Nicholas D. Lewis
I am not one to cast aspersions, but we should be honest with ourselves: today’s performance culture has been sterilized. Seventy or eighty years ago, the performance culture was defined by liberal interpretations and individualism. Now, the creativity involved in the music process has largely been stifled; what appears on the page has a higher value than the ideas of the performer. As a result, it is difficult to tell performers apart as they often strive to sound the same. Somebody or something must be the catalyst for this decline, and the arguments I’ve heard are large-scale conflations and wholly conjecture. I am therefore writing a set of five short and blunt articles that offer a candid look at the cause of this sepulchral situation.
The first person to be held culpable is Igor Stravinsky. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy’s compositions. In fact, I spent a whole summer
compiling a catalog of his works. But his skill as a composer does not negate his blameworthiness as a musician. It is not a dubious exaggeration to claim that Stravinsky may be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century in terms of both composition and musicality. In the late 1930s, Stravinsky was a frequent lecturer at Harvard University, and he was also publishing a fair number of essays on music in various magazines and journals. A significant portion of these essays and lectures dealt with the relationship between the composer and the performer, and the position that Stravinsky held was that it was a ‘crime against the composer’ for performers to take the interpretation of a piece of music into their own hands. In other words, every instrumentalist must obey exactly what is on the printed page; anything else represents an impurification of the composer’s intentions. Stravinsky drove this dogma home so potently and forcefully that many academics were won to his side. Since those same academics were the ones who would most directly influence student musicians through teaching, this mindset over time became institutionalized.