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MUSIC : Conductors Still Struggle With the Score

A recent lawsuit between an Orange County conductor and some of his musicians has raised questions as to the role of a conductor: just what it is that a conductor does, and how much of a factor is a conductor in the way an ensemble makes a piece of music sound? This story continues an occasional series that will attempt to address these and other questions about conducting. Advocates of the two major schools of conducting that emerged in the 19th Century didn’t have much regard for each other. “Who do they think they are, those musical assassins, changing, distorting?” railed Arturo Toscanini, the quintessential modern literalist. “They think they are greater than God!”

On the other side of the fence was Serge Koussevitzky. It is “easy for a musician to analyze a score externally,” Koussevitzky wrote. “But this is only half of the basic idea, its facade, which does not give us a true understanding of the work or its creator. The most significant part cannot be learned or read: it lies within the interpreter, in his own experiences, depths, and emotions.”

The two schools had emerged as conductors took center stage in the concert hall in the Romantic era. Mendelssohn and his followers advocated close, literal readings of the score. Wagner and his disciples, in contrast, regarded the score merely as a scaffold upon which a conductor built a personal interpretation.

Wagnerians held the day in the emotionally outsized Romantic era. But more and more 20th-Century conductors rebelled against them and labeled their approach subjective, willful and--worst of all--sentimental.

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Toscanini, incidentally no slouch in the self-appointed deity department, scoffed at Romantic conductors who took Beethoven’s title for his third symphony--the “Eroica"--literally as a program about the music.

“Some say this is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini,” Toscanini said. “For me it is simply allegro con brio.”

Toscanini’s remark sounds the clarion call of the 20th Century. But it doesn’t exactly solve a key problem: Music notation is notoriously inexact, frequently strong in indicating pitch but less precise in indicating rhythms and phrasings.

Many composers capitalized on the imprecision, which allows a range of interpretive possibilities. In the early days, they performed their own music or were there to oversee the performances, so they felt no need to try to spell out everything. Later, they were willing to trust the talents of their interpreters.

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Wagner even stopped trying to be too precise about indicating correct tempos, although he considered finding the right tempo critical to effective music-making. A good conductor, he wrote, would find the right tempo; an untalented one would never get it right no matter what the score said.

This was an attitude, however, whose day had passed. Composers such as Anton Webern were to give virtually every note in their scores some kind of interpretive marking, whether for loudness or way of attack or method of playing. Some composers even turned to the computer and electronic instruments to eliminate the imprecision--or the individual choice--of human players.

Initially, the moderns, who included such great conductors as Fritz Reiner and George Szell, repudiated interpretive exaggerations as well as the showmanship of the Wagnerian conductors.

Seeking to reduce the star status of the conductor, for instance, Felix Weingartner, one of the first moderns, argued that “the interpreter is not able to increase the worth of a work; he can merely diminish this occasionally. . . . He has done the best that is possible if his performance expresses just what the composer meant; anything more there is not and cannot be.”

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Erich Leinsdorf devoted his book, “The Composer’s Advocate,” to guiding young conductors in finding what the composer meant. “When we have truly learned to read the scores of the great musical masterpieces,” he wrote, “we find there the most exact and explicit directions for their performance.”

But the book is full of distinctions and clarifications and by no means relies simply upon reading notes.

Even William Steinberg, as literalist a conductor as they got, cautioned that “the written letter does not indicate the final meaning of the work.”

Steinberg warned young conductors against becoming so “preoccupied with technicalities that they lose every sense for the organic structure and style of the work in question.”

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Subjectivists took this caution most seriously. Koussevitzky, who had built up the Boston Symphony to a preeminent place in American music, derided the literalists’ battle cry of “Let the music speak for itself.”

“The danger of this maxim,” he wrote, “lies in its paving the way for mediocrities who simply play a piece off accurately and then maintain that they ‘let the music speak for itself.’ Such a statement is not right . . . 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.”

For Koussevitzky, the literalist approach could be called “mechanically perfect”; the subjectivist approach, on the other hand, was the “organically perfect.”

“The first gives the listener the beauty of mathematical balance, symmetry and clarity,” he wrote; “the second the complete, vital, pulsing elan vital of the composition.”

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A superlative conductor for finding the elan vital in our time was Wilhelm Furtwangler. Furtwangler was often attacked for his apparently imprecise beat and vague conducting style. But he countered that his technique was exactly right for eliciting “the true requirements of music.”

“Conducting technique, taught in books and practiced everywhere,” he wrote, “is a standardized technique which produces a standardized orchestral sound. It is the technique of routine whose aim is simply precision . . . (and which) will never really do justice to the true requirements of music.”

Arch-Romanticist Leopold Stokowski also felt that beating time and such literalist talents as score reading could be taught to any talented musician.

“But imagination, emotion, suggestion, power to visualize a whole composition so that its proportions and various musical qualities are seen in relation to each other; ability to evoke the poetry, to give vitality to every phrase, to understand and project the inner meaning of the music--this cannot be taught,” he wrote.

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Naturally, one must wonder by this time if there is no common ground between the two schools, whether it’s impossible to steer a safe course between the dry literalist Scylla and the sweeping Romantic Charybdis.

Bruno Walter, a poised Romantic, wrote, “Correctness is the indispensable condition and prerequisite for any musical interpretation: exactness, cleanliness, orderliness, i.e., rightness of notes and time, clarity of sound, and compliance with dynamic and tempo indications.”

But Walter added: “Faithfulness to the spirit knows of no rigidity--it is not faithfulness to the letter--the spirit of a work of art is flexible, elastic, hovering.”

Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the last of the Romantics, at least for the time being, believed that “the ideal modern conductor is a synthesis of the two attitudes.”

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But Bernstein also despaired about reconciling the two. “This attitude is rarely achieved,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s practically impossible.”


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