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THE PROBLEM OF INTERPRETATION

Music lives through interpretation. Between a musical work and the world stands the interpreter who brings the score to life by his performance. The relationship between the performing and the cre­ative artist, however, has changed profoundly in the history of music and continues to do so. This situation in music, as compared with the other arts, is unique. Paintings in the gallery speak to the visitor without the help of a mediator; this is true similarly of the works of sculpture and architecture. In reading poetry or prose, we act, as it were, as our own interpreters. But in music, the score of the St. Matthew Passion, as such, has meaning only for the intellect of the trained musician. The large mass of music lovers, in order to hear masterworks, is dependent upon actual performance of them. Thus it becomes obvious that in music, in contrast to the other arts, the in­terpreter is of paramount importance-a factor sine qua non.*

Our musical life has become more and more a cult of the inter­preter. The present over-emphasis on the interpreter's role is sharply contrasted by the disregard of it in former periods. The ecclesiastical spirit of the Middle Ages did not acknowledge interpretation in our modern sense, as the individualized expression of the performer. The picture has gradually changed in the last four hundred years, so that the interpreter, who was formerly very much in the background, has now become the star of the performance. Small wonder, then, that the musical world is disturbed by heated arguments over the rights and limits of interpretation. What are the interpreter's rights? Where are these limits?

Interpretation: Objective or Subjective? The subjective approach reflects the interpreter's individuality more than it does the world of the masterwork - not only in details, but also in the delineation of the composition as a whole.

In opposition to such a subjective reading stands the objective treatment, where the interpreter's principal attitude is that of uncon­ditional loyalty to the script. Setting aside his personal opinion and detaching himself from his individual feelings, the objective inter­preter has but one goal in mind: to interpret the music in the way the author conceived it. For instance, the objective interpreter of

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony will perform the opening measures ac­cording to metronomic and other objective determinations, as indi­cated by the score and not by his personal feelings.

If we turn from the particular case of the Fifth Symphony to any classical score, in fact to a score of any period, the inevitable question arises as to whether the score could be interpreted literally or whether the performer should have carte blanche* in general in­terpretation, on the ground that, besides the script of the score, its background must also be freely taken into consideration. If all this could be answered by a simple formula, the continual argument about interpretation would not exist.

However, this problem of objectivity or subjectivity in musical interpretation is one of great complexity. First of all, interpreters are all different human beings. Each one's natural impulse toward one and the same score is bound to differ. Each one's personal back­ground, education, culture, and human and artistic experiences, are likewise different. In spite of this, it would still be conceivable to in­sure what we call authenticity of interpretation, namely, the objective realization of the author's wishes, if the score as such were explicit enough to protect the composer's intentions against any misinterpre­tation on the performer's part.



Notation Cannot Express Intangibles. Even the modem score, however, frequently admired as one of the highest achievements of the human spirit, is far from perfection. Of course, great composers have superbly transformed their ideas into scores, making the best possible use of musical notation. But it is this very notation that is imperfect and may remain so forever, notwithstanding remarkable contributions to its improvement. There are certain intangibles that cannot be expressed by our method of writing music-vital musical elements incapable of being fixed by the marks and symbols of no­tation. Consequently, score scripts are incomplete in representing the composers' intentions. No score, as written in manuscript and pub­lished in print, can offer complete information for its interpreter.

The performer's first task, that of setting the main tempo, be­comes mere guesswork unless he is thoroughly acquainted with cer­tain fundamental facts concerning the style of the period concerned. After all, time is relative in music, as elsewhere, and so the purport of the different designations, from adagio to presto, has to be ad­justed according to the peculiarities of the composer and his work. And there are still numerous other questions confronting the inter­preter. In the scores written since the end of the eighteenth century, these are partly answered by the marks of dynamics or phrasing.

Interpretation Lives Through Style. Sketchy as the old score may seem to the modern performer, it fulfilled its function by of­fering the necessary information in its own day, when the composer and the interpreter were so often one and the same person. Palestrina conducted his own Masses, Handel his own oratorios, Mozart

his own operas, and Bach himself sat on the organ bench of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, playing his fugues and chorales.

The composer knew what he wanted. He could not afford to write the score according to his fancies and to design the pictures of his own script in lines that appear vague to us. Should we infer from facts like these that the old master had greater trust in the capacity of his fellow-interpreter to read and render his works? After all, the composer could not have expected to be his own interpreter forever. One thing is certain: modern composers do not have such faith in their interpreters. This becomes clear by comparing the manuscripts of the scores of old and modern times. Today, the. in­terpreter of contemporary works frequently has little or no personal choice, as he is forced to follow the very strict directions of the composer.

Starting with the instructions of the Classicists, and increasing with those of the Romanticists, we reach the height of direction in the modern score. In a work like Mahler's Second Symphony, written at the turn of our century, the composer has given instructions complete enough for a scenario. Players in the finale are told exactly when to enter and when to leave the podium for the backstage mu­sic; they are also told in which position to hold their instruments for better tone production. Again, in significant contemporary scores, particularly in those of Schoenberg, letters help the performer to un­derstand the polyphonic texture by pointing out the relationship be­tween principal part and accompanying part.

Stravinsky does not hesitate to compare a good conductor with a sergeant whose duty it is to see that every order is obeyed by his player-soldiers. The question arises whether through such a point of view the interpreter is not demoted to the role or nothing more nor less than a musical traffic policeman. He might find solace in this statement of Sibelius: "The right tempo is the one the artist feels!" This dictum of Sibelius again opens the door to subjective interpretation. What the artist feels becomes the decisive factor in the rendition. Obviously, one cannot expect to set an inflexible, mathematical standard in art; if ideas of composers are subjective and their directions relative (in spite of such mechanical aids as the metronome), the interpreter's knowledge is likewise subjective, and therefore his ways of performance are subjective too. We conclude, then, that the ego of the interpreter and the score of the composer provide the very combination through which creative inspiration may be translated into musical reality.

Nothing is more difficult than the task of rethinking the old works, on the basis of the original elastic score script, in terms of the great masters who wrote them. There are three paths that will lead the interpreter out of this labyrinth. First, he must learn how to read the script and to understand its language. Second, his fantasy must discover the musical essence, the inner language behind the written symbols. Finally, the interpreter should be fully acquainted

with the background and the tradition of a work - with all the cus­toms surrounding the score at the time of its creation.

This end can be accomplished only if the interpreter leans on the accumulated knowledge of the trained historian as the true guardian of the authentic style. Of course, style is not the only requisite for fidelity of performance, but it is certainly the framework. If music lives through interpretation, then true interpretation can live only through the genuine style.

From: The History of Music in Performance by F. Dorian


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1960


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