Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Julian Dodd on performing musical works authentically

Last week Julian Dodd, professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester, gave an excellent talk at UCLan called ‘Performing musical works authentically’. The aim was to articulate a concept of fidelity to musical works to serve, I suppose, as part of account of aesthetic judgements both by audiences and performers. I liked every aspect of the paper except for its central metaphysical claim and was left wondering how much the central claim of a paper should matter to one’s attitude to it.

I’ve borrowed from the handout in the summary here but I should say both that Julian emphasised that this was a work in progress (and so his views might change) and also that my memory of key claims may be wrong. This is how the performance struck me.

To move towards the key idea, Julian outlined two opposing view of authenticity, both of which he rejected.

1: Score-compliance authenticity
On this view, faithfulness to a musical work is a matter of accurately following the score (‘rendering the score faithfully’ (Davies, ‘Transcription, authenticity and performance’, BJA 28 (1988): 223)). It can be combined with a view of historical authenticity, the use of traditional instruments etc. When deviation from a score is justified it can only be because of a higher order intention ascribed to the composer. Perhaps he/she would have scored things differently had more capable instruments been available. But any such deviation is an exception, merely tolerated by this sort of approach.

2: Personal authenticity: faithfulness to the performer’s artistic persona.
On this view authenticity is to the performer (NB not the composer).
[W]hen we say of a musical performance that it is ‘authentic’ in the sense of being ‘personally authentic’, we are praising it for bearing the special stamp of personality that marks it out from all others as Horowitz’s or Serkin’s, Bernstein’s or Toscanini’s, Casals’s or Janigro’s: we are marking it out as the unique product of a unique individual, something with an individual style of its own – ‘an original’. (Kivy, Authenticities, Cornell U.P. 1995: 123)
Julian’s brief key argument against personal authenticity was that it is not an accurate rendition of our interest in the performance of c lassical music. A distinctive feature of this practice is that we value listening to multiple interpretations of classical works in performance. But, he argued, listening to multiple interpretations is valuable, not because this brings us into acquaintance with a wide variety of artistic personas, but because (a) we value interpretations that enrich or deepen our understanding of works, and (b) we realise that no one interpretation will have a monopoly on such insight.

Although he suggested that he was relying mainly on bald assertion, this seems quite right. Translating into the medium of theatre, my interest in Jacobi’s and McKellan’s different King Lears wasn’t in the actors but in their distinctive playing of Lear, of their different ways of realising the possibilities of the parts. (I did not, for example, want to put Lear in a relation to Emperor Claudius or Magneto, for example.)

The argument against score-compliance authenticity was more measured and turned as much as anything on its comparative weakness in relation to Julian’s favoured view of authenticity. There is a kind of faithfulness to the work that is valuable for its own sake in performance which is not score-compliance authenticity, but interpretive authenticity.

A couple of quotes from the handout give a feel for this:

‘A performance of a work is interpretively authentic to the extent that it offers an interpretation of the work that evinces an understanding of it.’
‘Such a performance makes certain musical and expressive features salient and others unsalient in such a way as to add up to an expressive and structural vision of the work that: convincingly represents how the work’s’s thematic material and expressive character develop; thereby conveys something of the significance of the work’s having the detail it has; displays a feeling for the nature of its style; and, as a result of having the aforementioned features, has a nicely judged sense of what really matters in the presentation of it in performance.’

Interpretive authenticity is a critical and evaluative matter. It cannot be undertaken from a sideways on position but, rather, is a matter of working out, from within an aesthetic sensibility, an understanding of a work and thus what the demands of authenticity to it are. Further, it is not merely a filler to make up for the under-determination of performance by score since it can, more fundamentally, dictate global approaches to pieces of music.

To bring out the distinction between this view of authenticity to a work and mere score compliance authenticity, Julian mentioned a couple of examples.

First, Beethoven’s metronome marks in the Hammerklavier Sonata are, we learnt, impossibly fast. As a result most performers do not follow them and play the piece more slowly. Brendel comments

‘In the first movement particularly, the prescribed tempo cannot be attained, or even approached, on any instrument in the world, by any player at all, be he the devil incarnate, without a grievous loss of dynamics, colour and clarity.’ (Brendel, ‘Werktreue: an afterthought’, Alfred Brendel on Music, Robson Books, 2001: 33 italics added).

So Brendel plays up the importance dynamics colour and clarity. He sees these features of the piece as making more important demands than the tempo.

Second, the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Here, in the score, the theme first played by horns is repeated by oboes. But since it seems to serve as a fanfare this is unsatisfactory. Given that modern brass instruments are up to the job of playing both the initial fanfare and the recapitulation, that is what typically happens now. That is what responding best to the work is judged, by most performers, to require.

Thus, a proper understanding of the demands of a musical work do not seem to be a matter of merely complying with the score but rather a fidelity or faithfulness to the work itself even when, as in the Hammerklavier Sonata this involves in disregarding the composers intentions. The composer is merely one interpreter of his/her work. ‘A performer might have the utmost understanding and respect for the composer’s achievement, and yet conclude, justifiably, that something of the work’s character, or aesthetic potential, is compromised by slavishly following every instruction in the score.’

I agreed with the thrust of all of this, especially the focus on the normativity of understanding. What I didn’t understand was the underlying metaphysical story Julian wished to promote. I think that this view had two motivations. First, he wanted to pay due attention to the fact that our interest in classical music performance is a form of understanding. Further, performances can be revelatory. They can reveal the work. Second, the two rival theories he opposed explained this understanding as a matter of faithfulness either to a score or to a performer’s character. In both of these cases, and whatever else may be unattractive about them, that notion of faithfulness is quite concrete. We can see what it is that faithfulness might involve as a kind of correspondence (though this is obviously clearer for score-compliance authenticity, the main target of the paper). I wonder whether it is because of the stage setting that Julian thought that the only explanation of the normativity of understanding was one of fidelity (which seemed to be a form of correspondence) neither to the score nor the performer’s character but to the work itself.

How else, he asked, could one think that an interpretation was revelatory? How else could performance seem to be an act of discovery? But the alternative that struck me was that might discover, simply, that something worked. That playing a work, or a part of a work, like this! was a good way to play it. After all, the method of discovery would look remarkably similar: a matter of trial and demonstration with piecemeal contextual aesthetic explanation. Julian wanted to add to this a further underlying metaphysical explanation. Such a process reveals the nature of the work to which it aims to be faithful. But I do not see that that idea adds anything helpful. And it may be unhelpful in that it suggests that the work (the Work, perhaps) has a single identity, demanding to be played in just one way. Julian suggested that he did not think that that need be true. But he rather implied that such multiple readings would be exception rather than norm in accord with the basic picture of faith to an abstract, possibly platonic, work. It seems to me, by contrast, that it may always be the case with a good work that there are many and various ways to realise it. If so, the idea of fidelity to the work seems the wrong metaphor.