Historical Facts

This post was inspired by Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music Lesson Two – The Phenomenon of Music (Amazon affiliate link).

“My own experience has long convinced me that any historical fact, recent or distant, may well be utilized as a stimulus to set the creative faculty in motion, but never as an aid for clearing up difficulties.”

There’s a little bit of irony here, and in all these posts for that matter.  But I think I’ve addressed it reasonably in my game plan.

Stravinsky is saying that 1) an accurate depiction of music from the past is not possible and 2) is not desirable.  It’s easy to misinterpret this.  He isn’t knocking historical perspectives.  Rather, he’s distinguishing them from a creator’s perspective.

If historical facts are sought as ends in themselves and don’t stimulate creativity, what use are they to current creations?  After all, it’s impossible for them to reveal more about the phenomenon of music than we already know; they can’t have any bearing on the elements of music (sound and time).

If we use reason, we are no longer using instinct.  Instinct is infallible.

Suppose I want to perform Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata (1924).  I would read up on Stravinsky’s life and his music, and I would study this piece thoroughly to get an idea of some general performance practices.  I’d also check out this recording, which is Stravinsky himself playing.

There may be certain “facts” about this piece that counter my instinct. For example, what if my instinct tells me it should be faster than Stravinsky’s tempo marking? Then again, some facts are key to understanding the tradition and will ultimately widen my perspective. Maybe there’s some deep reasoning behind that tempo marking! How fast should I play it? My tempo or his tempo?

Side Note: How does this apply to learning jazz standards? Should we be checking out the lyrics, verses, original changes, original recordings and every variation made since then?

I don’t need historical facts to interpret this music, but sometimes they’re helpful! Is this what Stravinsky is referring to in Poetics? If so, then it brings up a few issues:

First of all, should performers of historical works be considered creators of music?

Secondly, if instinct is infallible, is there no value in doing your homework? What if my goal is to perform/create music derived from historical facts?

There are lots of questions here; what do you think?

Further reading: The Centuries-Old Struggle to Play in Tune (Link). What tuning should we use when playing historical works?

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