Saturday morning quotes 3.22: Interpretation
A musical point of view: Interpretation of early music requires more than just playing the notes.
We have a particular point of view in our performances and we have occasionally been accused of delivering ‘dreamy’ or ‘romantic’ interpretations, as though we were tapping into the 19th-century aesthetic of Chopin or Brahms instead of the more elusive 16th-century mindset of Josquin or Dowland. Given that we never (willingly) indulge in 19th-century classical music, we’ll take issue with the idea that our performances are even remotely touched by an anachronistic sensibility that we as musicians have effectively side-stepped in our training and in our choice of specialization. But we are not above learning from those who write intelligently about their experience of ‘Romantic’ music.
Our musical point of view is derived from a serious involvement with our chosen repertoire on a deep level, meaning we choose to perform our music with a thoroughly researched and well-informed interpretive sense, as opposed to just playing the notes in a dry and impersonal manner. This is because we are musicians who care about musical matters and we are not concerned with the divergent demands of maintaining a career in the world of academics.
The conventional approach to training in early music has been handed down to us by academics who frequently lead a cloistered life removed from the practical demands of making money from music. While we as musicians sometimes benefit from the results of their work, a scholarly immersion in the theoretical details of archival payment records tells us more about the lives of historical musicians than the sounds they actually made. On the other hand, musicians who involve themselves in the artistic aspects of historical music can share a very thoughtful point of view that is useful in developing a real artistic link with composers and musicians of the past.
“I have used the word ‘interpreter’ rather than ‘performer’ in my title because the latter word always had a pejorative connotation for me. It brings to mind a trained monkey who has assiduously learned his tricks and then performs them publicly, usually in a circus. To interpret is a much deeper, more laborious and infinitely more rewarding endeavour. I perform the piano and interpret Mozart. I do not interpret the piano and perform Mozart.”
“Of course, after 200 years of evolution there are enormous differences in what music has to say and how it says it. For me, tonality cannot be dissociated from its deep grounding in vocal music, in singing. If I ever want to know how a phrase of Mozart’s goes, or what I should do with it, I sing it. It is easy because inevitably it comes out right. The difficulty arises when I try to realize it on my instrument: that is where the ‘performing’ part comes in: hours and hours of practicing and honing my craft.”
– Jacob Lateiner. “An interpreter’s approach to Mozart,” Early Music (May 1992) XX (2): p. 245.
The lute is not an easy instrument to play well. Not only does it require excellent technique merely to play beyond not sounding bad, but it requires as a starting place the musical intelligence to identify the musical possibilities of a particular piece, the musical sensitivity to organize and convey lines, phrasing, and dynamic contrasts, and the chops to create an integrated idea of the whole. Once one develops this level of instrumental involvement, he or she is ready to tackle musical interpretation.
In order to deliver a convincing interpretation of any music, one must thoroughly learn the material one means to interpret, whether it is Mozart or Marenzio. That means taking the time to learn and understand the performing traditions and the practical functions of what was once more than just a time-transporting moment of entertainment. Once the practical information is assimilated, the work of interpretation begins. Interpretation requires perceptiveness, intelligence and sensitivity.
Lateiner told us that a performer is able to reproduce information but a musical interpreter must possess a deeper understanding that probes the finer points of a composition and brings the music to life engagingly. For us, this does not involve gimmicks, distractions and costumes, but instead, an involvement beyond just playing the notes. If our level of involvement results in a ‘dreamy’ or ‘romantic’ sound, you can bet your life it’s because those elements are in the music and we simply bother to convey them.