4. Melodic movement
Against the background of Stumpf’s research on nonmusical subjects, Abraham’s study of intonation appears in a new light. By the time he began collecting his series of samples, the two functions of recording and transcribing had entered the methodology of comparative musicology. In a number of coauthored publications, Abraham and Hornbostel had further developed a methodological tool kit for working with the phonograph. Parallel to this, they regularly published analyses of the music collected in the Phonogram Archive. During this process, the function of musical notation fundamentally changed. If for Stumpf notation had previously served as the only means of referring to the sound of music, the referential function was now distributed among several media. Equally, the function of analysis could be isolated and further differentiated. In addition to transcribing the recorded music, measurements of rhythmical and tonal aspects were carried out on the recordings. A standard scale for measuring pitch with the unit “cent” was introduced that, although based on the tonal steps applied in the tuning of a piano, would allow for a more finely grained description of frequency relations in the recorded music and facilitate comparison with the European tonal system.
Equipped with these methods, Abraham turned to musical notation as an object of investigation in its own right. He questioned the validity of reference in notation, thereby inserting the problem of notation into a genuinely psychological research agenda. The exact measurements carried out on the heterogeneous materials of “exotic music” implied a great deal of exactitude in the performers who happened to be recorded. No one had asked, however, whether such accuracy could be expected in performance at all. Abraham hypothesized that the ethnographers tacitly assumed the execution of the recorded music to be “correct” in the sense of European notation being “correctly” executed by excellent musicians trained in the European tradition. This assumption deserved more attention, he argued.
Abraham thus turned to subjectively correct readings of musical notation, testing the elasticity of that notion, on the one hand, and the encoding of acoustic events in musical notation, on the other. He measured his samples and evaluated them statistically. His results were surprising: there were great deviations among the subjects, including those with absolute pitch. The deviations themselves were sometimes more than twice as large as the smallest interval in the tonal scale. This meant that the individuals experienced the intonation as being correct not only when they were freely interpreting certain intervals as slightly larger or smaller but also when they were actually transgressing the rules of tonal harmony. Abraham ascribed this effect to certain “essential” aspects in the melody that made singers and listeners accept as correct what went against the notated values. The strongest confirmation of such a melodic essence was to be found in the performance of the nonmusical singer. Even though his singing almost never coincided with the notated intervals, the direction of the steps was correct in most cases. The same held for the proportions. He sang large and small intervals where necessary, even if these were almost never correct. Finally, no deviations occurred in his rendition of the rhythm.
The recordings of Edinger are illuminating in this respect. Abraham did not reveal the names of his subjects, and the archival evidence does not suggest that this eminent brain physiologist and neurologist was the nonmusical experimental subject discussed in the article. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that the recordings Arbaham made with Edinger played a decisive role in his study of intonation. According to the Phonogramm-Archiv documentation, experimental cylinders nos. 18–20 were made with Edinger. One of them contains his rendition of the commercium song “Gaudeamus igitur.” Another cylinder presents the folk song “Kommt ein Vogel geflogen” and a further commercium song, “Ergo bibamus,” based on a text by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The third is labeled “Wagner-Motifs.” No performance of the “Deutschlandlied” by Edinger is known to exist.
Wax roll no. 18 begins with an announcement: “Second recording Professor Edinger, Frankfurt: Kommt ein Vogel geflogen.” The song follows, then another announcement: “The same once again,” and another rendition of the same song. The two performances are similar in that in both cases the intonation strongly deviates from the melody of the folk song. The singer’s voice does not produce a tone with a clear pitch, but resembles speaking with a strong rhythmical structure and an eccentrically overstated melodic contour, as opposed to mere speech. As the repetition demonstrates, these features did not occur by chance, but are characteristic for this singer’s performance.
Like the folk-song recording, Edinger’s “Wagner-Motifs” recording starts with an announcement. Again, the singing is preceded by a note that is provided by the supervisor of the experiment. Ironically, in this case the note – normally played on a pitch pipe and intended to indicate the correct replaying speed – is sung here. Whether it was Abraham or Hornbostel who made the announcement (both were probably involved in the recording session, and both had absolute pitch), it seems that they found their own singing accurate enough for the precision needed for this purpose.
Four different motifs are then heard, each performed twice. Edinger imitates instrumental parts on syllables such as “daa dadida dadida dadiii” and sings the opera’s text for the vocal parts, such as “Goldne Äpfel wachsen in Freya’s Garten.” He obviously sings them from memory, as he deviates slightly from the original libretto. After this, the announcer enumerates the motifs that have already been heard, identifying them as being from The Ring of the Nibelung. The recording shows that Edinger is acquainted with Wagner’s music – to the extent of knowing its leitmotifs. He is even able to reproduce these well enough for the supervisor of the recording to recognize them. He utters them correctly in terms of rhythm, although the pitches are reproduced in the same peculiar way as before, which is closer to speaking than to singing.
A small hesitation in the announcement of the motifs suggests the unrehearsed nature of the recording situation. The announcer does not seem to be quite sure of the motifs in question; his intonation suggests that he seeks confirmation. One imagines Abraham looking at Edinger, who nods when he says “Waldvogel.” A faint undertone of laughter in the announcer’s voice is reminiscent of the effect that Hornbostel displayed in a recording of his own singing in the highest register. Barely reaching the highest note of the “Deutschlandlied” when he sings it in falsetto, Hornbotel bursts into laughter and has to start the melodic phrase again. Edinger reaches a falsetto as well when he tries to imitate the color of high notes rather than attempting to convey the pitch relations among them. His singing of the “Waldvogel” thus ends both times on a squeaky long “diii” syllable that hardly translates into any pitch.
What these moments of spontaneity seem to convey is that the choice of the music was left to Edinger. He sang music that he knew well and felt able to reproduce. Yet Wagner’s music is not conducive to humming along. Edinger attempted to sing motifs that were written for instruments rather than voices and the range of which far exceeds the capacities of even a trained singer. In Wagner’s music, the live experience of opera and its reproduction at home had drifted apart. The Wagnerphile Bildungsbürger may have sung and played the music in piano reductions, but in that enterprise both the singing and the piano served as a memory aid in recalling the original, rather than providing a full substitute of the original.
Wagner’s music itself questioned the seemingly evident and natural connection between performing and listening. Even before the phonograph, the link between these two competences had been severed. The Ring was composed for listeners in the first instance. The motifs – which the opera visitor could follow with the help of various supplementary publications, such as the Reclam pocket edition of the libretti with a leitmotiv-foldout – were meant to be detected and understood. To sing them was as difficult as it was unnecessary.
The intonation samples of Edinger’s voice held in the Phonogram Archive thus reflect a development in the history of both music and its media. Wagner’s music addressed an audience of listeners, but a listener who wanted to hear it or be reminded of it outside the opera house still needed to use a piano reduction. Together with the piano or the libretto, musical notation granted repeated access to the music. This was at the cost of all those properties of the music that the notation did not cover, such as the timbre of the sounds.
Initially, the phonograph did not change this situation. Complex orchestral music such as Wagner’s could only be recorded once microphony became available and only reached a reasonable level of what came to be called “fidelity” with technologies such as full frequency range recording, multi-taping and the mixing console. Nevertheless, the phonograph enabled Abraham to assess musical performance in a new way: as the acoustic token of a subjectively correct rendition of music. For the first time, this token became accessible to measurement. In the experimental recordings of Edinger, what the phonograph brings to the fore is Edinger’s “listening” in the sense set out by Peter Szendy (Szendy 2007). Even though his rendition of the “Wagner-Motifs” does not fulfill the requirements of the code of music, it does indicate that he has listened to Wagner, knows the music well, and has precise ideas about its sound. Through the phonograph, Edinger articulates himself as a listener.
Returning once more to the nonmusical individual in Abraham’s study, the analysis of this subject’s singing reveals the emergence of a new object of study. A regular stave of five lines is sufficient to “denote his mistakes,” Abraham states; in other words, he takes down this subject’s singing in regular notation. The resulting melody, however, shows the limits of melodic recognition. This melody is no longer tonal, as it escapes the rules of tonality, but it shares its contours with the original tune: “as far as the ups and downs of melodic movements are concerned, this singer performs correctly and almost without mistakes” (Abraham 1923: 22).
In allowing for contour as a criterion for musical performance, Abraham to some extent removes melody from traditional musical notation. The contour can be conveyed more easily by a diagram than in traditional notation, and that diagram—which, according to Abraham, is rather like a “fever curve” (ibid.: 7)—resembles the graphs that had been omnipresent in experimental physiology and psychology since the mid-nineteenth century.