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Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 4

When the hall is heard filled by the emotions created by the music,
whose emotions are they?”

First of all, some impor­tant facts about the emo­tions as per­tains to con­duct­ing:
1. The basic emo­tions and their expres­sion are the same for all peo­ple on earth. There is no such thing as a Chi­nese smile, a Ger­man smile, etc.

2. The basic emo­tions are genet­ic, thus they are in place before birth. The smile can be seen in the face of the fetus, but it is not a learned expres­sion for it has nev­er seen a smile.

3. Con­sid­er­ing the sev­er­al mil­lion years which span the devel­op­ment of the human species, the so-called mod­ern peri­od, our peri­od, includes the past 10,000 years. There­fore, since all the devel­op­men­tal process­es are in place, it has been spec­u­lat­ed that if one could go back to the age of the cave painters in Spain and France and adopt a new-born infant and bring him to a fam­i­ly liv­ing today, that child would grow up as a nor­mal child.

The sig­nif­i­cance of this is that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are to be con­sid­ered iden­ti­cal to us in their emo­tion­al make­up and should not be thought of as men from some dis­tant peri­od. If the con­tem­pla­tive con­duc­tor in his study comes to iden­ti­fy a cer­tain emo­tion in some pas­sage in Mozart, it is very like­ly to be iden­ti­cal with what Mozart him­self felt. Beethoven’s Ron­do, Op. 129, “Rage over a lost pen­ny” express­es a frus­tra­tion every lis­ten­er today can iden­ti­fy with.

4. It is impor­tant to remem­ber that the com­pos­er had the feel­ing first, before he wrote notes on paper. Thus the chal­lenge for the con­duc­tor is to try and under­stand what the com­pos­er felt, not what he wrote.

After the com­pos­er puts his feel­ings on paper in the form of music nota­tion, the bur­den is then on the per­former to faith­ful­ly con­vey this to the lis­ten­er. Let us say a pianist is going to per­form a Beethoven Sonata. The notes are on paper but the duty falls to the pianist to cre­ate the emo­tion, for the com­pos­er is no longer here to rep­re­sent him­self in per­son. The pianist must become Beethoven, and for the rea­sons giv­en above, assum­ing con­tem­pla­tive study, he will suc­ceed if dis­cov­er­ing feel­ing is his goal. The great pianist, Alfred Bren­del addressed this very point.

Although I find it nec­es­sary and refresh­ing to think about music, I am always con­scious of the fact that feel­ing must remain the Alpha and Omega of a musi­cian; there­fore my remarks pro­ceed from feel­ing and return to it.1

Car­lo Maria Giuli­ni makes the very same point with regard to the con­duc­tor.

An inter­preter, in the moment he is involved in a great expres­sion of art, becomes him­self the com­pos­er. A great actor, in the moment he is play­ing Iago, has to be Iago. A great inter­preter must live with a deep 100% con­vic­tion in what he is doing.

The ref­er­ence Giuli­ni makes to the the­ater is very accu­rate, for the dra­mat­ic arts like Music also have both a writ­ten form and a dif­fer­ent form in per­for­mance. No crit­ic, no mem­ber of the audi­ence would expect the actors on stage to just walk around read­ing from their play­book. Every­one expects them to add the emo­tion­al qual­i­ties nec­es­sary to give the char­ac­ter verisimil­i­tude. Curi­ous­ly, in the field of Music there are some crit­ics who say, “Just play the notes.”

For an orches­tra or a band this pri­ma­ry duty falls to the con­duc­tor who must cause the ensem­ble to join him in rep­re­sent­ing the composer’s feel­ings. What hap­pens next was dis­cussed by Wag­n­er in the anal­o­gy of a mag­net. Wag­n­er said the a kind of gen­er­al, core form of the emo­tion, which he called the quin­tes­sence of the emo­tion, extends to the play­ers and in turn is what leaves the stage toward the audi­ence. In an audi­ence of 2,000 it is assumed every­one will under­stand this quin­tes­sence form. If the music is sad, no one will find it hap­py. But this core form of the emo­tion then enters the ears of the indi­vid­ual and is sift­ed through that individual’s per­son­al expe­ri­ence with that emo­tion and it is then heard in a per­son­al mean­ing in the right hemi­sphere of his brain.

This is one of the unique aspects of music, that it com­mu­ni­cates in both a gen­er­al and an indi­vid­ual lan­guage of feel­ing at the same time. Since music makes no sense with­out a lis­ten­er, then the answer to the ques­tion asked in the title is you, the emo­tions you per­ceive are your own. It is your emo­tions as a lis­ten­er that give mean­ing to music. Are we min­i­miz­ing Beethoven? No, for com­mu­ni­cat­ing with you was his very pur­pose in com­pos­ing.

This is the pow­er of Music, that the expe­ri­ence goes direct­ly from com­pos­er to lis­ten­er. This is not true in Paint­ing, for exam­ple, where a can­vas stands between the artist and the view­er. Nei­ther does the lis­ten­er have to “know any­thing” about Music, for his under­stand­ing of Music as a lan­guage of feel­ing comes to him also through genet­ic trans­fer.

It is this direct expe­ri­ence in Music which often makes it pos­si­ble for an indi­vid­ual to have the feel­ing of a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with a par­tic­u­lar com­pos­er. It is also this direct expe­ri­ence with the com­pos­er that rais­es a ques­tion in pro­gram­ming. What if the com­pos­er is, or was, a bad per­son? Can we have true empa­thy with such a per­son. I think of Manuel de Fal­la who loved the music of Debussy and decid­ed to write an opera on the life of that com­pos­er. He began com­pos­ing, but as he became more famil­iar with the life of Debussy he found him to be a con­temptible per­son and so closed his score. This strict­ly eth­i­cal com­pos­er found he could not empathize with such a per­son and there­fore could not cre­ate music rep­re­sent­ing him.

This leads us to com­ment that while it is rare in orches­tral cir­cles, in the band field there often appears a com­pos­er who is not a gen­uine artist, but rather a shal­low fel­low writ­ing only for mon­ey. Giv­en the direct expe­ri­ence between com­pos­er and lis­ten­er, here the play­er, should we not sup­ply his music to our stu­dents, who live already in a soci­ety filled with shal­low and com­mer­cial inter­ests? Or, do we just play his music and make every­one hap­py? For a con­duc­tor who is charged with the devel­op­ment of young peo­ple, per­haps it is a ques­tion wor­thy of some thought.

David Whitwell


  1. Quot­ed in The New York­er, May 30, 1977. []