Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Honesty to the Score

My chamber ensemble rehearsed yesterday for an upcoming patriotic recital. As we worked through the repertoire, I was asked to make some changes to the arrangements. While not an uncommon request, it got me thinking. How free are we to make changes to a composer's work? Just how honest does a musician need to be to the score?

As pianists we run into orchestral reductions on a regular basis. Generally, these scores result in one of two questions. The question we HOPE to ask is this: What voices do I double in order to flesh out the score? The dreaded question (and sadly, the more common one in my experience) is what notes am I leaving out in order to make the piece playable. Both of these modifications to scores are appropriate since the score was not originally conceived for the solo piano. The goal of any good reduction is to make the piano sound orchestral. Often this requires doublings--especially in the left hand. On the flip side, some publishers fail to consider the differences between study scores and performance scores. They simply put every single note onto a single staff; it sometimes feels as though the reduction should come with a note attached that reads "Good Luck!"

For this patriotic concert, we are performing several traditional songs that are set in moderate keys for the average singer. My vocalist is a coloratura soprano! The low settings have been causing lots of difficulty in programming and making sure she sounds her best. The request has been made to transpose the songs a third higher. Fortunately the parts are not difficult, so it's not an outlandish request. Intellectually, I don't have a problem transposing songs to better keys. The songs of many composers - Brahms, Wolf, and Schubert, for instance - have been published in various keys for differing vocal ranges. While the original key of the song may be more comfortable for the pianist, the transposed keys are also valid since the song's structure remains in tact. The principle is the same in my situation.

So far, everything seems to be kosher and unoffensive to my traditionalist mentality. There is one final request that has been made. The art song "Nancy Hanks" by Katherine Davis is clearly set in the key of E minor for the majority of the piece. At the final cadential point, the composer indicates a resolution to the parallel major - E major - followed by a series of melodic fifths in the keyboard. The effect is one of hope and honor. The open fifths provide some ambiguity as to the final tonal area of the piece; without the presence of the third, we cannot state with certainty that the work ends in major or minor. Personally, I think this final cadence serves as the climax of the entire song.

Herein lies the dilemma. I have been instructed to change the major chord to the minor. After reading Geraldine Boyer-Cussak's blog entitled "Who is Your Customer?" I am realizing that at times it becomes necessary to put your musical instincts aside in order to appease the customer. So, this weekend I will play the minor chord. I may be cringing, but I'll play it.

But the question of musical ethics still remains. Once we establish that the published score is reliable, do we have the right to make changes to the harmonic structure of a composer's work in order to suit our personal tastes and preferences? I feel as though it is the responsibility of the artist to perform the selected music as closely as possible to the composer's notated intentions. Once we begin to alter the composition itself, we cross the line from "interpreter" to "composer."

This is not the first time I've encountered this issue (not even in relation to this piece!) and it certainly will not be the last. It's just one of those things that makes you ask "What do I really think about this?" I'd love to hear your opinions about the performer's responsibility to remaining honest to the score.

Time to go back to my transposition work now!