Cover image for The Musician as Interpreter By Paul Thom

The Musician as Interpreter

Paul Thom


$27.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03199-6

128 pages
6" × 9"
32 b&w illustrations

Studies of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium

The Musician as Interpreter

Paul Thom

“Paul Thom’s latest book is a valuable and illuminating contribution to the philosophy of music. It focuses on a number of musical activities not often accorded sufficient attention by philosophers, such as the transcribing of works, the writing of variations, and the annotating of scores. Thom makes a persuasive case that activities of that sort, and even more so, that of musical performing, are modes of musical interpretation, and thus that musical interpretation is hardly the province of criticism alone, being instead something that pervades musical practice.”


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Among the many practices in which musicians engage are several that may be viewed as modes of interpretation, a kind of interpretation that Paul Thom calls “performative” to contrast it with another kind he calls “critical.” The difference is that the latter discusses a musical work; the former presents or enacts it. This book aims at making the case for understanding these activities of transcribing, varying, and realizing music as all forms of interpretation and, indeed, for seeing performative interpretation overall as a paradigm of what interpretation is. Thom devotes a chapter to each of the three types and, to make his philosophical points musically concrete, provides a wealth of illustrations ranging from classical music to jazz and involving performers as diverse as Toscanini and Billie Holiday.
“Paul Thom’s latest book is a valuable and illuminating contribution to the philosophy of music. It focuses on a number of musical activities not often accorded sufficient attention by philosophers, such as the transcribing of works, the writing of variations, and the annotating of scores. Thom makes a persuasive case that activities of that sort, and even more so, that of musical performing, are modes of musical interpretation, and thus that musical interpretation is hardly the province of criticism alone, being instead something that pervades musical practice.”
“Written like a musical score, in a clear prose style, the book states its theme early, displays variations of the theme in chapters devoted to the three main forms of performative interpretation, and recapitulates that theme in a final chapter titled ‘Interpretation." Deeply informed by the author’s knowledge of music, the history of music, and theory, this volume is generously illustrated with examples of musical scores.”

Paul Thom is Professor of Philosophy and Executive Dean of Arts at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia.


List of Musical Examples



1. Transcriptions

2. Variations

3. Realizations

4. Interpretations




And then he sat down at the cottage piano and played us the whole composition out of his head, the first and the incredible second movement, shouting his comments into the midst of his playing and in order to make us conscious of the treatment demonstrating here and there in his enthusiasm by singing as well; altogether it made a spectacle partly entrancing, partly funny; and repeatedly greeted with merriment by his little audience. For as he had a very powerful attack and exaggerated the forte, he had to shriek extra loud to make what he said half-way intelligible and to sing with all the strength of his lungs to emphasize vocally what he played.

The pianist portrayed in this passage from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is doing two things at once. In playing the music, he is engaged in an act of performative interpretation. In speaking about the music, he is giving a critical interpretation of it. The object of interpretation is the same in both cases: it is Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, op. 111. But there are two kinds—or two senses—of interpretation. The differences between them can be explained as follows. A performative interpretation is expressed in action; it presents the work in a certain light, and because of this, there is a sense in which the work is actually there, as part of the performer’s action. By contrast, a critical interpretation is expressed in words; it discusses the work, and the object of critical interpretation may be absent. The comic juxtaposition of the two types of interpretation in this passage highlights the extent of their differences by showing that they get in each other’s way.

This book is about musical interpretation. Musical interpretation contrasts with critical interpretation, but includes more than performative interpretation. An idea of what it includes can be gained by considering a remark of Alfred Brendel’s in his essay on Liszt’s piano playing. Brendel says that Liszt did not teach his pupils how to play the piano; he concentrated on interpretation. What, then, did he actually teach them? Fundamentally, he must have taught them the art, rather than the technique, of playing the piano. This art of turning the score into a performance, however, presupposes a whole musical culture comprising a richly interrelated set of musical practices—or at least, it did presuppose such a musical culture in Liszt’s day. Included in such a culture is an art of understanding what is explicit in the notation, an art of disambiguating and correcting it where necessary, of understanding what might be implicit in the notation but would have been assumed by the composer’s contemporaries. This is the art of editing keyboard music, and it is part of the musical culture to which Liszt and his contemporaries belonged. It forms part of what I mean by musical interpretation. Liszt himself edited Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and among his pupils, Emil von Sauer edited Liszt’s works, Karl Klindworth edited those of Chopin, Hans von Bülow edited Beethoven, and Alexander Siloti edited Tchaikovsky—to name just a few cases. Editing was not always a distinct activity from transcribing, as Brendel notes: “Every edition of older music, with the exception of those by editors like Bischoff and Kullak, was virtually a transcription. Bülow ‘corrected’ Beethoven. Adolf Ruthardt, with no qualifications as composer, virtuoso or musical thinker, turned every masterpiece he touched into an Augean stable.”

Related to the art of editing music, then, there is an art of transcription—in Liszt’s case, the art of translating orchestral and vocal music into the language of the piano. This, too, is part of the musical culture in which Liszt flourished, and I include it under the rubric of musical interpretation. So, besides discussing performative interpretation, we shall also be considering those musical works that—like transcriptions, paraphrases, and variation sets—operate in a variety of ways on preexisting musical material. Liszt must have passed on some of his knowledge of the art of transcription and paraphrase, because among his pupils, Moritz Moszkowski penned transcriptions of Wagner, Moriz Rosenthal of Johann Strauss, Giovanni Sgambati of Gluck, Alexander Siloti of Ravel, Carl Tausig of Bach, and so on.

Musical interpretation, therefore, exists at three distinct levels. At the editorial level, there is an art of deciphering musical scores, of contextualizing them historically, of adjusting and expanding them to make them suitable for performance. At the level of composition, there is an art of transcribing and adapting certain types of music to a form in which they reinterpret their originals in the language of the desired performative forces. At the level of performance, preexisting material is interpreted or reinterpreted through the local and global interpretations of performing artists. Franz Liszt was a master interpreter in all of these ways.

Liszt’s mastery of the arts of editing, transcribing, and generally arranging music for the keyboard can be gathered from the following description.

In 1844, at the height of Liszt’s career as a pianist, a lover of Bach in Montpellier, Jules Laurens, reproached him with his charlatanry, and then asked him to play his famous arrangement for the piano of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor for organ:

“How do you want me to play it?”

“How? But . . . the way it ought to be played.”

“Here it is, to start with, as the author must have understood it, played it himself, or intended it to be played.”

And Liszt played. It was admirable, the perfection itself of the classical style exactly in conformity with the original.

“Here it is a second time, as I feel it, with a slightly more picturesque movement, a more modern style and the effects demanded by an improved instrument.” And it was, with these nuances, different . . . but no less admirable.

“Finally, a third time, here it is the way I would play it for the public—to astonish, as a charlatan.” And, lighting a cigar which passed at moments from between his lips to his fingers, executing with his ten fingers the part written for the organ pedals, and indulging in other tours de force and prestidigitation, he was prodigious, incredible, fabulous, and received gratefully with enthusiasm.

Here we catch the great pianist reflecting on the interpreter’s aims and acknowledging that they must be adapted to the intended audience. For one audience, the work is to be interpreted in the light of the composer’s intentions; for another, the contemporary means of performance is paramount; for a third, the work must be interpreted so as to entertain. Interpretation is not just interpretation-of and interpretation-by, but also interpretation-for.

The activities of editing music, transcribing it, varying it, and performing it may all have been embodied in the person of Franz Liszt, but that does not make them identical activities, and we should begin by clearly distinguishing them. I shall not have much to say about editing, because its differences from musical composition and performance are clear enough.


To transcribe a musical work is to adapt it to a medium for which it was not originally devised. On the one hand, the transcription shares musical content with the original work; on the other, it reworks that content for a new musical medium. It follows that a transcription of a scored work must contain a different set of performance directives from those contained in the score of the original work. Therefore, if the identity of a musical work depends on what is prescribed in its score, a transcription is a different work from its original. This point is contested by Roger Scruton, who thinks that “the vocal score of an opera, in which the orchestral parts are transcribed for piano, is surely not another work.” Scruton argues that “the ruling intention of the transcriber is to preserve the pattern of pitched sounds as the composer intended it, but without the instrumental colour.” He appears to assume that the instrumental color is not part of the work, and that may be a defensible view about a work’s identity. The view I shall adopt, however, is that the identity of a work is determined by the set of determinative directives for performance in its score. On this view, scoring is part of the work’s identity. The point is not a crucial one, though. As Scruton himself observes, “questions of identity do not ultimately matter.”

Of greater importance is the fact that what is foregrounded in a transcription is not its difference from the original material, but its sameness. That material may be presented in a new way, but the focus is on the material itself rather than on its reworking. Stephen Davies (writing about Brahms’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne) points out that a performance of a transcription is not (thereby) a performance of the work transcribed, adding: “Of course, it is perfectly natural to say one hears Bach’s Chaconne in Brahms’s work transcription. Besides being natural, this is correct. The transcription would be a failure if it did not provide the auditor with epistemic access to (much of) Bach’s work. But . . . a performance offering indirect acquaintance with one work need not be of that work.”

Obviously, the transcribing of a musical work is a different activity from that of rendering a performance into notation—which also goes by the name of transcription. In both cases the output is a work for performance, but only in the former is the input such a work. Not so obviously, transcriptions differ from paraphrases. Paraphrases, like transcriptions, are of works rather than themes or styles. And like transcriptions, they adapt old content to a new medium. They differ from transcriptions in that they do not track the material’s content bar by bar, but instead adopt a looser approach to it, taking bits from here and there in the material, mixing them up, and linking them by novel transitions that are not to be found anywhere in the material.

For Peter Kivy, performances are like arrangements. It is true that both performances and arrangements can be called “versions” of their topic works, but we need to remember that performances are in other respects unlike transcriptions, in that their topic works are relatively abstract. There is also a distinction between work transcriptions and other types of musical arrangements, such as variations and homages—as Davies reminds us. At first glance, it seems as if we could base these distinctions on the different types of object that variations, transcriptions, and homages have: variations are of themes, transcriptions of works, and homages are to composers (or to the composer’s style). Up to a point, this idea works. Homages are indeed distinguished from transcriptions in the way claimed, and because of this a homage need not share any musical material with its object, other than the object’s style. A transcription, by contrast, must share material with its topic work in a much more specific way, usually by sharing all the principal melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements. Yet the distinction between transcriptions and variations cannot be reduced to the distinction between a work and a theme. A theme may be transcribed, as, for instance, when Brahms transcribes the “Saint Anthony Chorale” (along with its variations) for two pianos. Further, a work may become the subject of variations, as in Beethoven’s variations for cello and piano on “God Save the King.” The distinction between variations and transcriptions will be discussed in Chapters 1 and 2.


When we hear a variation as a variation, we are somehow cognizant of the theme as well. We hear the theme in the variation, in a way. The experience is perhaps like that described by Plato, the experience of intuiting the form in the particulars. The particulars strive after the form, or are approximations to it. The perception is of dependence, not just similarity. Malcolm Budd puts it like this: “A common form in music is that of theme and variations. Since an appreciation of a work of this form requires the listener to hear the variations as variations of the theme, the work can be said to be about the relational property of similarity in difference—the listener understands the work only if his experience of the music is imbued with this idea.” Similarity in difference can be experienced in two ways: as an experience of a type of sameness, or as an experience of a type of difference. The first type of experience is the more relevant to our experience of transcriptions, and the second, to our experience of variations.

We need to ask, however, whether something can be a variation even though we do not hear it as a variation. Willi Apel suggests as much when he says that “the meaning of the variation form lies in change,” but change is one thing, and perceived change another. On an objective understanding, what differentiates variations from transcriptions is the relation that binds them to their originals, regardless of whether this relation is perceived or not. A variation varies the content, while a transcription varies the medium. More precisely, a transcription varies the medium while not disturbing (so far as possible) the content, whereas a variation retains some parts of the content and varies other parts of it. The question of whether an objective account of this sort is adequate will be addressed in Chapter 2.


The performance instructions contained in a musical score explicitly or implicitly prescribe certain actions on the part of those who aim to comply with that score. They also explicitly or implicitly proscribe certain actions. And they leave certain actions open—neither prescribed nor proscribed. I use the term “realization” to cover any way of narrowing the set of actions left open by such performance instructions, whether this is by way of performing the music in question or by annotating the score.

The art of realizing a piece of music includes an art of nuancing the score’s dynamics and its other indications. As exercised during a performance, it involves a capacity to depart from a planned reading, adding decorations, flourishes, cadenzas, or other departures from the score. For instance, Liszt invented new ways of doing things at the keyboard, including a certain way of playing double chromatic scales that departed from the printed score. All this is local interpretation. At the level of global interpretation, the musician-interpreter projects a vision of the work as a whole. Such a vision of the work may (or may not) be governed by a literary narrative. Liszt’s circle, we know, made use of such narratives in interpreting the master’s Sonata in B Minor as well as his Ballade in B Minor. An awareness of these narratives in the audience no doubt helped the pianist project a global interpretation of the work.

Realizations should be distinguished from both transcriptions and variations. The essential difference lies in the fact that a realization includes its object, whereas a transcription or a variation does not. By this I mean that in order to play a realization of a piece of music, you have to do everything that is required in order to play that piece. By contrast, to play a variation on a theme, you have to do different things from the things you do in playing the theme. Similarly, to play a transcription of a piece you have to do different things from what you do in playing the piece.

Stephen Davies thinks that while a performance of a work transcription is not a performance of the work, a performance of an arrangement (such as the Glenn Miller arrangement of “In the Mood”) is also a performance of the original song (authored by Joseph Garland and Andy Razaf). Our distinction between realizations and transcriptions gives us a way of explaining this difference. The reason is that the Glenn Miller is a realization of the song, whereas a transcription is not a realization of its topic work. Any performance of Glenn Miller’s version of “In the Mood” is also a performance of the original song, because the performative actions specified by the Miller arrangement include the performative actions specified by the song. The same holds for any arrangement of the song that includes its melody line and harmonies (and whatever other conditions it specifies). The relationship is one of realization. If you do the latter, you thereby do the former. The same cannot be said for the Bach Chaconne for solo violin and a transcription of it for piano—or indeed of any case in which we are comparing a transcription and its topic work. The identity of the Chaconne is not exhausted by the notes on the page. If it were, then a piano transcription that included all the original notes (along with a lot more) would stand to the Bach work just as an arrangement of a song. The point is that Bach’s piece is not just a skeleton for a work—it is a work in itself, one that achieves a remarkable fullness, partly by virtuosity, partly by suggestion. Essential to Bach’s achievement is the paucity of the means he uses. The work is not constituted solely by its prescriptions for performance, but implicitly proscribes certain actions. In declaring itself as a work for solo violin, it proscribes filling out the harmonies on the keyboard. In general, a performance of a transcription is not a performance of the original work, whereas a performance of a realization is also a performance of that which is being realized.

The succeeding chapters will discuss the arts of musical transcription, variation, and realization, taking as our point of departure Ferruccio Busoni’s provocative ideas on these topics. In Chapter 1, we will critically examine Busoni’s twin theories that composition is a form of transcription and that transcription aims to recover the composer’s original inspiration. Busoni’s account of these matters will be contrasted, unfavorably, with the accounts recently articulated by Stephen Davies, but I will propose some amendments to what Davies says. In order to set this theory in an empirical context, we will discuss various actual keyboard transcriptions—literal, creative, and parodic—from the baroque and Romantic periods, as well as from 1940s jazz. We will examine the distinctions among paraphrases and other transcriptions.

In Chapter 2, we will test Busoni’s ideas about the art of writing variations against a selection of examples drawn from Elizabethan, baroque, and late classical keyboard music and from jazz. We will also contrast his ideas with the remarkable ideas of Nelson Goodman on this topic. Strangely enough, both authors assimilate variations to the class of transcriptions; I will challenge this assimilation on several grounds. Variations foreground their differences with their material; transcriptions foreground their similarities with their material. A variation’s subject can be distinguished from its theme, and because of this, it can represent its theme in ways that are not open to a transcription. Further, because variations come in sets, the members of which may refer to one another as well as to their common theme, a variation’s reference to its theme may possess a level of complexity greater than what can occur in a transcription.

In Chapter 3, our discussions will center on the idea of a musical realization. Again, Busoni’s theories will provide a convenient focus, and again we will find them wanting when compared with what Davies has to say on the topic. We will consider several examples of musical realization as recorded on piano roll, disc, and video. And in the last chapter, I shall attempt to draw the material together in a philosophical account of these interpretive activities. I shall reject a narrow conception of interpretation according to which interpretation is restricted to critical interpretation. A broad concept of interpretation takes transcription, variation, and realization to be different modes of musical interpretation linked by similarities of structure and purpose. I will show that these similarities are also shared by critical interpretations.

Notes on Representation and Meaning

Throughout the book, I will deploy two key concepts in ways that may not be congenial to some of my philosophical readers. These are the concepts of representation and meaning.

Representation is, at the least, a two-termed relation. A representation is a representation of an object (that which is represented) by means of a vehicle (that which represents). In a mathematical sense, one series of elements sometimes represents another series of elements: certain elements from one series can be mapped onto elements in the other, and there are functional relationships between certain features of one series and corresponding features of the other. For example, the positive even numbers (series A) can be mapped on to the natural numbers (series B) as shown below.

A: 2 4 6 8 10 ...

B: 1 2 3 4 5 ...

Beyond this mapping of individual members of one series onto individual members of the other, there are relations connecting groups of elements in one series with groups of elements in the other. For example, the result of dividing two elements of series A is a function of the result of dividing the corresponding elements in series B, as 10/6 is a function of 5/3—namely, the former is equal to the latter. Again, the sum of two elements from series A is a function of the sum of the corresponding elements from series B, as 2+6 is a function of 1+3—namely, the former is twice the latter. These relationships hold by virtue of certain global features of series A. Because of the existence of these individual mappings and global relationships, series A can be said to represent series B.

Mathematical representations like this exist eternally and do not depend on human agency. Intentional representations, by contrast, come into existence as a result of human agency, and this difference needs to be taken into account when we think about such representations. Intentional representation is a three-term relation between a representing agent, an object, and a vehicle. Because there is a representing agent, those cases in which the agent presents the vehicle as representing the object can be distinguished from those in which the vehicle is a representation of the object, but it is not presented as such. Further, the object is an intentional object. It is not just a thing but a thing as construed by the agent. A drawing of a face, for example, is done by someone, and the face drawn is not just a face, but a face as construed by the artist. In general, a distinction can be drawn between an intentional representation’s object and any model it may have. A model is something that the agent is emulating in the course of the act of representation. If there is a model in the case of transcriptions, variations, and realizations, it would be another transcription, variation, or realization. It would not be the musical work that is being transcribed, varied, or realized.

Intentional representation is different from mathematical representation, but sometimes it mimics mathematical representation as it aims to map the vehicle’s aspects or elements onto those of the (intentional) object, in such a way that there are global relationships connecting certain of the vehicle’s features with corresponding features of the object. Consider a drawing of a face. The drawing is the vehicle, and the object is a face (not necessarily any existing face). A drawing of a face not only shows the face’s parts (eyes, ears, mouth, and so on), but shows various features of these elements (an expression such as a smile, for instance) in such a way that these features are functions of features of the corresponding parts of a real face.

Philosophers have articulated various specific concepts of intentional representation. Some philosophers speak of seeing or hearing the object in the vehicle. Because this way of talking makes reference to what can be seen or heard in the vehicle, we have to ask, “Seen or heard by whom?” Evidently a representation of this type does not just have a vehicle, an object, and a representing agent; it also has an intended addressee in that it is for an intended audience, the members of which are intended to see or hear it in particular ways. The fulfillment of this intention is facilitated by suitable resemblances to the represented object, but it additionally depends on the existence of audiences who have learned appropriate ways of seeing and hearing that are acquired by immersion in the experience of relevant representational practices.

There is in this type of intentional representation a characteristic duality in our visual (and auditory) experience. Our attention is drawn now to the object, and now, consequently, to the vehicle, and vice versa. Roger Scruton speaks here of a “double intentionality”:

When I see a face in a picture, then, in the normal aesthetic context, I am not seeing a picture and a face; nor am I seeing a resemblance between the picture and a face. The face and the picture are fused in my perception: which is not to say that I confuse the one with the other, or mistake the reality of either. I am presented with two simultaneous objects of perception: the real picture, and the imaginary face. And my response to each is fused with my response to the other.

I shall call this type of intentional representation experiential representation. Experiential representation is more specific than intentional representation, as we shall see in Chapter 2.

Representation in the arts is characteristically experiential. An experiential representation might still be what Arthur Danto calls a “mere representation,” however. An experiential representation’s object, by definition, can be seen or heard in it, but that does not mean that the object is represented as anything in particular. A portrait of Napoleon could satisfy the definition of experiential representation, in that Napoleon can be seen in it, without its representing Napoleon as a Roman emperor or as anything else. To put it in terms favored by Danto, the representation might include no metaphorical transfiguration of its object. The conception of an intentional representation that represents its object as something or other is important in relation to representational art, and I will refer to it as the concept of aspectual representation.

I am not assuming that aspectual representations are always experiential. That question will be broached in a later chapter. I am assuming that an aspectual representation applies what may be called a treatment to its object, in the sense that it is conceptually coherent. Not every intentional representation includes a treatment, because in some cases the relevant features of the vehicle do not cohere with one another. It may be that parts of the vehicle apply treatments to parts of the object, without the vehicle as a whole applying a treatment to the object.

Scruton favors an even more specific sense of “representation.” He restricts representation to “the presentation of thoughts about a fictional world.” We might label this fictional representation. Scruton argues that music, because it does not present such thoughts, does not involve fictional representation. But of course that does not settle the question of whether music involves artistic representation. I shall be arguing that some musical phenomena do exhibit artistic representationality.

Meaning, like representation, is a concept that philosophers have defined in a multitude of different ways. Scruton makes a fundamental observation: “the meaning of music lies within it; it can be recovered only through an act of musical understanding.” Thus, to speak of musical meaning is not to commit oneself to thinking that music somehow denotes or refers to something beyond itself. (And yet, as we shall see, some music is meaningful by virtue of such a reference.) Scruton identifies a particular type of meaning—aesthetic meaning—in the following terms: “When a critic tells us that such and such is part of the meaning of a piece of music, then what he says can be accepted only if we can also experience the music as he describes it.”

Aesthetic understanding is the correlative of aesthetic meaning in Scruton’s account: “If music has meaning, then that meaning must be understood by the one who understands the music. Hence the concept of musical understanding displaces that of musical meaning: we have no idea what musical meaning might be, until we have some grasp of the distinction between the one who hears with understanding and the one who merely hears.” The only rider I would add to Scruton’s comments is that understanding, like representation, may be experiential or purely conceptual—and so, correspondingly, may musical meaning.

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