Monday, July 25, 2011


I ended my post on expertise with this quote from Wittgenstein:
It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.
Wittgenstein was a huge figure in 20th century philosophy who also knew a bit about music. His older brother Paul was a famous concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI. After the war he simply re-commenced his career, but now as a left-handed pianist! Amazing story. Both Prokofiev and Ravel wrote concertos for the left hand for him.

But back to interpretation: "how the music should be played". This is a funny word for what musical performers do. Interpreters do things like work for the UN and translate Thai into German. Music, while it may have arguably language-like aspects, is not a language. Musical scores are not like a written foreign language that needs to be translated into musical sound (which is also not a language). But we don't seem to have another word for what performers do. What do they do?

Here are some different performances of the well-known prelude to the First Cello Suite of Bach (it was used in the movie Master and Commander):

 Mischa Maisky:
Yo-Yo Ma:
Mstislav Rostropovich:
Pablo Casals:
Anner Bylsma:
Irina Kulikova (on guitar):
Jacques Bono (electric bass):
Because I am a kind and gentle soul I will spare you the version on baritone saxophone.

Don't you love YouTube? Listening to those different versions, especially if you do it several times, will probably give you more of a sense of the concept of musical interpretation than anything I am likely to say. But I'll say it anyway!

Here is a relevant quote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." What Leo Tolstoy says of families is partly true of musical interpretation. You probably noticed that there was a kind of generalized agreement on a lot of the way the piece should be played. Apart from small differences in tempo, Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich are not that far apart. Casals was recorded probably back in the 1930s, so the feel for the piece was a little different. Bylsma is playing on an original instrument, meaning one from the same time period as the composition and he is also using gut strings, so he makes a different sound. And on guitar there is a huge difference because the strings are plucked, not bowed.

But somehow the word "interpretation" just doesn't cut it for me. It pushes you in entirely the wrong direction. Music notation is not interpreted. It is read just the way poetry is read. The 'words' are quite clear. An interpreter from Thai to German has a lot of options in choosing the right word. A musical performer does not. The composer wrote a G, you play a G--you don't "interpret" it as a B flat. Tempo is obviously a place where there is some ambiguity. But notice that all the versions are about two and a half minutes, give or take twenty seconds or so. The same player might vary that much from one day to another.

I think that what players do is akin to someone reading poetry. If one person just picks up a poem and reads it aloud, that is one thing. If another person, who has thought about and researched the meaning of the poem for years picks it up and reads it aloud, that is quite a different thing. That is what musical 'interpretation' really is. Understanding as it shapes the performance.

So interpretation is the wrong word. But I just can't think what the right one would be. Any ideas?

UPDATE: I was delighted to read in the Guardian in the review of the 5th week of the Proms that Bernard Haitink is entirely of my way of thinking about interpretation: his interval chat with the presenter and conductor Charles Hazelwood, Haitink answered a question about how his interpretation of Brahms had developed over the years with a wonderfully wrong-footing answer: "this word 'interpretation' should be forbidden … We have these wonderful scores and what we have to do is make sense of them. Why can't we just make music?"
 Nothing "wrong-footing", whatever that means, about that answer. That's just how it is. Music doesn't need 'interpretation' it just needs to be played.


Gavin said...

I very much disagree with this. Partly, it may be my interest in early music, where even the instrumentation can vary from performance to performance, not to mention the ornamentation choices. But I also think you've stacked the deck a bit with your choice of the Cello Prelude, which I think happens to be much more uniformly performed than a lot of other pieces (not saying that you were deceptive, of course, just that the prelude is exceptional).

But I have 3 recordings of the Bach lute suites on guitar, and they're pretty different. Sharon Isbin takes a highly ornamented, relatively slow approach (her allemande in e minor is just over 3 minutes), whereas John Williams takes a much faster tempo, with no ornamentation at all (his allemande is under 2 minutes).

And the lautenwerk recording I have is even more different, and not just the timbre. (By the way, I think anyone interested in the lute suites should listen to a lautenwerk recording or two. Although my last guitar teacher disagreed with me :) ).

On the piano, there's the never-ending debate of how much pedal to use in playing Bach, which again can lead to substantial differences in the sound.

Bryan Townsend said...

As the post is over four years old, I'm not even sure if I agree! Thanks very much for the comment.

This is quite a subtle question, I suspect, which is why I was interested in talking about it. Yes, depending on what piece you choose you might find much greater variation in things like tempo. I guess my basic point is that while there is variation, there is a zone in which most good performances will tend to fall.

Gavin said...

It was so cool to find your blog (on that Haydn symphony 39 post) that I jumped back to the beginning to start reading. So that's why I'm hitting old posts (think of it as a compliment :) ).

I guess what I was driving at, though, was not just about changes in tempi. The Williams and Isbin recordings have a really different feel to them. Or another example might be the Villa-Lobos prelude #4. Do you take the middle section as an abrupt change in tempo, or as a gradual accelerando? I do the latter, but a lot of performers do the former. To my ears, the abrupt change sounds completely wrong, but there's vertainly nothing in the text that I could point to to justify that opinion.

Of course there's a zone, just as in language interpretation, where you have to balance multiple things (fidelity to the meaning, fidelity to the feel, etc). But in performance, I think there's a balance between tempo, bringing out voices, etc. For example, I don't think anyone plays Rodrigo's fandango as slowly as Bream, but I also don't think anyone else is as successful at bringing out its contrapuntalism. So that's totally a balancing act, just as, say, in translating Homer you have to choose if you want a strict or loose meter, do you want the style to sound archaic (because to his audience some of it was archaic), etc.

as you can tell, I'm just noodling a bit here, so hopefully this makes some kind of sense.

Bryan Townsend said...

A friend of mine who is a composer (he did a doctorate with Morton Feldman) attended a concert of mine once and brought some Villa-Lobos scores with him. I think he was studying how the guitar worked as he was going to be writing for it. In any case, afterwards we were talking and, after complimenting me on the performance, he asked "why is it that in every performance of such and such a piece (and I think it was the Villa-Lobos Prelude 1 or 4), everyone always leaves out all the glissandi? They are clearly marked." I looked and by gosh, he was right. There they were and I had been leaving them out, just like everyone else.

As I have moved from being primarily a performer to being primarily a composer, I suppose I have gotten to be a bit more of a literalist. Please guys, could you just play what I wrote? But of course, when you are talking about Bach or pre-Bach, the scores are very open to a lot of different interpretive ideas.

But you are absolutely right in relying on your ears to tell you what works and what doesn't.