Musings on Authenticity

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Well, we don’t call it authentic performance any more; now it’s merely historically-informed. But still, classical music still works under a strong ethic to perform music in a way consistent with its original conception. We use concepts such as style and composer’s intentions as means to constrain the expressive and interpretative possibilities a piece can yield.

Now, in a Conservatoire context working with postgraduates, I spend a fair amount of time requiring students to question this orthodoxy. Once you scratch the surface of this laudable aim, you find all sorts of practical, intellectual and philosophical problems with it, and besides, the capacity for independence of thought is one of the things that people are supposed to develop before they get awarded a higher degree. I get them to read Richard Taruskin, and to listen to Art Tatum playing Massenet, and generally disrupt their cosy assumptions. Actually, I don’t really mind what kind of opinion they end up holding, so long as it is one they have hammered out for themselves and not just adopted wholesale from someone they admire. (Nothing wrong with admiration, of course, but slavish hero-worship doesn’t produce good art.)

But when I go and adjudicate amateur choirs in festivals, I find myself sitting on the other side of the fence. Often a choir will enter several different classes, especially if they have had to travel to participate, so will effectively be performing as different ‘types’ of choir. And the tendency is to sing the different repertories in the same way they sing the stuff they do most often. So you hear Verdi sung in the style of Renaissance polyphony, and Gospel sung in the style of barbershop. And it just sounds ignorant – a display of significant stylistic lack of awareness.

At this point I find myself thinking that you can only present an artistically valid ‘historically incorrect’ performance if you actually know how to present an ‘historically correct’ one. As it says about abstract art in one of the Peter Wimsey novels, there is a difference between someone who can draw, but won’t draw, and somebody who couldn’t draw in the first place. You can only really undermine something, or be counter-cultural to something if you understand its conventions. It’s the difference between someone saying something politically incorrect in a self-aware way for particular dramatic or comedic effect and someone who just hasn’t grasped that it’s not the done thing these days to call black people wogs. The first might offend, but it at least opens up dialogue; the second just makes you despair.

But of course this is still more about today’s conventions than historical ones. It is impossible to truly know what Bach expected from his small cadre of performers, and whether he would be offended by the massed 19th-century extravaganzas of the Mendelssohn performance tradition. But if knowing the difference is part of what constitutes musical competence in the twenty-first century, then we need either to respect the rules or break them intelligently.

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