How music speaks to us changes and evolves with each generation


Classical music is way more about the here-and-now than we give it credit for.

Each generation interprets, listens and relates to music a little bit differently, which means that what we worry about today may very well be irrelevant to our great-grandchildren.

Harvard University music professor Thomas Forest Kelly touches on the interpreter’s side of this dynamic in the summer issue of Early Music America.

He writes about how historically informed performance often runs up against the problem of an opera or piece of music having been altered numerous times by composers, performers, conductors and directors to suit the circumstances of the day.

Felix Mendelssohn brought the St Matthew Passion back into circulation, but not in the form we currently hear it in. Which of the five versions of Francesco Cavalli’s opera Giasone is the right one?

Writes Kelly: “The text is not the music — it’s the cookbook; and good cooks know how to use the cookbook to create something new.”

I think we can safely extend this attitude to include the audience, as well. I had a call yesterday from a Huffington Post reporter in New York City wanting to stir up a little bit of chatter over the issue of applause in the middle of a piece of music.

An early 19th century seat in a public concert hall was a noisy place to be, with audiences clamouring for repeats of movements they liked, and booing compositions they hated. People came and went, and chatted amongst themselves.

Today’s serious classical listeners would be outraged, But there’s a young generation of potential listeners who are probably more open to a more immediate expression of their emotional reactions to art music — much of it via instant messaging in its various forms.

Concert programmes of a century ago were frequently long, cut-and-paste affairs that have much more in common with an iTunes playlist than an Andras Schiff all-Beethoven recital.

What we love today may be laughed at tomorrow. By extension, the concert venue of 2050 could very well be a completely different sort of place in sound and feel.

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Getting back to Kelly’s cookbook, I want to show a few comparisons of interpretation, showing that even subtle differences in preparation make for a significant change in what we metaphorically taste.

Let’s start with the keyboard, using the Prelude to George Frideric Handel’s D minor Keyboard Suite (HWV 428) in four recordings — by Edwin Fischer, Paul Wolfe and Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter:

Better yet, how about two excerpts from Handel’s Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) starting with Sir Thomas Beecham’s take on the opening of Part II from 1934, followed by Matthias Beckert leading the Würzburg Monteverdi Choir in a current, historically informed performance:

Here’s another interesting comparison, using the solo-keyboard and voice versions of Enrique Granados’ La Maja y el ruiseñor (The Lady and the Nightingale):

1. Montserrat Caballé sings it in Paris:

2. Myra Hess plays it in London:

3. Lucia Cesaroni sings it in Toronto with pianist Boris Zarankin at a recent Off Centre Music Salon:

4. Alicia de Larrocha plays it in Madrid:

Which brings us to another matter altogether: There’s a different recipe for every taste.

John Terauds

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