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Daily RC Article 110

Interpreting Music: Between Notation and Experience


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It is sometimes said that the work of music is not what is written down on paper: the score is merely a set of directions that enables one to find or realize the work. This claim, however, leads to an absurd misunderstanding of the way the music works. What we hear, the realization of the score in sound, can never be identified with the work itself because there are many different ways of realizing the score, but they are all realizations of the same work, which in fact remains invariant…

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It is not sensible to claim that for every score there is an ideal realization. The relation between score and realization implies that various possibilities remain open… The written score sets limits within which many possibilities can find a home. The critical problem remains essentially how to decide which of the many interpretations realize the work and which ones betray it… Determining what is legitimate and what is illicit is not as straightforward or as easy as we think. In fact, the most deplorable misrepresentations of a work can often come from those who believe themselves to be the legal guardians of the tradition…

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The survival of the Western musical past is due in part to the creation of an efficient system of notation. For the past 250 years, the transmission of the musical tradition has depended on the fact that in Europe, and to some extent in America […] learning to read music, to sing, and to play an instrument was a proof of cultural literacy, an aid to social mobility and to rising in the world…

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We think today of music as something public – performed in concerts or sold to the public in the form of recordings. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the experience of music was altogether different. Most music was heard at home, and was completely private; some of the experience was semiprivate, music played at parties or after dinner by invited professional and amateur musicians. Even symphonies were not solely a part of the public realm... Just as most members of the audience today at a play by Shakespeare have read some of his works in school, so a good part of the audience at a symphony concert seventy-five years ago had received their first knowledge of an important part of the symphonic repertoire at home.

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This private and semiprivate experience of music did more than increase one’s familiarity with the repertoire. It altered the understanding of music... Learning to play a Beethoven sonata as a part of one’s education and then hearing a concert pianist perform it in public showed how personal the interpretation of a score could be... Merely the fact of displacing a work from the private to the public sphere altered its significance.

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Our assumption today, made unconsciously, that almost all music is basically public, is a radical distortion of Western tradition… If the audience for classical music is not growing fast enough to make the art richly profitable, the reason is not that there is a diminished response to the art of serious music but that there are fewer children who learn to play the piano. Learning music from records instead of playing it has radically altered our perception of the art.

The interpretation of music extends beyond the notes on a page, with various realizations all embodying the same work. Deciphering the legitimate interpretations versus the betrayals of a piece remains a complex challenge. Western musical tradition owes its survival to efficient notation systems, emphasizing the significance of musical literacy and private musical experiences. Yet, the shift from private to public consumption has transformed the understanding and significance of music, impacting its reception and accessibility. The decline in music education and the shift to passive consumption via recordings have altered our perception of this art form, reshaping our relationship with classical music.
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