Lately, I’ve been watching Leonard Bernstein’s lectures, which he recorded at Harvard in the 70s. He does an incredible job at communicating the building blocks of classical music to an audience of classical music enthusiasts and laypeople alike. Today, I stumbled upon another video of his; a televised lecture / performance titled, “The Creative Performer.” He dedicates the first 12 minutes to discussing just the opening 8 bars of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, explaining how to construct an interpretation using dynamics, tempo, etc.
Bernstein, in a sort of tongue-and-cheek way, breaks down the inevitability of human interpretation to create music alongside the composer’s intention. He points out the tempo marking: 60 beats for a dotted half note. For ~1000 measures, it roughly translates to about 11 minutes. Yet, he remarks, nobody has performed this piece in under 13 minutes! Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors of all time, takes 13.5-14 minutes. But how can this be? How is this a faithful interpretation of what Beethoven would have wanted?
After describing the power of personal interpretation — What does it mean to conduct it bluntly versus lyrically? — and conducting a group of people with individual opinions about the music they’re performing, he launches into exactly what makes live performance so powerful:
And so, we must revise our first question: it is not, after all, what is I as conductor want from this music, nor is it even, what does Beethoven want, but what is it that I understand Beethoven to have wanted? It is this marriage of gifts that make the performer so important. The chemical union of the composer’s intentions with the gifted performers’ understanding of them. Only this union can animate and transform the score into an event of consummate importance.
This is exactly why you find new recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies year after year. As Bernstein explains at the beginning of The Creative Performer, as you interpret more and more bars of music in a symphony, you get exponentially more possible interpretations.
Of course, coming to an agreement of an interpretation is another matter altogether. This is especially difficult when there are two leading figures in a piece of music — namely in a concerto. There is the solo performer, and there is the conductor. Back in the day, when composers performed their own work, they would also act as conductors of their piece, thus solving the issue of competing interests. Nowadays, soloists can be at odds with a conductor’s interpretation of a concerto. Nowhere is this conflict more clear than with Bernstein and Gould’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1.
Actually, I was searching for the pre-speech performance Bernstein gave before Gould’s speech when I came across The Creative Performer (and thus got distracted for an hour). Here’s what Bernstein had to say — one of the only time he’s spoken before a performance:
But the age old question still remains: in a concerto, who is the boss? The soloist or the conductor? The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm, or even threats to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before, in my life, have to submit to a soloist’s wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr.Gould.But, this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. To repeat the question, why am I conducting it?…Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at a much played work…Finally because, there is the sportive element. That factor of curiosity, adventure, and experiment. And I can assure you it has been an adventure this week.
A subtweet in real life, Bernstein takes a jab at Gould’s interpretation (at least, this is how most perceive the comments, as do I). In Bernstein’s defense, Gould does stray — dramatically — from what Brahms indicated, both in terms of tempo and dynamics. This of course, comes back to the question: what is it that Gould understands Brahms to have wanted? If you asked Bernstein, Gould doesn’t care what Brahms wants. “Inventiveness” and “adventure” are thinly veiled synonyms for “ego.”
What ego do we have as performers? Is it ego, or artistic expression? At what point do we get to claim “musical intuition” as license to go outside the box? This is part of our jobs as performers — to understand the limits of interpretation (and to push it a bit, I think).