Interpretation (music)

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Interpretation or (musical) lecture , in its practical musical meaning, initially refers to the execution of a composition by one or more musicians in public performance or as a sound recording.

There is also the musicological significance as an explanatory, interpretative commentary on a composition that goes beyond the analysis of the work .

Interpretation as a performance of music

"The deified interpreter": Franz Liszt in a caricature from 1842

In music, interpretation is primarily understood as the performance of a composition fixed in musical notation by the interpreter (s) (singers, instrumentalists). This is a process that is specific to so-called classical music and is not known in any other musical culture (non-European music, pop music , jazz , folklore , etc.). The reason is that in other musical cultures no form of presentation of music is sought that corresponds to the accuracy of the musical notation. As a result, there is always a spontaneous part in a musical performance in addition to the traditional part, which is added at the moment of the performance (see improvisation ), or which is a part prepared by the performing musician himself ( Arrangement ). In this respect, “ cover versions ” also differ from “interpretations”.

The classical performer, on the other hand, usually gives the most precise specifications in terms of pitch and duration in a musical performance and has practically no room for his own additions. The interpretation receives a personal profile through decisions that are made at the points where the notation does not provide precise information on the parameters intensity, duration and timbre.

Primarily concern this

  • Playing tempo (the most precise tempo indications using the metronome turned out to be not assertive enough to make this decision for the interpreter),
  • fine deviations from the basic tempo of a piece in its performance ( rubato , agogic ),
  • Dynamics (no precise volume information, a lot of room for interpretation),
  • Characterization of the rhythm through minimal deviations from the mathematically exact execution,
  • Design of the respective timbre as well
  • Articulation .

Taken together, there is a creative leeway that the exact specifications in the musical text do not allow you to expect and the extraordinary differences in interpretations of a work allow.

A successful interpretation is characterized by the fact that it unfolds the full potential of sound, expression and impact of the interpreted work. The work of the interpreter is comparable to that of the actor, although the guidelines set out in the musical text are even tighter.

The problem of faithfulness to the work

The head motif of the 1st movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony : The fast tempo “allegro con brio” is prescribed from the start.
The continuation of the head motif: According to the musical text, the eighth notes are just as fast here as in the head motif itself. Occasionally, however, they are played more slowly in the head motif.

The precision with which music can be expressed in a score, and on the other hand the limits of this precision, lead to the problem of fidelity to the work . This means the reproduction of the musical text as unadulterated as possible, taking into account the tradition in which the respective piece belongs in terms of style ( performance practice ). An effective interpretation can still be regarded as unsuccessful if the freedoms the interpreter takes - according to the listener's understanding - remove him “too far” from the information in the musical text. Serious interventions in the material itself, which is fixed in notes, occur very rarely and are no longer regarded as an interpretation, but as an " arrangement ". Often, on the other hand, there are tempo changes that are not prescribed and go beyond the rubato , as well as freedom with regard to the rules for dynamics and articulation .

How difficult it is to determine the limits of the faithfulness to the work is shown by an example of differences in interpretation at the beginning of the first movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony : “allegro con brio”, ie a fast tempo, is prescribed. No tempo change is given anywhere, but the long notes contain fermatas , so they should be held for as long as the interpreter deems it right. According to the notes, the three eighths should be played just as fast at the beginning as the eighth notes in the course of the entire movement, which here represent the shortest (“fastest”) note value.

In Georg Solti's performance , the opening eighth is actually played at the same tempo as the eighth throughout the movement, so it is an exact implementation of the score. Wilhelm Furtwängler, on the other hand, takes the first three eighth notes much more slowly than he lets the eighth notes play in the course of the movement, although the score does not contain any corresponding reference. He also keeps the fermatas extremely long and intense, and the second fermata is much longer than the first. According to his interpretation, one could assume that the instruction “maestoso” appears above the first five bars and that the “Allegro con brio” appears as a prescribed tempo change only above the sixth bar.

At first glance, Solti's interpretation is faithful to the work , Furtwängler's not. With Furtwängler, the first three notes are over so quickly when the final tempo is recorded immediately that the listener, surprised by it, may not perceive the motif correctly. If one assumes that it ultimately depends on what the listener understands, then from this perspective Furtwängler's interpretation can also be regarded as true to the work. As far as the length of the fermatas is concerned, Furtwängler reads (“interprets”) the information differently than Solti. In the score, the second Fermata tone in the 5th measure ("d") is exactly the measure in front of it longer than the first ("es") in the 2nd measure. Solti understands the fourth measure to be played at the fast main tempo, so for the second fermata he only adds its length to the length of the fermata. Furtwängler, on the other hand, reads the fermata as valid for bars 4 and 5, since the different notation of the same motif in bars 1/2 to bars 3 to 5 obviously makes no sense to him. So he plays the second fermata almost twice as long as the first.

Faithfulness to the work and performance practice

Equating faithfulness to text and faithfulness to the work becomes even more problematic the further one goes into the past and the more knowledge of the respective performance practice plays a role. Practical performance conventions existed at all times which either permitted only a certain selection of those possibilities which the musical text permits according to the definition of its characters, or tolerated or even required deviations from the written text. The composer of an era in which the performance practice required corresponding deviations, therefore assumed that the performers would follow these conventions. For today's interpreters, faithfulness to the work means that the musical text is interpreted taking into account these conventions (which are only incompletely known to us in early music). For example, the practice of performing a romantic piano piece requires a much stronger agogic than a Baroque work, and conversely, a Baroque adagio requires the use of decorations, even if these are not prescribed. How exactly is to be decorated poses a great challenge to the stylistic taste of an interpreter.

Ultimately, it is not possible to precisely determine the accuracy of the work if the musical text, the secondary sources and the performance tradition in principle only pass on the works to us incompletely. So what one should remain faithful to is not fully known. In addition, it is generally controversial whether there must be higher criteria for an interpreter than faithfulness to the work. Gottschewski, for example, advocates the thesis that there has to be a higher criterion for “making good music”, which may have to give way to loyalty to the work if the quality of the work leaves something to be desired in certain points. Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, for example, also followed the same view when performing Beethoven's symphonies, since they believed that Beethoven could not have composed everything as he would have wanted to compose under better conditions due to the imperfection of the instruments of his time. This view is, however, seen by supporters of historical performance practice either in detail (in that the imperfections against which Wagner and Mahler fought were only seen as a result of the change and increase in orchestral instruments after Beethoven) or even as a whole (namely the music of every epoch was perfect within the framework of their specific conditions).


With the increasing sophistication of the notation , musicians had already been performing precisely specified voices since the Renaissance . Otherwise it was not possible to organize larger casts. However, there was characteristic freedom with regard to the application and execution of decorations and the execution of the harpsichord part in figured bass .

The interpreter in today's sense is largely a nineteenth century invention. Until then, composers were usually also the interpreters of their own works (cf. WA Mozart ) or popular instrumentalists were also the composers of the works they performed (cf. N. Paganini ). The singers were an exception, but as purely performing artists they could only achieve extraordinary fame in the context of musical theater.

A turning point for instrumental music occurred when bourgeois concert culture replaced court music culture. Here, certain composers kept themselves increasingly in the repertoire of the concert programs, the execution of own compositions decreased accordingly. With interpreters such as Clara Schumann , Hans von Bülow and Joseph Joachim , pure instrumentalists and conductors established themselves as important musicians of their time, and with them interpretation as an independent artistic process. In the 20th century, with the predominance of non-contemporary music in the concert repertoire and the availability of interpretations in sound recordings ( radio , record ), the importance of the performers increased until they finally became the real bearers of musical life in "classical music" during the composers saw themselves increasingly pushed into specialized concert series or festivals (cf. Donaueschinger Musiktage ), in which the role of the interpreter was occasionally varied experimentally (cf. John Cage , Karlheinz Stockhausen , Earle Brown ). The attention that interpreters such as Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrach ( violin ), Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz ( piano ), Maria Callas and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ( vocals ) or conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein drew was from composers of the same generation no longer achieved.

In the following generations, such outstanding careers did not emerge, as the scope for development of younger interpreters was increasingly restricted: On the one hand, this is due to a certain stagnation in the repertoire - the works of contemporary composers did not establish themselves in the concert programs any more than the “Discovery "By lesser-known composers of earlier epochs (e.g. Muzio Clementi ) - on the other hand due to the unlimited availability of exemplary interpretations as sound recordings, which in turn have been raised to the rank of" masterpieces "(e.g. recordings by Artur Schnabel ( piano ) or Arturo Toscanini ( conductor )). The historical performance practice ( Harnoncourt , John Eliot Gardiner ), which set itself the task of reconstructing the stylistic and practical playing conditions belonging to a corresponding epoch in an interpretation, only provided a temporary new impetus.

Interpretation as a hermeneutical interpretation of music

The beginning of Beethoven's 5th Symphony in the analysis and in three interpretations : - The analysis shows : the basic rhythm and key are determined by the fermatas and by the lack of a reference to the key, e.g. B. could be given by an accompanying chord, hidden. - The purely musical interpretation : The initial motif should "break in" over the listener without any clues for rhythmic / harmonic orientation. - The interpretation in abstract terms : The initial motif symbolizes the onset of the unforeseen, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable. - The quasi-programmatic interpretation in (according to the legend!) Beethoven's own words : "So fate knocks on the gate."

Interpretation is largely of importance in musicology as an explanatory hermeneutic (" explanatory ") commentary on a work of " classical music " with regard to its expressive content, its effect and its "message". This contrasts with the analysis with regard to its structure and its historical context, which, however, always underlies the scientifically sound interpretation.

Such an interpretation names the content (the “idea”, the “vision”) of a work. This can be formulated on a purely musical level ( Eggebrecht : The scherzo of a string quartet by Haydn is a “game with metrical norms”), naming the “affects” in abstract terms ( Eggebrecht : the “will impulse” in the theme of a Beethoven sonata) up to and including to more or less concrete programmatic hints. However, since it is a question of a transfer from one medium (music) to another (language), the latter in particular is speculative or dependent on non-musical references. If, on the other hand, the music itself has information beyond the pure musical text by referring to a text whose setting it is ( song , opera , oratorio ), or which is based on the program ( program music ), then the interpretation always includes a representation of the Word-tone relationships . In pure instrumental music without any given extra-musical references ( absolute music ), programmatic hints can be used as an aid in order to come close to the expressive content of the interpreted piece of music on a comparative level.

The interpretation is reflected beyond musicology in accompanying texts to compositions in concert guides, concert programs or CD booklets.


The interpretation as a hermeneutic ("interpreting") process finds its roots in the doctrine of affect , in the theory of figures and in the imitation aesthetics of the Baroque. It is assumed that certain melodic turns, certain harmonic sequences or rhythmic motifs correspond to states of mind (affects). It is the task of music to “imitate” these states. For non-descriptive terms, the composer used a. U. also a symbol in tones, a "figure". The doctrine of affect, however, did not serve to “interpret” music, but rather as a theoretical basis for the composer.

In the classical period, this view came more and more out of use, because on the one hand "imitation" of non-musical facts was no longer seen as the goal of musical creation, and also the belief in the possibility of cataloging "affects" in musical formulas, as it were, decreased.

In the 19th century, with the interest in music from bygone eras, modern musicology developed, which no longer sees its task in the theoretical preparation of music, but more in its "understanding". Thus the doctrine of affect gained importance again as a key to understanding music up to the baroque and earlier classical periods. Otherwise there were two opposing views: On the one hand, music was understood as autonomous and ultimately not “interpretable”. Accordingly, very differentiated analysis methods developed, which, however, relate purely to musical issues ( Hugo Riemann ). On the other hand, there is the view that music definitely has “meaning” and “ideas”, even if it cannot be assigned to specific musical patterns as concretely as assumed in the theory of affect (based on Wilhelm Dilthey : Hermann Kretzschmar ). While this approach has always been a bit controversial, it has proven useful in instrumental or general music lessons.

See also


  • Jean-Pierre Armengaud, Damien Ehrhardt (eds.): Vers une musicologie de l'interprétation , Les Cahiers Arts & Sciences de l'Art , No. 3, Paris 2010
  • Joachim Ernst Berendt : The Jazz Book . Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2005
  • Alfred Brendel : About music . All essays and speeches. Munich 2005
  • Carl Dahlhaus : The idea of ​​absolute music . Kassel: Bärenreiter 1978
  • Carl Dahlhaus , Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht : What is music? Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel 1985
  • Andreas Dorschel , 'Rescue Interpretation', in Otto Kolleritsch (Ed.), Musical Production and Interpretation. On the historical irrevocability of an aesthetic constellation , Vienna - Graz: Universal Edition 2003 ( Studies on Valuation Research 43), pp. 199–211
  • Hermann Gottschewski : The interpretation as a work of art . Laaber: Laaber-Verlag 1996
  • Heinrich Neuhaus : The Art of Piano Playing . Bergisch Gladbach 1967
  • Egon Sarabèr: Method and Practice of Music Design . Clausthal-Zellerfeld 2011, ISBN 978-3-86948-171-5
  • Wieland Ziegenrücker: General music theory with questions and tasks for self-control. German Publishing House for Music, Leipzig 1977; Paperback edition: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, and Musikverlag B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1979, ISBN 3-442-33003-3 , pp. 157–168 ( on the musical lecture ).

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Mario Sicca : The long way to freedom. A musical self-portrait in the form of a course. In: Guitar & Laute 8, 1986, Issue 5, pp. 32-38.
  2. ^ Hermann Gottschewski : The interpretation as a work of art Laaber: Laaber-Verlag 1996, pp. 20-21, as well as that, "Interpretation as structure", in: Music as text. Volume 2: Free presentations ed. by Hermann Danuser and Tobias Plebuch, Kassel a. a .: Bärenreiter-Verlag 1998, pp. 154–159, here 154.
  3. ^ Carl Dahlhaus , Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht : What is music? Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel 1985, p. 148.
  4. ^ Carl Dahlhaus , Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht : What is music? Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel 1985, p. 143.