|Suitable for Debussy?|
A presentation on a new type of electronic keyboard the other week posed the question about legitimacy. The presenter suggested that those who doubted the legitimacy of presenting a credible performance of Mozart on an electronic keyboard should ask themselves why they accepted Mozart on a Steinway Grand without demur yet baulked at the concept of Mozart on an electronic keyboard (both instruments being equally alien to Mozart's time). He went on to illustrate his point by performing a Debussy Prelude on a fortepiano; an instrument also alien to the composer's time, but on this occasion because it had fallen into disuse rather than had yet to be invented. In short, we do not think about the revolutionary ideas of new technology when that new technology is, for us, no longer new.
|Suitable for Grieg?|
|Suitable for Beethoven?|
I look to my youth when, we were reliably told, playing Bach on the piano was wrong since the piano did not exist in Bach's day. We now know that this is not only completely wrong, but that Bach both played and possessed pianos and was active in developing and writing music for them. Of course, Bach did not write for a modern Steinway Grand, nor even a Broadwood fortepiano, but neither was he writing for the harpsichords and organs we hear today - even those which, in terms of history, were actually around at the time he was working . Centuries of restringing, re-tuning and relaxation of frames and cases have altered the sounds of these instruments beyond recognition by Bach or his contemporaries; and let's not forget that the accumulation from centuries of listening mean that our ears are differently attuned from those who heard music back in earlier times.
|Suitable for Bach?|
Some of my very favourite performances have been those delivered on period instruments. But I have never swallowed the argument that these are in any way "authentic". Rather, I have always seen them as offering a new perspective on the music performed. We should not look for - or even strive for - historical authenticity in musical performance; that's an unattainable and ultimately sterile activity (rather like, as a young boy in London, I would look at that large collection of artificially manufactured bones assembled into the shape of a dinosaur skeleton in the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum and imagined it to look just like a real living and breathing dinosaur). If music is to be a living, breathing art form, we should see every performance as a one-off occasion, each time completely re-interpreting what we perceive to be the composer's ideas based, not so much on the current state of our historical understanding, as on the very real susceptibilities of those attending the performance occasion. Whatever instrument we use, whatever performance style we adopt, if our aim is to communicate the spirit of the music rather than to present an imaginary idea of historical authenticity, we are surely being more faithful to the composer's intentions.