Monday, April 29, 2013

The Beauty of Interpretation

This is part four of a four part series, all concerned with Robert Schumann's
"Of Strange Lands and People" from "Scenes from Childhood." The first three parts can be accessed here, here, and here.

It's astonishing what one can discover in one short, simple piece of music. For the last three Mondays, that piece has been the first movement of Robert Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood." If you're getting a little tired of it, I promise we'll move on to something else next week! In fact, last week's third installment in what has become now a four part series was supposed to be the last one. But something odd happened last week while I was posting the last one and I had to talk about it.

Things didn't quite work out the way I had planned.

I ask people to use their ears on this blog, at least on Mondays (and sometimes Fridays) which is a dicey business. Some folks probably think they can't hear anything with their untrained ears, and, sure enough, as soon as they can't hear what I'm talking about it confirms them in their notions. Obviously all ears aren't created equal and it certainly takes practice to be able to hear well. That's point number one. Point B (as people like to continue) is that there are plenty of strengths and weaknesses in all of us: things we would be good at hearing and things we aren't. So if you can't follow the argument one week you can always stick around until either you get it, or I explain it better, or we go on to something you can pick up on with more ease, or just music you happen to like. Music is a mighty ocean, not a small pond.

And then there is the self-defeating example I posted last week. The point I was trying to make is that Mr. Schumann did something rather strange, even barbaric sounding, by omitting a particular note (the third of the chord) in one place. But when I listened to my own music example, I couldn't help thinking, well, that doesn't sound all that rude after all.

I have a busy schedule like all of you, and sometimes I record things weeks before I get them posted. And frequently, I make those recordings without taking the time I would like to to live with the music and interpret it in a way that convinces me, and hopefully you. Instead, I have to parse the musical contents on the fly. And apparently, what I decided to do in that spot, when I heard Schumann's "barbarism" was to soft pedal it. I made it as pretty as I could. I slowed down just a bit, and resolved the chord with as much finesse as I knew how. It worked rather well. Except it wasn't supposed to, not after I changed my mind about it!

This is the fascinating world of interpretation. A musician plays a passage the way it seems to him or her. And then the audience feels the passage the way the musician conceives it. Which might not be the way the composer felt it; for that matter, maybe the audience doesn't end up feeling it the same way, either. But the reason no two pianists play something exactly the same way has a lot to do with these myriads of tiny decisions that pianists make every moment about how every phrase contributes to the whole, and how it strikes them in the moment. Sure, the composer leaves plenty of instruction on the page, but they can't cover everything--not nearly.

So, in the moment, that rude chord (why did Schumann put it there?) became gentle just because I decided to be "musical" (which, I am afraid, is code for making everything sound pretty). I wonder if I betrayed the composer a little.

Leon Fleischer has a phrase, "support the composer," which means not to shortchange features in a composition: if anything, exaggerate them slightly (can you do that? Anyway, that unfortunate cataract of words is my own, not his). Don't cheat on the long notes, or the sudden dynamic changes--let everything have its full effect. Maybe I violated this rule.

Then there was the second musical example. I noticed afterward that I hadn't really put the fermata (that musical "full stop") in the right place. Schumann holds on to the pretty G major chord first, and only then pollutes it with an A that doesn't belong, on its way to a passing C that doesn't belong either. The effect might be one of poise and repose which is then slowly exploded, but just before it manages to get out of hand, order is restored in the next phrase. The question is, how messy is that moment?

That's an interesting question for me because I imagine a lot of pianists saw a lot of ugliness in many early 20th century compositions, and that glaring "modernism" (or were they just supporting the composers? :) might have helped audiences tag them as pieces they'd rather avoid from now on. And yet, some of those same ugly harmonies, when finessed by today's jazz pianists, don't sound that shocking at all. Obviously, interpretation has a lot to do with how one perceives a piece. And that gives the interpreter a lot of power.

Mr. Schumann also asked that the tempo be slowed down at that point so that whatever chaos has crept in can do it in slow motion, but, true to form, he never actually tells us when to resume the regular tempo. Is it because he assumes any idiot will know to get back into the regular tempo when the next phrase begins (standard practice, but most other composers put the "a tempo" in anyway at that point)? Or was he thinking something else. With Schumann, who knows?

(aside: Fleischer once dodged the issue when I asked him a question about some dynamic marks in a Schumann sonata by putting it to the whole class, rhetorically of course!)

Anyhow, by the time I get a chance to record the whole set later this spring I hope to spend enough time with it to come up with my own definitive (provisional) answers to some of these questions. Posting a bit of it untimely ripped helps in the process of figuring these things out. And now you know the kinds of things that keep some of us up nights.

Hey, whatever I can do to make you feel normal!

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