Such is the canonisation of classical music and the veneration of those who wrote, and write it, that the “composer’s intentions” are generally regarded as sacrosanct. Look at the value placed on “urtext” and autograph scores as receptacles of the “sacred text”, and the demands placed on musicians from the moment they begin their training to faithfully carry out the composer’s “intentions” (such “intentions” generally being defined by teachers, examiners, competition jurors, critics rather than the composers themselves).

Performers are regularly and fulsomely praised for their adherence to “the composer’s intentions” or castigated for not respecting them. Performances which are deemed to respect the composer’s intentions are often held up as definitive and are then used as benchmarks by which other performances are measured. Alongside this comes high praise for the performer who becomes “invisible” and stands back in deference to “let the music speak for itself”. But this is ridiculous because the music requires a performer to bring it to life and communicate and shape the musical experience for the audience. Thus the performer becomes a crucial participant in this process:

The composer needs an intermediary-performer, a creative interpreter of his composition……..A musician-interpreter, at one and the same time, realizes his connection to the composer’s intentions, and realizes himself as an artistic personality: acknowledging both the enormous importance of the author of the composition – and at the same time his own role in the realization of the composer’s ideas

– Samuel Feinberg

Yet when playing the music written by dead composers, what else do we, the musicians, have to guide us to these hallowed “intentions” beyond the notes and markings on the score? There is, of course, plenty of scholarship on performance practices from past eras, and also contemporary accounts of how, for example, Chopin or Debussy played their music, and for composers such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev we have early recordings (though it comes as quite a shock to those who slavishly champion the composer’s intentions to find that Rachmaninoff’s own performances are at variance with his own published scores!). But such material is really only a vehicle for curiosity and theorising: we may believe it brings us closer to the composer’s vision, but we can never get inside the composer’s head nor hear the music as the composer heard it, as they intended it to be heard.

Period instruments are frequently held up as a way to properly understand composer intentions. Perhaps the most amusing (to me, at least) is when the music of Schubert, for example, is played on keyboard instruments from his era and commentators wax lyrical about how we can “hear the music as Schubert himself heard it”. Which is of course nonsense: you can no more hear the music as Schubert heard it than hear the music as I hear it because our listening experience is entirely personal. Period instruments offer insights into compositional details such as articulation, dynamics, tempo, musical semantics and aesthetics, and are useful research tools, but they will not transport us back to a Viennese Schubertiade or Chopin’s Parisian salon.

historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right

Charles Rosen (Piano Notes)

With contemporary music, questions about the composer’s intentions are often more practical than historical, and when working on a score by a living composer, one does at least have the option of discussing the score with the composer and asking the question “what did you mean here?” (and such questions may simply be a means of clarifying an ambiguous marking). Composers often find their original intentions shift when they first hear their music played by others and thus their intent and meaning is informed and shaped by the musician’s interpretation of the score and their individual personality (back to that quote by Feinberg, above).

The work of music may be the expression of an individual sensibility, and we may say the same of a performance: but once published, once played, they have become public property. That is why we can maintain that a composer does not always knows how best to interpret his own work. His knowledge of the piece may be more intimate at first, but he cannot control future performances, and his opinion of how to play it may be interesting but is not absolutely privileged

– Charles Rosen,

Composers don’t have total ownership of their music: once published, it becomes material to be shared with others – other musicians and listeners. Through music, composers create a vehicle for the performer to communicate with the audience but the performer is not a passive participant because a score cannot “play itself”.  Performers take ownership of the music through their own interpretation – their decision on how to play the music informed by what is set out in the score, and also their knowledge, experience and imagination (the latter perhaps being the most important in terms of creating an interesting or exciting performance). Returning to the notion of the ‘invisible performer’, if musicians cannot bring their own personality to the music, then everyone and everything would sound largely the same. Music is as much the performer’s art and craft as the composer’s, and for the listener there should be as much excitement in a performer’s insights about a work, as demonstrated in their interpretation, as in the work itself. Why else do people seek out performances and recordings by certain performers – Andras Schiff, Daniil Trifonov, Angela Hewitt or Mitsuko Uchida, for example?

 

Thus the score, and the composer’s intentions as set out within it, is not the end point but rather the point of departure for the performer. We should not disregard what is set out in the score, but use it as a springboard for independent thought, musical curiosity and interpretative possibilities. This music must be read with care, knowledge and imagination – without necessarily believing every note and word that is printed (composers are not “always right”!). We make considered judgements and interpretative decisions in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by our own musical understanding, imagination and artistry, and trends in current performance practice. Additionally, the differences, both in interpretation, and indeed listening preferences, are determined and/or influenced by factors which are not exclusively musical, such as personality, education, culture, age or, even one’s mood in the moment of performance. At this point, the musician goes “beyond the notes” and the markings in the score to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

…what bestows upon the performer the status of artist and on the performance the status of art, is the real, full-bloodied possibility of the performer finding a better or at least different way of performing the music from the way the composer has specifically envisioned and explicitly instructed. This is what bestows upon the performance personal style and originality – what makes it the performer’s “version” of the work and not just the composer’s “version”.

– Peter Kivy, ‘Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance’ (Cornell University Press, 1995)


 


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There are cats and kittens all over the internet. For some people it’s what social networks like Facebook and Twitter were created for: sharing pictures and video clips of cats doing funny things, cats doing cute things, cats doing daft things….. Or pictures of our own furry friends for us to collectively coo over.

Many of my pianist friends and colleagues own cats (I know this because they post pictures of their feline companions on Facebook and Twitter) and it strikes me that cats are good companions for pianists, being self-sufficient and far less demanding or attention-seeking than dogs. (My own cat, a blue Burmese called Freddy, used to sit on the lid of the piano when I was practising, or join me on the piano bench, leaning gently against me as I played.)

Just when we thought there wasn’t room for another blog or website featuring cats and kittens, along came Pianists With Kittens, a delightfully witty Tumblr photo-blog which contains pictures of famous pianists with kittens and cats Photoshopped into the pictures. It’s a simple idea, but it works because it is executed so well. The choice and the placement of the cat or kitten is both thoughtful and humorous:  Garrick Ohlsson seemingly in conversation with a hairless cat, a wide-eyed cat peeping round Maurizio Pollini, a stripey ginger kitty hangs from the arm of Vestard Shimkus, a tabby dives over the shoulder of Nikolai Lugansky, the tail of a disappearing cat in a picture of Lang Lang madly emoting, a kitten flying through the air, as if tossed out of the piano by the extravagant gestures of Yuja Wang. There are many famous pianists featured on the site – late greats such as Richter, Ciccolini, Kempf, Hoffman, Gould, Lipatti, even Chopin and Mozart, as well as living artists, and each picture is accompanied by a YouTube clip allowing one to listen to the featured pianist. Those of us who follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter have taken to nominating pianists to be featured on the site, and I was honoured last autumn to be featured myself on the site, with my beloved cat Freddy of course. Now it is quite an accolade to be included on the Pianists With Kittens site.

I caught up with the creator of Pianists with Kittens to find out more about how this charming site came to be

Who or what inspired you to create Pianists With Kittens? 

The idea for Pianists With Kittens came first from a scholar-pianist friend, Alex Stefaniak, who learned in the course of his research that Clara Schumann was a fan of kittens—no less a source than Franz Liszt reports that she used to return to the piano with bloody hands from playing with them! So I made a (clumsy) photoshop of her with a kitten and immediately my friends requested other pianists.

clarawkitten1

By popular demand, the Tumblr came into being and then the Twitter account. (NB: Pianists will want to keep an eye out for Prof. Stefaniak’s book on the Schumanns and virtuosity. Should be out in the next year.)

What is your own musical background? Are you a pianist? 

I grew up with classical music on 24/7, so it always seemed a neccessary accompaniment to life, not something to study for a “career.” Now I’m a professional in the music world, but piano is still my hobby.

Do you own a cat/kitten? 

A cat and a kitten. The older cat sits at my side when I play piano.

What is your earliest memory of the piano? 

Classical piano music was probably on while I was in the womb, but I first became aware of the instrument as such when my parents brought one into the house. I was 6 and started lessons the next year.

Who are your favourite pianists (living and dead)? 

I think my tastes in dead pianists are not particularly controversial. Seems that posterity has done a good job with this already. Richter tops my list as I’ve previously written here. Among his contemporaries, I’ll always give a listen to Yudina and Gilels, Sofronitsky, Lipatti. Young Horowitz belongs on this list too.

Among the 19th-century babies, of course Rachmaninoff himself. I love anything Carl Friedberg plays, his Brahms and Schumann were revelatory to me. And the other “fried”– Friedman, for his Chopin. I think just about everything Myra Hess touches is gold, such warmth in her German rep – love her Op109. I like to imagine that warmth is what Clara Schumann must have conveyed in her playing.

Cortot is a favorite. There’s nothing new to be said about his amazing pianism, and I love his wrong notes as much as the right ones. His name always seemed paired with Chopin, then I heard his Schumann and liked it even more.

Notably absent from this list are some greats of the Golden Era. I find too much of that repertoire superficial (part of that impression is because of recording technology: hard to record a complete 50-minute Schubert sonata à la Richter).

Among the living, it gets more difficult. There’s a whole generation that leaves me pretty cold (the Perahia-Schiff-Uchida generation). My tastes still tend to the Eastern European, so I’d rather hear Leonskaja, Virsaladze, Pletnev, even Pogorelich than those who often grace concert halls in the West—and forget the States! And for the new century so far, Daniil Trifonov.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

When I was a small child (3 or 4) and taken to a local college symphony concert: they played the Candide Overture and I thought it was just the coolest thing.

Favourite pieces to play/listen to? 

Too hard to name favorite pieces! I play Bach and Mozart all the time and I love them; can spend hours reading through WTC. Brahms, too, as much of it I can play. As for listening, whatever requires so much pianistic finesse/technique that I can’t stumble through it satisfactorily myself: Chopin, Russian rep, the “Impressionist” pieces.

If you could play one piece what would it be……? 

I have small hands, so. . . if I magically were to become a great concert pianist with a great orchestra and conductor around, then maybe one of the Brahms or Rachmaninoff concerti.

Follow Pianists With Kittens on Twitter at @PianistswKitten

Tumblr: http://pianistswithkittens.tumblr.com/