Is there a score in this concert?

Performances of classical music* can inspire literary interpretation, and more broadly cultural studies, to rethink not just its methods but its very objects:  What exactly is a musical or literary interpretation interpreting?

I was reminded of this matter while reading Alfred Brendel’s collection Music, Sense and Nonsense and listening to Claudio Abbado’s last recording of Schubert’s 9th symphony, both out this year. At over an hour, this wonderful 9th is some ten minutes longer than most recordings. Are the tempi slow? Not at all. The reason for the extraordinary length is that Abbado was one of the few conductors to observe all repeats in the original. You simply have not enjoyed fully the Ninth’s Scherzo if you have not heard a full account of it, like Abbado’s, and not just the common abridged movement.

To take what is probably the most extreme case, you never know whose Goldberg Variations you are listening to (arguably not Bach’s) until you find out how many repeats, if any, the performer is observing: A complete performance lasts over seventy minutes but most are much shorter, some even by half.

Repeats within musical pieces vary:  They may be literal or approximate, may include an entire section or only part of it, and may apply to the exposition or the development of a movement.

Repeats may be found in every musical period, from the Baroque to Modernism, let alone Minimalism. They may also occur in any musical genre – an aria from the Messiah, Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 8, Schubert’s string quartet no. 15, and especially in symphonies like Haydn’s 98th, Mozart’s 41st, Brahms’ 2nd, Dvořák’s 9th, and Mahler’s 6th.  And I must say that I have never heard anybody complain about their inclusion in a performance or read a review criticizing it.  I think that these days observing repeats is more likely to elicit the approval of both general and specialized audience.

Historians of performance trace the predilection for repeats to two early modern conventions:  First, the need of the audience to hear a part repeated in order to absorb its innovative elements (the chances of hearing a repeat performance being extremely rare); second, the opportunity for performers to dazzle by embellishing repeated material with their innovative treatment of it. Today, musicians willing to ignore a composer’s repeat signs (pianist Brendel among them) assume that, since neither of those reasons applies any more (listeners are now used to innovation and performers do not improvise), they do not need to observe the repeats and waste everybody’s time. If repeats are organically redundant, they may well be dropped, and nobody will notice. While editors of scores ought to keep all of them for reasons of philological accuracy, performers don’t have to. To them, the highest authority is the work’s ideal form, not the notes and words on the score.

But then, to repeat (as it were) my original question, what exactly is a musical performance interpreting, if there is no fixed work, and how much can it depart from the page? It is a question that my musician self, Pantelis Polychronidis, and I confront almost every time we look together at a score.

At this point an interpreter of literature and the other arts may begin to wonder: Is this an approach that we too can adopt casually when we teach, recite, quote, or anthologize a particular work – simply ignore at will repeats that were part of its first public appearance and still belong to its authoritative editions?

For example, to refer only to modern Greek culture, we may consider omitting repetitious sex episodes from the 8-volume novel The Great Eastern by Andreas Embeirikos, parts of long scenes in Theo Angelopoulos’ movies, several of the formulaic angels on bikes in Alekos Fassianos’ paintings, as well as stanzas from “Gloria,” the last section of Odysseus Elytis book-length poem The Axion Esti, without doing any harm to the artistic integrity of those works, perhaps even making it more compact and appealing. If interpreters of music can do it, why can’t interpreters of all the other arts as well?

* I limit myself to a kind of music that I know better but I am sure performance practices of very different musical traditions may also yield intriguing interpretive insights.

December 30, 2015

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