Music - Art Of The Interpreter
( Originally Published 1905 )
Music on paper signifies very little to the world at large. It must be vitalized by performance or it has no practical value. The professional critics at the end of a concert season, weary with a surfeit of performances to which it has been their business to listen, sometimes express a hope that the time may come when people will get their enjoyment of music as they do of novels, by a silent reading of the printed characters. It is safe enough to assert that such a time is still so distant that the prospect of its coming may be ignored. Real music is as yet audible music, however practicable it may be for some experts to hear mentally the concourse of sweet sounds indicated by the notes they are examining.
And by the same token the real musician is the performer or singer. Time was when the musician always performed his own compositions — indeed, what he sang was frequently improvised. Music has grown since that day, and we have come to - think that a Schumann or a Brahms has quite earned his title to fame if he but conceive and set down, leaving to others the equally difficult. task of absorbing and interpreting what has been conceived.
For no performer ever gives a great interpretation to any but his own conceptions. It matters not where the conceptions came from. He may originate them or he may absorb them from the printed copies of another's dreams, but he must own them before he can issue them with authority. As the true actor feels that for the time he is Hamlet or Lear or some other character ; so the musician must become so saturated with the notes he would interpret and the feelings from which they sprang that he will give them forth as self-revelations. And hence it follows, that the great interpretations are rare and mark him who gives them as a great artist.
The great sculptor does not go to the quarry, he does not even roughhew his work. He puts on the finishing touches. The great painter sets his pupils to rub in the colors, reserving to his own brush the finishing touches. A great musical work gets its finishing touches — the final public revelation of its beauties — at the hands of the interpreter. The conscientious artist, realizing that fact, aims at truth, beauty, and significance : to play with faithfulness, charm, and meaning.
Telling the truth seems to be a rather difficult matter. Within the range of facts which we are accustomed to observing, the ordinary well-intentioned mortal is credited with meaning to tell the truth and is supposed to have succeeded unless there are circumstances calculated to cause bias or nervousness or to favor forgetfulness. Those who can read readily, for example, are supposed to read correctly; yet words will get twisted, and attention will so wander as to allow strange perversions of sense to escape the lips of a reader who seems capable and desirous of telling the truth as to what he reads. When it comes to relating facts of everyday life, while we manage to get along and to believe in the honesty of purpose of those who inform us, we have learned that a searching cross-examination will upset many statements made in the utmost good faith and reveal a superficiality and inaccuracy both in our ordinary observation and in our re-counting of objects and occurrences, although they may be of the most usual description and we may have had ample opportunity to note them carefully.
In music telling the truth as to what has been set down by the composer is certainly not easier than in other subjects occupying the attention of the mind. It necessitates a technic adequate to the enunciation at the required speed of the sounds indicated ; perceptive faculties capable of grasping complex notation and relationships ; and assimilating, coôrdinating, and executive powers of no mean order. The music student is trained to an accuracy of observation and a precision of stating what he sees on the printed page that are undoubtedly the best educational features of untold hours of work devoted by the untalented to the practice of the tone art, and that added to the patience and persistence demanded by such practice make it well worth the while, even if for multitudes no pronounced advantage to the cause can be traced to what is called the study of music, but which for them is really the study of the art of playing upon a musical instrument or of singing. The difficulty of executing exactly what the composer directs is so great and demands such constant watchfulness on the part of both teacher and pupil that it is not strange that the minds of both become absorbed in that side of what is intended to be music study, and that thus an interest in technic, mechanism, execution, And the externals of composition overtops all other and more truly musical interests in the subject. The ambition — we need not say to exhibit dazzling technical proficiency, but — to tell the truth fully and clearly has blinded us to the purpose of art and squeezed the life out of the beautiful tone-poems of the masters for the vast majority of those who spend time and money liberally to gain the power of interpreting them, and for many who would be glad to love and cultivate music as amateurs and listeners, did not the art seem to them a mass of mechanical exploits and of occasions for noisy display.
But even granting that teacher, critic, or hearer knows so accurately just what is the precise intention of the composer's printed page that a performer can be adjudged to have told the absolute truth about it, the important attainments of the interpreter's art are still beyond and may have been scarcely touched. Every music teacher of ability turns out a number of pupils who can play well, who delight their near relatives, astonish their fellow-students and make a good showing at the school commencement ; yet somehow strangers feel that there is something lacking. That mysterious quality of charm, that nice appreciation of the values of voices and themes, that vitalizing of rhythms and rounding of periods, that enjoyment of skillful development of musical thought, that revelling in the sensuous luxury of tone, that repose of manner and assurance of power — in other words, that responsiveness to beauty and the gift for revealing it are absent, and unless both of them are present, we withhold from the performer the title artist that belongs only to the few specially gifted ones.
To state in words the difference between the mere performer and the artist so that one may recognize each at first hearing is probably an impossible task, yet the distinction is easy compared with the indication of those particulars which severalize the artist and the genius. The mere performer's highest praise may be summed up in the word accuracy ; the artist attains to beauty, but the genius gives out from his own soul through his beautiful performance, a message of depth and significance that is absent from the interpretation of the others. Our minds are fixed upon technic by the necessity for having a means of expression, and by the voluminous and continued labors of earnest teachers who have sought to aid in the acquirement of those means. We have worked and watched others work at the task of mastering fingers and throats till we can but test, by technical standards, those who would perform, and ad-mire those who have attained a skill that experience teaches us is a victory won against heavy odds. We find such a pleasure in achievement of this sort that we have mistaken the art of playing or singing for the art of music, and thus have come even to accept the tones produced by a mechanical piano-player or a phonograph as music -- as worthy of the name of the " language of emotion." Yet for those who have special talent and can perform with comparative ease, we have not forgotten to assign studies calculated to develop appreciation of beauty. We have text-books of touch for the pianist, and we do much to cultivate fine quality of tone in the voices of our singers. We compare instruments and players, analyze scores, themes, and tone-colors, and now and then turn out an artist. However, we find it possible to discover in one to whom the exalted title of artist cannot be denied such shallowness of mind, such vanity, personal display, and self-seeking in performance as hinder the giving out of any great soul-stirring or soul-revealing interpretations. The genius must be far more than the artist — when he can secure a hearing he rarely lacks recognition.
Shakespeare shows us the Prince of Denmark listening to the solicitation of the King and Queen that he strive to forget his bereavement, and in particular that he abandon his design of returning to Wittenberg. After the King ceases to speak, the Queen adds a few words of the same purport, and Hamlet replies. Anyone can read the words and give them their sense : " I shall in all my best obey you, madam." An actor playing the part of Hamlet would study his costume, attitude, voice, and expression, and would strive to please the audience with the best enunciation of the simple words of which he was capable, yet many an artist of the boards has seen in them nothing more than acquiescence in the wish of King and Queen. But Edwin Booth so said, " I shall in all my best obey YOU, madam," as to convey to every listener Hamlet's sense of his mother's claim upon him and his willingness to yield to her his duty, while at the same time feeling nothing but unutterable contempt for the seducer and murderer who sat beside her. Edwin Booth was a genius.
Perhaps the greatest of all vocal solos is Schubert's " Erl King." The words are powerful and the composer has done all that his art permits to add expression to them. The song sung by any competent performer commands attention and reveals high merit, but when interpreted by a great artist accompanied by a great orchestra under a great director, it is something to remember, and the writer has remembered precisely such an experience for very many years. But not long after hearing the combination just described, it was the author's privilege to listen to an interpretation by Anton Rubinstein upon a grand piano without accessories of any kind, of Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Erl King. To say that the impression produced by Rubinstein far surpassed that attained when words, singer, and orchestra contributed to a really great interpretation, is to accord inadequate praise. Only the word frightful seems capable of describing the effect, and when at last were heard the two chords to which Schubert set the words " was dead," one felt appalled at the dreadfulness of the catastrophe. Anton Rubinstein, the pianist, was a genius.
That it is the meaning of music more than any other quality of interpretation that excites admiration, may be inferred from the great popularity of the opera, and from the general preference for vocal music. In the opera, music is but one among several partners engaged in producing the total effect ; poetry, scenery, and action at once make clear the meaning of all that is done and sung, and if the composer has any idea of making significant use of music, not only is his purport clear but the ensemble tends to . heighten the effectiveness of artistic effort on the part of the interpreters, both, singers and players. It is easier to sing with the understanding in opera than in concert, and while the opera singer has a larger field and must respond to more demands upon various capabilities, yet probably there have been a greater number of distinguished successes among vocalists on the operatic than on the concert stage.
In vocal music, too, obviously the words aid the interpretation and the understanding, and nobody will dispute the greater popularity of song as compared with instrumental music from the listener's point of view. More pupils attempt instrumental than vocal studies for various reasons, and it is well that this should be so ; for what knowledge of music as an art these students acquire incidentally is likely to be greater in the case of those undertaking to learn some instrument than with the pupils in singing; but the singer undoubtedly has a stronger hold upon the ear of the populace than has the player, and that because there is more meaning in singing than in playing.
The obvious deduction from these considerations is that the power of the interpreter lies in expressing the meaning and emotional content of such music as he would render, rather than in creating astonishment by dazzling feats of execution. And one who has heard what the mechanical piano-player can accomplish must realize that at-tempts by human executants to attain success by substituting mechanism for music are foredoomed to failure. The machine is perfectly accurate, exceedingly rapid, absolutely tireless, and provided with a repertory that no mortal can hope to ac-quire. If mechanism and music are identical, the machine is a better musician than any mere man. But the idea that a bellows and a row of pneumatic levers can speak " the language of emotion," can convey the thought of a Chopin to the mind of a listener, can reveal the soul of a composer to the heart of a rational being, needs only to be stated to expose its absurdity. The sounds, the forms, the history, the notes of music can be displayed adequately by these machines, more efficiently than in any other way that is at all comparable in cost, and therefore the machines are to be welcomed and utilized. They will con-tribute vastly to both popular and professional musical education. But they will never touch upon the proper field of the artist interpreter; and one who would fit himself for artistic interpretation should bear that fact in mind and seek ever' to discover and express the life, beauty, and meaning in the works which he makes his own.
When the true power of musical interpretation is realized, we may hope also to see the last of the absurd sophistries by which the use of foreign languages in song and opera are excused. In much that is called vocal music it is true that the voice is treated simply as an instrument, and one syllable in any language is as good as another to convey whatever meaning there may be; but that is not what is usually understood by song. He who has something to convey either of direct impression or of revelation of the interpretive skill of a composer in setting music to poetry, is but obeying the ordinary dictates of common sense by singing in the vernacular and so that his words can be understood. The difficulties of translation for singing are great, very great, and there is no translation in which something of effect is not likely to be lost ; yet if the song is a significant setting of the words, how much more is lost by failure to understand the text. One might yearn for the ideal condition — that in which the hearers are familiar with the language of the song. Failing that, one might wish to put before the audience a word for word translation of the text that its meaning in relation to each note might be clear — and that is not impossible with a printed program. But at any cost let us understand what the music is intended to express, and let us not dream of the possibility that the singer is attempting to pronounce words that are meaningless to himself.
Nowhere is there greater need of emphasizing the fact that the value of music lies in its meaning than in the church. In many religious assemblies the desire for music that can be understood is so great that undignified jingles, meaningless in themselves and associated with words of the most trivial character, are used to the degradation of worship and the sacrifice of what might be the great power of art. In other bodies anxiety to maintain dignity and tradition leads to the use of music of a style invented before the power of the art had been fully developed, in which rhythm does not conform to the sensible enunciation of the words, and harmony consists solely in bald progressions more or less quaint or stately, but devoid of interpretive relationship to the words to which they are set. Frequently in music of this character different words are pronounced at the same instant by different voices, thus indicating that the composer has no intention of adding significance to the text, but is providing merely music in ecclesiastical style that, although sung by voices, is instrumental in character. Manifestly under such circumstances the art of the interpreter can go no further than accuracy of rendition and beauty of delivery — meaning, emotional power, heart uplift, and the impressing of spiritual truth through music are excluded. Their presence might prove helpful to a church enthusiastically striving to carry out its commission to " seek and to save that which was lost." True art truly interpreted touches the heart, and what else can religion desire ?