Perform, interpret or invent?

Many great Masters of the past have wondered about a topic that has created, throughout the history of music, multiple diatribes and misunderstandings, sometimes dividing great musicians into different factions: INTERPRETATION.

What does “to interpret” a piece of music mean? How far can a musician go? What is the threshold between personal interpretation and invention? Is it right to perform exactly what the composer writes on the score, without any addition? If there are no musical notes on the paper (dynamics, arches, breaths), where and when is it possible to establish with certainty their need?

All the questions above are just some of the concerns that musicians face when they deal with a new composition (I question myself with these one whenever I need to study a new score).

Well, the aim of this article is not to answer these questions, but I will try, through my personal experience, to report what I was taught by the great Masters that I had the luck to meet in my artistic career.

First of all it is necessary (and I stress necessary) and fundamental to place the composition concerned in a well-defined historical period, so as to be able to determine exactly the current of thought which it belongs to, the ideology that led to its genesis and the philosophical-cultural contents that are at its base (therefore if it is a work of the beginning of the eighteenth century, rather than of the late eighteenth or mid-nineteenth century; it is important to understand if it is an epic poem rather than from a theater drama, and so on).

Secondly, the composition must be framed within the author’s works, so as to determine the “compositional style”: in the course of their life, some composers have changed, their way of composing, instrumenting and creating music, they have often been influenced by historical events or meetings with other contemporary musicians (let’s take as reference the “Eroica” symphony of L.v. Beethoven, initially dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, opening threshold of the heroic period of the same composer, defined so by the musicologists, inspired by the French revolution and the sense of freedom and search for ideals that Napoleon, before the self-proclamation as emperor, had spread throughout Europe).

Once you understand the historical-cultural framework of the composition, which provides many clues about the WAY to execute it (for example the sound will be different if it is a sonata by Brahms rather than by Bach, as they are designed for structurally different instruments) , we move on to the actual ANALYSIS, which must be done gradually, to understand as many details as possible (a generic symphony will be taken as reference):

  • Identify the implant’s tone of the symphony and of each movement within it, capturing any correlations between them.
  • Make a formal analysis (for example, identifying the three parts and the two themes if it is a bitartic tripartite sonata form, of the three parts subject, counter-subject and whatever else it is a fugue, etc.) in order to get a general idea of the structure of the piece under examination.
  • Proceed with the harmonic analysis, which not only illustrates and highlights the structure on which the whole symphony rests, but it also considerably contributes to the interpretation (a modulation to the sixth degree or a cadence of deception must be different from a perfect cadence; a diminished seventh must have a different charge compared to a seventh of the first kind, a delay or a repose must have a different support than the relative resolutions, etc ..)
  • Perform the entire symphony on the piano, to ensure its completeness, precisely respecting the rhythmic values written in the score, avoiding any inflection, delay or rubato expected from a hypothetical “tradition” that weighs on the aforementioned piece; the execution of the notes as they are written is necessary in order to understand where an arbitrary change is applied to what is from the hand of the composer, even if this is supported by manuals or treatises that foresee it (for example the restriction and speeding up of semiquaver in bicrome in some compositions of the ‘600, rather than the advance of the second quarter in the accompaniment of a Viennese waltz, the rubato in Chopin concert or the small pause replaced at a value point)
  • Write down and know exactly the metronomes written by the composer, which give us the chance to extrapolate the character that the music we perform should have (a metronome of 120 at the minimum confirms a remarkable speed and further helps us in the interpretation, placing the our attention to any problems related to the individual instruments in the execution at the given speed)
  • Respect the ligatures, phrasing, breaths, dynamics that we find written in the score, in addition to any agogic or expressive notes (morendo, sostenuto, sparendo, on the fourth string, and so on)

When the knowledge of the score is complete, it is possible to proceed to the next phase, the philological interpretation (whether it is music of the ‘600 or of the’ 700), based on the knowledge of the “performance practice”(those unwritten rules that have been handed down to us through the treaties, manuals, annotations, the letters) of that particular historical period or the application of the so-called “tradition”, only where it is necessary. For example, a Viennese waltz is executed, by its own nature, with anticipation: this way of performing it, although it is not written, is due to the fact that this type of music was conceived like that and its natural performers, the Vienneses, inherently interpret it this precise way, which was probably taught to them by the composer himself (who was alive at the time).

If any change or addition is made, or any detail is altered within the score, it is good to be aware of them, so that, at the given point, we know that we are acting according to our own discretion and personal opinion, making an arbitrary choice (though fair), in contrast to what the composer actually wrote.

In short, establishing with certainty that delicate boundary between personal interpretation and correct execution is often difficult, if not impossible.

What makes an execution a good performance is the respect of the music and of its message, putting art in the first place instead of one self. The musician is nothing but a vector, which acts as a link between the composer’s voice (which resounds in his music) and the audience.

Is Karajan right, or Abbado? Muti or Harnoncourt? Great music is the one that is remembered and each one of them (like any other great musician), in their own way, was able to make it unforgivable.