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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