Monday, April 24, 2006

The Tension Between the Ideal of Exact Realization and the Need for Reinterpretation and Revision

Stephen Blum, in his New Grove article on “Composition”, points out that,

Many societies place great value on songs, instrumental pieces, dances or ceremonies that have been received as gifts or acquired by inheritance, study, theft or purchase. Notions of the proper uses of existing compositions range from insistence on accurate reproduction to demands for continual reinterpretation and revision.[1]

This points out the dilemma and tensions facing performers of classical music. Within the classical tradition, we have conflicting imperatives to both accurately reproduce (i.e., “realize”) a score, and to “continually reinterpret” musical works. The demands for the former can cause classical music students and musicians to feel guilty if they find themselves engaging in the latter. One can feel shame at even thinking about playing a different dynamic than written. The sort of self-censorship which this strict textualist approach creates, and the widespread lack of encouragement for classical music students and performers to actively create their own music and in so doing nurture their creativity, leads both to dull performances and many times to musical burn out. (Around Music for People, it’s not uncommon to hear people to say, “I’m in recovery from my classical training.”)

Composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schuller have articulated the demand that performers faithfully follow the letter of a score, including all details of tempo, articulation, and dynamic marking. Metronome markings are to be followed strictly. Articulations must be performed exactly. If there’s a slur, slur; if there’s not, don’t. If there’s a ritard, ritard. If there’s not a ritard or an accelerando or a crescendo or a diminuendo, you must not.

While it’s true that many composers have a much less strict approach than, say, Schuller, the ethic of exact reproduction as taken hold, especially in the performance of post-Romantic music.

And yet many performers and, especially, audiences feel a need for and “demand” reinterpretation and, when it comes to tempos, rubato, etc., what might appropriately be termed “revision,” especially from strict textualist viewpoint. The most exciting and moving performances of classical music “fixed works” are often ones which do not follow the letter of the score, especially when it comes to details of tempo, rubato, dynamics, and articulation.

No one was a more celebrated cellist in the pre-Yo-Yo Ma era than Mstislav Rostropovich. And if there is any one piece he is most closely identified with, it is the Dvorak Cello Concerto. He must have performed it thousands of times, and made at least six recordings of it.

In the summer of 1979, I was studying at Tanglewood and heard an extraordinary performance of the Dvorak with “Slava” and the Boston Symphony. The sponsors of my fellowship had invited me to dinner and took me to the concert where I sat with them in choice box seats (which were quite a step up from the benches at the side of the Shed where Tanglewood fellows can sit for free).

It was mesmerizing. It was transporting. It was moving. It was exciting. It was dazzling. It was inspiring.

During the performance, I was enraptured.

After the performance, I was appalled.

Both at what Rostropovich “had done to” the music and at myself for enjoying it. For if there is anything that can be said to be consistent about Rostropovich’s performances of the Dvorak, other than his amazing technical skill and tremendous performing energy, it is the fact that he did not come anywhere close to following the letter of the score when it came to tempo indications (such as Dvorak’s metronome markings) and dynamics. His tempos were much Passages marked piano he played with a full-blooded forte (such as the opening of the second theme of the first movement). slower than Dvorak’s markings, and he added tempo changes, ritards, and accelerandos.

It was a spellbinding, electric performance. And yet, when I analyzed it later on, I decided it was also a musical travesty, since it diverged so much from the score.

But we all loved it, even me, especially me, while it was happening. And one of the exciting things about Rostropovich’s performances and recordings of the Dvorak was that when they were first heard, they were so different than what had been heard before. They were in many ways not just a new standard and approach to cello playing, but also a radical “reinterpretation” and even “revision” of the piece itself.

That’s what I objected to, even as I enjoyed it.

Turning back to this issue of phenomenology (the study of how things actually work), I’m now coming to understand that while many composing and performing classical musicians were embracing an ideal of exact reproduction of a score, the larger musical culture, especially audiences, both embraced and demanded reinterpretation and revision (and still does, and surely always will).

Reinterpretation and revision in music that does not have as strong and exact “fixed-work” concept as that of nineteenth and twentieth-century classic often takes the form of spontaneous improvisation of new notes and harmonies, in addition to tempos, dynamics, rubatos, articulations, etc. In fixed-work music, these reinterpretations are limited to sometimes spontaneous, sometimes planned (and often a mixture of both) revisions of the latter aspects.

Schuller’s ideal of a “transcendent rendition which also involves the utmost respect for the composer and his score,”[2] by which he means exact realization of all notated elements, is going to remain an ideal. Not because it is necessarily impossible to achieve. But because as individuals and as a culture we do indeed prize reinterpretation and revision.

Bruno Nettl writes, “In societies such as those of the Middle East and North India the improvised portions of a performance carry the most prestige.”[3] A good argument can be made that even in classical music, it is the often-improvised reinterpretation and revision of every aspect of the music other than the notes and rhythms that is most prized aspect of a performance.

And it is those artists who present genuine and personally authentic reinterpretations and revisions who are most embraced by audiences, even though this causes them to, in some cases, be rejected by musicians embracing the ideal of exact realization.

[1] Stephen Blum, “Composition,” Grove Music Online, ed. L Gray (accessed April 24, 2006),

[2] Gunther Schuller, The Compleat Conductor, paperback ed. Oxford: 1998, 15.

[3] Bruno Nettl, “Concepts,” in “Improvisation I. Concepts and practices,” Grove Music Online, ed. L Gray (accessed January 29, 2005),


Scott Spiegelberg said...

One thing I was going to say about your last post, and am reminded of by this post. I would define "phenomenology" as the description of things by our perceptions of them, rather than by innate qualities of the things. So a phenomenology of music is based upon listeners' and performers' perceptions rather than on the "script" provided by the composer. In actual practice, phenomenological studies of music still use the score as a referent, but support any claims with perceptual contexts.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Oh, and my comparisons aren't meant to be with your definition, but to provide a boundary for "phenomenology." Your definition works, though it is too non-specific for my taste.

Eric Edberg said...
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Eric Edberg said...

Benson defines phenomenology in his book as "the attempt to bring the phenomena to light and, on the basis of the phenomena themselves, to develop a logos - a structure or theory Thus, the point of considering the activities of composition and performance in depth is to see how they actually function and -on that basis - to construct a theory." He then points out that philosophers have a tendency to make the theory and then fit the facts to it.

In an email to me he put it this way, "But it’s really just a fancy way of saying ”description of what takes place.”

And of course you're right, Scott, that everything is based on or viewed through our perceptions--if I understand you correctly.

I suppose an even more specific subtitle for Benson's book would be "a phenomenology of music making," or of "making music," than of just plain music. (Once again, his book is The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music).

Terry said...

Classics vs Standards

Many musicians, more so on instruments other than cello, perform music from multiple genres, and it seems to me integrity has a different meaning for "classics," than it does for "standards" in the jazz/pop/folk genres, and that's to be expected.

If you're were a classical musician in the 1930's, you were far more likely to perform Rimsky-Korsakov's Song of India in a way similar, within the bounds of taste, to how it was originally written for the opera Sadko. To not do so would display a lack of musical integrity. On the other hand, if you were a jazz musician, to play it too similar to the way the Paul Whiteman band, or the Tommy Dorsey band performed it, would likewise show a lack of musical integrity.

Elvis impersonations are amusing, even entertaining, but no one considers them authentic, honest musicianship. The classicists aren't impersonating Elvis, but are they all just impersonating a conceptual ideal?