It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.Wittgenstein was a huge figure in 20th century philosophy who also knew a bit about music. His older brother Paul was a famous concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI. After the war he simply re-commenced his career, but now as a left-handed pianist! Amazing story. Both Prokofiev and Ravel wrote concertos for the left hand for him.
But back to interpretation: "how the music should be played". This is a funny word for what musical performers do. Interpreters do things like work for the UN and translate Thai into German. Music, while it may have arguably language-like aspects, is not a language. Musical scores are not like a written foreign language that needs to be translated into musical sound (which is also not a language). But we don't seem to have another word for what performers do. What do they do?
Here are some different performances of the well-known prelude to the First Cello Suite of Bach (it was used in the movie Master and Commander):
Irina Kulikova (on guitar):
Jacques Bono (electric bass):
Because I am a kind and gentle soul I will spare you the version on baritone saxophone.
Don't you love YouTube? Listening to those different versions, especially if you do it several times, will probably give you more of a sense of the concept of musical interpretation than anything I am likely to say. But I'll say it anyway!
Here is a relevant quote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." What Leo Tolstoy says of families is partly true of musical interpretation. You probably noticed that there was a kind of generalized agreement on a lot of the way the piece should be played. Apart from small differences in tempo, Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich are not that far apart. Casals was recorded probably back in the 1930s, so the feel for the piece was a little different. Bylsma is playing on an original instrument, meaning one from the same time period as the composition and he is also using gut strings, so he makes a different sound. And on guitar there is a huge difference because the strings are plucked, not bowed.
But somehow the word "interpretation" just doesn't cut it for me. It pushes you in entirely the wrong direction. Music notation is not interpreted. It is read just the way poetry is read. The 'words' are quite clear. An interpreter from Thai to German has a lot of options in choosing the right word. A musical performer does not. The composer wrote a G, you play a G--you don't "interpret" it as a B flat. Tempo is obviously a place where there is some ambiguity. But notice that all the versions are about two and a half minutes, give or take twenty seconds or so. The same player might vary that much from one day to another.
I think that what players do is akin to someone reading poetry. If one person just picks up a poem and reads it aloud, that is one thing. If another person, who has thought about and researched the meaning of the poem for years picks it up and reads it aloud, that is quite a different thing. That is what musical 'interpretation' really is. Understanding as it shapes the performance.
So interpretation is the wrong word. But I just can't think what the right one would be. Any ideas?
UPDATE: I was delighted to read in the Guardian in the review of the 5th week of the Proms that Bernard Haitink is entirely of my way of thinking about interpretation:
...in his interval chat with the presenter and conductor Charles Hazelwood, Haitink answered a question about how his interpretation of Brahms had developed over the years with a wonderfully wrong-footing answer: "this word 'interpretation' should be forbidden … We have these wonderful scores and what we have to do is make sense of them. Why can't we just make music?"Nothing "wrong-footing", whatever that means, about that answer. That's just how it is. Music doesn't need 'interpretation' it just needs to be played.