What’s The Score?

I have been blog-lazy; no more. I’ve been storing up thoughts about scores and musical interpretation, which sounds like a truly annoying and boring post, and probably is.

Basically, I’ve been trying to find a recording of Davidsbündlertänze (by Robert Schumann) for my new friend X. X does not demand anonymity, I just enjoy naming him/her X. I have dibbled and dabbled, online and elsewhere, and due to the nature of the piece, it’s fairly easy to extract little bits — it’s a piece made of little bits, a meal of German, evocative, romantic, elusive tapas. I won’t name names, but I’ve consulted quite a few recordings and found none remotely to my satisfaction. The problem, you may say, and I will say, lies with my unending need for satisfaction rather than the artistry of the various recordings… So far, I have not recommended X a recording. (V. Nabokov, when asked “what’s your favorite book?” answered: “the one I am about to write.”)

Inciting event: X and X’s colleagues were arguing with me in a bar that Schumann really was not such a great composer after all. Well into my second, or third, Belgian ale, my arguments distilled themselves frighteningly into a very narrow retort: simply the word “Davidsbündlertänze,” nearly screamed, several times in a row, with accompanying head-shakes and signs of distress, like those of a mental patient. Feeling rather replete, I adjourned to the facilities. Upon my return, my argument was not augmented: I simply kept saying, overly loudly, in the Irish pub, the title of my favorite Schumann work, (I feel sure I was the only one in the pub using that particular word, possibly ever) which seemed to me the purest, most eloquent defense of Schumann’s genius … How I longed for the powerful, calm derision and reserve with which, say, Mitsuko Uchida might have looked upon persons who dared to question Schumann; if only I had been able to consult her as to what to say, what to do. I could almost see her, perched over an Egg McMarlboro (at Marlboro, of course), her eyes narrowing … I myself was a clown in comparison.

Davidsbündlertänze is full of clowns and clowning, the boisterous Florestan messing around with the ruminative Eusebius… full of moments of silliness, but that kind of humor which is so extraordinary and manages to coexist with the most unbelievable, haunting sadness. (The humor that virtually generates that sadness.) That would almost seem to be the piece’s premise: the posing of funny, displaced fragments and their metamorphosis/assembly either into crazy, lopsided dances, or long lyrical outpourings, or laments, or whatever: come what may.

So there I was listening, to my favorite moments in one of my favorite pieces, and so often the pianist would seem to miss the “main point,” that is, the sort of overarching gesture, mood, gestalt of the thing. And I would say to myself: you are imposing too much of your own desire on this! Try to listen impersonally, to see what they see. Because these are serious artists, they see important things. And so I would try again; I would start the track from the beginning, and try to listen through their lens, pay attention to their priorities, hear their desires. Sometimes this works for me, but in this piece I could NOT. I had to give up too much, it was too painful, too many intervals went unnoticed, too many searing moments passed by, it just couldn’t make emotional sense to me. I gave up, unhappy, kind of exhausted. I took the coward’s way out: I went and played it myself.

I think (and this may be partly the cause of my unhappiness, above) this is one of those pieces with an amazing plural–whether because of its “loose” structure, or its dependence on fragments (where just a few notes are made to take on a lot of meaning), or its utterly Romantic frame of mind, its intense if brief emotional states. We are used to saying and thinking that a piece has any number of possible interpretations, and we are used to hearing the expression that certain performances/recordings can be considered fairly “definitive.” I would like to express my total detestation of the word “definitive;” a performance is never a definition, unless we are willing to reconsider entirely our definition of definition.

We classical musicians lurk under the idea, a burden, that there may be, hiding in the score, somewhere, some “true” interpretation of a piece, some original composer’s intent. But I have begun to wonder if even the composer, as he puts his notes down on paper, considers the score-as-written already, partly, his enemy? (It limits what he has to say, what he has meant to say; on the other hand, it lets the piece loose from the limits of his mind, opens it to other, maybe lesser, minds.) We say, casually, that a musical score “lends itself to many different interpretations,” which is a sort of cliché which makes us comfortable with the difficulties of scores. I want to go further:

A musical score does not just “allow for” differing interpretations, for disagreements; it provokes them. This is because a set of notes will inevitably suggest nuances that cannot be simultaneously realized–which are antithetical to each other. The score is a provocateur, a trickster (although it is of course also a comfort, a guide, a resource). It contains paradoxes, and thus makes consistent, complete definition impossible.

This is truer of some scores than others. Every performance leaves out, by definition, a good deal (an infinite amount) of the score, of its possibility. This would seem to be a negative view of performance, from a performer. What does the performer put in its place, how does he/she fill the space cleared away, the destruction wreaked, by his/her choices? I have to admit I tend to distrust those colleagues of mine who seem to know every dynamic, dot, dash, and marking of the score, every last articulation and expressive indication, and who seem to feel they “know the score” as a result (not that it is bad to know the score well!)… I guess it is an emotional thing, I always prefer to think of the score as harboring yet some unknown, as a jungle whose overgrowth will not be pruned, penetrated… I hate to think of it as a cleared field, as laid bare, too clear, too evident, prematurely disillusioned. Only with the performance is the score temporarily bare (temporarily absent), and then from the moment of applause onward the score reasserts itself, just as impossible to untangle.

To take up this thread of “definition,” I love the notion of every word as a “fossil poem.” (Words as active, not passive, webs of force, not solid, named things–read Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era…) Think, if we reawaken each of a word’s origins, etymologies, mythical antecendents, the primal acts of classifying, connecting, understanding, which finally gave way to the “civilized” word, its so-called definition? Poems do indeed reactivate these sense of words (“give words back their tribal meaning,” is this Mallarmé?). Okay, in this sense, I could imagine a “definitive” performance, one which makes the musical word active, definitive not as in “really getting it right”, not as in just-as-the-composer-“intended” (How do we KNOW the composer had a single intention? Don’t we think the composer might have been just as mystified and overwhelmed by the options of his own notes?), but as in opening up some active possibilities of the piece, working backwards to origins and forwards to consequences, an act which I think is closer to “un-definining” the piece, removing it from the dictionary… freeing it.

For an example of the sorts of notes in Schumann that particularly defy this notion of “definitive,” perhaps:


It is a waltz, (a waltz in fragments) that much is relatively certain (this notion of waltz is somehow extramusical, right? it brings in a whole cultural world, codes of nostalgia, loss, experience)… but which notes to “go to,” which to emphasize, and how? Nothing is more idiotic than the comment in rehearsal, the agreement to “go to” a particular note… how will we go there? Rhythmically (by rushing, ritarding)? Dynamically (by crescendo, diminuendo)? Texturally? Emotionally? The possibilities are infinite, and each has a satisfying opposite. Everything is going or coming, to say “let’s go here” says (almost) nothing.

For you music readers, including X, if you do not feel a shiver of pleasure, a moment of “perfect Schumann” at the end of this last example, when the second voice enters, at the “wrong time” (in the middle of the established grouping), and deliberately in order to form a dissonance with the upper voice… (C against B) … if you don’t “get that moment,” if you aren’t waiting to see in what beautiful fashion the wrong-note B will resolve, you are voted off the Schumann island. (You non-music readers, just listen to the last track, shouldn’t be too hard to follow). This dissonance, which is just the edge of longing to which the preceding fragments allude, becomes generative, becomes an obsession; the waltz, though sad and gentle, is suddenly full of these dissonances which need to be resolved, which create more, the sense of clash, every note’s (by turns) inability to live with itself:


… a stream of consciousness leading from that first entrance of the “second voice,” from that generative dissonance, following the idea of the dissonance to whatever consequences … and another stream, gradually attempting to “fill in” the fragmented waltz, to swing gradually from halting pairs of quarter notes into a more typical, dotted waltz rhythm (see example above, second measure, A G F E): this second stream, an urge to find melodic/rhythmic continuity. Two streams, and many others which we haven’t mentioned, and how can you possibly feel them all while playing? Not to mention, in public? All these are in the score, simultaneous, clamoring: a bewildering cacophony of thought. The score is impossibly demanding.

The streams seem to lead gradually downward, smoothing out their dissonances, to this “answer”:


Yes, it is the same sixth leap which began the waltz, G up to E, but now instead of fragments and half-steps and half-phrases, there is just a long, unbroken, lilting descent… I adore this final phrase, partly because I feel it is not enough, it does not really, truly resolve; but it is heartbreaking for me: the essence of tenderness, too late. I have words for this final phrase; I have written them in my score; but I will never tell anyone; anyway, they are nonsense words, meaningful only for me, German words with no grammar whatsoever. (Tribal meanings?) Can I say that this beautiful phrase “resolves” the previous longing and dissonances? Yes and no, I’m not sure that I totally “understand” the relation of the final phrase to the rest… it is a meager connection, sustained by slight threads of thought, threads that can never be definitive.

It is totally infuriating to imagine a music theorist at this point trying to describe the form of this last piece. (Is it ternary? binary? modified binary? Arrggghhh!) With a piece like this, Schumann seems to satirize even the idea of musical form, the notion of completeness, and its relevance. And it was infuriating to hear all these beautiful, sensitive versions which did not capture even an iota of my tremendous emotional attachment to this last waltz… they were all incomplete somehow. I can’t help thinking of my own hypothetical version. Someday, when I return to this piece, my version … will hopefully be even more incomplete, even less definitive.

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  1. ramashka
    Posted July 8, 2005 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    well look who’s back! It’s OK, we will forgive your blog-laziness this one time.
    Some interesting thoughts on the score — “a set of notes will inevitably suggest nuances that cannot be simultaneously realized–which are antithetical to each other.” That is so true. Hey, it must be nice to be able to verbalize your thoughts like that.
    I think, for now, I’m just going to have to quote you.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted July 8, 2005 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Do you enjoy or appreciate popular music in any capacity?

    Do you feel a responsibility to introduce music like Schumann’s to the vast majority of Americans to whom it’s (sadly) inaccessible and/or irrelevant?

    Do you care one way or the other?

  3. Anonymous
    Posted July 11, 2005 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    1) Belgian beer at a pub? For shame. I hope there’s no Irish in your background or your ancestors are turning in their graves and may be planning to teach you a lesson.

    2) You mispronounced your one word to convince people of Schumann’s greatness. I believe it should have come out: Fantasie.

  4. douglas
    Posted July 11, 2005 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m a great Schumann fan. And my fandom began with the Dbundler. The last waltz is just as you say, a strange mix of alles, and only possible in that place and somehow also in that piece only. The mystery is why..

    Schumann is great because he’s so imperfect- and plays with that very quality to make his greatest music. I have no sense that he is such a self conscious ‘great musician’ like most of the other “greats”. My gut sense- proved by nothing- is that maybe he may be a more of a truely whole human being than most other ‘greats” , and so what he lacks in ‘musical’ chops or something, is made up with that wonderful mysterious ‘other’ which is his humanity. who knows?

  5. Mwanji Ezana
    Posted July 13, 2005 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    “1) Belgian beer at a pub? For shame. I hope there’s no Irish in your background or your ancestors are turning in their graves and may be planning to teach you a lesson.”

    A man can’t live on Guinness alone. And, frankly, who would want to? A good variety of abbey beers is a must.

    Jeremy: great blog! I’ve read through the archives, the quality of your writing is really impressive. And a fine drinker, too.

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