The doctrine of performerly abnegation

If you spend much time around classical musicians, you will be very familiar with the idea that those who perform best, interpret least. Stick to the score and change nothing, not so much as an accent mark or slur. Don’t put your own personality into the music — your job is to be a window through which the composition is viewed, a perfectly transparent piece of polished glass. Above all, respect the composer’s intentions. You can always discover what they are if you just look hard enough at the score, and, once divined, they will always prove superior to any intentions of your own. The composer is always right, and to the degree that your own ideas are distinguishable from the composer’s, you are always wrong. The highest attainment of the performing musician is to realize the will of the composer and make it one’s own. The greatest performance is the one in which the performer disappears and the composer stands fully before us. Failing that, we should at least have a performance of the sort the composer would have heard in his own day. Richard Taruskin dismissed the latter notion as “Wellsian time-travel fantasies.” But the stronger version of this ideal, that a composer’s very self is to be invoked in a performance, resembles nothing so much as the invocation of a god.

Let’s call this the doctrine of performerly abnegation. Anyone who has spent five minutes in a music conservatory or has read sputtering one-star Amazon reviews of classical recordings knows what I am talking about. It’s omnipresent in classical music culture (or what I like to call the maestro-industrial complex). I don’t even know why I’m going to waste my time arguing against this point of view. Musicologists have been debunking it for decades, but their scholarly objections have not made the slightest difference to what the great majority of classical performers think and say. The doctrine of performerly abnegation is not a scholarly position, but a religious one, and religious ideas are not susceptible to scholarly disproof. It is hard, maybe impossible, for human beings to live up to the doctrine of performerly abnegation, just as it is for us to live up to religious ideals generally. The doctrine’s validity is vouchsafed by the strenuousness of the aspirant’s attempts to live in accordance with it. Belief, as I’ve said elsewhere, is a practice, not a one-time buy-in. To practice a belief is to sustain it against resistance; the resistance is provided by the cost the belief imposes. If you object that the doctrine of performerly abnegation puts the performer in an abject role, you miss the point: that is exactly why the doctrine is so compelling.

If the guiding ideal of classical music performance is a fundamentally religious one, then it follows that composers are its gods. This is a familiar idea, but there is one aspect of it that interests me. Gods are imagined in very different ways by different religious traditions, but it seems safe to say that gods, however much we may imagine them in our image, always occupy a different category of being from ourselves. Just how and in what respect they might be different seems infinitely variable, but we can get a sense of the difference by thinking of what kinds of interactions we can imagine between ourselves and a god, be it the God of Abraham or a minor deity from some archaic pantheon. We can worship a god, plead with a god, invoke, praise, bargain with, rage at, and even curse a god. But there seems something a bit odd about the idea of collaborating with a god. Whatever the mode of our interaction with a god, it always presumes that the god possesses some quality that exempts it from the even-playing-field assumptions that underlie all true collaborations.

A collaborator can say “I dunno, I don’t think that’s working. What if we try it like this?” A collaborator not only can challenge your idea but suggest an alternative, and if you are truly collaborating back, you are bound to give such suggestions a hearing. And you do so not out of mere politeness: if attending to a collaborator’s idea is only done for show, it’s not a real collaboration. Each party in a collaboration must be persuadable by the other, which in turn means that each must be able to change his or her mind. Which in turn suggests that each party in a collaboration must be able to entertain the possibility that the other possesses some valuable and missing insight.

This is exactly what we can’t imagine gods doing. I once heard Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht give a talk in which he argued that the qualities we imagine of gods are always the qualities we miss in ourselves. Individual human beings are limited by space and time, so we imagine the Abrahamic God as omnipresent and eternal. Human beings do not control the weather and fear its capricious violence, so Northern European pagans imagined Thor (Doner, Thunar) as the master of storms. And so on.* Which means that a god is precisely the one entity that can never collaborate with humans. By definition, their powers begin where ours leave off. In the god’s domain, you cannot know something the god doesn’t. Why on earth would a god listen to your suggestions?

Here is my main problem with the theology of classical music performance: we assume a kind of creative relationship between performers and composers that bears no resemblance to how human beings (not gods) actually go about their business. Think about it. If you’re a performer, have you ever, in your life, created an interpretation entirely out of your own head? With no reference whatsoever to anything anyone ever told you? Obviously not. Even if you haven’t taken a lesson in 20 years, your playing still bears the marks of every teacher you ever had, to say nothing of all the musicians you ever played with, all the music you ever played, etc. Your creative work is massively, unavoidably collaborative.

The same goes for writers. At the very beginning of my book Dig, in the Acknowledgments section, I wrote this:

There is an esoteric book somewhere that lists the author as “The Interdependent Universe,” and this seems pretty apt to me. The interdependent universe is the real author of every book: no book was ever written without the support of a thousand and one connections, large and small, between its author and everyone he or she encounters in the process of writing.

If you have ever gotten anything into print, you know this is true. Nothing gets published without editor suggestions, reader reports, colleague comments on early drafts, spousal encouragement of your half-formed new idea one morning over coffee, etc. Even writing on a blog, like this one, where I don’t have an editor and can write anything I please, is conditioned by my relationship with a readership. And unless you are a deranged egomaniac, you have to admit that at least sometimes people will point out something in your writing that never occurred to you. It could be small, like the fact that you used the word “delineate” 23 times in a single chapter.


Or it could be something larger, like an unsavory implication in a certain line of argument or the possible application of your idea to a problem you’ve never even heard about.

I’m not a composer, but I have to imagine that composers learn a great deal from the performers of their music. The composers I’ve known certainly have. But classical music culture remains enthralled by the story of Beethoven scorning Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s “wretched fiddle” and heeding only his muse. This story bears out one of the great formative myths of the maestro-industrial complex — the myth of the composer-god, perched atop a holy mountain in lonely contemplation, his mind fully sufficient to itself and fully knowable only to itself.

klinger beethoven

Max Klinger’s Beethoven Monument, 1902

So classical music culture takes the composer to be something other than a human being. You and I might collaborate in our creative work as a matter of course, but the composer does not. You and I cannot know our own minds perfectly: however carefully I plan and execute a piece of writing, there will always be meanings latent in what I write that I will never notice unless someone else points them out to me. The meanings I intend will always be exceeded by the sum total of meanings available in anything I create. I call some of the shots, but I don’t call all the shots.

But the doctrine of performerly abnegation insists, against all reason and experience, that a composer’s intention perfectly matches the total of available meanings in a piece of music. That any meaning the composer did not consciously intend is necessarily an illegitimate meaning. That the composer is self-consciously aware — in the sense that I am aware that I am writing this parenthetical clause — of every meaning in every piece of music he composes.

If composers are actual, according-to-Hoyle gods, then sure, this makes sense. But if we agree that the great composers were, in the end, human beings (granted, very unusual human beings), then this picture of the composer’s mind cannot possibly be true.

The performer is the collaborator of the composer. It doesn’t make any difference if the composer has been dead for centuries. As David Byrne points out,

interpreting a written score, reading music notation, is itself a form of collaboration. The performer is remaking and in some ways rewriting the piece every time he plays it. The vagueness and ambiguities of notation allow for this, and it’s not entirely a bad thing. A lot of music stays relevant thanks to the opportunities for liberal interpretation by new artists. [David Byrne, How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), 187-88.]

“Liberal interpretation,” though, is exactly what is missing from the maestro-industrial complex — is in fact systematically excluded and repressed by the doctrine of performerly abnegation.

*Please don’t take me to be dismissing these gods, or any gods, as merely the fictional creations of human beings. For one thing, there’s no “merely” about the creation of stories. Story-telling is powerful magic. And for another thing, how do you know you aren’t a figure in a story being told by some god? Perhaps a god you yourself have created through your own storytelling? I rather like the idea that the world forms as we tell stories about the gods just as they in turn tell stories about us, each act of storytelling generating the other — a paradoxical mutual co-creation something like the famous M. C. Escher “Drawing Hands” lithograph:

DrawingHandsThough please don’t think that this metaphysics is “what I really think” about the nature of the universe. I try to “really think” as few things as possible. Metaphysical speculations presented herein are for amusement only. No warranty expressed or implied. Blog may contain nuts.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to The doctrine of performerly abnegation

  1. dellantonio says:

    If I didn’t know that this kind of abnegation wasn’t in any way the common practice before the 19c (since creative collaboration between performers and composers was the way music was done at least through Mozart’s timeframe, and most likely for a good part of the 19c as well) I might speculate there was some odd long-standing resonance between this awe and the nominal awe of Abrahamic-Godly-authority behind Gregorian canons of plainchant (the dove and all that). I wonder. Fabulous as always; I’ll assign this as reading for my majors survey and see what kind of havoc I can wreak in the poor unfortunate sophomores’ self-identities.

  2. philphord says:

    Thanks, Andrew! I’m curious to know what your music majors might think.

  3. Robin Wallace says:

    Interesting piece, Phil; thanks for writing it. I do want to make a terminological suggestion that I think is important. In the kind of musico-religious culture you’re talking about, it’s not so much the composer who is being worshiped as a god as it is the piece of music that’s being worshiped as an idol. The composer’s intentions are also an idol. These are things, not people, and as such they cannot, by definition, lead to a deeper understanding of human nature. On the other hand, the God acknowledged by many prominent theological traditions can only be understood as a subject that one comes to understand through human interaction. The kind of sophisticated hermeneutics of engagement that many religions have developed for deepening their understanding of God have, in the same breath, allowed them to expand their understanding of what it means to be human. Such understanding is also what musical interpretation – *liberal* interpretation – aspires to at its best.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that we should ever mistake Beethoven, or any composer, for God. But it does mean to me that the act of musical interpretation can be understood as an assertion of religious faith without falling into the trap you describe.

  4. Superb. Will get back on the horse and contribute, I think.

  5. Throwcase says:

    “But classical music culture remains enthralled by the story of Beethoven scorning Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s “wretched fiddle” and heeding only his muse”
    The irony about this quote is that Beethoven spent years playing in trios and quartets, and even more years workshopping his quartets with performers. The only way he was able to “scorn” the instrument was because he had spent a lifetime working within the idiom and pushing it to its limits. His muse was trained by performers.

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