At what point does following the composer’s instructions become ‘interpretation’?
One of my teachers used to say that 'interpretation' was something other conductors did. His slightly tongue-in-cheek remark was not meant as arrogantly as it might first appear. He was simply saying that conductors should not set out to 'interpret' a piece of music. The job is to play exactly what composers wrote, responding to their requests in as genuine a way as possible. Of course choices do have to be made, but whether spontaneous or predetermined, it is when the decisions become self-conscious that the interpretation loses its sincerity.
This is actually a semantic argument. In reality, no composers' instructions can be anything other than ambiguous. Even highly sophisticated musical notation is an exceptionally limited means of imparting information. There are as many different ways of colouring a B flat as there are of encouraging the exactness or flexibility of a particular rhythm. What do 'loud' and 'soft' mean anyway? Fortunately, the infinitely subtle variety of an expressive performer is what makes music live on and there is a good reason why machines have not yet replaced people when it comes to successfully playing it. Great performances, like great works, are crafted out of decisions that reflect both obedience and liberty. Finding that balance is ultimately what determines the interpretation.
The older conductors become, the more likely it is they will have worked on their repertoire many many times. Each performance makes you more aware of the number of different ways there are of making it work. You would think that over time one's views might become entrenched but, in my experience at least, I find the opposite to be true. Conducting something for the first time, you are convinced that the way you hear it in your head is how it has to go. And you feel you need that conviction in order to offer strong leadership, to yourself at least, even if to no one else. That is what gives you the confidence to stand in front of an orchestra and audience in the first place. But as your experience with a particular work increases, you develop a view on it that encompasses a much wider variety of opinions. Your own belief system becomes a broader church - one within which most players feel happier expressing themselves.
Arthur Schnabel's remark about great music being 'better than it can ever be played' implies that we can only ever get to know masterpieces through relatively inadequate performances. But it also means we never have to cease from enjoying the opportunity of getting closer to the work in question. Mountaineers may feel that they have not fulfilled themselves until they climb Everest, but what do they do when they have? In some music, 'Everest' is just the starting point. There is nothing daunting in that. There is nothing wrong with feeling inadequate in the face of something greater. On the contrary, it is wonderful to be able to constantly improve your interpretation - whatever my conducting teacher used to say.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)