Attitudes About Interpreting - Part One: Brahms

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Two fundamental attitudes about the art of interpreting can be represented by Brahms and Stravinsky. I could represent the Stravinskyian attitude with Couperin or Ravel, but Stravinsky was the most adamant and vocal about this particular point of view. Likewise, I could represent the Brahmsian camp with many other composers, including most composers in the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic periods.

Let’s begin with the attitude represented by Brahms. According to an anecdote, Brahms heard two strikingly different performances of his Clarinet Quintet at a festival. When asked which version was correct, Brahms replied that both interpretations were truthful to the score and the music. The implicit message here is profound: THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO BE CORRECT.

Though Brahms’ personality had a notably prickly exterior, his friends recognized that this abrasive armor was a means of protecting his sensitive and generous heart. Brahms lived simply, and gave away most of his large fortune. He had a similarly generous attitude toward other musicians who played his music.

Brahms regularly refused publisher’s requests to write in metronome marks, and famously crossed out many tempo marks from his pre-publication manuscripts. In letters to friends and colleagues, he encouraged others to trust their instincts and use his markings merely as points of departure. Markings were suggestions, not demands. On one occasion, he wrote, “…give the piece just how it pleases you best.”

Brahms apparently felt that others will naturally have a different realization of the same notes, that they have a right to their own experience, and that this is necessary for there to be artistry rather than mimicry. His attitude suggests he felt the possibilities of musical expression are infinite and that every person is unique, so every musician must be allowed a unique pathway among those infinite possibilities.

In contrast to Brahms’ attitude toward interpretation and his fellow musicians, there is another. That will be explored soon in Part Two: Stravinsky.

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