A Conductors Lament (Part 1)
Regularly our blog gets approached with the wish to publish „guest articles“, very often with the intent of some kind of self-promotion. But the following text (published in 5 parts over the coming days because of its length) is different. Rarely have we been approached with a text as explosive this one.
It is known that I often criticize aspects of the classical music business which I perceive as shallow, „selling out“ or reactionary. My critique doesn’t come out of a personal frustration (a cheap argument that is often wielded if anybody dares to raise a voice) but out of a deep love for the genre and tradition of classical music. If I – for example – criticize the absence of contemporary operas in our opera houses it is not because I hate „old“ operas, but because I love them dearly and want their tradition to be continued in our times so that it lives on. If the „old“ operas linger on as only an increasingly museal tourist attraction it will eventually suck all life out of them. But we are still heading that way, if we don’t acknowledge the present and perform the classical operas as part of a living tradition.
The following text is therefore very important for me because it makes a similar point about the state of our orchestral tradition, the classical music business and its influences on the art of conducting. What makes the following text so explosive and fascinating is that as a thorough and deeply informed criticism that is not written by a journalist or a musicologist but by an insider of the business: a conductor.
It is clear that that he/she has a name in the business and a thorough understanding of the history of conducting and orchestral interpretation. I hope that the publication in this blog will incite a fruitful discussion about the future of classical music. As all criticism it should not be perceived as destructive but as constructive. Whatever the reaction to the following series will be, I hope it will acknowledge the seriousness of the issue.
The following text is reproduced with the permission of the author and unabridged. It will be followed by an interview with the author.
PART 1: In which the „lamenting conductor“ talks about the reasons for writing his essay, the historical perspective of conducting and decisive (and mostly not positive) developments in the later 20th Century that were shaped by conductors like Karajan.
The following thoughts were written out of deep sadness and concern that I have been carrying with me for a long time. Sadness about the state of the music profession and conducting in particular. Sadness about the way the most precious art of music is being used by the classical music industry and mostly about the manner in which so many musicians choose to practice their profession. And concern that music has reached the point of no return and that this once great art has lost forever its important and irreplaceable function in our society.
When I was a student, music aroused in me only feelings of optimism. At that stage, one is not inclined to think about one’s future career. The challenges of finding a job, earning money and the sordid intrigues this involves, are all hidden behind the scores of great composers. Attending concerts, listening to recordings, speaking with one’s teachers and colleagues about music and, above all, the daily occupation with musical masterpieces, make for a unique and beautiful experience of becoming part of the music world – a true privilege. I clearly recall the feeling of gratitude that filled me when I was accepted to study conducting at a prestigious music university.
The same feeling of gratitude followed me in my first conducting engagement. After all, how many people get to practice the thing which means the world to them as a profession? Though it was in a small music institute, as my career developed, I was working with orchestras that shortly before I could only have dreamt of. Nevertheless, with time, my former enthusiasm was marred by disappointment. The music of the great composers could only inspire me in my private encounters with it and the daily realization of it as a conductor was causing me more and more frustration. Soon I came to the conclusion that the classical music industry today is unworthy of the great art it was founded upon.
I am now convinced that the great tradition of music performance which was once a fast component of our society has become an old memory, neglected by the public and professional musicians alike. The artistic and ethical standards in music have deteriorated to the point that conscious musicians hardly have a chance to honestly express themselves through music. Music has become a business ruled by inept and corrupt institutions, ignorant critics and opportunistic or at best disinterested musicians.
The following pages are an attempt to describe and understand what happened to the profession of conducting and with it to music itself. If it contains harsh words and judgments, it is because the general acquiescence and conformism in the classical music profession have to be confronted with clear words. A critique of the state of affairs in classical music is rarely heard by musicians, so let this exception be an honest one.
I have often asked myself how is it that prominent musicians so rarely criticize the music business. I know that many will agree with the arguments below, yet they are silent about it. The reason for this lies in a conflict of interest built into the structure of the classical music industry and its control over individual careers. A musician striving to make a career today has no choice but to surrender himself to the rules of the classical music industry. First, he as to adopt a certain level of conformism and then, having arrived at the top, he cannot risk undermining the foundation on which his career was built. This practical, but also psychological fact ensures the slow progression of classical music towards meaninglessness.
It is for this reason that I am forced to write anonymously. Putting my name on this paper would mean too much of a risk, as criticism of this sort is absolutely unacceptable and unwanted in the circles in which I make a living. I apologize for this, and hope that the reader will understand, and that this fact won’t provoke offhand dismissal.
Arguing that a deterioration has taken place is of course nothing else than saying that things used to be better. This idea today is often rejected as conservative nostalgia, or dismissed as a product of personal frustration. Having already confessed to frustration, I believe that this argument should not play a role for the reader. Valid criticism is often a product of frustration over the state of things. Concerning conservatism, we should keep in mind that even while some minor improvements are taking place, it is possible for things to worsen overall. In any case, even if we have no way to decide if something is indeed worsening, a sorry state of affairs is reason enough to point it out.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, the rift between composers and the rest of the music world (musicians, critics and the public) was firmly established, and a slot was opened for a new leading role in classical music. The place once occupied by the likes of Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky was now up for grabs. Classical music needed a new face, for outside as well as for inside purposes.
It is true that even the nineteenth century saw celebrated performers taking some attention away from composers. The model of the instrument virtuoso took the main stage already around 1820 and was epitomized by Paganini and Liszt (both of whom were also composers). With the appearance of Hans Von Bulow, who diverted some attention away from the composition itself with his capricious interpretations, the modern conductor was born.
Nonetheless, in the first half of the twentieth century, the era of Strauss, Puccini, Bartok and Stravinsky, the great composers stood at the top of the musical hierarchy. Their work influenced everything that happened in music. The modern orchestra, for example, was developed to accommodate for compositional developments from the period of Berlioz to that of Strauss. This aspect cannot be stressed enough, and examining the developments in classical music in the twentieth century is crucial if we are to understand the fate of the music profession today.
Into the gap left by the great composers, the almighty star-conductor was born. It was the likes of Toscanini, Beecham, and Szell who became the focus of attention. Their faces adorned the LP’s, books and articles were written about them, and they came to wield enormous power in the music world.
And yet, the guiding standards of conducting were still for the most part rooted in the old composers’ tradition. Some of the great conductors of this era were themselves composers and often started their career when the great composers were still active. The rigid interpretational approach of Klemperer, for example, is an example of a conductor working unyieldingly in the service of the composer and his intentions. It is without a doubt the result of his experience as a composer, as well as his close relationship with Mahler, Schonberg and Hindemith.
This era is rightfully considered to be the golden age of conducting (though surely not the golden age of music!). The commercial developments I shall delve into below were only emerging at the time, and the old culture and musical integrity of the great conductors and orchestras had enough momentum to forestall the total debasement that was to befall the profession shortly thereafter.
Herbert von Karajan, surely one of the most brilliant conductors in the postwar era, who was a descendant of the old German kapellmeister tradition, is nonetheless one of the main protagonists behind the utter decay of classical music we see today. He has fashioned a dual legacy: on the one hand, a trove of great performances and recordings, and on the other hand, a commercial musical culture that sidelines the music itself and that has since degenerated into a grotesque spectacle of posturing and self-promotion. Karajan’s conception of the orchestra was that of a unified Klangkörper whose sole function is to bring to life the sound ideal of a central genius (Karajan himself). His obsession with his own image, with marketing, as well as his endless efforts to conquer more power, are the blueprint for almost every ill and fault in the classical music world today.
The famous “music empire” that Karajan built around him is such a source of fascination and admiration, that most people are unaware of its destructive effects. Karajan made recordings and videos that were the first self-conscious efforts to influence the public in the manner of a modern advertising agency. In his drive for power, he transformed music institutions and musical culture throughout Europe. His success in exporting classical music to other continents and the marketing methods he employed were enormously influential.
It is very difficult to discern to what extent Karajan understood the full impact of his efforts and success. Was he at all concerned with the ethical implications of the changes he wrought? In any case, we are concerned with the impact of his career on subsequent generations: under Karajan’s dominion, classical music came to be about money.
We may point out that this commercial development came relatively late. That is, classical music avoided total commodification for quite a while in comparison to other industries. Various aspects of the capitalization of music were established in the West in the 19th century, but it remained largely in the realm of aristocratic consumption, and thus was not made into a business in the modern sense. (Amazingly enough, remnants of this tradition can still be found today if one sifts through the dirt. Many German music institutes, with their continual dependence on state funding, are an example of this.) Karajan, undoubtedly influenced by the economic and marketing developments around him, applied the techniques of mass distribution to an art that had previously been associated with the privileged classes. The most tragic aspect of his legacy is that, with his charisma and musical talent, he managed to secure the willingness of the rest of the music world to go along with him in the utter commercialization of music.
We must now address a general methodological question before we proceed. One may adopt the point of view that in the course of history one can only judge the outcome of a process in hindsight. According to this, when Karajan acted and the music world followed, nobody could appreciate the wide implications of his legacy. This sympathetic point of view absolves the agents of any responsibility for the disaster they inadvertently brought about. This point of view should be rejected. Adopting it leads to an uncritical attitude, which the music world cannot afford if it is to preserve any of its value. Yet, I do believe that in Karajan’s case, there is room for empathy if only because his work was marked by artistic integrity that is rarely found today. It must be acknowledged, however, that he initiated wide-ranging structural changes, which his successors blindly accepted and even developed further. They contributed to the moral and artistic decline in classical music without even questioning it along the way.
Artists have a moral responsibility towards their art, especially if they are performing artists. In art, as in life, a development must be judged when it occurs, and we must ask ourselves if we agree to it. When our baseline of moral principles is being destroyed, musicians must be vigilant and resist. This, unfortunately, has not happened in the age of commercial classical music.
Let us pause for a moment to discuss what has been lost. The conductors who worked during Karajan’s career were deeply rooted in the 19th century conducting tradition. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer knew Mahler personally. Karl Böhm und Clemens Krauss held close friendships with Richard Strauss until his death. Hans Knappertsbusch had a connection to Wagner through Felix Mottl. George Solti and Erich Leinsdorf both worked as assistants to Toscanini, who was personally acquainted with Verdi and Puccini.
Throughout the first 20 or 30 years of the “Karajan revolution”, many of these old-school conductors were still very active. Although the relations between music and the consuming world were changing, these conductors were still preserving the old conducting tradition they knew – a tradition so different than the one we see today. When listening to their work, one is astounded by the wealth of aesthetic concepts brought into play. In order to appreciate the greatness of these conductors, it is important not to be distracted by their particular stylistic choices. I will thus avoid passing judgment on anything not intrinsically connected with these musicians’ conception of their artistic and professional duty, that is, I will focus on their idea of what conducting is about. To drive the point home, we may use the example of Toscanini and Klemperer: although their musical outcome is vastly different, their beliefs concerning the conductor’s role and their overall approach to making music were the same – and that is what we are concerned with here.
Every conductor standing before an orchestra will make it sound different, whether purposefully or not. Orchestras may have a curtain sound they try to preserve (one hears of the “Vienna Philharmonic sound” or the “Cleveland Orchestra sound”), but the different physicality of every person inevitably changes the sound of an orchestra.
The orchestral sound (Das Klangergenbniss) is the most direct tool that conductors have at their disposal. It is the first thing that the musician is confronted with when working with the conductor. The latter has two ways to influence the sound: The corporeal aspect, and what I would like to call the technical-musical aspect. An analysis of both is now required.
1. The corporeal aspect
All the great conductors are fully aware of the manner in which their bodily movements influence the orchestra’s sound. An organic performance demands that the conductor’s movements are attuned and reactive to the orchestra at every moment.
Great conductors are able to realize their own acoustic concept with almost any orchestra mostly by way of their bodily movements. Comparing the results of conductors working with different orchestras (especially when they are not the chief conductor) illustrates this phenomenon very clearly. With some of the old-school conductors, even through the technically poor recordings they have left us, we can clearly distinguish their personal sound and their success in achieving it with any orchestra.
Hans Knappertsbusch’s sound, for example, can hardly be confused with that of any other conductor. In Vienna, Bayreuth, Berlin or Bremen, his technique of “slowly swimming” into the orchestra created a way of playing that strikes us with its originality even today. Knappertsbusch is also an interesting example in that his refusal to spend a lot of time on rehearsing was only feasible due to his ability to express so much with his movement and personality. As a side note, I would add that Knappertsbusch’s way of conducting was only made possible at a time before the obsession with technical perfection had reached the level of blind fetishism that we see today. In other words, his disinterest in shallow technical exactitude allowed for his musical freedom and originality.
Just like the great instrumentalists, all great conductors are aware of their technique. The vastly different technical styles of the great conductors are a testament to their musical originality. Consider the stark contrast in technique between Szell and Celibidache, Cluytens and Pretre, Mengelberg and Walter, not to mention Furtwängler and anyone else. Contrary to that, the technique of most conductors today seems to be lifted from the manner of Carlos Kleiber and Claudio Abbado. One is astounded by the proliferation of their imitators – even among the highest-ranking conductors. The disappearance of the honest personal statement in music is reflected in the homogenization of conducting technique.
2. The technical-musical aspect
More than any other aspect of conducting, the realization of musical will in rehearsals and the careful construction of a style of orchestral playing is where great conductors leave their mark. It is this aspect of conducting that is most neglected today, and it is one of the main reasons for the sorry state of the profession.
When comparing orchestras today with those of the golden age, one is struck by the uniformity of sound compared to the striking variety of the past. (Concerning the apparent exception of the “authentic” school, we shall see what it amounts to below.) Confronted with the recordings of a Brahms symphony by Abbado, Rattle, Haitink, Jansons, or Nelsons, one can hardly distinguish between them. They will all have roughly the same tempo, use the same phrasing and most importantly, their orchestras (Berlin, Boston, Munich) will sound very much alike.
This uniformity is commonly attributed to the globalization of music, which manifests itself mainly in the recording industry. As the argument goes, with the globalization of the economy, food, fashion and other areas of consumption have become international. The same, it is claimed, has happened to the music industry, and thus the orchestral sound found its lingua franca.
Although there is certainly some truth to it, this theory fails to identify the deeper causes of this dull state of affairs. It is rather the conscious neglect of the long term technical-stylistic work with orchestras that enabled this utter homogenization. The responsibility for this neglect lies with conductors of the post-Karajan era. Of all the factors behind the degeneration of musical culture, their part in the decline of the rehearsal work has the least to do with the outside influence of globalization, marketing, and money.
To understand the scope of the problem one has to go back to a time when things were different. The golden age of conducting saw a great number of conductors who insisted on the highest level of artistic integrity and painstakingly crafted a unique vision. This manifested itself in the way they navigated their careers, and more importantly in their approach to rehearsals. The hummingbird-conductor of today, flying from orchestra to orchestra, did not yet exist. A chief conductor who spends only ten weeks per year with their orchestra is business as usual today, but was unthinkable for the older generation. Even Karajan, the consummate cosmopolitan, did not go around guest-conducting, but nurtured lifelong connections to a few orchestras.
The question is not merely of the duration of rehearsals, but of how the conductor works with the orchestra. This is where the old generation of conductors really stands apart from that of today. Conductors like Toscanini, Szell and Reiner, Furtwängler, Stokowski and Celibidache worked with orchestras for years, shaping their sound and all aspects of performance. The fruit of their work is still evident for us to hear in their recordings.
Anyone would be immediately struck by the stark difference between Toscanini’s orchestra sounds and all other contemporary orchestras. The amazing clarity, the dry and intense sound of the strings, the unity of phrasing and the burning passion and excitement, are a direct reflection of the conductor’s fiery personality. The rehearsal recordings from the NBC orchestra sessions reveal Toscanini’s uncompromising character and will. To take another example, George Szell’s work in Cleveland is to this day considered unparalleled in its meticulousness. Szell left no stone unturned. He was involved in every bowing, every intonation, every harmonic resolution. The phrasing is carried out with a unity and precision that can be shocking to the sensitive listener. I am sad to say I have never encountered anything that even approaches this level of attention to detail today.
The Karajan Sound concept has surely become more problematic with time. Nevertheless, in order to achieve this ideal, Karajan had to demand the highest level of discipline of himself and of the orchestra. His endless rehearsing on every small detail were well known at the time, and his ability to then “let it happen” in the concert itself was admired by his own orchestra. He is often criticized today on stylistic grounds, although frequently ignored is the fact that an aesthetic vision can only be criticized if it exists in the first place. His orchestral results are so striking, that his work ethic and artistic integrity should redeem him in the context of any aesthetic criticism. Karajan’s case is a tragic one. He is a prime agent behind the slow death of classical music, and at the same time he set an example for us who strive to practice music in a principled and dedicated way.
Sergio Celibidache is an interesting case, being the last giant to carry the old conductor’s tradition. His work in Munich towards the end of his life, often shadowed by his problematic character, achieved some of the most ambitious sound results ever recorded. Always demanding a huge number of rehearsals and untiring in his methods, he trained his orchestra to new heights of musical sensitivity. Celibidache’s emphasis on producing sound based on an analytical and philosophical interpretation of the score expressed itself in an incredibly balanced orchestral sound, where unheard-of sound mixtures shed light on the composition in a way one can only aspire to approach today. The working conditions he demanded and obtained (which were nearly unthinkable even at the time) sadly contributed even further to the estrangement of his ideas and methods in the eyes of the rest of the music world later in his career. That he was alone in demanding them says much about the state of the conducting profession even then.
Interesting for us is that all these conductors – and this holds true for almost any conductor of this era, from Reiner through Fricsay to Klemperer – achieved a uniquely different sound result. One couldn’t dream about confusing Szell’s musical result with Karajan’s, regardless of the orchestra they worked with. Moreover, the uncompromising will of these great musicians forged many great orchestras, which themselves came to possess a distinct sound. The disappearance of uniquely-sounding orchestras are the direct result of not having conductors working with them as they had before. Moreover, a unique sound is not achieved merely through the desire to be different from all the others. It is developed as a result of the conductor having something real and personal to express and willing to demand it from the musicians. It is these aspects of conducting that withered away in the post-Karajan age.
Another pillar of conducting has to do with the personality and grandeur of the conductors themselves. The music world today seems to hardly concern itself with the fact that the people leading it ought to be artists of strong moral character and artistic grandeur. Whereas the Karajan era was still very much dominated by conductors of a whole different caliber, today we are accustomed to expect very meager artistic and intellectual depth from conductors. This fact is very important to stress, because the influence conductors have on their orchestra is very much determined by their own character in all of its facets. A Beethoven symphony demands not merely “purely musical” skill from its interpreter, but no less importantly the highest moral and aesthetical standards, a wide erudition, a deep familiarity with the other arts and their relation to music, a comprehensive worldview, and the ability and will to bring all these into play in music making. Across the board, these seemingly “extraneous” (but actually deeply intrinsic) aspects of our art have undergone a precipitous decline in recent decades, bringing us to the sad state of affairs we are in today.
The character of a great conductor is immediately reflected in the orchestra. Through all the means of expression a conductor has (verbal and nonverbal), a sensitive musician feels immediately if he is facing a person of grandeur or not. The personality of conductors like Toscanini, De Sabata, Bernstein, and Celibidache were driven and shaped by outstanding intellectual integrity and vast knowledge in many disciplines, which moreover expressed itself directly through their work at every turn. Their preoccupation with literature, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, poesy and yes, in many cases also politics, was integral to their artistic persona. It is tempting to write off today’s superficiality among performing artists by saying that the world has seen a deterioration across all disciplines. Literature, philosophy, painting, poetry and political theory, however, all still exist. It is the growing gulf between music and the other arts and sciences which has taken its toll on the profession.
Musicians (not to mention other artists) expressing their thoughts about their art in writing used to be commonplace. This phenomenon is rare today, and this speaks volumes on the level of musicians in our time. Furtwängler’s writing on music, for example, reveal an artist who was always concerned with the aesthetical-philosophical implications of music-making. His relationship with Heinrich Schenker, from whom Furtwängler learned much about form and composition, is another example of his never-ending ambition to delve deeply into the music he was performing. Furtwängler’s approach to music carries with it no less than his entire Weltanschauung (and his was in a sense, a very Romantic one), and this is felt in all of his interpretations. His often widely-varying performances of the same piece are another testament to his ceaselessly probing personality and his complete artistry.
Leonard Bernstein, a contemporary of Karajan’s, is one of the best examples of a complete artist in that sense. A Renaissance musician, his significance as both composer and conductor is unquestionable. Bernstein put great effort into his lectures on music, which inspired a generation of musicians and audiences. His famous Norton Harvard Lectures are particularly fascinating in the way they highlight the connections between music and other disciplines. Bernstein’s knowledge of philosophy, literature and anthropology all come into play in these lectures, which bear out his credo that musicians must familiarize themselves with other fields.
The many books, autobiographies, interviews, and letters of the great conductors like Walter, Busch, Toscanini, Ansermet and Weingartner give us a glimpse into their intellectual world and artistic perspective, which was never restricted to music. Perhaps even more importantly, many of the conductors of this generation were also composers or at least held close and lifelong relationships with great composers.
That a great composer has to be a person of wide-ranging intellectual inclinations, I hope, is obvious enough. Clearly, the intimate artistic relations that conductors used to share with the great composers of their time demanded that they were men of similar intellectual and spiritual stature. Performing a masterwork demands an understanding of all of its aspects (or at the very least, the understanding that this understanding is needed). An interpretation of Tristan und Isolde for example, requires that the conductor be able to draw the textual-dramaturgical connection to the music at every moment. This, in turn, demands a strong command of the German language and understanding of Wagner’s idiosyncratic use of it. It also demands familiarity with the various literary and philosophical influences on Wagner at the time. And it requires that the conductor know how to situate Tristan within the larger context of Wagner’s oeuvre, and the evolution of his style. These are only a few examples of a huge complex of demands on the conductor who wishes to do justice to a musical masterpiece. Fulfilling them all is impossible, but the willingness to do so and a lifelong drive towards that end distinguish a real artist from a charlatan.
The character and grandeur of conductors plays no less of a role in the shaping of an orchestra’s working culture, and more generally, the moral and cultural standards of the music industry at large. Maybe more than any other type of musician, conductors are in a position of influence and great responsibility. In his relationships with management, artistic directors, agencies, the technical staff, and most importantly, the public, a conductor influences the conception of music making for all involved. The enormous musical objectivity of a conductor like Klemperer (and by objectivity we mean Sachlichkeit – not in the style of interpretation but in his interest of putting the music itself above marketing, industry politics, and most importantly, himself) sets an example that can hardly be ignored by the concertgoer. Even the most unreflective listener will instinctively feel this attitude and its result: the music rises above the “music business.”
In that respect, the loss we have seen in recent decades cannot be stressed enough, and I shall return to this matter later. I believe, however, that it is the grandeur of the old generation that forestalled this kind of deterioration – even against all the corrosive influence around the commercialization of music that was well underway at the time. With the passing of this generation of genuine artists, grandeur itself disappeared from musical culture, resulting in a complete change in the place of music in society. The conductors who replaced them not only hollowed out the musical culture from within (by lowering the standards of musicianship) but also from without (by lowering the expectations of the concert-going public).
(to be continued)