A Symphony is Born

Why are performers of great music - soloists or conductors mainly - called "interpreters"? Why aren't they simply "performers" or "players"?

The conductor is obviously not a player or performer, so he might as well be called "interpreter", although he might also be called "time-keeper", or "leader"; the French do call him leader, or "chief" - chef - "chef d'orchestre." In English he is more collegially known as 'conductor', the one who conducts the players to a successful presentation of a piece of music.

But why is the soloist also an "interpreter"? Isn't he simply playing what has been written? Music is different from all the other arts in that you can't see what the composer has created.

He doesn't produce an object that can be exhibited in a museum or some other public place, to be admired or to cause controversy. All the earthly tangible remains of Mozart and Beethoven are bits and pieces of manuscript - scores, letters, notebooks. These can be sold at Sotheby's or Christies as mementos, but not exhibited as finished works of art for public edification the way Leonardo's or Rembrandt's paintings can be displayed in a museum, or Michelangelo's statues can grace a public square or a church.

What Mozart and Beethoven created in physical terms are blueprints for recreating sounds they heard in their mind and soul when they were alive - edifices of sound signifying all the emotion, thought, feeling and perception of the universe that their minds registered and imagined. We are like explorers with these maps in our hand, trekking through the jungle in search of this golden fleece of truth, beauty and ultimate reality - not just emotion and feeling but perception of the universe within ourselves: what's it all about, Alfie?

When a symphony (or concerto or sonata or miniatiure) is performed, it is born anew each time. The 'symphony' does not consist of written notes on paper; the symphony is the agglomeration of sounds that are denoted by these hieroglyphics and it exists only when it is performed.

The performer is our map interpreter. He has the skill and ability to decipher this map or blueprint, and different performers will decipher it in different ways. It's like the two blind men who come across an elephant: one of them feels the leg and concludes that this is a tree; the other feels the trunk and comes to an entirely different conclusion.

The performer/interpreter uses all his accumulated skill and experience when presenting a piece of music to an audience. First of all he assesses the physical terrain to be crossed - the shape and size and above all the acoustics of the room. Next he checks the condition of the vehicle which will take us on our journey, i.e. the piano (other instrumentalists will already be familiar with their own vehicle, be it violin, cello or whatever).

He begins, and at this moment the journey suddenly reveals itself as something other than just a piece of music - it is the equivalent of a life; it is a living, breathing organism. So this journey is going to be a life, with a beginning, a development, a middle, all sorts of ups and downs, a climax or resolution, and ultimately an end.

As the first notes are sounded, the performer/interpreter becomes something of a midwife/ doctor. He must carefully monitor the vital signs: the heartbeat (rhythm); skin colour (tone); vitality; emergence of different ideas; growth and development of all these elements, checking that they combine in such a way that the organism doesn't get overloaded, or catch a virus.

The performer/ interpreter now stands back a little, allowing the entity to develop at its own pace, while he watches carefully that nothing goes wrong.

Like any living thing, support and guidance is needed, but the life will have its own direction and motivation. The performer, who supplies the necessary support and guidance, must listen to what the work is asking for and what it is saying.

Young pianists often ask how they should "build a performance up to speed." This question is much less commonly asked by other instrumentalists as they are nearly always performing in tandem with others, and thus the tempo results from their over-riding efforts to blend with each other; likewise singers hardly ever consider this question either, as tempo is a product of their intake of breath with each phrase, which is where their attention is mainly focused.

However pianists are operating a mechanical instrument, and thus it is possible, even likely, for them to impose an arbitrary tempo. To avoid this urge, Chopin constantly advised his students to go to the Opéra to listen to singers.

A piece of music is a living thing, and speed cannot - or rather should not - be imposed; the music has its own organic tempo, an intrinsic part of the fibre and sinew of the living work.

Stravinsky commented that every piece of music has its own natural tempo, and the performer must listen for it and not try to determine it.

And where is the audience in all of this? They are intimately involved in the growth of this life - in effect a parallel life to that of the listener - sharing in its development with a feeling of pride as well as pleasure. They are, after all, shareholders in this living, breathing entity.

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