How to stay true to a composer's intentions

In his 1981 book The Composer's Advocate, Erich Leinsdorf proposed a philosophy of musical performance based on three premises:-

1. Great composers knew what they wanted.

2. The interpreter must have the means at his disposal to grasp the composer's intentions.

3. Music must be read with knowledge and imagination - without necessarily believing every note and word that is printed.

Now, don't worry. I'm not going to vanish down a rabbit hole of academic discussion. Apart from anything else, I would feel vastly underqualified to do so. I'm just throwing Mr Leinsdorf's philosophy out there so that we can consider to what extent we can and should interpret the music we perform with our choirs with the composer's intentions in mind.

How do we know what the composer's intentions were?

Composers throughout history have understood that when they create a piece of music and send it out into the world, it will be intepreted by musicians. Different eras observed different notation conventions, and these are reflected in the scores that we see today. Pick up a piece from the renaissance or baroque periods and you probably won't see much in the way of expression (and if you do, it may be the work of a later editor). A modern piece may include a lot of direction. That doesn't mean that baroque music was intended to be performed without expression. When we do our score study, we have to take account of these differences and conventions. If we understand what the performance practices of an era or genre are, we can get closer to the composer's vision for the piece.

Where do we draw the line between our interpretation and the composer's intentions?

There are some things in a score we're probably going to tamper with very reluctantly. The notes and rhythm fall into that category. We're probably not going to look at a score and say 'You know what? Vivaldi was really having an off-day when he put that C minor chord in there. I'm going to change it'. However, there may be times when note values have to be changed. In particular, we often have to shorten notes to allow for breaths (anyone attempting to perform a bit of J S Bach will know this only too well!).

Tempo is something that often needs tweaking. The composer may have written the music with a certain acoustic in mind. If we're performing a piece in a space with a lot of echo, we may need to adjust the tempo to avoid the audience losing all the detail. On a practical level, we may also need to adjust tempo based on the skills of our singers. The spirit of a piece may be better served by a competent performance at a slower tempo than by a ragged one at the composer's metronome mark.

Dynamics are probably the aspect of interpretation that can be approached with the most freedom because they're so subjective and dependent upon the performance space and acoustic. The dynamic colour of a piece will also depend on who is singing. If my chamber choir is performing outdoors at a summer event, pianissimo is a lot more robust than if we're singing in a small church.

What if the composer didn't write the piece for a choir?

Any piece that was originally performed by, say, a solo performer and has been re-arranged for choir is already one large step removed from the composer's original intentions. That's when, in my opinion, we have to let our musicianship guide us. What's the emotional core of the piece? What's it trying to communicate to an audience? If we can use our skills as a choir leader to draw an emotionally authenic performance from our choir, we will have served the composer's intentions well.

Ultimately, I think the mental test we should apply to our music-making is this: if the composer walked into our performance, would he or she nod and say 'yup, that's pretty much what I was going for'? If we're confident that the answer to that question is 'yes', we're probably on the right lines.
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