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The inadmissibility of "interpretation."


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Author Topic: The inadmissibility of "interpretation."  (Read 272 times)
guest54
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« on: January 15, 2014, 10:09:26 am »



Here is a discerning critic's disapproving, disappointed, and indeed disgusted review of an 1841 performance by the thirty-year-old Liszt. After this, forty-five years were to elapse before Liszt dared return to Great Britain!

As I have often maintained, it is every executant's duty first and foremost to be as faithful as he can to the wishes of the composer as set down in the score. How many fail in that simple and essentially straightforward duty!

The point of any truly serious concert must be what the composer wants or wanted, never what the executant wants. That what the executant wants is what the composer wants should go without saying should it not!

[By the way, Liszt's fellow-performers in the Septetto, on flute, oboe, horn, viola, violoncello and contra basso, were Messrs. Ribas, H. Cooke, Jarrett, Loder, Lindley and Dragonetti; but oddly enough the anonymous critic deemed only Liszt worthy of mention.]
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #1 on: January 15, 2014, 10:52:46 am »

Was this the "Military" septet, do we know?
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ahinton
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« Reply #2 on: January 15, 2014, 12:45:51 pm »



Here is a discerning critic's disapproving, disappointed, and indeed disgusted review of an 1841 performance by the thirty-year-old Liszt. After this, forty-five years were to elapse before Liszt dared return to Great Britain!

As I have often maintained, it is every executant's duty first and foremost to be as faithful as he can to the wishes of the composer as set down in the score. How many fail in that simple and essentially straightforward duty!

The point of any truly serious concert must be what the composer wants or wanted, never what the executant wants. That what the executant wants is what the composer wants should go without saying should it not!

[By the way, Liszt's fellow-performers in the Septetto, on flute, oboe, horn, viola, violoncello and contra basso, were Messrs. Ribas, H. Cooke, Jarrett, Loder, Lindley and Dragonetti; but oddly enough the anonymous critic deemed only Liszt worthy of mention.]
"After", perhaps - but not, I imagine "as a direct consequence of"! Interesting as this may be as a piece of contemporary criticism of its time, you do seem to cite very old texts as though they contain some kind of wisdom purely by virtue of their date on a perceived assumption that they may be taken to be as pertinent today as they might (or might not) have been when published which seems to me at the very least to be a strategy as perplexing as it is risky!

You write that you have "often explained [that] it is every executant's simple duty to be as faithful as he can to the wishes of the composer as set down in the score", adding that, in your view, "lamentably many fail in that simple duty!". Leaving aside the fact that "he" should read "he or she", what is so "simple" about this?

We do indeed have a good many more HIPPs these days than was the case at the time of Liszt's lower middle age when the tradition of performing Western music of past generations was in any case barely beyond its infancy but, even then, the very fact that researches have more recently encouraged this has itself raised many questions and uncertainties. Whichever way you look at it, instrument manufacture and design, playing techniques and the rest have developed immensely over decades since the 1840s - as have the ways in which and the means whereby we listen to music - whereas the scores themselves remain more or less intact. As Robert Simpson once said, we cannot listen to the music of J S Bach as his contemporaries did becuase we have listened to Xenakis (and I don't imagine that Simpson referred to Xenakis very often!).

More importantly even than this in the present context, however, is the following.

Firstly, it was a fact at that time and remains one today that conventional musical notation is only ever a guide to, rather than a precise blueprint for, the composer's intentions; yes, some composers prescriptions are more detailed than others (compare, for example, the plethora of precise performance directions in Schönberg's Op. 25 Suite for piano or Grainger's Country Gardens with the almost frightening absence of them in mature Sorabji scores), but the point remains well made.

Secondly, the composer's intentions are rarely if ever inflexible and, if they were, no composer would ever revise anything.

Thirdly, some composers have testified to ways in which performers, merely by playing their work, have even encouraged their desire to make revisions.

Fourthly, when composers make more than one "version" of one of their own works, the sense of the "definitive" loosens thereby; consider, for example, Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, the material for which appears to greater or lesser degree in several works under his name (and I'm referring here only to versions in the composer's hand, not arrangements by anyone else), yet even in designating one of them for piano solo as "edizione definitiva" he did not exclude - still less seek to discourage - performance of any of the others.

Fifthly, no two live performances of any work - even by its composer - will or even could (still less should!) be identical; this fact raises the spectre that repeated encounters with recorded performances of works composed before recording technology existed have enabled listening to "identical performances" whose very possibility the composer could never in any case have envisaged or perhaps even contemplated.

Sixthly, mere differences in performance acoustic can make for what might strike the listener as differences in interpretation.

Lastly, whilst certain interpretations can seem to be and indeed sometimes are less than acceptable, no two listeners in any case will derive, or even expect to derive, the very same from a particular work with each listening.

Speaking as a composer myself, the notion that every aspect of the performance of a work even could, let alone should, somehow be set in stone is as repellent in theory as it is improbable in practice; furthermore, the performers are the intermediaries between the composer and the listener, but all three categories are compsed of humans! For both of these reasons and indeed others, there can thus be no possibility that the act of interpretation itself can qualify as "inadmissible", otherwise it would be necessary to cease to listen to the performance of music altogether.
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« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2014, 10:15:37 am »

Thanks to ahinton for responding in extenso to the points raised in that review. And what in musical life could be of greater importance than these questions around the intention of the composer and the way it is communicated! So let me address the points he raises.

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Instrument manufacture and design, playing techniques and the rest have developed immensely over decades since the 1840s, as have the ways in which and the means whereby we listen to music, whereas the scores remain more or less intact. As Robert Simpson once said, we cannot listen to the music of J S Bach as his contemporaries did because we have listened to Xenakis (and I don't imagine that Simpson referred to Xenakis very often!).

On that Xenakis matter I think Simpson was utterly wrong. When I listen to a Bach sonata I at every point try to understand what Bach's intention was, what in its entirety was the musical effect he wanted to achieve. I have heard very little Xenakis (and I do not expect ever to hear much more!). But I have heard a great deal of Scryabine and Delius, and I do not find that that affects one iota the way I listen to Bach. . . . Well, except in one way perhaps: sometimes when listening to twentieth-century music I wonder what Bach would have thought of a particular effect, and what he might have made of such and such a possibility. But those are matters of speculation, not of fact.

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conventional musical notation is only ever a guide to, rather than a precise blueprint for, the composer's intentions.

We might ask there how precise it has to be. Not mathematically accurate as in the case of the laws of physics. There are some aspects of performance which matter - the right note rather than the wrong note, a louder passage rather than softer, or a more or less correct speed. But other aspects of performance do not matter: accuracy of intonation beyond a certain point, precise loudness levels, precise speeds. In a nut-shell, the composer's concern is with accuracy of spirit, not accuracy of measurable physical quantities, which merely have to fall within an acceptable range of variation.

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Secondly, the composer's intentions are rarely if ever set completely in stone and, if they were, no composer would ever revise anything. [And] some composers have testified to ways in which performers, merely by playing their work, have even encouraged them to make such revisions.

Yes, that is all true. But it is not what happens in your average or ordinary concert. Bach for one was always tinkering with and improving his works. But this is different from the average or ordinary concert where the performer is not expected to introduce his own alterations and suggestions.

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Thirdly, when composers make more than one "version" of one of their own works, the sense of the "definitive" loosens thereby.

Yes that too is true. And that too is not the average or ordinary concert situation.

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No two live performances of any work - even by its composer - will or even could be identical.

Indeed. But here it is important to distinguish between permissible variation and inadmissible variation. It is not acceptable to play a C sharp when clearly the composer specified a C natural. But the C naturals of two violinists may vary within a certain range - what is it? one per centum? Similarly one person's forte may differ from another person's forte within a certain percentage; that will not matter, as long as it is clear that a forte is played and the composer's intention is thus brought out. And yet again, the tempi of different performances do not have to be identical, as long as they do not differ by more than a degree that is clearly acceptable to the composer. Much the same may be said of the objection about the different acoustics of different halls; what matters is not an identity of sound, rather an identity of musical contrast, intention and argument. We could even say: the music is not the sound.

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Lastly, whilst certain interpretations can seem to be and indeed sometimes are less than acceptable, no two listeners will derive, or even expect to derive, the very same from a particular work with each listening.

I cannot bring myself to agree with this. I think the first duty of both the listener and the performer is to discover what exactly the composer was attempting to do. Until the performer is satisfied that he knows that, he has no business playing the work (except in private practice of course). But in this sense all intelligent performers and listeners "will derive, or even expect to derive, the very same from a particular work."

Of course certain modernist composers of the charlatan school direct the performer to "play whatever he likes" - but such are beneath our consideration are they not.
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ahinton
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« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2014, 11:54:53 am »

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Instrument manufacture and design, playing techniques and the rest have developed immensely over decades since the 1840s, as have the ways in which and the means whereby we listen to music, whereas the scores remain more or less intact. As Robert Simpson once said, we cannot listen to the music of J S Bach as his contemporaries did because we have listened to Xenakis (and I don't imagine that Simpson referred to Xenakis very often!).
On that Xenakis matter I think Simpson was utterly wrong. When I listen to a Bach sonata I at every point try to understand what Bach's intention was, what in its entirety was the musical effect he wanted to achieve. I have heard very little Xenakis (and I do not expect ever to hear much more!). But I have heard a great deal of Scryabine and Delius, and I do not find that that affects one iota the way I listen to Bach. . . . Well, except in one way perhaps: sometimes when listening to twentieth-century music I wonder what Bach would have thought of a particular effect, and what he might have made of such and such a possibility. But those are matters of speculation, not of fact.
It seems that you misunderstand what Simpson meant. It's not so different from a situation in which one cannot live as one might have done a century or more ago because two world wars and immense scientific, technological, social and political changes and uphevals have occurred since 1914 and impacted fundamentally on the lives of almost all humans. Simpson's intended meaning was not, of course, that one listens to Bach in the context of Xenakis or indeed any other later composer but the far more broad-brush one that all the changes in musical composition and performance - not to mention the establishment and development of traditions in performing the music of the past (which would have barely registered on Bach's own horizon) - have so coloured how we listen to music that we simply cannot respond to Bach's music in the way that Bach's contemporaries did.

Perhaps what you seem also to have overlooked is how Bach might have expected his music to be performed and received in the late 19th or early 21st centuries had he known at the time of writing that it would be. You might not think that your listening experiences with Scriabin and Delius would impact in any way upon your responses when listening to Bach, but listening to Bach in Bach's time when his was modern music and doing so today when there have been so many modern musics since is not something that can be done in such total isolation, even though the differences are usually subconscious.

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conventional musical notation is only ever a guide to, rather than a precise blueprint for, the composer's intentions.
We might ask there how precise it has to be. Not mathematically accurate as in the case of the laws of physics. There are some aspects of performance which matter - the right note rather than the wrong note, a louder passage rather than softer, or a more or less correct speed. But other aspects of performance do not matter: accuracy of intonation beyond a certain point, precise loudness levels, precise speeds. In a nut-shell, the composer's concern is with accuracy of spirit, not accuracy of measurable physical quantities, which merely have to fall within an acceptable range of variation.
One might indeed "ask", but comprehensive and conclusive answer will come there none; it is not an opinion but a fact that a composer can by no means fully convey his/her intentions merely by inputting symbols and performance instructions on and around five-line staves; I should know, although of course I am far from alone in so doing!...

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Secondly, the composer's intentions are rarely if ever set completely in stone and, if they were, no composer would ever revise anything. [And] some composers have testified to ways in which performers, merely by playing their work, have even encouraged them to make such revisions.
Yes, that is all true. But it is not what happens in your average or ordinary concert. Bach for one was always tinkering with and improving his works. But this is different from the average or ordinary concert where the performer is not expected to introduce his own alterations and suggestions.
But no two performances will ever be alike anyway, even when given by the performer him/herself; you'd have only to have heard the late great Shura Cherkassky reinventing both himself and the music every time yet without ever departing from what sounded convincingly like something of which the composer would have approved. Speaking as a composer, I am not "always right", either!

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Thirdly, when composers make more than one "version" of one of their own works, the sense of the "definitive" loosens thereby.
Yes that too is true. And that too is not the average or ordinary concert situation.
Be that as it may or may not, it does mean that even the composer suggests that there's only one way to approach a performance of his/her work.

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No two live performances of any work - even by its composer - will or even could be identical.
Indeed. But here it is important to distinguish between permissible variation and inadmissible variation. It is not acceptable to play a C sharp when clearly the composer specified a C natural. But the C naturals of two violinists may vary within a certain range - what is it? one per centum? Similarly one person's forte may differ from another person's forte within a certain percentage; that will not matter, as long as it is clear that a forte is played and the composer's intention is thus brought out. And yet again, the tempi of different performances do not have to be identical, as long as they do not differ by more than a degree that is clearly acceptable to the composer. Much the same may be said of the objection about the different acoustics of different halls; what matters is not an identity of sound, rather an identity of musical contrast, intention and argument. We could even say: the music is not the sound.
The problem here is the extent to which who should decide what constitutes the permissible and the impermissible; obviously, wrong notes are one thing (as are the other examples that you cite), but as there's so much more than these various considerations in a perfomance that cannot be prescribed in a score, there will always be such variation (even between performances given by the same performer) and the lack of precise documentability (is that a word? - it is now!) of most of it is what makes for interpretative licence, some of which will be acceptable or unacceptable to some people but on which listener response and opinion will invariably be inconsistent.

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Lastly, whilst certain interpretations can seem to be and indeed sometimes are less than acceptable, no two listeners will derive, or even expect to derive, the very same from a particular work with each listening.
I cannot bring myself to agree with this. I think the first duty of both the listener and the performer is to discover what exactly the composer was attempting to do. Until the performer is satisfied that he knows that, he has no business playing the work (except in private practice of course). But in this sense all intelligent performers and listeners "will derive, or even expect to derive, the very same from a particular work."
But all attempts on the part of listeners and performers to do that are - and indeed can in reality be no more than - journeys on a path to an uncertain and unspecific destination; one possible imminent danger in the seemingly fundamentalist way in which you appear to view this is in the misleading notion that the composer is always right, never changes his/her mind and would expect his/her music to be performed and to sound more or less the same and be responded to identically by its listeners both next week and in two centuries' time.

Of course certain modernist composers of the charlatan school direct the performer to "play whatever he likes" - but such are beneath our consideration are they not.
Aleatoric music and aleatory passages within a piece of otherwise fully notated music are somewhat outside the scope of your argument here, since different standards and expectations apply to these as one would reasonably expect to apply to fully notated music. What of improvisation in jazz - or in concerto cadenzas - for example?
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« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2014, 02:57:42 pm »

how Bach might have expected his music to be performed and received in the late 19th or early 21st centuries had he known at the time of writing that it would be.

Which would have been.... not at all.

We are imposing our own ideas of a 'canon' of music on Bach's time if we do so, and in Bach's idea there was no sense that music had a 'shelf life' of any kind.

Bach didn't have the slightest qualms about arranging Vivaldi violin works for the organ - despite that instrument's almost entire lack of the expressive qualities of the violin. Nor, indeed, was there any problem with pinching material by others for re-use - anything was 'fair game' if you could get away with it, and your intended audience didn't find you out. Handel was one of the greatest 'borrowers' in the business.

Works did not necessarily have 'internal cohesion', and movements or arias could be replaced with others. Handel's legendary 'defenstration' threats with Cuzzoni arose exactly from this point. Cuzzoni had arrived from Italy later than promised, and she was slotted into "Ottone" in a hurry. Either through being a slow learner, or being as temperamental as period reports say, or maybe also through a desire to make a hit with the London audiences, she refused to learn the aria "Falsa imagine" ("Tis a false portrait!"), and instead intended to perform some warhorse aria written for her several years before in Italy, by another composer. (So not only with different non-Handelian music - but with a text entirely irrelevant to Haym's libretto for Ottone, which was already itself an adaptation of a libretto by Pallavicino).

It's worth noting that of Handel's fifty operas (1-2 have gone missing down the years, and 1-2 were 'pasticcio' pieces concocted from existing bits and pieces), almost none* of them were ever revived during Handel's lifetime - nor did Handel make any attempt to do so. It was a sign of weakness and enfeeblement if a composer couldn't produce a constant flow of fresh work. An opera would do one season - or two at most, if it went down well with the public - and then be withdrawn.  (This is the reason why some of them have been lost - Handel never really expected to make use of them again). Very much the same may be said of Bach's ecclesiastical cantatas.  Hasse, Lotti, Telemann, Scarlatti, Porpora and others all worked in much the same way, and almost never revived "old work".

Still less realistic was the idea of raking-up old works by the outgoing generation of composers. I don't believe Bach is known to have performed anything whatsoever by his Kapellmeister predecessors, whether out of admiration or desperation. And therefore I'm certain that Bach would have been amazed, puzzled, and confused by the idea that his music would be dragged up by grave-robbers and foisted on the public a second time - more especially against the background of entirely different Rococo, Classical or Romantic music. There was absolutely no concept of "writing for posterity" in his era. None.

And this discussion's idea of the great, holy, untouchable and infallible Bach would have been laughable. He was a forgotten provincial Kapellmeister even within his own lifetime. Forty years later in London, "Bach" meant only Johann Christian Bach - the elder Bach was entirely unknown there. The great and famous were Porpora, Keiser, Graun, Telemann and Hasse, as I've mentioned before - and as we know ourselves(from the Kapellmeister appointment records), but choose to forget in our Protestant C19th Moral Majority Evangelical Revisionist zeal Sad

* the main exception was Radamisto, which remained in repertoire for 3-4 seasons, primarily because the title role presented such a juicy shop-window for a major castrato star singer. Ironically Radamisto was actually revived ten years after its premiere by Handel's own commercial rivals, the "Opera of the Nobility", to give Farinelli a crack at the role (the only Handelian role he ever sang on stage - although he gave individual arias in concerts). Handel didn't even object to the idea - but registered his protest (as Burney relates) by obtaining a seat in the front row, and glowering at the performers throughout the show.
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« Reply #6 on: January 16, 2014, 03:11:51 pm »

how Bach might have expected his music to be performed and received in the late 19th or early 21st centuries had he known at the time of writing that it would be.

Which would have been.... not at all.

We are imposing our own ideas of a 'canon' of music on Bach's time if we do so, and in Bach's idea there was no sense that music had a 'shelf life' of any kind.
Indeed - as I indicated (albeit perhaps not quite clearly enough!); my reference to this was made in the certain knowledge that there is and indeed can be no realistic answer to the question that I didn't actually pose. My purpose in mentioning it at all was purely as a preamble to my remarks about SG's "listening experiences with Scriabin and Delius" in terms of the fact of their having had - along with so many other such experiences - some inevitable impact upon his responses when listening to Bach, subconscious though they will be.

Bach didn't have the slightest qualms about arranging Vivaldi violin works for the organ - despite that instrument's almost entire lack of the expressive qualities of the violin. Nor, indeed, was there any problem with pinching material by others for re-use - anything was 'fair game' if you could get away with it, and your intended audience didn't find you out. Handel was one of the greatest 'borrowers' in the business.
Quite so - and that tradition of borrowing from oneself and from others has never fallen by the wayside since!

Still less realistic was the idea of raking-up old works by the outgoing generation of composers. I don't believe Bach is known to have performed anything whatsoever by his Kapellmeister predecessors, whether out of admiration or desperation. And therefore I'm certain that Bach would have been amazed, puzzled, and confused by the idea that his music would be dragged up by grave-robbers and foisted on the public a second time - more especially against the background of entirely different Rococo, Classical or Romantic music. There was absolutely no concept of "writing for posterity" in his era. None.
That's right - though whether he might ever have entertained the vision that, one day, things might be different remains open to question; pure speculation, of course and no more than that, but...

And the idea of the great, holy, untouchable and infallible Bach would have been laughable. He was a forgotten provincial Kapellmeister even within his own lifetime. The great and famous were Porpora, Keiser, Graun, Telemann and Hasse, as I've mentioned before - and as we know ourselves(from the Kapellmeister appointment records), but choose to forget in our Protestant C19th Moral Majority Evangelical Revisionist zeal Sad
Er - I for one don't have one of those! No, what you write here is correct, of course, although it's also worth mentioning that Bach's works had already come to be thought of as well worth investigating and reviving as far back as the early 19th century and, of course, we now have almost everything of his that survives wheras we don't necessarily have so much of the work of some of his contemporaries.
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« Reply #7 on: January 16, 2014, 03:13:45 pm »

This is a very learned and detailed discussion Smiley

I shall simply respond by instancing, once again, one extraordinary case with which I am familiar.

Sir Malcolm Arnold's later music divides opinion. During the later 1960s and the 1970s his music becomes angry, bitter, despondent-very much in accord with the mental torment from which he was suffering as a result of his turbulent life and lifestyle. This development in Arnold's style and idiom was so disconcerting to many who enjoyed the easier-going, lyrical music for which he was previously well-know-although, indeed, there was always a distinct touch of angst in even Arnold's earlier, "lighter" music. Disconcerting to an extent that the late Richard Hickox, who had committed the first six Arnold symphonies to disc for Chandos, refused to record Symphonies Nos. 7-9. For a conductor with such a broad repertoire in British Music this was perhaps surprising,  but Hickox found himself completely out of sympathy with the last three Arnold symphonies.

Rumon Gamba replaced Hickox and recorded these symphonies for Chandos. The late Vernon Handley recorded Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 for Conifer. Andrew Penney recorded the complete set for Naxos-apparently with the composer's approval.

Symphony No.7 was written in 1973 and, despite being partly written on Walton's beautiful island of Ischia, it is not a "beautiful" work. Critics and listeners find the Seventh Symphony a difficult work. What is the symphony "about" Huh What is Arnold trying to say Huh Symphony No.7 under Gamba clocks in at 31.52 minutes. Handley, at a more measured pace, takes 37.43 minutes. The differences are most noticeable in the first and second movements in which Handley takes three minutes longer than Gamba.
Andrew Penney maintains the same sort of extended timings as Handley. In fact the timings are virtually identical. Penney recorded the symphony in Ireland in 2000 in the presence of the composer.

Arnold himself conducted the first broadcast performance of the symphony in 1977 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The performance lasts for precisely 50.29 minutes.
This is is over 12 minutes longer than Handley and Penney and almost 20 minutes longer than Gamba.

The effect is to turn the symphony into an almost different composition. Was this Arnold's original conception Huh Did he so radically revise his views about the symphony over the following 23 years that the (approved) Penney version represents a composer whose life had gone through an intervening period of absolute hell, from which he had been rescued, that he no longer wished "the agony" which the symphony appears to embody to be so protracted and extended Huh Is the "interpretation" of the music by its composer open to such revision Huh Obviously the answer would appear to be that it is.

And if a conductor was to conduct the work today, using a score which-to my knowledge- has not been revised, whose metronome markings, presumably, remain the same, as Arnold had himself interpreted the symphony back in 1977 would we be saying "how dreadfully slow, how agonisingly despairing this work is, how much 'better' it sounds on disc!"
And, if we did, would the composer's own intentions-as represented in his own first broadcast performance (four years after the work had been composed and at a time when the composer's state of mind was so similar to that it had been when he wrote it)-be no longer "valid" Huh
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« Reply #8 on: January 16, 2014, 04:15:49 pm »

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The effect is to turn the symphony into an almost different composition.

Yes, I'd certainly agree here. I can think of dozens of other examples where 'severe' alterations of performance style have entirely altered a work.

Long years ago, I did a workshop with conductor Peter Robinson about Mozart, at the V&A. If you gear-up (or -down) the tempo in Mozart works, bad things happen. Arpeggiated string 'chording' (used as a textured accompaniment background) starts turning into a melodic line if you slow it down. Woodwind chord-blocking begins to develop a melodic line (based on whatever the top note is - usually in the oboes) if you speed it up. The whole nature of the work changes if you mess overmuch with the tempo.  (Often forgotten - "adagio" doesn't mean "slow". "Largo" means 'slow'. "Ad agio" means "at ease, freely".)

I'm afraid I don't know these late Arnold symphonies to be able to offer any view on them. Were they poorly received by the public when they first came out?  That might be another reason for the composer wishing to have their tempo cranked up?

Even a change of orchestra can affect things. We were in Budapest two years ago, where Jurowsky conducted a Haydn symphony from the harpsichord.  A couple of months later, Jurowsky was in Moscow, again conducting Haydn. "This is a completely different musical world from Haydn, isn't it? The sunshine has gone, it's like a day of black clouds.", my companion* remarked.  But in fact - it was the very same symphony.  Just a muscovite ('top league') orchestra which never plays Haydn from one season to the next Sad

* who is no slouch in the world of musical interpretation herself Wink
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« Reply #9 on: January 16, 2014, 04:39:36 pm »

Two well-written and informative reviews:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/Aug01/Arnold78.htm
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« Reply #10 on: January 17, 2014, 11:25:24 am »

It may be instructive to compare any well-known musical composition with any well-known poem. The essence of the poem, in its printed form, remains unaltered, whether a small, narrow and unattractive type face is used, or a more carefully prepared and acceptable design. In the same way the essence of the musical composition remains unaltered even when the conditions of performance change: in the one the words remain the same, and in the other the notes remain the same.

When several editions of the poem are compared, small differences are often found; mainly differences of punctuation, but sometimes also "alternative versions" of the text. This situation resembles what we find in the case of various editions of a musical composition. We might think of the task of the editor and printer of the poem as similar to the task of the performer of the musical work. They each strive for accuracy, and where there are differences, they would do well to explain them. If we choose a pleasant performer for a piece of music, it is no more significant than choosing a pleasant type-face and layout for a poem.

It will be observed that there is no place for "interpretation" in that. The "interpreters" about which there has been so much hullabaloo since the time of Liszt and Wagner are really a kind of cuckoo in the nest.

Now poetry may be appreciated in a second form: it may be spoken or recited. This gives rather more scope for interpretation, in that the reciter may vary his or her speed, change his or her tone of voice, flutter his or her eyelashes, and so on. But just as the musical performer will not play a "wrong note," so will the reciter of a poem not substitute a "wrong word."

When we turn from true poetry to the theatre, we find much more liberty, especially with Shakespeare where so much of the text is corrupt. Actors do not seem to have the same concept of faithfulness to the text. And operas are treated in much the same way; vast chunks omitted and passages rewritten.

So, Liszt's desire to insert his own speeds, flourishes, loudnesses, emphases, and so on, where they expressly contradict what is written in the score, seems to have become a widespread one - part of human nature. Performers cannot help inserting themselves into the performance. The B.B.C. does it too, when, assuming some kind of ownership, they chop up compositions and transmit them one movement at a time. But it seems to me that such crude and selfish behaviour shows a less than appropriate respect to the original creators of art-works: the composers or poets.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #11 on: January 17, 2014, 12:24:59 pm »

it seems to me that such crude and selfish behaviour shows a less than appropriate respect to the original creators of art-works: the composers or poets.

You mean, like Bach's organ arrangements of Vivaldi's violin works?  Cheesy
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ahinton
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« Reply #12 on: January 17, 2014, 12:45:01 pm »

It may be instructive to compare any well-known musical composition with any well-known poem. The essence of the poem, in its printed form, remains unaltered, whether a small, narrow and unattractive type face is used, or a more carefully prepared and acceptable design. In the same way the essence of the musical composition remains unaltered even when the conditions of performance change: in the one the words remain the same, and in the other the notes remain the same.

When several editions of the poem are compared, small differences are often found; mainly differences of punctuation, but sometimes also "alternative versions" of the text. This situation resembles what we find in the case of various editions of a musical composition. We might think of the task of the editor and printer of the poem as similar to the task of the performer of the musical work. They each strive for accuracy, and where there are differences, they would do well to explain them. If we choose a pleasant performer for a piece of music, it is no more significant than choosing a pleasant type-face and layout for a poem.

It will be observed that there is no place for "interpretation" in that. The "interpreters" about which there has been so much hullabaloo since the time of Liszt and Wagner are really a kind of cuckoo in the nest.
On hearing about the first cuckoo in this particular nest, I must disagree with what you write, to the extent that what's under discussion here is interpretation in the context of what is left to the performers' discretion by the shortcomings of conventional musical notation. Your example of a poem really doesn't hold good here, in that there is a world of difference between what is prescribed by printed verbal expression and what is left unprescribed by printed musical expression; for that reason alone, I am unable to reconcile your analogy between the editor and printer of a poem and the performer/s of a musical work, because the conventions of the printed word as addressed by the former offer considerably less licence than those of printed musical notation addressed by the latter.

In considering your analogy, however, it occurs to me that there is a similar rôle for the editor and printer of a musical work as well and this really is more akin to that of the editor and printer of a poem.

Now poetry may be appreciated in a second form: it may be spoken or recited. This gives rather more scope for interpretation, in that the reciter may vary his or her speed, change his or her tone of voice, flutter his or her eyelashes, and so on. But just as the musical performer will not play a "wrong note," so will the reciter of a poem not substitute a "wrong word."
Yes, the interpreter of a poem is far more closely analogous to that of a musical work in that you are now referring to each in terms of performance, but wrong words and wrong notes are by no means the entire story here because, as I stated, the sheer amount of inevitable licence provided by musical notation is so much greater than that offered by the written/printed word.

When we turn from true poetry to the theatre, we find much more liberty, especially with Shakespeare where so much of the text is corrupt. Actors do not seem to have the same concept of faithfulness to the text. And operas are treated in much the same way; vast chunks omitted and passages rewritten.
Whilst this is true, the very fact of the sheer age of Shakespeare's texts is itself another issue altogether, in that they were obviously written in the language of their time but that the English language - even British English - has changed massively in terms of usage over the past 4½ centuries and more, just as musical performance conventions and, to some extent musial notation conventions have undergone changes between the time of Byrd and our present age.

So, Liszt's desire to insert his own speeds, flourishes, loudnesses, emphases, and so on, where they expressly contradict what is written in the score, seems to have become a widespread one - part of human nature. Performers cannot help inserting themselves into the performance. The B.B.C. does it too, when, assuming some kind of ownership, they chop up compositions and transmit them one movement at a time. But it seems to me that such crude and selfish behaviour shows a less than appropriate respect to the original creators of art-works: the composers or poets.
I would be wary of comparing Liszt's treatment of music in his performances with the kind of cut-and-(not)-paste treatment sometimes meted out to musical works by BBC and others when presenting bite-sized chunks of larger works for listeners with inadequate attention spans! The point about the former is that a musical composition is living thing at all times and, as you yourself observed, Bach was far from averse to tinkering around with his scores after they'd been written down, so it's not a habit that began only with Liszt! The shorthand of figured bass notation also allows for interpretative licence.

It is also prudent to remember in this context that Bach and his contemporaries, Mozart and his, Liszt and his - and so on - all improvised, although in the past century or so, the tradition of composer as performer has weakened consierably to a point which I imagine none of the composers whom I've just mentioned would even recognise or understand from their own experiences and the art of improvisation has largely (though by no means entirely) become confined to organists and jazz musicians.

Ronald Stevenson, whose immense Passacaglia you very much appreciate, has spoken of what in reality are imaginary dividing lines that some people have nevertheless sought to insert between the arts of composition, improvisation, editing/arranging/transcribing/paraphrasing and performance as a negative influence upon the ways in which listeners have been persuaded to regard music as a whole; he even wrote a three-movement piano piece, Le Festin d'Alkan, within the scope and scale of which he sought consciously to explore some of these.

Leaving improvisation on one side for a moment, what is your view of the principle of composers arranging, transcribing, paraphrasing, &c., the work of others? Bach often did this kind of thing, just as Godowsky (and others) did it to the works of Bach (and others), sometimes long after the event of the original composition. Would you be content to be without Liszt's Schubert song transcriptions or the Godowsky studies on the études of Chopin (to name but two of countless thousands of examples from piano repertoire alone)?

The late and much lamented Shura Cherkassky once wrote to me that he thought that a Schumann transcription of mine was well written but that he did not approve of altering Schumann's works (which is wryly amusing coming from a pianist whose irrepressible imagination and spontaneity caused him to "alter" them every time he performed them!); as it happens, the piece is a paraphrase of a paraphrase, it being of the second movement of the composer's G minor piano sonata which is itself a paraphrse of his earlier song Im Herbst (it is dedicated, incidentally, to Ronald Stevenson).

Again, since you mention Liszt, I once had both the audacity and temerity (not to mention the sheer idiocy) to arrange his Norma Fantasy for viola and double bass (though that is strictly an arrangement - or perhaps more properly derangement - rather than a paraphrase).

In your view, should I perhaps have desisted from perpetrating these things on the grounds that tinkering with another composer's work is some kind of artistic civil offence?

Just as a matter of interest, how, for example, might you perceive works such as Anthony Payne's realisation of Elgar's Third Symphony and its performance in the present context? At the time he realised that he would die long before completing it, Elgar vacillated between stating on the one hand that someone in 50 or 500 years' time might come along and complete it or write a better one and on the other that no one should tinker with it as they would not understand.
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« Reply #13 on: February 25, 2014, 08:40:11 pm »

The Seventh symphony is one of my favourites. I didn't know that Richard Hickox had refused to record the last three Arnold symphonies - interesting news indeed. As a rule I prefer the odd numbered symphonies + No 6.
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