Faithfulness to the Musical Score
Updated: Oct 29
“The music is not totally present, the idea of the composer is not fully expressed, in any single performance, actual or even conceivable, but rather in the sum of all possible performances.” - Roger Sessions
One of the most gratifying aspects of being a musician is the ability to decipher and interpret a musical score, a unique process that allows one to bring to life a composer’s vision in a personal and meaningful way. When done mindfully, this can be both a deeply engaging and profoundly enriching experience, connecting us with the emotional spirit and colourful inner lives of composers (not to mention our own inner lives, too). For me, such “deciphering” of the score often involves experimenting with different solutions to fingerings and bowings, so as to find the most optimal way to shape a certain phrase or gesture, ideally one that comes close to capturing the sound I hear in my imagination. It also involves—at least in the early stages of learning a piece—being somewhat of a literalist ie. trying out the original tempo markings or slur indications in order to better understand what the composer may have had in mind (for this, an urtext edition is important). In a way this process is akin to being in a science lab; it allows one to experiment with various musical ideas, solve technical problems, consider alternative solutions, explore different sounds and colours, even discover new kinds of techniques. Interestingly, the older I get the more gradual this process seems to become, either because it takes me more time to internalise and learn notes these days (sigh), or (hopefully) because I am being much more thorough. Either way, I find comfort in knowing that each day’s work will only accumulate over time, ultimately contributing to a beautiful and meaningful end result down the road.
Of course at this early stage of learning a piece it’s quite likely that one will end up revisiting certain passages the following day (and the day after that) and having new creative insights, perhaps changing various fingering or bowing solutions along the way. This is all part of the learning process—it takes time to clarify one’s interpretative ideas. But when the score is approached with this kind of curiosity and attention to detail right from the beginning—as opposed to simply copying someone else’s interpretation, or mindlessly following an editor’s indicated solutions—it allows one to form a deeper and more personal connection with the music, whilst at the same time ingraining the notes more firmly within one’s mind. As such, I find this process to be indispensable when learning a piece, or even when reworking something for the tenth time. In either case, my goal is usually the same: to use whatever means I have at my disposal to serve and bring to life the composer’s vision.
While a composer’s “vision” may become apparent rather quickly with some repertoire, this is not always the case. Atonal works, for example, can be quite difficult to comprehend upon a first reading, owing to the complexity of the various melodic fragments or rhythmic cells. With these pieces, it may take some extra analysis away from the instrument for the work’s inner meaning to reveal itself. Even with certain tonal works there can be an outer layer of complexity that takes some time to penetrate before a deeper meaning begins to come to the surface. I have experienced this, for example, with some of the music of Faure or Schumann, which upon first reading I didn’t seem to understand. With time and patience, however, the genius of the music slowly began to emerge. That being said, in most cases I find that one’s quest to understand a composer’s intentions ought to begin with a close examination of the musical text (again, an urtext edition if possible, or better yet, an autograph manuscript). This could involve, among other things: identifying key motives and themes; mapping out the harmonic framework of the piece and using this to form a general idea about the work’s larger structure and story; figuring out precisely where one fits within the overall texture (whether one is a solo voice or accompanimental, for instance); and taking note of the crucial details of tempo, character, expression, and dynamics. If one finds it helpful at this early stage of learning a work, there is also a lot that can be gained from listening to various recordings, so as to acquaint oneself with the sound world of the piece, as well as to the various interpretations that already exist (as long as one’s goal is not simply to copy). Eventually, of course, we need to spend time actually learning all the notes, figuring out how to realise the composer’s vision in sound. This is where our “practice” comes into play, the most vital and perhaps time-consuming part of the process. It is at this stage where we begin working through difficult passages slowly, building speed with a metronome, experimenting with different fingering solutions, organising our usage of the bow, centering our intonation with double stops, and so on. While these practice strategies may seem like dry and technical pursuits when considered alone, it helps to remember that they are ultimately a means to an end: to serve the score and realise the composer’s indications to the best of one’s ability.
Although such score analysis ought to make clear a composer’s intentions to a performer, to then transmit this vision across to listeners requires a strong kind of interpretative conviction, channeled and brought to life by the personality and skill of the performer. The performer becomes a “vessel,” so to speak, between the composer and listener. It is at this interpretative juncture, however, that I think a lot of us performers tend to get carried away, allowing our individual musical impulses to get the best of us. This could mean completely disregarding a composer’s metronome marking, or playing the second theme of the Dvorak Concerto forte appassionato instead of the marked piano dolce, or playing the prelude from Bach’s First Cello Suite with eight notes slurred per bow—just to name a few examples. Some of these musical “deviations” arise from performance conventions that have been passed down through generations of recordings by legendary artists whom we wish to emulate; others arise from sheer ignorance, lack of care or personal “preference.” But whatever the reason, the result remains the same: we are essentially disregarding a composer’s wishes. Of course it’s not always so simple. Sometimes a given metronome marking is so unattainable as to warrant a more appropriate alternative. There are also instances where one must make decisions in performance on account of projection issues or the size of the hall. One could call these necessary compromises. But in the vast majority of cases, I think it is important that we consider the composer’s markings carefully, and even if we disagree, that we try them earnestly until we more fully understand why the composer may have indicated them as such. If one still believes that an alternative solution or compromise is more appropriate and better serves the music, then so be it—at least an honest artistic decision is being made.
Some may question whether being overly concerned with faithfulness to the printed score would get in the way of a performer’s creative autonomy. To this I would say that, even in being faithful to the score, we still have a great deal of freedom as performers. To be sure, we must still make decisions about sound, vibrato, character, mood, timing, how we connect individual notes, how we shape a given phrase, how much rubato to use in a particular passage, and so on. It is still up to us to clarify musical details in such a way that they become intelligible to the listener. Similarly, it is still within our power to bring out individual voices or moving lines that might not necessarily be marked out by the composer, but may be of particular interest. How wonderful it is when we hear pianists who have such control of the individual voices in a given passage that they are able to bring out incredible subtleties of texture, perhaps highlighting a particularly unsettled inner voice under an otherwise smooth cantabile melody, or bringing out a fugal subject in the left hand while the right hand busies itself with interweaving moving lines.
This notion of performative freedom also encompasses any sense of musical spontaneity that one might experience on stage. Just as actors may demonstrate a certain flexibility with dialogue when rehearsing or performing a particular scene, we musicians can certainly be guided by spontaneous musical instincts if the flow of the music leaves room for it. In fact, one could argue that any live performance of a work by its very nature ought to involve at least a certain degree of spontaneity due to the fact that one is constantly reacting to the evolving present moment. Whether it be the sense of conversational dialogue in a chamber group, or the back-and-forth interaction of a cello-piano duo, or even the unique dynamic of a solo instrumentalist on stage alone, we are always responding in a certain sense either to the sound we ourselves are producing, or to the sounds we are hearing from our collaborators. It is this sense of listening to ourselves and others as we are performing that allows us to make spontaneous performative decisions in the moment, whether it be a specific rubato in which one draws out a series of notes in a melodic theme (say in the Chopin Sonata, for example), or the addition of ornaments in a repeat during a Bach Cello Suite. There are even those rare moments on stage where one might feel the urge to turn a musical corner in a slightly different way, even if this might mean doing something contrary to what is indicated in the score.
Of course, these moments are rare, and depend in large part on the repertoire being performed. If the music lends itself to this kind of interpretative flexibility, for example the Rachmaninoff Sonata, or Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso, or even Gabrielli’s Ricercars, then these special moments of inspiration are certainly a natural, organic part of the interpretative process, particularly if one has been living with the music for quite some time. If on the other hand it is a piece of music that has been laid out with meticulous indications by the composer, such as the Britten Suites, Beethoven Sonatas, or Webern’s drei kleine Stücke, too much flexibility is probably not a good idea. Furthermore, it also depends on one’s familiarity with the music. If a musician is performing a piece for the very first time it is undoubtedly less likely that these kinds of moments would arise. If, on the other hand, an individual is performing a piece for the tenth time, moments of spontaneity may come about more naturally. As long as the overall message and spirit of the music is not being distorted in any way—ie. notes and rhythms being changed beyond reason, or tempos being ignored completely—one need not shy away from spontaneity and freedom in performance. On the contrary, I would consider this kind of flexibility to be part of the magic of making music; it is what gives “life” to a performance. It only really becomes a problem when a musician walks on stage with the intended goal of being spontaneous without any care as to what is written in the score, or without having done the necessary preparation of the musical material, with all its various markings and indications. If, on the other hand, the score is being honoured, and clearly forms the foundation of one’s interpretation, then I think moments of genuine spontaneity are only natural, perhaps even inevitable.
All of this is to say that a performer of course should try to the absolute best of his ability to remain faithful to the composer’s vision, basing any interpretative decisions on the indications of the score. At the same time, however, he should remain open to the various signals of his inner musical instincts (as long as these are serving the music, not distorting it), for it is ultimately through him and his personality and creativity that the composer’s music is given tangible form. The more, then, he is able to bring to the music his individual feeling of temperament, of timing and gesture, of movement and character, the more convincing and engaging the performance would ultimately be. This is what makes being a performer such a compelling and gratifying pursuit: the fact that the spirit and inner meaning of a work can be brought to life in so many different ways, through all kinds of varied interpretations. And because every performer has a different set of musical inclinations and impulses, music is essentially in a state of constant renewal, being revitalised in a fresh, genuine, way each time. At the end of the day, as hard as we try, we ought to remember that there is no way a single performance of a work can ever truly capture the full range and depth of the composer’s vision. But if we are fully engaged in the musical process, committed to realising the composer’s intentions as best as we can understand them, then we can at least come close(r) to it.
True faithfulness to the printed score can be a tricky line to walk, perhaps due in large part to the fact that we performers love being the centre of attention. So often I will hear people discussing a concert given by a particular violinist or pianist, without any mention of the repertoire that was performed! Of course as a musician it feels great to be in the spotlight; for many of us, that’s why we perform in the first place. At the end of the day, however, I think it is important to remind ourselves (myself included) that the composer and his or her work should always be the centrepiece. When approached with this mindset, it then naturally becomes our responsibility—and duty—as performers, to represent and serve the music as best as we can.