The composer’s intentions

One thing that has always irked me whenever I give Master classes at different conservatories and Universities while on tour. And it is starting to concern me more deeply than before. What is that you ask? It’s a seemingly deliberate disregard for how a composer has marked his music. For example, directions and hints to the would-be performer on how to play the piece, what speed to take, what balance, goodness; even what notes are correct.

What we’re talking about here is a basic level of respect for the text but what seems to be more and more common these days is just guessing at the meaning of metronome markings and foreign words. The result is an increasing number of would-be performers feeling more and more entitled to change what has been left by the original creator and to feel as though their flimsy, novel approaches are legitimate simply because they are novel.

The idea that a composer doesn’t have de facto the best and most illuminating approach to the work is fundamentally ridiculous. But that doesn’t seem to stop these musicians from thinking that it might be Brahms’ way but they have the right to disregard him and substitute their own view! This is to propose that their way is as good as ,well…Brahms.

I find this more and more distressing because without at least first trying to understand and recreate the text means that our knowledge of a composer’s use of the notational language is diluted and made fuzzy. We have a big enough problem with numerous corrupt editions and while efforts to find more accurate editions continue, the movement to disregard composer’s intentions makes these efforts more and more difficult, or worse, seemingly not important or necessary.

There are problems, to be sure, to interpret a composer’s notes and indications. The effort to do this is large and time consuming and, at times, frustrating but very edifying as the beginning of illumination is to understand a great composer’s journey into his style.

Let me say that again: efforts to do accomplish this task are time consuming and frustrating but very edifying. So it is not enough to translate PF in Brahms as correctly meaning “little forte,” but understanding why Brahms turned to invent this new term for his music to begin with is more informational and revealing. But if the rising generations of performers continue on a path of disregard, we will get performances that, in and of themselves, may be brilliant and beautiful but they are strangely devoid of understanding and not nearly as satisfying.

After all, wasn’t it Beethoven who said “You played very beautifully and interestingly, but you did not play MY piece!”

5 Responses to The composer’s intentions

  1. Alex Shapiro March 29, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    Greetings Lynn,

    Your post (delightful, impassioned rant?!) focuses on the established repertoire of The Long Departed Great Masters, and I’m not about to counter your thoughts. But I’ll throw in my two cents regarding new pieces: I think that many composers, no matter how experienced, can benefit from a little friendly editing here and there from their performer colleagues. Having worked with so many composers, I’m guessing you might agree. Speaking as a living, breathing, open-eared and entirely fallible composer-person, I welcome interpretive suggestions from musicians, and I don’t believe that every scratch mark on my precious score is sacrosanct. Just most of ’em 🙂

    Composers suffer the fate of hearing the same thing in our head over, and over, and over… and, over… as we construct a piece. We become used to the interpretive choices we’ve made as we scribble away. Thus, due to nothing more exotic than the dull thud of familiarity and a lack of creative thinking at the eleventh hour when we need to deliver the music, That To Which We Have Become Accustomed becomes The Published Score. Most of it accurately represents our intentions. But there’s usually room for some collaboration: the piece comes alive in the musician’s hands, not in the composer’s mind.

    In my own scores, I’m a stickler for plenty of indications: after all, they must represent my intentions since the musicians can’t read my mind. But I still regard some of these markings as a reasonable point of departure for the player. I think of my dynamics and tempi like the cereal box photo of the cornflakes in a bowl filled with milk, with the caption, “suggested serving.” Yes, milk is a fine choice. But a creative artist might suggest something else that works wonderfully, too.

    <>

    Hmm… I know composers far more accomplished than I who would chime in with me to admit that there are times when we desperately need to be further illuminated 🙂 That’s why we need musicians! To me, bringing a composer’s work to life is a collaborative effort, even when the composer knows quite well what he or she intends. Not only is there always room for cello, but there’s always room for enlightenment!

    Do you think that younger musicians have a tendency to be loose and interpretive with the repertoire, because they live in an informal culture of endless interactivity, choice, and mash-ups? They simply don’t see the boundaries that have framed the way people like you and I approach such revered music. To some of them, everything is a potentially blank page, no matter what notes have already been printed on it!

  2. Alex Shapiro March 29, 2010 at 12:05 am #

    Hello again,

    The quote I excerpted from your post is:

    The idea that a composer doesn’t have de facto the best and most illuminating approach to the work is fundamentally ridiculous.

    For some reason, the software didn’t like my brackets, and wanted to make its own interpretation of my comment… ha!

  3. Lynnharrell March 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I agree with you and will answer you soon!

  4. Nate C. March 29, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    “thinking that it might be Brahms’ way but they have the right to disregard him and substitute their own view! This is to propose that their way is as good as ,well…Brahms”
    I am just wondering if you mean by this that the markings on the page are Brahms’ final interpretation. If he performed today wouldn’t pieces be different from performance to performance?

    P.S. I don’t really know how much the students in your bend the price out of shape, so I am not completely sure how much adherence to the markings on the score you are specifying.

  5. Sam Post April 24, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    This is the problem with music education today. http://samjpost.blogspot.com/2016/04/excellent-sheep-in-music-education.html

    The philosophical underpinnings of the “composer’s intentions” idea / movement / position are totally flawed and force people into twists and turns to justify how they play (or make their playing boring and predictable). What about creativity? Spontaneity? Shouldn’t we be playing in service of the music, the audience, and ourselves, rather than some (probably dead) guy who probably changed his mind all the time and could only begin to ink his fleeting thoughts into paper anyway? <– (the thoughts of a composer)

    Care for a civil and elevated debate?

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