Faithful to the Letter or the Spirit?

Scholars and musicians argue, even rage about how Beethoven and Verdi meant their music to be played; Michael Oliver finds where inspiration enters the equation.

It’s now pretty widely accepted that Beethoven’s metronome marks can’t be relied on: either the early metronomes (invented by a friend of Beethoven’s) were rather imprecise, or his was in poor condition or he simply didn’t wind it up often enough. He marked the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata ♪ = 92. If you count the number of quavers in the movement (1122) and divide them by 92, that gives a duration of a little over 12 minutes. Most pianists take 18 minutes or more. Beethoven also marked the movement Adagio sostenuto, ‘slow and sustained’, and ♪ = 92 isn’t particularly slow.

Beethoven’s markings of loudness and softness, however, look much less ambiguous, and in this movement they’re very frequent, at times almost obsessive. He marks the opening una corda (i.e. use the ‘soft pedal’, a device to shift the hammers sideways so that they hit only one string) and mezza voce, ‘half voice’. Fairly quiet, then, let’s say mp, but in the eighth bar he asks for a slight crescendo (poco cresc.) and two bars later for something presumably less slight (cresc.), but in neither case does he indicate whether the loudening should be gradual or abrupt or whether it should rise to mf, f or ff. Eight bars later still he indicates another crescendo, this time followed by p. Does he mean a growth from pp to p or from p to something louder followed by a sudden p? The latter, probably, but it’s a pity he didn’t make it clearer.

Changes of speed in this movement are very few and far between. Beethoven asks the player to slow down (never to speed up) only three times. And yet his contemporaries described his own playing as very free, with frequent changes of tempo. Did he really want only three changes in this movement, or did he leave other changes to the good taste and the imagination of performers?

So how far can any performance of this movement claim to represent what Beethoven intended? There’s little doubt about the actual notes, and we’re as near as we’re ever likely to get to knowing how the pianos of Beethoven’s day sounded. The sound of those pianos (quieter, rather drier and more percussive than the modern piano, and with a weaker bass) will give us some help in choosing the right speed and deciding what Beethoven probably meant by f; so will a knowledge of the sort of rooms or halls in which he expected his pieces to be heard. Even more crucial, though, than whether he really meant ♪ = 92 (and if he didn’t, precisely what he meant by Adagio sostenuto) is the phrase he wrote immediately under those tempo instructions: Appassionato e con molto sentimento.

‘Passionately and with much feeling’ – you can’t quantify that in numbers or with black dots arranged on parallel lines. It’s an appeal to the pianist’s emotion, sensitivity, soul. You can measure a pianist’s speed and loudness with instruments, but how can you measure passion?

If someone plays that slow movement with obvious passion, who’s to say whether it was the sort of passion that Beethoven had in mind? Can we, who’ve experienced the huge passions of Wagner and Strauss and Puccini (to say nothing of the cinema) ever imagine what Beethoven meant by ‘passionately’? This is the point at which scrupulous interpretation leaves off and performance begins.

Even where a composer hasn’t marked his music Appassionato e con molto sentimento it certainly doesn’t mean that he wants you simply to play the notes without any expression. The Prelude to Verdi’s La Traviata is an interesting case here because Verdi, who very much resented performers taking liberties, tried to make his scores as unambiguous as possible. The Prelude is marked Adagio, ♪ = 66. Counting beats and dividing them by 66 as before comes to a timing of about 3 minutes, say 3 and a half minutes to allow the conductor a little elbow room for beautiful phrasing. In fact, most conductors obey Verdi here, and any performance of the Prelude that lasts much over 4 minutes is likely to sound terribly heavy. But when the big tune arrives Verdi marks its oom-pah accompaniment pp and every phrase of the melody begins p, with a diminuendo immediately afterwards. In other words, the whole tune should be quiet, each phrase fading away almost to a whisper.

I’ve never heard a single conductor play it that way, and I suspect that if, just for once, somebody played what Verdi wrote, it would be terribly poignant. Normally the tune is at least f, most often ff, and of that diminuendo there’s usually not the slightest trace. Is that a tradition dating back to the days when audiences chattered during preludes and the only way to shut them up was to grab their attention? Or a realization that if that tune is played loudly and sonorously it provides an opportunity for the string section and the conductor to show off before the curtain goes up, the singing starts, and most people pay very little further attention to what’s happening in the pit? Or are performers simply responding to Verdi’s demand to play that tune expressively (‘con espress.‘), just as pianists respond to Beethoven’s appassionato by fluctuations of speed and volume that Beethoven didn’t bother to write down?

Some composers, like Verdi, have insisted that all they want from a performer is scrupulous fidelity. And yet they must all have known that, with very few exceptions, all elements of musical language are ambiguous; even a carefully calculated metronome mark might have to be modified in a dry or reverberant acoustic. Mahler encouraged conductors to change his scoring where circumstances made it desirable. All performance involves creative infidelity. The great performer is one who has a vision of the spirit that the approximate, inadequate notes are trying to convey, and then has the courage, if necessary, to prefer the spirit to the letter. ‘Authenticity’ is a stage in that process, not its destination.

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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