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Saturday morning quotes 7.49: Conception

July 25, 2020

escher-artWhat we perceive through the senses affects how our mind conceives, or forms an understanding of the thing.  Perception involves becoming aware of a thing through the senses, but conception is the ability to organize information in the mind to arrive at a useful understanding.

As performers of early music, we are obliged to seek out, through written example, information that leads us to an understanding of how historical musicians approached their music, what practical purpose it may have served, what resources were available to them in performance.  Otherwise, modern practitioners are not only subject to the influences of the intervening years, but also subject to the sometimes questionable examples of other performers who have adapted and redirected ancient music to serve as nothing more than concert and recording repertory.

The most fundamental way musicians become familiar with early music involves gaining an understanding of ancient notation and learning to draw the music from the score.  But that is only the first step down the path of understanding the meaning of the music, for the score only contains enough information to convert symbols to sounds, and there the interpretive journey begins.

“…One’s perception of the composition is the source of one’s conception of its performance. And while the score remains one authoritative measure of the validity of all such conceptions, it can never have been so completely and perfectly notated as to permit only one re-creation as uniquely correct.”

– Edward T. Cone, “The Authority of Music Criticism” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Spring, 1981, Vol. 34, No. 1, p. 6.

Since so much historical music was functional in nature, we have to accept the premise that the composer lost all control the moment a printed score was available to others.  In essence, the composer sanctioned adaptations and alternatives, and accepted that there was not one true way to perform his or her music. But the further we are in time from the era of the music in question, the more difficult the task for today’s performer to understand the composer’s conception of the piece.

“Today more than ever [musicians] demand “authentic” performances of accurately reconstructed scores on instruments of the period. They pore over contemporaneous theoretical treatises to discover just what certain details of notation meant. They revive obsolete methods of articulation and phrasing. These activities may seem pointless to one who insists that the composer’s perception of his own work is no more valid than any other, that it possesses only historical interest. Pointless, that is, until he realizes that the aim of all this effort lies, or ought to lie, in a different direction: to present the work as nearly as possible, not as the composer perceived it, but as he conceived it. For it is his conception that constitutes his unique knowledge; whatever value his perceptions may have is connected with their usefulness in helping us to define that conception as accurately as possible.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 12.

The training of today’s conservatory musician concentrates on technical brilliance and reliable sight-reading skills.  But skillful interpretations of early music demand so much more familiarity with particular period instruments and musical conventions.  Deep interpretations require still greater understanding of historical context.

“Here the role of the historical scholar is crucial.  Only through his help can critic and performer gain an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the composition of music of an earlier period, of the constraints accepted by its composers, of the range of possibilities open to them.  Without such understanding the interpreter’s knowledge of the composer’s language is bound to be incomplete, and his attempt to establish a standard consequently suspect.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 13.

The extensive research and hard work of arriving at deep interpretations of early music still only takes us a few steps down the path of understanding.  Familiarity through repetition is the next step.

“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 1990.




  1. The further we go back in time, the less detailed the information about the performance practices: in some ways, it is as if the modern performer had to compose a piece again on the basis of the few elements available. To do this, you need to have historical knowledge and a lot of experience, but also imagination and sensitivity. This is the reason why I really appreciate your work and like listening to your impressive performances. Thanks always.

  2. Christopher Barker permalink

    One incident from music history kept entering my mind while reading this post. It is alleged that Handel, like other early composers, did not print out a fully detailed score in re: trills, various embellishments, etc., and that one time he was infuriated by a singer who didn’t sing the trills, mordents, and turns, etc., “his way”… So until she agreed to do it “his way”,George took the woman and hung her upside down out of a window.

    Handel expected his performers to do everything “his way”, and that was that. Even though “his way” was not necessarily written into the score, his performers darned well better know what “his way” was.

    This is an unverified story, but is a good example of the music that is given to us, but not necessarily what we ought to do with it. I believe that many of the composers in the old days assumed that everyone who played their music knew what to do with it even without all of those embellishments written down for them.

    It pleaseth me mightily that scholars such as Duo Mignarda are spending the time and effort to unravel all of this.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Chris. I recall an account of Handel attempting to rehearse a band that included Corelli as concertmaster. To paraphrase the story, Handel wanted Corelli to play in a particular style, and grabbed the violin from his hands to demonstrate. Corelli responded that he could only play in his own style.

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