The Futility of Authentic Musical Interpretation

If you have a few moments, listen to at least the beginning of this rendition of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonata K466 as played on the harp:

I thoroughly enjoyed it and most of the comments on the video are positive, but one caught my eye and provoked this post. It advocated “correct interpretation, ie. no crescendo or diminuendo and correct ornamentation. Unlike this overwrought preciousness.” Another said, “Stop with the swooning and practice with a metronome; the tension and emotion comes from the pulse and it’s been destroyed here in favor of acting and posing.”

Those commenters believe that Baroque music should be played as a musician of that period would have played it, which was supposedly steadily and with restraint.

It seems that they want to get back to an authentic performance practice. That’s fine, but I will contend in this post that so-called authentic performance inevitably works at cross-purposes with what the composer was trying to achieve.

Baroque composers such as Scarlatti and Bach worked at the height of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. One way this emphasis on rationality played out in musical composition was the notion of affektenlehre, or the Doctrine of Affects. As the Encylopaedia Britannica explains, this “was the belief that, by making use of the proper standard musical procedure or device, the composer could create a piece of music capable of producing a particular involuntary emotional response in his audience.” For example, a descending chromatic scale was supposed to elicit heartache (which, in fact, it often does).

The details of affectenlehre are not important here. What is important is that Baroque composers were not playing abstract musical games. They strove to impart emotions in their audiences.

And now here’s the point: a performance practice that elicited a certain emotion in a Baroque audience will not have the same effect today.

This short clip from the movie Blast from the Past illustrates why. Adam has recently emerged at age 30 from a fallout shelter, where he has spent his whole life. His musical vocabulary extends only to the early 1960s. Eve is a modern woman. The music of Perry Como puts them in very different places emotionally.

In the same way, subtle change in volume that might have gotten folks excited in the Baroque will go unnoticed in an audience that has heard enough Beethoven. Now that we have heard Ravel and Debussy, a metronomic rendition of Bach will sound like an abstraction–exactly what Bach was trying to avoid.

I haven’t even mentioned the effects of non-musical influences. Hearing a Bach cantata as a devout Lutheran, in your native language, in a cathedral, dressed formally, will not be the same as listening to exactly the same performance but as an English-speaking agnostic at a concert hall dressed in jeans.

Our relationship with these composers is like any love relationship: you can never go back to the way things were when you first met because too much has happened. With luck, all that has happened can make your relationship richer, but never the same.

Some performers occupy a middle ground. They attempt to come across to their modern audiences as a Baroque performer would have come across to a Baroque audience. If you can put up with a lot of goofiness, this final video shows how modern performers have been wrestling with this.