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How to Interpret Music

October 13, 2006

Certain learned college professors were once heard discussing methods of literary criticism and interpretation. They spoke of external and technical forms, and how magnificently these were illustrated in the world’s acknowledged masterpieces of literature. Every work read or studied, they decided, should be carefully weighed, measured and analyzed, and should be judged solely by the maxims and laws deduced
from classical standards. The critical faculty must never be permitted to slumber or to sleep. Above all, the literary student should beware of trusting to impressions.

Not a word was uttered in regard to the contents of the masterpieces in question, the special emotions, the overwhelming passions they revealed, the mighty experiences of which they were the result. Nothing was said about the source of a great book in the life of its author, or its value as a record of what many minds and hearts of an entire epoch have
thought, felt and desired. The learned professors were so deeply concerned with what they considered the demands of strict scholarship that they lost sight of the spirit which animates every true work of art. To them literature consisted of words, phrases, sentences, figures of speech, classical allusions, and well-constructed forms. They
regarded it apparently as an artificial product, compounded according to traditional and cautiously prescribed recipes.

An aged man of letters present, one who was characterized by his ripe scholarship, his richly cultured personality, sat listening in silence to the conversation. Suddenly he rose up, and, in vibrant tones, exclaimed: “Where hath the soul of literature fled, its vital part? If we are to trample upon our impressions the best that is within us will be chilled. Of what avail is education if it does not lead to the unfolding of our God-given intuitions? Friends, if the trend of modern criticism be to divorce literature from life, the throb and thrill of great art will soon cease to be felt.”

The lesson conveyed by these words may with equal propriety be applied to the field of music. Viewing certain current tendencies the cultured musician is often moved to wonder where the soul of music has fled. The critical faculty is keenly alive to-day, but musical criticism, shorn of its better part, musical appreciation, can never lead to the insight
requisite for true musical interpretation. Observation and perception, intellectual discernment and spiritual penetration are essential to gain insight into a great musical composition until its musical ideas, the very grade and texture of its style, are absolutely appropriated.
In his “Death in the Desert,” Robert Browning tells of the three souls that make up the soul of man: the soul which Does; the soul which Knows, feels, thinks and wills, and the soul which Is and which constitutes man’s real self. Appreciation of music requires the utmost activity of all three souls. The more we are, the broader our culture, the more we
think, feel and know, the more we will find in music. Dr. Hiram Corson, commenting on Browning’s words, says the rectification, or adjustment of what Is, that which constitutes our true being, should transcend all other aims of education. If this fact were more generally accepted and enforced it could soon no longer be said that few persons reach maturity without the petrifaction of some faculty of mind and heart.

Every faculty we possess needs to be keenly alive for the interpretation of the best in music. One who is accustomed to earnest thinking, quick observation and sympathetic penetration will see, hear and feel much that utterly escapes those whose best faculties have been permitted to lie dormant, or become petrified. The interpreter of music must have vital knowledge of the inner, spiritual element of every work of art he attempts to reproduce. His imagination must be kindled by it, and musical imagination is infinitely more precious than musical mechanism.

It is by no means intended to underrate technical proficiency. No one can be a satisfactory exponent of music whose technique is deficient, however profound may be his musicianly understanding and feeling. At the same time, with every tone, every measure, mechanically correct, a performance may fail to move the listener, because it lacks warmth and glow. Only they can make others feel who feel themselves, but sentiment
is apt to be confounded with sentimentality unless it is guided by a scholarly mind. The more feeling is spiritualized with thought the nobler it will be. Heart and head need to operate in company with well-controlled physical forces, in order that a fine interpretation of music may be attained. Faultless technique, in the service of a lofty ideal, indeed ceases to be mechanical and becomes artistic.

A musical work of art originates in the deep well of the fertile imagination of genius, and can only be drawn forth when the composer is in that highly exalted frame of mind we call inspiration. The theme, or musical subject, is a vital spark of the divine fire, and has flashed unbidden into his consciousness, demanding undivided attention for its
logical development. With infinite care he molds and groups the musical factors which are his working forces, and of which he has both an intuitive and a practical knowledge. The manifold forms he fashions all combine for one purpose, and lead persistently to one grand climax, from which they may return to the repose whence they came. Unity in diversity
is the goal he sets before himself. All aglow though he is with the joy of artistic production, he dare not permit his mind to waver from the task in hand.

Music is not to be played with, and the labor of composition is no trifling matter. It demands the keenest mental activity, the most profound mental concentration. It demands consecration. The composer thinks and works in tones, in an ideal realm, far removed from the realities of the external world. His business is to bring his theme to
its most magnificent unfolding, treating it with absolute definiteness, that his intention may be perfectly clear.

It is the business of the interpreter of music to be so thoroughly acquainted with the elements of which music is composed that he can promptly recognize the color, complexion and individual character of every interval, chord and chord-combination, every consonance and dissonance, every timbre and nuance, and every degree of phrasing and rhythm. He must have so complete a mastery of his materials and working
forces that his imagination may be influenced unimpeded by the emanations from the composer’s imagination which animate the moving forms he commands.

It is his business to respond with his whole being to the appeal of the musical masterpiece he attempts to interpret, and so express the emotions aroused by it from their slumbers in his own bosom that a responsive echo may be found in the bosoms of the listeners. A most ingeniously constructed music-box, with the presentation of a complicated piece of music, may fail to move a heart that will be stirred to its depths by a simple song, into which the singer’s whole soul has been thrown.

Though the mind of the inventive genius be a mystery that may not fully be explained, its product is within the grasp of the intelligent seeker. The ćsthetic principles of musical construction rest on certain elementary laws governing both the human organism and the phenomena of sound, and may become familiar to any one who is capable of study. In
the same way the established canons of musical expression, observed by the skilful artist, consciously or unconsciously, are traceable to natural causes. Without realizing the inherent properties of music, as well as its technical possibilities and limitations, we cannot know the art.

The tonal language is one that is not translatable into words. It is composed of an infinite variety of tone-forms, now sharply contrasted, now gradually blending into one another, all logically connected, all tending to form a perfect whole. The profusion of harmonic, melodic, dynamic and rhythmic changes it brings forth invests it with a meaning far beyond that of words, a musical meaning. Every masterpiece of music clothes in tonal form some idea which originated in the composer’s mind. To the interpreter it is given to invest it with living sound.

Chords and chord combinations all have their individual characteristics. Some cause satisfaction, for instance, others unrest. When a chord of the dominant seventh is heard, the educated musician knows that a solution is demanded. The unspoiled ear and taste instinctively feel something unfinished, and are disturbed if it be not followed by a
return to the key chord. Where the faculties are dormant or petrified, its significance will be unobserved.

The story is told of a young lady whose musical education had been utterly hollow and false, but who, having been overwhelmed with flattery for her voice and her singing, was deluded into a belief that she was destined to shine as a star on the operatic stage. She consulted the famous basso, Karl Formes, who good-naturedly had her sing for him. He
perceived at once that she possessed neither striking talent nor adequate training.

As a supreme test he struck on the piano a chord of the dominant seventh, and asked the young aspirant for dramatic glory what she thought it meant. Presuming it to be incumbent upon a prospective prima donna to have uppermost in her mind the grand passion, she replied, in a sentimental tone, “Love!” Promptly Karl Formes sounded the solution to the chord. “There is your answer,” quoth he. “I ask a question, and it is thought I speak of love. Go home, my good girl, and seek some other avocation. You have a fair voice, but you are tone-deaf. You can never make a musician.”

A favorite motto of the piano teacher Leschetitzky is, “Think ten times before you play once.” If this rule were more generally observed we should have better interpreters of music. A great composition should completely occupy mind and heart before it is attacked by fingers or voice. In that case it would be analyzed as to its form, its tonal structure, its harmonic relations, its phrasing and rhythms, and its musical intention would become luminous. The interpreter would understand where accents and other indications of expression should occur and why they should so occur, and would be able, in however feeble a way, to find and reveal the true heart music that lies hidden in the notes.

It is never too early in a course of music study to consider the requirements of musical expression. Persistent observance of them will inevitably quicken the artistic sense. The rules to which they have given rise are for the most part simple and easily explained. For
obvious reasons, all musical interpretation is expected to imitate song as closely as possible. The human voice, the primitive musical instrument, in moments of excitement, ascends to a higher pitch, increasing in intensity of tone as it sweeps upward. Consequently every progression from lower to higher tones, whether played or sung, demands a crescendo unless some plainly denoted characteristic of the music calls for different treatment. A descending passage, as a return to tranquillity, requires a decrescendo.

“The outpouring of a feeling toward its object, whether to the endless heavens, or forth into the boundless world, or toward a definite, limited goal, resembles the surging, the pressing onward of a flood,” said the great teacher, Dr. Adolph Kullak. “Reversely, that feeling which draws its object into itself has a more tranquillizing movement, that especially when the possession of the object is assured, appeases itself in equable onward flow toward the goal of a normal state of satisfaction. The emotional life is an undulating play of up-surging and subsidence, of pressing forward beyond temporal limitations and of
resigned yielding to temporal necessities. The crescendo and decrescendo are the means employed in music for the portrayal of this manifestation of emotional life.”

Another important matter which may to a great extent be reduced to rule is that of accentuation. Through it a tone-picture is invested with animation, and a clue is given to the disposition of tonal forms. Accents are always required to mark the entrance of a theme, a phrase or a melody. Where there are several voices, or parts, as in a fugue, each
voice denotes its appearance with an accent. Every daring assertion hazarded in music, as in speech, demands special emphasis. Dissonances need to be brought out in such prominence that they may not appear to be accidental misconceptions, and that confident expectation may be aroused of their ultimate resolution. Accentuation must be regulated by the claims of musical delivery. At all times too gentle an accent is without effect, too glaring an accent is to be condemned.

Hans von Bülow strenuously advised young musicians to cultivate their ears and strive to attain musical beauty in what is termed phrasing, which he regarded as the real beginning of greatness in a performer. Phrasing and time keeping are two of the prime essentials in musical delivery, and cannot be neglected with impunity.

Time may well be called the pulse of music. Upon some occasions the pulse beats more rapidly than others. It is incumbent on the interpreter of music to ascertain the harmonic and other causes which determine the tempo of a musical composition, as well as those which make slight variations from it admissible. Among other points to be noted is the
fact that sudden transition from repose to restless activity calls for an accelerando, while the reverse requires a rallentando.

It is absolutely imperative for one who would interpret music to cultivate the memory. The musician who cannot play or sing without notes is compelled to expend a large amount of mental activity on reading these, and will find it difficult to heed the manifold requirements of musical expression and delivery, of which a few hints have here been
given. A musical composition is never thoroughly understood until it has been intelligently memorized. One who can play or sing without notes is as free as a bird to soar aloft in the blue ether of musical imagination.

Every interpreter of music longs for appreciative listeners, and young musicians, in especial, often lament the lack of these. It is well to remember that the genuine musical artist is able to create an atmosphere whose influences may compel an average audience to sympathetic listening. A good plan for the artist is to be surrounded in fancy with an audience having sensitively attuned ears, intellectual minds, and warm, throbbing hearts. Music played in private before such an imaginary audience will gain in quality, and when repeated before an actual public will hold that public captive.

We have it from Ruskin that all fatal faults in art that might otherwise be good arise from one or other of three things: either from the pretence to feel what we do not; the indolence in exercise necessary to obtain the power of expressing the Truth; or the presumptuous insistence upon, or indulgence in, our own powers and delights, with no care or wish that they should be useful to other people, so only they should be admired by them.

These three fatal faults must be avoided, or conquered, by the person who would interpret music.

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