I’ve a lot on my desk right now, but recently I was sifting back through some older work (there’s that “dust” thing again) and ran across this passage from a rather strange, unfinished book, When Soft Voices Die. My first impression is that the narrator is a pretentious poseur, but maybe that’s what I meant him to be. In any case, there are some interesting observations about a few works—I’m not sure that I agree with them, but then who says an author has to be in complete agreement with the characters he creates? I’ve also attached some videos to illustrate both the original étude and Respighi’s orchestration.
“I think many people, having only heard the term, suppose that I mean it is the performer’s task to divine the composer’s feelings and display them for the audience. That’s not what I meant at all, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean, then?” Tristan asked, back in his chair with a warmed cup of tea. I clutched another like a weapon, afraid of what I thought had almost happened, desperate to talk about anything else.
“I mean that the performer must read the soul of the piece, must grasp what it means, but only to him. And after digging that meaning out—not having it pressed on him, you see, not even by the composer—after digging it out, he expresses the inexpressible—he translates his discovery for the listener.” I waved a hand, airily and nervously, and almost spilled my tea. I was used to being accused of sophistry, and was unconvinced that the same would not happen again.
Tristan was surprisingly self-assured, in contrast to his demeanor at Luigi’s. I felt like a teenager, all hands and elbows and knees, while he sat, comfortably composed, and regarded me quite steadily.
“I don’t know, though, Tom,” he said seriously. “This sounds as though it’s meant to be metaphysical, but at the same time it’s as if you’re only saying ‘play it with feeling!’ You said it differently in the book, and now I’m not sure.”
“In a way, ‘play it with feeling’ is what I’m saying, although I’d like to think it’s a little more profound than just that. Obviously, it’s something I feel strongly about—and something that I think is missing from some contemporary interpretation, or I wouldn’t have written about it. I’ve taken a lot of abuse about the term. That’s why I was a little confused by your enthusiasm.”
“Is this a process everyone goes through, or should?”
“No, not at all—or one may do it without realizing it. In fact, that’s what I think you’ve done.”
He put down his mug and sat forward, elbows on his knees, a picture of intensity.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, let’s see—do you know what Rachmaninoff said the piece represented?”
“I didn’t think it was representational—in fact, I always wondered why they were called ‘picture-studies’ when they aren’t pictures of anything, really.”
“Well, they apparently were, at least to him, because when Respighi was asked to orchestrate some of them, Rachmaninoff wrote to him and said that this one represented gulls and the sea. The interesting thing about that, to me, is that knowing this, Respighi orchestrated it so that it sounds just like that, but who knows how it would have sounded if he hadn’t been given that clue? To me, and I think to you, there is nothing of the sea about it—in fact, the Dies irae colors it from the opening, for me.”
“The Dies Irae?”
“Yes, the first note of each of the first four triplets spells out the first four notes of the Dies Irae. Whether he meant it or not, that’s what I hear, and that’s what names the piece for me. You didn’t hear it that way, clearly, but your ‘translation’ is just as valid, and, may I say, even more thought-provoking than mine.”
“But I don’t have a picture in mind.”
“I’m not saying that you should, or that you ever will, but the piece has been named for you, it has spoken to you, and you are able to translate it for us. Many performers today seem to lack the ability to think for themselves, but it’s hardly their fault. We have so many sources today which do our thinking for us—one can almost gain a degree in musicology just by reading the booklets that come with compact discs. For instance, why should we as performers need a textbook to tell us what the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth represents? And why should it not represent something entirely different for us if we choose for it to do so?”
Concentrating on expressing myself intelligibly allowed me to forget, for the moment, what I was feeling, and in my exuberance, I abandoned my earlier reticence about analyzing his concert performance.
“I think, in hindsight, that the absence of this sort of thinking explains the lacunae in your interpretations of a few nights ago.”
His look of dismay was milder than I had expected, but he was definitely surprised.
“It seemed to me that you captured the spirits of some works more than others, and with some it was as if you suddenly awoke in the midst of the performance. It’s not a major flaw, but I noticed it. The Rachmaninoff was perfect, but others—the Mendelssohn, for instance—seemed lifeless.”
He looked at me wide-eyed, and I feared I had insulted him.
“I had no idea—Dr. Riemann never said a word.”
“Well, he’s a technician more than anything, I think.” Panic had made me bold. “And believe me, your technique is marvelous.”
“But, Tristan, the trick is that I can’t tell you how to translate anything—you have to find the meanings for yourself. There is some music, of course, which is palpably programmatic, and you might think it’s simply a matter of presenting the prescribed imagery, but even there it should touch you in some way that may or may not coincide with the story. As I’ve said, knowing that the second étude-tableau was called La Mer et les Mouettes in its orchestral incarnation is of absolutely no consequence to me.”When Soft Voices Die