6 Further WCM delusions

6.11 Scores have limited interpretative possibilities


I’m (fairly) sure no believes that there is an ideal performance of a classical score, but certainly whenever we play we are all striving to produce it. This is curious. Of course one is trying to make something wonderful. But it’s unrealistic to suppose that there are not many other ways of making equally persuasive performances of the same score. To strive for the ideal performance seems admirable (on stage perhaps necessary) as a goal, but it misses a vital point about performance expressivity. As performance styles change new kinds of expressivity (and therefore new experiences) become possible, but at the same time old kinds become impossible because one is now using different dimensions of sound as expressive means. What you could do as a string quartet in 1905, with independent lines, you could no longer do in 2005 with precise synchronisation; but things could be done with synchronisation that could not be done when parts were allowed some autonomy. You can’t have every possible expressive means available to you all at once. Performance styles are always selections of expressive means, and performance style change always involves gains and losses. Another style will afford other insights that couldn’t have been had in a previous one, even the one the composer knew.

What can be expressive is hard to assess with only 120 years of recorded evidence. And therefore how limited are the possibilities for ‘interpreting’ scores remains to be seen. Have we heard sufficiently varied performances to come to any kind of judgement about it? Recordings offer astonishing differences, especially from musicians born before around 1870 whose practices to us seem bizarrely free. Performance became more homogenous once recordings became widespread, promoting norms; and our sense of what’s possible is very much influenced by the results. On the one hand we have access to far more performances than ever before, leading us to suppose we’ve heard everything now; on the other, they’re more and more alike. So I don’t think current experience is any kind of guide to what might be possible with these same scores.

That’s the practical case. The theoretical case depends, as usual, on the work concept. The work is by definition something with integrity, designed, created, separate from other works. There must be things it cannot be, which is why analytical philosophers have spent so much ink on the imaginary case (such a thing doesn’t exist in this homogenous performance culture, obviously) of a performance that is so different that it’s no longer of the work but of something else: though for Nelson Goodman all that takes is a single changed note.[1] But without the work concept (and I think we’re beginning to see why we must do without it) we’ll find that we can get by very well without this sort of unrealistic boundary-drawing around whatever it is that someone with authority wants the work to be.[2]

That leaves just the PR—and in some cases the legal—issue of how to label a performance that may start from a classical score but result in a musical event that’s quite unlike a typical performance of it. It seems to me that this, too, can be a practical rather than a philosophical question (unless you’re an analytical philosopher). If I’m putting on a performance that’s resulted from my work with the Moonlight sonata score but that doesn’t sound much like it usually sounds, I have to decide whether to warn the audience; and that may depend on the kind of people I expect to come. Are they expecting something radical, or not? Do I want to shock them, or not? Shall I give it a new name: Storm Sonata, for example? Shall I pretend I’ve discovered the score in a previously closed archive in Tbilisi? Or shall I just say that no one has the right to outlaw an innovative reading of a classical score by an out-of-copyright composer? Maybe I want to know how far a performance can go and still generate a persuasive musical experience, in which case this could be a rather productive experiment, especially if many in the audience don’t recognise the Moonlight in the Storm.

Now we have the evidence, from old recordings and modern experimental performances, that there are many radically different persuasive readings that can start from the same score (more on what’s persuasive, and on ‘starting from a score’, later), what do we do with this knowledge? The answer might partly depend on whether we think classical music is in an ideal state at the moment. Is it healthy? Is it right that performers should be brought up believing that there is only a very narrow range of correct approaches to each score? Is it right that the very tight limits on performer innovation or creativity are policed so closely throughout their careers, by teachers, examiners, adjudicators, fixers, agents, critics, and the rest? Is it right that difference is so strongly criticised, to the extent that to be different is to be unable to work? Is this an attitude to difference that we would tolerate more widely in society? Are performers happy with their lot, as servants to the imagined composer’s wishes? Are they content to do what they’re told, rather than to explore new possibilities? Are young audiences flocking to concerts? Is classical music really thriving? Can the business, in the long run, continue? Is it artistically exciting? Is it ethically justifiable?

These are important questions in principle. And there are many others. But on the whole, none of these has been thought to be especially important to the music business. There the only question about musicians’ fitness is whether they are mentally and physically tough enough to survive in the profession, to put in the hours and to do as they’re told. Those who can, succeed, given some luck and good contacts; those who can’t, give up. And so a key qualification is obedience. One believes and one obeys. Or if necessary, one just obeys. But belief is a powerful motive, and instilling belief is therefore an essential part of musical training. We believe that our job is to follow the composer’s wishes. We believe that we know what those are. We believe that we are sounding them in the way we play now. We believe that there is no other proper way to play. Because…

…Continue to 6.12 ‘The composer knows best

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[1] Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett), 186.

[2] As Mine Doğantan-Dack writes, ‘there is no structurally-grounded, pre-determined expressive meaning waiting to be discovered, as an ontological component, in any piece of music.’ The whole essay is well worth reading in this context. Doğantan-Dack, Mine. (forthcoming 2021). Aesthetics meets the performing body: Re-thinking Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. In ed. Garrett Michaelsen and Chris Stover, Making Music Together: Analytical Perspectives on Musical Interaction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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