Sir David Willcocks on period instruments: ‘I sit firmly on the fence’

In a wide-ranging interview with Bruce Duffie, the choral conductor (who died last week, aged 95) was at once polite and forthright about historically informed practice.

‘Where composers have specified clearly what they want, one ought not to depart from that.  Most modern composers do specify very clearly, first of all, the tempo.  They give a broad indication, through metronome marks and that sort thing, as to what they want.  Clearly one has to adapt to a certain extent, because if you’re performing in a church with a very reverberant acousticperhaps an echo period of five secondsyou must perform at a more steady pace than you would if you were in a very dry acoustic.  So I always look at what the composer asked for and then think to what extent one should adapt according to the circumstances.  Where composers specify certain instruments, you ought to think twice before changing those instruments.  You certainly oughtn’t to add notes willfully, although some composers of the Baroque and Classical periods did leave a lot for the composer.  They wanted ornamentation.  They wanted a certain degree of improvisation.  So to that extent, I would depart from the printed score.

BD:    But were they not confident that the style would always be the same that had been handed down for at least the last couple of generations?

Sir David:    I think they were, and I think they’d be horrified sometimes to have heard what successive generations have made of it.  But we are making a genuine effort now to understand what musicians of that period probably would have done.  Now to answer your question more fully over the other things, I would hope that with modern composers one does keep as far as possible to the score as they’ve presented it, although music must be recreated and there must be a subjective element in the performance of music.  Nobody wants to exist for all time on a recording made by a particular person, even if it’s the composer himself.  I think music would become sterile if it weren’t constantly being reinterpreted by others.’

Read more wisdom from Sir David here.

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    • Well, it may be helpful to specify. A piece of music does not exist on paper, but in performance. The score is an instruction manual to make performance possible. But not everything that is supposed to happen in performance, can be notated, because too much is dependent upon unpredictable and irrational factors like performance space, type and condition of instruments, skills of players, cultural context, fashions of performance. That is why a performance tradition is important: while not providing any orthodoxy, it gives a context to work with.

      Then there is the matter of taste. In 17 and 18C, the cultural trend setters were nobility and church. The life style and cultural consensus of nobility is reflected in the music they ordered and you have to understand something of the cultural context to be able to render the elegance, clarity and refinement, that was probably expected at the time. 19C performances of Beethoven probably were not very steady in tempo: we know that Wagner conducted Beet symphonies with great tempo variations within movements while we know that this was probably ‘not done’, at least not that much, in B’s time. Music works not so good when performed in a style that is not connected to the music and its author. And so on and so forth…

      So, when we have onkly the score, we have to try to keep as closely as possible to the instructions and have to try to bridge the gap between notation and live performance with our own understanding, knowledge, taste and musical intuition. In fact, good musicians do this all the time, pouring their subjective understanding and intensity into the silent void of the score.

      Only in the last century, composers tried to get full control over performance with absurdist instructions, and then electronic sound art which can do without a performer whatsoever. But for most people and music lovers, the performer is a co-author of the music and cannot be left-out if we want a really good musical experience.

      • Get real…for a change .. the sensibilities of the 17 th 18th ,19th Cs. are not those
        of the 20 & 21 C. Ours is a great pretense when it comes to music and its performance of the music of the past .

        • That is a typical 20C fallacy. There are universals, and certainly so in culture, including music. How could we otherwise appreciate art from former times? Why are the cave paintings from Lascaux so famous and appreciated? Made ca. 40.000 years ago. When we appreciate a painting by Titian we see the same thing as people in the 16th century would see. It is not so hard to pick-up the character of, let’s say, the music of Bach, or Mozart. It is not so difficult to learn to understand it. Our stomachs and brains are built in the same way as our forefathers, as are our minds and hearts. We are not locked-up in our time and place. (If you think so, please do some study…. to feel what it means to be real.)

  • Ha! He had me up to the point where he stated ‘Nobody wants to exist for all time on a recording made by a particular person, even if it’s the composer himself. I think music would become sterile if it weren’t constantly being reinterpreted by others.’
    I’d tell him the same thing I tell anyone who wants to “reinterpret” any music: leave it as it is, and just write your own!

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