“The squirrel feeds with difficulty,” is what “Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen” means according to Google translate. I suppose they do, but what Germans mean when they say this phrase is much more akin to what English speakers mean when they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” What is a translator to do? Do you trap the squirrels in your toga? Do you do a literal translation and add a long footnote that explains what it means? “Wearily nourishes itself the squirrel” is quite literal, but it sounds awkward in English in a way that it doesn’t in the original. This is the reason that colloquialisms are the bane of the translation software’s existence. There isn’t a great solution — or there is. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
I’m suggesting that what we do as performers and conductors is very much like what a translator does, and there are perils on every side. As an intermediary, we have to keep all the parties involved in mind. In the culture we have created, the musical fundamentalists tell us that we have to say, “Wearily nourishes itself the squirrel” in order to do it the “right” way.
In an example I often like to recount, a German man once asked me to “provide some foreplay for his wife’s funeral.” In that case, his overly literal rendition of vorspiel left out the audience component of the equation. American audiences tend to have a more titillating understanding of the word “foreplay” than Germans do. When you are an intermediary, you have an obligation to consider both parties. The audience is one of the parties.
Equally problematic is the arbiter that glosses over the author. In a now infamous solecism, JFK uses the definite article and says, “Ich bin ein Berliner” declaring himself a delicious jelly donut to the denizens of that great city. To translate it as if the blunder was the intent would leave out the author in the equation. Sometimes you have to discern the intent beyond the actual text. Once you have negotiated your way past Scylla and Charybdis, we get to the part that is important for the musical portion of the discussion.
In one of the most poignant and dangerous translations ever undertaken, Viktor Sukhodrev translated Kruschev’s, “my vas pokhoronim” as “We will bury you.” He could have also translated it as, “we shall be present at your funeral,” “we shall outlive you,” or “we shall outlast you.” The phrase had a lot of Marxist cultural connotations that the West didn’t know. By translating it in the harshest way, he contributed to the cold war. The point here is that the translator is also a person in the conversation. The translators choices have consequences.
Stravinsky’s ideal was to have a performer that didn’t “interpret.” He just wanted a conduit. The Romantic ideal emphasized the contributions of the interpreter. In a sense, the performer as interpreter was creating a new work of art that hadn’t been heard before. The performer’s choices made the work unique and individualized. This could go beyond simple choices of pacing to include voicing and even pitches. The pendulum has swung completely away from that now. Musical fundamentalism reigns supreme, and young conductors and performers are taught to follow the score in a literal fashion in the same way that Evangelicals read the Bible.
Ironically, there is still an emphasis on “putting yourself into the music.” What that means mostly is that you are supposed to “feel something.” It definitely does not mean that you are supposed to change notes or tempos from the received text — unless, let’s say, you’re doing the Gospel version of the Messiah. Then, you are allowed to change stuff precisely because you are no longer claiming to be doing the “original.” You’re creating a new work of art inspired by what you have received from Handel. Is that being faithful to Handel? I suppose it depends on what you mean. Handel doesn’t really care that much about whether or not you are being faithful to him. To quote Carl Sandburg, “Grieg, being dead, does not care a hell’s hoot what we say.”
I’m suggesting that the system we have created is largely creating sequels. Everything is designed to make a marketable product that can be packaged and sold, and I’m not sure we need it anymore. Do we need another Beethoven 5 that is indistinguishable from all the others? Maybe. I don’t know. That music still has power in it, but if the conductors really approached it from the perspective that they were creating a new work of art, we would have more diversity and a more variegated musical landscape.
I’m a big fan of Martin Buber’s writings on aesthetics. Somewhere he says that the only true response you can have to a work of art is to create a new work of art. I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing back. Instead of training conductors and performers to work like a Masoretic scribe, I’d like to train them to be artists. I’d like them to make choices that have consequences. I’d like them not to be conduits for the composer. I’d like them to be dialogue partners with the composer and with the audience. In short, I’m advocating for freedom and a lot more of it than we are practicing today. No doubt, that’s a 19th century attitude that most of the world isn’t going to accept at the moment.
I’m just saying that musically, I’d like some more people to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I’d like fewer things that sound like, “Wearily nourishes itself the squirrel.” I’d especially like people to stop translating that way without thinking about why they are doing it. It just results in formulaic performances and less humanity.