4. Musical Interpretation


The tendency to speak of performances of scored music as ‘interpretations’ is a rather recent phenomenon, immediately linked to the emergence of the regulative work concept (Goehr, 1992). This conception of the relationship between a musical score and its performances developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and is central to how Western classical music is produced and presented in institutions such as symphony orchestras and concert halls in the present day (Small, 1998).  Interpretation is required when a composer writes a score, when a performer studies the same artefact, and when a listener encounters the music in a performance (Östersjö, 2008).

In all of these instances alike, such interpretative actions are informed by social and cultural agreements that are part of forming a specific musical style. Just like when a composer is engaged in the act of writing a score, ‘performances are necessarily constructive’ (Stecker, 2003, p. 80), not only making ’the relationships and patterns potential in the composer’s score clear to the mind and ear of the experienced listener’ (Meyer, 1973, p. 29) but also, materializing an instance of the work which also contributes to its work identity.


4.1 Historical authenticity: body and sound

A very particular cultural agreement, and one that has resulted in a number of specific styles of musical interpretation over time, is known today as Historically Informed Performance (HIP). It is a movement which started in musicology in the middle of 20th century, and that has had as its 'holy grail' the unattainable goal of the realization of 'historical authenticity'. The ambition to play historical music in the same way that it was played when first created produced the concept of 'authentic performance practice'. I myself am very much a part of this cultural agreement, but, as can be noticed in this thesis, the word 'authentic' does not occupy my thoughts very much. It is however, and most certainly was, such an important concept in Historically Informed Performance, that I feel the need to address it, albeit briefly.

In 1995, Peter Kivy analysed the concept of authenticity as divided into the 'authenticities' of intention, sound, and performance, while also adding a fourth authenticity: the personal authenticity (or authority) of the performer (Kivy, 1995, p. 3).

In the same year Taruskin published his collection of essays entitled Text and Act. The taste and opinions of these two authors seem to be very close. But as Taruskin’s 'lethal' rhetoric had already seemed to have succeeded in abolishing for good the concept of 'authenticity' in musical performance some time previously, Kivy’s concern with authenticities might seem to have been out-dated already in the year of its publication.

In a more recent and contrasting approach, Elizabeth Le Guin (2006) proposes a ‘carnal musicology’ which approaches historical sources - and most importantly, historical music and scores - through an interpretation based in the body. In a seminal investigation of Boccherini’s music, specifically through the author’s own experience of playing its cello parts, she draws historical knowledge out of its relative darkness into a different light through an embodied understanding of the music as performed, but also, as experienced and shared with listeners:

Just as the composer-performer’s embodied experience informed musical choices on every level, so did that of the listeners, and every bit as constantly and essentially. In this sense, the whole affair of performance is one of repeated mutual confirmation, negation, and refinement of the hypothesis: This is a body, and this is what it means to have one. (Le Guin,  2006, p. 258)

Following Le Guin, authenticity in the interpretation and performance of historical music then, in all its complexity, can also be approached through an analysis which draws essentially on the embodied knowledge activated and created through performance.

The use of period instruments was indeed the impetus for the first proponents of historical performance practice, such as Arnold Dolmetsch. Through such instruments, it was assumed that, for instance, an authentic baroque sound could be reconstructed. But such assertions are obviously problematic. The final sonic product – built on descriptions of playing techniques and the reconstruction of the historical instruments in the sources – can never be compared with the actual original sound of the past. Thus the assessment of the result must allow criteria such as possible, logical, and plausible.

Functionality and pragmatism have in recent years bridged the infrequent historical information into a coherent body of performance practice. The stance articulated as ‘…it sounds good, it works and it makes sense, so it might even be historically correct’ – signals the shift from vigorous historicity towards creativity, imagination, and communication.

The question remains whether it is the specificity of sound itself that is relevant to style. The concept of sound that we can obtain from historical sources is not constructed on any direct descriptions of sound quality. Rather, our concept of baroque sound is based on indirect information about tempo, phrasing, affect, and character, as well as other practical aspects of performance, such as balance, blend, and colour. Complying with the explicit stylistic features addressed in the sources, the resulting sound presents itself as a possible viable outcome. Even though we can never be sure if this is the actual timbre, colour, and quality with which baroque music was played (and then again, in which country, in which music, with what players, with which instruments?), we will settle on it as a workable solution as long as it is compatible with what seems to be the more crucial criteria of style: rhythm based on dance patterns, melody built on the architectonic (structural) principles of language, articulation based on the imitation of speech, and harmony with its gravitational centre around the dominant, to mention just a few.

Thus the logical conclusion in the question of sonic authenticity (Kivy, 1995) could be this: the baroque sound proposed by HIP practitioners as authentic is not necessarily closer to actual baroque sound than the traditional modern sound ideal, but it is, in counter-distinction to the latter, fully compatible with the crucial stylistic elements listed above. The problem with the traditional modern sound is not that it is not authentic enough per se, but that it does not dance, speak, or 'move' the way baroque music implies.





5. Conclusions



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Theoretical framework



5. Conclusions



Back to:

Theoretical framework