On April 4th, 1954 at Carnegie Hall in New York, Arturo Toscanini conducted what he had determined to be his final concert.
It is hardly necessary to underscore the prestigious character of a universally acclaimed career which would last almost sixty-eight years, drawing to a close as the maestro celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday. One might well wonder why the great conductor chose this time to retire, rather than at another moment either 'before' or 'after'. Was it simply a case of fatigue due to such an advanced age? But all those who had seen him on the podium during the last years of his activity were able to testify that there were few conductors whose energy and vitality equaled those of this extraordinary old gentleman. Even hi legendary rehearsals were as tumultuous as ever, and it was not rare to see him throw one of his absolutely terrifying tantrums, and to try to tear up his podium (which they had taken the precaution to fix solidly to the floorboards), or to break his baton in two and throw it at the head of the nearest musician and leave, slamming the door.
Yet it is true that it could have been a question of a fatigue of another nature, a kind of emotional and intellectual lassitude, and in this case one could quite easily understand his decision. Yet, here again, Toscanini's admirers would have objected that the maestro showed not the slightest hint of any lessening of his intellectual powers nor any weakening of the vitality of his temperament. His performances had lost none of their bite, indeed, they had only grown stronger in all those areas which constituted the secret and the very essence of the prodigious success of a man who will remain, for many years to come, one of the great musical interpreters who has ever lived.
Be that as it may--and it is certainly futile to ruminate on this point--there is one question we could ask, and it is, if a man like Toscanini could, at his age--and this in spite of all the precjsion and 'bite' of which he was capable--still express that essential something in his interpretations, or if, on the other hand, given this set of circumstances and due to the age of our maestro, an authentic rendering of the masterpieces of music was no longer possible. But before responding to this question, we should ask ourselves another, and that is; What is an authentic musical interpretation?
Queried many years ago on the reasons that could account for the excellence of his performances, Toscanini furnished a response that would remain famous and which would seem, at first glance, to be a response to our question.
"I only play", he said in essence, "what is in the score". Very well. We can easily understand the implications of such an affirmation, and what's more in Toscanini's case, it is easy to verify--concrete proof in hand--the validity and sincerity of his assertion. Indeed, it is absolutely true that numerous musicians have taken (and continue to take) many liberties with the musical texts they are charged to interpret. In particular, many opera conductors (and this is especially true when it concerns specialists in the realm of Italian Opera) indulge themselves on almost every page, by introducing fermatas (or by merely exaggerating the duration of those already notated in the score), by allowing great fluctuaLions in tempo, or even rhythm, without any relation to the text, elongation of vocal cadences, which 'spotlight' the singers (and which have become 'traditional'),though they often deform the meaning both musically and dramatically. Against all these excesses Toscanini waged war mercilessly so that he was at last able to purge (not only in concert, but in opera and on recording) the works which he conducted of all this residue and even winning over a growing number of interpreters. Up to now, everything is perfectly clear: when it came to the elimination of extraneous elements and to safeguarding the playing of only. that which the composer wanted, one could affirm with sincerity, that he indeed played only that which was notated in the score itself. But let's take it one step further: let's imagine--and this happens from time to time--that two interpreters have the same scrupulous respect for the musical text and that each make the greatest effort to give the most exact interpretation possible. How is it then that--inevitably!--their interpretations are, in the end, different, and that, often their fundamental divergences are even accentuated? Looked at from this perspective, the affirmation to 'play only what is in the score', no longer has meaning. Indeed, if two fine interpreters, of equal integrity, can give two renderings which are so much alike, then can we not ask ourselves if the score does in 'fact have a truth in and of itself, or if, on the other hand, it offers to each performer a 'different' truth? We could even go so far as to ask ourselves whether a musical work does not, in fact, possess as many different aspects as there are interpreters who play it, and does it not become, in the final analysis, impossible to distinguish between that which is found there and that which is not!
Recent studies have shown us that a musical work is situated, not only beyond time and space, but even beyond 'the real', beyond existence (Jean-Paul Sartre: The Imaginary, conclusion p. 243-245). What's more, the execution of the work, which is itself situated in time and space, is only 'analogous' to the work. We could add that the musical work 'exists for no one' unless it is articulated, and that only its articulation gives it existence for the listener as well as for the performer. If we accept these starting points, we can attempt to define the role of the performer as well as perhaps, the idea of an authentic interpretation of a musical work.
The work is 'imaginary': if I should interpret it, my contact with the work, the fact that I understand it, comprehend it, know it, all this can only be accomplished through my 'imagining censciousness'.
Does this mean that the work is that which I imagine? Yes and no. No more so than I am allowed to imagine anything else, for it possesses its own form, its structure, its nuances, its duration, its tempo indications, etc. In fact, even to imagine 'anything at all', can only happen 'from the work itself', meaning that I must leave it, that I release it, I surrender it in favor of those images that it most certainly suggests to me, but which no longer have any relation to it in the strict sense. Neither is it that which I imagine, if we mean by this that it would be any sort of conscious content, in the sense that Berkeley meant in his explanation of the exterior world. It is nevertheless, what I imagine it to be, in so far as it is the intentional object of my imagining consciousness'. Let's go further: this object, targeted by my consciousness, is not, it goes without saying, just 'any' object; it is this or that symphony, this or that opera, or fragment of an opera which, as we have already said, possesses certain characteristics which are unique to it and which the imagination of the composer has created and co-ordinated and which he has charged with a.specific meaning, which presents itself to me during the intentional act of my consciousness at the vqry moment this act targets the object. This means two things: first, there cannot be in one and the same score, a number of different truths for different performers or listeners, because the score is charged with a unique meaning due to the unique act, which has presided over its conception. Secondly, that this meaning as well as the various elements of which it is constituted (melody, harmony, rhythm, tempi, structure, form, dynamics etc.), constitute in their turn, the 'stimuli' of my imagining consciousness; and from this my imagining consciousness begins, is expressed, is realized. Consequently the musical work, itself being imaginary, is given its existence by the interpreter (for himself and others) by imagining it. Moreover, the interpreter reveals the work, not only because it reveals itself to him, but because the work likewise reveals the interpreter. Therefore, a good execution of a work does not mean that the interpreter only plays that which is in the score--at this stage of our analysis a restriction of this type makes no sense-but that he plays 'what it is'. The work reveals itself to the interpreter by its specific mode of existence, as well as in its unique truth, while at the same time revealing to the performer his mode of existence and truth. But if, on the other hand, he takes 'illegitimate' liberties with the text of the score, he does not so much t betray the truth or alter its meaning, nor does he add another truth or sense (among a thousand others) to the work he plays. All that we can really say is, that his consciousness of the work is not authentic, that is to say, the work has not been revealed to him in its authentic sense (in its truth) and that, consequently, neither has the work revealed the interpreter himself in an authentic way.
Therefore we can say, even as the execution of the work is an 'analogue' of the work, the interpreter is an 'analogue' of the composer. His function consists above all (we will see later that this idea needs to be developed further) of this authentic consciousness of the work's meaning (and here of course, granting that there is complete artistic integrity regarding this meaning) so that, having penetrated this meaning, he substitutes himself--at least for the duration of a given performance--for the composer. It is at this moment that he becomes the composer's analogue or double. It is thus, the composer and the musical work which 'create' the interpretation and the interpreter. Just as it is not the swallow that makes the spring, very probably the reverse is true, it is not the interpreter that makes the work, and it is on the contrary, the work that 'makes'--in the strongest sense of the term--the interpreter. It is the work that gives him his own truth, which cannot be but the 'same' for both (the work and the interpreter), his authenticity, even his imperatives, the characteristics of his style and even his technique. In the final analysis, it is only a more or less authentic consciousness of the meaning of a work which reveals to us a more or less authentic interpreter, and this allows us to experience sometimes good, sometimes mediocre--and even bad--musical interpretations.
From the preceding we can state the following:
1. A musical work is for the interpreter the object targeted by his imagining consciousness;
2. In the intentional act of consciousness which targets the object, is revealed the truth and meaning of the work;
3. The revelation of the meaning of the work reveals at the same time the interpreter himself.
All this poses a new question, no less important than those which we have tried to answer thus far, namely by which criteria do we judge the authenticity or inauthenticity of such an act of consciousness?
This means that here we ask ourselves, by which standards do we judge the quality of a musical interpretation?
Let us say, right at the start, that if the artistic integrity, as well as the knowledge and theoretical reflections regarding the musical structures and their implications are the necessary conditions for an authentic comprehension of the truth of a work, these conditions are not in and of themselves sufficient.
It goes without saying, that one can be perfectly honest and sincere, and that one can have analyzed in depth and have understood perfectly well the constituent elements, as well as the sense of a given symphony or opera, and nevertheless be unable to conduct them in an authentic manner, even if one possesses a perfect command of orchestral conducting technique. It also goes without saying that there are many intelligent and technically capable musicians who do not have what we would call, 'an interpreter's temperament'.
Consequently, what are these criteria, these standards of which we have just spoken? Here, we must state right away, that a musical interpretation is above all, a 'praxis', this means that it is in the very act of conducting, of singing, or of playing an instrument, that we must look for the answers to our questions. Thus, it seems possible to conclude that, just-as a the mountain-climber or the bullfighter understands at every moment, the implications of the elements with which he is dealing and the problems that they constantly pose, the struggle in which they are engaged, so the musical interpreter understands at every instant the meaning of the work, as well as the challenges presented by its execution. Certainly, just as a theoretical knowledge of alpinism or the art of 'fighting a bull', could be useful yet insufficient for the mountain-climber or the bullfighter, so it is that a theoretical knowledge-no matter how intimate--will be of service, but not necessarily sufficient (as we have already stated) for the musical interpreter. There is perhaps here, an unfathomable element which forces some men to summon the courage to confront mountains or bulls; this implies the absolute conviction of their ability to emerge victorious from a perilous combat, and it is perhaps this same unfathomable element that calls upon them to engage in musical interpretation and which also confers upon them the certainty that they will be able to equips themselves magnificently of the task. In this sense, certain cases of extreme stage-fright--which can deprive some performers of a great portion of their capabilities, as soon as they venture before the public--is a bit of proof of the absurdity of this state of affairs. But we started by saying that both the bullfighter and the musical interpreter were able, at every moment of their work, to take and grasp the very essence of the challenges posed by the execution of this work. So that, the situation in which they find themselves, has a special meaningand consequently, the difficulties which spring forth 'speak' to each in an intelligible language, as though it were being dictated to them, a little like the 'steps to take'. It seems evident that for the musician, the musical structures of the work to be performed, themselves speak an eloquent language. He grasps and actualizes its meaning, he enters the score as if possessed by it, at the same time as he in turn possesses it. For in one way, this score speaks to him of a crescendo or of an accelerando to play, and so, the score possesses him, and from another perspective, it is the interpreter who possesses the score because, without this act of will, there would be no crescendo, no accelerando, indeed no execution whatsoever.
A TOSCANINI'S MARBLE BUST - TEATRO ALLA SCALA - MILAN
We have said that musical interpretation is a 'praxis'; this certainly does not exclude intellectual effort, which constantly supports (and can be mistaken for) emotional drive. And, because we have just underscored the communion between performer and score, because in the end, the interpreter only exists 'through' the score, which he in turn makes exist, it is quite possible to say that such a communion is based on a relationship that we could call 'erotic', between the interpreter and the musical work. Merleau-Ponty has spoken of the body as a sexed being' (in Phenomenologie de la Perception), drawing our attention to the fact that our body is an inert thing and without will--as has been asserted in 'classical' theory--but under certain conditions, our body is also capable of a certain intentionality. For the true performer, the musical work is not something lifeless and inert, but is--if the interpreter is able to conceive and grasp it--an actual 'provocation', thanks to which he can conceive and grasp it, and thus allow the listener to conceive and grasp it as well. And it is certainly the vigor of this provocation, as well as the enthusiasm and concentration with which he responds to it, that the authenticity of the interpreter and his interpretations depends.
Because Toscanini's career and his retirement have allowed us these few reflections--all too general it's true--on musical interpretation, now we can perhaps respond to our first question; were Toscanini's performances during the last years of his career really meaningful?
We should state right away that we have always shared the opinions of his admirers, that the technical qualities of the maestro had not been diminished and that indeed they could have been the object of some jealousy on the part of other conductors or performers in any era. However, we remain firm on one point: several years before his retirement (it is obviously impossible to fix an exact date) Toscanini's performances were no longer of the same authenticity of musical interpretation.
Without being able to go into great detail here (which would necessitate a study in and of itself) we think the following observations (which we should really furnish ourselves) will help us to understand the difficulties that we have tried to elucidate here.
There is one observation of importance: for many years, Toscanini limited his repertoire to a relatively small number of works which he had conducted (it could be said without exaggeration) since the beginning of his career. This kind of activity appears to be incompatible with the provocative and enthusiastic qualities to which we have already referred, and in which we can discern the condition 'sine qua non' of any living and authentic interpretation. Indeed, how can we accept that one can feel the same strong impulse and emotion for a work which one is conducting for the hundredth time in twenty short years, as one did when this work was relatively new for us! I am well aware that there are, certain youthful qualities which one can never recapture, however this does not necessarily indicate the onset of 'senility'. Any artist who is at all honest, knows that there are works, which in his youth he was able to play with boundless enthusiasm, 'which he can no longer play with the same vigor at, a more mature age. But he also knows--without making excuses--that his performances will have gained in other areas.
So far everything is in order, but it can happen that performers (and especially the great virtuosi of today, whose activity is based upon a relatively small number of works drawn from the standard repertoire) 'survive'. It is then that enthusiasm evaporates, and all that is left is a monotony of musical gestures, which still function perfectly well but which gradually empty themselves of all content. One need only encounter one of these glorious old-timers privately, to see to what extent they are indeedaged. Incapable of lucid thought, even in simple conversation, enfeebled physically, they awaken (like an old motor which one has well-oiled for the occasion) at the very moment they stroll toward their podium or to their instrument. All this does not render an exacting sound, and can actually be quite troubling. Indeed, if musical interpretation is a 'praxis', a good part of this 'praxis' is done, after all, far away from the podium or from the instrument. Here I refer to the 'continuum' in which the musician exists at every instant, and frol which point he formulates his thoughts, his convictions, his conceptions of the work that he creates or interprets. Once again, we need only to have seen one of our elderly virtuosi up close to lose confidence as to the intensity with which they prepare their performances.
Very often, the state of senility manifests itself in a kind of lassitude from which these performers suffer and which forces them to take liberties with the text (exaggerated tempos, by way of extreme slowness or frantic racing, nuances of too great a contrast, etc.), so that they may find a new interest which the actual text can no longer give them. It is true, to return for a moment to Toscanini, that our maestro has sinned less than any other in this area, even though one could criticize certain 'mannerisms' in his performances, but in his case, senility has taken other forms.
Let us listen, for example, to his recording of La Traviata. Toscanini was always considered, rightfully, one of the finest interpreters of Verdi, a composer to whom he was always devoted with a loving fidelity. So, this recording remains, in my opinion, a document of great value and certainly constitutes one of the finest performances of the work that one could hear. Yet Toscanini did not authorize the release of these records--even though he held himself quite apart from the talent of his cast (a complete lack of elegance on his part, may we say)--because he intended to show, thanks to these recordings--and this for all time-the definitive style for conducting Verdi. A little later, after having refused countless versions of the recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he finally allowed one to appear, under the pretext that he was leaving here, his testament, his artistic 'credo', to serve as a model for a true interpretation of this masterpiece of the symphonic repertoire. In spite of the success of these recordings, we are within our rights to ask if such an attitude is permissible.
I do not believe that it is. It has been said in these pages that two performers of equal depth and the same level of artistry, should necessarily give the same work different interpretations. But we have also said that the truth of the work and the truth of the interpreter are the same. Is-there a contradiction between these two affirmations? It would be wrong to believe it, because this would simply mean, that one could express the same truth in different ways. That which is true for one era is true even more strongly for different times, and thus, musical interpretation is not fixed activity (and will not allow itself to be-fixed), oh the contrary, it is varied and evolves, without any danger of 'fluctuation' concerning its authenticity. This is all good, and should be soe because performers are men (and not Gods or prophets) and that men find--happily!--new ways to say the same things.
We understand now why it is necessary, in certain cases, to retire at a given moment from an activity like that of musical interpretation. The composer has created a work, and that work has its own truth. The interpreter has but one task: to try to grasp this truth and have it grasped by others. If he substitutes himself for the composer as he executes the work, he should at no point--and this goes without saying--) take himself for the composer. This is why, when he reaches the point where he believes himself to be the sole possessor of the truth of a work, this truth eludes him, and he ceases to play his authentic role. He has, in fact, forgotten that he is not the composer nor is he his double.