Why bothering about the composers intention?

September 12, 2012 at 01:23 AM · Have modern musicians become obsessed by unnecessary musical pseudoscience? When interpreting pieces so often we analyze each phrase in how music of that time period should sound, trying to dig into the composers mind by in slavery following each mark in written in the sheets.

but are we not actually wasting our time by setting up a lot of rules and boundary conditions based on nothing else by pure pseudoscience that probably the composers themselves would have been annoyed at? where the end point only is a lot of boringly similar interpretations?


September 12, 2012 at 03:26 AM ·

September 12, 2012 at 04:04 AM · Researching the background about a composition, analyzing scores and listening to other works by a composer, and discovering the performance practices behind certain works is an important part of interpretation.

After all, one wouldn't put on a play by Shakespeare without having done the research to understand the linguistic properties of the language during the time period it was written, right? Context is important to comprehension.

Lastly, creating an original interpretation while remaining faithful to the composer's markings is definitely a high-level skill that requires a certain degree of artistry...not everyone has achieved it.

September 12, 2012 at 04:21 AM · It's what music is about - getting into the composers mind, entertaining his/her thoughts.

September 12, 2012 at 06:14 AM · If you were to play an orchestra piece by Beethoven, you will want to follow every marking closely. You don't want to be the only one playing forte when everyone else play a sudden pianisimo.

September 12, 2012 at 07:29 AM · Intuition is like a flowing stream: analysis is like the river-banks without which the stream would be a puddle. (And "natural" banks are more attractive than a concrete gutter!)

Try all-gut strings at A=415Hz: you will discover "new" colours and phrase-shapes;

Try playing the Brahms concerto with the gut E that he knew: you will have to discover new bowing styles;

Beethoven's own metronome marks are terribly fast: did he drink too much coffee, or was his (new) metronome unreliable?

Hear Berlioz's symphony with French rather than German bassoons, and real C-clarinets: "new" colours again;

Listen to Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach 'cello suites: a modern player with the dynamism of a "barocker";

In other words, musical archaeology can open our ears and minds to "new" sounds and expressions which we can then use intuitively!

September 12, 2012 at 07:57 AM · We have too many followers listening to dominant personalities with little talent in positions of power with their stupid purist rules. We need more creative leaders to bring new music to the forefront. Teachers are bringing up followers instead of creative leaders, their methods need to change.

September 12, 2012 at 09:56 AM · On the one hand it is futile to try to reproduce either a composer's intentions or a period sound. On the other, as indicated above, for classical music at least it can be inspiring both for the musician and the music.

The example is raised above about putting on a shakespeare play without researcing text. The funny thing is that some productions do exactly that - but others cast the play in totally new contexts such as the second world war or even a futuristic sci-fi.

To me the only real danger is the music-police who claim there is only one 'right' way to do it. The few living composers that I have discussed this with all have said that they are delighted when they hear their work prepared in a different context and a different vision because what they are about is creativity and the musicians adding to that is a complement, not an insult to their work. Though I am sure there are opposite examples.

So yes, play baroque music on period instruments with period timing and period dress in a period building. Go for it - but also play the same music on an electric autoharp with a laser show in a stadium! MAKE MUSIC!!! :D

September 12, 2012 at 10:58 AM · By the rules of strict authenticity, Bach should be played only on gut strings, and only by men who have lost, on average, a third of their children to infectious diseases like smallpox.

Not for me, thank you.

I live in the 21st century. While knowledge of the lives and musical predilections of the composers is certainly helpful, all of the intervening musical history, literature, pedagogy, and technology provides us with so much more in terms of both capability and context. Why not use progress to its full advantage?

While I do want to hear Shakespeare in the original poetry, I don't need to see Hamlet dressed up in tights and ruffles, and I would rather he sounded like a American Southerner (gasp!) than be subjected to a fake English accent.

But of course all of that is a matter of taste. And the best thing of all is that our tastes differ. Bravo to those who play baroque music with those weird bows. Hooray to those who pore over the manuscripts to extract the "true" phrasings, fingerings, and bowings. But kindly forgive me I do not partake in these activities, for they do not interest me in the least.

September 12, 2012 at 11:20 AM · I kind of agree here with some of the previous posters, e.g. Paul and Elise.

Musical archeology, is not a verifiable science. While in ordinary archeology (as in any science) we often can put up predictions based on history and previous knowledge of how to test an assumed model, when it comes to "How-the-composer-wanted-it-to-be-played-because-of-assumption-1-2-3-,--N" THERE IS NO WAY OF EVER FINDING IT OUT. All the advanced analysis one can do on one piece, trying to understand the composers life, thoughts, letters, etc., is no more than a pure guess. Because, for any music composed before the times of the recordings, we cannot know know how it sounded-- there are no recordings and thus no evidence for the carefully produced assumptions from musical "archeology". With other words, its no different than saying "Hey, there is a pink elephant flying on a wheel chair around Sirius B whenever he is not watched!" because in neither case we have any chance to find out if this is the case or not. But we can trick ourselves into being convinced that the flying elephant actually is there, because of a number of assumptions.

Surely, this can be one of the good ways of creating a consistent interpretation (and I've heard many lovely such!), but I wonder why it is so modern to say that this is "the only right way"?

To create a consistent interpretation, a performer (or rather interpret/artist, in this context?) can also simply express his own story (real or imagined) through written sheets given by the composer. The way of interpreting the notations can be given light in the performers eyes, and give an equally consistent interpretation, with larger likelihood of being individual.

Honestly, do you think that Jascha Heifetz was a good hobby psychologist caring about what the composer actually was thinking when he wrote the piece? ;)

September 12, 2012 at 11:34 AM · I don't have an advanced degree in literary theory, but I have a vague recollection of my college English lit classes, and I half remember what I learned about the evolution of literary criticism. As I recall, in the early part of the 20th century, criticism/interpretation placed primary importance on the author, his/her biography and intent, and the overall historical context. Then came the "new" critics, who said essentially that authorial intent is meaningless, and that the meaning/interpretation of a text should be found exclusively in the text itself. (Their techniques and approaches still form the bedrock of much of the succeeding literary criticism, even it employs different assumptions.) Not to be outdone, the next group of literary critics (in the 1950s) said interpretation of a literary work was not about the author's intent, or even the text, but about the reader's response to the work. In other words, as the famous example goes, if readers decide that Hamlet is about whale fishing in Alaska, well, then, Hamlet is about whale fishing in Alaska. After that, things get a little wacky, as new theories of historical interpretation made their way into literary analysis -- the deconstructionists, poststructuralists etc., not worth exploring here.

When it comes to the practice of making music, I'm not sure the parallels make 100% sense (partly because there's an intermediary between author and audience that needs to be considered), but in a loose way, we seem to be moving -- depending upon the performer -- fluidly between the first three approaches, and sometimes combining them, all of which is good, I think. It allows for a multitude of musically (which is not to say historically) valid performances. I like my Shakespeare straight up, but I also find worth and enjoyment in new and different approaches to staging and interpretation. I, for one, am thankful that there is no single fixed meaning/interpretation of a work of art, or way to perform it, and the greatest works seem to provide more meaning and possible interpretations the more we work with them.

September 12, 2012 at 11:50 AM · Elise, and Sean, your posts are really sound about the nature of interpretation itself (at least to this English professor!)

Good interpretation is always 'recreation'--and that word has so many resonances: is the interpreter 'recreating' the best s/he can the music of the moment it was written, or having some 'recreation' time as in play? Always a balance, ideally. AND good interpretation always offers something of the performer, too (something, not everything, or we get one of those ego-full performances that screams, 'it's ME playing' but something from the performer is essential, or a computer would do just as well). Balance among elements...

AND the word 'synthesize' is useful; (before it became fabric made from chemical-based ingredients) something synthetic USED to be that which combined all the different elements of whatever, a mingling and blending of different ideas, points of view, thoughts, or feelings. 'Course now it's a tainted word. No one would probably want to be accused of having given a 'synthetic' performance, although that could, taken more literally, be a high compliment.

September 12, 2012 at 11:57 AM · Are we reaching a point where there will be only two types of violinists?

1. THE SCHOLAR: If you are a Scholar violinist, you have to play everything by the book, every little nuance can be played only if it is in the authenticated manuscript by the composer. You must prepare not by playing scales, but by spending hours researching the period of history the composer lived in, his or her life and philosophy, the precise standards of violin playing of that era, and the phases of the moon when the composition was originally created. If you play anything impulsively with genuine emotion and from the heart the way you feel it, then no punishment is too great for your indiscretion. The public will boo you and the critics, musicologists, and violin pundits will cancel your CVP (Certified Violin Player) card and subscription to the monthly, "The Only Acceptable Way To Play The Violin."

2. THE FREE SPIRIT. Forget all that stuff (above), just play it the way you hear it (given the drugs you just took, or the special organic diet you are on, or who you happen to be going with at the time). After all, you can rely only on your inner emotions as infallible guide to any interpretation. Historical and academic correctness is for people with OCD. And, above all, wear an old pair of jeans at every concert. Who needs violin teachers, anyway? Your brain was made to feel the rush, not to think.



September 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM · Sander, I think you miss the third and fourth class -- the free spirit that does think, but perhaps not about some dead guy who anyway can't hear and complain about how his music is played, and the violinist who thinks as he is told to :)

September 12, 2012 at 01:43 PM · Do we need to expand this list?

September 12, 2012 at 03:51 PM · I hope any "good" musician exploits a bit of all the above...that's my point, and I'll stand by it. Scholars can play boring if they don't also bring passion and individuality; people who only look inside themselves can play shallow because they don't understand the potentials of different historical options--I could go on but that's not the point. The best musicians use "only the finest ingredients" of techinque and study, and include their own je ne sais quois--and that combination separates them from the pack.

September 12, 2012 at 04:09 PM · Agree with Marjory...

Think of your favorite player(s), I'm sure they could be criticized for some of their interpretations... You still love their playing like mad... They try to follow the rules but also add their personal touch.

And lets be honnest, that's what we crave even if the critics will not always agree!

September 13, 2012 at 07:58 AM · making a science out of interpretation to me seems very logical. Recreating music is in itself a science already so its easy to say that the more you go into detail, the more scientific your interpretation will be. We live in total different times than the times the music we play was written so it is hard for us to understand it emotionally and to play it in a way the music delivers its message.

On the other hand there is a shortcut to a "perfect" interpretation: When you intuitively understand what the music is about without overthinking, but with you feelings. If you hear such an interpretation you will not miss any of the "historical elements" some people research.

The true greats of our time are to me the ones who can combine the two aspects. They know about the musical history and they feel about the unspoken context of a work. In detail that means to me, that the form is perfect and inside this form the spirit of the work is released and enforced by the temperament of the interpreter.

September 13, 2012 at 09:34 AM · Simon, what you are thinking of as science, is a matter of fact only "pseudoscience" due to the reasons mentioned above: you cannot test the validity of the model in any way. Other pseudosciences are astrology and homeopathy...(wink)

September 13, 2012 at 12:56 PM · Sverker - I think thats a bit harsh. A better characterization is a 'soft' rather than a 'hard' science. I mean you could say the same about much of astronomy since hard science requires not only observation but predictability.

The same issue comes up with sociology and psychology (but for different reasons).

THe point of a scientific approach is to make conclusions based observations that can withstand crititique due to bias. Thus, IMO one can use a scientific approach even to an unquantifiable subject - as long as objectivity is the ruling force (meaning you change your mind if better observations and explanations come to the fore).

September 13, 2012 at 01:27 PM · I am talking about the science of reading a score properly and executing it in all the parameters involved in a correct way. Thats not pseudoscientific at all and only the best can do it properly.

September 13, 2012 at 03:05 PM · Elise

I wonder how you can even conclude that astronomy provides no predictions. Its the same hard science, and works exactly the same way as any physics: theories, models, calculations, predictions and observations. No difference. Perhaps you confused it with string theory? :P

"as long as objectivity is the ruling force (meaning you change your mind if better observations and explanations come to the fore)."

you just yourself named why musical archeology cannot be called a science (neither soft nor hard): art is too subjective and irreproducible-- otherwise it would not be art!

September 13, 2012 at 08:41 PM · Elise, you're confusing astronomy, which deals with the study of the physical and chemical nature of things outside of the atmosphere of the earth and is most definitely a hard science, with astrology, which involves belief systems that claim a relationship between the movement of stars, planets, comets, etc. and events in our world.

It seems that there needs to be an acceptance that there can be a middle ground on this topic. For every irritating purist that insists that performances of period music *must* involve tuning to A415 and playing gut strings , there's another "free spirit" that ignores all the rhythms, articulations, dynamics, and other markings put in by the composer. Neither are desirable!

September 14, 2012 at 04:56 AM · No Gene I am not.

My point (which I admittedly did not explain sufficiently) is that hard sciences requires prediction and test. I would like someone to do an experiment and test if the universe is expanding or if its really 8 light years to the nearest star. Sure we can make observation after observation - but we can not then test it by perturbing the universe (and perturb is the crucial term here).

Contrast that to, say cold fusion. We can make an observation suggesting that cold fusion occurs - but we can then also 'do an experiment' - perturb the system - to test if it withstands scrutin. Hence does our theory of cold fusion satisfy 'predictability'?

The universe may provide us with its own experiments that satisfy 'predictability' (for example imaging a new type of energy ray) but thats true of history too - we may discover another document or maybe a recording on papyrus!!

September 14, 2012 at 05:28 AM · Elise,

this doesnt make astronomy (or rather cosmology) less a science that we are posed with these most extreme of all difficulties-- it makes it the most challenging, beautiful, philosophically important of all sciences together! Where in the softer sciences such as e.g. molecular biology, just can do "catalogue work" to understand how a complex system works by probing and seeing output ("experimenting"), we are much more forced to actually understand each process to such detail that we can do calculations from complex theories and predict the numerical expectations from a model that must be seen in a yet undone observation that could test our claim. Of course, we don't know: we still are fighting about the questions you posed, and still hope to find the true answers soon.

What you are missing, is that we are doing predictions and tests not via "engineering" but via observation of objects and advanced modelling. True is, it is more difficult, and therefore requires much more insight. What do you think large telescopes are standing there for, if not to test the predictions?

September 14, 2012 at 09:41 AM · "What do you think large telescopes are standing there for, if not to test the predictions"

They can only humbly detect the information that the universe 'decides' to send. It does not matter how large they are, they can not physically probe the universe.

Astronomy is very much like history - indeed it really IS history because everything we see actually happened millions of years ago!! Accuracy of measurement is a cloak that deludes people into thinking its 'scientific accuracy'. Observation is critical for science, but it is only the starting point. And yes, we can use observation to predict another observation and move ahead with the gathering of information - and ultimately the formulation of knowledge. But that method would not even get you started in a hard science such as physics. There your observations - how ever many you may make must be complemented by scrutiny. And scrutiny requires tests - perturbations to see if your hypothesis can survive the prediction test.

Note I have not said that astronomy is not a science - it is of course as its based on fact and open to re-evaluation. Thus, its within the scinetific method. However, IMO the lack of an ability to perform rigorous tests makes it a relatively soft science.

September 14, 2012 at 10:14 AM · Elise raises questions and assertions about scientific theory that are not uncommon in the lay world. I agree with her on most things musical and I find her posts enlightening. But as a professional scientist, I do take issue with her characterization of astronomy as little more than guesswork.

First of all, a theory is not a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a hunch about what might be true, often based on scant data. A theory, on the other hand, is a *conclusion* that arises from objective interpretation, subject forevermore to review and challenge by one's peers, of all the data collected in an effort to examine the hypothesis, together with whatever relevant data might be extracted from the previously published work. Too often in the lay press, these distinct concepts are conflated, but they are really at opposite ends of the timeline of a scientific study.

One does not need to fly to a star trailing a measuring tape to "prove" its distance from earth. Terrestrial telescopic observations, followed by complex but nevertheless straightforward calculations, are sufficient to draw a quite secure conclusion about the distances of celestial objects. Of course the precision of the determination weakens with increasing distance. Astronomers use a "ladder" of methods to bridge the near and far celestial worlds. As is true in every area of scientific inquiry, the conclusions (i.e., theories) are strengthened by mutual agreement.

Likewise the expansion of the universe is a theory (a conclusion, not a hunch) that agrees with a broad range of different celestial measurements, starting with the famous red-shift observed by Hubble.

The force of prediction in science is a credible concern, but if one looks carefully one can find a long record of verified predictions even where one least expects it, as in paleontology and astronomy. Einstein famously predicted, using his general theory of relativity, that the gravity of a star would cause light to bend (gravitational lensing).

Finally a convincing "proof" of astronomers' ability to determine the distances of celestial objects may be found in the recent landing of a capsule containing delicate scientific instruments on the surface of Mars. If we had no idea how far Mars was from Earth, this achievement would not have been possible.

September 14, 2012 at 10:28 AM · Hi,

Back to the original topic?

I find that understanding the composers indications is important both as a measure of respect to one other than us who wrote the piece and as an interpreter trying to convey the spirit of the music itself.

That said, there is a difference between understanding and blind application. There are dynamic markings that are there because of the tools of the times in order to achieve balance that one has to rethink with modern instruments (example, those fff repeated notes markings in Beethoven that become disproportionately loud with steel Es).

Period instruments from various periods can us certain insights in the music and phrasing that can be useful. A number of years ago, I did a recital program as a guest at Cornell University playing music from the circle of Joachim using romantic period gut strings and a Graff piano. What we found is that we could do all of the original markings of bowings and phrasings with perfect balance because the tools made it possible. Now, when playing on modern instruments, that is almost impossible to achieve. However, my goals are to try to preserve the spirit of the music as it was originally conceived and keeping the things that I have learned from using period instruments in any changes that I may have to make to achieve that spirit on modern instruments. The one thing that I have learned though is that playing the period way on a modern instrument and the modern way on period instruments doesn't really work.

In the end, one has to gain as much knowledge as possible to convey the spirit of the music as best as one can. Some people make successful hybrid choices (Vengerov's recent use of a baroque bow with modern violin in a Handel sonata and Bach 2nd partita comes to mind). Whatever your choice, it is your choice. Just always best to know what you choose and why.


September 14, 2012 at 05:45 PM · I know better than to argue with a 'professional scientist' ;) But perhaps it would clarify things a bit more to say that first, I don't regard teh solar system to be in the domain of 'astronomy' (litterally meaning the 'star arranging') and second I do distinguish astrophysics from astronomy - the job of the former is to derive physical (testable) principles on earth and apply them to 'astronomy'. Obviously others group these together (and hence difference in opinon).

Enough. I've said my bit. Last time I checked there were no violins in space. Not one.

'Lay person' signing off this subject...

September 14, 2012 at 06:03 PM · Elise...the last 50 years or so all astronomers are astrophysicists and doing astrophysics...the field is somewhere else today than at Galileos time! (wink)

September 14, 2012 at 06:44 PM · No, there are no violins in space. But there is violin MUSIC in space!! Remember that Arthur Grumiaux's recording of the Gavotte en Rondeau from the Partita No. 3 is on the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977. The purpose of the Voyager probe is to locate and study "the boundaries of the Solar System, including the Kuiper belt, the heliosphere and interstellar space." The data that Voyager sends back might inform astronomers about the details of how our solar system is constructed. (Indeed it has already done so when it flew past Saturn in 1980). These details may help astrophysicists (if there needs to be a distinction) develop hypotheses (eventually theories) about how our solar system was formed and what its fate might be. In science the answers to the most interesting questions have never come easily. Inasmuch as Voyager's closest approach to any known star will not happen for another 40,000 years, as an amateur violinist, I take great comfort in knowing that she will have Bach along for her journey.

September 14, 2012 at 10:30 PM · > I would like someone to do an experiment

> and test if the universe is expanding

When we discover light from stars that are finally reaching the earth, it took that light a certain number of light-years to reach us since it travels at fairly specific speed (physical constant 'c'). If the size of the universe were fixed, we would never "see" new objects in the cosmos.

> but we can not then test it

Yes you can. You can measure the speed of light in a vacuum over a short distance, then extrapolate that out to larger distances. How else do you think people first discovered how to measure the speed of light???

September 14, 2012 at 11:12 PM · Must we continue? This is really off topic and I think you are now trying to score.

September 15, 2012 at 04:41 AM · There have been some distorted views on science, and it's interesting (an in my opinion important) to clarify them. Science (and the idea of it) is one of the best things we got and shouldn't be treated carelessly.

I cherish an intelligent discussion on science or astronomy (or even astrometry ;-), even if it's ot. And finding kindred spirits here in a violin forum is pleasing.

September 15, 2012 at 06:20 AM · Yes indeed - the discussion is terrific and the whole point of science is to challenge established ideas. But maybe we should ask Laurie to create a not-violin-and-not music area for it? I do feel we usurped the spirit of the forum...

September 15, 2012 at 08:19 AM · the original post was about pseudoscience in musical interpretation and its harming aspects :)

September 15, 2012 at 09:31 AM · " I do feel we usurped the spirit of the forum..."

I'll ask the spirit of the forum next time I happen to meet it.


September 15, 2012 at 11:36 AM · Tobias....



September 15, 2012 at 12:08 PM · The question about whether violin "archaeology" (which is perhaps better called exegesis or hermeneutics) is a science or a pseudoscience comes down to how the data is used. You have a manuscript in front of you, or a set of manuscripts, and you've read the extant scholarly histories of the author's life and of the time period in which he or she lived. Can you deduce the author's musical intentions therefrom, unequivocally, by purely rational and logical inference from the available data? My sense is that the answer to this question is "No." It is a completely different situation from the manner in which the distance to Supernova 1987a was determined (meticulously calibrated physical observations and cold trigonometric calculation).

September 15, 2012 at 12:29 PM · "v(i)o(lin)dka?"

The topics in this thread seem to drift apart like my eyes after practising violin too long with some of my favourite brand Laphroaig ;-)

September 15, 2012 at 12:44 PM · you mentioned the 'spirit' of this topic :)))

Laphroaig? Say we knock back a pair and then play through the Bach double....

September 15, 2012 at 01:45 PM · Elise,

Now we're on the same wavelength again. LOL!

Laphroaig, Talisker, Macallan ... one for each movement.

September 15, 2012 at 01:45 PM · It is easy to say that some science is pseudoscience and I admit that sometimes the results of "historically informed performances" are absurd. But if you read some of the sources of historical performance practice, you will see, that there is more inspiring information than there are rigid rules wich put you in a straitjacket. Some people misunderstand things, but "some people" are not very smart anyways. So if there are people who misuse the information to say, that there is only one way of doing it, just ignore them. Music is a free art and everything about style and performance is only a passing fad, wich has to do with what people can do with their instruments, and what people want to play and listen to.

There is definetely something you can learn from playing baroque instruments with gut strings and a 435 A and if you like the sound, why not play this way? or make a recording..? What is even the point of this discussion?!

Maybe I should start a new topic about how stupid it is to read in this forum, because not everything written here is "good" or "right".

Being ignorant is always easy. Just don't spread it, please!

September 15, 2012 at 02:32 PM · Wow, who knew that a bunch of violinists could get as het up about astronomy as about shoulder rests?

To return to the original topic, it is impossible to know how composers would feel about "modern" ways of playing their music. Would a Steinway grand have rocked Mozart's world? Would Bach have thought the alto saxaphone was just about the coolest thing ever? The Tourte-style bow? I'm tempted to say yes, along with indoor plumbing, paved roads, antibiotics, central heating and cooling, and the eradication of smallpox.

In any case, these composers are all, as the Munchkins would have it, really most sincerely dead. Trying to decide how they would want their music performed is an exercise in tautology.

It's hard to argue that each of Bach's cantatas should be preserved in amber and only performed at the pitch of the organ in the church where they were originally done, with strings only of uncovered gut, yada yada yada. They were written to provide music for Sunday services, every week, not as potential museum pieces. Brandenburg, Goldberg, whatever, they were written as commissions or to fulfill job requirements. My guess is that Bach would be amazed that this conversation is being had. He would most likely want to know who is composing what for tomorrow's Sunday service.

September 15, 2012 at 03:26 PM · I only wanted to make the point that interpretation of Bach's "true musical intentions" is not amenable to the same kinds of scientific methods that one would use to determine astronomical distances. I didn't meant to imply that such work wasn't useful. If music was reducible to mere science it would be much less valuable.

September 15, 2012 at 04:18 PM · "It's hard to argue that each of Bach's cantatas should be preserved in amber and only performed at the pitch of the organ in the church where they were originally done, with strings only of uncovered gut, yada yada yada."

I know what you mean. But can we please stop generalizing all people who are interested and inspired in this kind of informations?! There is a difference if someone is inspired by those things and someone who sais its the only way to play that music!? Obviously that last category of people are ignorant and not very smart. As a musician one should stay open. One has to take everything into your art. I never read in any book about historical performance, that they teach you the only way of playing things! They speculate about certain things using old knowledge and facts delivered in letters or from old treatises of music making. What is wrong with that? Well proven musicians today still refer to C. Fleschs violin school as a technical reference but the musical Ideas of flesch are a matter of taste, inspiring but not a rule.

There is a danger to fall into pseudoscience in music, if you want to make rules. If you take the musical science (wich was developed actually more out of curiosity from musicians and music lovers) as something inspirational and today already part of the collective knowledge it will certainly help you in some way...

of course you can also just play Bach Solo from the Edition of Heifetz or some other immens subjective source.

September 15, 2012 at 05:21 PM · Two great violinists, two completely different interpretations of Telemann's sixth Fantasy: Arthur Grumiaux and Rachel Podger. I believe the differences, for example in the third movement, a Siciliana, are relevant to this discussion.

September 15, 2012 at 09:39 PM · But Sverker, fish are definitely better with a little butter on them, and I don't know why you say you don't like vegetables.

[I have taken the liberty to not read your post as you wrote it, since only a boring traditionalist-pseudolinguist would insist on that, but to interpret it in my own way, a more modern, living, and to my mind, better way according to my own needs and interests.]

September 15, 2012 at 11:30 PM · Michael - but I LIKE your reading of the question and the answer!

Decidedly post- pre-modernistic ultra neogothic laurentian freudian neanderthal. Least I think so - but maybe I should wait for an expert...

September 16, 2012 at 09:09 AM · Michael,

I completely agree about the fish! And if you add some persil, even better. Even though I always loved vegetables, you have now convinced me that I don't, so therefore I right now eat a big steak for lunch. You were right-- steak is so much better than some boring grass.

September 16, 2012 at 01:38 PM · What I don't understand is why an edition of a work is necessarily bad, when presumably the editors have done much of the scholarly work that we're debating here. I've never really understood why one would want to discount masterful editions out of hand and insist only upon Urtexts (which have had interpretation applied to them as well). Why shouldn't it be useful to me to have some bowings that were provided by a great scholar and pedagogue like Gingold? I don't have time to do all the analysis of the manuscripts myself, and anyway I'm not even qualified. Let a scholar of the violin do that work for me. Division of labor is the basis of civilization.

September 16, 2012 at 02:01 PM · Good point Paul - but the trouble is you don't always know the editors 'intent'. Sometimes its to make the piece easy to play, others to set it in a style and yet others try to put it into historical context.

the nice thing about (the best) urtexts is that they give you a copy stripped of interpretation AND they give you one that is edited as close as they can to the 'original intent' in their eyes. I love to see the contrast to tell me how really should accept (the original composition) and how much has been added by others. For baroque-classical pieces sometimes the latter is extraordinar as can be seen in the S&P edition with the MA in the back.

September 16, 2012 at 04:30 PM · Hi Elise,

You see, one of the problems with editions is that at different periods, there were different phrasing conventions, some of which were based on the instruments of the period that we not necessarily written in by the composers. Not all of them thought that their music would be played beyond their time. For example, in the 18th century (until Beethoven), it was the convention to have a release of sound and dynamics on slurs, particularly downbows. So, this is where being informed and have tried various instruments and music gives you insights that you may not get otherwise. Many composers didn't write certain things in because they were understood as common practice and left out. This is where searching can be useful.

I see a lot of opinions, but I am curious: how many people here have played recital of works with different instruments from different periods and then the same works on modern instruments and see what the differences in equipment tells you about the spirit of the music?


September 17, 2012 at 08:19 AM · I think Bart's two examples of how to play a Telemann Fantasia are very enlightening. It is quite clear to me that both are equally good, although they are radically different. It is a perfect example of the notion of interpretation and that there can be different good interpretations.

September 17, 2012 at 10:31 AM · @Elise, in a good edition the editor should describe his or her intent and scholarly methods in the Foreword. In my opinion this is mostly what is missing a lot of the time. I remember growing up that piano editions were often much better about this, but even there I think it has fallen out of favor.

September 17, 2012 at 10:38 AM · Agreed Paul. I think a lot of the less-informed editorials are in older editions - before the interest in 'correct' performance started. Of course these are also the editions that are the most accessible through IMSLP.

Actually, its one reason why I like to buy a copy of the music - to get an informed editorial that explains why they did it that way. OTOH I also like to buy editions with no explanation but edited by a performer that I admire - like francescatti (I'm a softee for the romantic ...). There you get a glimpse of how to perform rather, if I can be glib, how to play...

September 17, 2012 at 03:24 PM · Yes, and anyway in the keyboard literature there is this overwhelming preoccupation with ornaments that one can never quite get past.

September 17, 2012 at 04:46 PM · Hi John,

I will check to provide a good answer but don't have access to the score at the moment.

That said, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas form an interesting case. There very little evidence to suggest that they were played in Bach's lifetime, with the exception of one fingering in the Gavotte en Rondeau in the third partita. The original manuscript was only rediscovered by Joseph Joachim in the late 19th/early 20th century. Prior to that, most editions were based on copies by Maria Magdalena or others. The first printed example was the fugue of the third sonata only which appeared in J.B. Cartier's L'Art du Violon. Even some fairly late editions (like Leopold Auer's) still used the Magdalena copy as base.

It also appears that any kind of performance traditions started with Joachim who may have been introduced to the S&P's by Ferdinand David.

There are many things to consider with these. The indication from the manuscript is that Bach wrote all ornaments (uncommon for the time), although trills at cadential points which were common at the time appear to not be there, although that may have been intentional. This does raise an interesting perspective when for example in the Rachel Podger recording on period instrument, she chooses to add ornaments on the repeats of some movements in the partitas.

In any event, all this said, I will look at the score to try to provide the best answer I can to your question before continuing further.


September 17, 2012 at 11:32 PM · When I have more time and energy I'd like to weigh in with a braoder answer to the OP. But for the moment I'd like to take a stab at John's specific Bach chord question.

I don't know if there is a formal term for the backwards chord articulation but there is good reason for doing it, and if not over-done or too slashy, I happen to think it sounds cool! In any event, Bach Chaconne, m9, the main melody starts at the bottom with the D, not at the top with the F. That's the reason to start at the F but go down quickly to sustain the D In m 10 the main line is in the middle. To bring that out a violinist will often start from the bottom,go up then go back down to the middle voice to sustain and bring out the G. Szerying's chord playing technique was incredible. He had such control.

Bach often notated in a way that showed the ideal movement and sustaining of the harmony and counterpoint. Some of it cannot be literaly played as notated no matter how great the player or what equipment is used. For example, occasionally a passage, if literaly interpreted, calls for the same finger to be sustained on two non-adjacent strings.

September 18, 2012 at 11:12 AM · It's hard to describe these things in words, but basically, up to a point, you can sustain up to a 3-part chord, but not 4. But it's also a matter of what you want to bring out and how.

The very 2nd note of the Chaconne is also a matter of different interpretations: do you re-iterate the 3 voices of the triad or only the A? Because it can't be played as written. The D and F cannot be sustained as a piano could do it. once you play the A again.. They must either be played again, or left out and implied. I've gone back and forth about this. I don't think that either way is right or wrong. My more recent thinking prefers just the A to be repeated, but later in the Chaconne, Bach repeated the chord in his notation.

September 18, 2012 at 07:06 PM · It could well be his playing. But it could also be the recording process as well. In the video, The Art of Violin, it ends with Menhuin playing some of the Chaconne with a fair amount of bite - but I like it. And at what point is something percussive or not? Different ears will decide differently.

September 18, 2012 at 11:45 PM · BTW, I recorded the entire Bach D minor Parirta on my 2nd CD - and It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done!

September 19, 2012 at 01:23 AM · Raphael I'd like to listen to that. I have the Rhapsody service and I typed "Raphael Klayman" into the search box but it did not come up with anything. That means I will have to buy it. I hope I can get an autographed copy. Your web site doesn't list this new CD yet -- just your CD of lighter encore fare. I bet that is quite enjoyable too.

September 19, 2012 at 11:07 AM · Thanks for your interest, Paul! I am indeed behind in updating my website, and included on my "to do" list in that regard is to put up the 2nd CD in a way similar to the first one. But you (and anyone else) can certainly order CD's directly from me, and I'll be glad to autograph them.

BTW, my program notes for the Bach include a brief discussion on my views of interpretaion.

September 22, 2012 at 01:04 PM · Hi John,

I didn't forget about you. I am simply out of town performing and haven't had access to my part of the Chaconne. I will respond as soon as I get back.


September 23, 2012 at 12:38 PM · Hi John,

Just got back last night. I took a look this morning at my part of the S&P and listened to the 2nd Szeryng recording of the Chaconne. You see, the Chaconne is based on bass line that serves as the basis for the piece and is varied and there is a melodic voice. The idea of this rolling break of the chord is to bring out the bass line first and the complete harmony of the chord but finishing on the melodic line. That is why Szeryng does the chord the way he does.

You mentioned sound and Szeryng's first set of the S&P. There are difference between that and the second on many levels. First, in the first set, Szeryng plays a Strad. Around 1960 he acquired the Leduc Del G├ęsu which is used in the second set. Also, it appears that the first set was recorded in mono and the second in stereo. I don't know also, but it is possible that the positioning of the mics was different and the mixing as well. So many things go into a recording that there is bound to be difference. Even atmospheric conditions can influence the sound in the end.

Hope this sort of answers your question.


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