Expressive gesture and style in Schubert song performance
This project aimed to shed light on a fundamental fact: music is fixed as notated, but in performance there are constant irregularities in relation to the score in pitch, timing, and loudness. Research by music psychologists, confirming the experience of performers and listeners, has repeatedly shown that there is an intimate relationship between performers' modifications to the score and listeners' emotional responses, and that these modifications are carefully placed so as to point up compositional features. In other words, people don't play exactly what is written, least of all at the most important moments in a piece; and the way they don't play it gives music much of its meaning. Through investigating expressivity in recorded performances of Schubert's songs, the project aimed to show how modifications of timing, loudness, and frequency work together in specific musical contexts to create expression, and how their precise physical properties relate to the emotional changes they cause.
Building on techniques originally developed through an AHRB Innovation Award, the project modelled performance style as a collection of expressive gestures that changes over time (period style) and between individuals (personal style). A gesture's constituents were identified through spectral and wave-form analysis and interpreted from complementary perspectives: as acoustical facts; through theories of perception (as generators of instinctive responses, of empathy, of culture-dependent responses); and as bearers of representational meaning. Relationships between gestures were analysed both in relation to compositional organisation and in terms of personal and period styles.
Schubert's songs have been recorded repeatedly since 1898: even today, as CD sales decline, they remain one of the few repertoires of which new recordings appear constantly. Encapsulating changing approaches to expressive performance, they make an ideal repertory for studying the ways in which performers bring meaning to scores through their shaping of sound. The texts help in assessing performers' interpretative strategies, while singer and pianist are conveniently differentiated in the computer-based visual representations that provide a reference-point for understanding how details of performance are produced.
The project was directed by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (King's College London), with Renee Timmers as Project Research Fellow. Timmers' work involved a series of experiments analysing listeners' responses to a variety of Schubert recordings. Summaries of her findings are available from the following links.
- Measurements of expressive style
- Expressive performance gestures and the communication of emotions
- Listeners' senstivity to performance on record
- Discussion of benefits and drawbacks of the studies (pdf file)
- Discussion of the role of empirical and psychological methods for the analysis and interpretation of music performance (pdf file)
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson's and Renee Timmers' publications arising from the project are listed, with links to abstracts, on the project publications page.