Thoughts on Authenticity in Music

Our attachment to authenticity speaks to the broader and much more serious implication that the Western Art Music world wants to remain faithful to its colonialist roots.


When we attempt to perform music authentically in the tradition of Western Art Music (WAM), we are attempting to recreate a piece of music as the composer would have heard it in his own time. There are some who believe we have a moral obligation to perform music in this manner, holding to the idea that what is written on the page is exactly what the composer wanted. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the composer had all the tools they wished at their disposal. It is not unrealistic to say that if that same composer were working with today’s tools, they might make different choices. It is impossible to know for sure, however, what the composer truly wanted. If we look farther into the past, putting music in writing was simply a formality and a guide, or was meant to be a work of visual art, rather than an authoritative document to follow by rote.

Scholars also question whether it is truly a moral duty to remain faithful to an original score.  Pro-authenticity arguments state that if the sheet music is authentic, we should strive to match the conditions of the source as closely as possible. To ignore the authority of an original source is to be distasteful and egotistically presumptuous. The pro-authenticity argument fights against the teleological argument (in the ethical sense) that what is now and what will be is ultimately better than what was. In fact, it is entirely right to question the logic that the future will be better than our past. But each argument needs to be balanced by looking objectively at both sides.

In Ernst Bloch’s essay, Discussing Expressionism, he opens by stating how intriguing it is that “there are people who can get so worked up over a movement long since past, as if it still existed and were standing in their way.” True, he was talking about Expressionism and not authenticity, but his statement does seem to express one of many questions anti-authoritative narratives have. Why are we getting so worked up over the past so intensely that we fail to see it in the proper perspective? Theodor Adorno (Bach Defended Against his Devotees) argues that because we put Bach on such a high pedestal, he is dehumanized to the point that the reality of the composer is erased, and a dull imitation is put in his place, thus “neutralizing art.”  Another anti-authoritative argument is that no matter how much we try to imitate or recreate the past, we are only recreating it in our own manner. Because we are not a product of past eras, we cannot truly recreate the past (see: simulacrum). However, we should not assume that all things produced today are better than those of the past. There are exceptions. Robert Donington gives the example (Interpretation of Early Music) that gut strings in early seventeenth-century bowed instruments take a significantly longer amount of time to vibrate than modern strings, and therefore it might be a disadvantage to play these authentically. He also points out that it is possible to be true to our own ideas of authenticity. Our interpretation is authentic in the way that, if the player interprets a piece in a way that’s true to himself, that performance is authentic to that player.

But what about authenticity’s relationship with Ethnomusicology? Ethnomusicology is still considered a subfield in a world where, in reality, Ethnomusicology dominates via pop culture. From an ethnological viewpoint, authenticity can be pivotal. It can create historical and educational accounts and performances that illustrate cultures that have not been accurately recorded in history books. If at all. Using authenticity as a tool for reparations can be extremely meaningful, and although some point out that this mindset originates from the White Savior Complex of the hegemonic western global north, it can also be used as a tool for diaspora to reclaim and build from their heritage.

Personally, I suspect that our continued adherence to authenticity is partially an echo of post-war disillusionment and partially the product of a technology boom we were not prepared to handle collectively. Unfortunately, we cannot move forward until the collective consciousness stops believing that we are spiraling downward, preventing us from looking toward a creative and evolutionary future. Paradoxically, it is modern technology that allows us to recreate and romanticize the past. We are able to make the tools needed to approach the past because we have technology. Without modern innovation, these treasures would be lost to age and decay.  

The downward spiral narrative includes the view that the last century of Western Art illustrates our breakdown of culture. The last century has brought us reactionary, ironic, commercial, and most offensively to some, meaningless art, and this represents an unsettling future to many people. There are many valid reasons to worry for the future, but it is also not so extreme as to completely invalidate experimentation and discourage creativity. It is all right to enjoy the sound of the past when it’s played closer to the reality of that time, but it is also not reprehensible to want to try new things. As Richard Taruskin says, “Mozart’s disdain and Beethoven’s discomfort need not deter us. They are dead” (Text and Act).

This is not a statement in favor of the teleological ethics argument, but our attachment to authenticity speaks to the broader and much more serious implication that the Western Art Music world wants to remain faithful to its colonialist roots. Tradition for the sake of tradition is ahistorical at best and psychologically violent at worst. In Confronting White Educational Privilege in the Classroom, Melissa Weiner discusses the pedagogy of whiteness and how it can cause students to disengage from the material (and in this case we can also apply this to the history of the upper class). Though we are aware of all the arguments against authenticity, there seems to be little encouragement to move past rigidity in our classical and academic tradition. It is not detrimental if the audience members clap between movements or if we play Bach on a modern piano. Put simply, taking authenticity too seriously is to ignore the current tangible world. Authenticity, even if it were attainable, was never meant to be a fundamental axis for Western Art Music – or any other type of art.