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Thoughts on Interpretation

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An interpretation is an explanation of the meaning of another's artistic or creative work: an elucidation: An interpretation of Mahler's 2nd Symphony, for example.

In the symphonic repertory the interpretation falls, mainly, to the conductor. The conductor, of course, is only one part of the generic question of interpretation; he, or she, is simply another performer just like the singer or the pianist or the violinist except they play upon not one instrument but upon a large number simultaneously. Unfortunately, as with many aspects of art, the more we reflect on interpretation the more difficult it becomes. We cannot all agree.

Two extremes of opinion on the matter is; firstly, that interpretation is an affair mainly based on the personality of the interpreter and secondly, that since the composer, in most instances, can be credited with knowing best what he wanted to say and has indicated, as such, in his markings how he wished it to be said. Neither of these extremes work entirely in practice, in fact, it could go very wrong in practical music making.

We all know the type of performer, whether conductor, singer etc, who has a certain formula of style and expression which they would apply to every kind of music. If the music happens to reflect the particular composer or work of the moment, then marvellous; if it does not - If Mahler is sung as if it were Schubert, or if a Wagner opera is played as if Verdi had written it - we who listen find ourselves at cross-purposes with the performer. Looking at it from a different angle, a mere faithful observation of just what is written in the score will get us nowhere; without the performers intelligence the can result can be utterly flat and futile.

But I wonder if we bring those two 'extreme' opinions closer together then perhaps we come to a more ideal state: the interpreter should place themselves at the service of the composer, not using the composer as a medium through which the interpreter can exploit their own personality but instead regarding themselves as merely one more instrument in the composer's hands.

I refer to Berlioz and an argument he created on this matter where, essentially, he said, " If good music means this, that and the other, then this music is bad".

No one sees everything the same way or indeed hears things the same way - we all have individual ideals of long-sight, short sight, clear-sight, squint-sight etc.

A performer may honestly believe that after a prolonged study of a symphony, opera or work he is interpreting it exactly the way the composer imagined - this performer is probably deluded.

A question: Is upshot of it all that any one performance of general intelligence and technical competence is as good as any other?

The modern concert programme can consist of up to four different composers from different eras who, through each work, display different styles and technical challenges of different time periods and different states of musical development. Perhaps for better musical interpretations of certain composers programmes could be more limited, though, I'm not a fool, I realise this will never happen however surely not every lover of music is qualified, by nature, to be a listener of every kind of music - the landscape has changed quite dramatically over the years. Leaving the listener out of it, I would still urge that the vast majority of musical performers would be doing a more real service to the art form if they attempt less and think harder about what they do attempt. But this, I fear, has been shattered by the general adoption of the view that music is primarily a business and not an art.

600 words or so does not cover the spectrum of the artistic interpretation of music; my sole aim is share my thoughts on a delicate aspect of music.