One thing that has always irked me whenever I give Master classes at different conservatories and Universities while on tour. And it is starting to concern me more deeply than before. What is that you ask? It’s a seemingly deliberate disregard for how a composer has marked his music. For example, directions and hints to the would-be performer on how to play the piece, what speed to take, what balance, goodness; even what notes are correct.
What we’re talking about here is a basic level of respect for the text but what seems to be more and more common these days is just guessing at the meaning of metronome markings and foreign words. The result is an increasing number of would-be performers feeling more and more entitled to change what has been left by the original creator and to feel as though their flimsy, novel approaches are legitimate simply because they are novel.
The idea that a composer doesn’t have de facto the best and most illuminating approach to the work is fundamentally ridiculous. But that doesn’t seem to stop these musicians from thinking that it might be Brahms’ way but they have the right to disregard him and substitute their own view! This is to propose that their way is as good as ,well…Brahms.
I find this more and more distressing because without at least first trying to understand and recreate the text means that our knowledge of a composer’s use of the notational language is diluted and made fuzzy. We have a big enough problem with numerous corrupt editions and while efforts to find more accurate editions continue, the movement to disregard composer’s intentions makes these efforts more and more difficult, or worse, seemingly not important or necessary.
There are problems, to be sure, to interpret a composer’s notes and indications. The effort to do this is large and time consuming and, at times, frustrating but very edifying as the beginning of illumination is to understand a great composer’s journey into his style.
Let me say that again: efforts to do accomplish this task are time consuming and frustrating but very edifying. So it is not enough to translate PF in Brahms as correctly meaning “little forte,” but understanding why Brahms turned to invent this new term for his music to begin with is more informational and revealing. But if the rising generations of performers continue on a path of disregard, we will get performances that, in and of themselves, may be brilliant and beautiful but they are strangely devoid of understanding and not nearly as satisfying.
After all, wasn’t it Beethoven who said “You played very beautifully and interestingly, but you did not play MY piece!”