Composers in Search of an Identity,
by BÉLA HARTMANN
Luigi Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which ran recently in London's West End, is a classic of modern theatre. Aside from turning every dramatic convention on its head, it questions the very nature of identity and existence in a manner both humorous and serious. It is a highly enjoyable play in a production extravagantly praised by critics, and it also prompts some interesting considerations in relation to classical music, principally with regard to the liberal treatment of the text.
Although it is true that Pirandello made several versions of the play, it is certainly true that this performance contains much in addition to anything Pirandello ever wrote. It is not just a case of updating the setting, but of wholesale resetting, the addition of completely new material, ie the use of the play as an inspiration for a larger canvas that contains, but is not restricted to, the original material. Harold Pinter used a similar effect in his script to the film of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, but it is not nearly as far-reaching as here. As well as a lengthy new introduction, the majority of the Pirandello production after the interval is added material, mostly illustrating and underlining the message of the play as understood by the production. Whether or not the added material is successful or desirable is a matter of opinion, but the practice of treating plays in a liberal fashion is far from unusual. Whether it is a translation that is so loose as to be almost a rewrite, a setting that has nothing to do with explicit instructions of the author, cuts that change the focus of the play, or, as in this case, added material -- theatre audiences see it all on a regular basis, without the principle ever being called into question. Plays in translation are affected more than English language plays, but even Shakespeare is often cut considerably, as well as updated etc.
What is it that makes all this acceptable in theatre but not in music? Why are we happy to accept the recomposing of Pirandello but not of Puccini? True, there is Jacques Loussier, there are the Swingle Singers, Hooked on Classics and many other 'visions' of classical music, but these are not regarded as being classical music themselves, merely Jazz or Pop finding inspiration in classical compositions, which is quite a different matter. The audience at the Royal Festival Hall would most probably object if the Pathétique Symphony were played on different instruments with an added introduction and a lengthy coda by the conductor. Also, the prospect of an 1812 Overture with a mock cruise missile seems doubtful, even if there were a valid point to be made. Yet the instructions on a musical score are quite comparable to those in a play script, sometimes very specific, sometimes loose, and the common aim of the two forms is presumably similar, if difficult to pin down.
This is all the more remarkable given the historical precedent for such interventions. Whether it is Bach's rewritings of Vivaldi, Mozart's reorchestrations of Handel or Liszt's creative visions of almost anything else, music of the past has always been treated with freedom and creativity through the mind and imagination of the present, however varied that may be. The Italian composer Luciano Berio was one of the few who kept this tradition alive in the post war period by creating fascinating blends of old and new, particularly in his 'Rendering', a beautiful and fascinating completion of Schubert's last symphonic fragment. It is not that it would be better if we all went and gave Mozart's Requiem a creative mauling, but perhaps both art forms can learn from each other -- theatre could show more respect to the instructions of the author and musicians could feel less bound by the text and by history.
Opera occupies an interesting middle ground here. Standing as it does halfway between theatre and music it shares the attitudes of both art forms in this respect. Whilst opera productions only rarely meddle with the musical side, it is commonplace to witness productions that update the dramatic side of the work. A recent production of Lehár's Merry Widow in Essen added a whole subplot about a group of gypsies being persecuted by the Nazis, all in deadly earnest -- in an opera set in Paris sometime in the nineteenth century. The reviews were ecstatic, praising the production for finding 'hidden meanings' in the text. Musical directors have for a while now been going in the opposite direction, toward a recreation of the original performance. In fact, perversely, it is not uncommon for an opera production to pride itself on the original instruments of the orchestra and the counter tenor on stage whilst updating the story to modern Manhattan with a few motorbikes thrown in. Surely there is something schizophrenic about this. Wagner was as precise and specific in his stage directions as in his musical notation, yet when will we ever again see his staging realized? How many members of an average audience are aware of the detailed stage settings given for the Ring cycle and the lengthy tomes written by Wagner explaining why they are necessary? Why is it that it would be so unthinkable to have Brünnhilde in a horned helmet but increasingly desirable to hear the sound of an original French horn from Wagner's day? Presumably it is because the music is dealt with by a musical director fully immersed in all the newest fashions in historical performance whist the stage director has learnt his craft from the conceptual productions of Central Europe.
It is perhaps the perceived threat to the identity of the piece of music that hinders us from experimenting with it. If someone were to add a coda to the Pathétique Symphony, it would be perceived as no longer being the Pathétique. This is of course understandable, but it rests on the misapprehension that there is such a thing as the Pathétique independently from us. The idea that the identity of a work lies in the score, possibly complemented by a scientifically endorsed glossary, belies the two other components of a work of art, the musician and the audience. If they both accept something as the Pathétique, the Pathétique it is, to some degree at least.
The message from all this is that any dogmatic approach to art is pure fashion. There is nothing certain about art or how it should be approached, and anything that gives any other impression is merely a confidence trick. If it was agreed earlier that audiences would take a dim view of updated classical music, then that is merely because they do not expect it. The same audience will be perfectly content to see Romeo and Juliet set in the slums of New York, or Rheingold set in an Ikea-furnished apartment. Needless to say, it does not mean that everyone need like what they expect, as one can witness from audience comments after particularly extreme adaptations, such as Calixto Bieito's Don Giovanni at English National Opera. That is why it is always advisable to encourage and support a wide range of attitudes rather than impose new dogmas, in order that the freedom to experiment does not mean we all have to suffer it, but can find something to match our personal tastes.
Copyright © 8 January 2009 Béla Hartmann, London UK
Béla Hartmann's article first appeared in Musical Opinion in 2008.