A few useful hints from the history of classical music for the digital age

31 Jul 2018


The score is sacred in classical music. It should remain unchangeable to preserve the precise expression of composer’s intentions. Any changes to the score by the performer, are regarded as an inappropriate behaviour, bad taste, and unprofessionalism.  These are the basics of our art.


However, it wasn't always this way. In the historical perspective, this kind of reverence of the score was an exception, rather than the rule.


Intense speculations about the composer’s intention are characteristic only for the second half of the 20th century.  Previous to that, even in the first half of the 20th century, the score was treated in a more practical way. First and most importantly, it was a source of impressions. The basic challenge was an effective music presentation to the listener in the 'here and now', rather than deciding what was the composer’s ‘genuine’ will.


Here are some excerpts from the article “Classical Music’s New Golden Age” by Heather Mac Donald, brilliant essayist from the Manhattan Institute:


“A twenty-first-century music lover plunged into the concert world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find himself in an alien land... Works that we now regard as formally perfect were dismembered: only a single movement of a work’s full three or four might ever be performed, with the remaining movements regarded as inessential.”


“At the 1806 premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Vienna, the violinist played one of his own compositions between the concerto’s first and second movements—on one string while holding his violin upside down. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered at Paris’s leading concert venue in 1832 with romances and tunes by Weber and Rossini spliced between the third movement and the choral finale”


“Performers and publishers unapologetically revised works that we now regard as transcendent, seeking to correct their perceived deficiencies and bring them up to newer standards of orchestration and harmony.”


“Conservative pedagogues altered scores as well—on the ground that they were too modern.”


 “Berlioz headed off at the last minute what he called “emasculations” to Beethoven’s avant-garde harmonies that the influential music critic and teacher François-Joseph Fétis had surreptitiously introduced into a forthcoming edition of Beethoven’s symphonies.”


“Virtuosi added to a piece whatever fireworks the composer had carelessly neglected to include. In 1837, Franz Liszt had a pang of conscience over his habit of pumping up his performances of Beethoven, Weber, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel with rapid runs and cadenzas. He briefly saw the error of his ways: “I no longer divorce a composition from the era in which it was written…”. But he soon fell off the wagon and went back to crowd-wowing revisions”


“Gustav Mahler added new parts for horns, trombones, and other instruments when he conducted Beethoven’s symphonies.”


“An influential edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow recommended that pianists substitute Liszt’s ending of the Hammerklavier Sonata for Beethoven’s own, “to give the closing measures the requisite brilliancy.””


“Arnold Schoenberg explained his reorchestration of Handel’s Concerti Grossi, op. 6, as remedying an “insufficiency with respect to thematic invention and development [that] could satisfy no sincere contemporary of ours.””


“At the start of a 1927 recording of Chopin’s Black Key Étude, the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann announces: “The left hand of this étude is entirely altered from Chopin: it’s better, modernized, more melodic, you know.”


And so on, and on, and on. Even in 1987, we have Vladimir Horowitz, who admits that he changes the notes in Mozart’s scores when he deems it necessary. It is documented on Youtube.


We begin to see that  up to the mid-20th century, the attitudes in classical music were  more open, diverse and interesting than later. Post-war academism forced classical music into a rigid framework of numerous regulations and restrictions on what is 'correct', and what is not.


To vibrate in Bach is ‘historically wrong’, the portamento on the fingerboard is a ‘low taste’, some more pedal in Chopin is ‘dirt’, the rubato in Beethoven is a ‘disaster’, the stroke or the tempo used in Scarlatti doesn’t match the ‘intentions of the composer’.


Tons of such articles about musician’s 'criminal' behaviour make playing on stage resemble a walk through a minefield. Rather than to get inspired by the music, the musician has to follow a set of rigid (but often uncertain and contradictory) rules of ‘correctness’.


The result?


“The public could not be more unequivocal, - writes Heather Mac Donald,- it finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves.”


The message from the history of the art form is quite obvious. The academic phase in classical music is not the same as the classical music over the centuries. The academic Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are not the same as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as such, as they might appear in their various guises and forms, depending on the various circumstances.


The academic approach to music is becoming visibly irrelevant in digital era. And the digital era is not a favourable environment for the classical music even apart from the academic rigour. Is it perhaps not the time to change the set pattern?


Rather than worshiping the score and ‘genuine’  composer’s intentions behind it, how about we simply get  back to the historically proven priorities like the artistic freedom of the performer, and the right of the audience to decide the type of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven they prefer to hear?




Photo: painting by Alexander Sulimov







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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017