Challenging Performance: The Book. 11.3 Ethical obligations

11 Obligations to the dead

11.3 Ethical obligations

We need, I think, to take an unsuperstitious and humane approach to thinking afresh about what we might ethically owe a composer.[1]

First of all let’s consider living composers. Composers are imaginative musicians. They imagine music, and notate what they can. As they notate, they imagine their scores played by performers they know or have heard. So, if they’re writing conventional scores, they have expectations. As first performers of their scores, I think we’re all interested in hearing what they imagined. Or we are if we have any respect for them as imaginative musicians.[2] It seems a simple courtesy to living composers to try to make the sounds they had in mind. When someone gives you a score on which they’re worked hard, and offers you the chance to play it before anyone else, the least you can do, out of politeness and respect, is to try to give them a performance of what they’ve imagined. I suggest that’s a basic obligation of courtesy.

Of course, you may do some things, perhaps many things, that they’d not expected. And usually composers are delighted when that happens and willingly accept your view of their score. It’s important to remember that, when we come to think about dead composers. But the main point is that the composer is there, they can be consulted, you can work with them, and in the end you represent them to a wider audience. And all this brings some obligation to please them as well as your listeners. Because this is a human relationship, in which, as in any humane relationship, you try not to hurt their feelings; ideally, you try to give them pleasure, to make them happier. That’s what we do for one another when we interact on equal and friendly terms.

But how much of this applies in the same way when the composer is dead? When they’ve recently died, then there are many friends and admirers, and family, who remember them and think lovingly of them. And to the extent that that love is maintained or enhanced or fed by the way you play their scores, then I suggest there remains an obligation to play scores in ways that please survivors. It’s similar to one not speaking critically of the dead to those who knew and loved them. But as time passes, this obligation diminishes. Their closest friends and family die too, and there is less and less need, out of human kindness, to play scores in the same way as before; and more and more opportunity, therefore, to see what else those scores can do. And this is exciting. It’s an opening up of possibilities, as time passes, to explore scores in search of new meanings, meanings that perhaps are more interesting and relevant and revealing for new generations. That, too, seems to be an ethical obligation to the living; to make scores sound relevant and revealing.

What is absolutely clear—unless one believes that the dead are alive, and have nowhere else to be—is that dead composers are not harmed by performances of their scores that they might not have liked. And once nobody else is harmed (and I mean harmed, not offended: of course art must be allowed to offend, and it’s high time classical music audiences got used to that idea); once nobody else is harmed, there is no ethical obligation to continue to perform in the original manner. We shall see in Part 3 that new kinds of performances are possible, and we’ve already seen in Part 1 that they emerge over time in any case. But what I am arguing, and I think on strong ethical grounds, is that new performances can and should be deliberately made. Because scores can mean so many different things; because performers can be so innovative in persuasive ways; because the results can offer audiences new kinds of musical experiences from scores rich in potential; because performers and audiences can find delight in unexpected insights, in being creative and in experiencing creativity; because innovation offers a reason to go to concerts, to make and buy new recordings, to maintain a healthy economy of musical performance that keeps classical music lively and rewarding, financially and spiritually; for all these reasons, allowing performers to imagine and play scores differently is not just desirable, it is the right thing to do. And that makes it our obligation.

There is no way that we can harm Bach or Mozart any more, nor any way that we can earn their gratitude. (Taruskin 1995, 24).

…truly we owe nothing to composers, at least the dead ones who overwhelmingly populate our performing repertory… our obligations are to the living (Taruskin 2009, 463).

The only authenticity available to us consists in creating performances which work now, not performances which supposedly worked for the composer (Philip 1992, 240).[3]

Continue to Chapter 12 ‘Policing and self-policing’

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[1] The following four paragraphs appeared first (with minor variants) in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2013. What’s Wrong with Classical Music?

[2] Sometimes, the composers themselves are using notation to generate new kinds of expressivity. Ian Pace has reminded me that this happens in Cage, but also of course through the ultra-virtuosity required by composers of new complexity, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, and others, which opens up new kinds of expressivity as well.

[3] Taruskin, Richard. 1995. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press. Philip, Robert. 1992. Early Recordings and Musical Style: Changing Tastes in Instrumental Performance, 1900–1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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