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When It Comes To Interpreting Music , Classical Musicians Have No Constitution

  Composers, music critics, musicologists ,performers and fans are forever arguing over how music should or should not be interpreted .  In many ways , this is similar to the way politicians , pundits , commentators  and  private citizens in America are forever arguing over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution .

  In classical music , there are those who insist on  strict observance of  the composer's directions in the written music , and those who believe that musicians should be allowed considerable leeway in  realizing  those  written instructions .  In other words, the strict  observation of the founding father's "original intentions" (whatever those were), or a "living constitution".  The problem is that the written music can only tell the musician so much ; there is plenty of room for the performer to personalize the music . 

   If you look at the score of any orchestral work or opera, or  other music such as that written for the piano and chamber music etc , you will see  all manner of written instructions . Not just the notes, but  indications ,usually in Italian but not always , or how fast or slow to play a work,  the dynamics (loudness and softness ),
indications for the kind of  expressive character of the music ,  speeding up and slowing down (accelerando and
ritardando in Italian , and much more .

   In general , the older the music , the fewer the  written instructions .  For example , in the music of Bach , which comes from the first half of the 18th century, there is generally not much information about those
parameters I've just mentioned . But if you excamine the score of a symphony of Mahler, whose music was written in the late 19th and early 20th century,  there is an enormous amount of specific detail as to how to perform the music , even  paragraphs  with  special instructions .  One wag  said that "The only written instruction you don't find in a Mahler symphony is '  no smoking' !

   But there are other things that can't be  written out exactly , such as "rubato", or stolen time in Italian , or using  subtle flexibility of tempo for expressive effect .  The composer will sometimes ask for the performer or conductor to speed up or slow down , but rubato is much more subtle . 

   What's appropriate in the music of  one composer or period  may not be appropriate for  that of another composer or time .  Musicians are always talking about "the composer's intentions", but those are not necessarily written in stone, and composer do change their minds .  Sometimes performers will  add nuances not actually specified by the composer, but yet the composers approved of these anyway.

   In  other cases , performers have gone over the top and  committed the musical equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, and  the composers were  outraged .  Composers have often conducted or played their own music ,  and  quite a few recordings by the composers themselves have been made over the years, those this gives musicians  clear guidelines . But even they have been known to play their music differently at different times,  with faster or slower tempi, for example .

   Tempo, or the rate of speed  at which a piece is performed , is one of the most controversial issues in classical music .  If you listen to different recordings of say, any given Beethoven symphony , not all use the same rates of speed , and there is considerable  difference from one recording to another . Timings for a long symphony by Bruckner or Mahler  can differ by as much as ten minutes or so  from conductor X or Y . 

   But what tempo or tempi are the right ones for any given work ?  There are no easy answers .
Beethoven, who was very concerned about  performers getting what he felt were the right tempi for his works ,  used the then recent invention of the metronome  to give performers guidelines so that  performances   would not be either too slow or too fast .  But even he is knwon to have changed his mind . 

   Sometimes musicians have been known to  play music at perversely wrong   tempi ,  usually too slow , although  sometimes to fast .  The great German conductor Otto Klemperer (1885 - 1973 )  is known to 
have performed some works  by Beethoven and other composers in an extremely slow and ponderous , if undeniably majestic manner , in his old age , mainly because of his many health problems . In his earlier years , his performances were said to have been  full of impetuous energy .

   Perhaps  you  could say the the score is the Constitution for the performer ,  but  like  interpretation of the Constitution ,  the  controversies will never end .  But  it would be  terribly boring if every performance  of the same work were identical . Fortunately , there is no likelihood of this ever
happening .
Posted: Nov 23 2011, 06:33 PM by the horn | with no comments
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