The Performer

What is the role of the performer when performing works by other composers? Is it to try to reproduce the work as the composer intended it to be (as far as this can be known)? Or is it the performer’s role to interpret the music afresh? Should the performer stamp his/her own personality onto a piece of music by Bach or Mozart, for example?We expect a pop singer to make a song his/her ‘own’ (as Simon Cowell would say) but do we expect this of a classical performer? I know lots of people disagree with me, but it’s my opinion that we should try to keep to the composer’s intentions (as far as we know what these are). Bearing in mind that Mozart, for example, had one of the greatest musical sensibilities in the history of music, I don’t wish to hear a performer’s ‘interpretation’ interfering with Mozart’s own voice. 

20 thoughts on “The Performer

  1. I think it depends on what the purpose of the performance is. If you went to a concert to listen to piece by Bach purely because it is by Bach, then I think it is the performer’s role to play as the composer intended. If however you go to see a particular musician, because you enjoy their own performance then they should perform their interpretation and add their own musical stamp!

  2. I like how you seem so suprised! Haha! But I do agree with what you said about Mozart. I hate it when musical interpretation goes too far and you lose the original beauty of the music.

  3. Oh yeah whatever! How would you feel as the composer of limerence if someone else played it in their own interpretation?

  4. Mm, well, I don’t think I’d like that. But then perhaps I should have the humility to admit that someone else might have something to give

  5. Who can know precisely what Mozart’s own voice was? You either like a performance or not. To judge a performance on its conformity to a preconceived notion of validity is rigid dogma equivalent to the blind convictions of a Bible belt creationist.

  6. I think a lot of study and analysis of Mozart reveals a great deal about his own voice. And if someone actively ignores the articulation, dynamics, etc, that the composer has written in the score then this is no longer the voice of Mozart, for example. Yes, I agree that you either like a performance or not, but if you know the performer is not playing what the composer intended then I don’t like it. Have you heard of heuristics, by the way?

  7. Don’t you think jazz is the only form of music where it’s acceptable for the performer to have as much creative input as the composer?

  8. Andre Previn has said regarding Jaques Loussier’s jazz versions of Bach that it is neither jazz nor Bach. He did not define what jazz is, what exactly is it? Bach was, I believe, a great improviser, does that mean he was a great jazz musician?
    I’ve read that during Beethoven’s lifetime a celebrated violinist played his violin concerto and during the performance stood on one leg and played the violin behind his neck to the huge delight of the audience. This proves nothing other than his contemporaries did not have the same reverence to his music that has been imposed since.

  9. I don’t know how ‘jazz’ would be defined. It’s a vague concept, as Wittgenstein would say, and I don’t think it’s possible to say exactly what it is. Intuitively, I want to say that we wouldn’t call Bach a ‘jazz musician’ – although I’ve read that he was indeed a great improviser. I think I would still laugh if a violinist stood on one leg and played the violin behind his neck during a performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Although we would surely take context into account here. If it was understood to be a joke then, yes, it would probably be funny. If not, then I would imagine most Beethoven admirers would find it offensive.

  10. Surely any reasonable person would not be offended if it was played well or is the perfomers looks and demeanor more important than the music.

  11. Standing on one leg and playing a violin behind the neck would surely be a trifle distracting…

    I’ve just read an idiotic remark on YouTube about Martha Argerich looking like a grandma rather than looking the ‘cutie’ she was in her youth. The person who posted that remark is NOT a reasonable person. The performance of the Chopin she was playing was stunning but no comment was left about that.

  12. I agree it would be distracting however my point on our over reverential attitude to the great composers remains valid. The moron on youtube has the opposite problem, an over reverential attitude to appearance. Perhaps the real issue is humanity’s need to revere. Is that vague enough for Wittgenstein?

  13. I think we should indeed have a reverential attitude to the Great Composers. If you analyse Bach’s music it’s staggeringly clever. Almost frighteningly so. I’ve just been watching Borge ‘play’ some Tschaikovsky. It’s very funny but it’s meant to be a joke and we take it as one. I think humanity does have a need to revere. Love and limerence find their birth in that need. So does religion. Or perhaps the latter is more connected with a need to believe in an afterlife. Wittgenstein wasn’t vague; he just draws attention to the fact that some of our concepts are vague. ‘Jazz’, for example.

  14. Watching Richer playing some Schubert on YouTube last night with the score in front of him was a reminder that this is the composer’s music and not the performer’s. Sometimes people are under the misapprehension that when, for example, Gould plays Bach, that this music is Gould’s and not Bach’s. Seeing a concert pianist playing from the score made me think again that the performer, at most, is interpreting the music written by the composer. Gould says at the end of a video in which he discusses his decision to play each variation of Mozart’s Sonata in A (K.331) slightly faster than the one before, that this is “where performance turns into composition”. This is not composition; this is a very small creative addition to Mozart’s music. (Not even one that’s justifiable in my opinion.) It’s Mozart’s notes that are the creation – Gould is only tinkering with music that already exists. Seeing Richter with Schubert’s score made the performer’s role in music apparent. The performer’s role is to allow us to hear the composer’s music, and nothing more.

  15. this is a very fine observation elaine. i would ask you to consider a blind man. or woman. and they haere richter and not see him with score. is this more the true schubert!?

  16. I understand your point, dear limerent Ludwig. I think you’ve missed mine, however. I was just remarking on how Richter’s reading of the score reminded me of the limited contribution the performer makes to a piece. My remark wasn’t about how reading the score affects a performance but only of how seeing Richter reading Schubert highlighted the fact that this is Schubert’s music and not Richter’s.

  17. i thank you for this clearance. i understand you now finely. i also think not that maestro gould is so importnant as the composer he is not.

  18. Elaine – surely you must appreciate the point that we’d never hear these marvellous compositions if it weren’t for the performers. You need to stop belittling performers. Don’t take any notice of her, Ludwig. Although I agree with you both insofar as Gould is so important as the composer he is not.

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