Wednesday, August 22, 2012 • 8:25 AM Post a Comment

Whose Music is it Anyway? Reflections on Musical Authenticity

posted by Daniel John Carroll

The concept of authenticity is held with great conviction in certain quarters of musicology, as it fulfills the purportedly necessary condition that performances be done as closely as possible to the way they were done in the time of the composition of a particular work based on documentary evidence that dictates the conventions of performance practice for specific periods. This tendency is due to the perpetual “canonization” of works in the “Classical” genre—a reverence that dictates that such fidelity must be kept.[1] Certainly such an exercise is valuable from the standpoint of historical research. Amassing such information has been indispensable for the creation and publication of scores of antiquated works with the appropriate annotations for historically correct performance. The benefits for musical scholars brought about by the availability of so many more works notwithstanding, is it possible that such an approach has rendered much music, particularly “early music,” too pedantic in nature so as to render its performance and its hearing a purely academic experience more than a contemplatively musical one? Why must the principles of authenticity, which would include, among other considerations, retaining the proper instrumentations, be maintained at all costs?

I contend that music lovers of both the scholarly and “lay” persuasions should view musical works not as static, immutable entities to be revered as such, but rather as malleable crafts that belong to all of us by virtue of our ability, for which no objection need be marshaled, to shape it to our own whims. The King’s Singers is a perfect example of this, arranging orchestral masterpieces for a set of male voices and performing them with their own inimitable humor and style. Their performance of the Overture to The Barber of Seville is perhaps the best example. The collaboration of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is an example perhaps more provocative, as it entails the reverse of what is generally undertaken: the “non-classical” compositions were arranged for a classical ensemble. In my younger and (hopefully) more naïve years, I viewed this combination as having no potential for a hospitable co-existence; that the heavy metal standard was intruding into the hallowed orchestral cosmos and thereby tainting it. The canon was being befouled. However, in this case, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra issued a clarion call for inclusivity that the general public does not expect. Perhaps to some it seemed surprising. But to the orchestra, it was a manifestation of their belief in the potential for musical works to be universally cherished, and even “owned.” As Morris Eaves wrote, “the more extensive…the collaboration becomes, and the more authority the collaborators have to add or subtract, the blurrier the line of possession becomes.”[2]

One of the main objectives of musical scholar-practitioners is to spread the wonder of music and thereby facilitate its enjoyment by all. To many among them, that can be best achieved by an exposition of the music in its unadulterated form. However, “The King’s Singers” and “Metallica” have the same goals in mind. And yet, the former arranges canonical works of a supposedly unchangeable instrumentation for its own unique vocal palette. The latter brings in the very arbiter of these sanctified relics into its own realm and uses it to give forth its own unique song. These examples should demonstrate sufficiently that rather than being perceived as an affront on the timeless quality of these works, that allowing their reformulation should be seen as a successful method of accomplishing what they most strongly desire: to attract interest in such music in those who may not yet admire them.


[1] Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5-6.

[2] Morris Eaves, “Why Don’t They Leave It Alone? Speculations on the Authority of the Audience in Editorial Theory,” in Cultural Artifacts and the Production of Meaning: The Page, the Image, and the Body, edited by Margaret J. M. Ezell and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 88.

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