Are you perfectly entitled?

An interesting experiment the other day – it all started with the question, what’s in a title? – which arose on account of one student who happens to be preparing Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

Schumann wrote to his beloved Clara that he only added the titles to the individual pieces after he had composed them. Possibly a smidgen of ‘economic truth’ here! He might very well have composed the music first and only then physically written titles on each page, but it’s hard to believe he did not have the thought of each title in mind while he composed these individual miniatures.

Let us take Träumerei (which as you all know, translates as ‘Dreaming’) for Exhibit 1. While my student gave a perfectly wonderful performance of this particular piece, it occurred to me that she interpreted it the way she did exactly because the title is ‘Dreaming’. Now amongst the other titles Schumann dreamed up for this set, it is quite within the bounds of credibility that he could have chosen another one for this particular piece. For example he could have used ‘Perfect Happiness’ – but he didn’t. Or it might have been ‘Child falling asleep’ – but it isn’t. It could even have been called ‘The Poet Speaks’ – but it’s not.

So I asked the student to practise for a day, imagining that the piece was indeed called ‘Child falling asleep’ – with the result that she came back with an altogether different (but equally valid) interpretation. So we tried again, this time calling the piece ‘Perfect Happiness’ and this time the piece had a noticeably different feeling.

Well we all thought it would be rather fun if everybody had a go. So I set the task of each student coming up with two interpretations, one on the basis that the piece is called ‘Dreaming’ and a second on the assumption that it’s title is ‘the Poet Speaks’. A most interesting experiment with most interesting results – and one I would recommend any teacher/student to try for themselves.

The point is this does rather suggest implications in other contexts too. Chopin did not call his Ballades, ‘Konzertstücke’ and Schubert did not call his Impromptus, ‘Intermezzi’. (One could go on of course with the Lyric pieces of Grieg, the impressionistic titles of Debussy, etc). The titles composers choose are surely given with considerable care. If one believes that a performance should interpret the piece in a manner faithfully conveying the composer’s intentions, then it follows the title might often be an important consideration with regard to choice of tempi, range of dynamics, amount of rubato, and even how literally (or not) to play exactly what is notated on the page!

Dare I suggest (if we allow that composers give some thought to their titles) that performances sometimes have more to do with how the pianist decides the music should go, rather than truly reflecting the composer’s intentions?

An interesting thought to follow up perhaps.