On The Historical Performance Movement

Play the music on the kind of instruments it was written for…seems reasonable right? So it was written for violin, play it on a violin…but all violins are different. Now we could talk for hours about slight modifications on instruments and whether they could belong to the class of instruments we would say the composer wrote the music for. So the issue is more complex than it first seems. We have to ask the question of whether composers intended their music to be played on newer instruments, and whether that is important to us as listeners (or whether how we feel about their music is more important). To begin to answer these questions for myself, I look to my deepest gut instinct as a composer and to my common sense.

I ask myself the question: If I asked J. S. Bach if he thinks his music should be played on significantly different sounding modern versions of the instruments he originally wrote the music for, and I showed him for example how the modern oboe, violin and trumpet sound…what would he say? I don’t think he’d be completely offended by modern performances, but I can practically guarantee he would prefer the sound of the instruments of his time for his music.

What makes me say that? - most of all the sound of his music and contemporaries when played on period instruments. That for me is the most convincing evidence of all. It is common sense that the construction of instruments and playing styles of the time have a great effect on how the composer composes. Wouldn’t you think the composer would want to preserve the original instruments if they influenced the way the music was written? My instincts tell me that composers develop an intimate musical relationship with the instruments of their time. So to me it is clear that they would prefer that their music be performed on authentic instruments. I don’t believe those people for a second who say that Beethoven or Brahms were envisioning (or wanting) a big modern orchestra and Steinway piano. I see absolutely no grounds for such beliefs.

For me the question of whether or not it matters what the composer intended is simple…of course it does. Not only do I highly respect the composer’s wishes, I respect the time in which he/she practiced. We should use anything at our disposal to help bring back the atmosphere of the time.

I can’t even believe that people reacted so violently when the Historical Performance Movement came to being. Pinchas Zuckermann actually claimed that the authentic instruments and techniques actually sound bad. Zuckermann may be a great musician in the technical sense, but in this instance he should bow his head in shame. I won’t even begin to tell you what I think of how he plays Bach and Vivaldi. It’s surprising that we should even have to argue over the artistic validity of using authentic instruments…then again maybe not considering how widespread the practice of playing old music on modern instruments is. In fact it is the exact same phenomenon discussed above that makes it an issue…the performers have developed a close musical relationship with the instruments of their time, and become accustomed to the sound of old music on new instruments so that period instruments sound foreign.

July 10th 2002

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