W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000)

Here is a delightful morsel from Willard van Orman Quine (Word and Object, 1960): given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one of mutually incompatible translations of a text is the correct one. While what is really best in any book is always translatable, the hard truth is that translation is the art of failure. It is not merely poetry that is lost in translation: linguistic meaning too is only ever an echo. 

Let’s rework Quine in this way: given all available material evidence, it is impossible to determine which one performance of a music score is the correct one. Is it always thus? What is our attitude to the various performances of a score, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Do we prefer a performance of it by one orchestra over another? Yes, typically we do. We all have our favorite music recordings. We prefer one performance over another by the same orchestra on different occasions, or by the same orchestra but with a different conductor, concertmaster, principal trombone, etc. etc, and so on. And this only for classical music in our western society.

In all such cases, do we contrast performances only in terms of correctness? But, what is the standard of comparison here? Well, one might rank one performance higher than another in terms of fidelity to the score. For example, the Klemperer recording of the Ninth (1957) is highly regarded for the self-control with which the conductor Otto Klemperer observes the tempo marking ‘Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso’ in the first movement. We could explain our preference for this recording of the Ninth by citing that as the reason. Suppose we say this. It is conceivable that, in this case, the Klemperer recording of the first movement is correct (to the score). One would need a trained ear to make this sort of judgement. Nonetheless, we could, if so inclined, rank one recording of the Ninth higher than another of the same piece using the score as the standard. But imagine a case in which musical appreciation consisted only in such judgements!

Surely, talk of correctness fails to exhaust all that might be said of the ‘meaning’ of the piece. We may judge a piece of music to be ‘correct’, and other performances of it as ‘incorrect’ – though it is strange to say this – but such talk is within the ambit of our larger attitude which regards a performance of music, especially in the classical tradition, always as interpretation. We speak of ‘correct music’ without thereby meaning that it is not an interpretation. Provision is made for this. Only a philosopher would say otherwise. And we remind ourselves here that music is interpretation in the case when one wishes to make judgements of correctness the sole criterion of musical appreciation. Again: nothing is lost to the other who disregards Klemperer’s Ninth in the face of one who thinks it correct.

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