On interpreting music and religion

Interpreting a Beethoven sonata well is not an easy task. In reading Alfred Brendel’s essays on the topic in Music, Sense and Nonsense, I learned something about the process which struck me: it is the same exacting process as interpreting a religious text — one that requires access to the earliest manuscripts, an understanding of the expressive abilities of the notations of that time, an imaginative ability to extract the author’s intentions in order to correct mistakes and fill in blanks, and the intelligence to translate the work into something a contemporary audience will acknowledge is beautiful and eternal. Beethoven himself could write down the wrong note, forget to rework a hand in light of changes in the other; his editors could introduce mistakes or add their own misguided remarks; a semiquaver or sforzando might long have been interpreted too narrowly or against the grain; and a long-standing, bland classical performance might be due to reading the mere absence of accentuation as a prescription. Up to this point, the musician of the twentieth century is but following in the footsteps of the earlier century’s exegetical theologians. Where Brendel’s art exceeds today’s theologies is in his humble recognition that the value of an interpretation lies in how deeply it respects the original text, though only in order to extract from it those eternal truths and beauties which today will compel the audience’s assent.

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