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Musical Interpretation

by Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Musical interpretation and performance constitute a discipline and as such require investigation, as do all the disciplines of science. This is not to say that an artist is to treat the myriad problems in music and performance in the popular and meaningless parlance 'scientifically', or that scientific methodology is or should be replicated in the methodology of the artist performer. Scholars do employ, in the ever widening fields of musicology, methods which are based in other disciplines such as philology. Present here is a technique of structural analysis and interpretation based on certain incontrovertible factors. The principles stated here have developed primarily as result of my work in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This technique emerges from certain fundamental principles; it constitutes an analytic technique of structure which leads to the development of variants of choices. The final decision as to a single choice, which is a condition ultimately required in interpretation-performance, allowing the play of individual taste and imagination, the final choice being contained within the framework of the analyzed structure. It should be self-evident that such a choice must be valid musically and performable technically. Niels Bohr, in his famous statement — [ends here!]

However, wholly or partially this concept may be embraced as a point of departure for investigation of data information it is hardly arguable that the (human) brain (tends to formulate) the [SO: general] usual approach to organizing data in a meaningful way, tends to impress formulations (of any range from simplistic to complex) upon material under observation. In other words, the initial impulse in viewing even the most raw data is to give a form and sometimes even a terminology to that data. From that initial formulation may than constitute the seminal foundation for the development of deductions of more sophisticated terminology. This seems to be a general approach which despite the brilliant successes in scientific discoveries, also creates problems.

In the field of music, studies have been firmly entrenched in implanting sets of ready-made formulations, interpretations of structural content, creation and solidification of aural expectations, limits of instrumental sonorities, techniques and and applications, etc. By ready-made formulations, I mean accepted definitions, and technical procedures of musical forms which according to one's interests may range over the last 700 years in Western music, and extend to music of other cultures and eras. One of the noteworthy characteristics of the 20th century has been a thoroughgoing destruction of those conventional modes of defining musical forms developed in the 19th century. Those modes presupposed the organization of musical materials in basic forms which were securely fenced off from each other, placed in separate categories and given distinctive labels such as 'Sonata', 'Allegro', 'Rondo', 'Fugue', 'Prelude', etc. Instruction in musical composition presented a neatly drawn geography with clearly defined boundaries. These analytic boundaries have been seen upon creative applications to be imposed according to the evolving 20th century style of viewing form, and structure. A prelude may be composed in the form of fugue or a canon and none rightly labeled such. More significant, however, are the rules controlling the composition and analysis of structures labeled 'Fugue' or 'Sonata'-Allegro! These are seen to be immeasurably more fluid than the 19th- century notion of containment within a set form prescribed. Aaron Copland and their other composers have distanced themselves so far from the notion of fugue as a defined form as to describe it as a 'texture' rather than a 'form'. My studies in the field of fugue and counterpoint have led me to identify fugue as a 'process' rather than a 'form' or a 'texture'. It need hardly be emphasized that the departure from the concept of forms containing content organized according to ruled boundaries, through to 'texture' and thence to 'process' signifies a great leap into a totally different world of thought. The resultant style or methodology employed in analyzing form and structure produces not only new and different aesthetic sense of organizing musical materials, it also directly influences the interpretation in performance. Previous to a new style of interpretation is the style of unravelling the processes of a composition. From this will emerge a new view for interpretation-performance. This approach in analysis and performance requires a fresh look at compositional material. The foundation for such analysis and ultimate performance formulation requires, to my mind, a non a priori attitude to any form or structure. The exposition of acceptable modes of interpretation of music in varied styles and a certain range of acceptable applications of techniques in performance is also based on precedents which lean on general and particular applications of individual near contemporary and contemporary performers. The 19th century and early 20th century leaned more on national 'schools' of technique and interpretive styles; today the internationalism of our culture has dissipated national 'schools' to a near vanishing point and every few years precedents in performance change in slightly varying shades creating gradual ripples of fashion in the longer wave of aesthetic approach which modifies through the ineluctable movement (not to be confused with progress or development in the sense of increasing improvement) of an era. Weltanschauung. Performers are therefore concerned with such questions as 1) what is the tradition? 2) what is the currently accepted musicological stance in the stylistic interpretation of music of this or that era, this or that composer? 3) matters of instrumental or vocal techniques. 4) working out a generally valid and in some cases, an adjunct individual garnish which functions as sauce to the basically recognized and approved gander.

Aural expectations and limits of instrumental techniques and sonorities are intrinsic to the above approach. In the area of the interpretation of musical material, habits of the ear are formed and become entrenched in respect to the structural formulations such as the unfolding of the musical devices of harmonic progressions, various learned structural maneuvers, rhythmic relationships, etc., etc. And in the realm of applications in performance, the general meaning conveyed through conventional procedures of slow or fast tempi, ritard and accelerando, of tempo, crescendo and dimenuendo in quantities of tone, smoothness or disconnection effected by legato or detached durations—the latter more often lumped into the narrower area termed staccato, etc., etc. All these devices of form and structure, and of performance in the communication of 'meaning' through conventionally understood signals, symbols, syndromes, emerge and are perpetuated within the parabola of each musical style into a framework of aural expectations and habits. These form the vocabulary and grammar of each style of music and performance conveying intellectual, aesthetic and more intelligibility to the listener whose musical orientation is also based on identical principles, forming a medium of familiar sound symbols. The rapport resulting from Recognition of these symbols makes for comfortable listening, tractable individual ingestion of the projected presentation and a resulting experience of rapport with the 'communications' of the performer(s).

The above is not to judge the value of this type of activity on the part of performers, nor in the experience of the listener. It is a description of the general performance approach and the habitual sensibility receptor of the listener.

Is this ... the only way? Is it the most exhaustive method to realize a great work of music, in its structural richness and does this embrace all the avenues of technical means of performance? These are valid questions; however, my interest does not lie in comparative, subjective standards of good, better, best. The exposition of ideas (b.w.) which follows and which is the primary reason for this paper arises from the germination of an entirely different source.

Although I must emphasize that there was no consciousness of specific or general influence from scientific notions and method upon my work, it is not contradictory to point out from time to time my awareness after the fact, of the inescapable similarity—identity even—of my methods and style of thought with those employed in certain of the sciences.

With many attendant permutations which inevitably attend the creation of music, too numerous to elaborate here, the usage of 'intention of the composer' rests on vague and clouded connotations. The music of a composer constitutes the chief raw data of a performer. Pertinent related data is provided by historical information regarding stylistic performance practices, instruments, contemporary commentary and the like. The latter information is essential for shedding light on the material. However, the composition itself is, clearly, the material which must be accurately perceived in its form and structure, articulated according to these and to the concept in which they are rooted. The performer even in first sight of a composition sees the notes in patterns which fall into the categories of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint. Motives are also deduced at first sight. On closer examination, these deductions may frequently prove to be incorrect. So first or even second sight deductions are unreliable. However, if the many decisions about what one is to do in the performance of the work stems from this stage, the dangers of distorted or unstylistic interpretations are manifold. The basic question really is: How is an individual other than the composer to perceive accurately the original composition's data, what processes will produce the accurate 'interpretation' of the data; what further steps will provide the accurate formulation of the composition's material, its structural devices and relationships. Beyond accurate perception and formulations the primary questions for performance arise: What to do with these formulations—specifically, how to phrase-group, what type of touch is required, i.e. legato, staccato? These two questions are, in my view, fundamental. They involve a) the basic identity of the composition's materials and b) the basic identity of the skeletal structure of the performer's articulation of the material. In the case of music based in contrapuntal concept and structure, articulation of the part writing is mandatory. The enunciation of the shapes of the motives and free counterpoint gives them an identity. This is indispensable in order to make sense of the 'raw' material, and to relate the materials into an intelligible construct. It would seem self-evident that these processes are requisite as prefatory to concerns about characterization of mood, atmosphere, and considerations of dynamics, tempo and other interpretive devices. In my view, [the crux of the matter presupposes the question:] the crucial question is: How do you plumb your way to the material at rock bottom and do so in such a way that no preconceptions appear like sirens to bar the way to one's sighting of the [original] naked vein sans the accoutrement and [entrappings] clothement of musical devices which enchant and distract perception? For musical devices create the magic of music: they constitute the abracadabra of varied styles of all eras and cultures. Music devices, commencing with the putting together (bw) of the most primitive rhythmic patterns and pitch relationships in the first steps towards organized scales, to the formidable structures of Western music since the Renaissance are the stuff or processes which create that which we regard as music. Lacking musical devices, we have formless sound and sometimes fury 'signifying nothing'. Isolated pitches are not music or even musical. Neither are they 'melodic' nor 'harmonic'. Rhythm does not exist except in consciously organized relationships. The Indian Raga, Western harmonic contrapuntal systems are enormously evolved and sophisticated devices. They are that which cause pitch to result in music rather than primordial sounds and pitches of thunder, of grass reeds and catgut or silken strings.

In reaching the original vein of composition—and in this essay I am concerned solely with this process in contrapuntal compositions—I propose in my initial quest to pass by the seductions of melody, harmony, contrapuntal relationships, and, looking neither to the right nor the left, go straight to the data which is incontrovertible and utterly innocent of any nuance of interpretation on any level—form, structure, terminology, category, relationship.

I select the Fugue #21, in B-flat major, BWV 866, from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier for this study, but all other fugues will respond to the same treatment The general application of this method forms, of course, the [usefulness] hypothesis hypothesis of the method.