The Performer’s Role in Creation

Is the function of the performer to be the humble servant of the composer, or is the performer a collaborator with the composer? Collaborations are not usually made between masters and their humble servants, so perhaps we might agree that the performer’s role is one of continued creation with the composer.

This week someone came for their lesson and part of our work was to play a programme through in its entirety in preparation for an upcoming performance. My student got as far as her second piece and decided to restart it because she had begun it too fast. Afterwards I explained that because this sort of thing is not possible in a performance (and this particular lesson was a performance) she should not have allowed herself the interruption and the restart. So what if it felt too fast? We just have to go with this, and see it through. We adapt to the different tempo as the performance unfolds, as though it were exactly what we intended. Performance is mercurial and it is neither desirable nor actually possible to be absolutely prescriptive about how it comes out on the day in every single detail.

In a recent post I suggested a very simple mapping tool for performance, the paradox being that the more planned and organised your interpretation the freer and more spontaneous you can be during the performance itself. Some of the most exciting, fascinating and electric piano playing I have ever heard was from Shura Cherkassky, who never played the same work twice. If he played a repeat in a work, even that was different from the first time!

I object to the notion of rigid adherence to any metronome mark, even if it is from the composer. No music can be imprisoned in such a cage, there is always room for flexibility in the choice of tempo. Those composers who do leave metronome marks may even do so reluctantly, because their publisher nags them. Even if a metronome mark comes with the blessing of the composer, it can still only be a guide.

Bartok left very explicit metronome markings, and based precise durations at the end of his music on these (impossible to achieve markings like 1′ 16″, etc.). We know from György Sándor that Bartok’s metronome was actually broken!

He had a little pocket metronome. Not the one that you use or I use, but one with a little string and a weight hanging on it. It wasn’t accurate at all! So his metronome markings should be considered as relative markings. When 64 is followed by 80, then you know that this section is faster. But certainly do not take the absolute measurements with the markings.

Sándor explains further:

Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently. A very good example is the First Piano Concerto. I happened to study with him the First and Second Concerto. The metronome markings in the third movement of the First Concerto are excessively fast, but all our colleagues — the honest, good musicians — all read the markings and say, “That’s what Bartók meant; let’s play that way.” I heard Bartók play it very differently. If you follow exactly the metronome marks in that particular one and in some of the other pieces, too, the character totally changes! In the last movement of the Opus 14, which is a slow movement, the metronome marking is incredibly fast! (from an interview with Bruce Duffie)


In my youth, I was fortunate enough to hear Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 with George Malcolm at the harpsichord. Mention that name to purists today and they will likely scoff. But Malcolm was a terrific musician, an amazing keyboard player and an exciting performer and if he did naughty things with the pedals on his hybrid harpsichord, perhaps it was because he wanted more out of the instrument he was saddled with. I came across an interview where he talks about the performer’s role in creation, which I think is most interesting. If you want to hear Malcolm talk, listen from 2:59 – I offer my transcript of a section of it below.

“I sometimes wonder whether music as written by a composer on paper is capable of being finally classified into good or bad, so much does the performer have to do with it… I think that periodically a performer can take what appears on paper to be a third rate work of art and quite literally transform it into a great work of art. I am not even sure that I always think the composer has seen through his own work. I am willing to admit the possibility of there being aspects of a composer’s work which he hasn’t even seen through himself and which can be brought out and enhanced by the performer. I rather tend to oppose the idea of composers who think that they’ve done the whole job when they’ve got it down on paper and have put in expression marks and signs in every bar, and that that’s how it goes. I expect there is music which is complete in that form, but an immense amount of music isn’t. I would like it generally understood that a composer may be wrong… I was giving a recital…in which I played the C minor fugue from [Book 1 of] the ’48’. On that particular evening I was feeling in a very legato cantabile mood, and it seemed to work beautifully. After the recital a young Polish lady student came up to me and said she had been extremely interested in my performance of this fugue – in fact she liked it very much – but she had always been taught that it should be played staccato or at any rate detached. Had I got any sort of historical justification for playing it the other way? So I said “Well, naturally there are no indications in the notes that Bach left for doing it either way”. She said she quite understood that. In fact, until this evening I have always done it detached but this evening I was feeling like doing it the other way and I did it the other way, and it seemed to me that it came off. And I have never seen anybody look quite so shocked as that girl. She said: “But this is Bach!”. Now, she would have been prepared to accept the word of one professor that it should be staccato or she would have been prepared to respect the word of another professor, perhaps myself, who could have argued on musical grounds that it ought to be legato. She could even have accepted the situation of one authority arguing with another on principle about it. But the fact that a performer could just use the mood of the moment struck her as the most shocking thing she had ever known.”

Hearing this interview reminded me of another interview, this time with celebrated pianist Jorge Bolet whom I heard in recital back in the 1980s. He has some extremely interesting and provocative things to say that take the composer from his pedestal just a little and elevate the role of the performer in the creative process. Listen from 2:09 unless you want to hear some playing first (again, a transcript of the pertinent section follows).

“The composer writes a piece of music and naturally it’s a moment of creation, the greatness and the mystery of which we can never even start to comprehend. Fine. How long is a composer involved in the creation of work? Some composers write very fast, other composers write very slowly. Let’s say that a composer writes… a piano sonata, and in the process of creation he is very definitely, very closely involved in that work for a month, two months, a year. Fine. He finishes the work and then he goes on to other creations. Now comes the performer and we take that piece of music and we study it and we learn it, and we learn all the notes and we practise it so that we can play everything. And we perform it, and then we let it rest a while and then we perform it again, and we take out the music and we relearn it and rework it and restudy, and so on. Now how long are we involved with that particular work of art? A lifetime! I’m playing things today that I learned when I was 13, 14 years old. Now, if after a lifetime of study and performance, which after all is the bottom line of the creation of the composer, am I being too presumptuous to think that perhaps I know that particular creation of that composer even better than he did? After a lifetime of involvement with the work, making it into an absolutely personal part of your whole musical being and your whole musical thinking.”

I will leave you with a rare clip of George Malcolm from 1985, where he appears in a TV interview about the life and music of Domenico Scarlatti. You will hear him talk and play, and you get to witness at close quarters the sort of harpsichord he played. Indeed, my own harpsichord lessons with Ruth Dyson at the RCM back in the 70s were on such an instrument.

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