"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Listening to Music

Arnold Schoenberg la 1948
"An artistic impression is substantially the resultant of two components. One what the work of art gives the onlooker — the other, what he is capable of giving to the work of art."  Arnold Schönberg (via Wikiquote)


Can there be a definitive performance of a piece of music? The composer Arnold Schönberg, when arranging his music for performance, preferred to employ lesser known players "so as to avoid irrelevant virtuosity and individuality". For performances of this composer's innovative twelve-tone works it understandable that he wanted his music as written to be the predominant experience of the audience. New versions of rock or jazz pieces will often involve the performers in new interpretations and the tendency here is for the performers to make the new version their own. But where the performance of a written score is concerned there is always the reference back to ostensibly constrain the new performance, though with established pieces new 'interpretations' are often undertaken. While composers are still alive they can attempt to control the performance either by conducting it themselves or trying to influence the conductor's reading and interpretation of the score. Igor Stravinsky demanded that "conductors of my music respect my intentions strictly, and inject their own aesthetic as little as possible." He also particularly singled out the issue of tempo which, he said, should be "regarded with the utmost care". In spite of this, however, he felt free to amend the scores of his work to suit particular occasions and, in the case of an early recording of The Rite of Spring, onto a series of 78rpm discs, to alter the tempo so that the records would be changed or turned over at appropriate points in the performance.

I was struck recently, on hearing two different recordings of Shostakovich's Piano Trio No 2, of how different they sounded, particularly in the treatment of the Largo movement and the amount of rubato and other stylistic flourishes by the string players in the version by The Florestan Trio compared to one by The Borodin Trio.  I was reminded here, too, of a comment by Stravinsky on the heading 'Arts and Leisure' in part of a newspaper. He felt this was misleading as art and leisure should be two different things. In  the Florestan Shostakovich performances the string playing seemed indulgent though certainly good to listen to whereas the Borodin version was starker, more demanding and nearer I suppose to what Stravinsky must have meant by 'art' as opposed to 'leisure'.

So we have a distinction between music as pleasurable listening and music as an art form, demanding participation and understanding from the listener. Composers and performers may try to achieve both, of course, but listeners may often feel that they are being taken too far in one direction or the other. I feel myself drawn to both of those Shostakovich 'interpretations' for different reasons. Should we regard music simply as entertainment or does a composer like 
Schönberg make reasonable demands on us in asking us to give something back?




Quotations from Stravinsky taken from Stravinsky : Discoveries and Memories  by Robert Craft (Naxos, 2013)