Friday, December 4, 2009

On the performance of music mostly by dead people

This fall I started a master’s program in piano performance. It’s been quite an adjustment coming from a world where I knew so few professionally-oriented musicians to one where I interact with them almost exclusively. And it’s made me realize that most people in the art-music world lazily and uncritically accept certain dogmatic ideas about how music should be performed.

For instance, musicians have a misplaced reverence for composers and their intentions. Now don’t get me wrong. I revere the great composers more than anyone. But it’s hard to go a day in music school without hearing about the importance of ever-so-closely following and respecting the immutable Score. There’s a common metaphor tossed around where the performer becomes a mere conduit between Score and audience. The metaphor comes in different forms, but the general picture is always the same: a composer takes an aural representation or image in his mind and commits it, to the best of his or her ability, to paper. The performer then is charged with the task of realizing that original representation.

This theory of performance (if I can call it that) is deeply flawed for a few reasons. First, there is the implicit claim that composers form only one representation for every piece they compose, and that it is stable over time. Secondly, even if one such representation existed, people overstate the possibility or plausibility of accurately divining it from a written document (or set of written documents, as the case may be). Thirdly, even if we could divine that one representation, people discount the possibility that composers would ever be open to improvements of their own music that they never themselves imagined or considered.

All of these are reasons to be deeply skeptical whenever a teacher tells you that the composer wanted this or that, so you should play it this or that way. They fall under the umbrella of the general objection, “how do you really know what the composer wanted, or what he would want were he still with us?”

Each of these arguments, which I’m sure would encounter no shortage of opposition, deserves its own exposition another time, but even more importantly, I think none of them is critical to my general objection, because even if we could truly know a composer’s intentions we should feel little obligation to follow them. Now I should immediately add the caveat that it often bugs me when (for example) people play Mozart andantes as adagios, or add all sorts of unnecessary dynamic inflections in Bach. But I don’t disapprove out of respect for Bach’s or Mozart’s intentions, but rather because those pieces sound awfully wrong to me the way those performers play them. Usually a composer’s own markings are a good starting reference for how to perform a piece, because (the good) composers are obviously excellent musicians and have a unique perspective on their own music. Unsurprisingly, their markings and notes, properly followed, improve their music, but are only useful as means to that end. Composers aren't infallible, and their music may sound appropriate/awesome/even better when played another way. Which is why I have no problem overriding a composer’s intuitions when mine are strong and convincing.

I don't mean to imply that everyone thinks exactly in the way that I've caricatured here. But I sense an uddercurrent of conformity, where people who seem to think more like me minimize their disagreements with others in order to not stick out too much.

I have a lot more to say about this argument: how it runs counter to the essentialist nature of human psychology; how it applies differently over time to different composers; how it gives more responsibility to performers, but is ultimately oriented toward audiences; how it applies to teaching music, how it is inspired by various performers, and how it is frustrated or denied by various teachers. Hopefully I’ll get some objections from my music friends too. Thoughts welcome!


  1. So what's the difference between making a change that ends up "sounding awfully wrong" and making one that improves the piece? Is it just a matter of personal judgment? (And for that matter, aren't all your judgments of what sounds wrong or right shaped entirely by having heard certain styles of music played according to the "rules" over years and years?)

  2. good question short answer yes with an if, long answer no, with a but....but seriously, I'll get to that...