Several Composers in Search of an Identity

Luigi Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, running in London’s West End at present, is a classic of modern theatre. Aside from turning every dramatic convention on its head, it questions the very nature of identity and existence in a manner both humorous and serious. It is a highly enjoyable play in a production extravagantly praised by critics, and it also prompts several interesting considerations in relation to classical music.

Briefly recounted, the plot relates how a director rehearsing a play with a group of actors is interrupted by six intruders who introduce themselves as abandoned characters from a novel. They are in search of someone who can tell their story and thereby release them from their state of paralysis. The director eventually agrees, and begins to put together a play, using the actors to represent the six characters. Matters become complicated and both actors and the director find themselves increasingly entangled in different layers of reality until they can no longer decide where they themselves belong.

In the second act, there is an interesting exchange between the director and one of the characters, the father, which concerns music in a very direct way. The director is persuading the father to let actors take on the roles of the six characters, which the father rejects, saying that the characters should represent themselves, as they clearly know themselves better than anyone else could. The director retorts that it is not a matter just of knowing the character, but of putting it across, a skill which actors are trained to have. For this purpose, he claims, certain exaggerations, distortions or changes need to be made in the representation of the characters, to highlight certain features or clarify the essence of the personality. The characters themselves, he adds, would be too involved in their own story to be able to step back from it and act it out convincingly. It is not enough to know the truth – it has to sound like the truth to the audience.

This exchange could be adopted almost literally into the debate concerning the role of the musician in performing a piece of music. On the one hand are the adherents of a literal, naturalistic performance, minimizing the intervention of the musician, and on the other those who demand a personal interpretation, possibly to the degree of distorting or even changing clear instructions of the composer. Indeed, the play suggests an extreme scenario: if Brahms were available to perform one of his piano sonatas, should we prefer his playing or that of someone else, a trained concert pianist?

Perhaps it seems a pointless question; after all, if one could hear Brahms himself, it must be better, as one would have it straight from the horse’s mouth – the truth of the piece, exactly as the composer intended. But the play makes a valid point in reminding us that any work of art has (at least) three vital constituents: the artist, the medium and the audience. In music we can posit the musician as the medium. Without any one of these three elements, there is no work of art. Without Brahms there is no C Minor Symphony. Without a pianist there are no Paganini Variations. And without anyone to hear it, there is no German Requiem. Therefore, the truth of any piece of music lies in a combination of these three constituents, not in one of them alone. The truth of the piece is the truth as understood by the performer from the composer’s instructions and communicated to the audience. To automatically assume that Brahms’ playing of his music would invalidate any other interpretation would place the truth of the music in the composer alone, ignoring the vital role of the musician and the audience in creating a piece of music.

Mark Lawson posed a similar question in a recent edition of Front Row on BBC Radio 4 – why are we fascinated by hearing poets read their own poetry? Is it better to hear Ted Hughes read his own poetry or John Gielgud? Does the creating of something give one an advantage in interpreting it? It is a question that has become very real since the rise of recording technology: since there are recordings of Stravinsky and Rachmaninov performing their own music, what is the relevance of anyone else doing so, except to satisfy the need for live performances, and perhaps to produce recordings of better sound quality. But are all these performances then doomed to inferiority? Does the fact that the composer knows best what he intended in the process of composition also mean that he knows best how the work should be performed? Few would argue that Stravinsky’s recordings of his works are the best available, and even the many admirers of Rachmaninov the pianist would rarely prefer his recordings of his music to the exclusion of all others. By all accounts the same was true in the composer’s own times, and one only need remember how Liszt’s performances of Chopin’s Etudes were praised by their contemporaries to see that the acts of interpreting and performing are wholly separate to that of creating. So perhaps the theatre director in Pirandello’s play was right in preferring actors to the real characters when it came to acting out their story.

Another interesting facet of the play’s production is the liberal treatment of the text. Whilst it is true that Pirandello made several versions of the play, it is certainly true that this performance contains much in addition to anything Pirandello ever wrote. It is not just a case of updating the setting, but of wholesale resetting, the addition of completely new material, i.e. the use of the play as an inspiration for a larger canvas that contains, but is not restricted to, the original material. Harold Pinter used a similar effect in his script to the film of John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, but not nearly as far-reaching as here. As well as a lengthy new introduction, the majority of the Pirandello production after the interval is added material, mostly illustrating and underlining the message of the play as understood by the production. Whether or not the added material is successful or desirable is a matter of opinion, but the practice of treating plays in a liberal fashion is far from unusual. Whether it is a translation that is so loose as to be almost a rewrite, a setting that has nothing to do with explicit instructions of the author, cuts that change the focus of the play, or, as in this case, added material – theatre audiences see it all on a regular basis, without the principle ever being called into question. Plays in translation are affected more than English language plays, but even Shakespeare is often cut considerably, as well as updated etc.

What is it that makes all this acceptable in theatre but not in music? Why are we happy to accept the recomposing of Pirandello but not of Puccini? True, there is Jacques Loussier, there are the Swingle Singers, Hooked on Classics and many other “visions” of classical music, but these are not regarded as being classical music themselves, merely Jazz or Pop finding inspiration in classical compositions, which is quite a different matter. The audience at the Royal Festival Hall would most probably object if the Pathétique Symphony were played on different instruments with an added introduction and a lengthy coda by the conductor. Also, the prospect of an 1812 Overture with a mock Cruise Missile seems doubtful, even if there were a valid point to be made. Yet the instructions on a musical score are quite comparable to those in a play script, sometimes very specific, sometimes loose, and the common aim of the two forms is presumably similar, if difficult to pin down.

This is all the more remarkable given the historical precedent for such interventions. Whether it is Bach’s rewritings of Vivaldi, Mozart’s reorchestrations of Handel or Liszt’s creative visions of almost anything else, music of the past has always been treated with freedom and creativity through the mind and imagination of the present, however varied that may be. The Italian composer Luciano Berio was one of the few who kept this tradition alive in the post war period by creating fascinating blends of old and new, particularly in his “Rendering”, a beautiful and fascinating completion of Schubert’s last symphonic fragment. It is not that it would be better if we all went and gave Mozart’s Requiem a creative mauling, but perhaps both art forms can learn from each other – theatre could show more respect to the instructions of the author and musicians could feel less bound by the text and by history.

Opera occupies an interesting middle ground here. Standing as it does halfway between theatre and music it shares the attitudes of both art forms in this respect. Whilst opera productions only rarely meddle with the musical side, it is commonplace to witness productions that update the dramatic side of the work. A recent production of Lehár’s “Merry Widow” in Essen added a whole subplot about a group of gypsies being persecuted by the Nazis, all in deadly earnest – in an opera set in Paris sometime in the nineteenth century. The reviews were ecstatic, praising the production for finding “hidden meanings” in the text. Musical directors have for a while now been going in the opposite direction, toward a recreation of the original performance. In fact, perversely, it is not uncommon for an opera production to pride itself on the original instruments of the orchestra and the counter tenor on stage whilst updating the story to modern Manhattan with a few motorbikes thrown in. Surely there is something schizophrenic about this. Wagner was as precise and specific in his stage directions as in his musical notation, yet when will we ever again see his staging realized? How many members of an average audience are aware of the detailed stage settings given for the Ring cycle and the lengthy tomes written by Wagner explaining why they are necessary? Why is it that it would be so unthinkable to have Brünnhilde in a horned helmet but increasingly desirable to hear the sound of an original French horn from Wagner’s day? Presumably it is because the music is dealt with by a musical director fully immersed in all the newest fashions in historical performance whist the stage director has learnt his craft from the conceptual productions of Central Europe.

It is perhaps the perceived threat to the identity of the piece of music that hinders us from experimenting with it. If someone were to add a coda to the Pathétique Symphony, it would be perceived as no longer being the Pathétique. This is of course understandable, but it rests on the misapprehension that there is such a thing as the Pathétique independently from us. The idea that the identity of a work lies in the score, possibly complemented by a scientifically endorsed glossary, belies the two other components of a work of art, the musician and the audience. If they both accept something as the Pathétique, the Pathétique it is, to some degree at least. Should that seem extreme or far fetched to anyone, a visit to the current production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, apparently by Pirandello, is recommended. The message from all this is that any dogmatic approach to art is pure fashion. There is nothing certain about art or how it should be approached, and anything that gives any other impression is merely a confidence trick. If it was agreed earlier that audiences would take a dim view of updated classical music, then that is merely because they do not expect it. The same audience will be perfectly content to see “Romeo and Juliet” set in the slums of New York, or “Rheingold” set in an Ikea-furnished apartment. Needless to say, it does not mean that everyone need like what they expect, as one can witness from audience comments after particularly extreme adaptations, such as Calixto Bieito's Don Giovanni at ENO. That is why it is always advisable to encourage and support a wide range of attitudes rather than impose new dogmas, in order that the freedom to experiment does not mean we all have to suffer it, but can find something to match our personal tastes.

© Béla Hartmann



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