Consider the Interpreters
By Sigmund Spaeth
Monday, December 09, 2013 - 10:00 AM
From the November, 1942 WQXR Program Guide.
We take pleasure in presenting another article from the pen of America's outstanding popularizer of good music, Dr. Sigmund Spaeth. He last appeared in these columns with a strong plea for the American composer. This time he takes up the cause of the interpreting artist, whose work is of such importance in the fields of radio and records alike. Dr. Spaeth recently began a new series of programs over Station WQXR, sponsored by the Columbia Recording Corporation. These broadcasts are heard every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening from 7:30 to 8 o'clock under the title of "Dr. Sigmund Spaeth and His Record Library." The detailed programs for November will be found in this issue.
The interpreters of great music are not like lilies of the field. They toil ceaselessly in the service of their art, and there is real labor involved in the spinning of their seemingly magic tonal web. Consider them frankly and sincerely in relation to the composers whose creative genius they make intelligible, as well as the public whose responsive appreciation is needed to complete the musical triangle.
It may seem strange and perhaps unnecessary to draw attention to the importance of the interpreter, for we Americans have often been accused of glorifying the performers of music, the singers, the instrumental soloists and orchestra conductors, at the expense of the music itself. We have been called prima donna worshipers, and there still is a widespread suspicion that "name value" and clever publicity mean more to American listeners than the greatest of creative inspirations.
Perhaps there was a time when "temperament" and "personality" were passwords in the camps of concert and opera. Eccentricities of behavior and appearance were doubtless given some significance in the past, and "glamour" still persists in the vocabulary of the press agent. But today, the educated American music-lover demands something more than the headlines of well-built reputations. He insists on musical proof of the abilities of famous artists and he makes up his own mind as to how far their reputations are deserved.
Phonograph records and radio broadcasts have in recent years given the interpreter of music an importance almost equal to that of the composer himself. Granting that the music itself would not exist except through the interpreter. If the colors of the sunset achieve reality only when there are human eyes to enjoy them, then certainly the tones of music, represented by the notes written or printed on paper, become significant only when they have been made audible to human ears.
There may be some music which is so obvious in its appeal, so completely "self-playing," that the interpretation makes little or no difference. Conversely, there are interpretive artists whose skill is such that even the most commonplace sequence of tones will acquire beauty in their hands. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.
Modern standards of musical taste demand of the virtuoso and the prima donna not only that their material be worth hearing, but that its performance shall emphasize and perhaps enhance the value of the composition that is interpreted. The up-to-date listener has too many opportunities for comparison to be satisfied with merely adequate interpretations of great music. He has found out for himself that there is a real reason for the solid fame of recognized conductors, pianists, violinists, cellists and singers, as well as the major symphony orchestras and various other instrumental and vocal ensembles of reputation.
The manufacturers of phonograph records and the managers of artists are well aware of this. When they deal with the great names of music, they know that they are offering something more than a well-advertised product. They are actually submitting to connoisseurs a better or at least a more interesting and individual performance than is to be found in the average, routine interpretation.
An orchestra like the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society represents far more than the prestige of a century of existence. There is an actual quality of tone and a technical mastery clearly apprehended even by listeners who might be totally unaware of the orchestra's reputation. The musicianship of a Bruno Walter or a Fritz Reiner asserts itself even when such a conductor is invisible, and the excitement of a performance under the baton of a Beecham, a Mitropoulos or a Rodzinski is imparted to the microphone as unerringly as it would be to the actual audience in a concert hall.
Consider therefore the interpreter of music and give him his due, for without his labors the vineyards of composition would be barren indeed. Consider not only the enormous talent but the sheer drudgery that goes into the preparation and performance of a single work, particularly in the orchestral field. Consider the endless detail of rehearsal and the myriad mechanical problems of recording and broadcasting.
When you hear the finest records broadcast over station WQXR, you are not only getting the ideal performance by each interpreter, perfected in the recording studio before it is released to the public; you are given what is even more important--the chance to compare one interpretation with another, to differentiate between legitimate individuality and mere eccentricity, and to discover for yourself the things that are enduring and inviolable in the creation and presentation of great music.