Best Times for Beethoven

08.06.2017Best Times for Beethoven

Correct or false interpretation, that is the question. Musicologist Heinz von Loesch and violinist Michael Barenboim speak with us about meaning in music, treacherous crescendos, and the stop watches of Bayreuth.

By Julia Spinola

Mr. von Loesch, you are heading an extensive research project on the history of interpretation. Perhaps I should start by asking a very basic question: what is interpretation?

Heinz von Loesch: We actually wrote a long exposé for our research project in an attempt to get to grips with this vast topic. We reckon we’d need four hefty books to hold it all: one for aspects of aesthetics and the history of ideas; a second for institutions and media such as public concerts, sound storage media, and the Internet; a third for the specific parameters of interpretation (voice, instrument, body, spaces, and also tempo or timbre); and a fourth that attempts to resolve the flow of history into a succession of generations. As far as the concept of interpretation is concerned, we’re concentrating on the area of performance and all that it entails. A broader concept of interpretation – one that also encompasses aspects of musical interpretation related to language – would really be going too far.

Ist Interpretation die klingende Realisation des Sinns?
Ist Interpretation die klingende Realisation des Sinns? © SPK/Studio Pong

You are concentrating on the 19th and 20th centuries and looking for certain constants, for a development within interpretative practice. Mr. Barenboim, how do you – as what you might call an active protagonist in the history of interpretation – feel about this project?

Michael Barenboim: I think it's a very sensible project – I think the role of the interpreter in music is larger than you might suspect at first glance. When I’m looking at a score and read the word crescendo, I alone have to decide how much louder I’m going to play. The instructions in the score are never precisely defined.

The moment you take up the violin and start to play, you are interpreting. It’s impossible not to. But do you think the history of interpretation can be studied scientifically?

Barenboim: I expect that, in the end, more questions than answers will have been raised. So much the better, though.

Von Loesch: Of course, you can’t expect more from the history of interpretation than from the history of composition. Ultimately, no musicologist can explain a work. We can only try, by asking penetrating questions, to narrow in on the subject of our inquiry and more clearly define it. The history of interpretation has been the major focus of the last twenty years.

Before that, it was first the history of composition, and then, for a long time, the history of reception. We aren’t able to solve the subjectivity problem any better than the history of composition. This is because an interpretation represents different things to different observers. We’re equally unable to solve the problem of the work as a whole. We can describe many individual aspects of it, such as sonority (Klang), dynamics, or tempo. We can even try to somehow describe the spirit of an interpretation, but even at this level, journalistic music criticism has more freedom than we do.

Is it even possible to analyze an interpretation separately from the work itself?

Barenboim: I hope not! Of course, the work exists only in its interpretations, but there still remains a certain uncircumventable constant.

Von Loesch: But for a given interpreter, you can still try to isolate certain characteristics. Whether someone tends to be relatively free with tempo or whether an interpreter has a large range of timbres – these kinds of generalizations, or broad characterizations, can be made. 

The instructions in the score are never precisely defined

Michael Barenboim

That said, the way an interpreter approaches tempo may vary, depending, for example, on whether they're playing Beethoven or Bach.

Barenboim: I think that even questions of tempo can’t be examined separately from the work. At the Bayreuth Festival, for example, they have been recording how long different performances of certain works take. But I doubt that you could make generalizations about trends based on that.

Have you arrived at any results, Mr. von Loesch, as far as this particular point is concerned?

Von Loesch: Yes, we have, actually. For Beethoven’s Appassionata, we measured the tempo of 75 recordings, bar for bar. That can be done these days with the aid of a computer. It showed that tempo dropped steadily from the 1920s to the 1980s. After that, it got faster again. That exact finding was confirmed when we examined the “Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major” and Schubert’s “Piano Sonata in B flat major.” With respect to the opening movements of these works, we were also able to discredit the deeply rooted preconception that people are playing increasingly faster and louder. Another interesting finding is that the Russian pianists played with much greater fluctuations in tempo than their German or Austrian counterparts. Unlike the first finding, this one supports certain stereotypes, like that of the volatile Russian “soul,” as opposed to the more severe Germans or Austrians. But as to whether the slowing of the tempo changed the character of the work – whether this interpretation sounds more emotional or even melodramatic – that's a conclusion we certainly can’t draw.

Mr. Barenboim, do you consciously take a certain line of interpretation when you are working on a piece or is that consideration irrelevant for you?

Barenboim: I don’t approach a piece that way. I base my approach solely on the musical notation. Of course, one comes from a certain school of violin playing and has certain listening experiences that automatically find their way into the performance. In my case, there’s quite a variety of influences, because I had different teachers and an incredible abundance of listening experiences.

Michael Barenboim, Julia Spinola und Heinz von Loesch im Gespräch über Interpretation
Michael Barenboim, Julia Spinola und Heinz von Loesch im Gespräch über Interpretation © SPK/Ronald Dick

Von Loesch: When we look at musical history, the notion of musical notation being so binding is a relatively recent achievement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That was followed by the concept of historically informed performance, which recognized that there are parameters apart from musical notation that have a role to play: playing techniques, instruments, the idea of a certain quality of sound.

This next question is for both of you: do you feel that there are correct and false interpretations?

Von Loesch: That’s an important question. Even relatively recently, people such as Rudolf Kolisch or Theodor W. Adorno spoke of false interpretations – and Furtwängler, too.

Barenboim: I think there are certain things that are not negotiable. If someone feels that they have to be quieter at a certain place, even though the score says crescendo, then that’s wrong. Interpretation begins where you have to decide how much louder to play.

Mr. Barenboim, do you listen to other recordings before preparing to play a piece yourself in order to understand better what your own position on it is?

Barenboim: I’ve listened to so much anyway, ever since I was a young child. But on stage, as an artist, you alone are responsible for your interpretation – you can’t invoke any other artist’s authority then.

What role does analysis play in interpretation?

Barenboim: When preparing to perform a piece, you can't distinguish between analysis and whatever else you do – it is part of the same process. I always try to learn as much as I can about the piece. Even if a lot of it isn’t really necessary for the actual playing. 

As an interpreter, you are pulled between two extremes. On one end, we have musicians we might call “slaves to the score” and, on the other end, the inspired creators, who sometimes use the score only as an opportunity to satisfy their own need for expression. Where are you on this scale?

Barenboim: I always hope that I am in the middle, that I act responsibly with respect to the musical notation but still bring my own subjectivity to the performance. I’m afraid, though, that I lean more toward the pole of objectivity.

Ultimately, no musicologist can explain a workHeinz von Loesch

Von Loesch: It is extremely interesting, the way this manner of thinking emerged in the 19th century. People began to see a synthesis of objective and subjective performance as the ideal. But even before that, Baillot’s 1803 treatise on the art and technique of violin playing contained this idea of a “fusion of horizons,” almost in Gadamer’s sense of the term. At the end of the book, though, there is a chapter on the genius of the performing artist. The underlying assumption here is that when an artist performs a work – be it his own or another's – he is inevitably telling the story of his life. With all the pathos that entails. .

Barenboim: I have a problem with that image of the artist. There's a lot of projection going on there. It's true, of course, that you can’t suppress your own life experiences, but they should not become the main point.

Let’s return to the question of how to define the term “interpretation.” Can we agree that interpretation is the manifestation in sound of some sense or meaning?

Barenboim: That sounds good.

We’re talking here, of course, about a kind of meaning that can only be rendered musically. But every artist wants to “say something” with a work. Not by misusing it as a canvas for their own life story. But musical meaning is many-layered. Is it possible in a single interpretation to do justice to all those layers?

Barenboim: There are interpreters like David Oistrakh, who play in such a way that you feel theirs is the only true interpretation; the work should be played that way and that way only. Of course, that's not true. But it is fascinating.

Von Loesch: Five years ago, I would have asked that question about the category of meaning in exactly the same way. Now, though, I think there's been a historical shift in the category of meaning, as well. Musical notation has a certain binding quality, but as to what meaning it has – that is a difficult question to answer. You don't know what categories you should use to unpack the meaning: formal, philosophical, psychological. I don’t think the younger generation asks this question about meaning at all anymore. 

Still, though, it is the perception of musical meaning that ultimately binds us all so closely to music that, in one way or another, we have hitched our lives to it. We even have the feeling that this meaning transcends anything that can be expressed in words or with categories common to fields outside of music.

Barenboim: It is for this experience, which is so difficult to describe, that people go to concerts. And for this experience, the artist goes on stage. If that doesn’t happen, everything was in vain. You want something to happen.

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