Songs without Words

Mark WigglesworthFri 12th August 2011

And – in some cases – symphonies without conductors?

Isaac Stern once said to me that whatever you do, always tell a story. That's certainly good advice for most conducting, but what if the music is purely abstract? What if imposing a specific programme onto a piece limits its breadth of imaginative possibilities? Why do we need stories to define our interpretations? Does not the whole point of music actually lie in its ability to communicate on a deeper level than words? I'm sure Isaac Stern didn't really mean that all music should sound like an opera.
 
Abstract music is the ultimate music, the purest that exists - only containing meaning within itself, neither needing explanation, nor capable of being described. But having said that, I think relatively little orchestral music fits into this category. Most pieces that require conducting are in fact programmatic in one way or another.
 
The origin of the conducting profession can only in part be attributed to the increasing number of people needed to perform the music of the nineteenth-century. When Haydn reportedly said, on hearing Beethoven's Eroica, that 'from now on, music will never be the same again’, he was presciently acknowledging the fact that most new orchestral music would be a more overtly programmatic experience. And with that was born the idea of a single narrator to tell the 'story' in performance. Even the generic description of music as 'romantic' suggests a human element rather than a purely musical one. Whether or not composers made the stories behind the notes explicit, the symphony was now a vehicle for drama and autobiography - and one to be interpreted as such, even if only in a subconscious way.
 
Composers like Wagner and Mahler saw most music as requiring an individual such as a conductor to generate its narrative in performance. It was not that they wrote programmatic music because they were conductors. Rather, they were conductors because they felt their music was too programmatic to be performed without a unified interpretative vision. But if it's the programmatic, rather than the practical aspects of a piece that generate the need for conductors in the first place, it is problematic that in reverse, the presence of a conductor can easily lead to a programmatic interpretation even if it is not called for by the music itself. 

Despite Haydn's prophesy, there are abstract orchestral works. Stravinsky's symphonies for instance seem totally divorced from a story or extra-musical thread, as are most of the works of Webern and Boulez. But in an ideal world, perhaps these pieces are better off performed without conductors. It's a challenge to make sure that conductors' necessarily visible personalities do not get in the way of music's more abstract moments. Their very presence can confusingly work against the infinite and inexplicable range of the most profound musical expression. Whether music is better off without a conductor, I wouldn't like to say, but if abstract music is the best, it is then the best that is the least conducive to being conducted.

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Mark Wigglesworth

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)

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