The cult of urtext

October 12, 2015

Is worship of urtext a reductionist development in performance practice? I have been hearing more and more from students about how they wanted to be playing "just what composer intended in the score" and nothing else. This point of view, while on the surface appearing to be in service of the music, ultimately does a lot of damage to it by limiting honest experimentation, which is the only way to any kind of authentic and meaningful music making.

 

Can you imagine a director in the play telling actors to "just read the words on the page" without varying intensity, pacing, volume, body language and not responding to changes in the performances of their partners on stage?

 

No worthwhile composer writes music expecting performers to leave their imagination, common sense and taste at the door. Most good composers also recognize that if they had more time to spend on the work, their editing process would continue and perhaps significant changes could be made.

 

When violinists insist on playing Bach Chaconne in faster tempos with a constant emphasis on the strong/weak beat relationship because this music happen to be written in a dance form, doesn't this approach reduce the quality of musical narrative to just one of its features? Certainly many performances of this piece at the most recent Tchaikovsky competition were exercise in conformity.

 

This trend, of course, is a sign of over all state of desperation on the part of young performers who are looking for ways to be both accepted by establishment and praised for the originality of their interpretation. It isn't new necessarily, but it is misguided, and with the proliferation of examples of this kind of playing on YouTube, the true treasures of authentic music making get buried in the depth of search results.

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