Who are those “freaks doing Bach”? About one basic idea in classical music

29 Nov 2018

According to the conventional code of professionalism, the first and foremost duty of the classical artist is to serve the composer. It means to convey the mood and ideas the composer might have experienced while composing the piece. 


“Composer’s intentions” is one of the the basic regulations in the artform. The pinnacle of artistic truth, and something completely unquestionable.


However, some questions may come up.


The main idea behind this regulation is the division in the thought on correct or wrong performance. 


The interpretation that reflects the composer’s intentions is correct. All other interpretations are wrong.  Correct interpretations are accepted; wrong interpretations are condemned and eliminated.


Seems like a perfect way to go about things. Still, let us examine how it works in a real concert.


The speed of playing


Musicians know that the tempo of the piece determines its character. The speed is the expression of content in music. There is a cautionary tale about Beethoven who once was asked in what tempo his new piece should be played. “Don’t play it at all!” – was the Beethoven’s answer. The moral of this tale is, if you do not know the tempo, you don’t know what the piece is all about.


Now, let's look at the latest study about the speed of playing Bach’s pieces in the last 50 years:


“A study from two labels under the Universal Music Group umbrella has discovered something strange about modern-day classical performances.


It looks like classical music isn’t being played the way the composers intended.  A new study released this week has determined that modern-day performances of classical music pieces are being sped up.


Deutsche Grammaphon and Decca researchers analyzed performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works over the past 50 years, with particular emphasis on the Double Violin Concerto.  The study found that modern-day performances have been sped up by as much as 30% during that time.


As an illustration, the group pointed to three recordings at different time periods in history.  The first was a 1961 performance of the Double Violin Concerto from a father and son duo that took the violinists 17 minutes and 15 seconds to complete.  The second is a 1978 performance that takes 15 minutes and 42 seconds to complete.  Finally, a 2016 recording from a duo finishes up at 12 minutes and 24 seconds.


….This study isn’t the first time sped-up performances have been the subject of scrutiny, either.


Back in 2003, Slate carried an article titled “Speed Freaks Do Bach,” which asserted that modern performers of the Baroque classics are ruining the intention of the music.” (Orchestras Are Speeding up Classical Pieces by as Much as 30%, Study Finds)


The 30% variance in tempo is a horrendous difference. Therefore, this is a terrible difference in the expression.


The question arose: whose expression matches Bach’s intentions – that by David Oistrakh and his son Igor (most probably, they are the ones discussed by the researchers), or that by the modern players?


I am not going to answer this question. I'm just referring to the logic behind it. In case we believe in the theory of composer’s intentions, one of these two, modern or old artists, are to be considered as “freaks ruining Bach’s music”.


The style of playing


The same dilemma, even more pronounced,  arises by comparing modern artists to their historical predecessors of the Golden age. Their playing styles are considerably different. Aesthetic preferences, the ways of expression, sound production, vibration, slides along the fingerboard (if to mention string players), articulation, agogics, intonation, etc., all those instances are different.


It entails that the meaning of their music is also different. Then, who is correct about composer’s intentions and who is wrong?Who is more deserving the title “the freaks ruining music”, Heifetz and Elman, Rubinstein and Cortot, or modern artists?


The curse of variety


It’s easy to see that the idea of composer’s intentions can hardly be harmonized with the variables in music on the whole.


Joachim and Kreisler played completely differently – which one of them was wrong?


Which violin school was closer to the classical composers’ intentions, German or Russian?


Gould played Bach like none before and after him - did Bach really intend what Gould expressed with his music?


Which way of playing Baroque music is genuine, authentic/historically informed or traditional/modern?


Questions like these are fatal to the idea about the absolute priority of composer’s intentions in real concert situation.


Why then this idea serves the role of the highest regulation in classical music?  Why did it appear and rules the artform?


I am going to give my version of the answers to these questions in one of my next blog posts.




Photo: Glenn Gould




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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