Turning Notes into Music, by Hans Lampl

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Turning Notes into MusicTurning Notes into Music, by Hans Lampl. Lanham, Maryland, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1996. xvi + 147 pp. ISBN: 0810831651.


For most studio music teachers, the teaching of interpretation is central, yet curiously difficult to pin down. Except, perhaps, with the most elementary students (if even then), interpretation informs, or ought to inform our discussions of physical technique, the meaning of notational elements in the score, and the analysis of musical architecture. In the studio, each of these subjects serves a larger purpose: to help the student create a more authentic, living, expressive, and communicative musical experience for the listener, to which task the performer brings a common language of gestures, rhetorical conventions, and sometimes personal whimsy—that is to say, interpretation. The difficulty is that whether they admit it or not, students (especially undergraduates) are often looking for rules. Perhaps because of the one-on-one, master/apprentice tradition in the teaching of performance, the "rules" of interpretation may appear to the student to be subjective, even arbitrary, their authority based on the mystique or pedagogical genealogy of the teacher. On the teacher's part, there is often a skepticism toward any systematization of interpretation, perhaps as a defense against philistinism and mechanical effect.

Some books attempt to address head-on the principles of interpretation. One approach is to describe and catalog the teachings and aphorisms of a great musician: David Blum's Casals and the Art of Interpretation (l977) and Konrad Wolff's Schnabel's Interpretation of Piano Music (l972) are enriching and entertaining examples of this genre. Kenneth Drake's The Sonatas of Beethoven (l972) reports the opinions of a number of important historical performers and teachers, including Czerny, von B├╝low and Schnabel, comparing and even charting their various, sometimes contradictory interpretive opinions on these great works. Other books approach interpretation from a more analytical perspective: famous examples are E. T. Cone's Musical Form and Musical Performance (l968) and certain parts of Leonard B. Meyer's books, Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations (l960), and with Grosvenor W. Cooper, The Rhythmic Structure of Music (l960).

I suspect that books like these, although known and loved by many musicians and teachers, are not widely read by students concentrating in performance. Until now, I have not seen a book geared to students that systematically addresses the basic rhetoric of interpretation in a practical manner. Hans Lampl has written such a book, Turning Notes into Music, and its many strengths make it worthy of investigation by all teachers of performance.

Dr. Lampl's first big challenge is where to begin. One of the greatest obstacles a teacher has in discussing broad interpretive principles with students is that, to a musician, interpretation is like water to a fish—we live and breathe it (with varying degrees of artistry) and therefore have difficulty creating for the student a general context of understanding, relying instead on the accumulation of specific points through demonstrations and examples. Dr. Lampl is not afraid to examine and enunciate the most basic assumptions. With admirable clarity, he starts with elementary axioms, then organizes his material with increasing degrees of complexity. Using the always effective analogy with the inflections of speech, he demonstrates first how dynamic inflection is at the root of the most basic musical meaning, discussing simple rhythmic groupings in terms of poetic feet (following in the footsteps of Cooper and Meyer, whom he acknowledges), and the relationship of perceived rhythmic groupings with meter. This chapter he calls "Basic Musical Rhetoric," which is the perfectly modest and appropriate term to describe this generalized ground laying.

The middle chapters are organized around specific topics—tempo, articulation, and accents. Again, these discussions are basic and down-to-earth. The chapter on tempo catalogs the various clues, above and beyond the verbal markings in a score, that a student can follow to determine an appropriate tempo (harmonic rhythm and the presence of various types of figuration, for example). The chapter's discussion of rubato is valuable for the way Lampl shows that tempo modification must contribute to musical meaning in order to achieve true expressive effect.

The chapter on articulation devotes a surprising amount of space to legato, describing the common challenges and pitfalls of dynamic shaping as they occur on the piano, bowed instruments, and the voice. (His discussion of tone-matching on the piano, the practical necessity to adjust the dynamic level of a new attack within a legato line so as not to sound like a new beginning, is an excellent example of how technical and expressive categories overlap when looked at the right way. This technical problem, based on the practical reality of the piano's percussive mode of attack, leads to an interpretive approach for the piano that is often quite different from a bowed or blown instrument.) Lampl also lays a strong foundation for the understanding of slurs, which can have notoriously slippery meanings depending on style, period, composer and performance medium. Perhaps he could have discussed the different meanings of slurs in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century styles, but this is a minor objection; Lampl makes it clear that he is limiting his overview to what he considers fundamental.

Dr. Lampl's focus gets a little blurred in the discussion of accents. He defines the term broadly to mean emphasis ("a tone which stands out"), and indeed catalogs a wide variety of accent types, of ways to "stand out:" dynamic, agogic, metric, harmonic, pitch, texture, embellishment, color and what he calls phrase accent (the emphasis occurring at the initiation of a melodic phrase). Yet in discussing these categories he operates under the practical assumption that to a performer, accent means primarily dynamic and agogic events. Indeed, a performer has no control over metric, harmonic, pitch, and phrase events, as these are inherent in the score, and only limited control over texture, embellishment, and color. The issue for interpretation is how to apply dynamic and agogic inflections to these other types of compositional emphases (or whether in fact to withhold them). For example, Emil Sauer's edition of Brahms's Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, indicates a crescendo to the melodic a2 and chromatically inflected harmony in measure 6, a marking not present in the urtext. One could argue that the emphasis provided by the pitch and harmonic accents is made considerably more expressive by not reinforcing it with a dynamic accent.

The focus of the book is found in the seventh of the book's nine chapters, "Musical Punctuation, Phraseology; Flow and Momentum," where the isolated topics of the earlier chapters are synthesized in a global perspective. (In truth, the earlier chapters already suffer somewhat from the bleeding together of categories; for example, a fair amount of the material in the chapter on articulation overlaps with other chapters on dynamics and accents.) Dr. Lampl starts by surveying the most important criteria for demarcating phrases. This is an enormously important task. Most experienced musicians take these criteria for granted and apply them intuitively in their own playing; it is often difficult to remember that to a less experienced student the vagaries of musical notation can be distracting or misleading. Bach's music can be particularly difficult in this regard, with its streams of eighth or sixteenth notes unadorned with phrasing indications, beamed to reflect metric groupings often at odds with the true phrasing. Lampl continues with a look at irregular phrasing (elision, overlapping, compression, cross-meter groupings, etc.), citing numerous musical examples and referring in a footnote to Hermann Keller's contributions to this topic in his seminal book Phrasing and Articulation (1973).

The last half of this chapter pulls all the previous threads together. Lampl first defines the relationship of interpretation to analysis, differentiating it from the more static harmonic or thematic analysis that performance students may associate with the term; then, using a wide variety of examples, he presents a model for systematically realizing an interpretive vision. The practical flexibility and occasional ambiguity in this type of analytical process is displayed in Dr. Lampl's willingness in a number of cases to demonstrate opposing views on how a passage should be parsed, without the doctrinaire justifying that sometimes occurs in more theoretical analyses. He makes the important point that phrase and motivic separations often need to be downplayed in the service of a more important continuity of musical momentum. As in many of life's other activities, success often lies not in the total expression of one idea but in the judicious balancing of opposing forces. (For a fascinating, more theoretical look at the issue of formal articulation vs. continuity, see Leonard B. Meyer's essay "Hierarchic Structures" in his book Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations.)

As a sort of coda, Dr. Lampl ends Turning Notes Into Music with a discussion of imagery and its place in interpretation. It is a strong and unapologetic justification of the use of extramusical imagery as a means toward a completely musical end. This echoes what a number of great musicians have said, as in Joseph Horowitz's Conversations with Arrau (1982) for example; and it is an important reminder to students wrapped up in the mechanics of making music as to music's broader connection to life as a whole.

One objection to a book of this sort is that the numerous notated musical examples are not readily accessible to students who don't already know the music quoted and whose score-reading skills away from an instrument are not developed. Perhaps to address this issue, Dr. Lampl advertises in his preface the availability of a cassette tape of many of the examples notated in the book, often with both "correct" and "incorrect" versions for comparison. Unfortunately, the tape was not yet available at the time of this review; one hopes that future readers will have the opportunity to take advantage of it. In addition, there were a number of notation errors in the musical examples and at least one mistitling of an important book in the bibliography (the aforementioned Musical Form and Musical Performance by E. T. Cone). Doubtless these will be corrected in future editions.

There are a few topics which Dr. Lampl chose not to address in his book that may be missed by some teachers. One is the importance of an urtext to interpretive validity; for an excellent discussion of why this issue is so relevant to interpretation, teachers are advised to look at (and have students look at) Chapter Two of Leonard B. Meyer's Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations. Another missing topic concerns the conventions of rhythmic notation (particularly dotted rhythms) in earlier style periods—Lampl alludes to this without explanation in regard to a Baroque example, but it is also relevant to Schubert, Chopin, and others. I am sure that Dr. Lampl has much to say on these and other topics, and that he made calculated judgments about how much material to cover. Teachers using his book will probably be inspired to bring in supplemental resources in any case.

In his preface Dr. Lampl suggests a broad array of settings for the use of his book. Probably its most effective use would be in a class or workshop setting rather than in the private studio where time is always at a premium. The ideas presented here need to be batted around and shared (and heard) to be most meaningful to students. Part of this collective process should be devoted to students applying, in an organized way, principles and concepts from the book to musical examples of their own choosing.

Hans Lampl has produced an important contribution to the literature on interpretation. His always practical advice, free from abstract or dogmatic pronouncements, is clear, intelligible, and authoritative, and carries with it that sense of connection to a long and noble tradition. We couldn't ask for more.

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Last modified on Thursday, 18/10/2018

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