It is common for classical music performers and lovers to become quite the perfectionists about the fidelity of the performance to the score that reached us from composers living centuries ago. Unspoken rules stipulate that classical music requires commitment to authenticity and exactness: ‘play all and only the notes written, and the way they are written!’. Artists then, have had to find subtler ways to offer their own interpretation of musical pieces whilst simultaneously remaining within these strict constraints.
But is this approach truly as faithful to the composers’ intentions? Recent arguments from scholars, such as Robert Levin from the Academy of Ancient Music, suggest a radical revision of such rules is necessary. Their proposal, based on thorough historical research of scores, concert reviews and the private correspondence of musicians from past centuries, is that the interpretations of compositions in their own time contained so much freedom, comparable to modern day jazz. In the case of Mozart’s compositions on the piano in particular, evidence suggests that the score only served as a general outline of the structure of the piece, which the performer was expected to improvise, extemporise and digress upon with virtuoso embellishments, as to surprise the audience and display their interpretation of the piece. If this research is correct, the modern conception of classical music, meticulous, crystallised and, for its detractors, sometimes unexciting, requires reconsideration.
Students applying for Music can discover conflicting viewpoints surrounding the scholarly research in historically informed performance and think about how these arguments change how they artists approach performing and analysing music. History, Anthropology or HSPS applicants could also speculate on how this research may shed light upon the social role of music over the past centuries.