“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don't Interpret My Music!

     A pianist writes: Both Beethoven and Chopin expressed a wish, that players would not attempt to "interpret" their works, but just play them. What does this really mean?
     I  take this comment to mean "please observe what's in the score." Stravinsky, too, made such a comment about his music, preaching "against interpretation." And yet, when you hear him play his own piano music, there is at the very least, breathing, rubato even, not to mention inflection. He famously said, "I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it." Is feeling not "interpreting?"
      We have contemporary accounts of Beethoven's own performances of his pieces, which he apparently played differently every time, including varying tempos. He opposed publishers' notions of giving programmatic titles to his music, yet he made comments like "music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears form the eyes of woman." 
     Chopin: "Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano!" With a comment like this, it's no wonder that pianists moon over his music, perhaps to excess. But how much is too much? What we are really talking about is taste, for which there is no accounting.
     Composers of yore were expressing a lack of faith in future performers of their works, a lack of faith that the score would be adhered to. This lack of faith was justified in the casual approach many virtuosos of the day took to music in performance, which could be subject to the whims of any passing ego. Bach, too, famously wrote out much of his ornamentation in order to thwart the incompetent improvisor. 
     So, as re-creators it is our duty to play what's in the score. But in so doing, we are making decisions as to relationships, how much of what is appropriate. These are personal choices, matters of taste, our taste. CPE Bach wrote all those years ago in his "On the True Art of Keyboard Playing" that, after listing all the rules of performance practice, "If it doesn't sound good, don't do it."
     Some in the discussion commented on authenticity in performance. It is perhaps possible to build instruments as they might have been constructed during a given period and it is possible to study written accounts of performance practices. In so doing, we might gain some insight into how these instruments would have sounded in certain repertoire. But it is impossible to have an authentic period musical experience because we are encumbered of all of the musical styles and performance practices that stand between us and the period in question. We are, so to speak, too jaded to have a pure authentic musical experience. J.S. Bach, by the way, did finally accept the foretpiano shortly before his death, if only half-heartedly.

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