Beware of emotion

Beware of emotion – well, of inappropriate emotion, anyway…

I know that I’ve already ranted on about the danger of pouring superfluous beauty sauce over music; but I’m returning to it, because it seems that the message I try to convey more often than any other in classes is: ‘Don’t promise us false emotions’. What I mean by this is that everything we as interpreters add to the music – vibrato, rubato, portato, etc – conveys a certain message. Using a string-centric example (just for a change): vibrato. Vibrato can affect the sound in so many ways: a gentle vibrato can merely make each note resonate like an open string, the purpose for which Leopold Mozart thought it most suited; a fast vibrato can give the impression of tortured feelings, of fear, of uncontrollable passion; and so on – of course, there are any number of gradations in between. The same with different forms of articulation – the choice between legato, portato, staccato,etc is an important component of how we convey the meaning of the music; we have to be judicious in our choices.

Too often, though, I sense that players are afraid that unless they are expressing maximum emotion through every note, they aren’t ‘doing’ enough; it’s so wrong. Of course there are moments of extreme emotion in most music; but these moments are only powerful if they are set up in context, in contrast to gentler colours around them. Furthermore, even if music is likely to evoke strong emotions in the listener, it does not follow that the music itself is portraying human emotions. So often, composers portray nature through music. A sunset may cause the observer to weep; it does not follow that the sun itself has to be weeping.

Perhaps the music of Schumann provides a good example of the different ways in which a composer can express emotions. We think of him – quite rightly – as an arch-romantic, one who confides in us his deepest secrets. But that does not mean that we have to emote in the same way throughout his oeuvre. Take, for instance, the slow movements of his 2nd and 3rd symphonies: the second is a cry from the heart, perhaps as personal as any movement of any symphony in history (and certainly a precursor of Mahler at his most confessional). The slow (4th) movement of the 3rd, ‘Rhenish’ symphony, depicts a ceremony at Cologne Cathedral. Naturally, one feels Schumann’s awe at the dark grandeur – but our personal emotions are not engaged in the same way as they are in the 2nd symphony. In his smaller forms, too, there are instructive differences. His Fantasiestucke – all four sets of them – seem to come to us directly from his inner soul, his dreams. On the other hand, his Romances, vocal and instrumental, are 3rd-person narratives of ancient legends – of love, tragedy and joy, certainly, but retold from a distance. The whole sound-world has to be subtly different from that of Schumann’s inner musings.

As I know I’ve said before, we players are story-tellers; we have to take into account every shred of evidence that the composer has left us, and adjust the sounds we make in order to ensure that we are telling the right story. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to inflame an audience through false passions; but if we do that, we are distorting the truth. And reaching the truth of the music has to be our ultimate aim.