[Not sure which forum this belongs in; please move if appropriate.]

I thought I would submit for discussion a question I've been wondering about, which is how strictly do composers (I mean of course those who write for actual performers rather than for computers) expect performers  to follow the score as written?

I suspect the answer is that different composers have different expectations about this.  I myself am pretty flexible about it.  I consider the performance of any composition of mine to be a collaboration between myself, the performer and the audience, so I welcome the performer's contribution to the work.  The only thing I'd firmly expect is that the basics -- the actual melodic line of notes and the chords -- remain the same.  I consider my notation of dynamics, expressive marks, tempo and tempo variations as suggestions rather than strict requirements.  In vocal works, I wouldn't even mind if the performers transposed the key to one more suitable for the singer.

I think at least some people in this forum would be interested in a discussion of this issue, by both composers and performers.

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  • I am strict on the notes, flexible on the dynamics.

  • A fairly broad discussion, John. As you say, expectations differ. So do demands made of conductors and leaders where applicable. Each conductor knows they’re right. 

    I too am fairly flexible, though as I usually write for ensemble combinations balance is important but it’s down the composer to build that as best he/she can into the part-writing. If some piece of mine is being played I’m likely to be playing so I can talk to the other players and it’s always worth hearing what they have to say.

     As for my orchestral things performance is less likely but should it be in the offing – like I’m submitting a score somewhere - I’m usually fairly detailed in my instructions so I’d hope players would be within reach of playing what I’ve written. My scores are modern and arhythmical so it would be too easy to let mistakes by so it’s important to know ones score like the back of ones hand. Players will know if mistakes are made which can lead to slapdash performance. It’s one of the lessons I learned at college – KNOW what you’ve written. Several students didn’t which led to a few blushes, I can tell you.

     I look on an orchestra as a machine and as long as the basic instrumental requirements can be met, it’s down to the composer to get the balance right by way of instrumentation and dynamics. And to keep the score as simple as possible.

     An ensemble tends to be more a group of individuals who’ll lend self-expression, musically and gesturally to a performance. But it’s still largely up to the composer to get the balance right through the scoring and other performance instructions.

     I’m no great performer but have had cause to question composer/arrangers. A good example was for our local orchestra  where, for a filler, a member arranged Debussy’s Clair de Lune (how DARE he!) directly in D-flat, awful for some of the amateur string players when he could have done the arrangement in D major. The performance probably turned Debussy in his grave many times over! 

    So yes, some flexibility but there’s no point in expressing the contents of ones mind in some detail only to have it too widely interpreted…although mistakes might turn out to be a source of revision!



    • although mistakes might turn out to be a source of revision!

      Yes, I've experienced this.  In one of few of my pieces performed by musicians I was able to consult with during rehearsal, the score included a total blunder which caused the cellist to point to a bar and ask me in polite puzzlement, "Shouldn't that be a G?" and I, being the quick thinker I am, suavely replied "Duh" and asked her to erase the wrong note and put the right note in.

  • For me, it depends on the piece. Some pieces I wrote in a very precise way (mostly my earlier work), and expect a more-or-less strict interpretation thereof.  Other pieces, however, I'm open to all manner of interpretation.

    My Fantasia-sonata in G minor, for example, had the honor of being performed by a former forum member here, and his interpretation is among my favorites, even though I definitely would not interpret certain pauses the same way he did (but I consider what he did as completely fair interpretation). My fugue in 7/4 had the honor of being performed by Gregorio X, also on this forum, and his interpretation was even more liberal, sprinkling trills at particular junctures and even modifying certain notes he thought would work better. I in fact liked some of his modifications so much that I modified my score to match them.

    The former forum member also commented once on my fugue in C# minor that he would increase the tempo -- by almost double -- and provided a sample playback thus adjusted. I wouldn't play it at that tempo myself (it wasn't really what I had in mind when I wrote the piece), but at the same time I appreciated the totally different perspective it provided on the music, and so I welcomed it as an interesting alternative take on the piece.

    In general, I'm open to liberal interpretations of my work -- as long as it stays faithful to the spirit of the work. Or sometimes even when not (like playing my fugue in C# minor at double speed)!  I think it's fair game for the performer to make adjustments as he sees fit. Often, a different interpretation casts the piece in a wholly new and fresh light that I've never thought of before, and I consider that a great thing.

    Also, from another point of view, my own playing can differ vastly from one occasion to the next, so why should I impose any static standards on others who would perform my work?

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