11 February 2019

Did Mozart Play the Bassoon?

(C) REBaroque
A student asked me what I would have replied had I been asked a question which she was asked.  After playing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, the question was posed, “Do you think Mozart would have played it that way?”  I know exactly what I would have said; I would have pointed out that Mozart did not play the bassoon, so he would never have played it in any way.  This, it seems, is exactly what she said, and incurred some displeasure as a result!

The question seems to me a rather daft one in the context of the Bassoon Concerto – there is absolutely no evidence that Mozart played the bassoon nor had any interest in it beyond earning some money by fulfilling commissions involving it, and it seems he had no real affection for it either – but at its heart is a deeply intriguing one.  Do we need to know – is it even helpful to know – how a composer might have played something in order for us to come up with a viable interpretation of it ourselves?

The answer to that question is rather less easy.  Major performers of our time do strive to achieve some kind of authenticity in their performances by finding as much as they can about how the composer performed it; what instrument was used, what clues were left behind in written form, what comments exist from those who were there at the time, and so on.  As a music historian (I loathe the word “musicologist” and even more the current in-vogue trendy-term “artistic researcher”) I find this fascinating and an endless source of interest.  Yet as a performer, how much should I let it influence my personal interpretation?  Is my job as a performer to interpret the composer’s music to an audience of my time and place, or to recreate as closely as possible the original performance as a kind of museum piece? 

I think it is incumbent on any performer to know as much about the origins of the music they play as they can.  It is clearly not enough merely to play the dots and squiggles on the page, but to make some sense of them.  To do that, the performer should have the fullest knowledge of why the composer put down those dots and squiggles in the first place.  This understanding of the composer’s intentions helps us give credibility to our own interpretation, while an understanding of how the music was originally played helps us appreciate that indefinable but vital element of any performance, style.

But that said, knowing why, how and when the composer wrote the work, and knowing why, how and when it was first performed, is sterile if we merely leave it at that.  Rather than interpreting the music to an audience who do not necessarily share our inside knowledge (which, let’s face it, is just about 100% of all audiences), we should do something to make it relevant to our time.  All performers recognise that an audience contributes significantly to a performance; their very presence affects our approach to communicating the music.  If we merely set out to recreate the original performance we are discounting the presence of a very real, living audience (one which has invested their time – and often their money – in our performance).  Any performance is a compromise between respecting the composer’s wishes and communicating to a living audience, and performers are effectively the middle-men in the transaction between composer and public, who often need to adjust their marketing strategies to entice the public.  To put it at its most basic, you don’t sell a left-hand drive car to a right-hand drive market simply because that’s how the car was originally intended to be, so why go all out to preserve the original in music to a market which does not necessarily share the ethics and cultural mores of the original?

My thoughts are that the more we know about the original, the more we can validate our own interpretation, but we must see it as a validation process rather than a defining and confining one.  Music is a performance art, and all performance arts thrive on dynamism.  If every performance was the same, or even set out to be the same, that vital element of dynamism will be lost.  What would the point of 100 pianists all playing Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto be if they all confined themselves to merely recreating how Mozart would have played it.  The performance loses its relevance to the audience and, most of all, to the player. 

The more I have spoken to living composers, the more I am convinced that they need to let go of their creation once it is out there in the public domain.  Some composers never did this (Bach, for example, passed on to posterity virtually none of the music he himself played in his lifetime), but others have seemed almost cavalier in forgetting their music almost as soon as they have sent it off to the publisher (I recall William Walton once remarking after hearing one of his works, “Did I write that?”).  Some composers were also performers, writing for their own gratification; others openly confessed that they could never hope to play a note of what they had written.  But once that music is out there, subsequent interference either in person or from beyond the grave, is wrong.  The child has been born and nurtured, and now it’s time to let it make its own way in the world, its shape, ideas and potential moulded and realised by others.  We must honour the dots and squiggles, and we must try to respect the essential style, but whether or not the composer would have played it that way, should be totally irrelevant to a living, breathing, dynamic performance to our time.

Mozart did not play the bassoon, but even if he had, knowing how he played the Concerto to the audience in his day is of no relevance to playing it to an audience of our day.

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