“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Is the Score Sacred?

     An article on treatments of Liszt's piano music discusses the practice of "modifying the score,... sometimes carried out by pianists, of altering a notated musical work by such devices as thickening textures, changing registers or adding pianistic elaborations." 

     Liszt apparently considered the score to be, if not sacred, at least something to be taken seriously. This is why he reportedly used the score when playing his own music in order to show that it was a composed, serious piece, not an improvisation. In fact, it was the norm during that period to use the score. Performance practices at the time also emphasized improvisational skills, which no doubt invited some virtuosi to add their own embellishments to published music. But this, it seems to me, is more about taste than anything else.

     What of the music of other composers? We know that Bach tended to write out ornamentation because of his lack of faith in the taste of virtuosi of his day. We know, too, that Beethoven was very particular about the notation of his scores. Contemporary accounts of his playing, however, report that his interpretations could vary considerably as to tempi. But nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, are there reports of flights of improvisational fantasy in the performance of his own published works. And he was apparently a highly skilled improvisor.

     Such issues as redividing between hands, changing fingering or even making small changes to the notes for technical convenience, in my view do not constitute changing the score, given that these changes don't alter the musical intent. The score tells us how the music should sound, not how it feels in our hands.

     In our own time, improvisation is not something the audience expects or clamors to hear. Today's audiences presumably come to hear what the composer wrote and not marvel at the improvisational skill of the pianist. So for me, the score is the thing. (I also don't have any particular gift for improvisation or interest in it.) Play the music the composer wrote but don't wear it like a straight jacket, impeding physical ease.

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