Reinterpreting Music

by asmallberg

The reading this week had a section on Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist from the mid-20th Century who is renowned for his interpretation and performance of Johan Sebastian Bach’s keyboard pieces. While Bach always remained popular to play among a certain audience, it was Gould’s use of the piano to imitate the harpsichord that made Gould famous.

Here is a clip of Gould playing Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. As a listener, I could feel Gould’s passion for Bach, and the Piano served as a sufficient alternative to the harpsichord. In fact, I must admit I preferred the sound of the piano to that of the harpsichord. This got me to thinking about how we as listeners view reinterpretations of famous works, or even more broadly, how we view any different interpretation of art. When a book is turned into a movie, and the film moves away from certain aspects of the book, it is not hard to find those who will criticize the film, even though it may just be trying for a different interpretation. The same can be said for a remake of an older movie. Film critics are quick to criticize a film if shifts away from the original aspects of the movie. In music, when musicians try and reexamine their sound or style, there certainly is backlash from their original audience (take Bob Dylan’s transition from folk music and use of the electric guitar). Likewise, playing Bach in anything other than his original instruments could be seen as sacrilege. However, where there are critics there are admirers. As a new listener to Bach and having no previous attachment to him, it was not hard for me to enjoy Gould’s version of Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 more than Bach’s. I perhaps identified more with the modern piano than the harpsichord. What makes peoples so attached to the original version of a piece of music that they cannot hear other interpretations? Likewise, is it possible to say one interpretation of a piece of music is better than the other? Objectively probably not but certainly subjectively one could.  Gould’s popularity shows that there indeed was a large audience that enjoyed his interpretation of Bach’s work. However, I seriously doubt Gould himself, who revered Bach, would say his versions of Bach’s work were an improvement. But then, what was is the purpose in the first place of reinterpreting a piece of music or art?