Monday, February 24, 2014

On the Lecture-Recital

by Michael J. Puri
“What do you do?”
    “I teach music.”
“That's great! What instrument do you play?”
Sound familiar? No matter how many times I am asked the second question, it always flummoxes me. My attempt to preempt it by answering the first question with something along the lines of “I teach music academics,” or, with greater specificity, “I teach the history and theory of music, not its performance,” have tended only to confuse my questioners. And in the event that they do know what I'm talking about, especially if they took a music course or two in college, they occasionally respond with an “Oh” or an “Ah” whose apparent disappointment makes me reluctant to say more.

But this question perplexes me on an even deeper level. Like many other members of our field, I actually do play an instrument (piano) and thus am confounded by the implication that one approach to music should exclude another. It is true that my institution, the University of Virginia, employs me to teach academic subjects, rather than performance, but I would not be doing the former if it weren't for my experience with the latter. In fact, I originally chose to enter this field because I thought that academia's enduring promise of freedom might give me the chance to strike a good balance between making music and learning about it. Looking back over the past fifteen years, I think I’ve realized my hopes pretty well. I would even venture to say that my scholarship has improved my performance, and vice versa. I owe this sense of fulfillment, in large part, to doing lecture-recitals.

The lecture-recital is not universally esteemed. Indeed, those who have attended such events are likely to recall at least one instance in which the lecture shed so little light on the performance that it probably should have remained a program note for the audience to read ad libitum. But if the elements of a lecture-recital are nicely shaped and synthesized, it can be a wonderful experience: revelatory for the audience, and deeply satisfying for the speaker-performer. And the prospect for the lecture-recital has only improved in the age of PowerPoint. In addition to speaking and playing, we are more likely than ever before to show images of archival materials, play recorded music, add visual emphasis to particular points, and highlight details in musical scores, even if we don’t ask the audience to decipher the notation.

To be able to realize all these possibilities in a single event is wishful thinking, of course. Even if you found a space with these A/V capabilities and had the means to rent it, you would still need sufficient time and energy to prepare the lecture and bring the music up to a level suitable for public performance. Music classrooms on campus are most likely to be equipped in these ways, but I seldom give lecture-recitals to the students in my courses; in my experience, the lecture-recital tends to be formal and monological, while I prefer my classes to be more informal and dialogical.

Consequently, the lecture-recitals I have given over the past several years have tended to be outreach events for an organization to which I belong, UVa’s Center for German Studies. In this context I have performed the Brahms op. 5 piano sonata, Liszt’s Funérailles, and various pieces by Robert Schumann, mostly for high school students with a budding interest in German culture. Naturally, I’ve had to work within the given constraints of time, instrument, acoustics, and so forth, but I can’t think of anything more desirable than having the opportunity to inspire a young person to love the thing that you love.

I have never found out whether these presentations actually had any lasting effect on their audiences, but I do still remember when my attempt to demonstrate a thesis by Detlev Kraus—that Brahms, in the second movement of his op. 5 sonata, painted the successive events of its poetic epigraph—caused a pair of students in the front row to giggle with surprise and pleasure as they suddenly experienced music’s ability to make the inaudible audible: in this instance, evening’s approach and the delicate gleam of moonlight.

Click HERE to listen to a recording of this passage by Radu Lupu.

The occasion that impelled me to write this blog entry, however, was a lecture-recital I recently gave at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. The Center afforded me every resource I might have wanted for the event: a beautiful space, ample time, a concert grand, special lighting for the piano, projection and sound systems, wireless and wired microphones, a clicker to advance PowerPoint slides remotely, and an engineer to oversee the soundboard. All I had to do was to find something good to say and play....

The project I’ve been pursuing at the Center—analysis of a range of transnational influences on the music of Maurice Ravel—seemed unsuitable for a lecture-recital at the piano, since it deals primarily with opera and orchestral repertoire. However, after further consideration I realized that a focus on piano literature could actually extend my project in a new and productive direction. Broadening out from Ravel studies, I decided to argue for a stronger relation between two repertoires that have often been opposed: German Romanticism and French post-Romanticism. (I am using the latter as an umbrella term for musical movements more commonly referred to as Impressionism, Symbolism, and Neoclassicism.)

Schumann and Debussy were the obvious choices to represent their respective eras, not only because we can construct a plausible artistic genealogy to link one to the other, but also because their music for piano sounds good in juxtaposition, at least to my ears. I also extended the filiation to Ravel and invoked Liszt as a mediator.

With these basic elements in place, I then pondered the details of both the program and the lecture. I ultimately decided to advance two concepts as touchstones for this Franco-German rapprochement: the caprice and the fragment. Under the rubric of the caprice, which includes but is not limited to pieces titled “caprice” or “capriccio,” I placed notions such as dance, lightness, levity, surprise, and the arabesque. Notions associated with the fragment, on the other hand, included the miniature, incompletion, ephemerality, and memory. Due to their flexibility, these two concepts gave me wide latitude to formulate the program, which ultimately incorporated selections from Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Waldszenen, Ravel’s Miroirs and Le Tombeau de Couperin, some late Liszt (Première Valse oubliée), and early music of Debussy (Danse).

At this point I had to confront various questions, practical and theoretical. How should I distribute my allotted time between lecture and recital? Should I finish the entire lecture before beginning the recital, or should I intersperse the two? If the latter, should I devote one lecture segment to each piece, or use a single segment to introduce a group of pieces? Should I discuss only the pieces on the program, or should I use the lecture to fill in any significant gaps in the programming? If I need to demonstrate musical excerpts during the lecture, should I use recordings or play them myself? And, perhaps most important, who will my audience be and what do I need to do to convey to them, as effectively as possible, the music and my ideas about it?

Although I initially intended to play more and talk less, the growth of my text eventually forced me to leave out a few pieces and split the time evenly between speaking and performing. In general, I designed each lecture segment to introduce the single piece that followed it and last about the same amount of time as the music; since the average duration of the selections was about six minutes, the program fluctuated between word and music with a frequency that I thought would be friendly for a lay audience.

In each segment I situated the piece within its historical context and indicated its connection to the guiding topics of caprice and fragment. I also included some musical analysis, sticking to issues of form, rhythm, register, and articulation while steering clear of harmony and tonality, which might be more difficult for the audience to grasp. This allowed me not only to show similarities among pieces whose resemblance might not be immediately apparent to the untrained ear, but also to highlight a few key moments in such a way that, when the audience encountered them in the subsequent performance of the entire piece, they would feel a sense of recognition, orientation, and even understanding.

For the most part I demonstrated these moments by playing them on the piano. Without asking the audience to read the music, I nevertheless sought to reinforce the aural with the visual by displaying them as score snippets on PowerPoint slides; a wireless microphone allowed me to discuss details within these passages—which I annotated on the slides themselves—at the same time that I was playing them. This was a useful exercise for me, as well, since it reminded me to bring out these details in the performance that followed.

These norms not only lent structure to the presentation, but also served as a base line from which to diverge at opportune moments. One example of such divergence was the ongoing dialogue that I created between my musicological approach to these pieces and a theory of musical form and meaning that the literary theorist Roland Barthes once proposed; while he may have intended his speculations about the “intermezzo” to account solely for the special impulsiveness of Schumann’s piano music, I nevertheless experimented with applying his theory to French music, as well. And while I played most of the excerpts live at the piano, I still incorporated into my PowerPoint some excerpts from piano pieces by Debussy and Ravel as performed by the composers themselves—a valuable resource that sharpened the audience's attention during the second half.

Another twist was a departure from the pattern of single-piece introductions to discuss Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet” and Liszt’s waltz as a pair. Juxtaposing these two pieces not only highlighted their general similarity but also allowed me to show how the revision of endings in both pieces heightened their identity as musical fragments. Finally, I violated the otherwise chronological layout of the program by placing Debussy’s Danse after Ravel’s “Forlane,” even though the former was composed some twenty-five years before the latter. I did so primarily to show the audience that fin-de-siècle French musical Neoclassicism need not only be associated with works in the style of Le Tombeau de Couperin—that is to say, music with a clear historical referent (Couperin's ordres). Rather, I wanted the audience to understand that this musical movement could also encompass more fanciful conceptions of the past.

Debussy’s Danse is good for making this point insofar as it can be understood to draw upon the fête galante, a playful and erotic image of the ancien régime as imagined by the eighteenth-century painter Watteau and appropriated by such nineteenth-century figures as Verlaine and Debussy, among others. A further benefit of this chronological inversion was that the stirring conclusion of Danse would bring the program to an end in a way that Ravel's “Forlane” would not. That is, of course, the point of the rather melancholic “Forlane,” along with many other pieces in the emphatically non-emphatic repertoire of French post-Romanticism. Nonetheless, I felt that the audience deserved a rousing number after seventy-five minutes of delicate music and intellectual musings...

L'Embarquement pour Cythere, by Antoine Watteau, from C2RMF retouched
Watteau: The Embarkation for Cythera
There are myriad ways to compose a lecture-recital and just as many rationales for doing so. Thus, all I would want to claim about my approach is that it seemed to be effective on this occasion: I felt good about the quality of the presentation, and the audience seemed to leave pleased. Still, I wanted to share my experience here in the hope that it might be useful to anyone who is thinking of giving a lecture-recital for the first time or already does so with some regularity.

Lecture-recitals may boil down to exercises in pedagogy, but they shouldn't be mistaken for a presentation you would give in a course. After all, your audience is not a group of students, and you will probably only interact with them once, rather than have the chance to form and inform them many times over many weeks. But the most significant difference is that the lecture-recital affords scholar-performers a special opportunity to demonstrate in telling detail how their understanding of music shapes the way they play it, as well as the way an audience might hear it. Even if I never manage to devise a satisfactory response to the question that began this essay, my continuing engagement with the lecture-recital gives me some comfort that I am doing my small part to combat the perceived divisions—between scholarship and performance, the experts and the general public—that have made it so difficult for me to answer.

Here are some excerpts from the lecture-recital, 16 January 2014 at the National Humanities Center. below.

Michael J. Puri is an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia, and the author of Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire (Oxford University Press, 2011). During the 2013–14 academic year he is in residence at the National Humanities Center as its Delta Delta Delta Fellow.


  1. It feels like kismet that you happened to publish this post this right when I'm needing to decide whether to explore this option or opt to write a longer paper in addition to a full recital program!

    Basically I'm not sure how articulate I'll be able to be before I perform, even with adequate preparation (e.g. powerpoint presentations, notecards, outlines, etc.)! Any suggestions on how to mitigate this issue? Thanks!

  2. What do you do?
    I work for the X Symphony Orchestra.
    Oh! What do you play?
    I play flute and piano, but not in public. [We both smile] I'm paid to write and speak about music. (or "I program the concerts", depending on when in my career I've been asked the question.)
    (It's rare that anyone's confused. Or uninterested.)