Have you ever attempted to write piano music? Actually write it down?
You may not be a composer but that doesn’t mean you cannot learn a great deal from such an endeavor. You will learn that writing down piano sheet music isn’t a straight forward task. There isn’t merely one ‘right way’ to do it. When writing piano sheet music you have numerous options of how to progress even at the level of writing basic notes. When you start to add instructions or articulation the options expand even further.
Comparing a score by Rachmaninoff or Debussy to one by Bach or Scarlatti will show you how things have changed over time. As time has gone on composers have increased in their ambition to articulate their work. This is not to say you should stop looking for the small clues in the work of early composers. This is a fault that many sheet music publishers of the 19th century were guilty of, which led to a boost in that era of editors filling in what they thought were the spaces left by long dead composers.
Those with deep understanding of a composer will know where to look for these small clues. Take Mozart for example; if you know what to look for you can truly envisage how he wished his pieces to be played. If there is an ambiguous section this doesn’t mean you are missing anything – quite the contrary, it means that it was left open to interpretation. As time has gone by composers have become stricter about their scores and leave far less up to the discretion of the performer. The ambiguity of earlier scores can be attributed in some degree to the fact the composer only expected people at the time to play the music, meaning they assumed the performers would understand the style and the emotion behind it. They wanted their music to live forever but they wrote it for their present.
These days however music is written with the entire world and future in mind. Technology allows music to spread and composers writing piano music still wish their music to be recreated to a T. Numerous different cultures will experience the music and composers can no longer rely on the fact that those of similar feelings and culture as them will be the only ones to hear it. This means that there is much that can be blurred in translation. The music is no longer only open to a specific circle but open to all. That is why today’s composer often has to be very specific and detailed in his or her instructions.
With this in mind, if you truly wish to understand a long gone composer you need to understand the world they lived in and the people they performed for at the time. You should try to gain an understanding of what motivated them to write a certain piece and educate yourself about that time period. Every score will have subtle details that will provide clues as to the composer and how they wished it played, be it a score from Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin or anyone else.