Score Questioning- the quest for understanding

In the last installment of this series, I tried to look at some of the questions that leading musicians of the past may have been asking when they were performing in ways that we might now find foreign. We can’t go back to that old, Furtwanglerian, manner of performance because we’ve found lots of new and interesting questions to ask, but we shouldn’t forget the old questions either.

At the end of the day, the performer, and especially the conductor, has to answer the most basic questions about “how” to play the music, and it is the way we answer the “how” questions that say the most of about us, about our understanding and love for the music, the depth of our research. What comes out of our mouth when we get to “how” tells the world how often we have asked “why.”

The fundamental “how” questions are very, very simple-

Louder or softer?
Faster or shorter?
Longer or shorter?

The answers are even simpler (for instance, “louder”), but reaching those answers should be anything but simple. Getting to “how” means going through all of the “what’s,” then on to all of the “why’s” and being able to discern the difference between different kinds of questions.

Finally, as one gets older and more experienced, perhaps more of the “how’s” become “what’s” For instance, instead of the young conductor who asks “how fast shall I take this movement” the more mature conductor might ask “what is the tempo of this movement?” One might answer that question by looking at the metronome marking, looking at other examples of the same kind of dance or march or by looking at other parts of the same piece.

I believe the tempo of the end of Shostakovich 5, based on the sources we have now, is not a “how” question. To me, a conductor who does the ending in the old, Bernsteinian * fast tempo is not making an informed choice based on what is in the music, or trying to come up with a reasonable reading where the composer’s written intentions were unclear, but is just ignoring a what the composer wrote, and not just ignoring the metronome mark, but dozens of expressive marks, structural clues, tempo relationships and so on. They’re skipping to the “how” based on how they want to do it, or how they heard it when they were growing up, without asking “what” is in the score.

Code of conduct (no pun intended)- You, the performer, can give any “how” answer you want, as long as you’ve answered all the “what” and “why” questions completely and honestly and your “how” is in agreement with your “what” and “why.”

The transition from the third movement to the fourth movement of Beethoven 5 is another example- the last movement has to be slower than the Scherzo, Beethoven says so. Faster is not slower any more than louder is softer. (Interestingly, Furtwangler plays the first 3 notes of the finale WAY slower than the previous movement, thereby honouring Beethoven’s instruction, and underlining connection with the themes of the second and first movements and referring to Furtwangler’s own treatment of the opening of the piece, and then gradually gets way faster. Naughty boy, Furtwangler. It almost works, except he has to slow down for the return of the scherzo. The return of the scherzo should be faster- Beethoven spefically says so. Slower is not faster)

Good conductor (musician): What?= Get faster. How?= from what starting tempo to what arriving tempo over how long? Answer- Why is it getting faster at this moment?

Bad conductor: Wha?t= Get faster. How?= get slower. Answers- Because I like it slower here! Because my teacher got slower here. Because I have a recording that gets slower here.

It’s easy, see.

Just before he died, Solti remarked that he was finally starting to understand the Marriage of Figaro, even though he had conducted the piece hundreds of times throughout his career. Our modern attitude to life values opinion above enlightenment, belief over understanding- if I say to a young musician that as he or she matures, they will get make fewer and fewer choices, they might think that is a bad thing. “Give up my interpolated rit at bar 187??? Never, you fascist!” However, the very word “understand” is so simple we often forget what it means. If I say to an English speaker “faster” it is pretty obvious that they will know to get faster, if I say it in another language, they might not understand, if I write it in non-Latin characters, most of them will be confounded. Once they understand it, though, they know slower is not an option. I now feel that I understand why Beethoven gave the tempo and metronome markings he did for the slow movement of the Eroica, because I have seen someone do a traditional Austro-German funeral march and tried to learn the step myself. I’ve learned and conducted several other examples of funeral marches from the same culture and tradition. I don’t have to decide how fast to take it- I understand how fast it should go (at least better than I did ten years ago).

When a seasoned, thoughtful musician says they’re starting to understand something, what they mean is that they’ve come closer to being able to understand all that is in the score. The how’s become what’s. Our modern world would tell us that this is a loss of freedom, because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that all opinions are equally valid. In fact, our opinions of today might be more valid than our opinions of yesterday. In fact, this is where freedom begins- the freedom to learn, the freedom to advance, the freedom to develop.

And finally, you have to remember that even Gunter Wand in his 90s had to live with the fact that one day he might learn something about Bruckner that would mean he had to start all over with a whole new approach. The question that destroys everything you know is also the question that gives you new life as an artist. No interpreter can ever know that their view of the piece is “right” or that they really do understand the essence of the music. They can only take comfort in the rigor of the process of questioning and study that got them to where they are today, knowing full well that they will eveuntually know better the truth of the music than they do now. A real artist has to know that the insight that destroys certainty is a gift, because understanding is a greater thing than certainty.

*I’m quite sure LB would not do the fast ending today. His performances of the piece were always amazingly true to the score up until the coda of the last movement (his first three movements are more faithful to the written page, especially in terms of tempi, than Mravrinsky, for instance), which he did fast because he didn’t know what question to ask Shostakovich when the two met. Had he said “is this metronome marking more or less right at the end” instead of “do you like the ending like this (when I do it twice as fast as written)” forty years of confusion could have been avoided. He didn’t understand that both the composer’s personality and the political situation meant there was no way he could get an honest answer to the second question because it would have meant DDS had to disagree with Bernstein.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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