Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

It turns that all the classical music that you’ve heard is most likely inauthentic. Anna Cheung discovers that the Young Mannheim Symphony is teaching budding classical musicians how to play authentically. 

WHILE for many of us, classical music is just music that was composed a very long time ago, some of this music has stood the test of time with its enduring appeal—think of Strauss’s buoyant Waltz on the Blue Danube, Handel’s ebullient Hallelujah Chorus or Beethoven’s ominous Symphony No.5 in C minor (you know, the one that goes “da da da duuum!”).

However, while we can recognise these pieces, chances are that what we’ve heard is not how the composers had written them. These classic pieces have been interpreted by other musicians. 

Musicians take the original composition and put their own twist on it. So while the composer may have originally written a piece to be performed by eight violins and four cellos, subsequent musicians may decide that they much rather perform the same piece with six violins, two cellos, a flute and a piano. They may also decide to play the piece louder in some parts, slower towards the end, and modern interpretations may even throw in a thumping techno dance beat. And while this gives us many versions of the same piece to listen to, none of them represent what Mozart, Mendelssohn or Mahler originally had in mind.

In comes historically informed performance. To put on a historically informed performance, a musician must become a detective. Meticulous research is done to determine what the composer had in mind for a particular piece of music. This isn’t a straightforward task, as composers back in the day didn’t usually include detailed instructions on how their pieces should be played. 

Discovering how a piece should be played goes beyond rifling through the composer’s manuscripts and diaries. Contemporary musicians would need a well-informed understanding of the broader social and cultural aesthetics that was the background to the composer’s life. Things they need to consider include knowing what style of music was popular at the time and gleaning clues from contemporaneous literature, theatre and the arts. 

A historically informed performance can also include using replica instruments as this too would affect the performance. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, sheep’s guts were used for violin strings, which produced a rich, warm sound when played (spare a thought for the craftsmen whose job it was to clean and treat the intestines for use – no doubt a messy and smelly task). Nowadays, modern violin strings are made from metals, such as aluminium, or synthetic materials. It would come to as no surprise to learn that metal strings produce a metallic sound when played. 

The piano morphed from having 61 keys to 82 keys, and its strings became thicker and were wound more tightly around a metal frame, all of which helps it produce a much louder sound than its earlier counterparts.

By using replica instruments and mimicking the playing style as closely as possible means that contemporary musicians and audiences can appreciate these masterpieces as they were intended to be played.

The Young Mannheim Symphony provides an opportunity for young classical musicians to learn historically informed performance and to develop a deeper appreciation of their craft. Last year, 32 students nationwide participated in a five-day program, which included students from Blackburn South, Box Hill, Burwood East, Glen Iris, Glen Waverley and Hawthorn. The training culminated in a public concert that was held at Camberwell Grammar School.

The students are taught by musicians from the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra (ARCO), who perform using the historically informed method. Aged between 11 and 23 years old, the students at the Young Mannheim Symphony learn through demonstrations and workshops provided by ARCO. As stated by one student, “I really enjoy the historical focus and playing in a historical style, as well as playing on period instruments in a period style, which isn’t something that I really get a chance to do elsewhere.”

Since 2013, ARCO has tutored over 400 emerging musicians through its Young Mannheim Symphony program. The directors, Nicole van Bruggen and Rachael Beesley were “thrilled by the response of the participants of the Young Mannheim Symphony and the enthusiastic audience who attended the final performance”.

Applications are now open for the 2024 Young Mannheim Symphony program. The national academy will be held in Melbourne from 8-13 July 2024. For information visit