Classical Notes

Hearing With Our Eyes

treble clef graphic Music is meant to be seen as well as heard. Throughout history, all music was created with the expectation that it would be witnessed in live performance. The setting, the audience and above all the players were an integral -- and visual -- part of the total experience.

But over the past century all that changed. Although the very notion would have been unthinkable to its creators, we now get nearly all our music through audio-only recordings. It was home electronics that radically altered our perception of music by removing the visual element. Once "modern" listeners began to sit around the victrola rather than before a concert stage the concept of music forever changed.

How fitting, then, that the music video, the offspring of that technology, has recently emerged as the means to restore the historic balance between eyes and ears. Once again, we can observe the artists at work. So despite its cutting-edge image, MTV just may be a throwback to established tradition!

We are all drawn to watching the process of artistic creation. The potter at her wheel, the painter at his sketchpad, the photographer posing a shot never fail to draw a crowd. At an orchestral concert, the focus of attention invariably falls upon the conductor. That seems quite ironic since the conductor produces no sound himself but still manages to emerge as the star of the show. It's further ironic that classical videos afford the deepest insight into this purely musical phenomenon.

How did these guys come to so dominate our modern culture anyway? (And with very rare exception, it is just guys!) At first, conductors (generally the composers themselves) just set the basic tempo and often joined in the playing from a keyboard. Then in the mid-1800s Richard Wagner pioneered a new approach of deeply personal interpretive expression. As music became more demanding and orchestras more professional, it became clear that not only the inflection, but also the mechanics of balance and tone, were best left to someone apart from the ensemble. The conductor's role has now become so dominant that he often gets principal billing, ahead of the orchestra and even the composer.

But what does the conductor do? Through equal helpings of knowledge, insight, patience, concentration, charisma and ego, he induces a hundred musicians to forego their individual temperaments in order to project a cohesive emotional image with their collective force. As Harold Schonberg put it in his wonderful The Great Conductors (Simon & Schuster, 1967), a conductor must be not only a complete musician, thoroughly absorbed in the score and intimately conversant with each instrument, but an administrator, minister, psychologist, philosopher, disciplinarian and, above all, a compelling leader.

The magnitude and difficulty of these tasks emerges in The Art of the Conductor (Teldec 95038), a video which wisely avoids dry Music 101 mechanics of how to hold a baton or read a score and instead tackles a far deeper mystique: sixteen of the greatest conductors of the last century engaged in the intensely human struggle of inspiring entire orchestras to fulfill their artistic vision.

Clearly there is no single formula for success; in rehearsal and performance clips, conductors achieve their magic through radically different methods. Thus, Toscanini's rapt intensity and sharp, demanding gestures admit no compromise or lapse, while von Karajan seems so thoroughly preoccupied with himself that he seems oblivious to such minor distractions as the orchestra. And yet, both produce strongly characterized, precise playing. Equally effective results emerge from Otto Klemperer's dour nastiness and Bruno Walter's warm humanism, John Barbirolli's urgent pleas and Sir Thomas Beecham's urbane wit, Leonard Bernstein's huge emotional physicality and Fritz Reiner's precise microscopic gestures.

More than anything else, these glimpses explode the myth that disparages conductors as mere pampered "stick wavers." Thus, we see Richard Strauss producing an enormously powerful and expressive reading of his Till Eulenspiegel, even though his baton barely moves. Fritz Reiner conjures up enormous emotional reserves simply by glowering at his players. And Otto Klemperer probes the depths of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony with seemingly metronomic, measured time beating. Clearly, the profession of conducting entails some very deep process of communication that transcends mere gestures and provides a conduit for an amazing channeling of artistic energy.

The depth of this mystique emerges from the segment devoted to the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose art did not translate well into writing. Numerous published testimonials and descriptions (including his own) seem at a complete loss to suggest just how he managed to produce such transcendent readings of the core German repertoire as we hear in his concert recordings.

Thus, in lieu of a firm gesture to define the strong downbeat with which the entire orchestra begins Wagner's "Meistersinger" Overture, Furtwängler lowers his baton repeatedly. Any unaccustomed ensemble would have become hopelessly confused, but the veterans of the Berlin Philharmonic somehow decipher his obtuse gestures and instinctively feel where in this tangle to enter.

In a rehearsal of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, Furtwängler tries to articulate his sonic goal by speaking, singing, humming and motioning. Despite the incoherence of his various efforts at communication, the musicians with whom he had worked intimately for two decades grasp his intentions and soon manage to get the result he envisions.

Most astounding of all is a 1948 British newsreel of the end of the Brahms Symphony # 4. Despite frustrating cut-away shots, here we see Furtwängler in the throes of producing an emotion-drenched reading of one of his signature pieces. His technique is as bizarre as the interpretation is compelling: his right hand vaguely beats the time, his left hand weaves seemingly random flowing shapes, and his head and torso jerk and shake spasmodically. How an orchestra could derive expressive cues from such seemingly indeterminate movements is itself amazing; that they produce a reading of compelling unity and power is simply miraculous.

The Furtwängler segment potently proves that the art of conducting transcends the stereotype of imposing discipline, beating time and accepting huge accolades and fees. Rather, it clearly entails something wondrous that defies ready analysis and transcends the bounds of common understanding. Perhaps art only begins at the far edge of knowledge.

A far different but equally absorbing perspective is found in a sequel, Legendary Conductors of the Golden Age (Teldec 25710), which concludes with a startling segment of Eugen Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic in portions of the Tchaikovsky and Shostokovich Fifth Symphonies. In striking contrast to Furtwangler's frenzied activity, Mravinsky sits nearly still, making only an occasional sign to signal a detail. But this was his orchestra, with which decades of intimate association produced such a degree of mutual understanding and confidence that traditional efforts of overt direction became pointless. In essence, Mravinsky demonstrates in this most elegant way that he and his musicians have done their work, and it would be an insult to their professionalism to risk drawing attention to himself. Mravinsky's self-effacement serves as a compelling reminder that the true musician is constantly humbled by the glory of his art and that genuine musical communication transcends ego and materiality.

Seeing Furtwangler, Mravinsky and other great conductors in action proves that music is a language unto itself and that words, gestures and writing can never suffice to fully convey its glory. And perhaps the ultimate irony of all is that modern video technology is the bearer of such traditional musical insight.

Copyright © 2000 by Peter Gutmann

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copyright © 1999-2000 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.

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