Imagine if once you had bought that magnificent piece of art, you discovered it didn’t suit the carpet or the couch and it clashed with the drapes, so you asked the artist to reconsider their artistic vision. It’s unthinkable and yet, many composers have been asked to do just that.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. Can one compare live music to visual art? The composer gives their work of art over to the performer to interpret the dots on the page into sound and then the audience interprets the musician’s performance. Performers are, in effect, the middle men.
Visual art has no middle man. There is simply the art and the audience. On any given day, you may view the same painting differently and I believe that is the sign of a great work of art. On any given day, a performer will play a piece of music differently and the great pieces of music lend themselves to that too.
The responsibility of the musician to the music (and I say music, not composer, purposefully) is a heavy one, but not as heavy as the responsibility of the musician to the audience. The only way someone can get in the way of you totally absorbing a piece of visual art is to quite literally get in the way. Musicians are quite capable of getting in the way of an audience absorbing a piece of music.
It goes without saying that it is much easier being a middle man to a living composer. In working with Stuart Greenbaum on his latest string quartet, it highlights Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn’s absence from the rehearsal room.
I wonder if musicians playing Stuart’s sixth quartet in the future will look at our markings on the page and wonder what on earth they all mean. One benefit is the age of recording; future generations will be able to hear our premieres with great ease. But will that help?
One famous story I love is of the recording of the sonata for cello and piano by Shostakovich. Dimitry Shostakovich himself and the great Mstislav Rostropovich recorded it together and, like many cellists, I used it as a benchmark recording when learning the piece. I later learned through memoirs by Rostropovich that he considered the tempo of the last movement to be too fast. He remembered that it was a nice day and Shostakovich was going to visit friends in the country. He wanted to be finished so he could get outside into the sunshine.