I have listened to various recordings of Handel's Messiah recently. Each has different rendering of the original work. What is the difference between modifying musical works of art and "touching up" a classical painting or poem?

A good question, and highly seasonal!The Messiah is an interesting subject because there is no ONEoriginal. Handel, always both an artist and a businessman, puttogether several different versions for various different occasionsand groups of musicians. So, there are a number of authenticrecordings, all attempting to 'get back' to the original sound of thepiece, which are nevertheless quite different. This is by no meanstrue for all pieces from the classical tradition but one can spot abroad trend, from the 19th century onwards, for artists tobecome increasingly concerned about the exact state of their work(various musical markings, instrumentation, etc.) and preciseconditions of performance.

This suggests a distinction betweenthose variations among performances that can be accounted for by avariation within the original material (the tinkering Brucknerperformed on his symphonies, for another example), and thoseexplained by artistic decisions in the here and now. This distinctionis more clear in theory than in practice, since one conductor's'authentic, period' recording is another's highly artificial artisticdeadend. We should also distinguish between works that live throughperformance (music and theatre, for example) and those that reside inphysical objects (paintings or sculptures). We are understandablymore tolerant of fiddling with the former. There are of coursetheatrical and musical conventions and traditions, but no newperformance of the Messiah, however outrageous, prevents it beingperformed in a more conventional manner the next time. Whereas,actually painting a goatee on the Mona Lisa would destroy theoriginal, even if one genuinely feels the touching up constitutes animprovement.

We could likewise distinguish between'spirit' interpretations and 'letter' interpretations. Here we havetwo different senses of what the original really is. The latter arethe 'authentic' ones, with period instruments and an oftenpain-staking attention to historical detail. The former are thosethat try to capture, for a contemporary audience, something of themeaning or impact that the original would have had in its day –even if that means taking certain liberties. In the staging ofShakespeare such battles are particularly acute. Equallyinterestingly, think about the task that heritage bodies undertake incaring for an old building. Is the building really itsoriginal state, when first constructed; or is the building reallythe additions, modifications or remodellings that make it ahistorical record of the lives lived in and through it?

Well, these are a few ideas. I hopethey help!

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