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Saturday morning quotes 5.31: Authority and Autonomy

December 19, 2015

The question of autonomy versus authority has different connotations and sometimes very specific meanings in philosophy, law, the political realm, medicine, and religion.  Broadly speaking, authority is defined as the power to enforce laws and/or to determine a baseline of information or standards.  In a musicological context as relates to the sources of historical music, authoritative status is given to early printed sources of music, or given to very specific literal descriptions of a particular aspect of performance practice.  Autonomy is defined as the ability of an individual to make personal (and hopefully informed) choices.  To be autonomous, one chooses according to considerations, conditions and characteristics that are not imposed by external forces.  In the realm of historical music, autonomy can lead the informed musician toward potentially brilliant and stylish performances or, alternatively, can result in tasteless indulgences with no historical precedent.

Victor Coelho applied the concepts of authority and autonomy to sources and interpretive choices in a very stimulating article, “Authority, Autonomy, and Interpretation in Seventeenth-Century Italian Lute Music,” in Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela: Historical Practice and Modern Interpretation, ed. Victor Coelho, Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997: 108-41.  We urge you to find and read the entire collection of essays but this particular article is available as a PDF on the author’s website.

“A more promising approach to understanding the diversity of lute performance during the seicento is through consideration of the concepts of authority and autonomy, which, in my opinion, define the fundamental parameters of historical practice and modern interpretation within which all performance is created.”

“Authority refers primarily to the performer’s use of an established text—an Urtext as far as is possible—and secondarily to the choice of an appropriate instrument (as revealed by the music or by contemporary visual sources), and deference to an established tradition in matters regarding style.  The printed source, particularly if published during the composer’s lifetime, is the usual index of authority in performance, and we have generally accepted its role in revealing whether the composer ostensibly intended us to see (though it is not clear whether the composer performed it that way).  Not surprisingly, the Italian repertory played by modern lutenists on recordings and in concert has come from prints and, with few exceptions, their performances have digressed little from these scores; by and large, they have approached printed sources as if they were prescriptive and authoritative.”

“Autonomy, on the other hand, deals with the options that are (and were) available in varying the authoritative score.  It is what the player can do with the music within acceptable stylistic and historical boundaries. Autonomy is the province of manuscript sources, which, when they contain concordances to prints, show how different players imposed their personality, interpretive preferences, and technical abilities upon the music.  They display the artistic license of a performer, his autonomy in modifying and personalizing the authority of the text.”

– p. 110

Coelho’s article offers a great deal of insightful contextual discussion on 17th-century Italian lute music that touches on the different categories of performance choices as applied to repertory that was the domain of the professional virtuosi, for courtly entertainments, and domestic music played by and for amateurs.  At risk of trivializing the depth and breadth of this very useful article, we cut to the chase and highlight what we see as important conclusions.

“The performance practices of seventeenth-century Italian lutenists are founded not on a common aesthetic goal, but on highly individual traditions that reveal the subjective, autonomous, and interpretive abilities of players.  The elements and foundations of these practices are commensurate with the diversity of source-types, which are divided between pedagogical lute books for the student, lute and archlute anthologies containing a ‘classical’ repertory for the amateur, and professional books, usually for theorbo, that transmit the most progressive genres and styles of the early seventeenth century.”

“In all of these books, the invention and autonomy of the player takes precedence over the musical text: performance practice is inextricably linked to interpretation and the choices made by the performer.”

– p. 139


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