Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Socratic Interpretation of Music

At nearly the beginning of Western thought stands the enigmatic figure of Socrates (469/470 BC - 399 BC). One indicator of his influence is that some law professors to this very day use the "Socratic method", based on asking questions to eliminate faulty hypotheses, in their teaching. Oh, and scientific method is also based on Socrates. In Plato's Apology, Socrates' philosophical life began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that no-one was wiser. Socrates, skeptical of how this could be, proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. But Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct. While so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Knowing that one does not know is the highest wisdom.

I have played Bach for over forty years on guitar. Indeed, the piece that was probably more influential than any other in causing me to study classical guitar in a disciplined way was the Chaconne from the D minor Partita for violin. Andres Segovia transcribed it for guitar and ever since, it has been at the pinnacle of the guitar repertoire. Let's have a listen to John Williams. This is from a concert in Toronto in 1987 and I think the quality of the performance more than makes up for the quality of the sound.

Ironically, I have never quite gotten around to playing the Chaconne in concert, though I have played several lute and cello suites and many other individual pieces by Bach. In addition to giving hundreds of performances of the music of Bach, I have also read twenty or so books on Bach and an equal number on Baroque performance practice. I have also, of course, listened to dozens if not hundreds of other performers' interpretations of Bach. But I have never quite felt confident about how I play Bach and a couple of years ago I said to a friend of mine, who has also played Bach for forty years or so that "I don't know how to play Bach." She looked at me with frank astonishment! Why would I say that? Bach poses big challenges to a performer. Big challenges. I think that I had gone through a period of real growth in my musical understanding, perhaps sparked by a greater focus on my own composition, and as a result, had come to feel that the way I had played Bach was perhaps not adequate. Mind you, I probably was starting to feel this about most performances of Bach!

So for me, the way forward, was to sweep aside all the underbrush, all the accumulated detritus of Bach interpretation and look at it with really fresh eyes. Step one, admit that you know nothing! I don't think most performers realize how much the way they play Bach is piggy-backed on the way generations of performers have played Bach. There are few that really make a fresh start. On the guitar, John Williams is one. But the greatest renewed approach to Bach interpretation is, of course, Glenn Gould, whose 80th birthday would have been yesterday. Let us listen to a whole bunch of his re-thought from scratch J. S. Bach. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1:

The unexamined interpretation is not worth playing!


Nathan Shirley said...

Excellent, thought provoking post, as usual. Finally having some free time to read The Music Salon reminds me how much I've been missing.

That is my new favorite performance by Williams. My current favorite on violin is Kremer- fantastic stuff.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! I think I was actually at that Toronto concert. He recorded it on The Baroque Album which is still available on Amazon:

Thanks for the tip on Kremer, I'll have a listen.