To play a [historically accurate] note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable!
— Beethoven? (maybe).

As dry as a dictionary entry might be, the Oxford’s entry on “Historical Performance” sparked some really entertaining thoughts in my mind. Whenever I find myself reflecting about the issue of authenticity, performance practice, and the “composer’s intent,” I find myself pulled in two different directions. On the one part, there is great value and it is a show of fine musicianship to be an informed performer, and that our approach to the masterworks shows an understanding of the music we’re playing, not only from a purely musical standpoint, but from a historical, and even a little mythical standpoint. A great example of this kind of prized understanding and curiosity is Daniel Barenboim’s video about the Moonlight Sonata. See below.


On the other part, I am all for reinterpretations of music and originality in performance — I feel like there is little room for originality in today’s performance, a product of both the recording industry and the interest of replicating the piece of music “as it was intended to be heard.” I suspect that as we advanced more and more into historical performance, and more historical performances were recorded, people might have started to just emulate one another and just play everything within the same set of parameters. Except Glenn Gould. He didn’t give many of “them.”

Now, I feel that having a fervent love for “the score” or “authenticity” just to have “a fervent love for the score or authenticity” is at best, boring. At worst, it shows that we have nothing better to worry about. The goal has to always be to make the musical experience of the performer and the audience richer, to frame the musical experience into a trip to another world. Exciting the senses of the listener and the performer. The [deceased] composer won’t really know if we changed a note. Richard Taruskin agrees with this.

“We can no longer allow anyone to stand between us and the composer!”

… well unless they’re dead of course.

Particularly resonant with this is the newspaper cut, “Composer’s Intent? Get Over It.” Again, Schoenberg (may the master forever rest in peace) won’t know that Boulez and Barenboim gave different renditions of his masterworks. It is rather gratifying to know that Glass approaches his own music freely (I feel I approach the performance of my music the same way). I suspect we composers don’t really care for the actual note we write: we care for the feeling we want to transmit. After all, “to play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable!” right?

As a stray thought: Do you, my reader, imagine if we cared so much about historically recreating other situations outside of music (or arts)? Like:

“I’d like to experience a car ride as it was first thought of in the late 1800s! Please take this 2016 Tesla out of my sight!”


Moving on! Talking about LOL, reading the entry on the Urtext in Slonimsky’s Lectionary of Music was entertaining! Especially this quote:


Of course the passion for the Urtext is a peculiar obsession of 20th-century scholars! Is it not in the 20th-century that music theory and musicology REALLY established themselves as a field of study within the world of academia? (although I know it became an academic discipline in the 1800s).sI feel that this passion for the Urtext, “the composer’s intent!”, is amplified today by the worship of the score that 20 and 21st-century composers instituted for contemporary music. This worship of the score and rigor in performance, which calls for every little detail to be accounted for in an effort to respect and pay homage to the tidy composer, who dutifully created the piece.

I feel that WE DO need to have access to an edition that is very close to the original manuscript/first printed edition – we need to have access to the original edition, if we are to know how to interpret it either faithfully, or to make adventurous decisions in performance.

And to speak about adventurous decisions (not made), I wonder if Taruskin’s article means to expose a deeper issue than his apparent criticism of historical performers: It makes sense to argue that these are not sounds of Bach’s or Mozart’s times, these are sounds of TODAY. Maybe we call it “historical performance” because it has a ring that “historically-informed-but-actually-modern performance” has not?

Maybe what “The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” as Taruskin calls these musicians, bank on the remembrance and longing for the distant past, as a way to express our discontent with the present. But hey, again, if they are enriching the musical experience, more power to them. I feel that a performance interpreted from the heart that veers from the score a tad is a thousand times better than a dry, gray, “accurate” reading. That’s why I think I would’ve probably liked Barenboim’s performance better than Boulez’s.


* This post was written while eating ‘Member Berries.