From the Chaplain

Article excerpt

Not Exactly As the Composer Wanted

SEVERAL MONTHS ago I was reading a review of a new book about the composer 'Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), when I came across this intriguing observation: "His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right" ( The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 2, 2011, p. 8).

I stopped reading and started reflecting on the agony of the composer as a creator. Mahler had sounds in his head, specific sounds that were inflected and interrelated in particular ways. He had a universe of sound inside him. But how do you put a universe of sound on paper? Of course, there are conventions for printing one's musical ideas: a staff, a time signature, notes with flags and notes without flags, chords and single voice lines, and all the other things that can be set out upon a sheet of music. And yet, the very phrase "sheet of music" is a paradox. Sound is not on sheets of paper. Music is what we play and sing, what we hear, what hangs in the air and rings in the ear. No matter how many directions Mahler gives, no matter how many directions any composer gives, they will never precisely equal the sounds in the composer's head. I think of the hundreds of concerts I have attended in my life, many of them featuring pieces that I have heard scores of times in other concerts or on the radio or online or on a disc or record. Which performance was "exactly as the composer wanted"? I will never be able to tell you, nor would anyone else, except possibly the composer, and even the composer's judgment would be suspect given that he or she has a dynamic, creative mind in which sounds are always shifting and interrelating in different ways. …