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Artistic Integrity

By Chener Yuan,  2020-03-16

The Cambridge Dictionary’s first definition of the word “integrity” is “the quality of being honest”. It is, in my opinion, not only the most important pillar of character but also the most important virtue for classical musicians.

"Beethoven-athon" Concert 

All-Beethoven String quartets at N.Y. Public Library

Courtesy: Chener Yuan

Unlike other types of artists (e.g., painters, sculptors, pop song singers, etc.) who create their own works of art and practice unrestricted artistic freedom, we classical musicians seldom compose our own recital pieces; we normally perform existing compositions with musical integrity. By “musical integrity” I mean that it is essential for musicians to be absolutely true and honest to the music when presenting it. It means not merely playing the correct notes with the right timing, it also means careful consideration of what the composer intended. 


Nowadays, we seem to think it is inartistic and banal to play music exactly according to the score; some even call playing from the score “robotic” and nothing more than musical “reproduction”. Today’s musicians rely more on their imaginations and ability to improvise rather than adhere to the markings and hints that the composers left for the musician. Although some musical improvisation and creative expression is welcome, this trend toward broad musical interpretation has gone too far in my opinion. I have witnessed musicians doing extreme things that are neither indicated in the score nor convincing enough to be understood as genuine expression. Moderation is key -- the freedom of interpretation has to be logical and respect the score and any significant departures from the score should form the basis of a genuine expression of the heart.


So how much creative freedom of interpretation and expression is appropriate? Musical performances need to be touching, expressive, and emotionally fulfilling in order to emotionally resonate with the listener. Otherwise, there is a dichotomy or disconnect between the music and the audience. To what extent can we be free when performing a piece of music? This is a difficult question because music’s boundaries never seem satisfied nor universal. I personally think that freedom relates to every technical and practical aspect of playing. Certainly, honest expressions, performing with integrity, must begin with a serious consideration of what exactly is on the score. Only then can we begin to talk about “freedom” -- a creative departure from the score. Furthermore, a genuine creative expression must associate the emotional and personal output of the playing with the technical and practical aspects of playing. The challenge is finding the balance between integrity and the personal.

Courtesy: Chener Yuan

Combining honesty and freedom together is my way of explaining artistic integrity as well as being a pillar of my musical artistry. Interestingly, the Cambridge Dictionary also mentions “having strong moral principles” and a “wholeness and unity” under the entry for “integrity”. These other two definitions form the remaining pillars of my artistic life. To have a consistent goal in artistic life is difficult, especially in today’s society where being extreme, extra, or dramatic is acclaimed and applauded. But that is precisely the reason why being honest and true is rare and precious. I do hope that my pursuit of this goal will be consistent throughout my life.