Anna Scott: the early-twentieth-century recordings of the Brahms circle of pianists

Anna Scott is a Canadian pianist-researcher interested in using the early-twentieth-century recordings of the Brahms circle of pianists to question the persistent gaps between the loci of performer knowledge, ethics, and act in both mainstream and historically informed approaches to Brahms’s late piano works. Far from advocating more historically accurate performances in general, Anna’s off-the-record experiments both elucidate and disturb modern constructions of Brahms’s classicist canonic identity by encouraging the emergence of the corporeal and psychological conundrums more characteristically associated with Romantic pianism.

Anna is currently pursuing a practice-based doctoral degree at the Orpheus Instituut in Ghent (docARTES) under the supervision of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (King’s College, London), Naum Grubert (Royal Conservatoire The Hague and Conservatory of Amsterdam), and Frans de Ruiter (Leiden University, NL), and she is also a doctoral artistic researcher at the Orpheus Research Center in Music (ORCiM).


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Emlyn Stam: early-20th-century recordings

The widespread availability of early-20th-century recordings has revealed to us the rich and changing performance history of the 20th century. The evidence presented to us by historical recordings conflicts with many current day narratives about our own performance practices in Western Art Music. Current performance practice is greatly influenced by the ubiquitous presence of highly-edited digital recordings and structuralist, textual approaches to music. The performances we hear on early recordings on the other hand, can often be characterized as unpredictable, live, rhetorical, and based on a moment-to-moment approach. In light of these considerations, I feel that examining and working with early recordings is of vital importance for contextualizing our current performance practices that so often go unquestioned. Our musical culture is prone to several major assumptions about our performance practices namely, that our performance practices have been passed on through tradition and retain a historical essence of truth, that our practices are fully based on historical evidence or that our practices are fully new and creative. Historical recordings tell us that none of these things tend to be true and can help us to question of the underlying tenets of our current practices. This questioning will likely lead to changes in our own attitudes to performance as well as to the musical content of those performances.

My research focuses on exploring the terrain around the following questions:

-What techniques differentiate the approach or aesthetic of early-20th -century performers from contemporary performers? 

-What differentiates the early-20th-century approach to string chamber music and viola playing from our own?

-Why are a number of stylistic traits of early-20th-century performance practice no longer used in current music-making?

-How can contemporary performing musicians integrate ‘foreign’ stylistic performing practices into their own performance practice?

I will use the analysis and study of historical viola and string quartet recordings to create experimental new performances using historical performing styles to expand the horizons of our current performing practices.  My goal is to proceed from analysis, through copying, to a greater ‘insider-understanding’ of past performance practices in order to infuse new performances with this knowledge.

Emlyn Stam; violist and musician/researcher, PhD student at the Orpheus Institute, Gent, Belgium.

Andrew J. Meyer: Golden Age or Dustbin of History?

Rediscovering Voices of Authority in the Performance
of 19th-Century Music

Fortepianist and musicologist Andrew J. Meyer maintains that it is essential for today’s classical musicians to immerse themselves in the largely lost expressive languages preserved on early gramophone recordings. Only in this way can demonstrably 19th-century musical concepts and nuances be restored to contemporary performances.

The rise of ‘authentic performance practice’ on period instruments during the second half of the twentieth century has had an immense influence on the performance and reception not only of early music, but equally of the canonical concert repertoire. ‘Correct’ performances are understood to be derived from readings of Urtexteditions of scores and historical treatises on performance contemporaneous with the composition in question. This is a largely philological conception of the transmission of music which early recordings demonstrate to be conclusively false: simply put, what theoretical treatises written at the beginning of the era of recording say, and what the recordings acoustically document, are frequently at odds. The implication, as ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger wrote nearly seventy years ago, is that ‘without a very vigorous oral tradition of writing, neither speech nor music writing can be learned.’ It is only logical to assume that this dynamic held in earlier periods, as it does across cultures today. For ‘Classical’ or ‘Baroque’ music, there is simply no way of verifying that modern interpretations of historical texts correlate with past performance traditions. Given the incompleteness of textual source material, very probably they do not.

Early recordings document the performance practices of many of the greatest musicians in Europe during the final decades of the Romantic era (c. 1900-1940), some born as early as the 1820s and 1830s. They are the only truly historical performances available to modern ears. Despite the sustained efforts of collectors and a handful of scholars to preserve, disseminate, and promote this legacy, early recordings are typically written off by the musical establishment as being at best ‘quaint’ documents of outmoded performance styles in highly questionable taste. This historical chauvinism is misguided and it is time to recognize the unique value of these ‘windows’ into our collective musical heritage.


Andrew J. Meyer was born in Wisconsin, USA in 1980. He studied fortepiano and historically-informed performance practice with Sally Sargent in Vienna, and musicology and cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Currently he is a PhD candidate at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts at Leiden University. A specialist in the burgeoning field of practice-based research, his thesis emerges directly out of his own musical training. During his studies with Sargent he was exposed to living pedagogical traditions that can be traced directly to Anton Rubinstein, founder of the 19th-century ‘Russian’ school of pianism. He also taught cultural history at Webster University, Leiden.