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Sarah Vandemoortele

What to think of authenticity?

September 13, 2013 at 3:08 PM

When a performer goes out on stage today, he enters simultaneously an infinite universe of possibilities. Not only does he play works that are composed in different idioms and once belonged to different performing traditions, he can also perform these works in different contemporary styles thanks to the continuous crossfertilization between the historical performance movement and the so-called mainstream tradition.

This crossfertilization concentrates itself around the notion of authenticity. The historical performance movement fuelled because of its authenticity claim a discussion around the meaning of this word. A Dutch dictionary (van Dale, 1992) lists six meanings, four of which play a role in this discussion. They can be summarized as a tension between mainly two views. A first view relates to the meanings “real, original, not forged, actually originating from the person to whom it is attributed” and “bearing an own characteristic”. An authentic performance in this sense is a unique, individual performance.

According to a second view, which was also the view of pioneers of the historical performance movement, the word means something like “similar to the original of someone else”. This relates to another explanation in the van Dale dictionary: “corresponding to the original and deriving its authority from that original”. So-called “authentic musical performance” is mentioned as well and explained as “performance in the style (and with the instruments) of the time in which a piece is composed”. Formulated this way we might start to wonder why something like authority might be important in performance and whether or not historically informed practice (HIP) would deserve a more authoritative position than mainstream performance on the grounds of its claim of authenticity. Furthermore, the authenticity debate easily threatens to be displaced from the artistic domain to economic territory, where an authoritative impression might be more directly useful.

Another explanation for the word “authentic” in the van Dale dictionary links to this very idea of authority and applies to both HIP and mainstream performance, namely “credible.” Possibly it is precisely this credibility, the ability to convince an audience, that forms the aim of authenticity according to both views in the authenticity debate (individuality and similarity to an original). In other words, the demand for authenticity in the HIP-sense does perhaps not necessarily come from a sense of responsibility toward the composition, but in the first place from a sense of responsibility toward the public. Aiming for authenticity is then not necessarily a battle fought out between different performance movements, but an attempt to establish a certain social interaction with an audience during a specific performance.

Richard Taruskin pleaded for a kind of equalization of both meanings of the word. Both must be essential criteria for a performance. It seems this view is now widely accepted, and the utopian dream to reconstruct the original is now approached with more care. Taruskin pointed, for example, to the fact that trying to reveal the original intentions of a composer and relying on a view of the composition as an autonomous work of art is in fact a modernist phenomenon. The historical performance movement consequently does not derive its authenticity “from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late 20th-century taste”. (Text & Act, p. 166.) Thus: “Regarding the movement itself I have always held that, as a symptomatically modern phenomenon, it is not historical but is authentic”. (p. 175)

Even though for Taruskin this deserves more praise than what the HIP claims to do, he also criticizes the HIP for failing simultaneously to be authentic in the individual sense precisely because they evoke the original intentions of the composer. This impulse is according to Taruskin nothing but an attempt to avoid being held responsible. “[…] the need obliquely to gain the composer’s approval for what we do bespeaks a failure of nerve, not to say an infantile dependency. The appeal to intentions is an evasion of the performer’s obligation to understand what he is performing.” (p. 90) Individual interpretation and authenticity – or can we also say “credibility”? – is thus according to him a responsibility, and not merely a way to harvest success. Therefore he pleads for a shift from authoritarian modernism to a non-authoritarian postmodernism in the historical performance movement.

The answer on how to make that shift can be found precisely in the modernist tendency of the HIP to be preoccupied with the past. “Authenticity […] is knowing what you mean and whence comes that knowledge. And more than that, even, authenticity is knowing what you are, and acting in accordance to that knowledge.” (p. 67) History enables a person to discover his identity and to form an individual-authentic style. Both views on the word “authenticity” could thus be united by relativating the demand for “similarity with the original”. Individuality in a performance is essential and can be obtained by exploring and enriching one’s own personality through the work. This self-discovery thus doesn’t happen separately from the work, which would be nothing more than “just saying what you mean. That is mere sincerity, what Stravinsky called “a sine qua non that at the same time guarantees nothing.” It carries little or no moral weight.” (p. 67) The purpose of this self-discovery then is to somehow return the obtained individuality to the work. In this way, the resulting performance avoids being a mere reflection of the currently available historical knowledge of a work and performance style and simultaneously avoids being a mere profiling of the individual in society today – say, a kind of exhibitionism.

Correspondence with a (supposed) original became seen as an essential quality that was (until recently perhaps) lacking in the mainstream tradition – a criticism to which the mainstream tradition responded by posing itself the same demand. The modernist demand that a performance must be “historically” justified, implies however more than just simply applying and integrating the research results of the HIP or to come to such results oneself. Also the choice to function as a mainstream performer is after all situated within a historical frame. Continuing to participate to the mainstream tradition is not anymore failing to choose, but is in itself a choice that one has to be able to justify. When one chooses not to perform, for example, a baroque work in a “baroque” manner, there is no other choice left than playing it in a “contemporary” manner. This contemporary manner must be historically justified in the sense that it distinguishes itself emphatically from the historical performance movement. If one wants to remain active in the mainstream tradition, one thus has to simultaneously integrate and renounce the results of the HIP.

Furthermore, it is difficult to define the characteristics of a so-called contemporary style, as the mainstream tradition is itself not a homogeneous tradition (there are different schools in violin playing for example), which enables diverse points of departures and diverse ways from which and by which one can differ from the HIP.

Another cause for changes within the mainstream tradition can only indirectly be attributed to the HIP. As it happens, the mainstream tradition got overtaken by its own recording history. Performance idioms from before, let’s say the 1960s, are not historically justified anymore within the mainstream tradition. These now belong irrevocably to the past and are terrain to be reclaimed by the HIP. This means that not only works composed before 1960 have to be performed in a historically justified manner, but also that the performance styles of those times are promoted to autonomous work-concepts an sich that one cannot simply imitate without justification.

However, if one considers the relationships between teacher and student, then it often turns out that teachers of current students still belong to that period which is now HIP-terrain. The student is thus more limited than ever before in the degree of imitation that is permitted. In this way the foundations of the mainstream tradition as a tradition are knocked away and a “conventional” background against which individuality could stand out is no longer available. Thus, even though one’s own personal education and the part of the mainstream tradition one belongs to make an individual to a certain extent individual-authentic, these things cannot become the basis of one’s individuality without historical justification.

Moreover, in order to be original besides corresponding to the several originals one was exposed to during ones education, one has to resort to other means to realize this individual-authenticity. Of course, this has been an all-time value demanded from every student, but it makes the landscape of performance styles even more diverse of course and a guideline for which means should be used to bring out this individuality would be more than welcome.

What the mainstream tradition thus seems to lack are criteria for how it distinguishes itself from the HIP and how it distinguishes itself from the mainstream tradition before the arrival of the HIP. Because of this void the performer has to rely very much on his own judgement for the stilistic aspect of his interpretations. What else is possible than to follow Taruskins advice and to apply history in view of creating an individual style? Of course one could wonder to what extent this description of individuality is postmodern and to what extent romantic. Individuality in a performance is after all a romantic criterium and historical research of compositions as autonomous works of art is equally a romantic phenomenon. However, self-discovery as well as historical authenticity are transformed. The concept of the autonomous work of art is relativated and the self-discovery happens through the work. Historical authenticity and individuality are now equally valuable criteria – in contrast with the romantic mainstream tradition where individuality tended to get priority and in contrast with the early historical performance movement where historical authenticity was the most important factor. Now, both criteria are serving each other. It is this interaction that forms the justification of the individual style.


From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 14, 2013 at 2:44 AM
What about authentic because it reveals the music as opposed to the composer's intentions?

I believe that some performances may reveal aspects of a piece to its composer that may not have been fully grasped when the notes were written on the page.

I believe that this is a fundamental duty of an artist:to reveal the art of a composition to us.

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