How Much Should We Interpret Music?

As musicians, we regularly perform music written by others. For the classical musician, be it for the  symphony orchestra, chamber ensemble, or solo recital, we have on our stands notated music handed down to us by publishers, often composed by those considered among the greatest creators of music Western European culture has ever produced. Many consider the opportunity to play this music a great privilege, but what responsibility comes with that privilege? To what extent are we responsible for reproducing the composer’s intentions, and to what extent are we free to use that music as a vehicle for our own expression? Can we even know, for sure, how that composer wanted his music performed? Put another way, to what extent does, or should a musical interpretation be the voice of the composer, and to what extent does or should it be the voice of the performer? 

Many maintain that one should honor the composers intentions. There is a good defense of this position to be made, but it must also be conceded that it is not possible to know for sure what a composer who has been dead for centuries had in mind when he first composed a work. Given the opportunity to hear the composer conduct or perform his or her own work, this is simple to learn, but when we are left with an old score and generations of theorists’ and critics’ reviews, and generations of recorded performances that run the gamut of artistic license, our understanding of the original composer’s intent is likely to be uncertain at best.

One must also consider the disregard some great composers have taken toward their original own original intent, and that other great composers have taken toward the original intent of their contemporaries or musical idols. Liszt, a great admirer of Beethoven, was famous for his piano reductions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Several composers made their own versions of Handel’s Messiah. Mozart, thirty years after Handel’s death, made an arrangement, changing the language to German, rhythms to match the language, adding many new instruments, and rewriting the string parts and even cutting out sections. 

Another point to consider is that composers have often been more devoted to getting their music performed than to strict adherence to the original. In Handel’s era, authentic performances accommodated radical change and flexibility, customizing the “version” to the need at hand. Handel’s orchestration, changed in those later versions by others, was from the beginning dictated by the musicians on hand at the time. Stravinsky wrote L’Histoire du Soldat for a very small instrumental ensemble because that’s what was available. Stravinsky was struggling financially at the time, so creating a theater piece that could tour on a shoe string budget, and not artistic decisions, led to the lean orchestration.

Then there is the issue of transcriptions and arrangements. Stravinsky disassembled and arranged his ballets The Firebird and Pulcinella into orchestral suites, and Copland did the same with his Billy The Kid and Rodeo ballet scores. Then there are the transcriptions.  Imagine if Bach’s organ works were forever only performed on organ. How many high school band students would never hear this glorious music were it not for the Leidzen arrangements? Even the conductor Leopold Stokowski famously orchestrated some of Bach’s more popular organ works, and agreed to conduct the Toccata and Fugue in D minor for the opening of Walt Disney’s original Fantasia. None of these could be considered authentic renditions, faithful to the composer’s original intent, but all brought either commercial success to composers and presenters, or educational value to vast audiences, or both. 

Strictly adhering to one interpretation that purportedly reproduces the composer’s original intent is neither historically defensible, because the composers themselves did not always do so, nor is it even possible, because we have no way of knowing for sure what that intent was, unless the composer is still living, or we can rely on the accounts of someone who knew and conversed with them. So the “responsible” approach is to bring what we do know about the context and intent of a musical work, and combine it with our own artistry brought to bear on the work. 

We have all heard unfortunate performances resulting from too much authenticity and too little personal expression. Those stoic recordings Karl Richter made of Bach’s music in the 1950s and 1960s, or the recordings of Handel’s Messiah made on period instruments and played with very little expression and exaggerated dotted rhythms made in the 1960s come to mind. At the other extreme, there are Glen Gould’s many recorded performances in which he changed phrasing and tempos just for the sake of being different, even if the result was expressively unappealing or other-contextual. These are the extremes to be avoided. 

We can be confident that all composers were creative, musicians, who expressed deeply held and felt feelings and emotions, and whose music would have been performed by creative and musicians who did their best to be expressive on what we now might consider the limitations of the instruments they had at the time. Our contemporary performances of, for example, Bach, need not be limited by a directive to imitate those limitations. Instead, we too should play with as much artistry and creative expression as the instruments we have to work with will allow. The limitation for us is not to change the explicit directions the composer has left to us; the tones, rhythms, expressive markings, and so forth, as Mozart did with Handel’s Messiah

Those expressive and tempo markings are vague enough already to allow for a range of interpretations. There are plenty of appropriate tempos that can be considered “Allegro,” but there are some that are too slow that become Andante or too fast that become Vivace. Similarly, there are plenty of appropriate dynamics that can be considered forte, but there are some that are too loud that become fortissimo or too soft that become mezzo forte or mezzo piano. So there are boundaries, but they are wide enough to accommodate a range of interpretations, all of which could possibly be like the one the composer used.

Ultimately, the interpretive approach one takes will depend to some degree on one’s philosophy of music. Is musical performance an act of representation or expression? Are we all about reproducing duplicate performances, as if we were making exquisite forgeries of great paintings, or are we about finding meaning and expressive possibilities in musical works that span the generations between conception and performance. Interpretation can be taken too far, and become over done, for sure, but it can also be underdone, and become stale, archaic, and uninteresting. To do that to a great musical masterwork is perhaps the worse offense of all. Music, even works that are centuries old, must breathe new air, fill new minds, reach new imaginations through creative, personal and contextually appropriate performances.  

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