Who knows how the music goes?
Whenever I broadcast one of Robert Schumann's great piano works on WFCR, I know that part way in, the studio phone will ring. "Who's that destroying the Schumann?' the caller will ask. Once again, a Schumann performance has failed the Arthur test.
My man Arthur, an 80-something resident of the Quabbin region, really loves his Schumann (above right). "Pretty hard to beat," is how he puts it. A former pianist himself, Arthur knows whereof he speaks, down to not just the last note, but down to the last rhythmic value, last dynamic indication and last phrase marking. When you're playing one of his favorites, you can't get anything past ol' Arthur. And he has a long and keen memory, permitting him to compare the unworthy newcomer with the immortals he grew up admiring, especially his beloved Dame Myra Hess (above left).
But then, after I give Arthur a few verbal pokes in the ribs, he laughingly admits he's being a bit of an old fogey. Aren't we all sometimes a little fogyish when it comes to our passions, especially the passions of our youth? Whether it's music, television, baseball or hamburgers, we just know that it's supposed to be done this way (i.e., the way it was done when we first fell in love with it), and can't stand when it's being done that way (i.e., the way it's done now).
The problem is, one person's this is another's that, and vice versa. When it comes to classical music, for instance, the right way to play Schumann for one listener, like my friend Arthur, is the wrong way for another. Take the sensitive issue of tempo, the speed at which the music is played. There's no more important decision a performer has to make, yet none which permits a wider range of possibilities. Oh sure, a composer may say to play it allegro ("merrily") or andante ("at a walking pace") or adagio ("leisurely"), just to give three examples. But what speed did Schumann actually mean by allegro? And would his allegro have been the same piece to piece, or even in different performances of the same piece? Composers are not metronomes, and have been known to change their minds about tempo and other matters of interpretation. There's ample phonographic evidence of this, and there are also stories like this one told by the great American pianist Byron Janis (left below) in a terrific article about interpretation:
"In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland's (right above) Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, 'Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte [loudly] and you have marked it piano [softly] in the score.' He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, 'Ah, but that was 10 years ago!'"
That's just one of many such gems in Janis's "In Praise of Infidelity", an article that could serve as a rebuke to the English critics and musicians cited by John Rockwell in his New York Times article yesterday about the controversial Belgian countertenor-turned-conductor René Jacobs (below). To summarize, the Brits like their 18th-century music interpreted faithfully and discretely, whereas Jacobs is "a proud interventionist, happily toying with the editions of the scores he performs; experimenting with tempos...fleshing out the continuo [accompanying bass line] with added instruments and giddy quotations; and layering on sound effects."
The people on both sides of his dispute are armed with all the same documentary evidence yet, based on their tastes and preferences, make very different music. And thank goodness for that. Wouldn't it be boring if it were all the same? I bet even my Schumann-fundamentalist friend Arthur would miss it if he couldn't rail against heretical new interpretations of his old favorites.