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Musical Interpretation

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THE INTERPRETATION OF MUSIC It is difficult, some would say impossible, to talk about music, because music deals with things beyond words. It is not surprising, then, that to discuss the interpretation of music is difficult too. The very word interpretation is makeshift, since the alternatives, playing or performance, have so many different meanings. But it is vital to understand the problems of interpretation in order to understand and appreciate music to the full, since the only way we can listen to music is by someone’s interpretation, except possibly when we hear improvised music.

The difference between hearing improvised music and hearing someone else’s music being played is, of course, that the latter must involve carrying out the composer’s instructions. And the way in which these intructions are conveyed has given rise to all the problems of interpretation. Let me give you some examples of these.

My father had a very non-technical appreciation of music and was very much opposed to the cult of the celebrity performer. He always maintained stoutly that all that was important was to hear the music played correctly. He didn’t seem to realise that ‘correctly’ could mean different things, nor that a literal, unimaginative performance can be death even to the finest music.

A friend who preferred baroque music and had little liking for Mahler once told me she could not understand why there should be so much discussion and disagreement over the interpretation of Mahler’s music since his scores were so fully detailed with instructions, unlike, say, the scores of J S Bach, where even a tempo marking is rare, let alone dynamics.

Then there is Elgar, who on a famous rehearsal record says to the London Symphony Orchestra, ‘Oh, can’t you make it go “Oh-eeh-da-daa-da” ‘.

These three examples illustrate that the score cannot tell us everything. We must also use our imagination and taste, two things about which it is not so easy to be certain.In short, music is so much more than the notes, something that even a lot of musicians seem not to understand. Those who do so intinctively are usually, but not always, rare interpreters of the order of Furtwangler and Schnabel. Listening to their performances gives us so much more than an accurate rendering of the notes, because of the way in which they seem to have revealed things in the music which are not obvious. Our delight is increased by the feeling that we are sharing in the creative, or recreative process. If this seems difficult to understand I may illustrate it by reference to literature. Since literature uses ordinary words the idea may be more easily grasped.

In Anthony Powell’s novel ‘A Question of Upbringing’ the narrator describes his friend’s rooms at Eton in 1921. ‘On the wall was a framed photograph, cut from an illustrated newspaper, of Stringham’s sister’s wedding: the groom in khaki, with an empty sleeve pinned to his tunic.’ Now the reader of pulp fiction, used to having the meanest detail explained to him, would think ‘ Why on earth is he telling us this? What’s it to do with the story? What is khaki, and why should he tell us the groom is in it, and why on earth shiould he pin an empty sleeve to his tunic? Why is he wearing a tunic anyway, and why are we told so?’. The reader of literature understands instinctively that he is not told all these things so that he can use his imagination in working out for himself that Stringham is growing up in a society in which the Great War, military service and the loss of a limb are accepted without comment as the background to everyday life, and, without stopping to congratulate himself on his deduction, he enjoys the book more for having made it.

In the same way Schnabel or Furtwangler do not stop to explain to us why they are making an unmarked rallentando, but the discerning listener will subconsciously think out the reason for himself and enjoy the music more (or less, if he is a Toscanini fan!) as a result.

We can enjoy music more, and also understand how much more important is music than we at first thought, if we can understand how closely linked it is to unspoken human experience. And the problems of writing down music and reconstituting it in performance are a key to understanding this. The more clearly and widely the composer’s intentions are understood (or can be assumed) the less detailed his instructions need to be. Thus Bach could leave out all but the notes, in confidence that his musicians would know how his music should be played. By the time Mahler wrote his symphonies there were so many different ways to play mere notes that the composer had to try to catch up by intensifying the instructions. So Mahler’s music is not easier to interpret because the score contains more instructions; rather, the score contains more instructions because the music is harder to interpret. The young Stravinsky was taken to task by Pierné for writing ‘non crescendo’ on the grounds that it was not necessary. Stravinsky knew better.

Of course the interpretation of baroque music is more difficult now than it was then, probably as difficult as Mahler, but it is as important to realise that this is for reasons more to do with us and our history than with the music itself. It would be a crude simplification, but a helpful one, to say that Bach believed in God and morality, and Debussy in neither. I think Deryck Cooke meant something like this in his reply to the criticism that whereas Beethoven was a truly great man, Mahler was like a great actor playing the part of a great man. Cooke said that whereas Beethoven was a man walking down a street which he knew and where he knew he was known, Mahler was like a man walking down an unfamiliar street where every turn and entry was filled with doubt and uncertainty. When God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world, and every one from the ploughboy via the vicar to the squire knows his place, there is less doubt about what music is and how to play it. We may lament the passing of such an age, or we may say it was a fool’s paradise, but we cannot interpret music successfully by pretending that such assumptions can still be made.


In a nutshell, I should say that the problem of interpretation is essentially the problem of interpreting music of other ages or other cultures. In the days when musicians played only the music of their own time (indeed, in the baroque era, only new music was played usually) all music was played the same way, according to one set of assumptions applicable to that age. We may argue endlessly (more of this later) about exactly what these assumptions were at any given point but the lack even of tempo and dynamic markings in their scores shows that composers seem to have had little fear of misinterpretation. They certainly did not need to write non crescendo ! The increase in the amount of detail coincides with the development of playing old music, and with the rate of social change , the overthrow of old assumptions and the increrasing literacy of the audience. This is not a red herring; we should examine all the changes that were taking place; they could be relevant.

‘Old’ music began to be revived and performed at the end of the eighteenth century. This coincided with a growing interest in history and nature, which was to lead to the geological and palaentological discoveries of the nineteenth century, and which in turn was a result of increased literacy. People were beginning to ask more questions about the past, which could not be answered by existing assumptions. This process continued in the twentieth century, perhaps excessively so, until it seemed everything had to be analysed, explained and pigeon-holed.

It was possible to play old music in the same way as new music only as long as the instrumentation was the same. As soon as performers were confronted with scoring for instruments which had become obsolete, or with obsolete ways of playing them, such as the high trumpet part in the second Brandenburg Concerto, then either the part must be changed or the music left unperformed. At first the solution was the same as would have been adopted by Bach and Handel themselves: the music was adapted for the forces available. This applied as well to cases where more instruments were available than were required in the score, as to works where the score could no longer be played as written. A well-known starting point for this process was Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. The original score was mostly for strings and continuo, but the forces available to Mozart contained the full range of classical wind instruments , while the baroque art of continuo improvisation had discontinued largely. The result was almost as much Mozart as Handel, since Mozart added new contrapuntal parts. Again, this was no more than a creative continuation of Handel’s own practice. His own later performances included more oboes and bassoons, and records show that he used two horns also, though no parts survive. This last addition was taken as a precedent by Ebenezer Prout who wrote in horn parts to his edition, to wonderful effect, as anyone can testify who heard Dennis Brain in the later part of I know that my Redeemer liveth. The process of adaptation continued until the obsolete instruments became available again , or until a change in taste required a return to the composer’s score and a rejection of the policy of ‘continuous improvement’. And just as the former process began with a social change, so the later reaction dates from the twentieth century’s reaction to the experience of the World Wars, after which, partly after the first but much more so after the second, the feeling grew that the past must be looked at in a refreshed way. The real stage of transition was in the 1950’s and ‘60s when ‘period instrument’ groups began to spread, and the last performances were heard in which modern instruments were substituted for unvailable ones.

Of course the change was gradual. Arnold Dolmetsch began reviving ‘period instruments’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, using modern instruments, was still considered stylishly authentic in the 1970’s. Robert Craft’s American recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers in 1962 used modern oboes instead of cornetti, and as late as the ‘70s and ‘80s I heard Vivaldi’s Gloria without any keyboard continuo, and Beethoven’s first symphony without trumpets.

More interesting and significant was the change of attitude. It became not only the practice to adopt a different attitude but it became almost morally respectable to do so. Performances which went back to what was imagined to be the peformances of the composer’s time were called ‘authentic’ and performers who did not fall in line were accused of ‘playing Bach in the style of Brahms’. Lengthy research was done into the performance practice of the period the music was composed. The idea was rejected that the composer would, had he still been alive, have adapted his music for the more modern resources, as indeed had Handel and Bach. In time it seemed that what these zealots were trying to escape was not so much a modernised performance but simply the way the music had been performed by the previous generation. They unconsciously substituted a twentieth-century style for a nineteenth. Bach in the style of Brahms was replaced by Monteverdi in the style of Stravinsky, with similar damage to the spirit of the music.

How wrong this all was can be heard when we listen to recordings of baroque music made before the ‘authenticity’ epidemic broke out. I am thinking of recordings of the Mass in B minor conducted by Albert Coates in 1928 and by Herbert von Karajan in 1951, and of the St.Matthew Passion conducted by Willem Mengelberg in 1939, Reginald Jaques in 1947 and Wilhelm Furtwangler in 1954. All these performances are infinitely more profound and revealing of the music’s greatness than any which give priority to ‘period practice’ . It is not surprising; the modern instruments had a much richer range of expression. It does not seem to have occurred to the ‘authenticists’ that baroque composers regarded their music as exceeding the limits of the instruments of their day. But ultimately, great performances are given by great performers, such as Friedrich Schorr, Manoug Parikian, Kathleen Ferrier, Karl Erb and Anton Dermota, to mention a few who grace the recordings I mentioned . If you lived outside London in the eighteenth century your only chance of hearing large-scale music well performed would be every year or three years when you had ‘The Festival’. The best local players and guest singers from London and even abroad, would combine to give memorable performances of ‘Judas Maccabeus’ and other favourites. Because you had little to compare it with except memory of previous festivals it would all seem marvellous. Indeed, it probably did not occur to the audience to compare one performance with another. If somone said, ‘this singer is not as good as X who sang here 20 years ago’ it would mean little, especially if we could not hear X sing again. Performers had little competition from the past. They could say ‘you may think X was better but X is dead; you must hear us instead.’ But if you lived outside London in the last fifty years performers could not say ‘You will have to hear us because Furtwangler is dead’ without you saying , ‘Ah, but I have his records and I prefer to listen to them.’ This is even more relevant now that the great prformances of the past are available in fine digital remasterings. All today’s musicians can say is, ‘yes but he didn’t do it properly. We do it differently. We are more authentic because we use period instruments.’ The period instrument movement began with the laudable aim of discovering something new about old music by recreating the performances of the time, as an interesting historical exercise, but it seems to have ended in dogma and self-interest. Meanwhile there is still a shortage of conductors who can give a landmark performance of a classical symphony, while connoisseurs still hark back to the past and listen mostly to performances by artists now dead. How did this happen and what can be done about it?


The earliest musicians we can hear on records were of course members of a generation who regarded a performance as something which could be heard once only before it vanished into inaudibility. It is almost certain then that they heard music differently from someone who has always taken for granted the ability to replay a performance. The only way we can approach this concept is when we hear a piece of music which we may not be able to hear ever again, though whether it is actually possible to listen in the same way they did remains conjectural. What is certain is the evidence of their surviving performances, from which it is clear that occasional errors were considered not worth correcting at the expense of the overall excitement of the performance. By comparison, recordings made by musicians who have always known replay, are characterised by a caution over getting the notes and their execution right, and the performances are usually less exciting as a result.

There is more to it than this. Performances of Sibelius’ music by Robert Kajanus, who was in his seventies when he made his famous recordings, nine years older than Sibelius and a true ninetenth-century man, often sound not just imprecise but rough and coarse. Yet this was the conductor recommended by Sibelius to the record companies. And the London Symphony Orchestra could and did play most beautifully at this time in recordings by Piero Coppola and Sir Edward Elgar. Clearly Kajanus did not regard beauty of sound as a priority. So are we wrong? Karajan’s recordings of Sibelius were at the opposite extreme, models of smoothness and precision, yet they (if Walter Legge’s account is believed) were preferred by Sibelius himself even to recordings by such a famous Sibelius conductor as Beecham.

Generally, though, recorded performances have become ‘tamer’. The last conductors to produce in the studio the excitement of old-style performances were Barbirolli (for example in his recording of Ireland’s These things shall be ) and Beecham in Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Psalm 13. In 1926 one of Elgar’s first electrical recordings was a hair-raising account of part of The Banner of St. George and in 1937 Vaughan Williams recorded in Studio 1 an astonishing, hell-for-leather performance of his F minor Symphony. Recordings of actual performances, such as beecham’s 1934 account of Songs of Sunset or Furtwangler’s 1937 Covent Garden Walkure have an intensity not encountered in their studio recordings. Conductors of recent generations seem quite unable to produce this excitement. A different approach seems to be preferred, but how can it be ‘authentic’ when compared with the composers’ performances? When Sir Adrian Boult died in 1982 there was talk of ‘the end of an era’ and although the concert promoters and record companies are keen to maintain the idea that ‘superstar’ conductors are as thick on the ground as ever, there was certainly a gap between the generation of Beecham, Boult, Furtwangler, Klemperer, Kleiber, and that of Abbado, Mehta, Maazel, and the younger generation such as Rattle and Salonen. World war II was blamed for ‘taking away a whole generation’, and certainly where there is a gap the generation after that seems to have difficulty finding its feet. Leslie Heward, Constant Lambert, Hyam Greenbaum, Sergiu Celibidache, and Herbert von Karajan represented a generation which produced few survivors after 1945. And as if to emphasise the shortage of real talent, the following generation came of age when recording and broadcasting blossomed to give them bigger and bigger audiences. It certainly did not show them at their best when they all wanted to record all of Beethoven’s symphonies. The Vienna Philharmonic must be very tired of the number of conductors who without any particular claim to such repertoire feel that they must record the Beethoven symphonies with the VPO. It is worse when such ‘superstars’ go on to feel that they must demonstrate their greatness by recording the St. Matthew Passion and even the Ring, if they can , without it occurring to them that perhaps it was better done before by others. The Solti/Decca Ring was rightly praised as a pioneering achievement, though it is largely valuable now for the quality of the recording and orchestral playing, but it might easily have been otherwise. EMI were in the course of a complete studio Ring with Furtwangler in Vienna, and had the money and the will been available, the Decca Ring could have been recorded in 1955 - 7 with Flagstad as Brunnhilde. Even earlier than the studio Rings, EMI and Decca had made complete recordings at Bayreuth in 1951, and had either of these been issued commercially the Solti version would probably not have been considered viable.

But then one could go on endlessly about the fascinating ‘might-have-beens’ of recording history, of which even a short list might read:

Kreisler, Elgar violin concerto. Gerontius with Gervase Elwes (had he not died in 1919) and perhaps Elgar conducting. Beecham conducting a complete Prince Igor or Rosenkavalier. Furtwangler conducting Parsifal instead of Walkure in 1954, of which we already have two recordings, one with Flagstad. Others might include Vaughan Williams conducting some of his symphonies in Stereo, since he still conducted them publicly in the mid-50s.

Of course no-one would admit it but it seems not unlikely that the lack of excitement and spontanaeity in performances by more recent conductors is due to their use of recordings as models. One of the first to do this was Solti who admitted using Elgar’s recording as a model for his interpretation of the first symphony. Clearly Toscanini and Furtwangler did not do this and the originality of their accounts of the repertoire must have something to do with their ability to look carefully at the score first and draw their own conclusions. Music is so intangible that it is too easy to imagine it as you have heard it, which too often means copying someone else’s interpretation. This leads to some rather unimaginative trends such as the post-war drive towards ever more loud, snappy, volcanic performances of Beehoven’s Fifth symphony. Many new conductors seemed to have no idea but to use it as a showpiece for their command of the orchestra. Then came Klemperer who cared nothing for such things and gave some very contemplative performances such as those that have survived on record. I am thinking particularly of his 1951 Vox revcording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and his 1959 Philharmonia recording.

This has parallels with other areas of life. Information technology provides models and templates to speed up writing tasks. People even use them to compose letters to their friends, with a consequent loss of the personal touch. The pressure of the commercial world imposes a standardisation on everything in search of the universally saleable model. Individuality is an uneconomic luxury. In such a climate the symphony orchestra wih its increasing costs has been seen as a dinosaur. Conductors have less and less time to spend on interpretation, since they are expected to pay their way with educational schemes , mixed-media and mixed-genre projects to earn money for the orchestra in a television age. Even the position of the ‘classics’ has been attacked in a society which resents what it sees as ‘elitism’ and wants its heritage of Bob Dylan et al. to be regarded as not inferior. This cannot but produce a dilution of effort and result as increasingly superficial performances are made to represent the great music of the past. When people tire of such renderings they will think they are tired of the music itself. It is therefore more important that ‘landmark’ interpretations continue to be generated, that conductors of imagination and vision continue to examine the great scores and reveal more of the inexhaustible riches they contain.

For this reason it is important to reject preconceptions about the repertoire. For example, it has been long rgarded as axiomatic that the Brandenburg Concertos must only be played on ’period instruments’ with their feeble, inexpressive tone, and fast tempi which avoid any suspicion of ‘romanticism’ and at the same time show off the snappy, pert, glossy late-twentieth-century proficiency of the performers in order to secure them an invitation from the next concert promoter. This dogmatic approach has robbed symphony orchestras of a lot of their former repertoire. One solution is to look again at these pieces and to reclaim them for the symphony orchestra in challenging new interpretations.


I have mentioned the Brandenburg Concertos because of their endless poularity, but also because they seem capable of an endless variety of interpretation, though I believe the same composer’s ‘orchestral’ Suites, as they are known, are just as worthy. The beginning of complete recordings by small groups such as the Ecole Normale and the Busch Chamber Players did not preclude new and vital interpretations by larger orchestras, notably Koussevitztky’s refreshing set. A brave attempt to vary the trend towards ‘period’ performances was the recording by Boult and the LPO in the mid seventies. This was calimed to be the ‘Bach of 1902’ a reference to the London performances by Steinbach and the Meiningen Orchestra, when presumably Boult first heard them. Something seems to have happened during the production, though, as the later concertos featured a slimmed down orchestra and even a harpsichord in no.5 instead of the piano used as late as 1950 by Edwin Fischer. Perhaps one day we hall have a really fresh reinterpreatation of these works, and maybe of other eighteenth-century repertoire such as Handels’s Opus 6 concerti and Mozart’s symphonies.

Another way forward is to rediscover neglected masterpieces of the recent past. Sir Thomas Beecham lamented that, in an age of iron, when so little new music attractive to audiences was being produced, conductors were not looking back to a former age when there was such an over-pruduction of tuneful music that much of it was soon forgotten. We have a parallel situation today when in a reaction to the unpopularity of sixties’ avant garde, composers seem to have regressed like architects into pseudo-Georgian tastefulness. Year after year the new offerings at the Proms are weaker and weaker, hardly worth listening to at all, yet good performances of the classics are as rare as ever. But ever since the early 1960s, since ‘Gruppen’ and ‘Pli selon Pli’ the stage has been wide open for a new master of his own idiom, as was Stravinsky in his day.

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