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How an interpreter views the creation of music

By Leonie Rettig, translated by Alexander Zuckrow

This essay is part of my booklet on 25 piano concertos written for the DVD collection „25 Classic Piano Concertos“, which you can purchase here:

EuroArts Music International


“There is no alternative to music, and thus no interpretation”. These provocative words by Sergiu Celibidache address an oft-discussed aspect of our profession, the meaning of which seems not only impossible to define, but which would lead to absurdity if we were to give it a clearly defined framework.

In the present text I would like to use various examples of piano concertos from the edition to illustrate the path that musicians take when dealing with the discussion about interpretation while according the composer adequate respect.

I have pleasant memories of a concert once given by the wonderful Menahem Pressler: He played a set that included Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960 and as an encore a work upon which he himself – without realizing it – was to exert a key influence. He related the story about the composer having originally sent him the work without any tempo indications. He initially played it according to his instincts, and after studying the score intensively he sent the composer a recording of his interpretation and received a surprising reply: In one specific passage, the composer had intended the tempo to be significantly slower, however he felt that Pressler’s interpretation was actually more coherent. He was to ultimately adopt Pressler’s tempi in the published version of his work.

I would indeed go a step further and assert that not even the composer himself is fully cognizant of the final version of his work, and this opens the door to a multitude of possibilities for realizing the vision of his musical idea.

But how does an interpreter decide for one of these possibilities and ultimately arrive at his or her own interpretation of a composition? Personally, I could get completely lost in this question while maintaining an absolutely uncompromising opinion about it as a pianist. In addition to considerations of the structure, notation, key, aspects of modulation, arrangement, dynamics etc., the matter of tempo is very important. If a piece of music is played too fast, it can seem rushed; if it is played too slow, it might seem to drag. Moreover, every musician has their own fundamental tempo: The choice of tempo – whether one plays an indicated allegro somewhat rapidly or rather more slowly – is determined by one’s study of the composition and also by one’s own personality traits which are expressed in the performance. Since every person has their own fundamental tempo, every listener experiences music differently, too. Other relevant factors include the historical context of the work, the way we feel on a given day, the situation in which we perform or hear a piece of music …

The chosen tempo defines the relationship of the notes to one another, and it is the interpreter’s task to ascertain the one correct moment at which the following note must sound. One’s personal opinion falls victim to the paradox – at least in terms of the choice of tempo – that there is only one right moment for each note to be played and not several. It is thus a musician’s task to hear every note in advance and to give it presence through anticipatory attention so that it develops from the preceding note and sounds at exactly the right moment. I call this process relative perfection.

Relative perfection is always individual, since it is not only the way one hears in advance, but also the manner of one’s individual attack that postpones the moment that a given note is linked to its successor: And thus not only the moment, but also the intention of each respective note. It is a contradiction which unites the freedom and personal outlook of every musician with the sole existing truth. However, this is not a rigid framework, and within the interpretation of the tempi there remains sufficient space for small retardations or accelerations: After all, an interpretation consists of much more than simply the perfect execution of a sequence of notes.

As a result of the transition of one note into the next as described above, a space is created in which exists: music. The important thing is thus not only to be found between the lines, but between two notes. Ideally, in a concert the trialogue between the composition, the interpreter and the audience gives rise to a moment of connection in which all those present are united in consonance. This phenomenon had fascinated me for a long time, and now there is a scientific explanation for it. Neurological research in recent years has demonstrated that music does not just unite people by means of a universal language, but also by its energy. According to a study carried out by Jessica Grahn of the University of Western Ontario, in a music concert, our brainwaves oscillate sympathetically and thus form connections to each other.

We are not actually mediators or interpreters, but rather transmitters. We are an interface, a medium between the composer and the listener, and we provide space for music to emerge. However all this is not as arbitrary as it may appear here, as listeners are hopefully aware, and I would like to offer an insight into the work that fills our daily life with many questions, frustrations and joys – and stills the hunger that lies at the source of our work and in the best case offers the audience a fulfilling evening.

Since the purported true essence of a composition can only be approached through the conduit of an interpreter, his personal opinions and interpretation, the fundamental notion of an interpretation is, as such, wrong. The question as to whether written notes can even be interpreted in the same way that we interpret, for instance, a long-term study, remains open. In order to actually provide an adequate and truthful interpretation of a piece of music we simply lack – despite careful preparation – too much information. The notes before us act as a guide, and my respect for the composer forbids me from observing his masterpiece in a purely scientific manner and thus believing that, as a result of correct analysis, it is to be played in a certain way, and only in that way.

It is perhaps too abstract to think that an interpretation first comes into existence in the moment of truth, on stage, as an interplay with the audience. Is it too bold to claim that an interpretation only comes into existence at the moment of performance, since its existence only becomes reality in the presence of an audience?

One can probably not influence the reception of each respective listener, and the most we can hope for is to leave behind something that is meaningful to him. It is only in the moment that the listener hears the music that it can be determined whether one has been successful in one’s work, whether one has truly interpreted a piece of music or merely executed the written score. After all, not every execution of a musical work is an interpretation.

For the audience an interpretation begins when our souls touch the souls of the listeners and create a bond with them. In music, this not only takes place on the interpersonal level; it takes place on the metaphysical level as well. The more profound this connection and interaction, the more intense the interpretation.

For musicians however, it begins at a much earlier stage, because an interpretation which is able to touch the listener and which one can defend, demands preparation. What then unfolds is an illumination of the written notes from various perspectives: We read letters, biographies, texts about performance practice, academic texts, analyses of works – not forgetting the close study of the score and reception history – in short, we develop our own opinion. The sum total of all these parts will hopefully lead us to our own individual truth.

But how individual can one’s own opinion really be? After repeated listening to recordings, for instance, we become accustomed to a certain listening experience that can condition us towards a particular interpretation, a particular perception of the work. Thus we have to re-examine and emancipate these fixed opinions in order to give new ideas space to unfold. We need all the information available to ultimately liberate ourselves from the familiar and to be able to make a genuinely free choice. It is a process of appropriation and internalization of all that we have learned, though without losing sight of the composer’s intentions. In the ideal case, what we hear in the end is Beethoven – played from one’s own view – but not one’s own judgement that plays Beethoven.

What unfolds is a seemingly endless journey to the ultimate interpretation which is reached by means of an intricate “information map” that appears structured and clearly laid out from an external perspective, but which on closer inspection reveals an infinite universe of possibilities whose details one could not fully explore in a lifetime. To make things yet more complicated, the interpreter’s state of mind affects and changes the way that he views and decodes the information. Our constantly developing inner state also dictates where we direct our focus, and this may be a simplified explanation for the constantly changing perception of the performed piece. Sometimes, recordings of the same piece by a single interpreter over a time period of 15 years are of such different character that they could have been played by two completely different pianists. Therefore we have to content ourselves with the limits of what we are able to comprehend at a given point in time.

To give you another example of the type of interpretational difficulties with which we occasionally find ourselves confronted, I would like to briefly examine a passage in the first movement of the Fantasie in C major by Robert Schumann. In the middle section of this movement, Schumann gives the instruction Im Legendenton (in a legendary tone) in the score, which itself has provided plenty of material for speculation. Considered in context, this instruction can initially be understood as a relic of a time in which this movement was to be given the title Ruin, as a recapitulation of contemporary events. However, the question of how a Legendenton should sound has to be interpreted in as many different colours as one finds in the discipline of chromatics. For example my own conception of a Legendenton in this section is that of a melancholic, heroic (whisper) tone, which one might employ when telling a child a goodnight story, perhaps to give them a reason to aim for high things, to describe a historic event or simply to cause innocent eyes to light up. When listening to recordings, it soon becomes apparent that the perceptions of such performance instructions can be very divergent indeed.

When you next listen to a piece of music, listen to a different recording of the same piece directly afterwards and set out on an exciting adventure in search of the interpretation.