Truthfulness and Authenticity in Interpretation?

A Reflection


2019-02-25 — Original posting


Outline


Introduction

My earlier article “Authenticity and Originality — Antagonists in Music Interpretation?” dealt with the balance, the possible conflict between being authentic towards the composer’s will and a (perceived) need for originality. In this note, I’m approaching the same—or a related—topic from a different angle, the aspect of truthfulness. With this, I mean the need for artists to be truthful to their own, genuine view, in order to capture a listener’s interest, to touch a listener’s heart, to enter a true dialog with the listener / recipient. The latter is impossible if an artist merely acts as copycat, or as “reproduction engine” for information and views that they picked up from other artists, and/or from their teachers.

Artists must develop their own, personal view on a composition, ideally in agreement with the requirement of being truthful to the composer’s (perceived) intent. Only then, they can truly touch a listener’s heart. And yes, there is the possible conflict between originality and authenticity towards the composer, as discussed in my earlier article.

Authenticity — A Must!

First, let me start by re-iterating from my earlier note: to me, authenticity towards the composer’s intent is a must. As a listener, if I read a program stating that an artist is “performing piece ABC by composer XYZ”, then I expect exactly that, i.e., to hear music which is identifiable as the piece(s) listed in the program. The score, perhaps also the composer’s manuscript, along with any other information we have (describing the composer’s intent or idea) serves as basis for this identification. This may be complemented by testimonies from witnesses of performances at the time of composition. Where such information does not exist, more indirect sources may also be helpful. However, the more indirect such information is (e.g., pupils of the composer’s pupils, etc.), the more unreliable that source becomes.

In any case, if an interpretation clearly violates the instructions in the score (the source information), then this becomes “the artist’s view on…” or “the artist’s transcription / arrangement of…” and should be denoted as such in the program. I’m personally willing to accept occasional transgressions, provided they are accompanied by a very good justification / explanation.

Slaves of the Score?

I don’t see this as a rigid framework in which the artist barely has “space to move”: musical notation (certainly up to around the mid-20th century) is not scientific, i.e., the composer may have tried his best to describe his musical intent. Yet, the notation still leaves ample opportunity for the artist to express his or her personal view while observing the boundaries of the score. Musical interpretation always involves a certain (reasonable!) degree of abstraction. Not only that: some originality is prerequisite for a successful interpretation (at least one which deserves its name), as already outlined in my earlier note: it is a necessary ingredient for capturing a listener’s attention, for touching an audience.


After publishing my initial note on this topic, a commenter, as well as discussions with an artist made me realize that the topic of originality deserves a more in-depth discussion.

Authenticity and Truthfulness in a Bigger Context

I realized that the term “originality” involves more than just “differing from a rigid interpretation of the score”—and how much of this one may / should consider “legitimate”. Simply put, the question isn’t “how much” to deviate, but rather “how?”. That statement sounds utterly trivial. However, I still find it worth inspecting in more detail:

Historic Authenticity — A Reminder

Let me start with a quick reminder about authenticity. Most of this was covered in my earlier article: what is the primary meaning of (historic) authenticity in musical performance?

  • (already discussed—I’m not re-iterating this here): what are the boundaries of tempo, dynamics, articulation, rubato, etc. that the artist is allowed to exploit?
  • Is my instrument capable of giving an appropriate representation of the composer’s (perceived) intent, or should this rather be called a transcription? One example: pianists my try their very best to imitate the articulation on a harpsichord (clavichord, spinet, virginal, muselar, etc.). Objectively, they must fail miserably already at that. On top of that, they typically don’t consider (either willfully or out of neglect or ignorance) the fact that the grand / modern piano defeats all the richness in colors from pre-equal temperament tuning that was in use on the historic instruments.
  • Strictly speaking, authenticity isn’t limited to what’s happening on stage or in the recording studio. We would also need to consider the audience, the acoustics, the impression that music made on listeners at the time of the composition. This not only includes impressions that humans make with all their senses, but just as much the socio-economic circumstances. There of course it is impossible to reconstruct the original, i.e., to put ourselves into the position of a contemporary listener.

The real reason for this note is a second aspect of authenticity:

Truthfulness: The Artists’ Authenticity Towards Themselves

When an artist builds his/her repertoire, the process of acquiring a “new” (so far unknown to him/her) piece will typically involve several steps. Not all of these will involve conscious decisions in the artist’s mind:

  1. Getting to know the music: what’s in the piece? How does it sound? What’s the best way of performing this in terms of technique, etc.?
  2. Doing research (hopefully!): what was the composer’s intent with this music? How did the music sound in the composer’s mind? How should it work on/in the listener’s mind?
  3. What is the current “state of the art” in performing this piece? See also below. An artist may claim “not to listen to other performances at all”. However, these days, this is virtually impossible not to run into other people’s performances—be it only unintentionally / involuntarily.
  4. With or without considering other’s performances (or any of the above), an artist must come to a conclusion as to how (s)he wants to perform a piece, what to express with a given composition at this point in time.
  5. An artist’s view of a piece will inevitably evolve with time, will never stay the same. Such evolution will come from the artist’s own maturing / aging, as well as from acquisition of new knowledge, and external influences (any of points 2 & 3 above).

Influences / Seeking Attention?

Seeking for one’s personal interpretation of any music is a careful balancing act between

  • finding / developing & maintaining one’s own, personal style / interpretation,
  • trying to stay within the scope of the score: truthfulness towards the composer’s vision,
  • trying to stay within what is accepted / acceptable to potential audiences, and yet
  • not just following what others are doing, nor
  • not just pleasing the audience by blindly adopting changes in style, let alone
  • using extravagance (e.g., extra bombastic playing) or other exaggerations for the mere sake of catching attention.

Down-to-Earth Realities

Of course, the above is more than mere, theoretical considerations, or simple, wishful thinking. An artist may be born into a super-rich family, or lucky enough to enjoy early success as child prodigy. But these are exceptions. Most artists need or want to make a living from their art. If that fails, they may need to give up their dream of a successful career as soloist or other concert artist. The perceived or actual (economic) need for success just increases the danger of tilting the above balance towards seemingly “easy options”. Concrete dangers:

  • trying to “play safe” by “pleasing the masses”. With this, one effectively ends up with a mediocre, faceless, average interpretation. Think of a hypothetical “average over all available recordings”. This is a recipe for failure.
  • the other extreme would be the option of extravagance and exaggeration. This may help building a community of fanatic followers. However, in all likelihood, it will also cause utter rejection by the majority of the concert audience, and hence will severely limit the potential success.

What Might Be a Good Recipe for Success?

Needless to say: I don’t have one! At least, I can’t give a recipe that would be universally valid, nor would I want to give concrete recommendations to a specific artist. I can at best derive generic recommendations based on how I personally perceive performances in concert and on media, as somebody who makes every possible effort to listen actively, both with mind and heart. I do not imply that others feel the same way.

Finding a Personal Interpretation

The first step (of foremost importance) for an artist is, to find his/her personal, genuine interpretation. This is likely a difficult, challenging process, given all the considerations mentioned above:

  • not only does one need to avoid the temptations of eccentric solutions, but
  • one equally needs to avoid the “ordinary”, any kind of “commonly accepted standard interpretation”.

The second point may seem trivial. However, it is not sufficient to seek difference for its own sake: a compelling, convincing successful performance requires the artist to stand behind the chosen options. The artist him- or herself must be 100% convinced of the interpretation, being able and willing to defend it with vigor.

At least in the classic / romantic repertoire, such an interpretation cannot be found / developed in a vacuum. One (seemingly) easy option today is to wade through existing interpretations by listening to performances in recordings, videos, etc.; this process may seem tedious, but may help in finding arguments for one’s own, chosen interpretation.

Seeking Advice?

For a young artist, listening to existing master performances may feel intimidating, but may still be helpful in positioning one’s own interpretation. An alternative might be to seek a teacher’s advice. Teachers should be able to point out obvious errors, traps. However, they cannot (or at least: shouldn’t) tell a young artist how to perform a piece. At best, they may point out possible options, perhaps offer loose guidance. The same holds true for teachers in master classes. Simply following a teacher’s advice, imitating a teacher’s model is just as bad as following a general trend, i.e., the model of a hypothetical “average artist or recording”.

Actually, asking one’s teacher may be tricky in itself: in any artistic career one often very difficult, if not painful step is that the artist must (inevitably) detach him/herself from the teacher’s model (as much as from other early influence). This does not imply discarding all of the teacher’s heritage, but it’s a question of realizing what that heritage is, and how to position it against one’s personal findings and solutions. After all, artists must (consciously or sub-consciously) defend the latter in their own performances.

On a sideline: it may be equally difficult for teachers to let go of their students. However, good teacher know that it’s best for their pupils to learn standing on their own feet. They will hopefully limit their influence on the students to what is necessary to enable them to make their own decisions, especially in the area of interpretation.

Developing Personality

The above may seem complicated and tricky. For most artists, this is part of their education and early career. Most of these decisions happen subconsciously, are a natural part of adding a piece to one’s repertoire. However, there are additional implications in this. It’s best to illustrate this with a concrete example:

Assume a young artist wants to perform one of the late piano sonatas by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). These sonatas are notoriously beautiful, but also technically challenging, hence may be popular targets for a young artist. However, these sonatas come with a serious impediment: Schubert had—for several years already—been aware that his life was going to end soon (he had contacted syphilis). And so, his late music—the sonatas in particular—are full of dark premonitions. There are beautiful, but equally bitter, painful memories about happier times in the past. At the same time, there are these moments where time seems to stand still, the music appears to fall into an abyss.

Technically, a child prodigy may be able to master these sonatas. But how on earth can a young artist credibly make the listener feel the despair, the desolation, the hopelessness in this music? “Letting the music speak” clearly isn’t enough. Imitating given model interpretations is use- and pointless, as indicated above. I don’t think it is necessary for an artist to have gone through situations nearly as catastrophic as Schubert’s. However, I definitely think it is necessary for the artist to have at least an early adult’s life experience, to have gone through (and digested!) some crisis situations. Only this will enable credible performances. Performances that are more than mere imitation—or smoke screen, hollow theater.

Truthfulness in Human Interaction

I find that there is a second, more subtle aspect to truthfulness in a concert performance. At a first glance, this seems purely visual, hence unrelated to the music. However, concerts are “total” experiences which the listener perceives not just with one’s ear, but with all senses. Certainly, there is also visual perception. Even beyond that,

  • seating comfort (there isn’t much joy in a concert if the seat feels uncomfortable, too narrow, lack of legroom, etc.)
  • temperature (too cold, too hot) and excess humidity can distract from the music
  • even a bad smell can affect a concert experience (think of an excess of perfume smell)
  • external (street noises) and extraneous audience noises (whispering, ringing of mobile phones, unwrapping candies, coughing, etc.) are an obvious disturbance in a concert experience.

I merely mention this here to indicate that it’s not just the music / the interpretation that count, but equally surrounding details. Not all of this is under the artist’s direct control, but some aspects certainly are:

  • appearance: dress style, how the artists enter the podium, how they bow / accept applause
  • extravagant gestures, body language, facial expression / grimacing, etc.
  • interaction (direct and indirect) with the audience, as well as with fellow musicians.

Stage anxiety, stage fright, general nervousness may definitely affect the latter two points. These are beyond the scope of this article—except for their possible interrelation with truthfulness!

Truthfulness in the Interaction with the Audience

Interaction with the audience doesn’t just happen through the obvious, visual contact (upon entering the stage, accepting / receiving applause, looking into the audience while playing). It involves also indirect communication: the artist feels the presence of the audience, reacts to feedback from the audience. The artist may even intensely communicate indirectly and non-verbally without looking, e.g., when waiting for silence prior to starting a piece, when making the audience hold back applause between movements or between pieces. Or, even more so, when succeeding in holding the silence for extended periods at the end of a performance. To the late conductor Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014), the latter were the most touching, the most intense moments in a performance.

Truthfulness is present (actually required) in all aspects of a successful performance, in all aspects of human interaction during a performance. Lacking truthfulness can cause a concert performance to fail. Maybe not in every listener’s view, but certainly in those listening with real attention, those who are sensitive to all aspects of a musical performance. Rather than trying to elaborate this theoretically, let me just give some poignant examples from my personal experience:

Extreme Emotions

I recently attended a performance where the artist was (almost?) literally crying while playing, apparently suffering enormous emotional pain. While this may have reflected the artist’s subjective feelings / state of mind, for the listener this only possibly worked in case the listener was in 100% agreement emotionally. I certainly did not fall into that category, and so I rather felt turned off by this. Whenever an artist appears to force the listener into a specific emotional understanding of the music, this can cause violent rejection. Especially if that emotional understanding of a given piece is questionable, if not entirely inappropriate (as in this example).

This may be one example where truthfulness seems to turn against the artist. However, to me, this was a clear case of an artist’s misconception of a given piece. To a critical listener, truthfulness can only work if the underlying understanding / view / performance is in (or can be seen as in) agreement with (the listener’s understanding of) the music.

Uncontrolled / Spontaneous Interaction

Truthfulness to one’s emotions in general precludes an excess of intellectual control. However, simply denying control, trying not to control can equally have adverse effects. I’m thinking of involuntary, spontaneous extreme grimacing (I’m not mentioning names here). This can be distracting to a degree where it prevents a listener from enjoying a performance. OK, one could say that nothing forces the listener to watch the artist’s face—but isn’t one reason for attending a concert to see how music is re-created in a live atmosphere? One may see the previous example as falling into this same category, also because the grimacing may feel like the expression of physical or emotional pain.

I would claim that negative emotions are far more critical in this aspect of a performance. I’m much more (if not entirely) open towards expression of joy, of enlightenment, of emotional warmth. After all, people attend concerts for getting enriched, for letting the music putting them into an elevated state of mind / emotion, or because they seek relief from the adversities of daily life. I doubt that they ever seek to be saddened or depressed by the musical experience. So yes, I think that an artist needs to exert control over expressions and emotions, even if occasionally this appears to be against the requirement of being truthful.

Hiding All Emotions?

I have also encountered the contrary to the extreme emotions mentioned above: musicians who seem entirely entangled in an intimate dialog with the instrument, avoiding even bigger gestures or other body language. Their facial expression may remain almost frozen, emotionless throughout a performance. This can work well, even though the artist may seem to give away opportunities for a more intense interaction with the audience. In one specific instance, the recital was still a success, as the music spoke for itself. One could say that on the artist’s side, there was at least no distracting element to the performance.

Interaction Among Musicians

Musicians in a chamber music ensemble or in an orchestra also interact among themselves. Even if it appears to ignore the listener, such (truthful) interaction is prerequisite for a successful musical performance. There is the obvious aspect of coordinating a performance in rhythm, dynamics and articulation (e.g., the conductor interacting with the orchestra, the first desks assisting the conductor, or of course the mutual interaction within a chamber music ensemble). Beyond this minimum requirement, there is also the aspect of mutual, emotional stimulation in all ensemble playing. Ideally, in an orchestral performance for example, there is a permanent, multilateral, even ubiquitous network of interaction between all musicians, ideally stimulating themselves to the highest, most elated level of performance.

Non-Interaction?

The above not only functions within the musicians, but it automatically includes, enthralls the audience. Unless of course, such interaction appears to exclude the audience or otherwise distracts from the music, the performance. One example from my personal experience was a chamber music performance where one member seemed to engage in non-verbal communication with other ensemble members—communication (seemingly relating to a recent, funny or hilarious event) that was not related to the music or the performance as such. At the same time, as listeners could not know what this communication was about (and as it obviously was off-topic), this effectively excluded, actively marginalized the audience.

I think that truthful interaction with the audience has no place for visible second-tier communication / interaction. Ideally, a concert should be a comprehensive, all-encompassing experience involving all musicians and all members of the audience.

Studio Recordings

Given the importance of truthful interaction with the audience for a successful, comprehensive concert experience, one may wonder how a studio performance can work at all. Here, there is a priori no audience to interact with, no listeners that could lead to mutual stimulation, etc.

The least I can say is that studio recordings typically present a substantial extra challenge. Sure, there are artists who love playing for themselves, who even love studio recordings. Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) was a prime example for this.

Other musicians rely upon human interaction, could not perform in a void, and so they resort to playing for the few technicians in the studio (or they bring a selected audience into the venue). Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982) is an excellent example for this. He could communicate instantly and with just about anyone.

On the other hand, the absence of communication with an audience is a likely explanation why some artists performed true magics in concerts, but their studio recordings often fail to convey the real power of their art. I see the conductor Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) as one typical example, where warmth and truthfulness simply evaporated in a dry studio atmosphere.



The Critic’s Perspective

Let me conclude with some remarks concerning my work as critical commenter of concerts—an activity which over the recent years has become a primary occupation in my blog. I don’t see producing elaborate literary products as objective in my reviews. Rather, whenever possible, I carefully prepare myself for upcoming concerts (e.g., organizing scores, listening to performances, reading about composers, music and musicians), and during a concert, I try the impossible to follow the score, busily scribbling notes, while at the same time “sucking in” a performance in all its aspects , certainly both auditive, as well as visual.

And I try my best listening with all senses, including my heart. In this, I am certainly very sensitive to all aspects of truthfulness and human interaction, as discussed above.

Personal Judgement

There is no such thing as objective judgement in music, be it only because (as mentioned) musical notation is not scientifically accurate. Also, in the area of “historically informed”, our knowledge is incomplete / fragmentary (as much as it may be growing constantly). On top of that, tastes, practices and preferences are constantly changing. Along with all this, my personal preferences have changed all the time over the past 50-or-so years.

I don’t think that this should stop me from commenting on performances: I stick to the motto in my blog: “All just my personal (and momentary) opinion”. My reviews should be taken as such. One commenter claimed that I’m (willingly or involuntarily) comparing “with mainstream” (taste / performances). All I can say to this is

  • (just repeating): I try my best to give my sincere, personal opinion / judgement
  • (again repeating): I can’t deny that my personal taste and preferences have changed and will continue to evolve. This evolution does not occur in a vacuum. It rather follows external influences that may be seen as general trends. With this, the “mainstream argument” may be correct. Yes, I do have specific preferences where others may or may not agree (e.g.: I don’t like an excess and ubiquity in vibrato. I prefer harpsichord over the modern concert grand for baroque music, the fortepiano over the concert grand for Vienna classics and late pre-classics).
  • With all that in mind, I’m spending considerable effort in
    • clarifying / explaining my background (see my bio posts).
    • being detailed and explicit about why I like or dislike specific aspects of a performance.

And I don’t mean to impose my judgement on anyone else, nor of course imply that it has any general validity: take it as one (specific) listener’s opinion, no more, no less.


Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the following people for valuable input, discussions, and suggestions:

  • Thomas J. Hubschman, writer, novelist, author, essayist, and music lover—and a Facebook acquaintance for almost a decade. Tom lives in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Werner Bärtschi, pianist, conductor, teacher, and concert organizer (see also Wikipedia for more information).

The caricatures in this post are by the German humorist, poet, illustrator and painter Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908). They appeared under the title “Der Virtuos, Ein Neujahrskonzert” (The Virtuoso, a New Year’s Concert). The original is from 1865. I took it from Volume I of his collected works, a book with the title “Und die Moral von der Geschicht“, ed. Rolf Hochhuth, Mohndruck Reinhard Mohn OHG, Gütersloh, Germany, 1959, p.286 – 291.



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