Rewriting the Past and Calling it History at What Price?
How would you feel if the author of that recent bestseller you just finished reading decided to change the middle three chapters of the book? Would the book you had just finished reading have somehow become invalid?
A lot of composers revise their music all the time and think nothing of it, even after it has been published. Bruckner was notorious for rewriting his symphonies over decades. Stravinsky famously reworked the last chord of The Rite of Spring in 1947, apparently, in part, to reclaim copyright on a work that had become public domain. But can we claim that revised chord to be revolutionary for 1913 when it was informed by post-WWII hindsight? This month, La Monte Young is presenting a new version of his revolutionary 1958 String Trio, now in just intonation. Does it matter that he didn’t originally conceive this landmark work that way? Isn’t the 1958 version, the composition that began minimalism after all, the landmark? If so, what is the historical significance of the new version?
Perhaps the most drastic example is Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara who wrote a Fourth Symphony which was premiered and subsequently discarded from his catalog. Years later, when he wrote a Fifth Symphony, he claimed another earlier work “Arabescata” as his rightful “Fourth Symphony.” The work has since been described as the only total serial symphony to be composed in Finland. It’s a masterpiece, but in all honesty, he didn’t conceive of it as a symphony when he originally wrote it.
Nowadays, thanks to digital technology, even a recording isn’t sacrosanct. Collectors have to hunt down original vinyl pressings of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention albums to hear what people who bought them heard back in the 1960s since Zappa “corrected the mistakes” when they were re-issued on CD. The latest vinyl re-issue of NWA’s “landmark” 1990 gangsta rap album Straight Outta Compton was remixed in 2002. Can a remixed version album still be a landmark?
We all know the old debate about whether or not Ives touched up his compositions to make them sound more “ahead of their time.” How important is when something was done? Is that the most important part of what makes it historical? Does it ultimately have anything to do with how it is appreciated in future generations? Is preserving a revision ultimately lying about history?
As a period-instrument loving historical purist I’m somewhat upset by all of this, but I’ve tinkered a little bit with old compositions sometimes too. I’m sure you have too.
Are there fault lines that shouldn’t be crossed here? If so, what are they?