Challenging Performance: Classical Music Performance Norms and How to Escape Them

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson


About the author


To help you assess my reliability as a narrator, and to own up to at least some of my biases, I’m adding this autobiographical note.

I grew up in a loving and music-loving household. My father, a gynaecologist by profession, had been organ scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, after he returned from the First World War. There was an organ in our house (I still have one and play every day) and a record collection with a strong bias towards Bach. My mother (when she thought no one was listening) sang a wide repertoire of (Second World) Wartime popular hits. My education was in the British public (i.e. private) school system where I learned to play effectively for services including improvised plainchant accompaniment. I found school relatively bearable (I was good at sports, which excused my being musical) but annoying on account of the rules and the uncritical continuation of pointless traditions. (You may think this relevant…) And so I took my A-levels at 16 and left school at the first opportunity. To fill in a year while applying to university (1972-3), I went to the Royal College of Music, at first studying organ (with Douglas Guest, Westminster Abbey) and composition (with Herbert Howells, who also taught me harmony and counterpoint, and then Anthony Milner).

My compositional interests were strongly focused in contemporary atonal music, largely thanks to having been at school with composer-percussionist James Wood who introduced me to Messiaen, after which I explored widely. As a student in London in the early 1970s I took every opportunity to go to concerts of new music. Boulez was conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time, there were visits to London from Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis, Kagel, among others; the London Sinfonietta was young; other groups and series I heard often were the Fires of London (Peter Maxwell Davies), the English Bach Festival, London Music Digest, the Park Lane Group, and Adrian Jack’s series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts: I still have all my concert programmes and still find them astonishing for what they show about the liveliness and adventure of the London new music scene in the 70s. But I also attended more conventional programmes, the London Philharmonic under Haitink, the Royal Opera and English National Opera. And also early music. I’d been taken to hear the Early Music Consort of London from school; others newly active were Anthony Rooley and Emma Kirkby, and I was a contemporary of Linda Nicholson who introduced me to the early piano field.

With modernist interests as a composer (not widely shared by the RCM staff) I was relieved to change from composition to harpsichord, studying happily with the wonderful Ruth Dyson. Both Guest and Dyson cheerfully accepted that I had no plans to perform for a living and was there to play and think rather than to make a career, and so lessons were as much about ideas as about technique. But I played concerts from time to time, both as a keyboardist and as a composer-conductor, including in the latter role Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra and parts of Cardew’s The Great Learning. I also made full use of the London libraries and record libraries, maxing out on my library cards every week.

This 100% absorption in music, interacting daily with talented young musicians willing to play one’s music, was such a delight that I decided to do a London University degree at the RCM rather than go to university, and so I was able to spend, in all, four happy and productive years at conservatoire. The RCM BMus was pretty useless as a degree, at least as far as the teaching went (they borrowed a lecturer from Goldsmiths’ College one day a week, and largely left us to it for the rest), but I worked out early that I could answer more or less any exam question if I knew enough music to bring to bear on it; and in any case, getting to know lots of music was most of what I wanted to do. So I listened to and studied many more scores than books, and read almost no articles. (I don’t recall ever being directed towards a journal article throughout my degree.)

That, plus strong interests in early music which had so far been unsatisfied as a student, led me to apply to King’s College London for their MMus course where I was able to focus on musicological skills (under Reinhard Strohm), while listening keenly to what was going on in Arnold Whittall’s analysis course. King’s wasn’t interested in performance (I started an improvisation group which was considered highly eccentric) but I did get a very good education in the musicology of the middle ages and early renaissance. And so at this point my life took an academic turn, focusing at first on early 15th-century sources and then, as a PhD student at Clare College, Cambridge (1977-80), on 14th-century compositional techniques, followed by a research fellowship at Churchill College (1980-84). This of course took me away from performance, and so needn’t be described here. But I did start to get very interested in arguments about the performance of late medieval polyphony, was friends with Christopher Page and a keen supporter of his a cappella innovations with Gothic Voices. My enthusiasm was musical rather than musicological (though happily the evidence was relatively supportive); and I was pleased also to be able to work closely with the newly founded Orlando Consort on recordings of similar repertoire. I did quite a lot of record reviewing for the Early Music journal, and all this enabled me to think more and more about performance once again.

The Cambridge music faculty had a large record collection, and I got interested in the implications of early recordings for arguments about authenticity. A lecture I gave in the Faculty (for a course taught by Peter LeHuray) turned into an article which appeared in Early Music (February 1984) alongside one of Richard Taruskin’s early critiques of the authenticity movement. We found we were making the same case from different perspectives, not for the last time.

During the later 1980s I played periodically in concerts in and around Southampton where I was a university lecturer. Playing the organ in a Berlioz Te Deum with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra I remember as the most terrifying experience of my career, partly because there was a ca. 1-sec. delay between pressing a key and getting a sound back and partly because the Southampton Guildhall’s Compton organ had the peculiarity that if you pressed any of its illuminated stop-knobs harder than usual everything except that stop switched off. Fortunately all was well but, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I did my best to avoid those kinds of job thereafter.

From the early 1990s at Southampton, after the appointment of Nicholas Cook and then José Bowen, my long-standing interests in early recordings finally had a chance to start to become the focus of my research: the three of us were fascinated by the differences in expressivity documented by early recordings, and with mutual support studies began to appear. In 1997 I moved to King’s College London, wrote my last medieval music study – a book about myths of performance (The Modern Invention of Medieval Music) – and from then on have focused exclusively on questions of performance, many of them arising out of the evidence of recordings.

With Nicholas Cook, Eric Clarke and John Rink I took part in the five-year Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music research project (CHARM, 2004-09), whose legacy includes an online library of early recordings and my eBook The Changing Sound of Music (2009). Within CHARM, with the help of a wonderful team at Queen Mary led by Mark Sandler, I oversaw the development of musicological tools for Chris Cannam’s Sonic Visualiser, introducing real-time spectrographic visualisation of performances. And this software has become the standard tool for examining performance detail. We followed CHARM with the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP, 2009-14) where I focused on a study, using techniques from music psychology, looking at the dynamics (or shape) of musical experience. During those same years I began to work with performers to test the possibilities for new approaches to performing canonical scores, some of the results of which are documented here on this site (and in Chapters 23 and 24 of this book).

The CHARM project included a three-year study of Schubert song performance which led to articles on portamento, responses to early recordings, performance style-change. And CMPCP allowed me to work in some depth on the pianism of Alfred Cortot, all with the aim of understanding how performance is perceived as expressive and how it changes over time.

I took early retirement in 2017, not least in order to have more time to write this book. I live in the depths of the countryside where I can make plenty of musical noise without annoying too many people, and where I act as the (determinedly atheist) village organist. I use that as a discipline to encourage me to learn new pieces for each service, and thereby have worked my way through the 48 (the village organ has one manual and no pedals), the Goldbergs and the collected keyboard pieces of Byrd, Tomkins, Gibbons, Frescobaldi, Sweelinck and their contemporaries. It’s a long way from the performances I write about but offers a relatively safe space in which to experiment with rubato in repertoire that’s not recently been used to it.

I hope to go on working with musicians for as long as I can hear and ask questions.

My King’s College webpage

List of publications


Back to Preface — Go to List of Contents — Go to Chapter 1: Introduction