This is a transcription of the interview Herbert Pendergast had in 1963, for Stereo Review, with Herbert von Karajan. In the interview Karajan talks about Bach, Boulez and Stravinsky as well the joy of listening to Louis Armstrong.
CONVERSATION WITH VON KARAJAN
By HERBERT PENDERGAST
THE FOLLOWING conversation with Herbert von Karajan occurred in Berlin this spring. It took place during various intermissions in Mr. von Karajan's rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The program he was preparing consisted of Bach's Magnificat in D and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps.
Composers and Their Music
QUESTION. We know of your interest in baroque music from the number of baroque composers featured in your programs—Handel, Corelli, Locetelli, Geminiani, and, of course, Bach, whose Magnificat you are now rehearsing. What general criteria govern your performances of baroque music?
ANSWER. First of all, the knowledge derived from a study of baroque tradition. We know, for example, that the composers of that time were very much freer than today. Much of their music is now performed as if the notes were unalterable when actually they were the result, frequently, of free improvisation. In addition, I go back to the original scores in preparing baroque works, whenever possible. For Bach this is the edition we now have in Germany, with only the bare notes and without all of the corrections and additions by later musicians who tried to decide where the dynamics should be placed. Finally, as a practical matter, I place enormous importance on the continuo. When I hear this music played with a cembalo continuo, which you see but do not hear, it becomes for me completely academic and uninteresting.
Q. Do you approve of orchestral transcriptions of baroque music for solo instruments—for example, the Stokowski transcriptions of Bach’s organ works?
A. I do not like this practice at all. Such transcriptions turn Bach's organ music into orchestral showpieces. The less one tampers with Bach, the greater his music becomes. If a good musician studies the original bare notes. the proper tempi and dynamics will come to him as a natural expression of the music; and he will find it quite unnecessary to overamplify the original sound.
Q. It is a frequent practice today to more or less reorchestrate the symphonic works of Schumann when performing them. Do you do this?
A. No. l use the normal orchestra score. It is true, of course, that most or his works for orchestra sound as if they had been composed for the piano. As an orchestrator, Schumann frequently broke up the rhythmic continuity of his music with choppy passages for the strings. I am cognizant of the many passages which require re-balancing, and this I have no hesitation in doing. If Schumann's scores were played without this re-balancing, they would sound very muddy.
Q. Your interest in modern music has led you to introduce to Berlin audiences new works by Stravinsky, Martin, Fortner, Blacher, Messiaen, Shostakovich, Milhaud, Liebermann and Henze. The Antigone [Antifone] by Henze created something very rare in Berlin audiences—a scandal. Would you care to comment on this music?
A. The Henze work is fascinating. In it he has found a means of expression which is completely new. The orchestra enjoyed it very much because it was an unusual challenge. One difficulty which arises in listening to the work is that Henze has occasionally misjudged the timbres of the instruments he employs and the musical line becomes difficult to follow. I will perform this work again with the Berlin Philharmonic for the Musica Viva series in Munich this year.
Q. Do you believe that there is a danger that modern music has become so complicated and difficult to assimilate that the composer could easily become completely separated from his audience?
A. One difficulty which prevents audiences from adapting more readily to modern music is that the technical demands and expense in performing many of the works preclude frequent performances in the concert hall. For example, Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras would cost about $25,000 to perform. For this reason, many modern composers depend completely on commissions and radio stations for their support—not concert audiences. I think it is a help to audiences if you balance something unfamiliar against something which they know very well. I always try to balance my programs in this way: if each work has something to say, it will gain from association with the others.
Q. Do you think that the music of composers like Boulez and Webern will be easily understood by the musical public of the next generation?
A. I am quite certain that the next generation will have no problem in understanding most of the music of today. Think of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Twenty years ago it was considered inacccessible; today it is a classic. Think of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. When we perform it today, it sounds like a concerto grosso of Handel. With the decline of melodic inspiration in music, the serial techniques of today are a necessary self-imposed discipline for the composer.
Q. And those who listen to this music must impose upon themselves a discipline as great!
A. One is not born with an understanding of Beethoven, either!
Q. Do you personally like all of the new works which you conduct?
A. Yes, otherwise I would never perform them. I do not believe in conducting music one doesn't feel simply to give it a hearing. If I respond to a new work, I may live with it some time before I will perform it, however. The Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra I studied for years before I conducted them. As for even Le Sacre du Printemps: which I performed recently in Vienna and am making up my mind to perform this work!
Q. In a work, such as Le Sacre du Printemps is it a help to you to study the composer's own recording of the music?
A. Yes, of course, although we see by following this recording with the score where Stravinsky sometimes fails to observe his own markings! Is Stravinsky happy with his recording? I don't know. What I have had to do is to study the score and to decide for myself how successful Stravinsky has been as a conductor in realizing the meaning of the music. In this particular work one thing is clear to me: we must avoid the "tyranny of the bar line" and treat the rhythms organically.
Q. The Musikvereinssaal in Vienna where you performed this same Le Sacre du Printemps has completely different accoustical properties from the Hochschule für Musik-saal here in Berlin. Do you make any effort to adjust your dynamics when performing the same work in different halls?
A. No. This work, for instance, I will play with all possible force and power. If the hall there can take it, so much the better. Because of the endless number of halls this orchestra has performed in, it is an interesting phenomenon that the Berlin Philharmonic is able to adjust the dynamics of its playing automatically in any auditorium. Even if the orchestra were to play in an unknown hall, it would take the musicians only a minute: when they tune their instruments, they already know what the sound is going to be like.
Ballet and Opera
Q. If you were to conduct Le Sacre du Printemps as a ballet, would your tempi be different?
A. No they would not. Someday I must do it as a ballet. Last year I saw the Brussels production at Salzburg. My scenic conception would be completely different from this–stark, primitive, like the paintings of 2,000 years ago in the caves at Lascaux.
Q. Do you have definite ideas for staging every opera you conduct?
A. No. I would not try to stage an opera with a milieu like La Bohème or La Traviata. There are plenty of directors who can do this sort of thing marvelously. When the staging becomes an important part of the dynamics of the music, however, I must stage it myself because I have never been able to find anyone who can realize my conceptions. The scenic backstatic throughout the production is a dead concept in operatic staging. The world of Tristan [und Isolde] changes from minute to minute and the staging must reflect this. In Othello the staging, by some sort of striking simplicity, must be in absolute conformity with the changing moods of the music. My new production of Il Trovatore at Salzburg last year is something else, however. Here the plot of the opera is complete nonsense. There is only the protection by the music of basic human emotions—love, hate, jealousy, revenge, and so on. The staging also must project these emotions and that is what I tried to achieve in this production.
Q. What do you think of Wieland Wagner's concepts of operatic staging?
A. I have not followed his work. Normally we never come together because I am in Salzburg while he is at Bayreuth.
Q. Do you believe that opera must always be performed in the original language?
A. Absolutely. A translation of the libretto destroys the special relationship between the words and the music. As for those in the opera houses who claim to follow every word, most of the words, in their own language are lost to them: the orchestra and chorus blank them out a good part of the time and for the rest of the time, the enunciation of the singers is so poor that almost no one can understand them. And finally, most opera libretti are nonsense to begin with. Can we improve them through translations?
Q. Strauss thought that it was very important for some of his operas to be performed in the language of the audience.
A. To my knowledge. this was never done with great success. The ideal is to have the language of the singers the same as that of the composer. Even a good singer must sing a role forty or fifty times to really understand it. How many times do you think Der Rosenkavalier would be sung in Italian at La Scala? How much better for the audience to learn the language of the opera!
Q. Strauss once likened the role of a great opera house to that of an art gallery where one could hear the greatest operatic masterpieces in permanent exhibition with the greatest singers and conductors. Is this your ideal as Artistic Director of the Vienna Opera?
A. Yes, of course, this is my ideal.The difficulty is that now it is impossible to fulfill this concept in any opera house. The idea of the operatic ensemble-produced records, this complacency is no longer possible! Also, records are a wonderful instrument for self-judgement. As a young conductor I had many faults. For one thing, I was always hurrying the tempo of everything I conducted. People tried to tell me this, but I wouldn't listen to them. When I finally began to study my recordings, I realized they were right. Today when I hear these early records, I feel I must have been drunk when making them!
Q. Can a recording, however technically perfect as a performance, hope to duplicate the directness and immediacy of a great concert hall performance?
A. Sometimes when I hear a record of [Sviatoslav] Richter, I wonder if the playing could be better in the concert hall. In a concert, of course the human element can cause mistakes and yet the concert can still be marvelous. In a recording we strive for technical perfection. And yet I remember one recording—the Last performance by Dinu Lipatti at the Lucerne Festival. All of us knew that this great artist had only a short time left. The Mozart C-major Concerto which we performed was a wonderful living performance. How appropriate for Lipatti to have played Mozart at this concert. Many years later tapes of the broadcast were located in the hands of private collectors and a recording was pressed by Columbia. From a technical standpoint the recording isn't much. It is certainly, however, proof that recordings can convey the living spirit of the music.
Q. The point is that this recording was made from an actual performance. Is there no good reason to record more public performances?
A. Yes, but this sort of thing does not make the record companies and high fidelity enthusiasts happy. They don't want the extraneous noises produced in an actual concert.
Q. In rehearsing the orchestra, you seem to put great emphasis on conveying the proper rhythm to the players, is this perhaps the most difficult task for the conductor?
A. Yes, it is. It Is very strange. but with our race and in our latitude, rhythmic control is the most difficult thing for a musician to achieve. There is hardly a musician among us who can play the same note five times without minor variation. Part of the fault is that rhythm is never taught correctly to young musicians. For the Negro or African, it comes naturally—this sense of rhythm. As for myself, I can tolerate wrong notes, but I cannot stand an unstable rhythm. Perhaps I was born in Africa in another existence. Once in Vienna after we had finished a recording session, I surprised everyone by telling them that I was going to hear a Louis Armstrong concert. When they asked why? I told them that to go to a concert and know that for two hours the music would not get faster or slower was a great joy to me.
Q. Would it be possible to separate the functions of the two arms in conducting?
A. No, they work integrally. The same functions would be performed if you had three arms or only one. I have conducted many performances with my hand in a sling. Without my arms I could still give the beat with my nose and with my shoulders.
Q. What are the advantages of being able to conduct without a score?
A. You are able to look at the whole work better because you have in your mind the complete picture of it. It is amusing to observe opera singers who sing whole operatic roles without resorting to the prompter, stare into the notes when they sing a short solo in the Brahms Requiem. These notes can have a truly hypnotic effect!
Q. However, you employ the score when conducting a work like Le Sacre du Printemps.
A. Yes, I sometimes use a score. This is mostly when I am performing a work with which the orchestra is unfamiliar. It can help to prevent trouble before it occurs. As for conducting in the opera house without a score, it has become very difficult for me with over 23 operas in the repertoire and with the constant shifting from one opera to the next.
Q. Aside from Toscanini, who were the conductors whom you admired most in your youth and do you admire these same conductors today?
A. Bruno Walter, of course, and Richard Strauss. Strauss as a conductor had a natural feeling for tempi. He never said very much but his slightest indication produced positive results in the orchestra. Wilhelm Fürtwangler ...
Q. The newspapers would have it that you have spent your life struggling against Furtwängler’s musical position and prestige.
A. It is always like that in the newspapers: one makes a struggle out of everything. We were never close as individuals but I attended his rehearsals at every opportunity. One day I am going to write a book about conductors who have influenced me and I will devote a chapter to Furtwängler. He was the first conductor who divided the responsibility for the interpretation between himself and the orchestra. Under him the Berlin Philharmonic learned to make music in the way that a string quartet does. However, forcing the orchestra to take the initiative and to make its own decisions in changing from one episode to the next was sometimes at the risk of imperfect ensemble. Although I have not tried to change this style of playing, I have attempted to superimpose on it some of the precision which Toscanini with his absolute control imposed on his orchestras. It is this marriage of orchestral initiative with discipline that I strive to use as a basis for all my performances with the Berlin Philharmonic.
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