Young Woman Playing a Violin - Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639)

Performing Arts: Western classical music

A monthly column that explores any and every aspect of the performing arts. This month, concert pianist, lecturer and writer Karl Lutchmayer mulls over the tradition of historically informed performance which entails playing classical music exactly as it was originally conceived.

We often talk about a piece of music as a ‘work’ in the same way as a painting or sculpture. However, the work of art is tangible, I can see it in front of me, I can touch it. But what about a symphony. Where does the ‘work’ reside? Perhaps it exists in the composer’s mind? That is certainly a possibility, and we can all hear a piece in our ‘mind’s ear’ – we call that audiation, and as experienced musicians, we can ‘hear’ quite complex scores in our heads. But the definition of music is ‘organised sound’, so can music actually exist when it is not being heard or sounded? Surely the thing we hear in our head is at best a memory, if not just an idea of that which we call music.

In that case, we need to turn to the score, which is certainly a tangible imprint, but, although in English we call it ‘the music’, it is actually really a set of instructions to create music – a blueprint. If one writes a score but never performs the notes, is that really a piece of music? Moreover, in most societies, music has not been something transmitted on paper but through an oral tradition, and where there is some notation, as in jazz, it acts only as an aide-memoire or a means of coordinating a group, but there is no expectation that the notation will be reproduced in its entirety. Indeed, there would be uproar and contempt at a jazz gig where the performers only played what was on the lead sheet.

But surely classical music is different. Or is it…? We have certainly become very used to performers playing exactly what is written on the score, but this is a fairly recent development. In the 19th century, audiences went to concerts in order to hear the performers’ very individual approach to the music, and this often involved rewriting the score. Liszt and Busoni did this regularly to the music they played, and Chopin annotated his students’ scores with different interpolations, so that they would learn how to develop music beyond the written notes. In this sense, such performers were very similar to pop musicians who create ‘cover versions’. When we listen to such covers we clearly hear both the original musical ideas, and the new creative elements brought by the performer.

However, when it comes to classical music in the 20th century, we have reverence for the composer’s original ideas as notated in the score. In part, this has certainly happened because composing and performing have largely become different professions, and a practitioner of one is seldom sufficiently competent at the other to stand comparison to other practitioners.

But for the listener, recordings have been the most powerful influence. Whereas an audience member in the 19th century might hear a piece a few times in their lifetime and therefore not know it particularly well in every detail, now, when we go to a concert, we are hearing a performance against the backdrop of our favourite recording in our heads. As such, we are disturbed by any change the performer might make. This is curious, considering how common it is in theatre and film for lines and even scenes to be cut so that they better suit the production or the actor.

Furthermore, the ‘historically informed performance’ movement, which encourages performers to attempt to create interpretations which emulate what we know about the composer’s own ideas and beliefs has put even greater pressure on performers to be slaves to the score. It also enshrines the idea that the ‘work’ resides only in the ideals of the composer. In fact, the performer almost becomes a ‘tribute’ act to the composer, and is valued more highly, the closer they come to our idea of the composer’s musical vision. But this movement is now being questioned. Can one ever really know what a dead composer thought or believed? And anyway, until at least the late 19th century, composers expected performers to alter or add to their works in a variety of ways.

As such, over the last twenty years there has been an ever louder call to reinstate the idea that the ‘work’ of art in music actually exists in its performances. The performer is therefore not an interpreter, but a co-creator or collaborator with the composer, and where a musical idea no longer works because of a change in culture, or instrument technology, it has to be recast. Such a philosophy demands a very different approach to listening, where the audience really engages with what the performers do in the moment, rather than how they recreate a recorded paradigm. Such an approach makes the concert an extraordinary journey of discovery rather than a confirmation of comfortable expectations. Isn’t that what music’s for?

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2019 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.