e-PAIVirtuosity and Performance Mastery issue, 2003/04

It's good for you, the virtue of virtuosity

Copyright © Nick Till 2003.

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

Nick Till

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.

I thought I would take the opportunity to think a little bit about the concept of virtuosity. I called the paper, "it's good for you: the virtue of virtuosity". I am going to talk about the etymological link, because so far we have only heard a little about the notion of virtue and virtuosity. I am going to use music as my prime example, not because I think music is the only sphere in which virtuosity takes place, but because it is the artistic practice in which the concept of virtuosity was first articulated.

In particular I will talk about virtue and virtuosity in relation to singing, because that's where a lot of the initial debate arose. The paper is in three parts: some introductory thoughts, a discussion about virtuosity and I end with an analysis of a bit of pianistic virtuosity.

Nick TillPart One

Is it good, we ask, but why "good", a turn towards the realm of moral judgement? Is it good we ask, when what we mean is "how do you like my meat loaf and only in jest? If there is a meat loaf heaven will my meat loaf be there?" Why do we evaluate artistic techne, a Greek term that comprises skill, judgement, know-how, in the same terms as moral worth? The explanation is that our language of aesthetic evaluation is taken from Greek rather than Judeo Christian concepts of the good. The classical concept of the good implies, more or less, fitness for purpose, a perfect matching of means to end. To this extent the virtue we ascribed to the aesthetic falls under the category of what Kant described as teleological judgement: skill, craft, mastery, know-how, techne. These are not ends in themselves, but means to ends. It is axiomatic of the artwork that the whole is always more than the sum of the parts. Kant distinguishes teleological judgement from the purposelessness judgement of aesthetic judgement proper. But behind the question "is it good?" invariably lies another question: "what is it good for?" This is the question that Kant, of course wanted to prohibit, for in this sense we bring our wider moral values to bear on our aesthetic judgement.

Perhaps we do really mean what we say, when we ask: "is it good?". Perhaps this is why the academy is rendered uncomfortable, when it is required to ask, "is it good?". And just how good? Let me take a different tack to the problem by citing an American literary critic, Richard Poirier, on the "moral neutrality of performance", or what he describes as the moral neutrality of performance. According to Poirier

Performance in writing, in painting or in dance, is made of thousands of tiny movements, each made with a calculation that is also its innocence. By innocence I mean that the movements have an utterly moral neutrality. They are designed to serve one another and nothing else. They are innocent too, because contrived with only a vague, general notion of what they might ultimately be responsible for: the final thing, the accumulation, called the work. (R. Poirier, The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in Languages of Contemporary Life, OUP, 1971: 87.)

Nick TillSo perhaps it is not good enough that we need to ask, "what is it good for?". That hasty impatient act of interpretation that leads us to look through or over the properties of what is presented before our eyes or ears to the meaning or intention beyond. But where I would have to depart from Poirier is in his assumption of the moral neutrality of the performative gesture. For that mark or movement always already comes wrapped in assumptions of value. So before we ask"what is it good for?", which will also entail the questions "what does it mean or, what does it do?", we need to remember to ask first exactly what kind of performative techne is on display here, and then, how is this particular skill figured and valued in its own right? And then, "how does this performer stage her relationship to the performative technique she employs?", and only then, "what is my relationship to the figurations and evaluations on display?". These are a few introductory thoughts on the issue of virtue and the good, when we talk about creative activity. I am going now to move to talk a little bit about virtuosity.

Part Two

Let's take a more careful look at the notion of virtuosity. Virtuosity, skill as virtue, skill as virtue in its own right. Good and, perhaps, good enough. Virtue that is, in the classical sense, as I already described: some pop etymology. Virtus is the Latin translation of the Greek concept of arete which implies a particular strength of character. This is distinct from the later Christian application of the term virtus, which implies conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality. Herein lies the root of some of our confusions. During the Italian Renaissance the classical concept of virtus was revised as virtu. By 1703 we find the concept of virtuosity - virtuosité, in fact - defined in a French dictionary of music and its connection to the Renaissance concept of virtu is made explicit. That superiority of genie which we could translate as spirit; of address - "application" perhaps would be a translation; or habilité, ability, which makes us excel, whether in theory or in practice. Are we surprised to find virtuosity attached to theory? We shouldn't be. For the Greeks technique applied as much to intellect as to craft. So, virtuosity is an excellence that demonstrates the just combination of spirit, the will to do something, perhaps; ability, know how and application; sticking power or industry, perhaps. The Baroque virtuosity identified here is indubitably moral, in the classical sense according to those criteria. And we should note that Baroque virtuosity displays its industry, at precisely that historical moment in which labour is being valued as the source of all wealth, by early theorists of capitalism such as John Locke.

Nick TillAnd here is my first example of Baroque virtuosity: it is an aria from an opera by Handel, Partenope (1730). Baroque virtuosity is a sign of labour. It also signifies control. The obsessive artifice of vocal fioritura - the Italian word for that kind of decorative singing - evolves in an effort to defer, master and aesthetise the impulses of nature. Performance mastery performs mastery of the wayward emotions which reason seeks to control and guide. If self-control is the highest virtue in Baroque classical thinking, then virtuosity is unquestionably virtuous. Performance mastery - aha! with what virtuosity he weaves in the terms of the symposium title!

So far so virtuous - or it was so until we felt the itch of discomfort that came with the term mastery. And now the itch spreads like a rash. Perhaps we blushed involuntarily at the implications of that other term lurking further down the page. "Disciplinary mastery" - and then we remember all the reasons why we are not meant to approve of Enlightenment rationality and its disciplinary regimes. Nor indeed did the Enlightenment on its own always approve of its own instrumental reason. By the mid-eighteenth century the tyranny of the great virtuoso singers is already being questioned by composers like Gluck. It seems that in assuming the mantle of virtue, the humble status of techne as means, has stepped in the limelight to become an end in itself. Virtuosity has become excess and empty display. In the later eighteenth century classicism simplicity is the preferred signifier of truth and the natural, and virtuosity is now recognised as an unfortunate symptom of the division of labour - the division between mental and manual labour which as a result is rendered merely mechanical. So "virtuosity" is now figured as the mechanical, an obstacle to the expression of emotional truth. Mozart makes this clear in the characterisation of the duplicitous queen of night in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791). Her virtuosity is mere music-box tweeting. She pleads with Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter, abducted by an evil demon, as she claims. "Liar", reads the sign around her neck. Virtuosity figured as the mechanical.

Nick TillDuring the subsequent Romantic era "virtuosity" is again refigured and revalued, this time as a sign of individuality and emotion. Virtuosity no longer signifies control. It is transfigured as spontaneity, expressive freedom bursting through the bonds of formal restraint. Virtuosity is, after all it seems, truer to nature. Liszt, the greatest of all piano virtuosos, constructed a gypsy-genealogy for his own virtuosity on the grounds that gypsies were close to nature. Another pop etymologist, Liszt also made a connection between virtuosity and virility - a necessary move since virtuosity was often figured as the feminine- hysterical. Liszt ensured that we never forget that virtuosity is mastery. A mastery is again transcendence, the fruits of labour are again displayed in the fetishised commodity. Labour itself is concealed. Note for note, you get your money's worth from a virtuoso like Liszt, but the hours of practice, the bleeding fingers are kept well backstage. This cycle of valuation, negation, revaluation continues to our day. The concept of virtuosity and its valuations slip and slither between some of the most familiar binaries of Western metaphysics: structure/decoration, substance/style, fullness/emptiness, ground/surface, labour/play, control/release, essence/supplement. When I say this about slip and slither, the evaluation might sit on either side of those binaries, so the virtuosity may be ground - because you have to have the skill, the technique and the know how, before you can do anything; or it may be surface, that which is added on, it may be supplementary. Hence the endless cycle of dis-valuation and re-valuation. One of the most familiar tactics of avant-garde movements of the twentieth century - in particular dada and surrealism - has been to renounce virtuosity as a reification and commodification of skill: a fetish of the spectacle and passivity it inculcates. The clumsy, the repetitive, the involuntary, the invisible - these are all signs of the avant-garde's negation of virtuosity. Negations that are instantly recuperated as new virtuosities, gestures against authenticity, refigured as authentic. In the Soviet avant-garde, for instance, repetition re-enacts the forms of productive labour within a political economy in which labour is highly valued. And new virtuosities emerge to fill the vacuum left by the work and its exemplary interpretations. The virtuosity of the jazz improviser, not as personalised display of mastery but as a celebration of shared competencies; the tactical virtuosity of de Certeau's walker in the city, or his reader. The virtuoso listening demanded by John Cage. There is no outwitting the obligation to mastery.

Part Three

Nick TillAt this point I had intended to shift gear, to use the examples on my own theatre work to question the academies' demand for written meta-discourse in relation to artistic practice as research. Why must we assume that writing is the only form of meta-discursive practice? If we are unconfident of the possibility that any mode and representation can fully contain the means by which it represents, as Wittgenstein formulates it, could we not consider the possibility that different disciplinary practices might enter into a meta-discursive relationship with each other? My own practices as a theatre-maker employ theatrical forms to investigate and make visible the social and discursive contexts of musical production, performance and reception. I and my colleague Kandice Cook seek to reconfigure the ways in which music is experienced and understood through critical revaluation of these contexts. It struck me recently that in this model of practice as research, music might be described as the object of research while theatre might be described as the methodology of research. I began to piece together some thoughts as to whether this relationship between music and theatre might also constitute a meta-discursive relationship.

But it was as an at-home activity on a bank holiday that I wrote this paper; and to sharpen my thoughts on virtuosity, I had taken the opportunity to indulge in one of my favourite research activities: lying on the sofa and listening to records. A lot of them are the kind of records that give opera and pianism a bad name, but it beats working. One of the piano pieces I turned to as an antidote to a surfeit of Lisztian pyrotechnics was Chopin's Scherzo in C-sharp minor: I turned and returned in fact, because I became rather obsessed with the piece and so, as things do, my paper suddenly modulated in an unforeseen key. What follows then is a kind of freeform improvisation, provisional as any improvisation must be, and uncertain whether it will find its way back home.

Chopin was a contemporary of Liszt, but he represented an entirely different pianistic tradition to that of the great public virtuoso. But what is striking about the c-sharp minor Scherzo, is how obviously Chopin stages the problematic of virtuosity, providing clear evidence of his understanding of the range of evaluations of Romantic virtuosity. The piece begins with an introductory section in which fragments of a theme strive to attain formal coherence against more impatient assertions of pianist rhetoric while also attempting to lay claim to the terrain. Here, Chopin identifies himself as a composer closer to the classical than the Romantic tradition. The model to such an introduction comes from Haydn and Beethoven whose introductions often stage a similar confrontation with either disorder or authoritarian forms of order, on the one hand, and a humanised order, on the other, confirming the inevitable desirability of the latter.

animationFrom the exploratory gestures of the introduction, there emerges a dignified chorale-like theme, four square and solid, but tagged on to the end of this theme is a virtuosic flurry, a cascade of notes that have no obvious structural meaning. Skittish, slightly frivolous even. To some extent the rest of the piece unfolds as an attempt to resolve the implications of this wayward shower of virtuosic fioratura: to find out whether it would settle on the side of order or on that of disorder, and indeed whether in doing so, it will force us to question or re-evaluate these terms.

Now, this conflict between structure and virtuosity is undoubtedly written into the narrative of the piece, by Chopin. To this extent the Scherzo stages a musical meta-reflection on the problem of Romantic virtuosity, and it stages it in purely musical terms. The crucial point, though, is that Chopin himself does not provide a conclusive solution. Having staged the problem, he leaves it to the performer to resolve it. Her solution will depend on how she herself chooses to invest the opposing terms of the conflict. So I am going to suggest that we listen now to two performances of this piece. Both in fact are by the same pianist, Martha Agerich, although they offer entirely different solutions. In the first version (1), Agerich makes a strategic decision early on, that set the terms for the ensuing drama very clearly. The rhetorical gestures of the introduction are offered as a kind of 'bad virtuosity', rigid, formulaic, insensitive, which threatens to smother the half-submerged identity of the main theme.

When it eventually emerges Agerich presents the chorale theme as a noble rock-like statement, solid and weighty, dignified by its determination and resolution. Against such a dignified statement, the virtuoso flurry which follows can only appear as an unsuitable appendage, wayward and clearly other. Agerich detaches the flurry, articulating it with almost pernickety delicacy; and henceforth the performance evolves as attempt to resolve this contradiction. On the first restatement of this section, the flurry seems to assert its rights more confidently. In the ensuing development, Agerich sharpens the tension between an assertive baseline, base, ground, structure, set against a sequence of increasingly ostentatious swirls. For a moment it looks as if the impulse of virtuosity is going to run away with things, even joining forces with the 'bad virtuosity' of the introduction which returns at this point, but the rock like chorale is restated, obstinately unmoved. The protagonists are no closer to resolution of their difference. Then, in a surprising step, the main theme turns to the minor and seems to plead with the flurry, which falters, grows faint and seems to lose will.

The chorale theme emerges triumphantly back in the major, now free of its appendage. Instead the runs and roulades have migrated to the base where they underpin the theme, making it shake off some of its virtuous solemnity. Virtuosity has not been erased; instead it has been co-opted to add emotional "umph" to the theme - to add a rather untechnical term. So the piece ends in a triumphant resolution in which order and 'good virtuosity' have joined forces to defeat disorder and 'bad virtuosity'.

animation So, just to recap, we have an introduction with what I call the 'bad virtuosity', the sort of rhetorical flourishes, rigid formulaic. You will just hear the harmonic shape of the main theme, trying to find its way through. The theme arrives: it is a sort of four bar hymn tune, but each line has this odd flurry on the end, so it is broken up. You get the four lines of the hymn tune and she sets that up very clearly as a contradiction. Then there is a sort of development of that material, where that base and virtuosity take over, a return of the main theme in the minor and a sort of - a kind of recuperation of the flurry.

What I am trying to suggest here is that Agerich stages some sort of resolution of these two, which Chopin sets up initially as opposing forms. In the second version made some fifteen years later (2) - and it is a live performance this time - Agerich lays out the drama quite differently, astonishingly so in fact. From the outset, the introductory section is notably more aggressive. The forces of negation seem determined to ensure that the choral theme never comes to the surface and indeed we were barely made aware of its shadowy presence. When it does finally arrive, the chorale is notably less confident and adamantine. The result is that the ensuing flurry seems less other to it. Rather than presenting each line of the chorale theme in dignified isolation, Agerich injects it with a kind of forward-looking momentum that actually embraces the flurry, pulling it in its wake. Instead of a sequence of four opposed thematic statements, we seem to have one long arching line that contains both oppositions within it from the start. In its later appearances the flurry becomes more like a penumbral smudge, blurring the solid outlines of the theme and less like the glittering paste corsage of Agerich's earlier version. Note how Agerich now erases the conflict between the base and virtuoso swirls in the ensuing section.

The swirls now start from the base. For the rest of the performance the dramatic confrontation is not so much between the chorale theme and its other, but between these two oddly matched partners and falsest of disorderly aggression which seem determined to crush them. So violent is her portrayal of the return of the introductory material that Agerich herself slips the leash with wrong note splashes. After this, the third restatement of the main thematic material is defined. 'United we stand!', Agerich seems to suggest as she sweeps the virtuoso flurry under the skirts of the chorale theme from where it scurries to recover. The rturn to the minor is now full of nervous premonition and foreboding and the flurry emerges as a kind of consolatory halo, gaining its own voice and dignity before the final onslaught. When it migrates to the base the virtuoso line this time becomes a whiplash that seems spur the reluctant chorale theme into a battle, and the conclusion is unmistakably tragic, rather then heroic.

What I want to say finally, is that I am uncertain where I want to draw this absolute point. Either the point seems to be too obvious - that a work of art can indeed reflect on its own means of representation - or else I must have oversimplified something that is actually far more complex. So I think that the best employment of any time left, is to ask for your responses.


1. Martha Argerich: Debut Recital. 1961. Deutsche Grammaphon.

2. Martha Argerich: Live from the Concertgebouw. 1978 & 1979. EMI Classics.

Nick Till is co-artistic director of the multi-disciplinary music-theatre company Post-Operative  Productions (www.post-operative.org), and is Director of the Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre at the University of Sussex.

All images and web design copyright © 2003-2004 John Robinson.

Last updated 4th September 2004.