I have always perceived music through a combination of visual and aural means – a kind of synesthesia.  Before I could read music, or was fully aware of the existence of musical scores, I used to listen to music and wonder what it would look like.  I learned to read musical scores by listening to works, often of considerable complexity – orchestral, chamber, piano, operatic, and it took some years before I could fully understand what notation – especially for large forces – signified.  My earliest experiments trying to understand musical notation felt like impossible struggles during which I was confronted with fantastical talismanic symbols, which later transformed into recognizable approximations of what I was hearing.

Opening a new score has always held the excitement of discovery, taking on the quality of an almost mystical enterprise, which revealed to me new aural worlds and allowed me to begin to delve into the secrets of musical masterpieces.  I first became aware of these ‘secrets’ in the form of a gulf that I discerned between the limitations of musical notation and its realization in sound.  Defining that gulf – what lies between the notes, what can be discovered and intuited from the often-imprecise jottings of the composer, and then transformed into performative speculations – is an endlessly subtle and frequently perplexing process, which can lead to widely varying results.

A formative experience involving a musical text and its realization in sound that in many ways has defined me as a musician occurred as a child when I heard a recording of a rehearsal of a Mozart symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter.  The circumstances of the recording were, I now realize, culturally extremely complex, Walter being a European exile who found himself in America, conducting an orchestra partly of fellow émigrés: old worlds and new worlds were merging, and a culture was being evoked in a foreign place.  But which culture?  Certainly that of pre-war Vienna, and certainly Walter’s readings of Mozart were informed and influenced by those of his mentor Gustav Mahler.  At the time I knew none of this, I simply felt I was engaging in time-travel, to places unknown and endlessly intoxicating.  This recording was my first behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mysterious world of orchestral rehearsal, and in following Walter’s engagement with the score, I found myself full of questions (many of which I am still trying to answer) concerning how he divined from the score the sounds that he created, how he managed to delve between the notes of the score to arrive at a reading of Mozart that seemed so incredibly ‘right’ – authentic.  It took me some time to realize that other conductors from a similar background (Otto Klemperer, for one) conducted Mozart in quite a different way to Walter.  It took still longer before I discovered that there is no unbroken lineage in Mozart performance style that can be traced directly back to the composer.  The Mozart revival which began in the later part of the nineteenth century, and of which Walter and Klemperer were both beneficiaries was the reimagining of a lost past, one that we can never hope to exactly recreate, however rewarding it may be to try. That defines to some extent the creative life of the performer – at some level we are all engaged in speculating about the unknowable, and in so doing we produce a whole constellation of misreadings, which, however beautiful, or well crafted they may be, are the results of a quixotic enterprise.  In the case of Mozart we take comfort in the myth of a ‘Mozart Style’ to justify our findings.

For many years I have continued to speculate how Walter, Klemperer and many other conductors developed the stylistic sensibility that they possessed.  It was only relatively recently that I gained access to scores owned and used by them and was able to study the markings they added to the scores to elucidate aspects of phrasing, articulation, balance, internal dynamics and many other expressive shadings which, apparently were stylistic conventions in Mozart’s day and needed no additional elucidation in his manuscripts.  Being able to see the working processes behind their performances, including significant annotations to both the score and the orchestral material from which the orchestra performed highlighted to me just how much we have to rework artifacts of all kinds from the past in order to make sense of them in the face of the inevitable passing of time.  Music publishers continue to produce new editions of scores that embody greater accuracy and authenticity while, at least in the area of orchestral and operatic music, performance material is routinely heavily edited and modified in order to realise it.  Even performances by so-called purists such as Toscanini were significantly modified in many cases, as a careful study of his recordings reveals.  Conversely, Roger Norrington’s much-discussed recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (‘Norrington’s Ninth’?) that claims to be an authentic rendition has created significant controversy. The parameters of authenticity that Norrington engaged with have been carefully analysed and discussed in critical circles, leaving more confusion than ever as regards what might constitute an ‘authentic’ Ninth, and questions whether the search for such a performance holds any validity.

In spite of such dilemmas, I have engaged with works from the past since my childhood on a search that continues undiminished – to seek meaning and truth behind the notes. The continuing proliferation of recordings of canonic works, often bland and lacking in individuality, frequently disillusions me.  Occasionally however, a new reading rekindles within me questions about how a given work was meant to sound and leads me to further speculation.  I have come to realise that searching for authenticity in musical performance will remain a journey without a destination, although in the process, we may at least succeed (in the void created by the impreciseness of musical notation) in reflecting back the ethos of our own times into a musical work, forming a dialogue between the past and present, and allowing us to continue considering our place in the musical continuum.

Stephen Mould is a Sydney-based conductor, opera coach, teacher and writer.  He has spent most of his career working in operas houses the world over, and is currently Chair of Opera Production at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he teaches conducting and opera studies.  He also writes on aspects of Australian art, and recently curated a multimedia exhibition, Dušan Marek: Art/Film Post 1960, at the Sydney University Art Gallery.