I came across Inside Early Music by Bernard D. Sherman, a serious and well-documented book on the various schools of interpretation of medieval, Baroque and early romantic music, through interviews of interpreters such as William Christie, Julianne Baird, and other authorities on the subject. The issue of temperaments and tunings was briefly mentioned by Gustav Leonardt – but not in any detail, which is disappointing, as I consider the issues of reference pitch and temperament absolutely essential to musical interpretation. The recent rendition of the Moonlight Sonata by Joshua Pierce in Kirnberger III tuning (American Festival of Microtonal Music a couple of weeks ago) was a revelation: de-hackneyed, disconnected from routine hearings, the piece took on incredible beauty and power – even for me, not a Beethoven afficionado.

The main issue described in this book, also addressed by Richard Taruskin (Text and Act, 1995, Oxford University Press), is whether early music can/should be interpreted, or I would rather say translated, according to historical data that can be somewhat sketchy and confusing – which ultimately stresses the performers’ attitudes and tastes in choosing their style of interpretation.

This indicates that some dedicated classical performers secretly desire more freedom of interpretation, but they are afraid to take chances and to be criticized for their creativity, for the choices they made in interpreting known material. Could it be that historical perspective is a smokescreen, acting as a conservative device to allow some degree of freedom in interpretation without threatening the tradition?

One would think that the answer to this dilemma lies in doing new material that has no tradition and allows the interpreter greater input in the ultimate shaping of the piece. And yet, there is pressure on contemporary composers to hyper-notate their music so that the performers do not have to get involved and use their imagination – music that is not hyper-notated is likely to be considered ‘unprofessional’ – see Kyle Gann’s article on the subject: The Case Against Over-Notation, http://www.kylegann.com/notation.html

Among the many contradictions of the classical world, this is one that I find most disturbing: classical performers secretly crave the creativity to interpret a piece in their own, unique way, making them stand out from mediocrity. However, they are so fearful of new music that they would rather agonize over the correct ornamentation of a minute detail of Glück’s music than premiering a new work in which they could have control over their expression – and a lot more fun. But who wants to have fun? Classical music is a culture of pleasure denial, a puritanical esthetic of severity and hard work – makes Jack a pretty dull fellow.

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