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On Interpretation

Posted by acdtest on August 20, 2003

On Interpretation

e true to the artist’s intentions! is the cry so often heard in the matter of interpreting a work of art in performance. It seems a perfectly reasonable, logical, and honest credo; even a goes-without-saying credo of unquestionable veracity. On closer examination, however, it reduces to little more than lofty-sounding, sententious gibberish. Who can say with any degree of certainty what were the artist’s intentions? One might imagine the artist himself could, for one, speak with unimpeachable authority on the question. But when the artwork under consideration is a product of authentic genius, and therefore a genuine work of art, such is not the case. Artists of authentic genius are forever finding their conscious intentions regularly subverted by their unconscious intuitions during the process of creation, and when that process is completed and the artwork finished, find themselves forced to declare along with the great composer-dramatist Richard Wagner,

How little can an artist expect to find his intuitive perceptions [as manifested in the finished artwork] perfectly reproduced in others when he himself, in the presence of his [finished] work of art if it is a genuine one, stands faced by a riddle, concerning which he might fall into the same illusions as anyone else?

So, the artist’s intentions, then, are not the measure. Rather, it’s the finished artwork itself that holds all the keys to interpretation, and is ultimately the sole authority from which interpretations are to be derived, and against which they are to be measured, the artist’s intentions when creating the work, or his after-the-fact thoughts on that work, decisive as such may be expected and appear to be, having little more authority than the opinion of other knowledgeable persons.

As the hallmark of every genuine work of art is its capacity to be read and experienced in a multitude of ways, this seems a perfect prescription for no-holds-barred interpretive anarchy, and so it has been warmly embraced by an ever larger number of self-involved, self-serving interpretive “artists” as witness the growing proliferation of postmodern atrocities in the theatrical and operatic realms; productions which have given us, for particularly egregious, fairly recent example, a Macbeth who’s a 1960s Louisiana politician (Joe Banno’s 2001 production of Macbeth), and a Parsifal who’s a samurai warrior, Star Wars style, accompanied by Knights of the Grail traipsing about as WWI soldiers (Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2000 production of Wagner’s Parsifal).

Such productions are, of course, clear outrages (criminal immediately suggests itself as an appropriate intensifier), and perfectly idiot in both conception and realization. For while all such profess to be true to the ideas of whatever work happens to be in question, they’re in truth anything but, prodigiously clever justifications and rationalizations for the outrage notwithstanding. What each in fact does is take a concrete view of an idea embodied in the work in question, dress it without textual or musical warrant, as the case may be, in modern-world-relevant garb, and present it as a “fresh” realization of the “deeper” meaning of the whole, thereby thoroughly emasculating the work as a work of art by wantonly robbing it of its hallmark capacity to provoke in a receiver a wealth of multifarious resonances and meanings.

In the abstract realm of so-called “absolute” music things are not much better as one might expect them to be as there exist no overt ideas to muck about with, and a printed score to tell us authoritatively every step of the way just how things must go. But even given scores of the late-19th century and after with their well-developed and well-understood system of notation (scores before that time assumed a fairly large measure of common knowledge performance practice on the part of performers, assumptions largely misplaced for modern-day performers of those same works), only the note pitches and time values are always treated as invariant. Within the bounds of reason and good taste, everything else is up for interpretive grabs, not only in the matter of divergence from the printed notation, most of which is of a relative nature, but because not everything in the music intended (i.e., the sounded work) is capable of being notated.

So what to do? The problem is a real one, and not to be glossed. A guiding rule is required, and — mirabile dictu! — one is at hand, and that rule in all cases is the negative one of the physician’s oath: Primum non nocere — First, do no harm. Macbeth cannot be a 1960s Louisiana politician as it makes absolute nonsense of the language and much of the text; Parsifal cannot be a Star Wars-style (or any style) samurai warrior and the Knights of the Grail WWI soldiers as that makes absolute nonsense of both text and music; and the tempo and rhythm of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, even though a march and notated with the standard march time signature of 2/4, cannot be taken at the tempo and with the lively rhythm of a Sousa march as that makes absolute nonsense of the music’s clear funeral-march character.

As a guiding rule, Primum non nocere may not be much to go on, but it’s a rule more than sufficient to save one harmless from perpetrating clear outrages, and a rule most urgently needing ruthless and rigorous application in the postmodern interpretive world we at present inhabit.

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