The Compleat Conductorby Gunther Schuller
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A world-renowned conductor and composer who has lead most of the major orchestras in North America and Europe, a talented musician who has played under the batons of such luminaries as Toscanini and Walter, and an esteemed arranger, scholar, author, and educator, Gunther Schuller is without doubt a major figure in the music world. Now, in The Compleat Conductor, Schuller has penned a highly provocative critique of modern conducting, one that is certain to stir controversy. Indeed, in these pages he castigates many of this century's most venerated conductors for using the podium to indulge their own interpretive idiosyncrasies rather than devote themselves to reproducing the composer's stated and often painstakingly detailed intentions. Contrary to the average concert-goer's notion (all too often shared by the musicians as well) that conducting is an easily learned skill, Schuller argues here that conducting is "the most demanding, musically all embracing, and complex" task in the field of music performance. Conducting demands profound musical sense, agonizing hours of study, and unbending integrity. Most important, a conductor's overriding concern must be to present a composer's work faithfully and accurately, scrupulously following the score including especially dynamics and tempo markings with utmost respect and care. Alas, Schuller finds, rare is the conductor who faithfully adheres to a composer's wishes. To document this, Schuller painstakingly compares hundreds of performances and recordings with the original scores of eight major compositions: Beethoven's fifth and seventh symphonies, Schumann's second (last movement only), Brahms's first and fourth, Tchaikovsky's sixth, Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe, Second Suite." Illustrating his points with numerous musical examples, Schuller reveals exactly where conductors have done well and where they have mangled the composer's work. As he does so, he also illuminates the interpretive styles of many of our most celebrated conductors, offering pithy observations that range from blistering criticism of Leonard Bernstein ("one of the world's most histrionic and exhibitionist conductors") to effusive praise of Carlos Kleiber (who "is so unique, so remarkable, so outstanding that one can only describe him as a phenomenon"). Along the way, he debunks many of the music world's most enduring myths (such as the notion that most of Beethoven's metronome markings were "wrong" or "unplayable," or that Schumann was a poor orchestrator) and takes on the "cultish clan" of period instrument performers, observing that many of their claims are "totally spurious and chimeric." In his epilogue, Schuller sets forth clear guidelines for conductors that he believes will help steer them away from self indulgence towards the correct realization of great art. Courageous, eloquent, and brilliantly insightful, The Compleat Conductor throws down the gauntlet to conductors worldwide. It is a controversial book that the music world will be debating for many years to come.
"[Schuller] offers a living, loving, inside view of works he discusses, a view informed not only by his zealous listening but also by practical contact and wide reading."-- The New York Times Book Review
"A remarkably through book and one that will have muscians arguing for years."--The Washington Post
"This is a unique book that has been waiting--begging--to be written."--Opera News
"Schuller's book should be read by every conductor, self-styled connoisseur, and concert-goer."--Los Angeles Times Book Review
"The opinions are strong, well researched, and convincingly argued."--Library Journal
"[Schuller's] analyses should be read by all serious conductors, for they contain insights that the ordinary listener does not consider but that, if followed, will help truly realize a composer's work."--Booklist
"For both the practicing musician and non-professional listener, the most moving testimonial to this book is the recording on the GM label (2051CD) of Beethoven's Fifth and Brahms' First symphonies. Schuller leads a hand-picked orchestra of New York musicians. These performances illustrate the kind of emotional impact that results when humility, love and respect for the score are brought to bear in performance and recording."--Travis Rivers, The Spokane Review
"[Schuller], in a book written more in sorrow than in venom, argues that most conductors ill-serve music, musicians, and audiences."--The Philadelphia Inquirer
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A Philosophy of Conducting
A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable. The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centered in himself.
T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood
Conducting is surely the most demanding, musically all-embracing, and complex of the various disciplines that constitute the field of music performance. Yet, ironically, it is considered by most peopleincluding, alas, most orchestral musiciansto be either an easy-to-acquire skill (musicians) or the result of some magical, unfathomable, inexplicable God-given gifts (audiences). It is actually neither, the skills required in conducting at the highest artistic levels being anything but easy to acquiremany conductors never achieve them at allwhile what the public mostly perceives as the magic and majesty of the baton is, but only in the best hands, a result of many years of intensive study and hard work, as well as talent, of course.
Talent in and of itself is not enough. Talent is also a much misunderstood or misinterpreted commodity. Talent may be innate, inborn, even inherited; but talent, no matter how great, needs to be developed, nurtured, and honed. For the skills inherent in fine conducting comprise a whole network of specific abilities and attributes: physical/gestural, aural, analytical, intellectualeven psychological and philosophical. For the conductor must not only know all there is to know about a score, down to the most minuscule details, but must develop the gestural skills to transmit that information clearlyto an orchestra and the psychological dexterity to relate effectively (especially in rehearsals) to an orchestraitself a complex collection of talented individuals, personalities, and artistic egos.
When audiences overrate and musicians underrate conductors' abilities and accomplishments, it is because the former tend to confuse conducting with gestural histrionics, and the latter with mere time beating. There are, of course, skillful time beaters, even among world-famous conductors, and equally skillful podium exhibitionists. But these for the most part demean the art of conducting, making it much less than what it can and should be. To delineate and analyze what conducting as an artnot merely as a profession or a career or a businessis and should be, will be the burden of Part I of this book.
The talents and skillsinnate and acquiredthat ultimately comprise the art of conducting are awesome. This undoubtedly explains why so few conductors attain them. There also ought to be a sense of moral obligation, a sense of unalterable respect for the great literature comprising our Western musical heritage; a sense that the art of conducting must be seen as a sacred trust to translate into a meaningful expressive acoustical reality, with as much insight and fidelity as is humanly possible, those musical documentsthe scores, the textsleft us by the great composers.
These triple demandstalent, hard work, and an aesthetic moralityare unfortunately in short supply today. Perhaps they always were to one degree or another, but it seems to me that in this age of hype, promotion, public relations, and careerismin an era when commerce and profit motivation dominate almost the entire social arenain such an environment conducting has turned more and more into a business, into a commercial enterprise, with the predictable and commensurate lowering of artistic standards: in shortapart from a few glorious exceptionswith a rather serious debasement of the art of conducting.
Those will surely seem very strong words to many readers, especially those who sit at home with their `50-masterpieces' record collections, idolizing the `rich and famous' among the conductors, the superstarsthe Bernsteins, the Karajansto whom they attribute virtually god-like qualities. Close critical examination of what is actually produced on most podiums or in the recording studios of the world reveals that much of the business of conducting is more and more driven by extra-musical, extra-artistic considerations and motivations. Not that lack of talent and artistic integrity, charlatanism and musical fraudulence are limited to our era or are somehow an invention of our times. Interpretational excesses and abuses of the great literature have long existed, probably since conducting became a distinct profession. But the financial and material stakes of success in this era of electronic communication advances and mass markets are so much higher today, so much more tempting and therefore so much more potentially corrupting than ever before in our cultural history. Artistic standards and artistic integrity have declined dramatically in recent decades, succumbing to careerist and commercial pressures at an alarming rate. The idea that a musical artist, a conductor, ought to serve the musicrather than the music serving the musicianis occasionally given lip service, but is rarely put into practice.
Such service ought to extend to the music of our own time, and I beg, not just the first decade and a half of our century. The ideal `compleat' conductor is also an ardent advocate for the best in new music, with a deep and unshakable commitment to performing the great music of his contemporaries. This implies taking risks, the kind of risks courageous conductors such as Koussevitsky, Stokowski, Mitropoulos, Reiner, Steinberg, and Dorati took in varying degrees and ways. I must say that I can have only a diminished respect for a conductor or any musician, no matter how good otherwise, who feels little or no commitment to the music of his own time.
It may perhaps surprise the lay reader that there is something like a philosophy of conducting and that the art of conducting can be defined. But then it is doubtful that even the majority of conductors (and would-be conductors) ever think seriously about such matters. Indeed, musicians drift into conducting nowadays without much thought of what in fact they are undertaking, with little or no awareness of what the conductor's art entailsor should entail. The desire to lead an orchestra derives much more from some ego-driven ambition which has little or nothing to do with serious music-making, or with a sense of humility and devotion in serving the art. The idea that it is an enormous privilege, but also an awesome responsibility, to conduct Beethoven's Eroica or Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps or Brahms's Fourth Symphony, is rarely considered. More often than not it is seen merely as a stepping stone in a career, and thus to fame and fortune.
It is much more usual that a young musician one fine day wakes up to the vague notion that heor lately shewould like to direct and control a musical performance, rather than merely play a part in it. Typically, this vague notion soon turns into an irresistible desire and then a driving obsession. In rarer instances, the decision to turn to conducting is prompted by chance, an accident of fate, an incidental encounter: most commonly when a resident conductor becomes incapacitated and a musician, who may never have conducted before, is quite suddenly prompted to take over at a rehearsal orless frequentlyat a concert (as in the case of Toscanini, for example).
To be sure, there are those who are, by their talent and personality, destined to become conductors: musicians who have inborn intellectual, expressive, and physical aptitudes to interpret composers' works, and to elicit such interpretations from a collection of orchestral musicians. But even that group of conductors rarely takes the time at the first hint of conducting impulses to analyze critically what the art, the craft of conducting, actually involves. Rarely is thought given to the immensity of such a decision and to the awesome challenges it entails. I'd like to think that if young aspiring conductors were to think more deeply about these matters, many would be deterred from pursuing this particular, most demanding of musical professions.
As it is, musicians tend to declare themselves conductors by merely announcing as much to the world and ironicallysadlythe world generally accepts the pronouncement without question, regardless of whether the particular individual has conducting talents, regardless of whether the individual has the technical, intellectual, and emotional capacities to translate a musical score into an appropriate interpretation via appropriate conductorial gestures. Thus it is that young musicians with immense, irrestrainable egos become `conductors' in an instant, overnight as it were, while more modest egos with more modest ambitions (but just as much, or perhaps even more, talent) remain relatively unrecognized and anonymous.
Certainly it takes a healthy ego to develop the courage to stand before an orchestra of seventy-five or eighty musicians, to impose his or her musical/interpretive will on that orchestra, to in a sense dominate those musicians, and to dare to `interpret' the great masterpieces of the Western tradition. When such a `healthy' egolet's call it a `modest' ego, contradictory as that may sound, or in Bruno Walter's phrase, a "selfless ego"is infused with an equally healthy respect for and gratitude toward the musicians who labor and toil under his baton, then one is likely to get what I will simply call for the moment very fine, high-level music-making (to be defined more precisely in the ensuing discourse).
But rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of the conducting profession and how casually most musicians tend to drift into conducting careers, let us explore in detail what in fact the art of conducting at the highest levels entails, what it meansor should meanwhen someone says, `I am a conductor,' and what is required in order to earn the right to conduct the masterworks of the past and the present.
As suggested earlier, the `compleat' conductor must possess a whole range of diverse talents and acquire a broad and deep knowledge of the literature that goes far beyond that required for any other type of performing artistinstrumentalist, pianist, singer, whatever. But all these talents must be encompassed in one all-embracing basic attitude: a deep humility before the art of music that contains in it a profound love for and unswerving commitment to serving that art; a humility that considers it a privilege, an honor, to bring to life the masterworks of our musical heritage, and to communicate through them to our fellow human beings. With such an unostentatious approach, the many other talents a conductor needs to possess will evolve in proper perspective.
Ranging from the somewhat philosophical to the specifically technical, the requisite talents and skills needed to be a fine, perhaps even great, conductor are: an unquenchable curiosity about the miracle of the creative process and about how works of art are created; a profound reverence and respect for the documentthe (printed) scorethat embodies and reflects that creation; the intellectual capacity to analyze a score in all of its myriad internal details and relationships; a lively musical, aural imagination that can translate the abstract musical notations of a score into an inspired, vibrant performance; and on a more practical level, a keen, discerning ear and mind; a versatile, disciplined, expressive baton technique; an efficient rehearsal technique; a precise and thorough knowledge of the specific technical limitations and capacities of orchestral instruments (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, harp etc.) not only as functioning today but in different historical periods; and finally but not least, a basic respect for the role the musiciansartists in their own rightplay in the creation of the sounds that are ultimately transmitted to the audience, artists without whose vital contribution (as many conductors in their self-glorification tend to forget) their own talents and efforts would not be expressible.
It is to be expected that some will question the sequence in which I have presented these conductorial requisites. Some will even question the very notion that humility might be a primary element in a conductor's make-up, a notion (allegedly) irreconcilable with the (alleged) need for a conductor to dominate his musicians, to make them do his musical bidding. The answer to the second question, however, is simple: persuasion that results from a commitment to the integrity of the art and a consummate knowledge of the music at hand will always bring out the best in musicians. Moreover, the artistic humility I refer to is not (and need not be) without a healthy sense of the conductor's own worthiness. It is simply a humility which recognizes that the conductor's first priority is to serve the music, to be a medium, a vehicle, through which the work of art is revealed and expressed.
This humility then translates into a fierce determination to know completely and profoundly the work in all of its aspects, to explore the letter and the spirit of the
work, to plumb its expressive and emotional depths, in order to reveal its essence. Given human fallibility and variability, absolute perfection is probably not achievable. But it is certainly the goal that conductors must strive forin order to have the right to interpret, to realize, the works of the great masters, whose genius is many, many times greater than their own.
For if conductors arrogate to themselves the notion that they are going to interpret the masterworks of the past and the present, then they had better realize that that is not only a staggering task, but one that imposes a profound responsibility to what Beethoven and Wagner so aptly called "die heilige Kunst" (`the sacred art'). And that responsibilitythat moral and aesthetic obligationin turn demands that conductors achieve their so-called interpretations through, i.e. from within, the work of art, in boundless respect and reverence for it; and that they not, in reverse order, willfully or inadvertently impose some self-indulgent, over-personalized `interpretation' on that work of art.
Indeed, if I had my druthers, I would in this context abolish the termand the idea of`interpretation' altogether and, following Maurice Ravel's sage advice, substitute the word `realization.' Ravel, one of history's most meticulous, most precise, most detail-loving notators of music, urged: "Il ne faut pas interpreter ma musique, il faut le realiser." (One should not interpret my music, one should realize it.) On another occasion, in a similar vein, Ravel told Marguerite Long, the pianist for whom he wrote his G major Piano Concerto (she premiered it in 1932 under Ravel's direction): "Je ne demande pas que l'on m'interprete mais seulement qu'on me joue." (I do not ask that one interpret my music, but simply that one play it); the implication being "as written, as notated," or as Toscanini put it so often: "come e scritto."
Indeed, as the term, and the idea of, `interpretation' has evolved over the last two centuries, it has become a dangerous concept, inimical and antagonistic to the art of music, less concerned with the music, the compositions and their true intent, than with the interpreter's self. Interpretation is about as far away from pure `realization' as it possibly can be, with basic respect for the work per se virtually nonexistent.
Interpretation has come to mean in most circles; `Don't trust the work of art; don't let it speak for itself; we will decode it, explain it for you.' The modern-day interpreter, consciously or unconsciously (mostly through arrogance and/or ignorance), is altering the work, the text without, of course, ever admitting as much. He insists that he is only making it `more intelligible,' giving you its `true meaning.' But in fact he is selectively picking out, emphasizing a set of components, of features, from the work as a whole. In effect, the interpreter is one who translates and transforms.
And as Susan Sontag pointed out long ago, "The interpreter, [even] without actually erasing or re-writing the text, is altering it. But he can't admit doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning." ... "the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete ... in order to set up a shadow world of `meanings.'"
Indeed, most interpretation, as I see it and as it is practiced nowadays (and was vigorously practiced even in earlier times by the likes of Bulow and Mengelberg) is nothing more than a refusal to let the work of art stand on its own. Whether in hermeneutic interpretations by critics, historians, and writers or actual acoustic re-interpretations by conductors and performers, the work, the composition, is not permitted to be itself, to come to us in a pure `realization.' As a result, hardly anyoneleast of all audiencescan now really know the work itself, distinguish it from its myriad interpretations and translations.
The sad irony here is that anyone who has not experienced a true `realization' (as opposed to an `interpretation') can have no idea what an incredible experience and revelation that can be. It is folly to think that we as performers, as recreators, can elevate the work of art. It is the work of art that can elevate us. And that, once encountered, is the ultimate experience, the ultimate artistic achievement. (See also Felix Weingartner's thoughts along the same lines, cited in Part II, p. 102). The state of conducting, alas, is todaywith some notable and wonderful exceptionsfar removed from such artistic/moral/ethical considerations. Musical integrity, respect for the composer's work, idealism, and a sense of humility toward the art of music are in very short supply. We might expect from conductors at least a simple basic respect for the dead. But when we speak of the Mozarts, the Beethovens, the Brahmses, the Debussys of our musical heritage, we ought to double our respect for those particular dead, and make it a matter of honor and pride scrupulously to respect their creations, their scores. The art of conducting ought to consist of faithfully retracing the manifold steps by which the composer originally created the work, of re-tracing and re-living the creative, visionary journey on which the composer embarked in the first instance.
That is an immense challenge, a task which takes many kinds of knowledge and, in its highest form, extraordinary skills. The integrity of that re-creative process is what is at stake here, and what this book will be about: and by integrity, I mean a kind of `morality' of conducting as an art and as a coherent philosophy, not as a mere profession or, worse, a business.
But even such stringent criteria, as demanding as they may sound, are as a broad philosophy still too vague and general, and apt to hide a plethora of common conductorial sins and aberrations. Every conductor, after all, thinks of him/herself as embodying the highest moral artistic integrity and possessing all the requisite skills to interpret the great masterworks of our literature. We must therefore consider more precisely the specific core skills with which the conductor can effectively respond toand achievethe stated challenges.
A simple definition of the art of conducting could be that it involves eliciting from the orchestra with the most appropriate minimum of conductorial (if you will, choreographic) gestures a maximum of accurate acoustical results. But in order to know what those "most appropriate" gestures and "accurate acoustical results" might be, one must have a precise and deep knowledge of the score and the creative process that produced it. That is not as easy a task as it might seem at first blush. To begin with, we are allwe conductors (with some notable exceptions: Ozawa now, and Reiner, Monteux in the past, come to mind)to a lesser or greater degree limited by the physical disposition of our bodies, our own physical structures. We are in a profound and virtually inescapable sense prisoners of our bodies. Almost all of us have some more or less serious limitations as to what we can do with our hands, our arms, our shoulders, our head, our eyesin short our body equipment. Almost all of us are to one extent or another variously inept in one area or another. A perfect conducting machine, like an Ozawa or, in quite different ways, a Carlos Kleiber or a Reiner or a Leinsdorf or a Bernstein, is an extraordinary rarity. Most of us are either too tall, or too short; our arms are too long or too short, or too stiff or too loose, or too something. Most of us are not free enough in our arms and torso to control fully the minutiae of movements which so crucially affect the musical/acoustic results emanating from an orchestra; and most of us are too habituated to certain physical movements to be free at the precise moment to alter or control them.
Our physical attributes profoundly affect our conducting abilities, positively or negatively as the case may be. That is not to say that one cannot learn, particularly with experience, to become gesturally more controlled, more relevant, more relaxed, more `appropriate.' Much can be achieved in this realm with good training, and there are many tricks and methods by which one can learn effectively to re-train and discipline one's body, one's physical equipment, as it were. But I believeand know from many years of experience and of observing several hundred conductors (many of them world-famous) with whom I worked as an orchestral musicianthat for most conductors there are ultimately some physical limitations or idiosyncrasies which, no matter how one tries to overcome them, cannot be entirely outgrown. What we are thus left with is the goal of developing our physical, manual, gestural skillsone of the essentials of our conducting craftto their highest possible potential, so that we may accurately reflect and transmit to the orchestra (and thence to the audience) that which the music requires us to express.
But that physical expression is but the exterior manifestation of what we know and feel about the music (the score). All the physical, choreographic skills in the world will amount to nothing if they represent an insufficient (intellectual) knowledge of the score and an inadequate (emotional) feeling for the musicin other words a knowledge of what to represent, of what to `realize.' A beautiful baton technique can achieve little if the mind that activates that baton doesn't know what there is to know in the work and what, in fact, its notation expresses. The clean baton technique of a conductor who, for example, does not hear well harmonically or whose mind and ear cannot keep a steady tempo may still be a beautiful thing to watch, but from a strictly musical point of view it is a useless skill. It is equally true that a first-rate mind and ear can achieve very little if the technique needed to express what is in that mind and ear is deficient.
Pursuing this thought further, we must therefore understand precisely what it is we have to know in a composer's work in order to translate it into an accurate living representation and expression of the music. The answer in the broadest and deepest sense is: we must know everything it is possible to know. By that I mean what is perhaps, in absolute reality, an impossibility, but certainly a magnificent goal to strive for, and to continue to strive for as one matures. We must know (or at least try very hard to know) essentially why every note and every verbal annotation in that score is there, what their meanings and their functions are in the over-all work. In that sense the art of conducting ought to be the art of collaborationbetween conductor and composereven dead composers.
Perhaps now the reader can begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task and the complex demands the art of conducting makes. To know how and why every note in, say, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is there; to know how and why those several thousand musical choices and decisions which produced that extraordinary masterpiece were made: that is our task, and I would say, our aesthetic/moral obligation. This in turn means a complete functional harmonic, pitch, and intervallic analysis of the work; an analysis of its thematic/motivic content and inner relationships; an understanding of the work's internal tempo relationships (within movements and from movement to movement); its tempo stresses and strains (most likely induced by its harmonic rhythm and expressive needs); its phrase and period structuring, in the small as well as the large sense (again intimately tied to the underlying harmonic rhythms); its structuring in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary materials; its homophonic and (where appropriate) polyphonic structuring; its instrumentation (including a historical understanding of the then-prevailing instrumental capacities and limitations); an understanding of Beethoven's use of dynamics (both as means of structural delineation and expressive, decorative profiling); and finally, beyond the score itself (to the extent that available documentation allows), the background to the creation of the work, and any artistic, cultural (perhaps even social) influences on its creation.
Conductors often delude themselves into thinking that, our conventional musical notation being limited in some respects, there is much that one cannot know about a work because its notation simply cannot reveal or prescribe everything. While it is true that our musical notation has its limitations, I would still argue that there is much more to be gleaned from our notation than we generally assume. It is true that the ultimate, most subtle nuances and personal refinements of interpretation are in fact not, in an absolute sense, notatable. (And this book will not be about such subtleties and refinements of interpretation.) Indeed, tempo, tempo modifications, dynamic and timbral indications cannot be absolute or objectively precise; they remain relative and thus prone to subjective evaluation. But it is just as true that they are more than adequate to achieve an ideal realization of a work and that a sensitive musician with sound musical instincts, probing the essence and style of a given workespecially in post-Haydn/Mozart repertorycan extract insights from the notation of the score that will provide him with very precise ideas as to how to conduct the work. Indeed, the problem in conducting and interpretation is not that our notation is `inadequate,' but that 50 percent of it is ignored by most conductors. In short, there is much more reliable evidence in scores than we generally suspect, especially in scores by late 19th- and early 20th-century composers, most of whom have taken more than the usual pains to meticulously express their intentions in their notation. This `evidence' then is tantamount to very specific instructionsinstructions which in my view we dare not disregard or reject, which we must respect, or at least try to honor.
I am not so foolish as to argue that scores, often the only relevant document left to us by the no longer living composer, are absolutely reliable. Composers do make mistakes, often by omission or in the haste of creation. Publishers and editors also make mistakes and contribute errors other than those made by the composer. And some composers are extremely precise and detailed in their notation, while others often assume a prior knowledge of their style and notational habits. But all that notwithstanding, we ought as conductors and performers to honor the basic premise that the score is a precious, unique, sacred document, which in essence should be relied on for all the information it can yield.
Generally the music world makes a mystique of conducting, as if it were based on some mysterious, divine gift, bestowed upon only a few `chosen' musicians each generation. The fact is that the highest levels of conducting are achieved by dint of hard work, intensive study, including close scrutiny of the score, and an absolute commitment to expressing with the utmost fidelity the information the score contains. An interpretation that does not start with the score, that fails to evolve out of the score in all its notational, prescriptive details (not just those that the interpreter deems convenient to consider), in short, an interpretation that starts with the interpreter rather than the work (the score) is, I believe, fundamentally invalid. The premise, too often affirmed today, alas,even by (or perhaps especially by) famous conductorsis to start at the other end of the process: to arrive at an `interpretation' before the score is fully assessed, or biased by extra-notational influences, such as a famous (but not necessarily representative) recording or someone else's prior interpretation, or some handed-down tradition, orworse yetpersonal whim and fancy. Before we start `interpreting' and imposing ourselves on the score, before we start intruding upon the music, we ought to adhere to the discipline of thoroughly studying every note, every dynamic marking, every phrase, every instrumentational detail of that score. Our `interpretation'or `realization'must ultimately be derived directly and primarily from the source, arise out of the score, accumulate, as it were, from and through the score.
As a working method in the process of revealing the score to the orchestra and thence to the listener, the specifics of how all the elements of music (the composer's tools) are usedharmony, melody (or theme or motive), rhythm, dynamics, timbre (orchestration), form and structuremust be separately and then collectively explored and understood. In general, we call this analyzing the score. But `analysis' can have different meanings for different constituents: musicologists, composers, conductors, for example. I will therefore be very precise and speak of analysis as particularly applicable to conducting. In the ideal and fullest sense this analysis and understanding will comprise all the vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (melodic or thematic) relationships: how these intersect and influence each other until every note, every rhythm, every orchestrational detail is seen (and heard), until the entire criss-crossing network of myriad, kaleidoscopic musical interfacings is understood and felt. Thus, the harmonic rhythm of a work can illuminate its phrase structure, or the timbral or sonoric profiling of the work can delineate its formal and textural aspects, or the dynamic refinements can underscore and reveal the orchestral colors with which a composer is `painting' his music. There is no true masterpiece in which these elementsthese composers' intellectual or intuitive choices and decisionsdo not symbiotically interrelate and ultimately correlate into a vast and complex musical network.
When we say that the Eroica, the St. Matthew Passion, Brahms's Fourth Symphony are perfect masterpieces, what we are really saying is that in those works (and others of that calibre) the composer has made thousands of minute final decisions and choices, selected from a veritable infinity of options, and which we in retrospect upon hearing the work hear as the `best possible choices,' as `inevitable'and thus `perfect.' Indeed, that is one simple elementary way of describing the composing process: i.e., a composer, having just written the 5th or 572nd or 1003rd note, now has to write the 6th or 573rd or 1004th note; and out of all the possible options in respect to note, pitch, and rhythmic choices, orchestrational decisions, dynamic considerations, etc., the composer now selects that one note he considers to be `the best' or the `most logical,' the most consistent with what has come before and what may follow. And when that choice, that decision, is made by a Beethoven, a Mozart, a Brahms, a Tchaikovsky, a Ravel, a Stravinsky, a Schonberg, a Webern, a Berg, it is more often than not at such a level of intuition, intelligence, imagination, vision, originalityand daringthat we feel in retrospect it was the only `right' choice, the `best' choice and seemingly `inevitable.' (The fact that the composer might ten years later, as he develops and matures, make an even `better' decisionor, as sometimes happens, revise and `improve' a previous workdoes not alter the fact that at the initial moment of inspiration and creation, that composer's choice was in fact his `best choice.')
It is a conductor's job to understand the process by which a thousand and one such `inevitable' choices are made by the composer and, as I say, to retrace those steps of creation, to re-create in his conducting that decisional process, not in some merely mechanical rendering but in a manner that is emotionally, expressively inspired by that process. Let me quickly add here, lest I be misunderstood, that I am not hereby arguing for an interpretation that slavishly follows the letter but ignores the spirit of the work. Nor am I saying that there is somehow, even if `one does everything right,' such a thing as a (let alone the) `definitive interpretation.'
On the first point, a mechanically, technically accurate performance may be clinically interesting, but unless its accuracy also translates into an emotional, expressive experiencefor the listener, the musicians (including the conductor)it will be an incomplete realization, one that will notindeed cannotadequately represent the work. On the second point, the very idea of a `definitive' rendition is a complete fiction, one which certain critics evidently like to accord their favorite interpreters and which, I suppose, certain conductors feel they are able to achieve. Nonsense! There can be no such thing as a definitive interpretation, and for many reasons. To begin with, it is impossible for anyone to know all there is to know about a work, that is, to have unequivocally total, objective knowledge of a work and what was felt and heard in its creator's mind and ear. This in itself ought to preclude anyone's claiming that a given performance represents the definitive interpretation. All we can actually get in musical judgments and understandings is an opinion; and the best we can hope for is that that opinion be a richly informed one. Furthermore, the words `definitive' and `interpretation' are self-contradictory, since the word `interpretation' by definition means a particular rendition out of several or many alternatives. But beyond that, even a single conductor's interpretation of a given work will not be, and cannot be, totally consistent. It will be subject to a host of variables, starting with his own constantly changing emotional and physical feelings from day to day, but extending to such matters as the different style and sound characteristics of different orchestras (not to mention the highly variable emotional and physical feelings of the musicians in those orchestras), different acoustics in different halls, the effects of weather and atmosphere on human beings as well as instruments and acoustics, and last but not least the variables in the receptiveness of different audiences on different days under different conditions (including, of course, those very same critics who feel the need to declare an interpretation `definitive'); and so on, virtually without end.
The most that we can ever say about a performance is that in our opinionalready a huge qualificationa certain performance seemed `ideal' or `good,' and for such and such reasons. It is hoped that those reasons will be adducable from the score, from the work itself, and not from some exterior motivation.
So we shall not be speaking here about `definitive' performances, but only, where appropriate, about `ideal' or `good' ones, andof courseof many `not so good' ones. For the moment, however, the point is that, while several different renditions of a given work may each be valid, representative, good, idealif they are based on a close reading of the scoreall the variables of conditions and temperaments mentioned above ought not to allow us to assume therefore that any arbitrary, personal interpretation can also be valid and thus be sanctioned. The excuse that our musical notation is limited or incapable of `telling us all' will simply not do, because, as already mentioned, closer inspection of our notational system and how composers have used it through the centuries will reveal that there is always much more that is objective and clearly stated (and therefore ought to be binding to the interpreter) than that which is left open or unstated.
I will deal in considerable detail with questions of tempo, tempo modification, and metronomization later in this chaptercomplex subjects, to be sure, not to be settled in some simplistic `yea' or `nay' argumentations. As much as I may pleadalong with Beethoven and Berlioz and many other composer-conductorsfor a basic respect for metronome markings, with all the attendant qualifications, I must make it very clear that I do not believe that an exacting adherence to metronomic indications will by itself guarantee a good, a great, or a `correct,' performance. (Mr. Norrington, Mr. Gardiner and a host of others, please note!) Tempo and tempo modifications are but one of many aspects of `interpretation' which, in conjunction with many other considerations, (such as dynamics and color), can ultimately produce an `ideal' performance.
Mere `correctness,' in fact, accomplishes very little. The truth is that I have in my lifetime heard many performances with which, in terms of a certain kind of correctness and factual evidence, I had intellectually to disagreeperformances by, say, Furtwangler, Mitropoulos, Walter, to name a few very famous oneswhich nonetheless were in various ways transcendent, even sublime, aesthetic experiences and in some profound ways revelatory performances.
In the end, my preference is ultimately for a transcendant rendition which also involves the utmost respect for the composer and his score. For let us never doubt that respect for and full explicit knowledge of the score are compatible with a `great' interpretation/realization. It is only lesser minds and talents that would have us believe otherwise.
It is in this realm of artistic integrity, transcendant perception, and deep respect for the composer's creation that the conductor's art in its highest aspirations and attainments will distinguish itself. Therein will lie the true `interpretation.' And such conductors are the real poets, the really creative interpreters, the visionaries of the realm.
Meet the Author
Gunther Schuller is a composer, conductor, orchestral hornist, educator, author. He served as the Artistic Director at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and as President of the New England Conservatory of Music. The author of the landmark studies Early Jazz and The Swing Era, Schuller was also a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
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