Modern classical recitals off key

April 5, 1996

Classical music performances may never be the same again, or even the same twice, following findings at a unique research centre at Southampton University.

Research at the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, which is believed to be the first of its kind, shows that modern classical music performance, and public taste, may be at odds with the composers' intentions.

The centre is unique in that it uses old recordings - it has some 5,000 early 78rpm records - as source material to study music. It has created a computer database which can compare and analyse the changes in classical musical performances, even down to individual bars, over the past 90 years or so.

Centre director Jose Bowen believes that modern interpretations of classical scores may lack imagination because they are simply too hidebound by contemporary rules and attitudes on orchestration. He hopes the centre's work will have a liberating influence on the way music will be played by subsequent generations.

Dr Bowen, a jazz musician, says that the difficulty may lie in misconceptions about famous composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He says that they were more like band leaders, hired by the rich to produce and perform works for specific occasions, and that they probably never envisaged their works as being set in stone in terms of orchestrational style.

He says that these composers may have played their music in highly creative and adaptable ways which were markedly different to the standard versions we have come to accept and even expect. Conductors and orchestras should allow themselves more freedom to interpret classical scores, he says.

Dr Bowen said: "If you look at the history of music, variation in performance has always been part of the game. Modern performance is too ideologically hidebound to certain orchestrations and staying in time.

"Bach was more like a band leader. He would be asked to perform his music and the person paying would say 'look, this is a big occasion, can you create this sort of a mood' and Bach would oblige by adapting the performance."

Dr Bowen says that music only became standardised and heavily prescriptive in this century, due, in large part, to the rapid growth of the music publishing industry. A further tuning of social taste may be due to the enormous growth in records, tapes and CDs for home listening.

Notions of a collective cultural ear are backed by comparisons, made at the centre, of pieces recorded on 78s dating back to early this century with modern versions. They show significant differences in interpretation which can make music, adored by Edwardian audiences, now sound odd.

Dr Bowen said: "Many people listening to recordings of Elgar conducting his own pieces say that he didn't know what he was doing but it was his music after all. This is the value of using recordings, instead of scripts, as source material."

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