As we begin the year at Juilliard, the new students are again getting lost in the labyrinthine halls, cramming for placement exams, and worrying about their first classes and lessons with their new teachers. Last year, my first class at Juilliard was Dr. Kendall Briggs’s graduate harmony review. On the opening day I expected to be immediately bombarded with complex harmonic principals or maybe a quiz. Instead we were met with a challenge to the depth of our understanding of music. Briggs handed us packets asking for the titles and authors of three texts on music, on our instrument, on theory, on musical history, and so on. While several people in the class could come up with the titles and authors of some dusty tome or another, most of us, as Briggs intended, were forced to admit that we hadn’t in fact read very many of them. I found myself especially guilty admitting this as a historical performance major and immediately went out and bought the first treatise that I have ever read cover to cover—On Playing the Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz. At the time, I was just beginning to study the Baroque flute as a minor instrument here at Juilliard so the Quantz seemed a logical choice. The text contained many details of specific interest to someone studying the one-keyed wooden flute of 250 years ago, but what in this text could possibly be useful to the wider Juilliard community?
In fact, only about three chapters of this book deal specifically with performance on the Baroque flute. The greater part of the book is addressed to all musicians. Several of the chapters are immediately surprising in their relevance, such as “What a Beginner Must Observe in His Independent Practice” or “How a Musician and a Musical Composition are to be Judged.” Perhaps the most intriguing chapter with the potential to speak out across the centuries to modern musicians is the introduction, titled “Of the Qualities of Those Who Would Dedicate Themselves to Music.”
By the time we are students and performers at Juilliard we have hopefully established those qualities in ourselves, but seeing them enumerated—and by an author 250 years ago—serves as a reminder to focus ourselves inward to amplify those qualities. Here Quantz lauds the “able and learned” musicians and writes, “If someone who gives himself to academic studies has sufficient talent for music … he not only has an advantage over other musicians, but also can be of greater service to music in general.” He also warns against impatience and vanity (which he finds musicians especially prone to), establishes the need for a great teacher, and even comments on the fiscal instability of being a musician. Quantz goes on and on with cutting commentary on the profession that sounds like it could easily have been written by a Juilliard faculty member of the 21st century, rather than a teacher and player of the 18th.
The remainder of the text deals with how to perform and compose stylishly. Certainly this is written to make one a master of the 18th-century style, which may not seem of importance to those of us who aren’t devoted to historical performance. Still, wouldn’t it be preferable to understand the style of the period in which a piece of music is written when deciding how to perform it? Briggs wrote to me in a recent e-mail that reading treatises is important because “the performer then has the ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ of all musical elements and can effectively choose how to play the work.” Regardless of the style one chooses to play in, there is a benefit in considering the style the piece was written in so that performance is a choice, not a result.
Upon reading a treatise, it quickly becomes evident how it can be useful to you. With that in mind, I encourage everyone to pick up a treatise they have never read before. Perhaps a text about the history of the violin or a book on tuning and temperament, or if especially adventurous, try for a particularly distant work, such as one of Guido D’Arezzo, Boethius, or even Plato. While performance is in a sense only a momentary phenomenon, if at least some part of our art form is eternal, as I believe it is, then surely these masters of millennia passed have something inspirational or educational to offer us.