“Classical music prides itself on the most beautiful and perfect harmony that’s produced when it is played according to plan. That is when the meticulously calculated, perfect notes promised on the score are delivered. […] However, is music worth anything when it cannot communicate to the masses? Traditional classical music may eschew freestyle expression, but wasn’t it a product of the trends of the time?”
Those were the questions on Cantabile Tomorrow‘s lead character’s mind as he stood lost in thought with red autumnal foliage and verdant vegetation side by side in the backdrop, pondering which of his college’s orchestras was the better one: the elite A Orchestra that matched his outstanding caliber and formal musical style or the sloppy but idiosyncratic S Orchestra that captured its audience’s hearts. This tension between orthodox and maverick was certainly not new in artistic narratives. Yet the merits of classical art forms were not always acknowledged with such elegant words. To give this dignifying presentation of classical music full consideration, it is worth posing another question: what makes a rendition of classical music faithful to its origins?
A simple starting point may be to ask the sub-question: is it possible to achieve authenticity by adhering to a score? Classical music was written, after all, with the instruments, techniques and musical sensibilities of people in its time in mind. Even if a musician is fortuitous enough to track down an obsolete instrument from a bygone era, its quality may not be typical of those of its kind then—a result not only of small sample size and varying craftsmanship but also of the states of disrepair musical instruments were frequently in during the past. Perhaps he can engage in mimicry instead, tuning an existing instrument differently to match the sound quality of its predecessor, creating an antediluvian instrument from scratch or even damaging an instrument and putting in a weaker performance deliberately to replicate inferior standards prevalent in the past. Yet, given the centuries that may lie between us and the creation of a composition, it is probably very hard to know exactly all the minute details of the musical scene it was penned for. Similarly daunting is the challenge of getting listeners to untangle themselves from modern music influences and hear a medieval or Renaissance score just as audiences in its days used to. Then again, that an endeavor is challenging does not mean that it is impossible. That it is impossible does not mean there is no worth in coming as close to perfection as possible either. Moreover, there are classical pieces that remain accessible in terms of both technical requirements and audience receptivity.
Nonetheless, not only does an obsession with such a superficial level of authenticity appear outrageous but it also would be unlikely to have sat well with classical music composers. An exact reproduction of the manner in which musical pieces were played and perceived at their times of creation may serve historical interest or provide some amusement. Often, though, these issues of presentation are peripheral to the appreciation of music. To reproduce the music itself, it is frequently far simpler to adjust the score to compensate for technical and auditory changes that have occurred with time. Yet reproductions even of this kind may be questionable because surely the music intended is more important than the music actually played? The creators of classical music probably longed to rid themselves of the various factors of uncertainty (i.e. shoddy equipment and amateurish performers) that made musical composition a possibly nerve-wracking endeavor. Also, as revered as many of these composers have been, they were still human—some emotions may not have been conveyed as fully as they liked in a piece, certain passages may have been inadvertently repeated one time too many, collective intelligence and a longer history of musical insights may show how a more natural transition could have been constructed without sacrificing the desired emotional impact. Modern players do justice to their dreams not by retaining standards of the past but by surpassing them.
Besides immediate artistic goals within individual pieces, classical music frequently served higher purposes as well. Felix Mendelssohn attempted to capture the awe and beauty of European landscapes through several musical works. Franz Schubert was concerned with spirituality and the mysteries of life. A number of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies were driven by his thirst for political freedom. Finally, classical music as a whole often takes pride in the cognitive complexity involved in producing and appreciating various masterpieces. Among these motivations, psychological, aesthetic, religious and social aims are perhaps better fulfilled by giving classical pieces modern “makeovers” that make them more relatable to contemporary listeners. Intellectual aims, meanwhile, can be taken to a higher level by engineering more nuances and integrating innovative musical elements into classical compositions.
So far, this article has illustrated that there are different layers of meanings and purposes to classical music and they are best realized by enhancing the score. Nevertheless, it is often reckless to try improving something without an understanding of it. There remains, therefore, great value in classical music played in line with tradition as far as possible. Some may argue that, given the availability of musical recordings in the modern age, there is no longer a need for more performances of classical repertoire, except for works that have never been stored in such formats. However, live concerts, with their vividness, can enhance the appreciation of musical pieces. Furthermore, classical music is probably a never-ending journey of discovery, rediscovery and re-dissemination. Many compositions have rich sonic landscapes which auditory details take hundreds of listenings to be fully absorbed. Even then, a listener may continue to uncover new beauty, sensations, extra-musical associations and abstract significance in these compositions, while performers, by emphasizing different elements and/or adopting different playing styles, can interpret the same, unmodified score in novel ways. New productions of traditional classical music can thus solidify and enrich the base of understanding upon which refurbished versions of classical scores can be developed.
As with many other topics of broad concern, a narrow-minded, either-or approach does not seem to offer the optimal solution here. On the contrary, music is perhaps a life form that, like biological species, flourishes on diversity.