Wagner Cult and Conductor Cult

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Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Wilhelm Furtwängler

Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Wilhelm Furtwängler

It is only too obvious that the worldwide economic collapse will affect all sectors of the global economy and therefore most aspects of our lives. Most arts organizations are already well along in addressing this murky, complex, and constantly shifting situation have announced cuts ranging from the relatively minor to cancelled or postponed performances, exhibitions, and building projects. Their managers know that things will be different in three months or six months, and probably not for the better. The crisis, however, is less apparent in concert halls, theaters, and galleries, which are full of enthusiastic, if somehow indefinably chastened people. In Boston and New York City in particular, houses have been full, and at the Metropolitan Opera the mood seems almost exuberant. The crowds who recently gathered at Sanders Theater for Hespèrion XXI, at Symphony Hall for Brahms, at Emmanuel Church for Russell Sherman, or at the Met for Robert Lepage all seemed very happy to be there. If the plentiful audience who converged on Lincoln Center on Wednesday to see Peter Sellars’ dramatization of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments was appreciably less upbeat, it was because they were the sort of people who enjoy entertainments which contain lines like “Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.” What their engagement lacked in jollity shone forth in its intensity. All of these diverse assemblies were buoyed up by one thing, the anticipation of an experience beyond the average and the normal, perhaps even the transcendent.

Huntley Dent’s recent review of Bernstein’s Mahler and now his lucid evaluation of several recordings of Tristan und Isolde put me in mind not so much of operatic traditions as those of the concert hall, since Wagner’s music drama is so deeply rooted in the orchestra and the conductor who leads it. The modern symphony orchestra and the concert halls in which they play evolved as a substantially bourgeois institution over the course of the nineteenth century. They were unknown to Beethoven but familiar to Brahms, who in fact preferred the style of the Meiningen Orchestra, a smaller group supported by ducal patronage going back to the days of Bach and Handel. Hans von Bülow, who became their music director in 1880, was a leading example of the generation which made a hero of the conductor, although Mendelssohn and Berlioz had paved the way in their time. We have now been living with this phenomenon for well over a century.

Paying audiences flocked to concerts in expectation of a very special experience: under the direction of its conductor the orchestra provided a few hours of dramatically structured exaltation above the petty concerns of the working week. This was most particularly an exaltation of a secular sort, one intended to equal the potency of religious music outside the church in a realm equally accessible to Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and Jews alike. In reaching these heights the music could have a nationalistic, classical, or mystical thrust, and the officiating priest was the conductor, who combined this hieratic authority with that of a field marshall and a touch of the elder statesman. It is no accident that this was the age of Bismarck. The unification of some hundred highly trained instrumentalists in a group that could play as one has its metaphorical ramifications. Whether the conductor is a representative of the management or an employee of the musicians, as in Vienna and Berlin, the audience is usually attracted to the performance by an admired name, and the applause which greets the orchestra or the concertmaster is usually relatively tepid in comparison to the ovations which welcome the maestro to the podium. Especially in the glory days of the 1920’s and 1930’s the limitations imposed by democratic societies were suspended, and people took a special delight in the autocratic behavior of the maestro towards the musicians—behavior which would seldom have been tolerated in normally functioning governments and businesses. Patrons looked on in horror and delight, as if they were witnessing some sort of Teutonic bullfight. (It is fascinating to note that orchestras of the eighteen century and earlier were consciously viewed as a mirror of society.)

Long a happy subject in this politically impossible fairy kingdom, I have no intention of debunking it as Norman Lebrecht has attempted to do; rather, I am merely trying to look at it from outside, maintaining whatever objectivity I can, in order to form some idea of what we experience when we immerse ourselves in Tristan or in the Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, or Mahler, either in the concert hall or at home, inextricably relating sounds and gestures to an individual personality who has mapped out the score, assimilated it, and is attempting to project his intellectual concept and emotional response through his century of musicians, who may or may not feel sympathetic towards them. Inevitably we feel some gratitude for guidance, teaching, and revelation which go far beyond the sensual enjoyment of the music. Conductors become spiritual exempla for us. Sometimes, when a few of us are together, raptly discussing the great conductors of the past, I get the impression that we could easily be talking about our favorite saints.

If you talk to a young person about his or her favorite band, you may be struck by a common point of view. The first thing you hear is very likely to be some moral generality, like “They’re real,” or “You can look up to them.” The kids don’t base their feelings on a detailed study of interviews or writings, but an impression gained from the experience of concerts and recordings—a summation of gesture, accent, costume, movement, sound, and text. A band represents a particular quality. Appreciation of details of execution and expressiveness are secondary. The conductor cult may not go so far as to demote these musical details, but it is similar nonetheless.

Even today, when one of our great conductors is referred to as “Jimmy” by his musicians, and he cannot have one of them fired on the spot for some trivial misdemeanor, the world of the orchestra still remains different from the world at large. One can speak of leadership only in a limited sense, compromised to a greater or lesser degree by the authority of the autocrat. In keeping with the trends which have developed in the second half of the twentieth century, composers like John Cage and his associates, who have relinquished the authority of the composer in favor of the individual executants and the extraordinary flourishing of professional chamber music, James Levine has developed a kind of Socratic method of working with his orchestra. He is more a leader than a martinet, but his demands are no less extreme. At Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments and the ensuing discussion, I saw a similar kind of leadership in the director Peter Sellars’ methods. Further, aswomen appear more and more frequently on the podium, the Bismarckian image will necessarily fade.

The leading conductors of the older generation—Abbado, Colin Davis, Mackerras, Boulez, and the youngster Jimmy Levine—although much of what they did seemed radical forty years ago, provide a direct link with tradition. In some of these the style of the musicianship and manner is strikingly unpretentious in comparison with the older generation, and what they inspire is rather more down to earth than the kind of veneration associated with Furtwängler, Walter, Toscanini, or Klemperer. In their time and after death these figures glow with a kind of moral authority, which arises as much from their admirers as the men themselves. Klemperer, was the severe, brutally honest radical, espousing advanced music and drama as well as the political left. Toscanini, the fiery Italian genius, who struck right to the core of American sensibilities, producing a display of seemingly objective quality through sheer virtuosity and energy, also an acclaimed champion of democratic values during the fascist years. Bruno Walter, famed for his intensity earlier in his career, growing gentler and more expansive with age, was cherished for his intimate humanity and kindness, especially in public moments. Furtwängler embodied a humanistic tradition he had learned from his father, Adolf, the great archaeologist, who embedded ancient Greek art and civilization ever more deeply in the German psyche through his often lavish books and the museum displays of his finds. Although many recordings of his concerts survive, it seems impossible to recreate the fervor of the audiences themselves, who experienced an exaltation which amounted to a secular religious experience. Later, it was Furtwängler’s fate to preside over the values of Bildung, of German humanism, just as they collapsed into the ground.

These auras are nothing more than perception, of course, but they are true, as an amalgam of the conductors’ ideals and their music-making, an image of their higher selves, if you like, however much they may have fallen short of the ideal in certain ways. The next generation seemed more down to earth, marvelous apolitical craftsmen like Jochum, Böhm, Horenstein, Szell, Kubelik, and Giulini. Bernstein and Karajan stood out as personalities. Their brand of showmanship won them a wide following just as effectively as it put many off. It also made some of their capabilities seem more substantial than they might actually have been, and it masked some of the most brilliant aspects of their talent. This showmanship, and its ability to bring in audiences, was keenly appreciated by the musicians, who could remember the financial precariousness of their corporation. My own appreciation of Herbert von Karajan a few months ago was divided between an admiration for his best work along with a certain frustration, even irritation, with other aspects. My own reservation related to his self-promoted stature as a gold standard among conductors—a fitting metaphor for the period of his ascendancy, the years of the Wirtschaftswunder. One of his undeniable claims on our memory, however, is his work in the theater during the early part of that period. Not only his early Tristan, but his Meistersinger also stands out, as a marvel of sweep, structure, and finely honed detail. His later versions are more sedate, but are equally compelling…and his approach to the Ring is quite fascinating.

Huntley’s exercise of establishing a hierarchy based on definite criteria which he has chosen and for which he has explained his rationale is bracing and instructive, but many music-lovers will find themselves buying several recordings and enjoying them over many years, not finding it easy to settle on a favorite for very long. Many readers will doubtless have favorites of their own already and will disagree with Huntley Dent’s conclusions, some with equanimity, others with anger, but no one can fail to appreciate the great value of his bridging of four generations of Tristan performance, Furtwängler, Beecham, and Reiner; Karajan and Böhm; Carlos Kleiber; and now Thielemann and Pappano. (There are also Kleiber père, Jochum, Kubelik, DeSabata, Fritz Busch, Knappertsbusch, Leitner, Sawallisch, and now Runnicles, a splendid Wagnerian, to consider—of these I have heard only a few.) The fact that I define these generations by the conductors says something about the nature of Wagner’s massive score, as well as about our assumptions, not to mention the ups and downs in Wagnerian singing, which is not a simple or clear-cut history in itself. Discovering Tristan on record is a journey. Few take up a fixed residence in it, even if they especially cherish a personal favorite. Nonetheless, there is no better place to start than Huntley’s list.

It is also significant that, in discussing the cult of conductors, I mentioned mostly German practitioners. The great Frenchmen, Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch, were not Tristan men in any case, and the Englishman, Sir Thomas Beecham, never had the slightest interest in posing as a saint or a moral example to anyone. On the other hand, we could well talk about Reginald Goodall, whose Tristan with the Welsh National Opera should most definitely return to the the catalogue, not to mention the intense Pole, Artur Rodzinski. Tristan was fixed at the core of his musical world, almost to the point of obsession.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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