March 4, 2011

Casals and the Art of Interpretation

I read "Casals and the Art of Interpretation by David Blum around the time I started this blog and have been meaning to write about it ever since. It's a treasure-trove of wisdom about music, and also paints a lively picture of Pablo Casals, sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes that bring to life the character from which the wisdom springs. 

Although a lot of musicianship can be broken down into guidelines to follow, it's the individual that makes them into music.

It's worth noting that Casals' views represent a particular school of thought that I think is not considered universal today. A lot of his recommendations go against what's said Anthony Glise's "Classical Guitar Pedagogy" book, to give an example of a book guitarists will run into which deals with interpretation. I'm not saying either is "the right way" of doing things.


One thing that is highlighted in the book is the importance of the phrasing of musical lines. This comes more naturally to singers and people who play monophonic instruments, but most guitar music involves multiple simultaneous lines and we need to shape those independently.

The typical (and rightly so) advice is to consider these lines individually and sing them out loud. Casals suggests that within each line, the sound should get louder as the notes ascend, and quieter as they descend. This probably doesn't mean that phrases should usually have a wide range of dynamics, but that they sing out in a natural way. 

The downside with guitar music as it is printed is that more often than not, we are not given phrasing slurs and in the clutter of fitting multiple voices on one staff, the phrasing can often appear ambiguous. I used to naively assume that they would follow the bar lines and consequently ended up with music that sounded very flat and dull. Then I learned that phrases often begin before the bar line, and are often longer than a bar.

The best ways to deal with this is to work on your music with an experienced teacher and to listen to a variety of high-level performers playing music and follow along in the score. It doesn't have to be (and shouldn't always be) guitar music. If you're interested in Casals, for example, you could listen to him on and you can probably find the scores on

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