The disapparence of consonants
We have spoken severa! times in these short texts about the links between Haydn’s music and a dimension of theatrical and rhetorical communication. An important aspect of this is the matter of instrumental articulation, i.e. how a note should be ‘pronounced’. The technique of articulation between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries was based on a variety of consonants (and vowels) that wind players had to ‘speak’ when emitting the sound, just as string players had to seek as much differentiation as possible in the ways of attacking a note. At that time, imitation of the human voice was understood not only in terms of inarticulate melody, but also of the possibility of ‘speaking’ a musical phrase, imitating the elements oflinguistic prosody such as accents, pitch, microdynamics, etc.
This is a very important difference from the ‘modern’ approach, which, especially after the Second World War, has increasingly moved towards an ‘objective’ search for ‘beautiful sound’ and the elimination of the ‘noise’ of consonants from instrumental technique. In this regard, it is interesting to read what the great conductor Herbert von Karajan sought to achieve with his recording producer Walter Legge: a sound that was ‘exquisitely polished, free of anything that is unbeautiful, of great brilliance, and fortissimo without the click of an attack … We worked together for years on the theory that no entrance must start without the string vibrating and the bow already moving, and when you get a moving bow touching an already vibrating string, you get a beautiful entry. But if either of those bodies is not alive and already moving, you get a click‘ (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge. London and New York: 1982). The ‘click’ mentioned here corresponds exactly to the ‘noise’ of the consonants, and therefore his efforts were directed towards the elimination of articulation, replaced by an almost continuous legato.
This aesthetic vision had a great influence on the instrumental tastes of the second half of the twentieth century. Although it could certainly be valid to some extent in a certain repertory, if applied indiscriminately to music of earlier periods, as that of the eighteenth century, it may perhaps have made it ‘beautiful’, but also, undoubtedly, ‘mute’.