The Virtuoso Performer : a Composer’s Dilemma

The Virtuoso Performer : a Composer’s Dilemma

Notes for a lecture to be given at King’s College, London,in 1990
at the start of Postgraduate studies in music-performance

The muse’s invocation

Hesiod, in his invocation of the muses was the first to express clearly an awareness of the poet’s mission. At the beginning of Theogony, the muses appear to him and say “We know how to say many false things as though they were true, but we also know, when we so wish, how to reveal the truth.” [Gadamer’s interpretation of this was that whenever the muses have anything to give, they give both truth and falsehood. It is characteristic of the language of poetry that it speaks both truth and untruth, and points to the open realm of interpretation. The truth of poetry is not governed by the distinction between true and false as it was understood by the hostile philosophers who claimed that “poets tell many lies”. Thus an element of intention and interpretation has always belonged to the ambiguity of poetry. But, when the shared horizon of interpretation has collapsed, when there is no longer a shared language, when the remarkable fusion of classical myth and Christian religion still in force two hundred years ago has finally lost its self-evident status, then this breakdown will inevitably be reflected in the “language of art”.

Consequently, we see the element of interpretative reflection assume an even greater role. The common bond between poet and interpreter is becoming increasingly obvious today. In the last analysis, this stems from the fact that we live in a time which, in spite of tireless efforts to discover the definitive word of interpretation, is marked by the renunciation of certainty expressed in the second version of Holderlin’s poem “Mnemosyne” (cl800): “We are a sign without interpretation.” [Gadamer]


One aspect of the composition of virtuoso music might well be the “implicit” permission to deviate from a score, where this permission is not necessarily obtainable.

Today, I am assuming that in your first degree you at least considered such things as

  1. i) Boethius and proportion in medieval music,
  2. ii) Kant and the genius who writes art-works (and then Beethoven’s seeing himself within Kant’s definitions of genius),

iii) The schooling of most educated men before the early nineteenth century in such disciplines as logic and rhetoric (hence, perhaps, the nature of the various first movement forms),

  1. iv) Batteaux and Dubos’ ideas relating to music and nature – their insistence in the prior claim of text and imitation over any musical considerations, leading to their almost casual dismissal of solo instrumental music,
  2. v) The bourgeois audiences of art-music were, to a large degree, products of the post-baroque eras, and until recently considered themselves better educated than the composers and performers,
  3. vi) Although composers frequently set texts which were ‘hot off the press’, they actually paid very little attention to contemporary ideas which came from those philosophers who were proposing to their audiences that a particular text/music relationship should or should not be maintained.

In other words, that which you bore in your first degree was from an historical position; today, I am suggesting that while philosophy and even general aesthetics might at various times have accounted for how a work of art might have been received (by aesthetically-trained or at least up-to-date critics, perhaps even some audiences), what is of importance to the performer – both then and now – is related more to how those performers interpret the composition, assuming that they are not going to perform a work which they do not understand and/or are unable to manage technically. I also assume that the performer knows how to perform – in salon or on stage. Then, having pre-determined any interpretation, should the same attribute legitimately be even considered for the composition or performance of virtuoso works?


In a serial work should one perform the analysis? In a piece written within the spirit of romanticism should one perform the programme? Of course, at a basic sense, the performer must apply decoding, where the discovery of certain conventions, rules or codes determine the symbolic meaning of the work. [But Roger Scruton accepts the implicit Frege-ian premise re. meaning:understanding] A written score always contains hidden elements that defy definition, because verbal dialectic is powerless to define musical dialectic in its totality. The realization of these elements is thus a matter of experience and intuition of the talent of the person who is called upon to present the music.[see Stravinsky]

Composition and decoding

There has long been a tension between the practice of the composer and that of the performer. From the composer’s point of view, performance appears arbitrary and capricious, if not actually superfluous. This tension becomes all the greater when interpretation is attempted in the name and spirit of science (such as set theory); [when the composer is asked about his work (i.e. SPNM concerts) he is quite likely to quote] Ernst Junger: “anyone who offers a commentary on his own work demeans himself.” [In some ways, this peregrination now expected of the composer is paralleled by the poet and author who is expected to travel around, reading excerpts of their latest publication]. What, then, is interpretation? It is certainly not the same as conceptual explanation; it is much more like understanding or explicating something. And yet there is more to interpretation than this. Originally it implied pointing in a particular direction (not to some final endpoint). We do not have to interpret an unambiguous order which simply requires obedience [remember that the performer is one who obeys or carries out an order].

We have only to interpret something when its meaning is not clearly laid down or when it is ambiguous [Gadamer]. To know if we have interpreted “correctly” we ask not the composer (even if present) but the critic. The ideal of a critic that has emerged… is of a man possessed not of a certain skill but of a certain language… a ‘metalanguage’ which is designed purely for the interpretation, and not for the composing, of primary texts… [it] is able not so much to discover meanings in texts as to impose meaning upon them, by rewriting them in a language that traps and encapsulates their ordinary significance [Scruton]. [Opposition to this idea comes in three ways: (i) it is not addressed to the reader & therefore to the musical interpreter; (ii) c.f Wittgenstein’s “seeing as”; (iii) the case of the critic v. the creator.]

The critic is a reader with taste or judgement, where this means a certain kind of responsiveness to a literature… [which] can be articulated in such a way as to persuade others to share in it. [BUT] The critic expresses the experience of that literature in terms which relate it to a literary culture… what is important is to discover the meanings that emerge when works of the literature are experienced in relation to each other… The importance of the idea of tradition is that it denotes – ideally at least – the class of relevant comparisons [Scruton].

If the capacities of the critic are publicly available, so that the reader too can share in them, then the critic’s reflections on his own response will also be addressed to the reader, [i.e. Guyer’s impersonally personal thesis]. Tertiary qualities, unlike secondary qualities, might not be immediately perceivable to someone who lacks the requisite aesthetic understanding… [education ‘enables’ performance of the musical device]… Hence criticism may be justified, as the education of response [Scruton].

Although a critical interpretation is something that is added to a work of art, it is added in the way that props, casting and direction are added to a play: in order to catch a ‘spirit’ which the work already conveys. The good production becomes part of the play, in the way that the illuminating criticism becomes part of what is read… A production can be consistent or inconsistent with the work, and this implies that there is something in the work – the meaning – with which it can enter into conflict. It seems absurd that Rhine-maidens should be seen swimming in the hydro-electric dam [because they] have to be closer to nature than Alberich [Scruton].

An account of musical semantics must also be an account of musical competence: but without a theory of understanding, it is quite uncertain what musical competence amounts to. Maybe it has nothing whatsoever to do with the semantic analyses that have been proposed for it; maybe the relation between them is no closer than the relation between the ability to ride a horse, and the semantic interpretation of piebald markings, [i.e. aim to invest “the nature of musical understanding (and its relation to musical experience) with musical analysis, and with aesthetic interest.” {Scruton}] Experience is primarily “an experience of negation” [Gadamer], a discovery that one’s beliefs are inadequate to the subject-matter at issue and hence that one must modify one’s point of view [Warnke]. Ideally, the interpretation of a critic or a performer should reflect in its structure what they find pleasurable or exciting or interesting in the work, by foregrounding certain elements in that work [R.A.Sharpe].

A more complicated case will occur where the overall structure of the work dictates a climax which most of us find less impressive than some of the detail; the fault may lie with the work or with ourselves.

Critical hermeneutics seeks out the causes of distorted understanding and communication which operate underneath seemingly normal interaction. For Emilio Betti, intolerance and selfishness represented the main barriers to understanding, so that an exhortation to avoid these sins was all that was necessary and possible. Even in his ‘critical-objective’ approach we miss an acceptance of the possibility of distorted meaning that can only be recognised and dissolved by assuming a standpoint outside this sphere of the creation and distribution of meaning (i.e. by leaving the ground that binds together all participants in understanding processes) [Bleicher].

Betti notes four ‘theoretical moments’ within the process of interpretation which each represent different forms of receptivity and intellectual approach and which alternate in the course of this process:

  1. a) the philological moment which is effective in the general effort to understand the notation of the score;
  2. b) the critical moment, called upon when cases require a questioning attitude, such as when there are printed illogicalities or when distinguishing between composer and editor.
  3. c) the psychological moment which is active if/when the interpreter follows the task of putting itself into the composer’s place and thereby re-cognizes and re-creates Ms personal, intellectual position.
  4. d) the technical-morphological moment, which finally “aims at understanding the meaning-content of the objective-mental world in relation to its particular logic and formative principle; it is a meaning that can be sensed in these creations and can be reconstructed;” The object is considered in its own right without reference to contingent, external factors [Bleicher].

Meanwhile, George Steiner notes that the act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning is also fourfold:

  1. a) initiative trust, an investment of belief in the meaningfulness within a difficult or adverse text. This trust can never be final – it can be betrayed.
  2. b) aggression: the interpreter’s next act is incursive and extractive: hence
  3. i) St. Jerome i.e. meaning brought home captive by the translator.
  4. ii) Hegel i.e. all cognition is aggressive, every proposition is an inroad on the world.

iii) Heidegger i.e. when he focuses attention on understanding as an act -on the access (inherently appropriative and therefore violent) of Erkenntnis to Dasein (the latter = ‘the thing that is because it is there’ which only comes into authentic being when it is comprehended).

  1. iv) These days, we still ‘break’ a code. This aggression will naturally lead to sadness: if the act has proved unsuccessful (see Ortega y Gasset on translation-blues) or even if successful (see Augustine’s tristitia which follows on the cognate acts of erotic and of intellectual possession).
  2. c) incorporative: the importance of what has been understood is not left in a vacuum but included into the performance. However, the act of importation of what is to be incorporated can potentially dislocate or relocate the whole of the work’s structure. Where the incorporation is disoriented or immature, the importation will not enrich, it will generate not an integral response but a wash of mimicry (e.g. French neo-classicism in its north-European, German and Russian versions).
  3. d) the enactment of reciprocity in order to restore balance: the most difficult since the jolting of the initial trust-level tends to throw off balance the sense of structure already attained. Here lies the greatest stumbling-block of the performer[Steiner].

One must not omit the concept of ‘natural beauty’, however. Hegel rightly grasped that natural beauty is a reflection of artistic beauty, so that we learn how to perceive beauty in nature under the guidance of the artists works. In the more modern arts, we must experience natural beauty almost as a corrective against the claims of a perception educated by that art. Natural beauty reminds us that what we acknowledge in a work of art is not at all that in which the language of art speaks. It is precisely the indeterminacy of reference, described by Adorno, that addresses us in modern art and that compels us to be fully conscious of the significance of the exemplary meaning of what we are addressing (“indeterminate reference” => “symbol”) [Gadamer].

Husserl’s “Every Sign” is perhaps more relevant for works requiring Pitch Class analysis than for the cellist’s “every pitch of a Bach work is sacred, but let’s be totally free with the rhythm.”

The mind lives exclusively in its mental states, its acts. Each act, however, is correlated to an object (an “object as it is intended”) which is itself not a mental state, an act of consciousness, or a psychological event. Relatedness to essentially non-mental entities is the very nature of mental states. Experiencing an act of consciousness, we are directed to an object insofar as in the structure of the object corresponding to the act there are inscribed references to further objects, to different manners of presentation of that object. Objective reference of mental states is no longer an insoluble problem as with Descartes; nor is it to be explained and accounted for subsequently; rather, it proves to the phenomenologist to be essential to the acts of consciousness – not as an additional phenomenal feature of the arts but in the sense of a conception of consciousness [Gurwitsch].

“Every note itself has a temporal extension: with the actual sounding I hear it as now. With its continued sounding it has an ever new now, and the note actually preceding is changing into something past. I hear at any instant only the actual phase of the note…” [Husserl]

So, Husserl is hearing that note throughout a certain interval of time – but it is apparently not true that he is hearing all of it (or a temporally extended part of it) at any given instant of that time-interval. Yet his perceptual experience is such that throughout that time he continuously experiences the continuity of that note, and this requires that he experiences at any instant more than a mere instantaneous phase of the note. How, then, is an instantaneous perceptual experience of the temporal extendedness of a note possible? Answering this and other related problems about temporal awareness was of critical importance to Husserl and his phenomenologists who presupposed one’s ability to reflect upon experiences and to discern their essential features, even if these experiences (or “acts of consciousness” as Husserl called them) are themselves mental processes. The structure of our temporal awareness, they believed, which makes the perceptual experience of a note possible is the same structure that makes the reflective awareness of an act possible. Accounting for the first is, thus, accounting for the possibility of the second [Miller].

‘Memory in its own essential nature is in fact a “modification of” perception. Correlatively that which is characterized in memory as the past presents itself as “having been present”, as a modification therefore of the “present”, which in its unmodified form is the “primordial”, the “corporeally present” of perception’ [Husserl].

It is this last fact about memory which enables one to pass back and forth between the acts of remembering an object and remembering having perceived that object, which are the two different but intimately related acts.

Meanwhile, there are various kinds of mental processes. In the case of active (as opposed to automatic) sensuous perceiving, we may say that attention is ordinarily focused on a terminal object – a concrete physical thing, or its colour, or the brightness of its colour, etc., but that attention can be focused, instead, upon some intermediate appearance, through which the terminal object is perceived. But it is possible to shorten the focus of attention further and find fields of sensation, such as a field of audible sensation, where particular sensa (particular data of sensation) stand out from a background. [ As the name “data” suggests, these sensa are indeed given, themselves presented; but they are no more truly given than are the physical realities and the appearances through which the physical realities are perceived.] A sensuous perceiving of something physical includes three strata of presentive awareness: the lowest of these strata is a presentive sensing of sensa in some presented sensuous field or other; the middle stratum, a presentive awareness of appearances; the highest stratum, a presentive awareness of physical realities. [Cairns] Frequently, a painter allows others to add a frame to his painting, without any statement made as to its colour or size: is there a similar problem of lack-of interest once the work has been finished by the creator when (i) the painter does not decide where or on what coloured wall his work will be hung; (ii) how implicit is a composer when leaving to “artistic choice” the position of his/her piece in a programme?

Any perceiving is a process – it has temporal extension and is made up of partial extents, each of which is a perceiving. But every later extent is an awareness of what is perceived in it as identical with or other-than something perceived in the just-previous extent. Thus it is not only a perceptive awareness of what is perceived in itself, but also a memorial awareness of something as perceived in the just-previous extent. This goes on automatically. Just as one can perceive a physical reality or a phantom (in a mirror) and take it as an image of something else, so one can remember physical reality or a phantom, and take it to be an image of something else.

Obviously this secondary type of image-awareness is more complex, since remembering is more complex than perceiving. But in the final analysis, perceiving or remembering is presentive awareness of the thing perceived or remembered; image-awareness is non-presentive awareness of the thing depicted.

OBJECTIONS TO HUSSERL [see Warnke and also Bernasconi]

Husserl’s perception of phenomenology suggests the dominance of method: e.g. Neitzsche’s “victory of scientific method over science” which distinguished the 19th century. Consider the work of art, however. We gain access through the arts to an irresistible truth that the dogmatic application of method overlooks. [Method here, of course, is not a crude antithesis to truth; but still, one must not concentrate on method if one is to learn thoroughly from art or history.] If the perception of an object involves an intentional act of meaning-giving (as Husserl claimed), and if this means that consciousness is to be seen not as a tabula rasa but as an active determiner of meaning, then the very perception of objects involves projections of meaning, or interpretations. This means that the content of a perception is never entirely grounded in pure givenness or evidence; it is rather always biased by vantage point, anticipation, etc.. [see Shapiro & Sicca] From both Heidegger and Gadamer (opposing Husserl), interpretative projections of meaning are rooted in the situation of the interpreter.

In Husserl’s later work, the objective sciences are seen to spring from the life-world; they are conceived of as forms of knowledge that participate in the concerns and opinions of specific communities and serve as one means of accomplishing their ambitions. But, having discovered the life-world, Husserl then conceives of it as a problem for phenomenology which itself claims to be a science of the ways in which objects are given to consciousness (even if as a rigorous science).

In exploring modes of givenness, this science is to provide a map of the certain, intuitive knowledge of essences from which the objective sciences abstract. But Husserl avows that phenomenology seems not to offer as much a map of essences as historical communities (with all the variations in intuition that such communities enjoy). Thus we seem able to arrive at assured facts only within a “certain range… in our experience and in the social group united with us in the community of life.” So, either we focus on life-worlds (so we must admit that truths that are fixed for aborigines in Australia are by no means fixed for us), or we focus on truths that are unconditionally valid for all individuals. Thus, for Husserl, “we have the embarrassment of wondering what else can be undertaken scientifically as something that can be established once and for .ill and for everyone.” [Husserl] Husserl’s solution appeals to “the concept of transcendental subjectivity” to surmount the diverseness of culturally and historically determined life-worlds; but these ideas involve an alienation of the actual content of the concept of life (and so suggests that one must look beyond Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world).

All this might well lead far away from the common experience of players, if not of composers. What of the opposing side: primarily the performer of Kitsch works, and/or of any programme music/ romantic music. This opposing side concerns the self-promoting of the performer’s self [i.e. not management/publicity but the performer who assumes that “their public” are there to hear/experience not so much the music as the performer’s personality / the performance of visible humans demonstrating their thoughts/feelings/life, even via the public platform.] Composers would tend to view this as an example of a possible need to write biographies of their performers – since the performer’s self-promotiong during the Kitsch display amounts to the performer’s public autobiography.

Autobiography is today valued for the auto-psychography woven into it. [Cameron] The impulse to picture is at the source of the autobiographical enterprise: an autobiography is aim’id at the philosophical conversion of the reader, who is expected to repeat the steps set out in the account of methodical doubting and to interrogate the reader’s memories, perceptions and dreams. It remains a question how far the picture of the life is sustainable apart from the philosophical argument. Emily Dickinson gives us an account which may be thought to show that the picture, with its transitions between the within and the without, is – just – sustainable apart from the argument:

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes – //

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings are – .

This in an acute and subtle picture by one whose poetic enterprise was as a whole autobiographical. But whose autobiography is the audience paying to rereive – the performer’s (possibly in Kitsh and the virtuoso) or the composer’s (in art-music)?

Egotistical as a goddess, who stands in all her beauty and allows herself to be worshipped by her true purists… great art has only one fatherland: heaven ruled by divine power from eternity to eternity [Corinth] {hence Corinth’s seduction by the rhetorical}.

In art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you. And since they are, nevertheless, your own, and your invitation is based not on power or authority but on attraction and promise, your invitation incurs the most exacting of obligations: that every risk must be shown worthwhile (and every infliction of tension lead to a resolution, and every demand an attention, and passion be satisfied – that risks which those who trust you cannot have known that they would take); these risks will be found to yield value which cannot have been known to exist by the participants. The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality, by being free to choose only those commitments it wishes to incur [Cavell]. Is this a pointer to a universal law, or merely a modern concept?

The ideas about art which we find in medieval philosophers, artists and writer of treatises about art, were closely connected with the classical and intellectualistic theory of human making. Definitions such as “art consists in the principles for making and judging whatever is to be made” [Alexander of Hales] had no definite paternity. From the Carolingians right through to Duns Scotus, the medievals simply repeated them and reformulated them in various guises. Aristotle was the starting point, but they took their formulae from the whole Greek tradition, then from Cicero, the Stoics, Marius Victorinus, Isidore of Seville, Cassiodorus, Thomas Aquinus. The medieval notion of art contained two elements: one was cognitive, the other productive. Art was a knowledge of the rules by means of which things can be produced. It was a knowledge of given and objective rules: the etymologically liberal Cassiodorus said that art was so called because it delimits or circumscribes.

Art belonged to the realm of making, not of doing – since doing pertained to morality and was subject to the regulative virtue of prudence. [There was something of an analogy between art and prudence; but prudence governed the practical judgement in contingent situations, and sought the good of mankind; whereas art regulated operations on physical materials, as in sculpture, or upon mental materials, as in logic and rhetoric.] Art’s aim was a goodness of the work. The important thing for the craftsman was that he nude a good object – how it would be used was not his concern. Art was a “science” which produced objects endowed with their own laws; art was not expression but construction. {The word “artifex” applied equally to blacksmiths, orators, poets, painters and sheepshearers.[Eco]} If art imitated nature, this did not involve a servile copying of natural models. Artistic imitation involved invention and reworking – it continued nature’s creative labours. The conception of art as intuition, imagination, feeling, and enlightenment was not known in the ancient world [Rostagni].

Improvisation [MAN PRETENDING TO BE A GOD] or Epic Distance v. Actuality

To start with another art-form where improvisation was once expected, where the ancient epic is now interpreted by the audience, the originally improvising delivery for a non-literative audience gives way to any occurrence appearing as a wholly past one – the epic’s forestalling made possible the pathos of the “how-suspense”. In the more recent Romance, a text was composed in writing and intended for reading (perhaps aloud), this text arose from a written tradition (romanze: rewritten in the vernacular); any “if-suspense” drawn into the fable would be counterbalanced through the secure expectation of the expected/inevitable happy ending. But where the romanz arose from a written, Latin tradition, the novella – fixed in writing – came from an oral tradition and entered back into it; the novella, like the other two forms, were also narrated at a spatial and temporal distance as if it were in the present; “if-at-all-suspense” was all-important, without an expectable happy ending [Jauss]. This returning to the audience’s lack of pre-determination recurs in music’s improvisation. An improviser (especially as the term implies that the performer is also a composer: often combining the biography of the virtuoso performer with the autobiography of the composer) who has fully mastered form and structure, has a definite paradigm in mind which he follows throughout, and hopefully sounds as though he is performing a lean it art-work. Otherwise we should never pass judgement on its quality or lack of it. So it is the hermeneutic identity that establishes the unity of the work. To understand something, I must be able to identify it, as it was or as it is, and this identity alone constitutes the meaning of the work [*].

Other points to include if time:

  1. Analysis of similarities rather than specifics / museum performance.
  2. Ornamentation addition & style / rubato & the 2+ contemporaries / playing the interpretation of one’s technique-teacher.
  3. ADCM & Plainsong accompaniment > MMus & programme notes > expectations of the listener?(the total improviser – at least as far as the audience is concerned?)


[A] In the 19th century, virtuosity was required for the Display-Piece of the performer, the composer merely gave a formal outline, so there was no absolute need for “compositional conviction” (even if this could be included): all this would lead, sooner or Liter, to Kitsch, etc. or A MERE “COMPOSER’S INGENUITY-OF-CRAFT TRIP”.

[B] In the mid 20th century, virtuosity was almost expected by some composers, as a natural starting-point for the player: the audience was no longer to be bemused by a circus-act performed by one or more “stars”, but the players were now not only all at a higher technical level but also could be used to fulfil the role of the composer’s conception-regurgitator.

Neither [A] nor [B] demands interpretation, however, if the audience expects virtuosity to feature as anything other than a mere peripheral haze (albeit interesting in a non-stimulating way). Does the “reason why a composer wrote this particular piece” have any bearing? (i) – students to perform concerti – Mozart – for prolonging cash inflow and gaining more/ (ii) – demonstrate a few features of one or more artists – Symphonic concertante).

What was intended to be the piece’s purpose? – background music to food (Haydn symphony), gossip (Handel opera), religion? Audiences these days (and in the past?) too over-surrounded by musics not of their style-choosing – they actively learn how to not-lister (in the supermarket, mantras, motets?), or consider music as only one element of the overall form (opera, Taize, programme music). Should the performer consider any of this or just “be in the market place” and let the “consumer” decide? – if so, is this ultimately public masturbation on the part of the performer? Can we artistically dismiss all those pieces written for doing but for not-hearing (e.g. madrigals, some quartets, Haydn and Handel eating music, Telemann Taffelmusik), or only perform them in a purposely unauthentic manner to “listeners”? (see Henry James).

In all these cases (since [A]), composers have to interpret the wishes of players, rather than the artistic maxim where performers are expected to struggle to interpret composers. Unfortunately, composers are seldom trained in interpretation of anything other than themselves, luckily!!

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