Interpretations of Mozart

by dlwownssla

Let’s say today I decided to write the following sentence: The curtain is blue.

What did I mean by this sentence? Some of you may assume that the color of the curtain represents my emotion of the day. The imaginative few of you may soulfully comment that the almost tangible color and waviness of the curtain represent the ocean – a symbol of life and freedom – all the while the role of the curtain to hide or cover up what’s on the other side suggests the unknowns, surprises, and adventures concealed within the ocean, and that these qualities all together somehow describe the rich college life we live here at Penn. Perhaps most of you would respond, with a puzzled or even condescending look on your face, that I simply meant: the curtain is blue.

We, as human beings, live through communication. The society as a whole is a ground for and functions through communication – that is, an expression followed by an understanding of that expression. This hasn’t changed since the old days of the Gregorian chant.

Today, I want to focus on the latter half of the equation – the “understanding” part. Or perhaps more appropriately within the context of this post, the “interpretation” part.

Now, you might wonder why I brought up the blue curtain. Before I explain, let me ask you another question. “The curtain is blue.” What does this sentence mean to you? At first glance, this question may not seem so different from my previous one. But stop reading and consider the question for a few seconds. Thought about it for a few seconds? Then, you may proceed.

My second question in fact highlights the “interpretation” component of communication, as opposed to my first one which focuses on the “expression” component of it. In other words, the question emphasizes more on the information you receive than on the information I deliver. So, what DID I mean by the sentence? The answer is at the end of this post.

In fact, I’ve been reading many of the previous posts on this blog, some of which dealt with a certain interpretation of a musical piece written or arranged by someone who represents a certain musical era. In class, there were several times when we compared among several interpretations of a same musical piece. This made me wonder whether a musician or a group of musicians must interpret a given musical piece in the way that the one who gave birth to the very piece intended for it. We often listen to a classical piece and praise the musician for playing or singing it the way it is supposed to be played or sung. At other times, we find ourselves deriding one for “ru-ining the work of” Perot-in, Josqu-in, Handel-in, or other -in’s.

Here is a prime example: Lang Lang. Though accepted as technically distinguished, the pianist is more than often criticized by many as a showman who does not respect the intent of the composer and understand the true meaning of the piece he interprets, focusing more on showing off and manipulating the listeners with his exaggerated facial expressions. Though this claim may not be entirely absurd, I personally would like to defend Lang Lang in that one should not impose a limit on the way a musician interprets a piece. Though the composer may have actually intended a piece to sound a certain way, what matters more is the interpreter’s “choice” on how that piece comes to life – just as in communication, understanding the information is more important than the information itself. After all, music is communication. In this regard, though I may not personally enjoy a certain interpretation among thousands of others, I respect every one of them, as I believe any musical piece is open to interpretation – no pun intended.

With this in mind, I’d like to present to you not just one, but four different interpretations of the 3rd movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, known to many as the “Turkish March.” (As one who enjoys playing the piano, I exceptionally value this movement as one of the first pieces I learnt to play; of course, back then, I interpreted the piece in thousands of ways, though more than half of that would not have been so pleasant to your ears.) Notice how my belief in “open to interpretation” applies to any musical piece, not just Mozart’s. Then notice how little the title of this post really matters. Unfortunately, as much as I love to use Lang Lang in comparisons (as his interpretations are more than often so different from others’), Lang Lang will have to wait for another time, since I couldn’t find his interpretation of this movement.

The first one is by Massimiliano Ferrati:

I am familiar with this style of interpretation, as it clearly shows the pianist immersed into the music. Parts of this interpretation is expressed more strongly than others, and the pianist explicitly distinguishes the mood within a certain melody from the mood within another – not to mention his occasional jumps from his seat. Though you may beg to differ, I would claim that this is the kind of interpretation that we as listeners would normally “expect.” Not to be confused with “respect.”

The next one is by Lars Roos:

My first impression of this interpretation was that it sounds more controlled and less expressive. Also, the variation the pianist gives in the tempo throughout the piece characterizes this interpretation.

The third one is by Glenn Gould, famous for his distinct style of interpretation and preference of recording over stage performance:

This interpretation deviates significantly from our expectations, as do many of Gould’s interpretations of other musical pieces. Noticeable qualities of this interpretation include the clear distinction between one note and another and high emphasis on rhythm.

The last one is by Yuja Wang, another pianist (one of my favorites) known for her virtuosity:

As for this interpretation, I’ll simply suggest… watch it. It’s worth it.

Which one do I like the most? I would suppose that you wouldn’t care much about my own preferences. Which one would Mozart like the most? I would argue that you shouldn’t care much about that either. Or perhaps you can, but my main point is that you shouldn’t obsess about it.

Music is made to be played or sung. Then wouldn’t it make sense to give the musicians the freedom to play or sing it the way THEY understood it? If I wanted you to take home with you one concept today, that is: Music is open to interpretation.

So, back to the blue curtain. Does it really matter?