Last night I have been reading about Alban Berg’s Lulu, its posthumous status and TWP (The Widow Problem), one that is not uncommon at all.

The moral of the story is that the reader is able to question the extent to which the interpreter has been following the authorial intention. This is in fact a phenomenon characteristic of music performance. Musical performance is almost always mediated: the reader interacts with the author through interpretive agents, even in the case when the composer deliver the performance himself. We normally don’t study the score and we wait for someone to study it and explain it to us. To use an analogy not too irrelevant, we music illiterates cannot read, therefore have to rely on the church to explain what the Scripture means. In literature and cinema, we do have exegesis. However, you can choose to agree or disagree with what the criticism is saying, and you can always go back to the work, alone. In this sense, we say that a literary or cinematic text is easily unmediated, whereas a music text isn’t.

For someone who has studied the score and someone who merely attends the performance, it is very different aspects of the work they pay attention to. According to Douglas Jarman, most of the contemporary production of Lulu fail to respect Berg’s stage direction and his precise coordination of musical expression to stage characters. The Boulez/Chereau production in Paris, the post-war premiere of Lulu (1979) in its three act entirety, sets up a bad example for those to follow. To respond to this line of criticism, Boulez rants,

What a load of codswallop it all is, in fact—this obsession with the time and place of the action and this minute following of stage directions. What contempt it shows for the real meaning of the work. What a pharisaical literal-mindedness! What a failure to understand the autonomous existence of the work itself in relation to its creator…

To this Jarman remains absolutely unconvinced. I am sure Jarman would not like Eco’s Opera Aperta, pun intended.

One of the critics, referring to the fact that Chereau brings extra characters to the stage who have no musical cues in the original work, claims, “they are not merely superfluous, they negate.”


But to negate is not a big deal in modern art, as if the critic hadn’t been to an exhibition of Duchamp? If we take that Berg’s authorial intention is to achieve an unprecedented correspondence between musical expression and stage action, between the aural and the visual, a connection that is historically loose in the art of opera, for good reason, does a contemporary production has the right to disrespect it? In other words, can a meaning (such as negation) be injected into a work that is not meant to negate? Duchamp seems to say yes. And there are a lot others.

Again we are facing the same issue of interpretive framework. An artwork cannot be understood without its proper interpretive framework set up in advance. Yet when we go to art, we do not necessarily always have the right one. In such occasions, we experience a clash of our interpretive habits and the interpretive framework obstinately demanded by the work. This clash can lead to two directions: either we are willing to adjust and learn this new framework, through various cues (reading what the artist has to say, or critics), so as to eliminate our confusion; or we can just dismiss the work as not making sense. It is not a matter of intelligence but of commitment. The latter happens often to dilettante whose motivation in front of art is suspicious in the first place. In music the case is even more complicated, as shown in the reception of Lulu. The critics are actually using the authorial intention to disqualify the production’s interpretation. We have to say that unfortunately (or fortunately) in the realm of music things are kept in the way they were five hundreds years ago, except musicians become international stars.


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