When I play for conducting class, I regularly hear the following:

“We have a recording of the composer doing this piece, so we know what s/he wanted.”

“The composer wrote this metronome marking, so we need to get pretty close to that.”

“The composer was so precise in notation.”

“I’m not sure what is right to do here, historically speaking.”

All of these arguments are usually put forward in a vague attempt at something described as “fidelity to the composer.” I have already addressed in my second essay the problematic nature of what it means to be “faithful” to a composer who didn’t necessarily conceive a work of musical art as a fixed object. Let’s put that aside for a moment and, for the sake of argument, suggest that the text we have been given is some sort of monolithic, inviolate object dropped from the mind of the “genius” composer on to Mount Sinai. (Forgive the analogy that doesn’t fit with any sane theological understanding of how Scriptures came to us.) Suspend your disbelief for a moment, pick up the stone tablets, and carry them down the mountain.

You will find that every time someone arguing from the HIP [Historically Informed Performance] perspective says something, they are always making an argument that involves time travel — and time travel never ever makes any sense. Ever. Andrew Parrot goes through extensive research to show that most of the time Bach only had a few singers on the cantatas with occasional augmentation of the soprano parts doubled by boys acting as ripienista. The conclusion: therefore we should perform Bach with small choirs. It’s a time travel argument. He’s saying that if Bach traveled 300 years into the future, heard my band, the KC Chorale, performing a cantata with close to 30 voices with modern instruments (most of the singers performing with few cases of consumption or gout and completely syphilis free!) that he would immediately say, “Ach! I hate all these musical resources that you have. Please. Let’s cut this choir in half so I can hear it with the meagre resources of Leipzig in 1723. And, bitte, a little more syphilis in the choir.” That’s a lot of assumptions about what Bach would want if he could have it.

Anyone who has experience with the recording process knows that it is a game of compromises. You’d like one more take on this or that. Of course, there are exquisite serendipities that happen. Somehow, magically, a take comes out better than you’ve ever done it in real life. It’s thrilling, but for every one of those experiences there are a thousand things you’d like to fix. On top of that, if you listen to some of those recordings that Britten made of his own pieces, the choirs were just bad. Really bad. To suggest that a recording gives a definitive interpretation is nonsense. It is a document of one interpretation on one day. For that matter, some composers are not good at interpreting their own music, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be good at interpreting it for us in our time. It makes no more sense than cancelling all future performances of Henry V because after Sir Laurence Olivier did that Globe Theatre recreation, “we know how it goes,” so we don’t need the Sir Kenneth Branagh version or any other. Every composer has had the experience of hearing a work that they wrote performed by someone else in a way that they didn’t conceive it. Sometimes it’s worse, but sometimes it’s better. Chopin in 1833 writes to Ferdinand Hiller, “Liszt is playing my etudes and transporting me out of all proper thoughts. I should like to steal from him the way to play my own etudes!” Chopin’s “definitive recording” wouldn’t have been his own, but Liszt’s.

I would love to smash every metronome on the planet. I view it as one of the inventions of the devil himself. It has a way of shutting down all arguments with that sort of smug certainty that quantafiability always carries in its wake. It’s the perfect tool for an anal retentive musical fundamentalist. “The composer has spoken. It’s 88 to the quarter.” Beethoven put all his metronome markings in after he went deaf, so I think we at least have room to disagree with him on occasion. But don’t we have to follow the letter of the law in metronome markings for the composers who weren’t deaf? In 1880, Brahms wrote to Georg Henschel saying, “Soweit wenigstens meine Erfahrung reicht, hat noch jeder die angegebenen Zahlen später widerrufen. Die, welche sich bei meinen Sachen finden, sind von guten Freunden mir aufgeschwätzt, denn ich selbst habe nie geglaubt, daß mein Blut und ein Instrument sich so gut vertragen; das sogenannte, ‘elastische Tempo’ ist ja keine neue Erfindung.” [At least as far as my experiences is concerned, no one that has given (metronome) numbers has not retracted them. Those (the metronome markings) which you find in my things, were talked into me from good friends; for myself, I have never believed that my blood and an instrument (the metronome) get along so well; the so-called “elastic Tempo” is certainly not a new discovery.” Don’t miss that. He not only doesn’t believe metronome markings are helpful, the ones he put in his scores were marks that his friends talked him into using. He even goes so far as to tell Clara Schumann, “ich auch weniger an Schumanns falsches Metronom glaube, als an die Unsicherheit der Bestimmung.” [I believe less in Schumann’s false Metronome markings than in the uncertainty of the designation.] Brahms thinks Schumann’s metronome markings are wrong, but you’d better not go against them in conducting class. There, they are sacrosanct.

The idea that a composer is “precise” in notation would be comical if it wasn’t advanced so earnestly. There are certainly gradations of precision when it comes to composers of different temperaments. Some composers attempt more precision than others to be sure. To hear it in conducting class, you’d think that people had done extensive studies comparing the relative rigor of various composer’s copywork as it relates to their musical intention. No such study, of course, is possible in the real world where “musical intentions” aren’t something that you can be measured discreetly. It’s a phrase that gets tossed around in class though. It is even used for scores that have been prepared by a different copyist than the composer. So, what we’re really saying in that case is that the copyist was really precise in notating the composers notation. Now, every composer that I know that uses a publisher has a score in which an error eluded the proofing process. Let’s assume again that like some Masoretic scribe, the Urtext was duly and religiously transferred without gloss into our awaiting hands. How soft is soft? How loud is loud? How gradual is the crescendo? How flexible is the tempo? Our notation system is at best a blunt instrument leaving thousands of decisions to the actual performers. Anyone who has ever played a piece of music on a keyboard into a notation system knows this. It’s also the reason that gospel pieces sound so shitty when they’re played as notated. If you actually notated the subtlety of what was going on, it would look like a Ferneyhough score.

The musical fundamentalist can avoid personal responsibility and artistic choice by appealing to the authority of the gods of notation, metronome markings, and recordings. What we have lost in the process is that simple, human courage of the individual artist. It seems odd to say it, but making a statement like, “I’m going to perform this piece like this because I want to” has become a radical position.  Doing something like that will bring down a torrent of criticism — and the criticism begins in the conducting classes and studios of our educational system. So instead, we get, “What is the correct thing to do, historically speaking?” They get an answer, and the earth gets a little bit flatter and less interesting every day.