Graham Bradshaw

The Chimaera of Authenticity

We don’t know how Elizabethans responded to Hamlet, but suppose we did; and suppose they all responded to it in much the same way. Would we be obliged to prefer their reading to any later interpretation, solely on the grounds that it is more authentic? Or let us take an example more obviously like those discussed by Peter Phillips in his essay on the authentic performance of music (Literary Review, Nos. 9 and 11). It was possible to depress the soft pedal of a Viennese piano, such as Beethoven played, progressively, so that the hammer could hit three strings in playing a note, or just two strings, or only one. This allowed Beethoven to achieve special kinds of effect, for example in the slow movement of his fourth piano concerto. His score contains precise directions – ‘Due, e poi tre corde’ is a typical marking; and it is impossible to achieve the effect the composer wanted, on any modern piano. Should we therefore think it better to hear Beethoven played on instruments of his period, since nothing else can provide the effect Beethoven wanted?

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