By Ricky O’Bannon

The notes on the page are sacred text in the classical music tradition.

They represent the closest primary source we have to understand the original intent of a (usually deceased) composer’s artistic expression. As such, conventional thinking suggests a responsibility falls to the musicians performing these works to dutifully recreate those intentions as closely as possible.

That’s not to suggest that there is anything mechanical about a modern orchestra performance. There is still plenty of room within the score’s restraints for each musician or conductor’s individual interpretive fingerprints, but a performance that strays too far in tempo, dynamics or rhythm from the score is often met with raised disapproving eyebrows.

According to musicologist Clive Brown this is a 20th-century idea that was not shared by musicians and conductors previously. Brown works for the University of Leeds in England and has extensively researched and written about performance practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the 20th century, Brown said it was common for performers to take a looser interpretation of the score.

“Listen to the recordings made by Joseph Joachim [who] everybody said was one of the greatest violinists on the 19th century. If you follow them with the score, what you see and what you hear are so utterly different,” Brown said. “He was noted for this wonderful free approach to rhythm, which was so musical. And we've lost that sense that you can be free, individualistic and musical and get away with it.”

Another early recording that might demonstrate a different philosophy is an 1895 wax cylinder performance by Josef Hofmann of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” from Die Walkure.

Starting just before the two-minute mark, Hofmann adjusts the theme in the left hand, often bending and delaying the original rhythms in a way that creates anticipation and playfulness.

Clive Brown
Clive Brown

“It's hard to say when [the shift away from this] really begins but it was a kind of revolution in the early 20th century,” he said. “There's no question that people suddenly started to think that they really were only doing the right thing if they followed the notation slavishly. There's a kind of sense that the old players of the 19th century were in some ways corrupting things, and that they were going to clean it all up.”

The shift to a new philosophy of more literal performance took place between the 1910s and 1930s. One factor might have been the influence of Igor Stravinsky who struggled to get orchestra musicians to perform exactly what he had written unlike Brahms who Brown said wanted flexibility within certain boundaries.

Pragmatically, increasingly complicated rhythms used by modern composers like Stravinsky might have allowed less room for rhythmic liberties.

Brown also said that the advent of recording undoubtedly played a role as it allowed musicians and the audience to hear a definitive single performance of a piece multiple times, which can fix the way a sonata or symphony is “supposed” to sound in the ear.

“In the 19th century, you could give a performance that was very idiosyncratic in some ways and very free. As soon as you start recording that, you're fixing something that was never meant to be fixed,” Brown said.

Knowing that there is a performance tradition history that allows performers to take more musical liberties can be freeing, but the reception isn’t always welcoming. Brown said he spoke with an Italian pianist who tried to bend some rhythms in a performance of the Beethoven concerto with an American orchestra.

“He got terribly bad reviews because they said he couldn't play in time,” Brown said.

However, given time and historical evidence the expectations can change. Brown works with young musicians at conservatories, and he tries to teach them about a freer 19th century performance practice.

“The way forward in all of this is that the up-and-coming musicians need to have this experience in their training, and they'll gradually start to do these things,” Brown said. “And then eventually we might get back to something more like the old way of doing it.”