The ‘Authentic’ experience
What is the ‘authentic’ experience or ‘authentic’ interpretation? In the early music world this is something people sometimes reference or discuss and can be a loaded word to use. To clarify, in the ‘early music’ or ‘period performance’ world we play on the instruments as they were in the era the music was composed; so for example, Beethoven had access to new instruments like the contra bassoon and clarinet that Purcell and Bach didn’t know existed. All of the instruments you see in the modern orchestra have changed and developed over the years in an effort to make the musician’s life easier and also to get a wider pitch range.
So, back to my original point of ‘authenticity’: it’s hard to know exactly what it was like 100, 200 or 300 years ago but there are a lot of sources that give us an idea. This is what we try to do in the ‘early music world’: we want to explore the roots of the compositions not just in an historical or political context but also the way in which people would have played. Just like clothing, styles come in and out of fashion; this is also true of musical styles and the way in which people play and the sounds they are experimenting with. Each generation is commenting on or pulling away from the generation before. This is one aspect of human nature that never seems to change!
The reason I began thinking about the idea of ‘authenticity’ is because I’ve been working with an amazing group of musicians in Boxwood and Brass. As the name suggests they are a group of wind and brass players that perform music from the era and do what we in The Australian Haydn Ensemble do but in the wind/brass version. This is to say, they do a lot of arrangements of symphonies written in the classical period. This was a common practice in the classical era and for many people they would have only known or at least definitely been better acquainted with the arrangement versions of Beethoven and Mozart Symphonies.
Whilst performing with Boxwood and Brass we decided to read through a few sketches of an arrangement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The epic 9th for 9-10 musicians! Yes, it might sound impossible or ambitious but it was amazing how well it worked. During this reading it was like discovering the piece for the first time; every musician has a lot additions in their parts and in some cases have things missing from their orchestral part. When you know a piece so well (Beethoven 9 has to be one of my all time favourites and I know it extremely well), it’s amazing how difficult it can be to read when you are not hearing what you expect. The arrangements turn everything on its head and you suddenly hear the bare bones of the piece and colours and textures that are just not possible to achieve in an orchestra, not to mention the virtuosity required from the musicians. The result of this read through made me realize just how crazy Beethoven 9 is. We had a number of hilarious moments, not knowing what was going on or how to make our part fit with the others.
Today we have the advantage of recordings and 200 odd years since Beethoven was composing; we can see what he was pushing towards. Now, when you get back to the bare bones as we do in these arrangements, you suddenly realize just how innovative some of this music is and we get a glimpse into what the musicians reading Beethoven 9 for the premiere might have felt or thought – it was chaos! This I suppose is one way we can get the ‘authentic’ experience for both audiences and musicians alike.