The Composer’s Advocate: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians. By Erich Leinsdorf

by Walter Simmons

THE COMPOSER’S ADVOCATE: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians.  By Erich Leinsdorf. 216 pp.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981. $14.95.

Erich Leinsdorf, certainly one of our most intelligent and knowledgeable conductors has written a book of considerable value.  Though its intended reader is primarily the aspiring conductor, the many more music lovers who have fantasized themselves in this role will also find the book provocative and illuminating. Leinsdorf’s notion of the conductor’s role entails an almost sacred duty to fulfill the intentions of the composer.  In order to accomplish this, one must be thoroughly familiar with the composer’s life, with his entire musical output, with his native language, and with the musical assumptions of the time and place in which he lived and worked.  One must also know the work at hand through an intimate knowledge of the written score, rather than through the predigested medium of recordings.

Mind you, Leinsdorf is not urging a mere adherence to the letter of the printed page.  To him such simple-minded literalism is as much a manifestation of ignorance and vanity as is the indulgence in splashy effects designed to appeal to the grandstand.  What he demands is the knowledge and study necessary to recreate the composer’s thought processes, so that one is able to know precisely what the score means, a task that has often been complicated by attempts to anticipate and compensate in the score for such transitory circumstances as a particular acoustical ambience, or an available ensemble that is unusually large, small, or inept, not to mention printing errors and notational conventions limited to a particular time and place.  The body of the book elaborates upon this theme, offering an intriguing variety of examples that have baffled and misled many musicians, but which become clear and unequivocal when viewed in a sufficiently informed context.

Needless to say, today’s superstar performers, many of them pretentious jetsetters whose musical preparation has been only perfunctory and who have been elevated prematurely to positions of considerable musical responsibility, do not begin to approximate Leinsdorf’s ideal.  While refraining discreetly from petty gossip, he does not withhold his scorn from those who have abused their positions by betraying the trust implicit in their roles.  In fact, lying behind the informative, if somewhat didactic, tone that prevails throughout is a haughty arrogance that is, nonetheless, not unjustified.  While we are informed of the crucial importance of this or that historical fact, we are also reminded that Leinsdorf knows this, and his colleagues who don’tknow it ought to know it.

Basically, Leinsdorf is right, and he has earned his arrogance.  It is essential to know German in order to understand Wagner’s scores, and to know French in order to understand Debussy’s scores, etc.  Translations are inadequate.  It is true that staccatomeans much more than just cutting the notes short, depending on the time, place, and composer involved.  It is true that the correct tempo can be gauged precisely by a thorough study of analogous tempos throughout the composer’s output, and by an understanding of the structural importance of a particular tempo within an entire work.  Not only are such assertions true beyond a doubt, but it is evident that Erich Leinsdorf has devoted more thought to these matters than have most conductors on the scene today.  Indeed, no aspiring conductor should entertain the notion of entering the field without reading this book and considering its contents seriously.

Yet there are times when Leinsdorf verges on pedantry–when scholarly puritanism prevents him from recognizing other elements of reality that might alter the perspective somewhat.  For example, I would imagine that many conductors, after reading the book, might comment candidly to themselves, “Sure, he’s right.  But preparation like this would entail more time-consuming work than I can handle without curtailing my schedule — not to mention my income — significantly.  And who, besides Erich Leinsdorf, would know the difference anyway?  Sure, I know the loud parts shouldn’t be as loud as I do them, and the fast parts shouldn’t be as fast as I conduct them.  But it makes a much better effect that way on an unsophisticated audience.  And after all, what are we, anyway, without an audience?  A symphony orchestra can’t thrive in a vacuum, or for the amusement of a small group of scholars.  Isn’t Leinsdorf a bit of a fusspot?” I may not share or condone this reaction, but it does raise issues that Leinsdorf might have confronted.

However, I ask in all seriousness: Must a work that is generally well-known be played with the same strict adherence to the composer’s original intentions as an unfamiliar one?  Hasn’t the literate listener absorbed the essence of this music to the point where a traditional approach simply belabors the obvious?  Mightn’t an avowedly eccentric approach to a familiar classic shed some fresh light on it? Is great music really so delicate and vulnerable that it cannot withstand a certain interpretive latitude?  Gestalt psychologists have demonstrated that a stimulus can be altered considerably before it ceases to be perceived as that same stimulus.  Moreover, most composers are concerned more with the realization of their creative impetus than they are with actual musical details, and this impetus is captured more by an attitude than by conformity to the notational parameters.  Leinsdorf himself seems on the verge of acknowledging this from time to time.  Yet it is almost as if his pedantic rigidity and self-righteousness often overwhelm his common sense and better judgment.

And then there is the question of repertoire: If a conductor spends all those precious hours in an exhaustive study of the life and work of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the like, then he doesn’t have much time to learn the music of other composers, or to peruse the hundreds of new scores that appear each year, in search of the important ones.  This doesn’t seem to bother Leinsdorf too much.  In fact, it is rather shocking to discover that, after devoting an entire book to the formidable responsibilities that face the serious conductor, he spends a mere 4 pages on the selection of repertoire — in a sense the most significant contribution that a conductor can make. Suddenly Leinsdorf is very docile, warning of the limited tastes of audiences, and urging the neophyte “to admit cheerfully that a musician belongs to a wide group known as entertainers.” For him the old masters offer all the variety one needs; one can always turn for novelty to their lesser-known works.  This allows one “time to learn those works outside the standard repertoire to which one may be committed by necessity, it not by conviction.” Leinsdorf does not seem to realize that complacently accepting a hand-me-down repertoire as gospel is as irresponsible and lazy-minded as accepting the interpretive clichés that insinuate themselves into the performances of familiar works-a phenomenon Leinsdorf guards against with vigilance.

It is all a matter of priorities.  Leinsdorf prefers to devote his energy to perfecting his performances of the works of a handful of composers from the past.  This is a worthy task, and one that is better done diligently than carelessly.  But there is something ostrich-like about this stance, despite the rigorous standards he sets.  His is basically a curatorial role, and seems to me of relatively minor importance when compared with the task of keeping the repertoire fresh, alive, and representative of the best works of hundreds of composers as new ones appear all the time.