Composers versus Performers: An Argument among Music Lovers

Some say that music is as much a performer’s art as a composer’s. The truth is that they belong to fundamentally different categories though it cannot be denied that there can be as much excitement in a performer’s contribution as in the work itself. Arguments on this subject will lead nowhere because for most of the music we hear we can only guess what the composer’s intentions were at the time of composition.

For music composed before the invention of recordings, we have to rely on the composer’s notations and whatever historical documents are available. For recent works, we often have the composer’s own interpretation on Edison roll, disc or tape.

If composers thought of them as definitive they were asking for the impossible. They knew better. There is no record of any composer ever saying about any given work, “This is the way it must be played!”

It is an open question whether it matters what the composers intended. To us, what they intended might sound thin or mechanical. For us, all that matters is whether a work we may have heard many times sounds fresh and exciting. In any case, to what extent are performances influenced by fashion? Today, rubatos are out of fashion but they were in fashion in Chopin’s days. Moreover, for all we know, he took his funeral march at half the speed pianists do today. Or, for that matter, twice the speed. Violinists today avoid slides. They didn’t in Paganini’s days. Even Heifetz used slides that today’s interpreters find unpalatable.

Old composers’ ideas about tempi and dynamics are known when they wrote them down, which they often did, and often did not. Of course, there is also anecdotal evidence. Moreover, today’s performer cannot know whether it was the composer or his editor who wrote down forte or crescendo in the published version. When the marking is clear – whether it was the composer’s or the editor’s – it is a matter of taste, and of his musical upbringing – one is tempted to say of his musical toilet-training – how free the performer is to take liberties, and what kind. There are no rules. No two performers are the same.

Gustav Mahler thought the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg’s interpretations came closest to his own concepts. However, as shown in a recording Mengelberg made in 1939 of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, his dynamics and expressions deviated on many occasions from Mahler’s own markings. Rachmaninioff’s recordings are often at variance with his published scores. Ravel’s own piano recording of the Pavane for a Dead Princess is considered stultifyingly dull. Bernstein’s recordings of Copland and Stravinsky are said to be more exciting than the composers’ and, lately, Valery Gergievs interpretations of Stravinsky are said to be even better.

Playwrights attending rehearsals of their plays are occasionally amazed at the way their lines express meanings quite different – and sometimes far richer – than they had imagined when they wrote them. Once written down they are no longer the masters of their work. It is in the hands of others.

In music it is no different. If the originator disagrees fundamentally, the only remedy is to denounce the interpretation publicly.

This is not easy once you are dead. Shakespeare cannot dissociate himself from a psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet in modern dress, nor could he know that for hundreds of years after his death many of the words he used had different meanings, or would be incomprehensible. No doubt that was the least of his worries.

In music, the question of authenticity has special significance.

Several decades ago, a lively movement began among musicians and musicologists to recreate the sound of instrumental Renaissance, Baroque and early classical music by playing on period instruments and following particular rules of performance practice. The intensity of the authenticity debate has subsided in recent years, partly because of the persuasive argument – perhaps a better word wood be discovery – by some musicologists that contemporary notions of period sound are actually modern fashion statements. “Historically informed performance” is now the accepted term in the musical vocabulary.

The idea was, of course, that we should hear the music as it was intended to sound in the composer’s time, and that this was, in some way, not only a debt of honour we owed him but that it would also increase our enjoyment. The counter-arguments were two-fold. If the composer had been able to write for modern instruments, he would undoubtedly have done so since, thanks to technical advances, their range has expanded immeasurably. Secondly, we cannot hear the music with the same ears as the composers’ because music written between their day and ours has affected our sensibilities indelibly.

Mozart sounds different to ears that have heard Wagner, Schönberg and jazz.

These observations were inspired by an article by Allan Kozinn in The New York Times of February 7.


6 responses to “Composers versus Performers: An Argument among Music Lovers

  1. There are two kinds of performers: the “virtuoso” for whom the music exists as a vehicle for his or her ego, and the musician whose aim is transparency in service of the music and the composer (in that order!). The latter is the more virtuous.

  2. Horace Krever

    Do we know how faithful to the composer’s intention, as revealed by his markings, other composers, in their capacity as conductors, when conducting the original composer’s work?

  3. Do we know? you ask. I don’t. The only contemporary Big Name Composer who conducts other composers’ works I can think of at the moment is Pierre Boulez. He conducted the Ring in Bayreuth a few years ago and was highly praised. But how faithful he was to Wagner – I have no idea!

  4. David Schatzky

    Surely the richness of music is not in whether the composer’s intention was carried out precisely but in the richness of all the possible interpretations.

    Otherwise, going to a concert would be like going to a museum to see an ancient vase. Isn’t it the unpredictable interplay between the score and the performer’s mind, soul, personality and talent which brings the work to life?