We are taught from the beginning that our sacred duty as musicians is to render the score as transparently as possible. To be perfect, gorgeous vessels of music, making audible the blips and lines on the page, exactly as the composer has set them down. Our artistry, our interpretation (if it exists at all, which it often doesn’t but for many of us keeps us sane) is valid only insofar as it provides a context for what the page contains. Anything added or changed is understood as a failing on the part of the performer.
The best performance, in this view, faithfully renders every last thing on the page. With grace.
The drumbeat of this demand begins in our earliest training, and I suspect this is an important part of what this fidelity demand is about. To be a perfect vessel one must be able to read a score perfectly; if the expectation of good musicians is to render scores perfectly – if it is not just an expectation of excellence but in fact, as it is always couched, a moral obligation – then it follows that we must first be able to read the score perfectly. Pitch, rhythm, meter, harmony, tempo, dynamics, articulation, yes, but also relationships between these things, the elements that lie below the surface. I suspect that making fidelity responsibility number one is a quick way to make musicianship responsibility number two. And I endorse the hell out of this for young and/or inexperienced performers, for expedience’s sake. Because perfect musicianship is the best thing ever, and a rare and wonderful thing to behold.
But the notion that musicians should desire above all to be perfect vessels of the score eventually outlasts its usefulness. (Watch out. This is the part where I start to blaspheme.)
Those of us who work with living composers – marvelously talented, richly imaginative badasses – recognize that the final score is not an eternal jewel of the music gods. It is one outcome of many, having to do with the musician(s) giving the premiere, the constraints of the commission, the state of mind of the composer, and countless other parameters.
The “final” score isn’t even always final: even back in the days when our Composer Gods (you know the ones, the old white men whose music populates the musicology and music theory textbooks) were alive and writing (and improvising and riffing on each other’s work in live performance, a post for another day), they would go back and revise. And publish revisions that stand alongside their first versions to this day. “Which version of Glück’s Orpheus are we doing, the French where Orpheus is a tenor, or the Italian where he’s a castrato, which will be cast with a female mezzo-soprano or, if we’re lucky enough to have one, a male countertenor?” So many contingencies, and that’s just one example. Our music history is loaded with composers going back and rewriting. And this perspective, that the score as an artifact is not de facto complete or final, is the key to transcendence.
Over decades of practice and performance (and perfectly rendering scores) of a wide variety of sub-genres and styles within the classical idiom, performers become exquisitely attuned to shape, pacing, what makes a piece work. And sometimes we can see potential for an unconventional but no less powerful meaning that’s not suggested by the score, potential that can be realized by making a small change in something on the surface: dynamics, tempo, phrasing, or articulation, perhaps. We can tell the difference between forcing or imposing an unmerited interpretation and letting something fly that, though unforeseen by the composer, nevertheless enriches their creation. In my opinion, it’s an act of respect and even love to make these kinds of subtle changes; the knowledgeable, attentive, and open-minded listener will be granted a new layer of delight.
The slippery slope argument rears its head right about now, invariably. Without the moral obligation to be a transparent, perfect vessel for the score, what’s to stop a renegade trumpeter (or let’s be honest, soprano, I am obviously right in the middle of this) from changing rhythms, or God forbid, actual pitches?
That’s not entirely true. We're musicians because we dig listening to and playing the music so much that we’ve devoted untold thousands of hours to being worthy of it. True, I could stand in front of an audience pouring a glass of sour milk for 15 seconds and call that Schubert’s Erlkönig, but I love Schubert too much to do that.
Still, devoted, faithful musicians consider the pitches and rhythms unchangeable, right? Change those and the educated listener will hear it as a mistake. Change those and you are crossing the line.
But you know what? We change rhythms in scores all the time. It’s subtle, but to inflect a line – whether because of language or underlying harmony or simply to shape a phrase – one really has to make some notes a little shorter and others a little longer. Admittedly, the first step, especially for students whose musicianship is still shaky, is to render the rhythms with robotic precision. But then, it is essential to make them slightly irregular – intelligently, sensitively irregular – in order to humanize the piece. (This is why midi renderings of new works are poor versions that composers would never consider releasing to the public. Well, that and timbre. Ugh.)
We change pitches, too. Some scores have misprints. Happens all the time. And not all of them have a page slipped into the score with errata notifications. It is our responsibility as musicians not to miss these typos, but fixing them is sometimes more of an art than a science. Which is to say, the fix is not always clear. And sometimes the typo itself is debatable. But when the composer is not available to comment (because they’re dead or not on Twitter), we have to study the rest of the score and call on our knowledge of style and music theory and the composer’s entire output so far, and with those things in mind, change the pitch in the score.
My point is that the slope isn’t so much slippery as it is less steep than the traditionalists would have us believe. If we transcend the notion that the score is a sacred artifact, if we recognize that it is in fact a set of instructions littered with contingencies, then we can reach a new level of participation in the making of music. We can give ourselves permission to find potential in a musical idea that the composer didn’t foresee. We can be true to our own artistry, taking a piece to a place it hasn’t been before. We can change (or, gasp!, ignore) articulation or dynamics or phrasing in the service of a transcendent performance.
I am not talking about mistakes or dumbing down a piece. I’m talking about performers operating as composers’ equals.
The living composers I frequently work with understand and believe in this. While I thank my lucky stars every day for their brilliance and creativity, and all of the many things they know that I haven’t begun to learn, they readily agree that our collaborations make their work better. They recognize that performers have something important to offer them that they may not be able to reach on their own, something much more than transparent, perfect renditions of their imaginings. And this is true for every composer, not just the ones that recognize it.
Including the dead ones.