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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford



The composer is the oracle; the missionary is the performer. Sadly, the composer can only ever give us a clumsy approximation of what is intended, and the listeners must rely on whatever the performer might understand of these ambiguities. The composer's dream is therefore recounted by one who may have read inaccurate details in a mirror and jumped to distorted conclusions. These interpretations of the text may well be adapted to the performer's own stylistic quirks or the fulfilment of a personal interest or the pursuit of material which enhances a specific image.

For whatever reasons, the performer who is less interested in a research of the music's sources, or is content to be out of touch with a composer's personality or tradition becomes an independent musical law, reading things as they wish rather than as they are. No evangelist can convey more than he or she is willing and able to understand. A performer can therefore be like one speaking an alien language phonetically, assuming the sounds to be correct but unable to appreciate the amusement of those who understand far more than the speaker. This process of translation usually gives the composer the worst of the deal, because it is very easy for the performer, in wilful or accidental ignorance, to make nonsense of what the composer has written.

The sovereign among performers is the conductor, the commander of a large disciplined battalion, admired by the public as much for a dominant authority as for the music. Using the music as a vehicle for their own preferences, flattering their technique or image, performers can control and greatly limit the repertoire, create inappropriate interpretations and even, by neglect, scorn or deliberate rejection, consign composers to oblivion. They frequently give quite unworthy music a significance out of proportion with its value, or select for performance a notably inferior work by a master. In both ways does a performer betray poor taste and a lack of discernment. The celebrity conductor or soloist, with influence over large armies of performers, managements and audiences, but not necessarily a very astute musical perception, is able to create our opinions for us.

The missionary can wield huge, if not always healthy, power. We must judge performers by how carefully they select from the past, and how enthusiastic they are to explore the new.


Copyright © 30 October 2001 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK



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