Why are we so often dictated by "tradition" rather than what the composer wrote?

How often have you heard somebody playing something faster or slower than what is written on the score? (I am thinking of Purcells "Dido's lament" being sung pretty much allegro.... I DETEST Renee Fleming singing this!)

Or in a different key? (Somebody in my class announced that he was going to be playing Humoresque in Gb by Dvorak, he played it in F because "thats easier.")

Or the wrong thing entirely? (In the song Non piu mesta, the runs go down to the G below middle C, and the song DOES NOT END ON A B... but nearly every one sings it that way.)

or Casta Diva being backed by a huge orchestra and choir... It is Bellini not Wagner, yet people still sing it BIG!

So thats my little whinge... but seriously, why do people perform in a way dictated by other performers, rather than what is written in the score?


Suggested Category: Society & Culture > Cultures & Groups > Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered


Boy Wonder - How hilarious! (I do hope, though, that you were not being totally serious....)

Update 2:

WOW! What an amazing response from all of you! I dont think I need to comment on this any more as (for the most part), I agree with all of your answers...

i.jones - look at the score of casta diva. It is marked piano and pianissimo, and the chorus is "sotto voce." I do not mean that Callas' / the conductor, made it sound Wagnerian, just that they made it BIG.... Its hard to explain my objection to it really....

Alberich - If only Toscannini was alive today. I am sure wed get along famously!

Update 3:

rdenig male - you do not like counter tenors? How wonderful! somebody to join my little counter-tenor hating "club."

Update 4:

John W - your answer is soo long, and thankyou.

By the way, I am referring to both self expression gone wrong, (or shall I say taking "artistic liberties" with music) and relying on false traditions. Perhaps I worded the question wrong?

16 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    Gay people like to go directly by the composer's wishes.

    This is called homointerpretation.

    Straight people like to do what is in general popularity or consensus.

    This is called heterointerpretation.

    Bisexuals like to go both ways, switching every now and then on occasion, depending on the piece being performed.

    This is called Bi-interpretation.

    Transgendered really don't know what they want, or how they are going to sing until the night of the performace.

    This is called Trans-ad-lib-ertation.


  • 1 decade ago

    After I wrote this response, I noticed that I interpreted the question Petr B's way rather than John W's way. I hope that's all right.

    These aren't necessarily my opinions, but opinions which I have heard:

    Number one: We have to perform music of bygone eras bigger and louder because we are performing in bigger auditoriums.

    Number two: Even if a soloist or ensemble did succeed in finding period instruments, interpreting every ornament correctly, and tuning to an A which we call Ab, the audience would not perceive of the composition as the earlier audience did. Unlike earlier audiences, we compare everything with Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Carter Burwell, and all those other great latter-day masters. So what is the use of trying to be authentic?

    Number three: If I understand correctly, Stokowski claimed that his mongrelizations were what Bach had in mind, and what Bach would have written if he had a symphony orchestra available.

    Number four: Stokowski's mongrelizations are more palatable to the general public than the Urtext. It is better for the public to be attracted to Bach's music through Stokowski's mongrelizations than not at all.

    Number five: The performer should add something personal. This opinion was expressed by a violinist who commissioned a concerto from a composer. The composer didn't write a tempo marking on one of the movements because he couldn't decided whether he wanted it slow or fast.

    A similar opinion was also expressed by a musician who prefers pop music over classical music. He argues that any two pop singers singing the same song arrange the song differently, whereas one concert pianist can only play the Moonlight Sonata slightly better than someone else.

    Number six: Great composers themselves write transcriptions. Whenever I express disapproval of transcriptions, some wise guy reminds me that Bach himself wrote transcriptions. So why can't John W. Schaum?

    I forgot the title and author's name, but I once saw a book which devoted an entire chapter to the Nineteenth Century view on authenticity. According to this book, the people of the Nineteenth Century were even more capricious than we are. When Mendelssohn gave his historic performance of the Saint Matthew Passion, he enlarged the instrumentation considerably. The soloist in the premiere performance of the Grieg piano concerto added some octaves because she wanted to show off how beautifully she played octaves, and the composer only mildly objected. The book also tells us how the Moonlight Sonata and the Raindrop Prelude got their names, and it was not from Beethoven and Chopin.

    If anyone recognizes these anecdotes and knows the title or author's name, please write back.

  • 4 years ago

    Well I have a confession to make -- I am afraid of Wagner. Everyone talks about how complex his music is, and I'm afraid it will go over my head. I figure I'll wait awhile before I dive into it. Get some more music theory and whatnot under my belt. But as of right now, I really haven't given Wagner a try. But to answer your question, I suppose the length might be a reason. People in my generation don't have the patience to listen to classical music because of the length. I remember a guy freaking out because a certain pop song was five minutes long. (Heaven forbid! A whole entire five minutes! *rolls eyes*) Between that and the complexity, that might be the reasons Wagner is such a turn off to some people.

  • 1 decade ago

    There's a lot of tension in the issue you describe. Tradition is fine and it is well to emulate the performances of the past, but even then we are not quite sure whether the tradition is true to the composer's intent.

    I'm old enough that some of my early teachers were (old) men who had played in the Strauss orchestras of Vienna. They placed, in their rigidly Germanic way, great emphasis on the proper timing and emphasis of the "luftpause" to form an irregularity in the music (amongst other things). I believe they knew the tradition, they were there; I listen to modern recordings and the New Years Day concerts, and wonder where the luftpause has gone - yes it is still there but not in the tradition that was drilled into my head.

    I'm a choral singer mostly these days. I have been fortunate to perform in several premieres of new compositions, Typically the chorus practices well what is written on the paper. We learn the notes, the words, watch the tempo markings and dynamics, do our best to make our vocal expression fit the context of the lyrics. Then the performance conductor comes in and has a whole different set of ideas. And finally at the dress rehearsal the composer comes to hear the piece for the first time ever (except in Finale on his computer) and we are hit with a barrage of new instructions -- none of which was in the score he gave us. And the performance? It's a mix, of what our voices can do given the instructions we heard, what the director can do with his orchestra, and what we can remember from that preciously short time the composer had with us. Should (or can) a tradition be based on our first performance? (I rather hope not.)

    You speak of Fleming racing through Dido. She is not alone in the speed game. The new 'tradition' for many local orchestras and choruses is that everything is faster -- everything that our Symphony plays is faster than the marking. He has a metronome which he consults regularly, then chooses to go faster; I guess because it sounds brighter to him? I also guess that many of the musicians are not well schooled in sustaining long notes beautifully. Is this a reflection of the frenetic lifestyle that permeates society? The languorous tone poems of the late 1800s sure are missing from the repertoire, eh? I speak locally, but my hearing of this sprightly syndrome is wide.

    The recording industry certainly has a hand in this speed syndrome. Many works were recorded at ferocious speed to cram them into the 3+ minutes available on the old 78rpm discs.

    I'm not sure that some music is not meant to be freely interpreted. Souza's "El Capitan" was clearly so intended. Played in 2 uptempo and it's a march, played in 3 a sprightly waltz, sung in 6 a beautiful love song. That's a special case, where the composer penned all three, yet many marches are susceptible to

    There are legitimate reasons to change key, to favour a voice, to accommodate an instrument, I know of one instance where the natural resonances of the room dictated that an organ piece be played in a different key because the standing waves created a very noticeable beat. As long as we are all singing and playing "well tempered" does it make much difference? If not, it sure does. All that music for wind band, back from Souza's day - should we play it a 1/2 tone flat to match the 432 or 435 tuning of the instruments?

    Petr B raises the question of Händel's Messiah with monster forces. Legitimate question, but what's the goal here? To give a pristine performance of our perceived notion of originality, or to enjoy the music either in the performance or the hearing of it? Surely it would not have it's current prominence if it had been restricted to the traditional. Yet we do know that Händel re-scored the piece in whole or part for nearly every performance - based on the available forces. Most of the solo work saw performances by alternate voices, and as I recall none were specifically assigned. What's wrong with having the Alto rage? or a bass suddenly introducing Glory to God? I find it refreshing.

    I understand your point, Miss LimLam, even empathize, yet must temper that with the understanding that time moves on, technology, instruments, and voices change. Tradition works about as well as the telephone game at a party. And I consider us fortunate to have chosen to be musicians which means our art is dynamic. Willfull alterations can be good and bad, Some people have actually found classical music thanks to Allan Sherman and "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah"

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  • 1 decade ago

    It isn't a simple question you asked, MsLL. It depends a lot on which work from which composer from which period.

    The modern composers mostly compose vocal music for voice type (he writes a part for a soprano or a mezzo or a tenor or whatever), and he writes down every bitty little expressive details. It is quite proper to then observe the 'come scritto' rule of performing everything as written on this type of music.

    But the further you go back in time, the more sparse the musical score becomes in terms of notations. Once you get older than the time of Rossini, you're hard pressed to find a score with detailed ornamentation written on them (except for Bach's, of course). The performers back in those days were expected to also know the rules of composition and to improvise according to the style of those days. Since much of these older music had experience long lapses in performance (the baroque and the bel canto opera, for instance, disappeared for a whole century before they were revived in the mid 20th century), we no longer have a good idea what would truly be 'stylistically correct' for them. All you can do is make educated guess with varying amount of certainty.

    What many today consider 'traditional' for certain sub-genres is really not consistent with what the folks of those older time would think. Take 'bel canto', for example... What many today regard as good bel canto singing would render the divas who lived and performed in the actual bel canto era very bad bel canto singers ( http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1084055/m... ).

    I've seen some know-it-all opera fans go around making disparaging remarks about how Harnoncourt or Gardiner or some other ancient music specialists had murdered Monteverdi or other baroque/renaissance composers on youtube clips of their performance. But I wonder if these fans realize that much of the score that exist from that period have got nothing on them but the vocal line and a bass continuo... Everything else has to be re-orchestrated not because these conductors (who had spent years studying musicology of just those periods) wanted to, but because they have to.

    Also, while the composers of the modern day compose for voice type (role A goes to a soprano, role B goes to a tenor, etc), composers up until Verdi or so composed for specific voices/singers. When they were presented with a different cast, they revised their music to fit the new performers... That complicates things a bit more. If one insists on singing bel canto music exactly as written, one finds it pretty hard to cast the opera. The voices that were gracing the stage then would be condemned as seriously flawed by today's standard. The singing technique were different... Heck, even the singing pitch was different then. And don't forget how loud and bright the orchestra of today has got compared to back in the 1700's or 1800's. Also, I'd make a distinction between complete performance of a work from concert recitals of excerpts and arias.

    So... Your complaint has merit only in the more modern period when 'come scritto' is what the composer has in mind when he sits down to compose. For music from the periods before that happened (Purcell included)... well..

    Logistics aside. Is performing music really any fun anymore when one is so straight-jacketed into always performing a certain thing a certain way.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    God...The other responders wrote long...

    Anyways,presumably they would need an example of how the piece is played first.They would usually hear it and then eventually "copy" it.Thus,a replica of the piece spirals out from that person...

    God...Wouldn't it be the same for Moonlight Sonata 1st Movement?The tempo is usually getting commented saying it was too fast but never too slow.Beethoven wrote Adagio Sostenuto for the tempo marking which means it to be played for sustained ease.However,I find it odd that no one takes this into their interpretation,the tempo could be very fast or very slow since it did not have an exact marking for it but yet everyone plays it dead slow.

    Another reason could be that the performer heard maybe Rubinstein or Horowitz play a piece in that specific way and just lost their creative energies by copying it.

  • 1 decade ago

    There is a very fuzzy and vague line drawn between being true to the score and a performer offering their own interpretation.

    We usually don't insist that baroque pieces must be played on period instruments, but we usually insist that the ornaments be played in the traditional way, and that articulation, dynamics etcetera are traditional. each person draws the line in a different place.

    I think of late the ability to have reproductions of performances (via records, CD's, now itunes) is the largest factor. There is a quality of a recording that denies the ephemeral, and transient condition of music as a medium of expression. By setting in stone a particular performance, we have denied the music the possibility of being interpreted differently. and when critics hail one virtuosos' performance as "the" performance others natural flock to it.

    Here's what the theorist Edward cone said on the topic:

    "Most people would probably agree that, even if a perfect interpretation is conceivable, it is hardly possible of achievement, and that every actual performance must be at best an approximation of it. Still, many of us are vaguely comforted by the notion of one interpretation that, in some platonic realm, constitutes the music as precisely as a picture is a picture, a statue is a statue, and a building is a building. According to this view, the space arts are fortunate, since they are fixed and unchanging; the time arts (which would include drama and all other forms of literature as well as music) are subject to readings, performance, and interpretations, all of which distort the true essence of the work of art. Nevertheless, this essence remains there, somewhere, to be discovered and, so far as possible, exposed"

    “Am I experiencing this music and conveying my experience to the audience?” vs. “Am I playing this correctly? Am I following the rules of observance?” the latter view “reflects an admirable desire, nourished by modern historical scholarship, to present the composition in a form as close as possible to its composer’s original conception. But it also signifies a refusal to accept the further obligation to revitalize the composition as a dramatic gesture and thus to recreate it as the living experience that must have been basic to that conception”

    Source(s): Cone, Edward T. Musical Form and Musical Performance: Inside the Picture, Problems of Performance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.
  • 1 decade ago

    You, I and Arturo Toscanini could have a wonderful "coffee klatsch":


    And even though I feel "tradition" has, is, a great reference and has applied value in many instances, not so with regard to the issue you raise. I abhor "artist" who feel they can take whatever liberties they should wish in interpreting another's creation, no matter how many have done so before them.

    Any creative artist - composer, painter, poet - had their own original intentions for notations of how their creation(s) should be interpreted/viewed/rendered; and I feel that these should be adhered to with absolute deference - with a religious zeal, if you will.

    An allegro, should not be performed as an allegretto - if a painter records that a painting should be viewed with "dim" lighting(not "medium"), its setting should be as so indicated - should a poet notate at the bottom of their poem, "read with gusto and abandon", then that's how it should be read.

    What irks me to no end(might "outrages" be too strong a term?), is to witness an operatic production with a "mod" setting, as opposed to the original, traditional the composer conceived it as.

    Forgive me for citing a creation by my operatic idol: whenever I've witnessed a "Ring" performance where the men are attired in a business suit and the women in an evening gown, I wish that I were able to throw multiple rotten tomatoes or any other garbage that might be available, and yell at the top of my lungs----------------.

    In conclusion: "Here! Here!"



    edit:- "Boy Wonder"/// May God preserve us - have pity on us; my stomach muscles are still hurting(from laughing so hard).

  • hafwen
    Lv 6
    1 decade ago

    Wow, MissLimLam...you've really sparked off an intriguing debate here!

    I'm going to write a relatively short answer, though...I think the answer to your question can only be resolved (if that's at all possible) by first answering another seemingly unanswerable philosophical question:

    Who actually "OWNS" a piece of music?

    If it's "owned" by the composer, then I believe that he/she has every right to make explicit creative demands and expect them to be fulfilled (though, as has already been pointed out, this is more difficult as we venture further back in history and find manuscripts with few - if any - performance instructions.) But then, what happens after the composer dies? Who "owns" the piece then? And what about folk music - who "owns" that? What right does an Irish fiddler from County Kildare to say that the fiddler from Cork's rendition of the "Blackthorn Stick" jig is "wrong," or "unauthentic?"

    If the musical work is "owned" by the performer, then really, as a creative soul, they too have the right to exercise some say over how it should be interpreted - after all, what musician would like to be thought of as nothing an automaton, bowing to the demands of the composer, playing like a machine, leaving absolutely no room for creative freedom? (Been there, done that. Yuk.)

    If the musical work is "owned" by the audience, then they have every right to pick and choose which interpretation they like - which one resonates with them. One person may love Vivaldi's "Stabat Mater" performed by countertenor - another person may loathe it and prefer a female soprano performing it. You dislike Renee Fleming singing "Dido's Lament" (and so do I) - but there are plenty who love her in that role.

    Looking at this from a writer's perspective...the fiction I create has its own "life" in my own head - the result of my unique life's experiences...no-one else will read my stuff and experience exactly the same "atmosphere" as the one in my mind - it's impossible. As a writer, I can try and recreate the world in my mind as best I can with words as my limited tools - but I can't ever expect that anyone else will perceive my fictional world in exactly the same totally unique way as I do...I wonder if this could be the same in musical composition...like a writer, or painter, for that matter, a composer has only a relatively limited palette with which to create his/her vision - and as for interpreting it - well, it's all relatively subjective, methinks...despite the "absolute" nature of musical notes, words, colours, etc.

    Whoa. So much for my intended "short" answer...though compared to some of the dissertations here so far, it is relatively brief...anyway, I guess I enjoyed myself too much...

    Thanks MissLimLam, a wonderfully thought-provoking question!

    Hafwen x

  • 1 decade ago

    How about this Dido?


    Youtube thumbnail

    Non piu mesta ... ends on an E if I'm not mistaken. and the penultimate interval is a B.


    Youtube thumbnail

    I'm not getting a strong feeling for Wagner here...


    Youtube thumbnail

    ... Now changing keys is another story. I can relate to that completley. I work with a guitarist whose life goal seems to be "make it as difficult as possible" (sure, he capos) by suggesting that half the music we do should be in Gb or Db (I'm thinking he's trying to trip me up, but I practice. I don't walk into things cold ... and so what if there are five sharps or flats, I like the landscape of the keyboard. Black keys: throw 'em in there, they are a good reference point. If I can touch type on a computer keyboard, I can sure as heck play in Db, C# minor, B and Gb.

  • petr b
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago

    Miss LimLam,

    You and I are generations apart but it warms my heart to know some young people want truth in their classical music.

    Traditional to us older folk means in the style of the period, including its idiosyncracities, or mannerisms. Any performer knew to not expand or exceed those parameters for any reason. Those who have held to performance within style perameters know full well these very confines make for a tremendously expressive vehicle.

    Nadia Boulanger said "Great Art Loves Chains."

    I think we are in a moment of a horrible and it is to be hoped temporary fashionability of "Self-Expression." Self expression has become and end in itself, with no consideration if that self-expression has any merit or is of interest to others. (witness youtube and myspace) I believe this has permeated a lot of art, crazy mentalities which allow individuals to wallow in self-absorbsion to a degree where they will later regret how this period of their lives have been spent.

    The other evil and fallacious credo is the new idea that everyone is a critic, and can therefore pronounce judgement on art. This, without any accumilated learning, observation, cultivated sense of discernment.

    These two trends have insidiously crept into all areas of life, art and performance practices. They include and have affected language itself.

    Ergo the "individual" and entirely distorted rendering of classical repertoire from almost every musical era.

    Haendel's Messiah: With a huge orchestra and a Chorus of Hundreds! ~ just as the composer conceived it ~

    No playwright ever wrote a role for an actor solely as a vehicle for the actor's "self-expression." Every good actor knows that.

    No composer ever composed a piece for a performer solely as a vehicle for the performer's "self-expression." Every good musician knows that.

    I believe a lot of art and perfomance from the last few decades will go down in history as the era of egregiously distorted art driven by self-absorbed and self-indulgent artists and performers....more than sad.

    best regards always, p.b.

    WOW: some over-reaction. I did not say all Beethoven piano music should be only played on a piano forte. I do mean that tempi indications, dyanamic markings and articulation marks should be observed, including knowing what forte was in ratio to an overall dynamic of a certain period. This still leaves oceans and universes of room for individual interpretations. Sheesh. Didn't this Q open a can of worms!

    You'd think saying a score needed respect and attention meant the performer had to rip their heart and soul out and leave it outside the door before they could begin to play it properly.

    I think (in the US anyway) there is huge over-emphasis on 'self-expression' and it is to a point where some person's completely banal and uninteresting self-expression is to be considered as worthy. That was my "rant' if you will call it that.

    I believe any composer or playwright knows they are writing for expressive performers who will bring good and personal musicality or good and personal acting to the part. If this is accepted and understood, all talk of "self-expression" is redundant and unnecessary, that is all.

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