The Quest for Authenticity

Musicians who perform early music are constantly questioning whether or not something is “authentic.” The goal is to represent music accurately, with informed decisions, and with respect. But at what point should authenticity no longer be the priority, and what do we gain from authenticity, anyway?

The historically-informed approach is based on the idea that performing music closer to how it was intended is more rewarding both musically and artistically. I happen to subscribe to this ideology; I feel that approaching Bach’s music in the context in which it was written helps us appreciate the details and nuances, and keeps us from expecting qualities that are characteristic of later repertoire. If we listen to Bach the same way we listen to a Brahms symphony, we will likely be disappointed. Bach uses a different musical toolbox than Brahms, and it can be difficult to appreciate the musical idioms if we’re listening for different things. The same can apply to new music or atonal music—if we go in expecting Tchaikovsky, we’ll feel unsatisfied as a listener.

But at what point does authenticity become limiting? Many composers in the baroque era and earlier were pushing boundaries. Is approaching their repertoire with conservative thinking actually counterintuitive to the way the composer may have wanted the music performed?

That may be a valid point, but I don’t think it’s adequate justification for someone taking an entirely modern approach to a piece written in the 18th century or earlier. To me, the issue is education. Musicians should always be making educated decisions, rather than performing on auto-pilot and jumping to their own defense when their approach is questioned. As classical musicians, shouldn’t we have a good grasp on the historical context of all the music we play? Our profession, by nature, is based in history and tradition.

The execution of a piece should be informed by whether or not the aspects of historical practice truly resonate with a performer. I take no issue with a “modern” violinist performing a Bach partita with modern sensibilities (though it’s not to my taste), but I think they should do so after considering an historically-informed approach. After all, how can you justify your approach to a piece when you haven’t explored or consider another—especially one that is more likely what the composer had in mind when writing the piece?

I think it’s important to note that taking an historically-informed approach does not mean applying more rules and constrictions on music-making. In classical music, there are already hundreds of guidelines for instrument technique and basic musical taste. The “authentic” approach simply swaps out some of these guidelines for others. Often times it means bringing more detail to musical gestures and phrases that may have been overlooked by a modern performer who is not trained to acknowledge certain details.

Obviously, it is impossible to be 100% authentic. Most instrumentalists who play early music are not playing on instruments that are over 300 years old—many are newer instruments that are closely modeled to match something from the appropriate century. And that’s just scratching the surface. It is impossible to replicate the exact conditions of the far past, but the goal is to execute and approach music in the same way musicians would have hundreds of years ago.

What are your thoughts on the authenticity battle? How important is it to you as a musician, and where do you draw the line? As a listener, how much do you value it? Let me know your thoughts.

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3 responses to “The Quest for Authenticity

  1. Great points. Especially the bit about expectations. In college, I’d hear keyboard players debating the use of pedal in Bach’s works. The old argument was “Just because there was no pedal, doesn’t mean that Bach wouldn’t have used it.” I always thought that was rather naive, because if Bach had the piano with pedal available to him, who says he wouldn’t have written a whole new piece altogether, given these alternate tools at his disposal? So yes, context MUST be considered in order to truly appreciate something, in my humble opinion.

  2. HI. I think the entire question should be: what precisely is music. Should we limit it to it’s “manifestation” on the page? Perhaps a different view of music, other than seeing it as notation and emotion from a specific era, with specific instrumentation, might help the situation? I think you
    raise very important issues. Thank you

  3. Fascinating. I like this entry/topic! I’m having issues keeping my response short…

    In an educational setting, I say generally go authentic.

    In other settings, as your own artist or group, do it however you can connect with it. Performing a piece as it was originally intended can most certainly be rewarding and expressive, but if you can add your own creativity and emotions into doing it a different way that helps you connect with the piece, go ahead! The composer didn’t write the piece for you; you don’t have to do it his way. I think the important thing is intent. Do it authentically because that’s your goal. Do it differently because you have a different goal. Just don’t half-ass it because it’s there and you’re playing it whichever way feels ok.

    Basically, what you said with “Musicians should always be making educated decisions, rather than performing on auto-pilot…”, except I would change it to “Musicians should always be making decisions for an intentional reason, rather than performing on auto-pilot.”

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