6 Further WCM delusions

6.9 Everything is in the score


The idea that through the score the composer communicates something quite specific, which the performer needs to grasp correctly and communicate accurately in turn, is a core ingredient in WCM. We need the notation to provide the answers, because otherwise what are we to do to realise the composer’s intentions? If notation isn’t adequate to the task… but the prospect is too awful to contemplate: of course the answers are there; we just have to know enough about the composer and their period to interpret the symbols correctly… If nothing else, this wishful thought does at least recognise the performer’s key role, even while allowing them no agency: their job is to know what’s required and to provide it, ideally with nothing of their own mixed in. Except, of course, when composers wanted performers to mix something in. Then suddenly it’s fine. So when Liszt, in his own book, The Gypsy in Music… justifies the virtuoso creatively reinterpreting composers’ scores in performance he was certainly including his own.[1] We can get a sense of how radically he intended this licence to be used from the recording of his 12th Hungarian Rhapsody by his pupil, Bernhard Stavenhagen.



which you may enjoy comparing with the score at IMSLP.

In this case very far from everything is in the score. And we know very well that that’s so for a great deal of music from at least Caccini to Rossini, where performers were always expected to contribute virtuoso material of their own. In fact, it’s only core canonical repertoire in the Germanic tradition from the nineteenth century, and then increasingly more score-based music of the twentieth, that attempts to notate as much as the composer could. Even in core repertoire, as Kenneth Hamilton has shown, ‘If we … adhere strictly to the letter of the score, as usually defined nowadays, we may in fact end up with a performance rather different from any a nineteenth-century composer could have imagined.’[2] Which is only a problem if you insist on the composer’s expectations. Clearly, although we say we do, we don’t.

Looking at this more realistically one must recognise that composers differ in the precision and conviction of their intentions; and also that notation is far too sketchy to communicate them, however precise they may have been. Part of the problem here is that notation persuades us that what it includes is what matters most, rather than what is easily notatable. As Trevor Wishart said, ‘the priorities of notation do not merely reflect musical priorities—they actually create them.’[3] We simply assume that because pitch and duration are there precisely (over-precisely in the case of duration, which is always more flexible in a communicative performance, as is often pitch too) they must be the most important aspects of music. Music analysis is largely built upon this assumption. But perceptual experiments have suggested that pitch and duration actually do less communicative work than aspects that are left to performers to fix:

Gabrielsson and Lindström find that across the studies they surveyed the “most clear-cut” effects of emotional expression come through “effects of tempo/speed, intensity/loudness, and timbre/spectrum,” all matters in which performance crucially determines effect (Gabrielsson and Lindström 2010, 392–93). “Results regarding pitch seem more ambiguous”: the effect of pitches and harmonies seem to be easily inflected by tempo and loudness. Moreover experiments by several groups have been highly successful in showing that different manners of performance of the same musical material can trigger very different (and accurate) assessments by listeners of the intended emotional expression (Juslin and Timmers 2010).[4]

This is precisely why WCM is so concerned to control performer behaviour, as far as possible to subject it to imagined composer intention. The very fact that what performers do makes so much difference is the motivation for its policing: because otherwise it contradicts the most precious belief, that the composer knows best and can be accurately obeyed. To sustain that belief it’s necessary also to believe that the notation is sufficient, provided that performers are correctly educated: again, that someone else knows best and has taught them what’s required. In every way, performers are subjugated to authorities. How else can the fallacy of these beliefs be hidden? It is the insecurity that every performer senses behind these beliefs, and in their relationship with a score they’re preparing for public performance and criticism, that drives so many to what Lisa McCormick (2015, 132) has called ‘A near-fanatical obsession with faithfulness to the score’, that sense that there must be a justification for every nuance traceable back to the composer’s intention. It’s a major ingredient in the anxiety that characterises so much WCM performance.

And it’s so unnecessary. We have only to accept, realistically, that notation is woefully—or perhaps happily—inadequate to specify musical performance to realise that not only are performers doing much of the communicative work that turns a score into a persuasive musical experience, but there’s no good reason not to recognise and celebrate that. And the celebration can legitimately—since performance changes anyway over time and meanings with it, created by changing contexts and cultures—embrace, and encourage performers to contribute their own, potentially new and highly creative readings of these same notes (if not also others; but we’ll come back to that possibility later). ‘Music’s function is’, as Mark Johnson has said, the ‘presentation and enactment of felt experience.’[5] And that experience is the performer’s every bit as much as the composer’s, indeed more so in that the performer is doing the performing and it’s their felt experience that is being enacted, albeit it using materials provided by the composer, whose felt experience can only be guessed at.

Composition is in the end in most cases the notating of an imagined performance. But it doesn’t and can’t encode the experience the composer has and imagines others having. It can’t even notate the performance style with and within which the imagined performance works. The extent to which it’s collaborative may also have been exaggerated in the case of dead composers, not just because they’re absent in person but because their assumptions about the relationship between notation, style and sound are no longer shared by performers and other listeners.


Continue to 6.10 ‘A work is greater than any performance of it

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[1] Liszt, Franz. [1926.] The Gipsy in Music: The Result of the Author’s Life-Long Experiences and Investigations of The Gipsies and their Music. Tr. Edwin Evans. (London: William Reeves), vol. 2, 265]

[2] Hamilton, Kenneth. 2008. After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (New York: Oxford University Press), 286.

[3] Wishart, Trevor. 1996. On Sonic Art (Abingdon: Routledge), 11.

[4] Leech-Wilkinson (2012), para 3.2. Juslin, Patrik N., and Renee Timmers. 2010. Expression and Communication of Emotion in Music Performance. In Juslin and Sloboda 2010, 453–89.

[5] Johnson, Mark. 2007. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 238.

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