Two years ago, I wrote a paper about the interpretation of music. It was my senior project, the culmination of four years of studying music at Harvard. Along with submitting it to my adviser, I posted it on Facebook and emailed a copy to my mom. Yeah, I was proud of that paper. And now my views have changed.
You can read it here if you want, though I don't necessarily recommend it. Summarized in a single sentence: The composer's intent is the ideal toward which we strive. An unspoken premise is that the composer is always right. I treated this premise as obvious, like the fact that heavier things fall faster than lighter things, and objects in motion tend to come to rest. Two years wiser, I no longer see this as self evident. Why should a composer always be right?
A composition can only be transmitted through performance, and performance necessitates interpretation. Even a composer performing his own composition is (ideally) adjusting his performance based on the performance space, the audience, his own internal feelings at the moment, and probably numerous other factors. (After performing the Schumann Piano Quintet six times in four days, I no longer believe in a single ideal performance. Six ideal and identical performances would be torture.) Composition and performance are two distinct actions (except in improvisation.)
In nearly every performance to which I listen, there are ideas that I agree with and ideas that I disagree with. When I like a performance, I probably agree with more ideas than I disagree with. When I dislike a performance, vice versa. I never agree entirely with a performance--assuming I'm actively listening--so why would I expect to agree entirely with a composer's performance, or his intent? That's not to say that I don't value the composer's ideas on performance. Knowing how the composer wants his piece performed is essential to interpreting with integrity. However, his word is not the last word.
This idea is especially relevant when working with a living composer. Two years ago, I probably would have passed the buck on to the composer. If he wanted something that I disagreed with, well, I would do what he wanted and put the responsibility on him. These days I take a different approach. My goal as a performer is to convince the audience, and I have to be convinced myself if I am to do any convincing. Thus I strive to understand what the composer wants, not just blindly follow orders.
Maybe it's time for a sequel to that paper.