Thursday, August 4, 2011

Music in Translation

There are some issues that I simply wish would just go away.  One of these seems to have been a topic of discussion in my world for far too long:  playing music composed for the harpsichord on modern instruments.  While I respect the importance of historical performance, I feel that this is too limiting in the musical development of our students.  Where do we draw the line?  Works composed for harpsichord are off limits, but those for forte-piano are okay?  Or is it a matter of the age of the performers:  you can play all works on a modern instrument until you complete high school and then the rules change?  Who gets to decide what is appropriate?  Why does it really matter?

The topic came up again in a conversation with a friend who teaches English literature.  She made a very powerful observation that essentially settled the issue in my mind.  In other disciplines, it is admitted that the ideal situation is to read literature in the language that it was written;  however, because the texts are so important to a thorough understanding of the discipline, they are often read, evaluated, and cited in translation.  She went further to explain that sometimes works are "translated" when there are significant developments in a language.  Works such as Canterbury Tales and Beowolf have been translated from Old English into modern English so we can read, comprehend, and experience the majesty of the texts.  Thus, it follows that musicians may find themselves in situations where they need to "translate" the performance of some compositions to modern instruments in order to experience them firsthand.

As musicians, most of us will agree that it is ideal to perform Bach and Scarlatti on the harpsichord.  When that option is not feasible for whatever reason, we study the literature on a modern instrument.  Not only do we study it, but we also perform it.  After all, the art of performance is not just about the musician's interest and pleasure; it is also a means of educating our audience and exposing them to music from all eras and of all styles.