14. Where is the missing Expression?

The great late 19th century composer, Johannes Brahms, was once invited to guest conduct one of his symphonies with the Meiningen Orchestra, one of the finest orchestras in Germany. After this concert one of his close friends asked Brahms what his reaction to this experience was and Brahms was very disappointed. He said he could not get the orchestra to respond when he wanted to slow up some passage or to increase the speed in some other places. What Brahms discovered on this occasion was two fundamental limitations in the performance of music. First, from the beginning of the idea of writing music on paper musicians have been trained, and still are so today, to play what they see on paper. And in this case, even though the conductor was the composer, the musicians had difficulty in making an exception to this training.

If Brahms wanted these alterations in the tempo, why didn’t he write them in the score? The fact is that music notation is incapable of precision. When it was invented in the late Middle Ages, in order to speed up the time needed to train boy singers, it consisted of just pitch and simple rhythms and, a thousand years later, it is still little more advanced than this.

Second, and most important, is the fact that our notation system has never included symbols to express feelings and emotion. This was particularly important at the time the Church mathematicians developed our system for music notation, for the Church, in its desire to create a new kind of Roman citizen, went to great lengths to keep the citizen isolated from emotions. Certainly, those medieval choir boys had no need for emotions in their singing, not to mention even knowing what the Latin words meant. An ancient story from this period has a young boy singer asking the boy standing next to him, “Do you have any idea what we are singing about?” “No,” said his neighbor, “but it must be important.”

What we are left with then, with notes written on paper, is what someone described as “Frozen Music,” and what is missing is the warmth of human feeling in performance. Bruce Haynes, the late great authority on the oboe, had an analogy I like for this problem. He referred to the music on paper as an empty house. You are walking down the street and see a lovely house. You want to see more of it so you walk up the driveway to the front door and look inside. But there is no one home. Have you heard performances when “there was no one at home?”

Here is the great contribution of performance. The performer’s obligation to the composer is to enable his music to come alive. The performance before a listener is what Music is all about. Bruce Haynes, again with another very apt observation, concluded that if you just perform what is on paper it is like working from a cookbook and you end up just eating the cookbook!

The greatest obstacle the performer has is the critic who says, “Just play what is on paper.” The great former conductor of the Boston Symphony was concerned about this.

“Nowadays we can often hear ‘authorities’ exclaim, in reviewing a performance: ‘Let the music speak for itself!’ The danger of this maxim lies in its paving the way for mediocrities who simply play a piece off accurately and then maintain that they ‘let they music speak for itself.’ Such a statement is not right, in any event, because a talented artist renders a work as he conceives it, according to his own temperament and insight, no matter how painstakingly he follows the score markings. And the deeper the interpreter’s insight, the greater and more vital the performance.

A perfect rendition of a work can have two different aspects which are equally faithful to the score. One part can be called mechanically perfect, the other organically perfect. The first gives the listener the beauty of mathematical balance, symmetry and clarity, the second the complete, vital, pulsing elan vital of the composition. The one wants to present a pretty facade, while in the other the musical creation—its basic idea—comes to life. The one may be compared to a completely symmetrical building, the other to a great Gothic cathedral, in parts asymmetrical and yet an organic unit. The one is always friendly and pleasant, but always retains something superficial, like a lively stage set. The other touches the listener, arouses him, fuses him with the reality of the basic idea, and allows him to experience the elan vital of the composition.

Bamberger, “The Conductor’s Art,” 144

Closely related to this is the error made by the performer who thinks of his responsibility as one of ‘understanding’ the score in a rational sense, or an academic sense. By this we mean looking at a score as an accumulation of forms, types of melody, harmonic practice, etc. In a word, he only studies the grammar of the score. In doing so, he ‘fails to see the forest because of the trees.’ The ‘forest’ in this metaphor is feeling, as Wagner reminds us.

An artist addresses himself to Feeling, and not to Understanding. If his work is discussed in terms of Understanding, then it might as well be said he has been misunderstood.

Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde

We do not ignore the grammar of music, but, as the great pianist, Alfred Brendel, suggests, in doing so we must not lose our focus on feeling.

Although I find it necessary and refreshing to think about music, I am always conscious of the fact that feeling must remain the Alpha and Omega of a musician; therefore my remarks proceed from feeling and return to it.

“The New Yorker,” May 30, 1977

Wagner was reminded of the difference between what is on paper and how it came alive in a performance by Liszt,

He played for me the Fourth Prelude and Fugue. Now, I knew what to expect from Liszt at the pianoforte … but I never expected what I learnt that day. For then I saw the difference between study and revelation; through his rendering of this single fugue Liszt revealed the whole of Bach to me, so that I now know of a surety where I am with him, can take his every bearing from this point, and conquer all perplexity and every doubt by power of strong faith.

Ellis, “Prose Works of Wagner,” IV, 344

One type of performance which is most objectionable is that by the performer who simply substitutes his own interpretation without any consideration for the composer at all. This is usually a matter of excess. Wagner found the performers who were most guilty of this excess to be conductors.

Lo there is the man who certainly thinks least about himself, and to whom the personal act of pleasing has surely no place, the man beating time for an orchestra. He surely fancies he has bored to the very inside of the composer, yes, he has drawn him on like a second skin! You won’t tell me that he is plagued with the Upstart-devil, when he takes your tempo wrong, misunderstands your expression marks, and drives you to desperation at listening to your own composition.

Yet he can be a virtuoso too, and tempt the public by all kinds of spicy nuances into thinking that it after all is he who makes the whole thing sound so nice. He finds it neat to let a loud passage be played quite soft, for a change, a fast one a wee bit slower. He will add for you, here and there, a trombone effect, or a dash of the cymbals and triangle. But his chief resource is a drastic cut, if he otherwise is not quite sure of his success. Him we must call a virtuoso of the Baton.”

Ellis, VII, 114

We must then ask, Where is the line between a personal interpretation of the composer’s intent and a performance in which the personality of the performer replaces the intent of the composer? How does the performer maintain integrity to the composer’s original inner idea? What is the proper relationship between the performer and the score?

The highest aesthetic goal in performance is reached when the performer comes to understand that his duty is not to reproduce the score, but to reproduce what the score represents. The most important key to revealing what the score represents is to call upon his genetically shared emotions. It is this genetically shared language that allows him to understand what the notated symbols mean. The vital first step is that he recognize that the notated symbols of the score are not comparable to the notated symbols of rational language, including the entire range from newspapers to legal briefs. In other words, the highest aesthetic goal in performance begins when the performer comes to understand that not all the music is found on the score page. This is what is meant when some of the greatest musicians of all time understood:

Gustav Mahler

The important things in music are not found in the notes.

Felix Weingartner

There are musicians who only see the notes and those who see behind the notes.

Franz Liszt

With notes alone nothing can be accomplished; one thirsts for soul, spirit, and actual life.

Bruno Walter

The performer’s duty is to recreate the spirit of the score, not the letter of the score.

The ‘missing’ music these artists are describing is that part of music for which we have no notational symbols. It is the central core of feeling, or emotional meaning, which Leopold Stokowski called, ‘the inner spirit of the music and all the potentialities lying dormant on the printed page of the score.’ Koussevitzky called the elan vital, and Weingartner, ‘the spiritualizing internal factor that gives the music its very soul.’

It is when this is missing in performance that the re-creation of the music fails to achieve its highest aesthetic end. It is when the performer fails in this responsibility that the composer suffers, for he knows his most important and beautiful ideas have not been communicated. It is interesting, in this regard, to read Verdi’s anguished cry regarding performances he heard of his opera, “Aida.”

“For my part, I vow that no one has ever, ever, ever, ever even succeeded in bringing out all the effects that I intended … No one!! Never, never … Neither singers nor conductors!!”

Bamberger, 312

In contrast, it is also interesting to read Weingartner’s testimony that he found Wagner to be the model of what the contribution of the performer should be.

He obviously aimed in his own performances not only at correctness, but at bringing out that to which the sounds and notes are only the means … He sought the unifying thread, the psychological line, the revelation of which suddenly transforms, as if by magic, a more or less indefinite sound-picture into a beautifully shaped, heart-moving vision, making people ask themselves in astonishment how it is that this work, which they had long thought they knew, should have all at once become quite another thing … Out of the garment of music there emerges the spirit of the artwork; its noble countenance, formerly only confusedly visible, is now unveiled, and enraptures those who are privileged to behold it. Wagner calls this form, this quintessence, this spirit of the artwork its melos.

Bamberger, 98ff

This is the performer’s great contribution, to communicate this to the listener. But how does he find the ‘music’ that is not written in the score?

His goal must be to hear what the composer heard, not see what the composer wrote. To do this he must learn not to initially fix his concentration on the notation itself, but rather learn to see the notation somewhat passively, giving the notation (the composer) a chance to speak to him before he begins to apply his own personality to the notation. We are reminded of the old European rule of etiquette regarding conversation with a royal person: ‘Don’t speak until spoken to.’ The great conductor, Eugen Jochum, describes this process perfectly.

I take care first of all to have, so to speak, a passive attitude toward the work; that is, to establish a lack of bias, a receptiveness that will allow the work of art to best develop its own reality. First I abandon myself to the work, which I read through again and again … without my thinking of particulars. What is this tempo? How does it relate to later tempi? What is the nature of the themes? How do they relate to one another? These questions are left for later.

In this manner the tempo focuses ‘by itself,’ the piece becomes so self-evident that it begins to live its own life, still practically completely withdrawn from my conscious will and shaping impulses. The condition described as passivity now reveals itself as having many layers; only the intellectual layers of consciousness are actually passive. The possessive, forming will is only excluded by the thinking mind. On the other hand, the deeper layers of consciousness are vibrantly awake, straining toward the work, so that an emotional field of tension is formed in which the ‘spark leaps over.’ This is the decisive point. When it is reached, conscious work of the greatest precision can and must begin. It is only important that the impulse of the will and conscious control do not take over too soon, and that one’s own personality is not brought in at the wrong moment. I t is thus a question of humble acceptance of a law, of listening to an inner meaning.

Bamberger, 260

This is as it should be, for the symbols themselves are not the music. It is important to add that in the process by which the sincere interpreter seeks to understand what the composer felt beyond what he could place on paper with rational symbols, it is inevitable and appropriate that he will, to some degree, come to a personal interpretation. This is because he will always be influenced by his own experiential history. We say appropriate because this is the only possible way that the feelings of a dead composer can come to life in the present sense.