Making Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Making Music: Composer-Conductors, performed on Feb 9, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Compared to other fields of musical performance, conducting is a relatively recent and modern phenomenon as a primary activity for a musician. It became a common and widespread profession only towards the end of the nineteenth century. Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) is remembered as one of the founding fathers of professional conducting. His place in the history of music is secured by the elevated standards he brought to orchestral performance, primarily through his leadership of the legendary Meiningen Orchestra. But Bülow was also one of the great pianists of his age and (unsuccessfully) the author of a number of musical compositions. His best-known work, Nirvana, Op. 20 (1866) is a failed attempt at a Lisztian tone poem. In the generation following Bülow, Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922), one of the most alluring, seductive, and charismatic personalities of the podium, was heralded exclusively as a conductor, though he began his career as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic.

Despite the emergence of conducting in the twentieth century as a discrete profession in its own right, to this day conducting by its very nature, unlike other arenas of music performance, ought never properly be the sole pursuit of a musician. One may have a dream of being a conductor from the outset, but the craft, which despite skeptics demands distinct technical proficiency, cannot be mastered without a foundation in some other branch of music. Hans Keller, the legendary critic, violinist, and chamber music specialist, once wrote that there are three “phony” musical professions: conductor, critic, and violist. This wry remark was a perhaps somewhat exaggerated way of saying that to excel in any of these specializations, an individual has first to be accomplished in something else within music. In history (until extremely recently) the greatest violists began their careers as fine violinists. The most valuable and enduring criticism has been penned by composers. And most conductors have been accomplished instrumentalists, or composers, or in some cases (one thinks of Hermann Scherchen and Ernest Ansermet) theoreticians and scholars. Perhaps the most fruitful combination has been that of conducting and composition. Indeed, one might say that it is extremely difficult to become a conductor without experiencing the struggle of composition. To prepare a work for performance, a conductor needs to be able to think like a composer.

It is not surprising, therefore, that if one looks beneath the surface at the majority of successful conductors during the twentieth century, one will discover that they often had greater or lesser degrees of experience and exposure as composers. Tonight’s concert selects four individuals who did more than attempt composition; they all produced admirable bodies of work. They excelled in both arenas, and yet, in the careers of some of them, one may also find a degree of irony. Given the close connection between conducting and composing, some of them found themselves in something of a balancing act. As conducting evolved into the celebrated and celebrity-obsessed profession it is today, many composer-conductors had to make choices. Sometimes historical circumstances forced these choices upon them. In all cases, these composer-conductors experienced the symbiosis of composing and conducting, and at the same time, the unique difficulties these parallel pursuits create.

These ironic paradoxes were already presaged by the legendary conductor-composers who preceded them. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were of course renowned both for composing and conducting. Mahler complained that he had only the summers in which to compose, since he was so busy performing during the season, first in Vienna and later New York. Strauss, unlike Mahler, ultimately limited his activities as a conductor in order to find more time to compose. Another group of artists made a different choice. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer are still honored as great conductors, so much so that veneration for them has inspired periodic attempts to revive the music they wrote which, however well-crafted and competent, has remained unpersuasive. But perhaps a more poignant case is that of Bruno Walter. This legendary conductor also composed, but unlike many of his contemporary colleagues, he had shown a good deal of promise early in his compositional career. After some early success, he lost his nerve in part owing to the absence of encouragement by his mentor, Mahler. At a concert two seasons ago, the American Symphony Orchestra gave the first modern performance of Bruno Walter’s First Symphony. Based on the success of that performance, the Symphony will shortly be available in its first commercial recording with NDR–Hamburg (where Walter and Mahler first met).

George Szell’s case is most closely analogous to that of Walter. Szell was a prodigy not only as pianist but as composer, almost rivaling the early success of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He was the youngest of all of Max Reger’s pupils, and he was given a contract by the Viennese music publisher Universal at age fourteen. Like Walter, Szell’s compositions, which include chamber and orchestral music, show amazing facility. But despite acclaim, Szell came to a personal conclusion that his music was unoriginal and too derivative. Furthermore, his success as a conductor was so meteoric that he decided to concentrate on that, leaving his career as both composer and concert pianist behind. Although his music had been published with a prestigious firm, he never looked back. But did the rise of this great conductor have to mean the disappearance of perhaps an equally great composer? Chances are that you are familiar with Szell’s conducting—now hear him as a composer.

The case of Paul Kletzki is tragically different from those mentioned above. Kletzki is remembered as a highly respected conductor who once directed the orchestras of Liverpool, Dallas, and Bern, and who was a frequent guest with the Israel Philharmonic. But as a conductor he never achieved the postwar eminence that Szell did, and his career was genuinely damaged by the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. One of the reasons for this is that before 1939, Kletzki really focused on composition. In addition to the early success described in Timothy Jackson’s fine program notes, Kletzki was singled out as a young compositional talent by the conductor and great Liszt scholar Peter Raabe. Raabe championed the young Kletzki until the Nazis came to power, at which point Raabe joined them, eventually to became Strauss’s successor as head of the Reichsmusikkammer. The only Jewish composers whose reputations could outlast the conditions in Germany and Austria were established and internationally prominent figures such as Schoenberg and Kurt Weill. But Kletzki had too fragile a foothold. The fact that two of his primary advocates—Raabe and Furtwängler—collaborated with the Nazi regime and therefore abandoned his music made his situation even worse.

Timothy Jackson deserves a great deal of credit for the recent revival of interest in Kletzki’s music. My own interest in Kletzki, however, is also somewhat personal. He and his family were friends with my grandfather’s family. His was a name I heard as a child. I had the privilege of meeting him when he was conducting in Mexico and visited my uncle. I recall even then an aspect of resignation, if not bitterness, which the history of his career makes all too understandable. There has been a great deal of recent interest in those composers whose careers were cut short by the Holocaust. The trauma of displacement and suppression and, ironically, the good fortune of survival (only ten percent of prewar Polish Jewry survived), brought Kletzki to a comprehensible but compelling condition: that of silence. It is my hope that this performance of his Violin Concerto will assist the overdue reexamination of Kletzki’s achievement as a composer.

The two remaining composer-conductors on tonight’s program are American Jews. Harold Farberman, to whom I owe a personal debt of gratitude as my teacher, was born into a family of Klezmer musicians on the Lower East Side. A wunderkind percussionist, he became the Boston Symphony’s youngest member when he was barely twenty. During his tenure in Boston, he turned to both composition and conducting. One of his operas, The Losers, was chosen to open the Juilliard Opera Theater. As a conductor, he was an early champion of the music of Charles Ives. He became the chief conductor of the Oakland Symphony and guest conducted throughout Europe. In the 1970s, he turned his attention to the teaching and training of conductors. He founded the Conductors Guild, and in the early 1980s, the Conductors Institute. He is the author of one of the leading conducting textbooks, The Art of Conducting Technique. Among those who have studied with him are Marin Alsop, Paavo Jarvi, and Guillermo Figueroa, music director of the Puerto Rico and New Mexico Symphonies. The work on tonight’s program is a new work that brings into focus Farberman’s unique command of percussion instruments.

Finally, there is perhaps the most familiar composer-conductor of all to the present generation of American audiences: Leonard Bernstein. Like Szell, Bernstein was a fantastic pianist. Indeed, he played the piano part in the Second Symphony in its initial performances, though the pianist most commonly associated with this work is Lukas Foss—yet another example of a supremely multi-talented musician with powerful accomplishments as a composer, pianist, and conductor.

Bernstein’s career is perhaps the most complicated example of the difficulty active conductors have encountered maintaining a parallel life as a composer. Bernstein pursued both avenues at full throttle, as it were. If that were not enough, he wrote not only concert music, but theater and film music as well. He also tried his hand at writing about music. His most famous composition is certainly West Side Story (1957), but there is as well a large body of work in the classical concert tradition. Bernstein’s so-called “serious” compositions have been the subject of widely divergent criticism. Many of his works reveal a dimension of imitation. If Szell’s music reminds one of Strauss, much of Bernstein’s music evokes Copland. Nevertheless, there are in Bernstein’s canon of music for the concert stage works that are original and justifiably celebrated. These include the Serenade (1954) and tonight’s offering, the Second Symphony (1949/65).

But perhaps the most remarkable dimension of Bernstein’s achievement, apart from his brilliance as a conductor and composer, is the role that he played as a musician in the public sphere. Blessed with an incredible intelligence, eloquence, and the privilege of a fine education (including an undergraduate degree from Harvard), Bernstein became the last century’s most powerful advocate for the importance of great music as an indispensable part of the culture of American democracy. His use of television, his activities as a mentor, and the superstardom he achieved in part through his charismatic personality and the success of West Side Story, made him an inspiration for generations of young Americans, incipient professionals, and audience members alike.