Freedom to add, change and take away

30th December 2014 | Concerts, Musings | 5 comments

I’ve been listening to recordings of pieces I’m currently working on. One is a Moment Musical by Schubert, represented by many different performances, including a YouTube clip of Horowitz playing it in front of a rapt audience in, I think, Carnegie Hall.

Horowitz’s touch is wonderful, and he clearly had the audience in the palm of his hand, but I can’t help feeling puzzled by how free he felt to add and change things for greater effect. He plays staccato where Schubert marks legato, and more loudly where Schubert marks ‘quieter’. He adds tiny ornaments to the melodic line, introduces new notes into the middle of certain chords for a more ‘sentimental’ harmony, holds certain bass notes for longer than prescribed, and plays a few ‘passing note’ harmonies on the beat rather than off the beat, to make them more noticeable. All tiny changes, beautifully played, but not what Schubert wrote.

Does it matter? From the roar of approval which greets the final chord, I can only conclude that most people in the audience were thrilled. Yes, there were probably half a dozen pianists who frowned pedantically at Horowitz’s twinkly amendments, but their disapproval would easily have been drowned out by the shouts and cheers.

Times have changed, though, and partly because of the influence of the period instrument movement we have become more attentive to exactly what the composer asked – and a good thing too, in my view. For if we assume the freedom to add or take away whatever we like, how do we know where to stop? In we find that adding a little trill to a well-known melody makes people smile, why not try a schmaltzy little harmony? Might it not be more effective to change the printed dynamics? Why not slow down, if that would seem more touching?

One might argue that such interaction between composer and pianist is a good thing, expressive of relaxation and spontaneity. It might be described as the currently fashionable ‘ownership of the material’, or as updating old music for a modern audience. But I feel uncomfortable if I sense it’s done to draw attention to the performer, rather than to illuminate the music. Is an original text just to be treated as source material, to be varied as the mood takes us? Some might say yes: after all, music is a practical art. But the danger is that by making innovations, we may actually be obscuring the beauty of the music rather than enhancing it. We’re saying we know better than the composer did, and that seems to me a cheap kind of victory.


  1. Fran Wilson

    I think it’s something to do with the way I have been taught, but I have always craved fidelity to the score and generally take the view that composers know what they are doing and that we should follow their directions, not blindly of course, but with thought and consideration and knowledge based on study and listening around the work to arrive at our own interpretation.

    It always irritates me when I come across a performer who messes around with the score simply for effect or as you say to draw attention to themselves and their ego.

  2. Mary

    Can’t speak for Schubert but here’s a composer’s thoughts: I’m just spending a few days making absolutely sure that every single detail of a complex score is easy to read by young players, and will contain exactly the right information to ensure the images evoked by the sounds are the intended ones. Jokingly I say, “I stop writing a piece when you can’t add a single note or direction or take a note or direction away.” But it’s quite a serious issue for me. I often write completely unaccompanied music. This is written with care to contain as much implied harmony as necessarily for musical sense. There is a regular flow of requests for, or suggestions for, accompaniments. Unaccompanied music is a precious art form I’ve worked at very hard! When I explain this and get people to understand how the harmony is woven into the melodic lines, there is usually a group “Ahh” in the room, and people go away with a different attitude. So personally, unless there is a real issue about unclear, badly written original manuscripts, I’m on the side of going with what the composer says.

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Mary – this is a tremendously valuable insight from a composer. Let’s hope lots of people read it.

  3. peter

    I think the issues here are not as clear cut as many people imagine. Most chords in romantic piano music were played as arpeggios, for instance, although they were written with the notes vertically aligned, ie as if to be played simultaneously. Composers such as Liszt and Mendelssohn did not write what they played. What then is a modern pianist to do? Follow what the composer wrote, or follow what the composer him or herself actually played?

    • Susan Tomes

      Quite right – it is a complicated issue. You’re absolutely right that what composers write and what they play when they perform their own music can be quite different. If only we had recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc playing their own music. How fascinating that would be!


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