Henry Coward and the ‘Line of Beauty’

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Henry CowardHenry CowardI have been re-reading Henry Coward’s Choral Technique and Interpretation and it does not get less fascinating on re-acquaintance. Written in 1914, it is simultaneously a fascinating document of the musical practices and cultural values of his time, and a timeless statement of good practice for performing musicians. It is both intensely practical and deeply thought-through. Coward’s own character shines through as both strong-minded and idiosyncratic in all sorts of ways. He must have been wonderful to sing for.

The chapter on musical expression lays down a series of rules for beauty, at first in terms of painting (he credits Ruskin with putting him on this track), and then articulated as musical guidelines.

I’ll give you his guidelines in his own words so you can get a feeling for how he writes. First, the rules for painting:

The first point was: The curve is the basis of beauty in design. The second was: Beauty in design is something almost symmetrical. The third was: Every speck of paint should have its climax, or should tend to, and be part of, a climax. These hints were extremely useful; but I felt that something was still lacking, and for a long time I was searching for this missing link, when I came across two illuminating statements of the same thought by two great painters--Haydon and Watts--which made me cry out, like Archimedes of old,"Eureka! Eureka! I have found it!" This fourth suggestive thought was: The line of beauty in design is such that no two parts of it contain the same arc of a circle.

And then for music:

  1. Regard the swell as the basis of the beautiful in music, and the chief source of all effective expression.
  2. Take care that the patterns of design do not occur with mathematical regularity, or the effect will be mechanical.
  3. Always go from somewhere to somewhere, rising directly or indirectly to some rousing climax, or toning down to some equally effective point of repose. Have an Ideal to aim at.
  4. Conform to the demands of the "line of beauty" by getting, when needed, variety of force and design in each note, phrase, or movement.
  5. Never treat a note, phrase, or movement in an isolated manner, but let it be considered in relation to the whole movement, cantata, or oratorio--learn to think in musical continents, or, as Rodin says, in

He goes on to work through these points in detail with numerous annotated examples.

Now, several things that strike me about this whole approach. First, it gives some fabulous information about how the music of Elgar was approached by his contemporaries. The perpetual rising and falling of dynamics marked into this music can make you feel somewhat seasick if treated at a surface, literal level. But this gives a broader imaginative and aesthetic context to make sense of the swelling and ebbing, to help performers move beyond following the written instructions to performing what the music means. (Indeed, Coward is quite clear that the literal observation of dynamic instructions is not sufficient to produce musical expression.) These days we might not want to take Coward’s approach to Bach or Handel, but our Elgar, Brahms and even Mendelssohn can be usefully informed.

Second, his approach is very voice-friendly. Whilst he is talking about music in the abstract (and includes pianists and violinists in the examples he adduces of good practice), it resonates happily with the bel canto tradition. The joining up of the voice on the breath is about the conception of the music as well as the physical technique of singing, and you get a similar agreement of real and ideal in Coward’s text.

Third, the practical instructions for learning how to perform expressively engage with central problems of music theory and aesthetics. For example: What is the relationship between the local detail and whole? His younger contemporary Heinrich Schenker was just starting to formulate his answer to this question when Coward was writing, of course, and both Coward’s ‘line of beauty’ feels like it belongs to the same imaginative world that produced Schenker’s ‘fundamental line’. Or: How do you square a performer’s obligation to perform according to their individual feelings with their obligation to realise the composer’s intentions? Coward’s formulation gives space for there to be multiple valid routes through a piece, without saying that anything goes.

And finally, it strikes me that Coward’s rules could be very useful as a means to help singers who tend to gesture too much or too frequently. Frequent gesturing is a symptom of conceiving the music in little bites, of having the imaginative focus on the surface and picking up the details. Finding ways to join up the moments into musical ‘continents’ in the mind would help quell distracting movements without diverting the singer’s attention off the music and onto their hands.

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