karadaglic.

Villa-Lobos, Prelude no. 1, showing the composer’s original dynamic notation with small note-heads indicating parts to be played more softly in the (musical) background, normal note-heads indicating a louder dynamic (in the foreground). (Published by Eschig, ed. F. Zigante.)

As if that is not proof enough, Villa-Lobos’s own performance of his Prelude no. 1 conclusively shows that the accompaniment should be less prominent than the melody and the quavers should be even. (Actually, it is common sense to any real musician except a guitarist.)

Here it should be noted that Yepes had the instinctive musicality to intuit Villa-Lobos’s dynamic intentions (playing the accompaniment of Prelude no. 1 softer and not “pulsing” as Bream would have it) and that at a time when only the old Eschig text was available, without the small note-heads. That speaks volumes about Yepes’s innate musical sensibility.

While Yepes also flouts a few authorial indications (e.g. the Poco meno in No. 5), most of Villa-Lobos’s expressive nuances are present in Yepes’s recording, but demonstrably absent from Bream’s (12 Etudes) and Williams’s (5 Preludes). (What happened, for example, to the rit. in b. 4 of Prelude no. 1, the poco allargando in b. 27, the rit. in b. 32, the allargando in b. 38, the rall. in b. 40, the rit. in b. 51, the rall. in b. 69, the poco meno in b. 70, the allargando poco a poco in bb. 73-4, the rall. in b. 79…?)

That Duarte chose to censor his associates’ shortcomings while censuring Yepes’s strengths is a scandal. We have to ask what so affronted him? Or was he simply too incompetent to discern these important, expressive nuances, and too ignorant of his own ignorance?

John Duarte with Julian Bream

Such condign meta-criticism comes in response to decades of tendentious and suspect ‘reviews’ like those of Duarte, filled with indemonstrable, meretricious panegyrics to the Anglo-Iberian ‘gods’ of the guitar (Bream, Williams, Segovia) while underhandedly belittling non-conforming and thus not hierarchically stratifiable artists, like Yepes but also others.

Having looked at some contradictory details, let us consider other aspects of the above mentioned Gramophone reviews by Duarte:

1978: “If Williams has provided the definitive recording of the five Preludes … Bream has now done so with the Etudes. Yepes offers equal proficiency, coupled with a good recording [3] and friendly acoustic, but his approach is academic rather than sentient, which shows at both ends of the expressive spectrum. He gives an accurate account of the surface of the music whereas Bream carries us into its heart, and there we find the heart of Villa-Lobos, who loved both the guitar and music deeply. There is in Yepes’s playing none of the subtlety of nuance and rubato that Bream deploys and even his well known waywardness of tempo is absent. / Bream will record nothing he does not believe in or in which he cannot find something worth expressing.  … He has the special kind of magic (I think it is called affection) that persuades one to consider trifles and to do so in their favour. By now you must have gathered that, unless you hate the guitar or Villa-Lobos, you must waste no time in buying this marvelous record [i.e. Bream's Villa-Lobos record].” (Duarte, Gramophone, December 1978)

[3] Note: If there is something deserving criticism here, it is the uneven recording quality – editing different takes together that were clearly recorded with different microphone placements or on different days – but Duarte evidently could not perceive these obvious inconsistencies of nuance, describing the recording quality as “good”. Ultimately, however, this lukewarm ‘compliment’ of the recording, not the artist, is nothing but a ruse to mislead readers, to appear to be “objective”.

1989: “Yepes has never lacked facility and none of these recordings was made on a technical off-day; indeed, most guitarists would be happy to be able to match some of his quick-fire passages on their best on-days. What he does here lack, especially in comparison with Bream, is charisma and warmth, let alone temperamental fire; in their place there is too often eccentricity of phrasing (the central section of Prelude No. 5 is reduced to rubble) and a kind of sentimentality, marked by slow tempos, overcooked vibrato and note-values that are too distorted to pass as rubato—Prelude No. 1 is a compendium of all these things. Elsewhere there is too much that is wooden and stilted, e.g. Etudes Nos. 5 and 9, and nowhere is there genuine tension. I regret that I can raise little enthusiasm for this new compilation [i.e. Yepes's Villa-Lobos recordings].” (Duarte, Gramophone, April 1989)

There are motives (egoic motives? financial motives?) and historical undercurrents to be considered here. For example, the ideological shift that took place around 1980. Before that, under the influence of the “Romantic” or, rather, the proto-modernist Segovia, other rival artists like Yepes, whether justifiably or not, could be denigrated on the grounds that they were “academic” (a derogatory euphemism for intelligent, knowledgeable, profound, philosophical)  and thus supposedly not “sentient” (as if depth and sensitivity are necessarily mutually exclusive). By 1980 a stronger (not merely guitaristic, but a larger musical) shift had taken place toward a Modernist (anti-expressive, or’academic’) ideology represented in performance by the so-called “historically informed” or “authenticity” movement – an ideological shift that forced tendentious figures like Duarte to reinvent their criticism of Yepes who now became suddenly not “academic” (a pro) but overly sentimental (an anti-Romantic con).

There is also much more to be oppugned in such reviews as mere truisms, gabble that can either be believed or not, but that cannot be proven. There is the rhetoric: the conditional being used to present underhandedly a propagandistic truism as if it were the truth (“If Williams has provided the definitive recording” – “if” indeed;  there is anyway no such thing as “the definitive” in music, except for those who would choke it as a living art and turn it into a religion or archaeology with their “definitives” and “perfectives”). Or, to take another example of underhandedness, there is Duarte’s tacit implications of ‘mere’ proficiency or ‘mere’ facility (why not call it virtuosity?) as if to imply that virtuosity necessarily precludes expression, another truism, and a snobbery smacking of Baldassare Castiglioni’s Book of the Courtier. Moreover, what does it mean for Bream supposedly to penetrate the “heart” of Villa-Lobos when, unlike Yepes, he does not scratch the surface of the composer’s text, does not get the surface details right but flouts them, distorts them? Does getting to the “heart” of Villa-Lobos mean ignoring his painstaking notation of dynamic differences, different articulations and fluctuations of tempo? Or does getting to the heart of the music mean observing most, if not all, of these indications, and then adding to the indeterminate spaces they delimit, other, additional, ineffable expressive nuances?

There is much more to be said here, but a deeper analysis is for another day and another, more weighty medium.

* * *

Let us turn now to a few additional examples of critical bêtise concerning Yepes’s alleged “waywardness” of tempo.

This write-up appeared in The New York Times: “The suite [sic] by Falckenhagen [...] seemed burdened to the point of stumbling by Mr. Yepes’s rhapsodic pauses and surges.” (Bernard Holland, ‘Narciso Yepes Plays a Guitar Recital at Met’, New York Times, November 10, 1986)

The Sonata op. 1 no. II by Falckenhagen, in fact, contains these “rhapsodic pauses and surges” as a feature of the composition, two examples being marked in red below. Again, as with Duarte’s first impression of Yepes in 1961, the criticism is unjustified and stems from ignorance of the work in question.

Falckenhagen's Allegro un poco (Sonata 2)
Falckenhagen’s Allegro un poco (Sonata 2)

The other side of the coin has seen a tendency to denigrate Yepes for not submitting obediently (in an authoritarian climate) to the slow tempo at which Segovia, Bream, Williams and their imitators have taken Tárrega’s famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra. That it is their tempo that lacks an awareness of phrasing (rather than Yepes’s that is too fast) can easily be shown by means of a little experiment: Sing the melodic line (implied by the tremolo and shown below) with a single, natural breath per phrase – in other words, without disrupting the cohesion of the phrase. Can it be done at the slower tempo? Does it feel natural? What about singing the melody at Yepes’s faster tempo? Alternatively, ask a pianist, flautist, violinist cellist, oboist or any other trained (non-guitarist and therefore not already prejudiced) musician to play the melody as they deem best and most expressive. The results should be illuminating.

Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra
Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Melodic line only)

As C. P. E. Bach once couched an antidote to the waffling ‘arguments’ of some of his father’s critics:

“One should miss no opportunity of hearing capable singers; from this one learns to think in terms of song. And it is a good idea to sing musical themes to oneself in order to find out how they should be played; this will in any case be more useful than relying on long-winded books and tracts, in which all the talk is of Nature, Taste, Song, Melody, notwithstanding the fact that their authors are often incapable of composing two notes naturally, tastefully, songfully or melodiously, since they attribute all those gifts and qualities to this and that according to their whims, but most injudiciously.” (Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen,Trans. Piero Weiss)

That a video of Yepes performing Recuerdos de la Alhambra has been viewed c. 3 million times speaks to the irrelevance and antipopulist prejudice of some guitar critics’ opinions.

* * *

Lastly, let’s look at the famous Fantasie by Weiss. The Urtext is shown below:

Weiss's Fantaisie
Weiss’s Fantasie

Note, first, that the introductory section is written in quavers (marked B in red and restated at the top left of each new system) and not in semi-quavers as mis-transcribed in many guitar editions, presumably to conform to the faster tempo in Segovia’s recording rather than for legitimate musicological reasons. Second, this section is written without bar-lines, implying a rhythmically flexible, improvisatory (“fantasy”) style characteristic of 17th and early 18th century unmeasured preludes. Considering just these two points already, it is Segovia and Bream’s perfunctory tempo that is wayward in relation to Weiss’s actual instructions, and not Yepes’ slower, more flexible tempo.

Third, note that the initial tempo is indicated by a C (marked A in red in the above example), which was not just a time signature in early music. This is followed by a fugue-like alla breve whose proportional tempo is indicated – as per the conventions of that historical epoch – by the C with a stroke drawn through it (marked C in red in the above example).

In music of this period there are two categories of tempo for duple meters. Common time, indicated with C and alla breve indicated with a C with a stroke drawn through it. According to the conventions of the time, alla breve is more or less twice as fast as common time, but the note values used in alla breve are twice as long. In other words, if common time Allegro consists mainly of semi-quavers, an alla breve Allegro consists mainly of quavers. But since alla breve is twice as fast, the quavers in that tempo are to be played as fast as the semiquavers in common time. In other words alla breve indicated tempus imperfectum diminutum, a 1:2 proportion, or double the previous tempo. Here is some of the period evidence for this convention:

Alexander Malcolm (1721): alla breve “is brisk”.

William Turner (1724): C with the stroke “denotes the Movement to be somewhat faster than the former.”

Joachim Quantz (1752): “In four-crotchet time it must be carefully observed that when a stroke goes through the C . . . such a stroke signifies, that all the notes, so to speak, become a different value, and must be played [twice] as fast again, than is the case when the C has no stroke through it. This measure is called : allabreve, or alla capella. But since with regard to the aforesaid measure many have fallen into error through ignorance: it is most desirable that everyone should become acquainted with this difference. The measure is more frequent in the galant style, than it used to be in former times.”

Georg Muffat (1695): C without the stroke should be “almost always more moderate than” C with the stroke. In other words, C with the stroke indicates a faster tempo.

Christopher Simpson (1665): alla breve “is a Degree faster” than Common time without a stroke.

Henry Purcell (1696): “ye first [C] is a very slow movement, ye next [C with a stroke] a little faster”.

John Playford (1654): “The second sort of Common Time is a little faster, which is known by the Mood, having a stroak drawn through it”.

In conclusion, an awareness of this tempo convention can be observed in the recording of Narciso Yepes, who advised his students to study cutting edge musicological publications. The same stylistically informed treatment of tempo can be observed in the recording of the lutenist Hopkinson Smith. (See the videos below.) Segovia and Bream’s recordings, however, display no such historical knowledge. Instead of the slow, unmeasured common time section, they move perfunctorily through its arpeggios. Instead of intensifying the tempo at the alla breve, they drag it out through ignorance of a relevant historical performance convention. I posit therefore that it is their tempo that is wayward, not Yepes’s, and that classical guitarists have been taken for a ride by some opportunistic but incompetent guitar ‘critics’ and ‘historiographers’. Not everyone is willing to pretend anymore that the Emperor or his “Princes” wear incomparably magnificent robes that must be held in awe. Art should be a meritocracy, not a monarchy in which careers are inherited by conforming to London’s ways. As the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee said, the responsibility of the true artist is “toward something that has not yet emerged” (Doubling the Point: 246), something outside the enclosure of history, something as yet unknown, and not a responsibility toward imitation and conformity.

The indeterminate spaces of all musical works allow for an infinite number of differently nuanced interpretations, most (if not all) of which are valid, not only those that conform mindlessly to the way imposed by a Procrustean oligopoly or kleptocracy.

Smith’s version starts at 2:26. Click here: