Saturday, March 31, 2007

Is the composer always right?

[Am I trying to get to 50 posts before the clock strikes April? Hmmm.]

My two earlier posts from today both touched on the question of constraints that may deter a creative artist from his/her vision. Now here's an even more interesting question: is the artist always right about what's best for his/her work? This is an especially knotty question in the context of classical music. The irony is that in a modern art universe that generally chafes at constraints, classical performers are expected to bow down at the altar of a tremendous constraint: the composer's intentions.

Ah, the composer's intentions. Through two years of DMA seminars that I shared with 8 or 9 fellow students, the topic that wouldn't die was the question of how well we can deduce a composer's intentions. (Especially difficult with the dead ones.) One of my most vivid memories from these seminars was from a day in which we were debating whether some articulation/pedal marks in a Beethoven piano sonata meant this, that, or the other thing. We had listened to a variety of performances that represented various levels of interpretive fidelity when I offered the suggestion that maybe Beethoven's marks weren't the best solution. Maybe Beethoven was wrong about what was best for Beethoven's music to be its best. I remember that the professor, a very intelligent postmodern sort, was quite shocked by this question. Of course, it was impudent of me to think I might know better than Beethoven, but it shows how well established is the notion that the composer is always right.

I was amused by a recent Bernard Holland review (now gone to pay-per-view heaven) of recent Rachmaninoff concerti performances by two different Russian pianists. I don't have the precise quote in front of me, but at one point Holland wrote something with the following underlying logic: "Pianist A took many more interpretive liberties with tempo and the like than did Pianist B, so Pianist B was much more musical." How odd that adhering strictly to the composer's wishes is considered being musical while taking liberties that are probably inspired by musical intuition is considered unmusical. Of course, what Holland meant is that a performer who respects the composer's intent is admirable (and musical) and a performer who follows his/her own way too much is irresponsible (and unmusical).

I don't necessarily disagree with that as a general principle, but it can create the effect that performance is less about making music in the moment than it is about serving the composer. This is in spite of the fact that performers should, in theory, be pretty good judges of what works in performance and what works on their instrument. There are many good examples of established masterpieces which were created in collaboration with performers: the Mendelssohn and Brahms violin concerti come immediately to mind. I've often had the experience of playing piano parts which could have benefited greatly if the composer had sought a pianist's advice. (Everything I've ever played by Libby Larsen falls into that category.) Yet a pianist such as Horowitz, who tinkered even with the piano writing of pianist-composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff, is viewed with great suspicion by the musical intelligentsia, most of whom have less than a fraction of Horowitz's musical intelligence.

I don't have the time or the inclination to try to prove it here, but I suspect most pre-1900 composers would be astounded at the degree to which we worship the printed score. I'm not saying they didn't care about what went into the score; rather, that they would probably have expected performers to put their own stamp on the music. We know that Chopin apparently would vary details when he played his own works, and yet musicologists expend enormous effort to establish as exactly as possible what notes and articulations he "intended" based on manuscripts, conflicting editions, etc. Such research is fine for giving us a clear starting point, but I just don't believe Chopin would be as concerned about a pianist dotting every I and crossing every T as we are.

This is another area in which I envy jazz musicians who are expected to reinterpret and even recompose as they go; classical musicians are pretty expressly expected not to expand on a composer's intent. Again, that's mostly a good thing when it comes to having a reasonably clear view of the past, but there are times when a composer directs me not to use pedal and I know that judiciously used pedal will help. Sometimes the music knows better than the composer.

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