Saturday, October 8, 2011

Problems of Authenticity, Performance Practice, and my own work on Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations

At various points in Music: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas Cook emphasizes the importance of the performers and listeners in musical experience as a way of questioning the usual dominance of composers in the creation of aesthetic capital. His discussion of historical performance practice suggests that a view of music that values performers might be on the rise. “In demythologizing the scholarly practice of (so-called) historical performance, Taruskin has placed performance style at the centre of music history; never again, perhaps, will it be possible to publish a ‘history of twentieth-century music’ that considers only twentieth-century composition, ignoring twentieth-century practice.” (1998: 98)

However, some backtracking is necessary to explain the “demythologizing” that Taruskin has repudiated. While historical performance has in some sense broken with how we traditionally view performers, Cook points out that many historic performers are timid about admitting their own role in music. Instead of declaring their interpretive activities outright, performance practice movements use scholarly language as a veil of legitimacy, relying on period texts, treatises, and various versions of the score to formulate their vision of the music. Even when historic recordings are available, Cook notes, performers add their own gloss, choosing to avoid simply mimicking the recording. At the heart of historical performance practice, then, is not so much scholarship but “the interpretive freedom, the creativity, which performers and audiences both value.” (1998:98)

This is all well and good from an academic standpoint. As performers, though, what do we do with this information? What is the role of doing research, if our performance is also to be our own? Reacting with cynicism against historical performance practice would not be productive; Taruskin’s point (and Cook’s) was not to delegitimate the research that historical performers do. How can we re-evaluate in a constructive manner? I was reminded of my own cello studies, as I am currently working on Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. This piece has been the subject of some historical debate, since multiple versions exist, with great difference between them. The historical performance movement took hold of this piece during the 20th century, pointing out that the most commonly played version had in fact been completely restructured by the first performer of the piece, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Looking at Tchaikovsky’s manuscript compared to the published version, we can see that Fitzenhagen re-arranged the order of the variations, also cutting one out. Those inclined to follow historical performance methods would probably cite the “authenticity” of the Tchaikovsky autograph. Of course, this reinforces the hierarchy of composer over performer. In fact, there were several stages to the editing process, some of which Tchaikovsky approved more readily than others (he appears to have changed his mind at least once about the structural re-organization).

When deciding which version of the Rococo Variations to play, I made sure to do my research on these versions. I chose to play the “original” version based on the manuscript, but not because I felt convinced that this version was better or more authoritative (as I think the last paragraph made clear, my research was fairly inconclusive). Instead, I thought it was an unusual and interesting experience to hear a familiar piece played differently, and I enjoyed the “missing” eighth variation. Ultimately my decision was based on what I thought would be interesting to perform and to listen to. Is this the new ideal that Cook and Taruskin would be aiming for? Somehow, my interpretive decisions seem too arbitrary to merit such a grand label. No matter what, we are stuck with several problematic definitions of “authenticity.” Is my individual interpretation “authentic” because I am being true to myself? Is hewing to the autograph score “authentic” because it represents Tchaikovsky’s work without any influence of Fitzenhagen? Both definitions are unsatisfactory, but as practical performers, throwing away authenticity as a concept does not leave us with much to work with.

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