6 Further WCM delusions

6.12 The composer knows best


Anna Bull, studying British youth ensembles, found that ‘A belief in the superiority of the composer’s creative vision was formative for the music-making in my research sites…’ (Bull 2014, 33), reflecting how strongly this is inculcated in young classical musicians. Small, in his chapter on ‘summoning up the dead composer’, compares our attitude to that towards ‘mythological heroes from Achilles to Abraham Lincoln, from Moses to Che Guevara.’ (Small 1998, 89) Later we’ll look at obligations to the dead and think about how that effects our attitude to composers’ intentions. It’s relevant here, but it’s such an important angle that it’s getting a separate chapter (Chapter 11). It’s far too easy, as Small implies, to allow ourselves to become enthralled by the preferences of people who died a very long time ago: composers’ preferences are interesting, of course, but how sensible is it to make them regulatory? If this question makes you uncomfortable then no wonder. ‘Musicians … often perceive themselves, and are perceived, as having a kind of priestly function, as the bearers of something sacred and eternal…’ (Small 1998, 66) And that’s because the belief in composers’ sanctity, their judgement being beyond human criticism, is so deeply embedded since first lessons that it feels blasphemous to question it. But they were people, musicians like us interested in creating musical experiences, and particularly in imagining new ones, that yearning that’s so consistently suppressed in modern performers.

Does the composer as a living musician know what’s best for all time, even for the notes they’ve imagined? One does occasionally encounter a composer who is absolutely certain of exactly how they want their score to sound, and insistent that it must sound that way and that way alone. It’s rare. (Kurtág springs to mind.) Should they have the right to control that (even if under the law they may: it would be interesting to see that tested in court)? Don’t we accept that there is a collaborative relationship between composer and performer, in practice even if not in the ideal master-servant relationship in which we’re led to believe? Some composers are able to play their own scores well enough to show exactly what they make of them as performers. But even then, is that the same as they imagined as composers? Most composers, by contrast, are happy to hear what performers make of their scores and to accept that that may differ from what they expected. (Benson (2003, 71) quotes Elliott Carter: ‘whichever [performance] I’m hearing always seems the best’.) When a score is new everyone is working within broadly the same performance style, so the difference is limited provided that the notation is detailed enough, which it usually is these days. When a score is centuries old that’s very far from being the case. One response, the HIP response, is to insist on changing the performer and the listener to match the dead composer’s long-gone environment (though of course they don’t really know how that sounded and can’t recover it with enough certainty to justify the effort: it justifies itself only through the contemporary musical results, which can be wonderful but that’s because the musicians are wonderful, not because the performance is historically accurate). Another has been to aim for the impact that (we now imagine) the music had when new,[1] which allows for such miracles as Eugene Goosens’ reorchestration of Messiah. (If you’ve not heard the Halleluja chorus with cymbals, triangle and trombones you’ve not lived.)

Another way to question the composer’s omniscience has been to ask whether they even knew best as composers, seeking mistakes, errors of judgement, and so on. Composers do make mistakes, most of which get sorted out in pre-premiere rehearsal. (Though a few slip through, maybe.) And there may be the odd moment even in the most perfect composer’s score where one might wonder whether a different note might sound even better. But the issue here is about the everlasting superiority of their taste in performance. The assumption seems to be that whatever they imagined needs to be preserved as a whole, notes and performance; that those belong together so perfectly that the combination must produce a better musical experience than any other. There’s been much argument over this to do with instruments, phrasing and so on; and it never leads anywhere that hasn’t already been reached by the assumptions of the people involved in the argument. I suggest we don’t go over all that ground yet again. But it does seem reasonable to suppose that a great performance is about more than reproduction. I think we know that it is about a lot more than that. And that’s because the way music works is not wholly invented by composers. Composers and performers are drawing at least equally (performers more so, in all probability) on processes that are deeply rooted in brain function. A successful musical experience has much to do with how well the sounds that have been made (by the performer plus composer) stimulate a complex interaction of evolved, inherited, learned, and unexpected responses that are at least as much to do with the changing dynamics of sound and other kinds of dynamically shaped experiences (above all emotions and motion in space) as with a priori beliefs brought to the experience from an ideology.[2] Many of these responses may change over time as cultures change,[3] and of course they differ between individuals, while also containing ingredients that are much longer-term, in some cases as long-term as having evolved through natural selection. They are also operating at quite a deep level with the possibility, therefore, of being realised in something as variable and culture-dependent as musical sound in many different ways. The idea that any one person can know better than any other how to make something as under-determined as a WCM score into the best experience for everyone is… implausible.

So what we’re left with is a question of ethics. Do we want the composer to be in charge, even when they’re long dead? Do we want a collaboration? Do we want to legislate for it? Who benefits? Who is harmed? It seems to me, and it can only be an opinion, that we accept in WCM that performers have insights to offer; and it’s fairly obvious from our behaviour as audiences and customers that we value the insights and we value the performers for having them. That seems to show that we do see performers as artists, creatives, not just as servants. And so I suspect that there is a contradiction built into our ideology that we need to try to ameliorate. We’re supposed to see composers as entitled to rule for ever on how to perform their scores, but at the same time we know that performers contribute substantially and are thankful that they do. It’s not hard to resolve this contradiction. We simply accept that composer worship is misguided and we moderate it. We agree instead that performers are entitled to work unmolested in their own domain. That’s to say, they are entitled to be treated as artists, not as copyists, and not to be judged on the faithfulness of their copy but rather on the impact of their art: that judging is the molestation that prevents creatively deviant imagination, indeed imagination tout court.


Continue to 6.13 ‘Composers’ intentions are (can be) known

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[1] E.g. Kivy, Peter. 1995. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 9–46: chapter 2, ‘Authenticity as intention’. Benson (2003), 104–6.

[2] For more on musical dynamics, from numerous perspectives, see Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, and Helen M. Prior. 2018. Music and Shape (New York: Oxford University Press).

[3] Even Adorno, deeply invested in the notion of correct performance, recognised that ‘… performance is not concerned with ‘an eternal work per se nor with a listener dependent upon constant natural conditions, but rather with historical conditions … the works themselves have their history and change within it’.’ Padison, Max. 1993. Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge University Press), 192–3.

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