The interpreter

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

In America they have a pardonable habit of seeking a solution for every motive in the creation of an art-work, and an explanation of its interpretation in performance: therefore, it is not surprising to read that John Barbirolli (conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society) and Serge Kussevitsky (conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) have fallen and stated their views on orchestral interpretation. Obviously, both conductors strive after the same results, though they express themselves in widely varying words. Following closely on the publication of Bernard Shore’s The orchestra speaks, with its clever portraiture of various conductors at work in pursuit of their ideal interpretations, anything that a conductor of repute may say on the art of interpretation deserves consideration.

But it must be embarrassing for an artist of Kussevitsky’s calibre to attempt to put into words an invisible formula which can only be made an audible manifestation of actual contact with his orchestra. Barbirolli, as his wont, went straight for the middle of the target, and stressed the necessary attitude of loyalty from every conductor when face to face with a composer’s score. Well might the editor of an American journal, when discussing the various points of view, draw attention to that blessed word ‘integrity’ at a time when all the world is in clouds of conflicts. (Napoleon would have likened them to ‘clouds of ignorance’.)

The conductor’s art I have always regarded as as subtle as that of the composer; for the art of interpretation is that of re-creation, a phenomenon which could in the past have been easily demonstrated by listening to Richter’s performance of The Dream of Gerontius and the same work under Elgar, or almost any item by Berlioz under Richter and the same items under Nikisch. Within recent years opportunities have occurred for hearing Strauss’s Don Quixote under its composer followed by a performance under Toscanini.

Though the notes of a printed score do not vary, the interpretation of the music allows so many different complexions as to make it almost unrecognisable. The Strauss of today interprets his early drama with so much indifference that the episodes of the conceited knight and his companions almost miss being eventful. This apparent ‘bronzing’ of the composer’s mind finds no place in the vivid and tense version of the same work under Toscanini, and he in age is only three years junior to Strauss.

In other words, Toscanini approaches the score as though he were giving it a first performance, an attitude giving an arousing quality to his work and making his interpretation so vital and fascinating. Toscanini can mentally envisage a composer, and this is a gift possessed by few, among whom are Beecham. who can always be relied upon to astonish. During the war, when orchestras were disorganised and rehearsals often impossible, I heard two performances under Beecham from two different ‘scratch’ orchestras of the César Franck symphony, and both attained the sublime. Often I have wondered since how and why Beecham succeeded.

I know that many composers regard modern conductors as the embodiment of fudge and fuss: imagine my astonishment then, some years ago. At an orchestral rehearsal. I heard a well-known composer exclaim, ‘I am not here to teach members of the orchestra how to play: I know they can play, so I shall merely beat time’1. Playing the notes is only one item in the art of interpretation. Numerous subtleties are to be found in a perfect interpretation, usually described as an inspired performance. Inspiration cannot be analysed.

  1. Unidentified ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1939, pp. 394–395