The Cult of the Work

Saturday, May 14, 2016

This post is the first of two, reflecting on our residency, Faithful to the Spirit. I want to preface this by thanking the boys and faculty of the Greenwood School. There is a quote attributed to Einstein: "If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough." Preparing the talk for Greenwood helped crystallise a number of complex ideas. The boys at Greenwood were so perceptive in their comments during our visit there. In particular there was one boy, with longish blond hair whom, after 30 minutes or so of discussion, astonished all of us musicians with his eloquence at articulating what our residency was about – far better than what we could muster.

Marisa Gupta

The Cult of the Work

During our talks in Putney (at the Greenwood School and for the general audience) we framed the discussion in terms of an issue raised by various commentators: whether music is an object or an activity. It is, of course, an activity. However we have, in certain ways, taken steps towards turning it into an object (through musical scores and recordings). In doing so all kinds of "rules" have been created – many of which we are unaware of; our residency was about becoming aware of and re-thinking these "rules".

Our residency was not centered around the study of period recordings, but on the questioning of a philosophical view in which music is thought of as a body of work. Recordings provide us with an historical record through which we can attempt to understand this. This concept informs most aspects of how we interact with mainstream western classical music, and has been much debated by scholars and other commentators, but I am uncertain how aware most mainstream performers are that this is the view we largely adopt (I only came across this in reading works of Lydia Goehr whose Imaginary Museum of Musical Works forms much of the basis of this post), Kenneth Hamilton, and others. Thinking of music in terms of works gives us an objective measure through which to judge auditions and competitions, assess conservatory exams, and write CD reviews. It influences our presentation of music in concert and how performers view their role in relation to a composer’s score. It plays no small part in how record producers carry out their jobs, and how composers conceive of notation. It impacts the language we use to discuss music. The list goes on.

Why is this important? The idea of being true or faithful to a work (Werktreue), and viewing music in terms of works in general likely contributes in large part to what some critics deem as the standardization and sacralisation of western classical music. It is probable that our current interpretation of this ideal is far from what many canonic composers would have expected. It has unintentionally caused us to limit ourselves to a narrow range of expressive possibilities in performing works, and adhere to rigid notions of the acceptable manner in which to present music in concert.

During earlier eras, interest in music revolved around music of the present. By around 1800, interest in music from the past began to grow in conjunction with the development of a canon of transcendent masterpieces. The result was a shift in emphasis from performance to the idea of musical works. Works soon were viewed as fixed objects of fine art. The result was an increasing notational precision as composers conceived of their music as being “preservable in fixed and lasting works,” a view that also impacted performances. Within the field of musicology, there was a view that strict methodology and research could enable musicologists to determine what a composer had intended to say, and this could be communicated in musical scores; thus it became increasingly the case that the performer’s duty was to reproduce the composer’s text. The advent of recordings further enhanced the notion of music as an object, as the ephemeral nature of performance now became something fixed and repeatable.

What does this mean in terms of how we perform music today? To understand this more clearly, it is helpful to look more closely at earlier views of music.

Occasional music

When musicians worked for the court or church, composers wrote occasional music and borrowed freely from other compositions and composers. Music wasn’t necessarily composed to outlast one or a few performances. Music was appreciated because it served an occasion. Its longevity was not a concern. (This likely included the music of Bach.)


In earlier centuries, a figured bass and melodic outline sufficed, which was embellished by performers. Musicians did not perform with the idea of realising every facet of a pre-conceived work. Music was treated more pragmatically. Composers gave varying degrees of instruction, filled in by performers depending on the type of musical expression required. There were ways of performing which were considered unacceptable, but great variety amongst that which was considered admissible.

A lack of precision in notation did cause concern (there are records of Couperin complaining of this), but by 1800, notation became sufficiently well specified to differentiate composing through performance and composing prior performance. Despite this, composers in the 18th century did want performers to try to comply with their scores, but as long as scores were not sufficiently detailed, it was difficult to achieve this.


In addition to different views of the role of notation, the concept of a virtuoso was very different too. Bach was just as appreciated for improvising as he was for his other skills. Mozart and Clementi took part in an extemporization competition in 1781. In the 18th century, respect was given as much to composer performers who could improvise. The term virtuoso was used as much in reference to improvisations as it was to the performance of pre-meditated compositions. Even in the Romantic era, when the shift in view was underway, Kenneth Hamilton describes the fundamental facet of the Romantic attitude towards interpretation, in which nearly all pianists were composers as well as performers and their personalities as composers tended to seep into their playing and often turned what we would imagine now as acts of interpretation into acts of free recreation. He cites Busoni as one extreme example of the towering virtuoso and questing composer, for whom few pieces he played were unaffected by his sometimes extreme interventions. Later in the 19th century there were signs of increasing specialization and this tradition has been largely abandoned.

Differences in the culture of performances

Performances took place with several interruptions. This may have been because performers made mistakes, or had "false starts". Audiences might have been bored so music wasn’t played to the end. There were breaks or intervals in long pieces. Individual movements were performed, and pieces were rarely played from start to finish.


Musicians didn’t rehearse in the same way. The term rehearsal was often used interchangeably with the term for performance. Only later did the concept of rehearsal become distinguished from performances and viewed as necessary for adequate performance. Rehearsals were also uncommon because professional orchestras hardly existed.

Music of the Past

In the 1800’s there was an increasing interest in music of the past though the prevailing view was still that music of the present was the only music worth listening to. However, attitudes started to shift in 1850. Prominent musicians performed music of past masters. Liszt began a trend by including "historical pieces" in his concert programs. According to the tenets of Romanticism, there was a new sort of academic interest in music history; reconstructing the past was influenced by this. Past music was seen through the Romantic ideal of works, leading to the canonization of dead composers and formation of a musical repertoire of transcendent masterpieces. The former curator of the British Library Sound Archive Timothy Day writes that “…the Romantic, nineteenth-century metaphor of the composer as an agent who simply materializes a perfectly imagined, finished form born in a visionary moment has remained enormously influential throughout the twentieth century. It has remained a fundamental component of the way a great many people think about music…”

Thus, early music was reintroduced into modern repertoire as “timeless masterpieces”, meaning that composers and music now had precise notation, multiple performances, and lasting fame. This repertoire of Classics spread fast and music of the classical era was viewed in Romantic terms – as perfect works of absolute music.


By the 20th century and into the 21st, the Werktreue (the concept of being true or faithful to a work) became an idea which assumed a dominant role in classical music life.

When we compare early recordings to modern ones, one can observe the extremes to which the notion of accurate notation and compliant performance has been taken. Many people today deem performances on early recordings as more reflective of the individual performer and less of the composer’s intentions, but bear in mind those recordings were made at a time when the shift in terms of viewing music as “works” was well underway. Earlier performances might have been even more surprising to our sensibilities; they may have been what most of the composers we perform today would have expected.

Many commentators unfairly malign modern performances for being homogenized without fully addressing the underlying philosophical view responsible for our current performing culture. There are of course many other contributing factors (the disappearance of national schools of playing, the standardization of instruments, and more).

This discussion is fruitful because many musicians (myself until recently included) view perfect compliance with a fully specifying score as an unquestionable universal ideal, rather than just one view of music we have chosen to adopt. It is perhaps the case that the nature and degree of compliance is much more nuanced and varied than the current norms we adhere to, which could in turn lead to performances marked by a greater sense of freedom, variety and creativity. As Goehr eloquently asserts, “...without a doubt, the most important fact is that being true to music or a particular type of music does not necessarily mean being true to a work. This lesson by itself is of substantial philosophical and musical significance.”

Ultimately what early recordings (particularly those made by composers or musicians closely associated with them) can help us understand is that “the music” exists beyond what is suggested in notated scores – a plethora of instances of un-notated expressive devices (as well as notated instructions not observed) – far greater than what current norms allow. This ultimately challenges the notion of “the work” which is held by many today, is adopted by interpreters and producers of music of all sorts, and is dependent upon ideals of compliant performance.