These days, the “theory” behind classical music’s decline in pop culture is common knowledge: the genre evolved out of rigid traditions in the church and monarchical regimes, became indelibly associated with the upper class, and maintained prominence until the beginning of the twentieth century, when cultural interest began to shift to new popular genres and so-called “classical composers” went off the deep end into the sea of atonality. We’ve heard it again and again, and there is certainly truth to it-but, as a recent article on theconversation.com suggests, it might not be the whole story.
The article, “We’re playing classical music all wrong — composers wanted us to improvise” by Applied Musicology Professor Clive Brown, presents an intriguing discussion of performance history, noting that in centuries past, classical music was not, in fact, meant to be performed with such an immaculate attention to a notated score. Performers were invited-and even expected-to use the music in front of them as a mere basis for performance, not as an absolutist dictation of it. Improvisation was welcomed, things like vibrato were just optional ornaments, and it wasn’t all that big of a deal if something wasn’t exactly together. As Brown keenly observes, “Pre-20th century musicians approached performance much more like popular musicians still do,” leading him to conclude that “a major factor in the diminished popularity of classical music is the failure of modern performers fully to understand what the musical notation of the past was expected to convey to them.” This shift in philosophy, Brown asserts, occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century, when “classical musicians increasingly equated fidelity to the composer’s ‘intentions’ with reproducing – to paraphrase a well-known judicial phrase –’the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text'” as a result of modernist thought and “a desire to distance ‘culturally superior’ classical music from the popular styles in which these freedoms were retained.”
I found this article to incredibly thought-provoking, as it essentially deconstructs the notion that classical music was intended to be performed perfectly-which, when you think about it, is really the root of our problems. Think about what concerts, conservatories, orchestra auditions (!) would be like if we still adhered to these original performance conventions. It would be quite a different ballgame, and most likely, a more relaxing one. I have always found it very interesting that classical musicians are held to higher standards of perfection than almost any other variety of public performer. A politician can stumble over his words in an important policy speech, and nobody bats an eye. A pop singer can sing grievously out of tune and nobody cares (or notices). A football player can throw a pass at the half yard line instead of running it in, and-well, okay, THAT one was somewhat frowned upon. But you get the point-we are held to these almost impossibly high standards, and as far as this article is concerned, it wasn’t even supposed to be that way. To make matters worse, we’ve actually further distanced ourselves from our audiences as a result. Clearly, the big thinkers a hundred years ago were on the wrong track.
Or were they? After all, in the days of Haydn and Mozart, it was infeasible for the average person to achieve a performance that would be considered professional-level today. Instrumental techniques were still under development, and the opportunity to study with a competent teacher was reserved primarily for the upper class (and even then, students probably weren’t criticized too harshly, since they were the ones who hired the teachers in the first place). Nowadays, it is in fact very possible for almost anyone to take music lessons, and ultimately go on to become a successful musician. Besides, it is highly unlikely that we will witness a reversal in performance practice. If anything, we will continuously strive to achieve even greater performances, where every note is shaped and culled exactly to our liking.
But at the same time, it would be a terrible bore (and really counterproductive to our musical intentions) if we always followed composers’ markings to the letter (or note). And of course, many of us don’t-some to an unnecessary extreme. But there is a fine distinction between a creative, original performance and one saturated with self-indulgence. In the end, I think the answer to the conundrum is to cultivate a healthy balance between a composer’s original intentions, contemporary performance practice, and the interpretation that will best suit the context of a given performance. It is most certainly a feasible solution, especially considering it was a change in performance practice that got us to where we are today. Nothing is ever sustained without some degree of adaption, and as much as some may try to deny it, our cherished genre is no exception.
So, are we playing classical music wrong? Well, no, not really. We’re just not playing it right.