6 Further WCM delusions

6.13 Composers’ intentions are (can be) known


One of the funniest things I’ve read about WCM in a long time was a headline in the online academics’ daily, The Conversation, on 14 January 2015: ‘We’re playing classical music all wrong – composers wanted us to improvise’. Suddenly disobedience becomes obedience: for we still have to be obedient, naturally. It almost makes me want to obey the score. But not quite.

Another interesting light was shed on this issue by a paper given by Mark Kroll at a symposium, ‘Why look back?’, held in Utrecht in 2017.[1] He was talking about the pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794–1870) who spoke up for following the composer’s intentions in 1830s/40s.

“All good music has its time, its conception… [T]o obscure the distinction between styles, and to combine everything with one uniform [approach] is therefore the worst of all mistakes in the arts. The pinnacle of perfection in art is to render those [works] according to the time in which it is written…in order to reach this perfection, the performer must reflect on the work of the composer and capture its spirit… in summary… render each work according to the thoughts of those who created it.[2]

Yet, regardless [Kroll comments] of the purported attention to “the intentions of the composers,” it would not have occurred to Moscheles and his colleagues to ignore either nineteenth-century aesthetics and sensibilities or the demands of their audiences. …For example, Moscheles never objected to any composition of Handel being performed by large numbers of performers, as was customary at the time. He raved about the performance of Messiah at the Handel Commemoration of 1834 that featured 223 instrumentalists and a chorus of 397 singers, devoting many pages to the festival in his diary. … He felt equally sanguine about the use of an ophicleide after hearing another Messiah in 1834, writing to Mendelssohn on 26 June that this unique instrument was “a very useful addition, for just as you say of a steam engine (remember, this is written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England), it has ten-horse power, so of this you can say, it has ten-trombone power.” … He added wind instruments to some of Bach’s keyboard concertos … (Schumann heartily approved of this practice), and essentially rewrote ten Bach preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier (including additional measures!) that he arranged for piano and cello (this inspired Schumann’s wrath). …[3]

This is a vivid example of something that’s very common in writings on performance. The practice the author refers to turns out, when there’s a way of cross-checking, to be quite unlike what we would mean when using the same words. Moscheles’s faithfulness to the composer’s intentions are not ours, as we can see from his practice. Similarly, as I wrote in a previous study, when

Leopold Auer, born in 1845, … objected strongly to continuous vibrato in his textbook from 1921 I think we can assume that his own, which [as we can hear on his recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Melodie’, Op. 42 no. 3, from 1920] was continuous but narrow, wasn’t the kind of vibrato he was talking about.[4]

Yet without those recordings his words would be taken by performance practice scholars as conclusive proof that in the 1920s he and his students played with no vibrato. Kenneth Hamilton, in his great book After the Golden Age: Romantic pianism and modern performance, which everyone who plays nineteenth-century repertoire should read, gives further examples of pianists apparently forbidding practices but simply meaning, ‘don’t overuse’ (Hamilton 2008, 149–50). Roy Howat quotes Marguerite Long and Pierre Monteux’s memories of Debussy insisting on steady tempi.[5] If we had those as our only evidence we’d all be playing Debussy in strict tempo (actually, many of us are…). Yet as Marco Fatichenti comments, ‘the evidence at our disposal, not least that of the composer’s recordings, points towards a style that was much more expressive and free than those words would let us believe’.[6] Compared to some of his contemporaries Debussy’s playing does use less wide tempo variation (save in his ‘La plus que lente’ which I’ve suggested may have been ironic).[7] But compared to our expectations Fatichenti is right.

It’s clear, then, that we can’t rely on texts meaning what they appear to mean to us. There is a great deal of written evidence on nineteenth-century performance practice, and a lot from the eighteenth, much of which is called upon to justify reconstructions of the dead composer’s intentions as far as sound and style are concerned. (Their wider artistic or communicative intentions are a much larger topic, one on which musicologists can very reasonably and interestingly comment.[8] But here my concern is with performance style.) These examples, and others like them, show how easy it is to claim too much for the text evidence, and to jump to conclusions that seem obvious to us but are actually quite wrong, historically speaking. All this, not to put too fine a point upon it, rules out any confidence in imagining the sounds described in texts on musical performance that predate recordings. Not only do we not know composers’ intentions in sound before the late nineteenth century, we cannot.

From the later nineteenth century, however, the composer’s performance assumptions and thus expectations—sometimes, when they are performing, perhaps also their intentions—become a real issue to consider, and so we need a way of thinking about them. I separate expectations from intentions because it’s the general performance style they know that leads them to assume that their score will sound a certain way. It’s possible that they might intend something else, something perhaps not even realisable by contemporary performers. We can’t know that, although for the most recent composers there is an increasing quantity of video evidence from rehearsals that’s suggestive.[9] When we hear them play their own scores we may feel we’re getting closer to hearing what they intended, but that very much depends on the ways in which their performance training leads them to use their instrument, and on the extent to which their technique allows them to make the sounds they imagined. We can never be sure, but with a competent player the sounds are certainly of interest if we care about their score.

But that is not to say that the score can only work well played this way, or even that it will always work best played like this. Composers’ performances are very interesting: they show us what kind of sense the score made to the person who first imagined it being sounded. But that’s all they do. A composer is another musician, not the measure of unsurpassably great performance. Not even legislating for eternal authorial control over interpretation, as happens in France (astonishingly),[10] can change that. A different musician may be more persuasive in a particular context: ‘interpretation never ends’, and in music it is even less constrained by content than in texts.


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[1] Kroll, Mark. 2017. Ignaz Moscheles and the Performance of Early Music in the Nineteenth Century. Paper read at the International STIMU Symposium ‘Why Look Back? The Seductive Power of the Musical Past’, Utrecht, 30 August–1 September 2017. I am most grateful to Professor Kroll for sharing a copy of his paper.

[2] Kroll’s note here reads: Francois-Joseph Fétis and Ignaz Moscheles, Méthode des Méthodes (Paris: M. Schlesinger, 1840, (facs. Geneva: Minkoff, 1973), chapter 13, p. 75.

[3] Kroll, op. cit., extracts from typescript pp. 3–5.

[4] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2009a. The Changing Sound of Music, chapter 5, para. 9. Auer (1921) 22–4; further discussed in Brown, Clive. 1999. Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750–1900 (Oxford University Press), 522.

[5] Howat, Roy. 1997. Debussy’s Piano Music: Sources and Performance. In ed. Richard Langham Smith, Debussy Studies (Cambridge University Press), 80.

[6] Fatichenti, Marco. 2020. Rejecting the Dictator: Overcoming Identity Aesthetics Through Granados’s Sounding Legacy. PhD thesis, King’s College London, 95. https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/156367132/2021_Fatichenti_Marco_1636233_ethesis.pdf

[7] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. ‘Theorie, Analyse, Performance Studies. Kooperationen und Konflikte’ (with Tihomir Popovic). In ed. Tihomir Popovic. Claude Debussys Aufnahmen eigener Klavierwerke (Hofheim: Wolke, 2023), 11–30, last letter. [Text dates from 2013–14] <https://www.wolke-verlag.de/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/230816_Debussy_silbentrennung.pdf>

[8] On this see an outstanding essay by Michael Wood, London Review of Books 38(3), 4th Feb 2016.

[9] Bailey, Amanda, and Michael Clarke. 2011. Evolution and Collaboration: the composition, rehearsal and performance of Finnissy’s Second String Quartet (PALATINE. Video: preview at https://youtu.be/xRL0VP0kTT4). Archbold, Paul, et al. 2011. Climbing a Mountain: Arditti Quartet rehearse Brian Ferneyhough ‘String Quartet no. 6’ (PALATINE. Video, available at https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3024at).

[10] Pavis, Mathilde. 2016.The Author-Performer Divide in Intellectual Property Law: A Comparative Analysis of the American, Australian, British and French Legal Frameworks (PhD thesis, University of Exeter).

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