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Controversies About How to Interpret Music

The question of how to interpret the music of the past is a matter of perpetual controversy. Should performers play in a way that recreates the music as the composer would have heard it, or should they adjust to modern conventions? One point of view, represented by longtime New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter, advocates what is known as performance practice, a style based on the premise that “the most valuable performances aim to recreate, as exactly as possible, the sounds the composer would have heard” (160). According to this theory, musicians should follow a composer’s textual directions about tempo, dynamics, and other details of performance; in this sense, performance practice aims for what may be called “historical fidelity,” in which an ideal musical performance attempts to recreate, as authentically as possible, the very sounds a composer intended. But other critics, such as musicologist Richard Taruskin, counter that “’authentic’ performances do not necessarily have any greater aesthetic value” (74). With this statement in mind, I argue that, since musical performance necessarily involves a degree of interpretation on the part of the musician, performers should be able to interpret music freely, without feeling bound to strict conventions. The debate between these two points of view remains unresolved; indeed, it has only intensified as the music at the center of the debate moves further into the past. The debate over historical fidelity, in other words, becomes more difficult to resolve as modern musical traditions become less similar to their historical predecessors. Ultimately, this is a discussion that must be left up to the individual performer. Different styles find different avenues of inspiration. Music and performance are fluid in nature and both sides hold intrinsic value when considering the music community and nature of performance as a whole.

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