Reflections on Interpretation

When being a musician, you are foremost a fearless human being. You are not afraid to show your emotions to anyone as you always strive to touch the listener, deeply, presenting a different reality or times long gone. When you are performing, you are transforming yourself into an actor, telling the listener a story. How you will recite the narrative partly depends on why the chosen piece came to be, but you must always use your imagination to phrase everything in the most convincing way you can. However, even though you will express a piece in your own way — there are rules, as well as the wide set of era-based stylistic requirements that shouldn’t be broken — or should they?

As with so many other things, this one in particular is relative. Of course, no serious piece of music should result in a pastiche. We shall always avoid transforming pieces into caricatures on themselves. And yet, we must not be afraid of letting our emotions out, but not before we do basic research. To fully understand a piece, we must understand the times in which it was written, realize how the people lived, be aware of what they believed in, and know something about their folk traditions. 

Watch: Compare how differently 5 great pianists interprets Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C major:

1. Walter Gieseking at 00:00
2. Rosalyn Tureck at 01:05
3. James Friskin at 02:32
4. Tatiana Nikolayeva at 03:45
5. Glenn Gould at 04:51

Bach intended his 2 part inventions to be performed by children to develop independence of fingers. Here we hear different pianists play the same piece in various ways. We always hear it’s the same piece but they play it as they feel it or imagine it. Here is my favorite interpretation of this piece performed by Andras Schiff.

An example.

The first Scherzo Op.20 by Fryderyk Chopin was written when Poland rose up against their oppressors. “Scherzo” may mean joke in Italian but in this case, Scherzo is the form, it is the architectural outline of this particular piece. The Op.20 by Chopin is not a “joke”. What it is, is about anger, sadness, and loss. Chopin was not in his native Poland when he composed it — he was scared, confused, and angry. 

The middle section of the Scherzo is heart wrenching and we learn that Chopin included a famous Polish carol honoring Jesus Christ. Nothing in the title suggest any of this, and without knowledge we may only see the piece’s tempo marking: Presto con fuoco which in English would translate into “Fast with fire”. Not knowing the backstory, this piece might be treated as an etude. It is a fast and loud piece after all, and its slow sacred moment of contemplation would not be acknowledged for what it is. 

After reading and learning the reason for its composition and what it actually depicts, we must be assiduous in transferring these emotions of anger and uprising into the piano, using the instrument as a vessel to channel these very emotions upon the audience. The audience must feel all of the Scherzo’s reason to exist and the listener should feel uncomfortable. When the soft lullaby is rendered the same, the listeners ought to sense tears in their eyes; and after the Scherzo’s final chord depletes its resonance, we shall feel utterly exhausted. When performing this piece as such, we are transforming into an individual experiencing loss, terror, confusion, and furiousness. Being on the stage, we shall transcend ourselves and the listeners into a different realm—and we, the musician, shall be the connection between the composer and the audience. Only when we do this we are achieving a higher level of performance. Only now, we are achieving art. Many times in these cases, if we don’t have a backstory to be inspired by, then we must be creative and form one; but this could be problematic as no one can teach you how to feel. A good teacher can inspire you to let go, inspire you to read, and more importantly— inspire you to understand and motivate you to find yourself. No teacher can, or shall, ever tell you how to experience life on an emotional level. Every person experiences sadness in their own way, just as every person is different and this is just one of many beauties being blessed with life. This applies not only into romantic music by composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, or Brahms. It applies to every composition ever written.

Vladimir Horowitz’s performance of Scherzo No.1 in B minor

Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of Scherzo No.1 in B minor

Lang Lang’s performance of Scherzo No.1 in B minor

Why should you follow the rules?

On the other end of the scale in which a musician must master to balance, are the stylistic rules which are there to serve as a foundation. They are not there to prevent us from creating art. A great musician should learn to make every piece of music sing, true to their own voice. Piece by Mozart, for example, should not be performed as a metronome exercise. Rather, Mozart should be phrased and treated with the utmost musical respect. When listening to any opera aria Mozart penned, we clearly hear the breathing of the singer. Never is it treated metronomically (only pop songs are treated that way). A phrase in a piano piece will die without sensible respiratory breaks, just as our aforementioned singer would clearly suffocate without breathing. 

Breaking the rules.

Some rules are also meant to be broken. Stravinsky said that he needed rules so that he had something to break. Without rules he would never become Stravinsky and Glenn Gould was a master of performing a piece in very unexpected ways.

Today, Lang Lang, Andras Schiff, and Anne Queffélec all renders music in a very personal way. Sometimes balancing on what is allowed, but they are always themselves, they are always human.

Sviatoslav Richter at the piano.