When performance perforates the idea of a musical work.

The transformation of a song by Grieg from the podium to the groove.

Per Dahl

Department of Music and Dance, University of Stavanger, Norway

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The link between the idea of a musical work and its performance was challenged by the recording technology. Traditionally a performance was seen as a manifestation of the composer’s idea of a musical work. Musicology made this concept/idea of a musical work as its ideological fundament and studied the composers score as the objective representation of a musical work.



In my thesis I have analysed 214 different recordings of Grieg’s opus (Jeg elsker Dig! /Ich liebe dich). The variety of performances/interpretations in the recordings goes far beyond the literacy of the score (and sometimes far from Grieg’s intentions). Recordings have been made for other groups of music lovers than those who went to concerts, often with references to other musical styles than Grieg’s The microphone made it possible to preserve the use of new expressive sonorities in a performance that would not be noticed in a concert hall. The record loosened the traditional link between the context and content of music and this contributed to the perforation of the idea of a musical work. From multi track and mixing possibilities there emerged an aesthetic that segregated the identity of a musical work from its performance as a unique sound event.




In classical music we have come to believe that the goal for a performance would be to give an optimal manifestation of the composer’s idea of a musical work. At the same time we know, both as listeners and performers, that there are differences in every performance. Even as record listeners we experience small changes in our attitude to the work and the performance for each new listening. These changes we have accepted as part of the performance practise and as a consequence of our constant developing stock of musical references. We still think of the idea of a musical work as a unique phenomenological entity.


In classical music the score has become the objective representation of the work, and this has been at the core of musicology at all times. While the performances were unstable and unpredictable, the score was open for many scientific research methods. The score became the authentic point of reference to the performance of a musical work. The record challenged this attitude and even our idea of a musical work was changed. First some remarks about these three elements; the score, the record listener and the gramophone.


2Three elements


2.1The Score


In evaluation of a performance, the score became the ultimate argument of how a musical work should sound.


There was music long before we began to write down music. The link between music and the score is a relatively new one, and there are still many musical genres with no systematic notation system. The main advantage of notation is that it sets free the musical praxis from the here-and-now situation. But as a sign system among musicians, it opened the way for the role of the composer. In the beginning the notation was only hints and examples of praxis/performativity.


A new dimension came in the Age of Enlightenment when music became art, not only a practice. Now the composers made their position clear by introducing the opus 1 as their first real composition, all previous compositions were only praxis.


2.2  The record listener


The dissemination of the gramophone made us develop many new listening strategies that were related to the context of listening, not to the content of the music.


With a gramophone record you could listen to music without any knowledge in music literacy. You could get any kind of music without attending a performance and without a reference to your social status and all what it might cost you of money and courage to attend big concert halls and operas. The most destructive possibility created by the record was the individualisation of the concept of a musical work, as it now was for the record listener to decide what part of the work to listen to and for how long and how often and where. This undermined the connection that had been established in classical music between the content and the context of a musical work.


2.3The gramophone


The main challenge from the gramophone was that it enabled us to catch and preserve the music without using traditional notation. Musical expressions were documented with far more accuracy in a recording compared to the score.


The recording technology, especially the microphone, made it possible to develop new expressive sonorities in a performance in the studio. In this way the development in the recording technology contributed to the perforation of the idea of a musical work. I will now try to show some examples of this development.


3      Analysis of 214 recordings of Edvard Grieg’s “Jeg elsker Dig!”


The song is no.3 in Grieg’s opus 5 “Melodies of the Heart” text by H. C. Andersen, and was composed in 1864.  It is a work for voice and piano, in the typical German Lied tradition, and therefore with a special affinity to the classical music audience. It became extremely popular; Editor F. C. Peters sold 60.000 copies of this song in Europe (outside Scandinavia) from 1883 to 1906. The first recording of “Jeg elsker Dig!” was made in London in November 1899, and when Grieg died a hundred years ago in 1907, there were more than 40 different recordings of the work.


The variety of interpretations in the recordings throughout the century goes far beyond the literacy of the score, (and sometimes far away from Grieg’s intentions). In my thesis on Grieg’s opus 5 no.3 “Jeg elsker Dig!” (Dahl 2006) I have 318 entries covering recordings with song and accompaniment from 1899-2005. I have analysed 214 different soundtracks among these recordings and here are just a few of my results. I will start with some elements that have changed during the century.


The accompaniment is mostly by piano, but at the beginning of every new technological advance there is an increase in production of recordings far away from the concert tradition. This might be based on the assumption that a commercialised version of this song would please a wider audience than the traditional lied-oriented music lover, and thereby make the new technology more wide-spread. This means that the aesthetic of the musical work was overshadowed by the financial objectives.


Especially in the electrical era, many recordings with orchestra were made with a studio orchestra that also recorded music in other musical genres. This resulted in interpretations adapted to an audience that was more interested in records than in concerts i.e. the sound is more important than the musical work.


I made a registration of tempo in each phrase, and by setting the first verse as the norm, I could calculate the relative tempo in each phrase, and then I found that the standard deviation of phrase tempo decreased in the 1950ies. This might be seen as an example that from that stereophonic LP-era the record became an important tool for musicians, to get acquainted with a repertoire and a performance practice without detailed study of the score or by a master.


What has been unchanged is the variety of individual tempo for the whole song. This individuality is independent of all other background data and support the traditional idea of a performance as one individual manifestation of a musical work. Even more interesting is that the phrases have been performed within a rather constant deviation profile regardless of musical genre. Statistically the lied singer, the crooner, the operetta star and the opera singer no matter what kind of accompaniment they have, makes tempo deviations in the same manner. Each deviation graph represents a unique phenomenological entity that could be seen as empirical data that could contribute to establish a musical work as a performative concept.


4      Recording technologies, musical context and content


This development of musical praxis is closely connected to the different stages of recording technologies.


4.1The Acoustical and Electrical Era


In the acoustical era recordings were mostly made with voice and piano. This song was translated to German with an added stanza, but even with two stanzas the song was well designed for the 78 shellacs. The sound quality though, was far from the concert hall, so it was only the very well known repertoire that was recorded. The classical music lover, who either played himself or was part of the regular audience to concerts and operas, was the target for this kind of records.


When the Electrical era starts in 1925 there are more orchestrated versions than piano accompaniment in the first 10 years of the period. The sound quality is much better, but still far from the natural one. The revolutionary elements are the use of microphone and amplifier. Changing the sound of music from mechanical energy to electrical oscillations made it possible to compose an artificial soundscape.


As the gramophone market expanded, many gramophone record listeners became familiar with many musical genres, and we find performances representing a merging of musical styles to satisfy the new audience that bought records but did not go to concerts.


4.2The Microphone


Two important changes in musical performances are related to the use of the microphone.


  1. The microphone made it possible to design an artificial balance between the instruments and singers, far beyond the possibilities in a concert hall/opera.


One example: This made the way for the crooner, the microphone amplified singer who could be balanced with a big band even if he just whispered the text.


  1. The microphone made it possible to catch close-up sounds from the instrument or singer, giving the performance a new kind of intimacy and individuality.


For nearly all songs, regardless of genre, intimacy and individuality is of greatest importance in a performance, and in the evaluation of the performance. At the same time, the enhanced focus on individuality in a performance moves the focus towards the performer and away from the musical work. And the amplified intimacies contribute to an extra attention towards aesthetic qualities in the present, loosening the appreciation of the structural elements in the concept of a musical work.


4.3The Stereophonic and Digital Era


In the stereophonic era (1955-85) recording and mass production of records could deliver a sound quality comparable with the concert hall, and could fulfil Walter Legges wish quoted in Chanan (1995):


“I want to make records which will sound in the public’s home exactly like what they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall.”


The tape recorder entered the studios after World War II, and the use of multi tracks and new editing devices that allowed integrating several different performances into an artificial one became the new standard. But then the uniqueness of a performance representing a musical work was undermined.


Even on a global scene the market for classical music was small compared to all other genres. In addition a new profession of musicians had entered the scene with the microphone; the gramophone artist. In order to sell as many records as possible, the repertoire should address more than one segment of the market. With all attention to the performer, and his sound, any musical work could be adapted to the performer’s style. All these adaptations also contribute to perforate the uniqueness of a musical work.


In the digital era (1985-) the possibility to edit every single sound and expression in a performance, makes a strong focus on the sound qualities in separate moments. It is mostly the producer who decides which take and which elements to be used, based on his knowledge of the music, the technological possibilities, and the potential in the market for a recording with this artist. The musical work itself is very seldom a part of these kinds of considerations.


5Musical work and performance


We have been used to a setting where the reliability of a performance has been defined by its interpretation of the score. With the gramophone record the traditional bounds between content and context have been broken. Today the focus is on the validity of a performance which is based on the context of the performance. It is where and when you play a musical work that decides whether your performance is valid and also reliable for that actual audience.


Such an idea of a musical work is quite close to the idea of music as praxis we had before the Age of Enlightenment, and it confronts the idea of a musical work as a unique phenomenological frame for performance where the score is its physical object.


The gramophone record makes listening to a musical work independent of place, genre, social and musical context.


I will illustrate this development by playing 4 recordings of Grieg’s Jeg elsker Dig! Monrad (1905) is a traditional song and piano recital, even if there is a lot to say about her freely interpretation. Bettendorf (1929) is with a studio orchestra where the orchestra is in front and the singer is traditionally recorded. d’Ailly (1930) represents the crooner generation with the voice in front and Fredriksson (1995) is a traditional concert audience directed interpretation, but with a lot of small details based on the technological and aesthetic development in lied-performance.




The overwhelming nonmusical context of record listening, perforate the idea of a musical work.


The content is decided by the producer based on the present sound qualities preserved by microphone and editing procedures to fit record consumers, not the musical work with its physical representation as a score.


A record is a patchwork of performative elements not necessary linked to the traditional idea of a musical work.




Chanan, Michael. 1995. Repeated takes: a short history of recordings and its effects on music. London. Verso.


Dahl, Per. 2006. Jeg elsker Dig! Lytterens argument. Grammofoninnspillinger av Edvard Griegs opus 5 nr.3.


       Dr. philos thesis. University of Stavanger, Norway.




Monrad, Cally. 1905.’Jeg elsker Dig!’ G&T 83579


Bettendorf, Emmy. 1929. ’Ich liebe dich’ Parlophon P9400


d’Ailly, Sven. 1930. ‚Jeg elsker Dig!’ Ultraphone A 45 101


Fredriksson, Karl-Martin. 1995. ’Jeg elsker Dig!’ Vanguard 99132