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A slippery discussion with an aspiring conductor and candidate of postgraduate studies caused dizziness above a hollow abyss of ignorance. Our conversation on conductors and conducting had to cut laboriously through pompous defences of narcissism. When we finally arrived at the subject matter of relevant literature the candidate drew blanks. There was much head-nodding (the hands were engaged in writing fervently) and finally the telling question: “How do you spell Leinsdorf?”

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf (author of The Composer’s Advocate- A radical orthodoxy for musicians, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1981) would have appreciated the stunning nature of our conversation. Imagine a doctoral student in physics inquiring about the spelling of “Heisenberg”. The student aside, we would be justified to conclude that the end of the discipline itself was upon us. Leinsdorf, an eloquent advocate for the comprehensive education of musicians and one of the 20th century’s most notable conductors, would agree that any similarly serious conductor must know the subject matter. And knowing the subject matter of conducting would seem to suggest (among other things) knowing more than the names (or the spelling) of those who have significantly formed it. The reality is escaping from such expectations in the case of my conducting candidate whose inability to spell clearly disguised a much more fundamental ignorance and lack of attention.

Conductors and musicians, it seems, are increasingly focussed on impression management and on the imitation of artistic intention. This might be a function of times when a spectacular rise to fame and a capacity to enchant enthusiastic but ignorant patrons is a priority. A pursuit of success at all costs and a reliance on charisma comes at a decreasing ability to face the music and search for an authentic meaning of the score. Authentic forms of musical interpretation and the personal commitment to the truth of music would require involved study of music and its performance history. Busy musicians simply do not have that time. Public expectations do not allow that time. Fudging becomes a way of life. The business of music making increasingly favours individuals with a strong sense for power, a weak sense of the limitations of their knowledge and no sense for the appropriateness of their ambitions. A combination of ambition, ignorance and audacity, however, has rarely produced sustained benefit for all. Accordingly, it can only be helpful to remind all of some important foundations which need to inform the education of musicians with the help of Erich Leinsdorf.

Leinsdorf’s book outlines some pretty clear demands. It argues that musical interpretation is a search for meaning. As such, it requires interpretative skills and a will to truth. It presupposes a capacity to read and understand complex scores in considerable detail. It demands a comprehensive knowledge of performance traditions and contexts. Conductors in particular require a clear understanding of orchestras, their instruments and their modes of preparation. Leinsdorf demands from them the ability to speak at least four languages as conductors must be able to relate directly to operas and their respective Italian, German and French original texts.

Leinsdorf’s conception of the education of an interpreter is grounded in a unified view of human consciousness and creativity. While it is fashionable to emphasise the near-exclusive importance of inspiration to music, Leinsdorf argues for a fusion of grace and intellect: “It is unfortunate”, he writes, “that intellect has been made into an antipode of emotion and inspiration necessary to create great works. Inspiration and intellect are not incompatible; they must complement each other if a composition is to be a masterpiece. We can feel awe at the unfathomable and at the same time recognise the importance of conscious thought and effort.” (CA, 23)

The interpretation of music requires a critical capacity and the search for its meaning demand a critical effort. This focuses on questioning the ideas and clichés which are inherited or accepted and which can determine a prevalent perspective of a musical work. In the context of a performance tradition and readily available interpretations of musical works, critical reflection enables the interpreter to qualify or suspend accepted beliefs thus clearing the path for a new and illuminating conception of a particular work. Critical reflection and creativity are mutually informative. The former suspends habitual modes of thinking through questioning of ordinary responses and interpretations. It leads to an uncovering of new potential and thus a stimulation of creativity and creative initiative. The latter makes proposals and projections which must be questioned and tested. In the interpretative context, some but not all creative ideas are worthy of survival. Some but not all charismatic visions deserve an audience. In addition to aesthetic and spiritual enchantment critical reflection and artistic conscience determine what has a right to survive here.

Musical performance as interpretation thus benefits from reflection. It is fundamentally dependent on the will to engage with letter and spirit of a score – a will to truth. This includes a need to suspend an often predominant concern with the ego of the performer. “Vanity”, Leinsdorf writes, “is indeed the archenemy of the interpreter, because it interferes with his ability to receive messages from other minds. Freischwebende Aufmerksamkeit (“free-floating attention”), a technique that is the sine qua non of dream analysis, is in my view the essential quality for a great interpreter. Unfortunately, the consensus has been that those performers who exhibit the oddest, most flamboyant or most eccentric personalities have the greatest talent. This may seem true, as long as we do not know the composers they perform too intimately. If we do, the performer’s idiosyncrasies and vanities rise to the surface like oil in water.” (CA, 49)

Musicians seem to play multiple roles. Some of these require a presence of a strong and unyielding ego. Others require – what we may call with Leinsdorf – freely suspended attention, ie. an attention that is disinterested to the concerns of its ego but merely present in the pursuit of meaning. We call the latter ordinarily listening. In the case of my faint conductor the roles may become increasingly determined and narrow: an extreme sense of entitlement and importance and a weak sense of responsibility and conscience lead to spiritual deafness. This freezes authentic interpretative engagement – not a good prospect for the musician. While he remains suspended above an abyss of groundless satisfaction those condemned to make music with him experience the absurdity and despair of nonsense.