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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Over the past weeks and months I have been working, amongst other things, on pieces by two great composers of music for the piano – Beethoven and Schubert (the Piano Sonata in A flat, Opus 26, and the Impromptu in F minor, D935/1 respectively). For both pieces, I have been working from the Henle urtext edition of the score.

A good urtext score is the result of careful scholarly research and editing, offering a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful indication of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

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But before we start exploring interpretative possibilities the music offers,  it is important that we study the score carefully, taking note of the composer’s directions and markings. As I say to my students, the score is our “map”, with “signposts” to guide us in tempo, mood, expression, articulation, dynamics. At a simplistic level, these markings tell us “how to play the notes”, and we ignore them at our peril.  These markings are also the composer’s personal “signs”, indicating to us how he/she imagined the music and illuminating for us, at a distance of often several hundred years, how he/she expected it to sound. Some composers write very little in their scores, but what they do write is precious and important; others offer very clear instructions and even some very quirky ones (Olivier Messiaen, for example, even added his annotations about the “colours” of notes and chords as he perceived them as a synaesthete, and Satie’s Gnossiennes are liberally annotated with curious quotes). Composers knew what they were doing and many were experienced performers themselves (Beethoven, for example, before his deafness forced him to retire from public performances), with clear indications of how to bring their music to life, and, in piano music, how to create different textures and suggest different instruments, from a woodwind solo to a full orchestral tutti.

Last year, I worked with one of my students on the Rondo from Beethoven’s Sonatina in F Anh. 5 as part of his Grade 4 exam programme. This (and the other Sonatinas) is a wonderful introduction to Beethoven’s piano music, in particular the piano sonatas, and offered my student (and me as teacher) an important lesson in showing fidelity to the score. I think my student grew quite bored of me saying “Read the score! Look at the details!” at every lesson, to impress upon him the importance of following Beethoven’s directions. This score is not so heavily annotated with directions as the Opus 26 Sonata on which I am currently working, but it has enough in it to demonstrate Beethoven’s clear intentions, in particular suggesting different instruments (staccato in the opening measures suggests woodwind – bassoons and oboes), textures (the forte at bar 4 suggests the full orchestra and demands a rich, orchestral sound), and expression (note that the D minor section is largely played legato, adding to the more sombre, lyrical mood of this section). By accurately observing the markings as written in the score, my student was able to create a colourful and faithful reading of this work, largely based on what he had in front of him on the page.

By the same token, the markings in the Sonata Opus 26 offer clear instructions as to how the piece should be played. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven suggests string-quartet textures and string articulation in both the organisation of the main melodic line, interior harmonies and melodies, and accompaniments, and also through detailed articulation, indicated by staccato, drop slurs and sforzandi. In addition, his very specific dynamic markings lend drama and colour to the music. I find the opening movement, a theme and five variations, most intriguing because of Beethoven’s interest in exploring rhythm, articulation and texture as a means of creating variants on the opening theme: the melody is always there, but in each subsequent variation it is cleverly embedded. In the final variation, all the string quartet textures are given glorious full rein in music of great lyricism and wit.  (It is worth listening to the second movement of the Opus 47 Sonata for Piano and Violin, the ‘Kreutzer’, also a theme and variations, with reference to the opening movement of the Opus 26.)

Schubert, like Beethoven, had clear ideas of how he intended his music to be played. There are certain pianists who choose to ignore Schubert’s directions, perhaps the most cavalier sin of omission being the exposition repeat in the final piano sonata. British pianist Stephen Hough describes this movement as “Schubert’s miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism” – and I feel this sentiment also applies to the repeats in the Impromptu D935/1. The sections in question (bars 69-83 and 84-109) are the first time we hear a beautiful and tender “trio” of duetting fragments in treble and bass, with a undulating semiquaver accompaniment which provides the harmonic structure, a structure which is, in itself miraculous. To hear these sections a second time seems to highlight the delicate poignancy in the music, and lends greater contrast and drama to the sections which precede it and the reprise of the opening motif at bar 115.

Often, the composer’s markings can also tell us a great deal about the kind of instrument with which the composer was working. For example, Chopin’s pedal markings tell us as much about the kind of piano he was used to working on as his musical ideas. Sometimes, coming at these markings with modern sensibilities and a big resonant modern instrument, we might feel his instructions are “wrong”, but it is possible to make small adjustments (a half-pedal mid-bar to avoid a muddy sound or dissonance) and remain true to the spirit of Chopin’s intentions. I was fortunate enough to experience a “Chopin piano” when I played the Pleyel (c1846) at the Cobbe Collection in Surrey. The piano offered many insights into Chopin’s markings and an important reminder that Chopin’s soundworld was more softly-spoken and delicate than some recreations of his sound on a modern concert instrument.

Another prime example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. At the start, Beethoven gives the direction “sempre pp e senza sordini“. “Senza sordini” translates as “without mutes”, i.e. with the dampers lifted away from the strings by depressing the right pedal. If one were to follow this direction literally on a modern piano, the sound would be very muddy, especially on a large, resonant concert instrument, and the wondrous harmonic changes would be obscured. In Beethoven’s day the piano was considerably more “feeble”, smaller and far less resonant than a modern instrument, and the sound of the undamped strings would not last through the slow changes of harmony. To recreate something like the sound Beethoven probably intended, the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old.

So, sometimes we have to make considered judgements in order to balance fidelity to the score and the possibilities offered by the modern instrument. As Charles Rosen says in his ‘Piano Notes’, “historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we can never be sure we are getting it right” and an effective performance is usually one which “respects the composer’s directions with absolutely fidelity and yet with imagination”. The performer has a responsibility to adhere to the composer’s directions, but this can lead to difficulties too. If we religiously follow the directions, we can of course produce a very faithful rendering of the music, but it may not be the most interesting version.

This leads us to “interpretation”, which can be defined as an ability to bring one’s imagination and personality to the music. This has its own difficulties – too much of the performer’s own imagination and personality can obscure the music, too little may result in a dull and colourless performance. The best and most memorable interpretations and performances are usually those where the performer fully convinces the audience that he or she has taken “ownership” of the music and made it their own, the result of the artist creating a version of the music that is meaningful and convincing to them personally. At this point, the musician has gone “beyond the notes” and the markings to create something that is both personal and true to the spirit of the composer’s intentions.

This freedom of interpretation is not an easy state to achieve and is something which develops over a long time – time spent living with the music, studying it (away from the piano as well as at the piano), absorbing all the details and nuances, getting to the heart of the music to discover its “meaning” and narrative, “listening around” the music to gain insights into the composer’s style and soundworld, and to set the music in context, an understanding of performance practice, historical contexts and musical taste.

An interesting, simple question of interpretation came up in a recent lesson with a student who is working on Wiegenlied (Lullaby) by Zilcher, a Grade 3 piece. The piece opens in warm F major, with a cantabile figure in the right hand redolent of the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite (I suggested my student listen to this piece for reference). The dynamic range of the music is small, mostly p and mp, retaining the gentle, drowsy mood. The first section ends with a piano marking, before the music moves into D minor and the mood changes. But the dynamic marking is still piano. I suggested to my student that she might consider a more intense sound here, to signal the change of mood. “But how can that p [at the end of the F major section] be different to that one? [start of D minor section] and how do you know that?” asked my student. I explained that not all piano markings are equal (likewise forte, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano et al!) and that it is down to us, as performers, to interpret the markings and make a considered judgement – based on what we see in the score and our knowledge of the music and the context of the music in general.

Back to the D935 Impromptu, and there are similar considerations of interpretation of dynamics. For example, bar 44 is marked pianissimo – and so is bar 45. But bar 44 is a bridging bar from the descending octave passage which precedes it and an introduction to the new material which follows. I feel it is important to differentiate the pianissimo markings here to signpost what is happening in narrative of the music. Later, at bar 90, the decrescendo suggests not only a diminution in sound but also a relaxation in the tempo (“rubato”). Schubert could have indicated this more clearly, with a rallentando or ritardando marking, but he didn’t, and so one is left to one’s musical instincts, knowledge of Schubert’s writing, his distinctive soundworld to decide how to treat bars or passages like this. Likewise, a crescendo may suggest stringendo (“pressing forward”) to create a greater intensity.

There is of course much to be gained in listening to recordings to gain insight into other performers’ myriad interpretations, and to offer inspiration, but never to imitate, for the following reason:

…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’ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 197.

(with thanks to Graham Fitch’s excellent blog Practising the Piano).