Not too long ago mass audiences and critics alike revered overtly personal performances, yet today superimposing one's personality over that of the composer is regarded as poor musicianship, writes Henry Roth


To what degree should personality play a role in string performance? Personality, in the broad sense, includes the idiosyncrasies or peculiarities of the individual as they pertain to his performance. Some idiosyncrasies may be a natural extension of personality; others, deliberately exaggerated for theatrical impact, à la Paganini. The history of string playing is rife with illustrations of both. But the steady progress towards interpretative propriety and disciplined, authoritative musicianship has involved a long struggle to rid performance of excessive exaggerations which deform basic musical fidelity.

Not too long ago mass audiences and critics alike revered and applauded the overt performance personalisation of Ysaÿe, Casals, Kreisler, Huberman, Elman, Enescu, Thibaud, Heifetz and other stellar artists whose playing could be identified easily in the course of a dozen bars on a recording by knowledgeable observers.

Yet, recently I had occasion to mention this to a leading violinist of impeccable taste and refinement. He felt vehemently that if a current artist's playing could be similarly identified, this meant that the artist was superimposing his own personality over that of the composer, and this constituted impermissible licence and poor musicianship. I realised that his point of view was very widespread among today's string players, pedagogues and critics. Exaggerations, of course, should always be discouraged and rooted out, but I certainly could not agree with any attitude implying (or demanding) that a performing artist be no more than an abstract, impersonalised instrument whose only function is to reproduce the markings and notations printed on a sheet of music and interpret them according to certain immutable rules laid down by various musicologists and critics.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. In most critical observations today, the principal measuring stick by which performances are evaluated is: did or did not the artist fulfill the composer's intentions? Such items as beauty of sound, technical mastery, subtlety of phrasing, commitment or personalised statement are not necessarily discounted, but together they are considered second in importance in fulfilling the composer's intentions. And what, exactly, are these 'intentions'? Who has personally consulted with long-departed composers to verify them?

Before I am chastised for blaspheming the holy of holies, let me hasten to point out that I am as perfectly aware as anyone that intelligent, disciplined performances should convey the ethos, spirit, style and rhythmic pulse of the composer's era. These are really what constitute the composer's intentions, together with what his original score indicates in musical markings and notations.

Naturally, all original markings, dynamics, bowings, tempos, et al should be given serious consideration. Why only 'serious consideration' rather than 'slavish emulations'? Because, for example, modern performances of Baroque and Classical works cannot be authoritative in the sense of direct re-creation unless 'soft' violins with shortened fingerboards, curved-outward mushy bows, clavichords, pianofortes, harpsichords and other yesteryear instruments are utilised, along with scarcely-vibrant sound, lower tuning pitch, figured bass accompaniments and specific ornamental devices of the periods. Thus, a modern violinist may use only the Urtext of the unaccompanied Bach sonatas and partitas, eliminate or almost eliminate his vibrato, disdain any vestige of emotional expressiveness and play as literally, impersonally (and prosaically) as possible. But as long as he is performing with a modern 'souped-up' violin and springy curved-inward bow, he has already seriously violated the composer's intentions.

However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that all of my premises are incorrect, and that every critic, commentator and musician in the world has reached absolute agreement in defining the intentions of every composer who ever lived, an Orwellian supposition. We have now achieved a state of interpretative exactitude and standardisation.

Individuality has been practically obliterated. Artists with the effrontery to juxtapose their own personality (much less, idiosyncrasies) against the established gospel of the composer's intentions are now scarcer than the proverbial 'hen's teeth'. It has now become almost impossible to recognise one player from another. The artist has become an instrument whose only function is to convey the

Where does the element of an artist's personality fit into the picture or indeed should it? One might contend that his personality is vested in the overall quality of his sound: the type and usage of his vibrato; the selection of his fingerings and bowings; the pressures, nuances and friction of his bow strokes; the string contact and clarity of his articulations. But these are only the more superficial manifestations of his musical personality. The significant aspect is the total interpretation, its impact upon his listeners and, above all, whether it does or does not distinguish him from hundreds of other accomplished players.

In past years a memorable interpretation was one in which the artist's personality was insidiously, sometimes magically, fused with the dictates of the printed score, not as a quasi-apologetic interjection subservient to the composer's intentions, but as a fully-fledged partner in the creative process of the performance. True, there were numerous instances in which some of these artists transcended the borderline of our ultra-disciplined modern musicianship, and these aberrations deserve criticisms. But is it not preferable to err occasionally on the side of human frailty while pointing toward the stars than pay chronic obeisance to a fetish that may be considered musically antiseptic, but is essentially academic, levelling aesthetically neutralizing? Is it not vital for young artists to discover who they are, even at the risk of temporary excesses, as well as acquiring intellectual discipline?

Must the composer's intentions always be inviolate? I cite the case of César Franck who, when it was pointed out that Ysaÿe's performance of Franck's sonata did not conform to the composer's directions, replied: 'This may be so, but from now on it will be impossible to play it in any other way. Don't worry, it is Ysaÿe who is right.' And are there not multiple instances on record where a composer commended an interpretation that differed from his own original intentions?

Historically, string artists with strong musical personalities, practically without exception, have been the most successful. It is no different today. Such players as Perlman, Du Pré and Harrell, though reared in the modern atmosphere of more stringent musical discipline, are outstanding examples.

Nevertheless, in closely following the scene as a critic in the post-Stern era, I have noted a widespread reluctance for 'all-out' self-expression among accomplished young string players, particularly violinists, in masterworks of all periods. This is not surprising, considering that so many of them are constantly admonished never to project themselves above the composer's intentions. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to determine which of them possesses a distinctive musical personality in view of this often artificial, enforced reticence.

This article was first published in The Strad's November 1983 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.