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The Lost Art of Musical Interpretation

John Knight | June 2014

    My musical journey has involved many years studying the interpretations of Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, and other great conductors. It has been a marvelous, fascinating, and profound aesthetic learning experience. The legendary recordings of these conductors opened a world of beauty to me, and with their honesty, humility, and disciplined creativity, these conductors inspired me to strive to learn the art of conducting. Above all, I have been, and continue to be, thankful for their spiritual insights into the art of musical interpretation. Their interpretations have left an indelible mark on humanity.
    With the passing of these great conductors, who were also outstanding human beings with great imaginations, I fear that musical interpretation has become a lost art. At first I thought I was just getting older and perhaps a little jaded, but when I listen to recordings of Walter conducting Mahler, Toscanini conducting Verdi, or Reiner conducting Bartok, for example, the interpretive sparks still fly and I feel truly alive.
    Unfortunately, too often all we hear now are mechanized performances that are on auto pilot, lacking in interpretive conviction and emotional depth. These performances leave me, and probably others in the audiences, cold, unmoved, and unsatisfied. Recently after attending a concert by a professional orchestra, my friend commented to me, “the perfunctory performance we heard tonight sounded as if the orchestra showed up for the concert, but the interpretation stayed at home.”
    This is the point I want to make now. Orchestras are better now than ever in terms of their technical performance, but the interpretations I hear today seldom produce the sort of significant emotional experience that can continue to illuminate, resonate, and inspire me days after a concert. That is not expecting too much. To bring to life and communicate the musical ideas of the composer is the most significant act a conductor can do. If this communication fails to happen, there is no meaningful purpose for the performance.
    A reader might ask what qualities make for a truly great interpretation and performance. This is a good question. A truly great performance requires much more than technical perfection, precision, and impeccable intonation. An interpretation achieves greatness when, through the creative imagination of the conductor and the artistic collaboration between the conductor and the orchestra, the spiritual aspects of the work are revealed, communicating to the audience the essence of the music. A great interpretation will lift the audience to a special spiritual plane and remind us all of our universal humanity. After a truly great performance, the audience will feel united by the spiritual enrichment and insight that has taken place. There is much truth in Mahler’s statement, “the best things in music are not found in the notes.” A great interpretation will move beyond a perfect rendition of the music to create a moving, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual experience.
    It is a truism that a conductor cannot elevate the spirit of others until his own spirit is elevated. Wisdom is gained by searching the minds of others, while searching and reflecting within one’s self. The beginning of wisdom starts for me when I recognize its source. The composer George Crumb has given us a definition of music that acknowledges its source: “Music might be defined as a system of proportions in the service of a spiritual impulse.” I like this definition, and I think it also describes the function of the conductor, who is charged with the duty to deliver the spiritual impulse of the music. Viewed in this light, the conductor must transcend the notes. Conducting is a great responsibility that can become great art when the musical interpretation reaches a depth and breadth of spiritual proportions, leading to a higher plane of awareness.
    According to Bruno Walter,  “Musicianship will spread and grow in proportion as (the conductor) sinks his roots firmly and broadly into the soul of universal humanity.” In my opinion this means that the value of a conductor’s artistic achievements and communication with both the orchestra and the audience is dependent on his human qualities, his moral convictions, the richness of his emotional life, and the breadth of his musical horizon. If a conductor is arrogant, shallow, or lacks warmth of humanity and humility, there is no way for the spiritual essence of the work to come through. A great interpreter, however, will put the listener into contact with the composer’s inner spiritual self, as well as the spiritual selves of the conductor and listeners.
    In order for a conductor to understand the spiritual essence of the master works, Walter believed there must be constant inner growth for the conductor. “If his personality is unable to fulfill the spiritual demands of the works he performs, his interpretation will be unsatisfactory although the musical execution may be exemplary.” Interestingly, Walter recognized that spiritual growth is often enriched through suffering. As a young conductor Walter could not understand the religious meaning of Bruckner’s music. Not until after an extremely serious bout of pneumonia did Walter finally understand the spirituality of the works of Bruckner. Otto Klemperer was of the same sentiment and often quoted Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth grief.” An examination of Klemperer’s life reveals that he faced extreme physical and mental grief and that he did so with indomitable courage and stoic endurance. His interpretations are profound because of this.
    Historians agree that Beethoven’s spiritual greatness was influenced by his deafness and his Promethean struggles with life. Author J.W.N. Sullivan examines these struggles in his book Beethoven, His Spiritual Development. In that book Sullivan reflects: “To be willing to suffer in order to create is one thing: to realize that one’s creation necessitates one’s suffering, that suffering is one of the greatest of God’s gifts, it is almost a mystical solution to the problem of evil.” In like vein, composer Leslie Bassett has written that music is one of the greatest of God’s musical gifts: “The more we know of music and the more we live it, the more elusive and mysterious it becomes, always changing, capable of a thousand indescribable moods, a strange and somewhat mystical power in our lives, a fascination, a challenge, a craft, a language, a house of cards – the echo from an invisible world.”
    The rich implication of Bassett’s simple yet profound statement has inspired and nourished me countless times. It assures me that the mystical power of great music brings forth a strong moral force in our lives. For this reason, I believe it is paramount that we never play music that may debase our spirit. Karajan made an important comment on this topic when he wrote, “Music should exist for one purpose only: to enrich man and give him something he has lost in most respects.”
    As I wrote earlier, I sense now that too many performances cause the audience to miss out on a truly rich, spiritual experience. Regrettably, many interpretations today fail to communicate the spiritual essence of the music and, at the end of the concert, leave the audience restless and unsatisfied. Great musical interpretation has its roots not only in musicianship but also in spiritual qualities and in our humanity. Musical interpretations must reflect a conductor’s life of searching and seeking that which is good.
    I can think of no better advice for a conductor to follow than the example given by Felix Weingartner in his book Weingartner on Music and Conducting: “Strive first of all to create within yourself a soil on which a pure art can bloom, one which serves no other end than its own beauty for its own sake. Feel, think, experience in the great manner (this is what I should like to call out to those who sense the divine gift within them) and keep your souls as pure from all that is base as our masters did, for then you will bring forth what is right, and just as you do, it will be good!”