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Musical Perspectives.

So there was a woman in her 70s who was battling cancer and was releasing all these classical piano CDs that everyone thought were just beautiful. And now it has been revealed that they were in fact forgeries of relatively unknown young piano players. It raises questions about how we interperet music:

Yet the Joyce Hatto episode is a stern reminder of the importance of framing and background in criticism. Music isn't just about sound; it is about achievement in a larger human sense. If you think an interpretation is by a 74-year-old pianist at the end of her life, it won't sound quite the same to you as if you think it's by a 24-year-old piano-competition winner who is just starting out. Beyond all the pretty notes, we want creative engagement and communication from music, we want music to be a bridge to another personality. Otherwise, we might as well feed Chopin scores into a computer.

This makes instrumental criticism a tricky business. I'm personally convinced that there is an authentic, objective maturity that I can hear in the later recordings of Rubinstein. This special quality of his is actually in the music, and is not just subjectively derived from seeing the wrinkles in the old man's face. But the Joyce Hatto episode shows that our expectations, our knowledge of a back story, can subtly, or perhaps even crudely, affect our aesthetic response.

I've always argued that an artist's intention and biography is very important to the understanding/enjoyment of a piece of art. I've had lots of disagreements with friends and teachers on this subject. If i listened to those piano recordings and thought that i was listening to the expressions of an old woman fighting cancer, and enjoyed it in that context, now that i find out that they were forgeries, does that mean that the music is no longer good? I would argue yes. Or at the very least i would need to re-evaluate it and determine if it was good for different reasons. Certainly it would no longer be valid to listen to the music and still enjoy it as a portrayal of old age and disease. Some have argued that art can mean whatever you want it to mean, that whatever emotions it evokes in you are valid regardless of the artists intention or the actual meaning of the piece. I say if it's a poem about a boat, it's about a boat.

It's an especially tricky thing when we are talking about "covers" (to use rock terminology) of classical music. You have the original composers intention, and then you have the performer's emoting through the pre-arranged music. I still think the same basic idea is true, however.

By fnord12 | March 1, 2007, 6:05 PM | Music