Freedom-Obedience ?

This article is part of the Psychology section and deals with the question of:

to what degree should we religiously obey all the indications that the composer wrote in his composition?”

Or, to state this same question in different words:

how much freedom can we allow ourselves to contradict the composer’s original exact instructions?”



Have you ever heard Artur Rubinstein’s recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes ? I have. Thousands of times! And I could never understand why all other recordings of these pieces sounded so boring compared to Rubinstein’s version. That was until the day when I listened to his recording while at the same time reading the published music score. Suddenly it was clear why his version was so different to, and so much better than, any other version: it is because he often does the exact opposite to the interpretative indications that Chopin indicates in the score! Where Chopin writes a crescendo, Rubinstein makes a diminuendo etc  ……. and to marvelous effect.

Let’s imagine Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin (or any composer) performing any one of their own pieces many times over. Would they always have played the piece in exactly the same way? Most pre-2oth century composers were also great instrumentalists and great improvisers, and it is likely that they would get quite bored always playing the identical interpretation, dynamics, articulations, phrasings, bowings etc.

Let’s imagine now that we are a composer. The expressive indications that we write into the music are given in order to help the interpreter understand our idea of how we think our composition might sound best. But does that mean that there is only one possible version ? Chopin himself said that some pianists had a better way of interpreting his pieces than he himself.

We can thank composers for sharing with us their ideas about how to interpret their works, but a composer’s interpretative suggestions should not be taken to mean that no other ways are possible. They should be understood simply as very valid suggestions. In the same way that we might follow the instructions in a cooking recipe, there is no reason why we can’t add more or less of an ingredient – or even vary the ingredients – even if the recipe comes from the world’s most authoritative chef. Of course our new result might be a flop ………. but it might also be better than the original recipe! It would be much more interesting for listeners – and certainly more healthy for musicians – if we considered the composer’s indications just as a safe starting point for our interpretation.


It doesn’t matter if the editorial instructions in a piece of sheet music come from the composer, from a scholarly editor or from a magnificent player: in no case should the instructions be considered as “unalterable divine commandments” and “the only truth”. The temptation to fundamentalism in all walks of life (religion, politics, music, education etc.) reflects man’s permanent search for an infallible guru or god-figure, who liberates us from the need to think, to question, and to make our own informed decisions. It’s so comforting to be a child again, with absolute faith and unquestioning trust in our infallible parents. If this guru-Godlike figure knows better than us, loves us, and guides us, then all we need to do is just sit back and do as we are told ……. bonjour fascism!


It is also a common trait of human nature to “do what everyone else” does in order to avoid the possibility of being singled out and harshly judged. If we do exactly what the score says, then we can’t be criticised for a strange articulation, phrasing or dynamic. If we take the liberty of not doing what the score says, we run the risk of being denigrated, even if our choice actually sounds good.


Over the centuries, composers have become more and more specific and detailed with their instructions.  Since the 20th century, some composers even try to write what bowing to use ….. and they are almost inevitably wrong in their suggestions! We can thank Bach for leaving his scores free of technical and expressive indications, thus leaving us free to look for and uncover the infinite and personal interpretative possibilities that any musical work offers.


The question of obedience (or not) to the composer’s interpretative indications depends very much on us first knowing which indications in our sheet-music actually come from the composer, and which come from an editor. Blind obedience to the scribbles of a chimpanzee on a composer’s manuscript would be very sad, but unfortunately, some editions are in fact little better than that chimpanzee. So how then do we know if the interpretative indications (tempo, articulations, expressions etc.) that are in our music are really what the composer wanted?

The most authentic, uncorrupted source for any piece (and therefore the best starting point for working out our interpretation) is the composer’s autograph manuscript. Some of these have been scanned and uploaded to the wonderful website. These are fascinating to study (see for example the manuscript of Schumann’s “Five Pieces in Folkstyle“). When the composer’s autograph manuscript is not available, copyist’s manuscripts or first editions are probably the next most authentic source (such as this 1740 first edition of Vivaldi’s Cello Sonatas). However, these original manuscripts, apart from being usually unavailable, are very impractical to use on the music stand, which is why we usually need a more readable “playing” edition. This is the beauty of Urtext editions – they reproduce only the information of the original manuscript, but in a more readable practical format (click on the highlighted link for an article about the merits and limits of this wonderful revolution in music publishing).

A totally different starting point for our interpretation is an edition made by a great player. Here, we don’t need to think or work anything out: if we want, we can simply follow the instructions given, which will usually be a combination of the ideas of composer and performer. It is fascinating – and very instructive – to see just exactly what great players do with a piece: their fingerings, bowings, additions, and modifications to the original composer’s suggestions etc.

Ultimately though, the best edition is probably a “clean” edition: with the least markings possible. Into this, we can put our own markings, which we distill from the greatest variety of other sources (original and edited). The “Barenreiter” edition of the six Bach cello suites is an excellent example of this type of “clean” edition. The “playing” edition is completely “clean” – with absolutely no editorial markings (slurs, bowings or fingerings) but is accompanied by the facsimiles of the four different “original” (oldest) sources which do of course contain slurs. Music publishing does not get any better than this!

When such ideal sources are not available, it could sometimes be argued that the worst edition is actually the best edition. Kalmus editions are notorious for editorial errors of all types. Normally however the notes are correct. The fact that there are so many erroneous editorial markings liberates us from the need to believe any of them. Because every marking is suspicious, suddenly we are free to ignore them all, and thus play exactly as we wish! It is as though we were navigating from a completely false map: in the end, we just follow our instincts. This could be disastrous in dangerous unexplored territory, but in more favourable conditions it can lead to an enjoyable, surprising, and liberating adventure of discovery!

For all of the above reasons, every piece of sheet music available on this website is offered in “edited”, “clean” and “literal” versions. The “Literal Version” is simply as close to the most original source as possible (the “Urtext” version), while the “Edited” and “Clean” versions are performance versions, respectively with and without interpretative and technical editorial indications.


During a musician’s training period, so much of our playing is for teachers and “experts” that we can lose sight of the fact that, in fact, in most musical performances, the audiences will be an almost entirely different group of people, both much less well-informed and also much easier to please. Whereas a teacher, critic, or examiner often has the job of “policeman”, listeners who don’t know the pieces beforehand and who don’t play our instrument, come to a concert with much fewer expectations and will be delighted if we do something that “works”, even though it may not be in the score (or may even be the opposite of what is indicated in the score).


The temptation to fundamentalism in all walks of life (religion, politics, music, education etc.) reflects man’s permanent search for an infallible guru or god-figure, who liberates us from the need to think, to question, and to make our own decisions. This godlike-guru-parental figure is usually vastly superior to us, has our best interests at heart, and guides us, so that now all we need to do is just sit back and do as we are told. It’s so comforting to be a child again, with absolute faith and unquestioning trust in our infallible parents (or political/religious leaders). Sometimes Urtext editions can be placed into this role!

We can choose our leaders, but we cannot choose our parents. And even if we could choose our parents, many of us, in retrospect, would still probably change some of the things our parents did. Fortunately, we can choose the editions we play from. But more importantly, we can even choose to ignore or modify some of the things our “good” edition tells us to do (editorial markings), even if these suggestions come supposedly from the composer. Urtext editions are like good parents: good but never perfect. To purists, this sounds like sacrilege: how dare a simple instrumentalist consider that they can “improve” on the suggestions of geniuses like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc !! But the reality is that, for all the reasons outlined above, it is in fact sometimes possible, even when having a maximum of respect for the composer, to make more sense out of their score by using our own best judgment to occasionally override some of the instructions that the composer has given.

I love what Jaqueline Du Pre said: “once the composer has written down his piece, it is MINE“.  Is it any wonder that she was such a magnificent, emotional, heartfelt musician? She made each piece her own, used it as a vehicle to express her own emotions, and did not treat a musical score as a rigid historical document, preserved and untouchable in a museum. Bravo! But beware: we are not talking about rewriting the music (changing the notes), just about the occasional possibility of decorating it (dressing it up) slightly differently.

Be brave, be creative, and be you – it’s more enjoyable and audiences will love it even if sometimes you do something ridiculous.

But also be warned: fundamentalists, fascists, purists ……… and most critics  ………. will hate it  !!

See also Sing/Speak for a discussion of rhythmic freedom (rhetoric) in music.