How does one faithfully perform classical music, and how do we evaluate the performance? If you’ll allow me a few minutes of your time, I think you’ll find that these are not such seemingly simplistic questions.
This column is the first of a two-part essay on the performance of classical music. This part focuses on traditional repertoire, beloved by concertgoers. In next week’s column, I’ll focus on the performance and reception of new and unfamiliar music.
Music is the art of sound, true enough. In some cases, perhaps most, the music making we randomly hear is performed without a score, or is improvised. If you are in the presence of a performer, especially in
the worlds of rock, pop, jazz, et al, you’ll likely discover that there’s little or no printed music to be found on stage. Why? It’s because in the popular sphere the music is mostly all about the performer, not the composer. There are exceptions: singer/songwriters specialize in creating what they perform, and jazz musicians are indebted to the composer of songs, especially the musical theatre treasure trove of the 1920s-1950s era for the melodies and harmonies that form the basis of their inspired improvizations. The "Great American Songbook," with tunes by Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers are created anew in the imagination and hands of inspired jazz artists.
Classical music is different. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite approach. In this musical universe, the composer rules. In the case of the classical canon, (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, et al,) the performer’s function is to recreate the music of the masters that has been bequeathed to us over generations. This music is seen as a priceless legacy of revered masterworks that is a gift to musicians and audiences. Its performance is intended to be a faithful representation of the composer’s intentions, down to the last detail.
Of course, classical performers are not automatons; they strive to imprint this cherished music with their personal stamp of interpretation, while still maintaining the integrity of the composer’s wishes, as deduced from the published score. That’s a tough balancing act, since these pieces have a known and accepted performance history, and the latitude of acceptable interpretation is not wide. Stray too far, and the critics, and knowledgable listeners will howl in disapproval. Listen to a Chopin waltz performed by Liberace, or by Lang Lang, today, with their schmaltzy excesses, as compared to the sacrosanct performances by such as Arthur Rubinstein or Maurizio Pollini and you’ll get the idea. Still, it’s all Chopin, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. They’re all Chopin’s notes, but there are well-defined limits of judicious taste and interpretation, and that makes all the difference in how a performance is judged.
If the composer rules, but he’s not here to tell us specifically how to play his music, what do performers rely upon to get at the essence of the music, other than past recorded performances and tradition?
The score. That’s the source. The composer has slaved away, notating, mustering all the precision at his command to write down all those dots and lines and performance directions in Italian, no less, instructing performers how the music is supposed to be played. Yes, all the notes are there, and we know how slowly or fast the music should be played by the metronome indications (for example, play it at 60 beats a minute,) and how (very) soft or (very) loud and all the gradations between those extremes. But beyond that, there’s not much else the composer can do to guide the performer. The truth is that musical notation is, by its nature, really a very imprecise way to preserve the composer’s ideas.
Think of the score as a kind of musical road map. Here’s an analogy, if I may: You’re in your car, you look at a map or your GPS monitor, and you see that there’s a right turn coming that will lead you to the on-ramp of the interstate. The road map isn’t the interstate, and you, the "performer" have to interpret what it tells you and make that all-important, make-it-or-you’ll-miss-it turn. Some composers’ road maps tell us virtually nothing about how to play their music.
Bach’s music is like that - a score with mostly no details except the notes. He was certain that the gifted musicians who would perform his music would understand his style, and could, if they were talented, perform it accurately. Since Bach was a violinist, harpsichordist and organist, he could play much of it himself. So, am I saying that Bach was a kind of Baroque-era "singer/songwriter"? In a way I am. (Musicologists, please forgive me.)
I think we’ve gotten to the crux of the matter of what defines a good or bad performance of traditional classical music. Of course a sorry performance can simply be chalked up to "having a bad day," performance anxiety or a lack of preparation, for whatever reason.
Notwithstanding these unfortunate events, here’s my recipe for a good or great performance: Faithfulness to the "road map" score, as much as can be deduced by studying it in detail; performance within fairly accepted guidelines pertinent to its musical era; good taste in adhering to the inner sense of the music, meaning how it should ebb and flow over its duration, and the artistry that the performer brings to the music as a whole, making his/her individual interpretation a new, original and vital "take" on a classic work. In these ways, combining these attributes, the gifted performer both creates and recreates a time-honored work, allowing it to live and be fresh in the moment. We, then, as listeners, experience it with the happy illusion that the performer has composed the music on the spot, just for us. This, for me, makes for the best possible performance - and not just for classical music, but also for any music, whatever the genre or style.
As I used to tell my students, "Play old music as if it were new, and play new music as if it were old."
Next week, I’ll discuss the unique challenges of the performance and reception of new and unfamiliar music.