Thomas Stevens

Traditions I

  • General Quotes

"Tradition is Slovenliness"-Gustav Mahler

At a recent music seminar, a faculty colleague, an “old guy” like this writer, asserted that the majority of today’s symphony and other ensemble musicians have a tendency to simply play the notes as they appear on the pages of their individual parts, which they do exceedingly well-probably better than previous generations of performers of written music. However, he continued, they also seem predisposed to play those parts without any sense or knowledge of the music’s idiomatic period or regional styles or musical traditions.

This kind of rhetoric is to be expected in the generation wars, but, speaking as another old guy, I believe in this instance my colleague’s comment was right on target. It is a point of view shared by many in the music world, and not just the old folks.

Of course, there are some extremely valid, yet predictable, counter-arguments that can be offered, chief among them being that today’s musicians and ensembles are technically superior to their predecessors. In point of fact, instrumental parts (i.e. symphony orchestra repertoire) that have never before been played particularly well, or, for that matter, even competently, are these days routinely tossed off with little fuss, not to mention the fact that basic ensemble disciplines are infinitely better.

There is one stricture regarding the subject of musical traditions, however, which preempts all others, and it is that their validity should be questioned on a continuing basis, as a matter of routine, ad infinitum. Which ones have musical and historical legitimacy, and which ones are, to paraphrase my old friend, Roger Bobo, himself paraphrasing Erich Leinsdorf, simply the ill-fated results of circumstances where musicians performed things incorrectly in the past and then everybody repeated those same mistakes over and over again for 100 years (until things reached the point where no one could possibly conceive of the music in question being played any other way)?

All of which reminds one of a question posed by our old friend, the curmudgeonly Mr. Leinsdorf, speaking in response to a comment from another musician in a most memorable and relevant