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.
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).