The Shock of the Old

Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium

edited by Nicholas Kenyon
Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $14.95 (paper)


To take a harpsichord concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach and arrange it for a four-part chorus, organ, and orchestra would not, for most music lovers today, be considered the proper way to realize the composer’s intentions or even to show decent respect for the score. Yet this is what Bach himself did to his own harpsichord concerto in D minor—which was, incidentally, in its original version a violin concerto of a somewhat simpler cast. The ideal of performing a work as it would have been done during the composer’s lifetime or even by the composer himself gives rise to unexpected considerations, of which this is an extreme case, but by no means a rare one.

The effort to revive ancient instruments and early performance practice is not strictly modern: it can already be found in the first half of the nineteenth century. Early in our own century Arnold Dolmetsch and Wanda Landowska became major public figures with their championship of the harpsichord. It is, however, during the past two decades that the “Early Music” movement has taken on the character of a crusade, above all as it has moved beyond the sphere of medieval and baroque music and into the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Early Music is still a good name for the movement even now that it has reached Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin and is looking to Brahms and Debussy: the goal is to make these composers sound more ancient than we had imagined.

The success of the crusading spirit is undeniable: it can be measured by the extent to which it has imposed a new orthodoxy. In the days of our innocence, what we wanted was a performance that was technically perfect, effective, beautiful, moving, and even, for the most idealistic, faithful to the work or to the intentions of the composer. Fidelity is no longer enough: a performance must be authentic.

The new rallying cry, authenticity, represents a goal simpler and grander than fidelity: it is aptly modern in that it transcends the composer’s intentions, or at least circumvents them. The old ideal of fidelity demanded that the performer try to infer the composer’s intentions, and realize them with the least possible distortion. In a faithful interpretation, the performer’s own personality and his need for expression come into play essentially as a medium through which the work can be made public; the performer’s style would be capricious, willful, lyric, or dramatic as the work demanded it. Fidelity has its dangers, as the performer identifies himself only too easily with the composer, convinces himself without difficulty that the composer would have approved such-and-such a cut, been delighted with this accent, made an expressive relaxation of tempo in just that place. Nevertheless, fidelity demanded of performers a genuine sympathy with the composer’s style.

Authenticity dispenses with all this guesswork and uncertainty. It does not ask what the composer wanted, but only what he got. Intentions are irrelevant. (Some performers of Early Music now claim to…

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