Conductor / Pianist  Daniel  Barenboim

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


On this webpage are two conversations I had with Daniel Barenboim.  The first was held in November of 1985, when he was conducting the Chicago Symphony in concerts of Wagner.  The second took place in September of 1993 when he opened the season with the Verdi Requiem.  Material from each interview was used immediately on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, to promote the concerts, and again at later times when we programmed his recordings.

The first interview also appeared in Nit&Wit Magazine in March of 1986, and heralded the appearance of Barenboim as pianist for the concerts which included the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas.  That interview is presented here slightly edited from the published version.  Photos have been added for the website presentation.  The second interview appears on this webpage for the first time as a transcription.  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

Daniel Barenboim — Musician
By Bruce Duffie

Nit&Wit Magazine, March, 1986

Daniel Barenboim is in demand all over the world for his musical abilities, and the few places where he performs regularly are extremely lucky.  Chicago must be counted in these lucky few, for he has appeared here regularly for the last several years with the Chicago Symphony for concerts and recordings.  This season, Chicago is most fortunate to have Mr. Barenboim at several points in time, and in several capacities.

The past November, Maestro Barenboim gave concerts of Wagner.  Two performances of the sublime second act of Tristan with cast members from his Bayreuth production [Johanna Meier, Rene Kollo, Nadine Denize, and Richard Cohn substituting for an ailing Hans Tschammer], and two orchestral concerts containing music of both father Richard and son Siegfried.  It was a weekend not to be forgotten.  Now he returns to Orchestra Hall in the capacity of pianist to give a series of concerts containing the complete 32 sonatas for piano by Beethoven.

Earlier this year, when was here for the Wagner concerts, Maestro Barenboim took time from his very busy schedule to chat with me about many things.  Our all-too-brief discussion focused mainly on the music he was doing then and now.  A portion of this interview was aired on WNIB last November, but here is the entire conversation.

Bruce Duffie:    First, tell me about the particular problems and joys of bringing a stage work to the concert hall.

barenboimDaniel Barenboim:    Ha!  The joy is that one doesn’t have to argue with stage-directors who go against the music!  I mean this in jest because I’ve had really wonderful experiences with stage-directors.  The Tristan which I did in for three years Bayreuth was with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle who is really the most musical of stage-directors.  But some of the Wagnerian opera acts lend themselves rather well for concert performance.  The second act of Tristan, the third act of Siegfried, the first act of Walküre are especially well-suited, although it is always incomplete because there is no stage, and because they do form a very organic part of the whole opera.  But the main advantage of bringing the second act of Tristan in concert here, of course, is the Chicago Symphony.  I don’t think you will find an orchestra in the pit of this quality, and for me this is almost enough reason.  And the singers of Tristan and Isolde are those who have done it with me for three years in Bayreuth
really four years including the film we made of it.  So it has really been worked out with a short time of rehearsal with two people who have not sung it often onstage together, and with the same conductor.  So I hope that these performances will reflect some of the joys and sweat that we have put into it.

BD:    Now you’ve done it for these several years.  Does it get better and better for all of you and for the public?

DB:    In Bayreuth it is really unique and it works that way.  The productions get better stage-wise and musically year after year.  Everybody comes to Bayreuth in the summer to do these performances, and then they work somewhere else during the season.  But when you come back the following summer, at the end of June or the beginning of July for the orchestral rehearsals, it is as if the eleven months have not existed because you find yourself in the same place.  After doing the performances and then going away for the year, when they all come back, they automatically bring back the last performance.  So you start rehearsing in the second year where you left off at the last performance of the first year, and so forth and so on.

BD:    Is that due to the performers, or to the atmosphere, or to Wagner, or what?

DB:    Everything.  I think a bit of everything, but they are first-class musicians who work elsewhere during the year.

BD:    Do you find that the covered orchestra in Bayreuth is a particular help in Wagner, or would that be a good idea in all opera houses?

DB:    I think it would be a good idea in many operas, but not in everything.  I would hate to play Don Giovanni or Così Fan Tutte with a covered pit.  But I feel that many other operas which were not thought of like that could only profit.

BD:    Even in a Mozart opera, such as the two you mentioned, where you’re using an orchestra that is twice or three-times the size that Mozart had?

DB:    Yes.  The thing about the covered pit in Bayreuth is not just a question of volume.  There, the whole sound
both orchestra and singersgets blended before it comes out to the audience.  So anything that requires great transparency and articulation is not really adaptable for that.

BD:    When you’re conducting an opera, how much do you get involved with stage-direction, stage-mechanics, etc., or are you just involved in the music?

DB:    Oh no, if you really want to do an opera well, you can’t be involved just with the music.  The stage problems can only be solved hand-in-hand with the music.  Some of them can be solved only through the music, and vice versa.  There are a lot of musical problems with the singers that can be solved stage-wise.

BD:    How do you see Tristan as an opera, as a piece?

DB:    [Laughs]  I don’t think you have enough time on this radio interview for me to tell you.  It’s impossible to tell you.

BD:    Is it a turning-point in music history?  Does everything that comes after it look back to Tristan?

DB:    I’ll tell you something.  When I did Tristan for the first time in Berlin, before I went to Bayreuth, for a long time
maybe six, seven, eight monthsI looked at all other music through the eyes of Tristan, even music that was written before, not only after.  The piece is so catalytic.  It’s not just that one single chord.  That chord, by the way, did not originate with Wagner.  It appears first in a song by Liszt.  But it is the whole relationship of chromaticism and volume and density of the orchestral writing which is so different.  What Wagner does for the orchestral musician or a conductor is that it sharpens all your expressive tools to the maximum.  You need everything in Tristan.  You need the ability to play the most beautiful, sustained legato, you need the ability to play extremely clear and articulated marcato, you need to be able to play soft accents, hard accents, to play super pianissimo, to play super fortissimo, everything absolutely to the limit of human possibility.  I also find it extremely useful for every other kind of playing.

BD:    Is Wagner in and of itself harder or more difficult to play than any other composer?

DB:    No.  Everything is difficult in relation to your real knowledge of it.  Many things seem very hard to people who only work intuitively.  The same difficulties become less so when your knowledge is in depth and becomes conscious knowledge.  In other words when you know how it is made, not only how it sounds, then the degree of difficulty changes.  Some things remain difficult no matter how much you know about them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you feel you’re competing against your own record when you perform?

barenboimDB:    No, I never hear my own recordings.  I have absolutely no interest in them.  Once they are made, for me they are a thing of the past.  The only time that I have sometimes listened to old recordings is when I have replayed some of the Mozart concertos, and some of the cadenzas were my own and I didn’t write them down.  But that is for a specific reason.  I certainly would never dream of sitting at home on a free evening and listen to my own recordings.

BD:    Would you sit at home on a free evening and listen to someone else’s recordings?

DB:    Hardly.  I’m not a great record-listener.

BD:    Is it a mistake for such a large segment of the public to be great record-listeners?

DB:    [Hesitating]  I don’t know.  As long as one keeps in mind that a recording is really second-best, and it will never replace live music.  As much as I admired and respected him, I can’t agree with Glenn Gould or his philosophy.  You can’t say that it’s an artificial way of making music, but it is an artificial way of reproducing music.  Music is not really reproducible.  It only has a reason for being from this moment to that moment in this place and not elsewhere.  A whole lot of physical considerations come into being which are not there.  When we play the second act of Tristan in Orchestra Hall, we automatically but also consciously play differently than if we were in the pit at Bayreuth or in another hall.  We adjust the acoustics to the sound of Orchestra Hall and to the degree of reverberation, etc.  So when you record in one studio and then listen to the disc on another machine in another room, nothing is really as it should be.  If I were playing the same piece in your living room, I would probably play it at a completely different tempo.  Therefore it is a very bastardized way of doing music, and a bastardized way of listening to music.

BD:    [Mischievously]  Then why do you make so many recordings?

DB:    Because I’m probably weak and people ask me to do it and I do it... certainly not for artistic reasons.

BD:    Does it bother you, then, when someone comes says they enjoyed your recordings of this or that?

DB:    No, I’m very happy that people enjoy what I have done, obviously.

BD:    Is there the same artificiality in film
your Tristan film, for example?

DB:    The Tristan film was made during performance.  The performance was filmed, so it is not like the Don Giovanni of Joseph Losey, or a regular cinematic film.  Being a film of a performance, I suppose it has a degree of faithfulness that it wouldn’t otherwise.  I’m not so keen to see filmed opera, even though they’re very impressive in many ways.  I simply cannot get used to things like the reverberation of a studio while they are singing in the open air, or when the person gets further and further away in the perspective, but the voice gets louder and louder and louder.  I can’t, frankly, come to terms with this artificiality.  But, if this really gets more people in the opera house and gets them interested in music, fine.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the secret of performing Mozart... or is this another six-hour question?

barenboimDB:    [Laughs]  No, this is not a six-hour question, it is an impossible question.  I don’t think there is a secret about it.  It is stylistically very difficult.  It is so complete that it doesn’t allow any underlining.  This is what is so difficult.  In other words, when you play a phrase of Tchaikovsky or Wagner or Brahms, or even of Beethoven, you can underline certain elements or certain notes in the expression.  In Mozart there are always ten or fifteen or twenty different expressions going on at the same time, and each one must have its own purity and its own independence.  Mozart does not tolerate this kind of underlining.  The minute you start to make a point, you are through with it.

BD:    Is all this complexity what makes it such that it will never die?

DB:    Probably.

BD:    Are there other composers who are like that?

DB:    Like Mozart?  No.  For me, it is a unique phenomenon.

BD:    You’ve done the symphonies, the piano concertos, and the operas.  How are they different or similar?

DB:    Many of the great piano concertos are very operatic in nature.  The finale of the E-Flat Concerto, #22, could be out of Figaro.  Some of the Da Ponte operas are as intimate as chamber music, and they are very much connected.  Therefore I think that the best performances of the operas are the ones which have the chamber music like quality about them, and the best performances of the piano concertos are the ones that have an operatic taste about them.

BD:    So they all relate together out of the mind of Mozart?

DB:    That’s right.

BD:    Are the best performances of Wagner like chamber music, or are they like symphonic works?

DB:    Everything.  The most terrible thing is this accepted pre-conceived idea of the fat, loud, Wagner sound.  This is only one side of Wagner.  So much of it is extremely delicate and extremely transparent, and, if you want, extremely chamber-music-like.  One of the most important things in a Wagner performance is really balance.  The minute you start balancing so that one can hear more of what is important, then suddenly everything becomes more transparent and at the same time richer.

*     *     *     *     *

barenboimBD:    Let me ask about Beethoven.  You’re going to be presenting all thirty-two sonatas.  Do they belong together as a unit?

DB:    Well, they were not conceived as a unit, obviously, but they give the most complete picture of Beethoven, more than the nine symphonies.  The most complete picture of Beethoven that you get is in the piano sonatas and the string quartets.  It is not the same in the Mozart piano sonatas.  They don’t really give you a complete picture of Mozart.  You have to go to the piano concertos or the operas for that.  But every aspect of Beethoven is there.  Again, as with Wagner, there are always pre-conceived ideas.  When you say “Beethoven,” people immediately think of the Eroica or the Fifth Symphony, all the obviously more dramatic pieces.  But the less dramatic pieces are just as much part of his nature.

BD:    Composers go in and out of fashion.  Is the public right in its taste dictating that they’ll have more Mozart or less Mozart, more Wagner or less Wagner, more Beethoven or less Beethoven?

DB:    I don’t know that the public really dictates that.  There are some composers that have always been in fashion.  At least from the moment that they became in fashion they have never left that place.  In the case of Mozart, in many countries he was accepted very late.  But in that respect, Mozart and Beethoven are absolutely above all possibility of fashion.

BD:    Is there any kind of musical line that goes from one composer to another over the centuries?

DB:    Wagner would have been impossible without Beethoven, and Beethoven would have been impossible without Mozart.  But if you think of a line, then you must go Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Wagner... Schumann, also, even Liszt.  It is all very connected.  The only composer historically speaking who is unnecessary is Brahms.  I’m not in any way meaning that the music is any less beautiful or less important, but historically speaking, if Brahms had not existed, music today would be exactly the same.  Maybe Schoenberg was the only one who was influenced in any way by Brahms, but otherwise absolutely not at all historically speaking.  Mendelssohn is the same thing.  If Mendelssohn had not existed, the history of music would be exactly the same.  We would be a lot poorer.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that they didn’t write beautiful music.  In the same way, historically speaking, Debussy is one of the most necessary composers.  In fact, after Wagner, probably the most necessary composer is Debussy.  The whole of the twentieth century could not exist without him.  Stravinsky could not exist without Debussy; Bartók, also, and Webern.

BD:    Is there any composer who is living now who is absolutely necessary?

DB:    The more of his works I do, the more I am taken by a lot of music by Pierre Boulez.  Whether it is of that historical importance I don’t know.  I think we need more distance in time, probably, but he certainly writes very impressive and touching music.

*     *     *     *     *

barenboimBD:    You’ve made a recording of Il Martrimonio Segreto by Cimarosa.  Why is that work not more well-known?

DB:    I don’t know.  I think it’s a lovely opera and I really enjoyed doing it.

BD:    Whenever we play it on WNIB we get calls asking if it’s Mozart.  Is that a mistake to think it’s by Mozart?

DB:    No.  It’s so Mozartian in character.

BD:    Are there any composers in the “standard repertoire” who really shouldn’t be there?

DB:    I think that’s what very much a matter of taste.

BD:    How do you balance your career
opera/concert/solo recital/chamber music?

DB:    Basically, I don’t guest-conduct.  I come to Chicago, certainly not as much as I would like to.  I would be much happier coming more, but I simply can’t.  I can’t multiply myself by four.  I don’t want to give up playing the piano, and I enjoy very much my work with the orchestra in Paris.  I’ve been there ten years and I find it extremely satisfying.  And I like to do more opera.  Those are my three priorities.  Other than that I come here a little, and I go to the Berlin Philharmonic a little.  Those two orchestras are very close to me musically and humanly.  And that’s all.

BD:    You say you’d like to do more opera.  How do you decide which operas you will conduct?

DB:    I was asked to do the new Ring in Bayreuth and this is something that I am greatly looking forward to.

BD:    How does that present more problems than Tristan?

DB:    [Laughs]  I will tell you after I’ve done it!

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

DB:    Some operas do, others don’t.  I must say that I worked last year for the first time with the “surtitles” which are so popular here in America.  We brought the Paris production of Figaro to Washington D.C., and it was extremely well done and an extremely positive solution to the problem.  I thought that the audience really enjoyed the text much more so than normal.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago, and for spending so much time this season.

DB:    Thank you.

Almost eight years later we met again and had another conversation . . . . . . . . .

BD:    Let is talk a little bit specifically about the Verdi Requiem to use on the air tomorrow.  Then I hope we can speak a bit about music in general?

DB:    Whatever you want!

BD:    Very good.  [Starting the segment for immediate on-air use]  I’m speaking today with Daniel Barenboim, the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who is about to begin the brand new season with the Verdi Requiem.  First, tell me the joys and sorrows of combining the orchestra with the human voice.

DB:    The basis of all music is, really, the human voice, because it obviously comes from the actual body, and not from an outside instrument.  This is why many things are more difficult for singers.  If a pianist is nervous, upset, or tired, the piano is the instrument and still stays in spite of that, whereas the slightest difficulty or discomfort shows itself in the human voice.  But real expression, where music really comes from, is the human voice, and everything else is... I wouldn’t say an imitation, but it’s a further development of what the human voice can produce.

BD:    Is this why in rehearsals you would say, “Use a singing line?”

DB:    Probably, yes.

BD:    If there is a bit of tightness or nervousness in the throat, is that in any way the conductor’s responsibility, or is it merely the singer’s responsibility to overcome as a professional?

DB:    A conductor can be of great help to a singer in a situation like this.  You can’t completely cure certain things, but a conductor can be of great use, in both musical and psychological or human help to a singer.

BD:    You’re doing the Verdi Requiem to open this season.  It’s sometimes been called Verdi’s greatest opera.  Do you agree with that?

DB:    Yes and no.  It is a very theatrical piece, but it is not really an opera.  There is a difference from a piece being theatrical.  Actually, the Mozart Requiem, for instance, is also theatrical in its own way, in its own style, whereas the Brahms isn’t, or the Fauré isn’t.  In that respect, Verdi is, but it is the combination of the theatricality with the religious content that make the Verdi Requiem such a special piece.


BD:    Is that at all because Verdi and Mozart were men of the theater, whereas Brahms, and to a lesser extent, Fauré were not?

DB:    Probably.  With Brahms it’s also the fact that it is a different text.  Although it’s called a Requiem, as you know, it’s not the Catholic Mass.  It is the protestant music, and takes a lot of the text from the Old Testament.  But it’s very interesting to compare the real Catholic requiems of Mozart, Verdi, and Fauré, and how they dealt with the different concepts
what the fear of God meant for one, and for the other was almost a relief, and the feeling of good, etc.

BD:    Yet there’s really not a religious quality to it because members of all religious denominations and sects can enjoy it.

DB:    Oh, of course.  The Verdi Requiem is probably one of the most universally accepted works of music imaginable, and fits almost any special occasion.  It doesn’t have to be only an occasion of sadness or of tragic circumstances.  It is an expression of man’s position in this world in relation to his or her creator, whoever that may be, and as such it is a piece that speaks to everybody.

BD:    We’re talking a bit about the text.  In an operatic piece, we talk about the balance between the music and the drama.  Does that shift at all for the Verdi Requiem, being a sacred text?

barenboimDB:    I don’t think so.  The main principles of putting together text and sound are just as evident in the Verdi Requiem as they are in opera.

BD:    You do this in one piece, just as a complete work without any intermission?

DB:    Yes.  Apparently, when Verdi conducted it, I think it was in Paris, they did an intermission after the “Dies Irae,” but I think it really loses the tension that can be, and should be accumulated by performing it without an intermission, without a break.  If I’m not mistaken, this was the only occasion when Verdi conducted with a break.  Any other times it was done was without stopping.

BD:    Is there anything at all that should go with this work, or should it stand completely alone on a concert?

DB:    Oh, it must stand alone.  From beginning to end it should really fill the evening, the day, for the performer and for the listener.

BD:    As Music Director of the Chicago Symphony, do you make sure that there are several great big choral works of this stature in every season?

DB:    Yes.  We are very fortunate that we have such a wonderful chorus in Chicago, and we have to take advantage of that.  The most wonderful thing about it is that a chorus has been attached to the orchestra for so many years, and therefore there is a unanimity of style, a homogeneity of style that you cannot get with other choruses.  You can find wonderful choruses, but when they work regularly with the same orchestra they get used to the same sound and the same kind of articulation and color in the music.  This chorus and this orchestra’s had the good fortune to work together with the same chorus and with Margaret Hillis for so many years.  It is a very unusual situation for a great orchestra to do that.  I know that we are also, from this point of view, the envy of many great orchestras who do not have a chorus attached to them, and have to always import one, including the Berlin Philharmonic.

BD:    You rely on Margaret Hillis to train the chorus, and she is about to retire.  Are you looking for someone who will carry on her tradition, or are you looking for someone who brings something new?

DB:    Those two things are not incompatible.  It has to be somebody who understands what Margaret Hillis has been able to create here and develop and therefore continue in this line, and also have something of his own to say, not just an imitator.

BD:    When you’re working on the big choral works, do you collaborate with the choral director, or do you expect him or her to prepare the chorus and then let you finish shaping the sound and the idea?

DB:    It depends on the piece.  I’ve worked for so many years now with Margaret that there’s almost no need for me to even meet with her before and discuss.  If there is something special, then obviously we do, but it is very much a real collaboration.  It can only be that way.  The idea that the chorus director can prepare the piece so that any conductor could deal with it
in other words, so that the notes are there and the dynamic is there and the pitch is theredoesn’t really work.  Musicianship and phrasing is not like the cream that you put on top of the cake.  You don’t add it.  If you prepare a work in a purely mechanical way, it’s impossible to then do it musically.  It can only work if the choral director is in sympathy with the conductor of the evening, and vice versa.

BD:    So you want the choral director to have a bit of input in terms of interpretation and feeling?

DB:    Of course, yes.

BD:    Is it a little bit easier because the Verdi Requiem has been sung here a number of times, or would it be easier if this were a brand new work that you were shaping from the beginning?

DB:    I don’t know.  Some works that have been done have been easier because they have been performed, and others because they haven’t.  It depends very much on the piece.

BD:    Is there any ambiguity at all in opening the orchestra season with a big choral work rather than a big orchestral work?

DB:    I don’t think so.  The great choral works, like the Verdi Requiem, are very festive pieces, and they fit a very festive occasion, which is the opening of the season.  Therefore, it is absolutely right to do it with the Verdi Requiem, as we are this year.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have a number of rehearsals before the concert.  Is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark of the evening?

DB:    Oh, you have to leave a lot for the evening, but what you leave for the evening doesn’t work unless the actual preparation has been done.  You can’t just play it through and then really make the performance in the evening.  The more you rehearse and prepare in detail, the more freedom you will have in the evening.  If you don’t prepare, then it is very much a question of pure luck, and that it shouldn’t be.


BD:    Even with an orchestra such as this, that is supposed to be so very fast?

DB:    That has nothing to do with the quality of the playing.  That has to do with the quality of the music-making and what you do with it.

BD:    You don’t need to mention specific times, but have there been any performances which you felt were perfect?

DB:    No.  No, I don’t think this perfection exists.  We have such a strong feeling that we have to conserve everything.  We are very much a sort of a society that keeps records, and are very much interested in the past and what has become, and music is not like that.  Music is not to be conserved, and not to be preserved.  I don’t think that it can be.  What is so special about a special work on a special evening is not something that can be preserved, and is not something that one should attempt to do.  Therefore, the word “perfect” doesn’t exist.  It was right for that particular evening, in that particular acoustic, in those particular circumstances.

barenboimBD:    So it’s just the performances that should not be preserved but the music and the inspiration should be?

DB:    Of course, of course.

BD:    Then each time you’re really starting from nothing, without any kind of background at all?

DB:    No, not from nothing because there has been a lot of work of preparation being done.  But in the actual act of creation, of course you start from nothing.  The Beethoven Fifth Symphony doesn’t exist now as you and I are talking.  It doesn’t really exist, and all these records that exist in the shop are not it.  Beethoven’s Fifth will begin to exist again the moment an orchestra somewhere plays the first note of it and goes on playing.  Then it comes to life.

BD:    Does it begin to exist the moment the record begins to play?

DB:    I don’t think so.  I don’t think the record can capture the very essence of the music.  It’s a document of a certain performance, but no more than that.  There cannot be what the public and critics sometimes want to hear, which is a definitive performance.  It doesn’t exist.

BD:    But it could be definitive for an evening?

DB:    Yes.

BD:    Do you want every evening to be definitive for that evening?

DB:    That is an impossible situation.

BD:    Well, we’ve been dancing around it, so let me hit you with a great big question.  What is the purpose of music?

DB:    Why does music have to have a purpose?  What is the purpose of having a symphony orchestra?  What is the purpose of having a concert?  That question I can answer relatively easily.  The music is there to provide happiness or solace to people who are in difficulty, but that is not really what music is about.  Music is neither descriptive, nor does it have a purpose.  Music doesn’t become something.  Something can become music, which is a very different thing.  Sound can become music, provided they are put together in such a way that they relate permanently to each other, and influence each other permanently.  Then it becomes something, but it doesn’t have a purpose as such.  It can be used for many things by people.  It can be used for all sorts of motivations, but that is not the nature of music itself.

BD:    So sound is not music until it is put together?

DB:    Sound is only the language, the means by which music can express itself.

BD:    John Cage was saying that all sounds are music, even if they are random.

DB:    I don’t believe in that.  I believe that the organic element, the feeling of organic belonging to each other, of unity of the sounds is what makes music.

BD:    So where’s music going today?

DB:    If only I knew!  We are in a difficult period about development of music, and have been for a long time now.  So many people who go to concerts regularly and who have a certain closeness to music still think of music written in the beginning of this century as modern music.  They think of Schoenberg.  A lot of people will tell you the Schoenberg Gurre-Lieder — maybe not that piece, but some of the Webern pieces
all this is modern music.  We are now at the tail end of this century, and these were written between 1910 and 1920.  If you transport this century back, I don’t think for one moment that people in 1893 thought of late Haydn symphonies or middle Beethoven symphonies as modern music, which is the equivalent in the number of years.

barenboimBD:    Were they thinking of late Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and even Puccini as their moderns?

DB:    That was their modern music.  I don’t know whether it has to do with the break in tonality and that so much music after Wagner and Mahler went into the atonal system, or whether it has to do with other phenomena, the fact remains that there is a very unhealthy state of affairs.  Not only the public, but so many musicians exist today who spend their whole life with a great amount of dedication and enthusiasm to music, and have no contact whatsoever with music that has been written in the last hundred years.  I feel this is a very unhealthy situation.

BD:    How can we cure this?

DB:    I don’t know.  I try in my own small way to keep absolutely in touch with the music of today, and to perform it with a certain regularity.  Part of the problem is that the new pieces are not played over and over again.  How do you expect somebody to go to a new work of Boulez or of Lutosławski or whoever it may be, and hear it once and never hear it again and like it.  There’s the question of habit, of hearing this music with a certain amount of regularity, which is very important.

[Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my Interview with Elliott Carter, and my Interview with Luciano Berio.]

BD:    Will that help to create a clamor for the new works?

DB:    I hope so.  That’s one of the ways.

BD:    In the last few years, it seems that in some circles we’ve been coming back to either tonality or a kind of tonality.  Is this a good thing, or just a thing?

DB:    I’m not a believer in neo.  I don’t believe in Neo-classicism and I don’t believe in Neo-romanticism.  If it is worth experimenting in order to find new language, then it is positive and it’ll probably work.  If it’s just going back because we can’t find something else, then I don’t think it will be substantial.

BD:    Specifically about new pieces, you have a whole raft of them in your office that you’ve been asked to play.  How do you decide which ones you will do?

DB:    [Matter-of-factly]  I read them.

BD:    Then what is it you look for?  What is it that you want to find that will make you want to do this one or not do that one?

DB:    It depends on the nature of the piece.  It is exactly like in the music of the past.  There are some works of the past that appeal to me because of the structure or because of the harmonic language, and others because of the color or many other reasons.  I don’t look for something specific, and if I find it, that’s what I’ll do.  The only thing that I look for is something that is expressive and that is of interest.

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write a piece for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or indeed, any orchestra these days?

DB:    I cannot give you a concrete piece of advice, no.

BD:    Okay, but you do encourage them to continue writing?

DB:    Absolutely.  Absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for conductors coming along?

DB:    To forget recordings!

BD:    Forget them completely???

DB:    Recordings, yes.  A young conductor came to see me when I was still conductor-director of the Paris Orchestra, and thought he should be engaged to conduct the orchestra.  He explained to me why he thought he should do that.  He was so good and he was so talented, and he had a lot of enthusiasm, and he felt he could really do wonderful things.  So I said to him, “Suppose you were given a concert.  What kind of program would you like to do?  What kind of music appeals to you?”  I thought this way I would hear what really interested him, and he said, “Anything that is in the Schwann Catalog.”  [Both laugh]  That is a very sad state of affairs.  It’s a funny story, but it’s a very sad state of affairs.

The Schwann Catalog (previously Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog or later Schwann Record And Tape Guide) was a catalog of recordings started by William Schwann in 1949. The first edition was hand-typed, 26 pages long, and it listed 674 long-playing records. By the late 1970s, over 150,000 record albums had been listed in Schwann.

The catalog initially focused on classical LPs, but also included sections on popular music, jazz, musical shows, "Spoken and Misc.", and so on. By the 1970s the catalog was split into two volumes: the monthly Schwann-1 included all stereo classical and jazz recordings and stereo popular albums less than two years old, while the semi-annual Schwann-2 included all monaural albums, older pop recordings, and spoken word and miscellaneous albums. In May 1986, the publication became known as the Schwann Compact Disc Catalog. Later, the catalog split into Schwann Opus for classical music and Schwann Spectrum for categories such as jazz, religious, spoken word and international music.

The early editions indexed and reviewed LPs that contained the same classical works. As the volume of music it catalogued grew, the amount of information for each entry was reduced to a single line.

BD:    You should have challenged him to play Machaut, or something equally incredulous!

DB:    Yes!  When we recorded the Emperor Waltz of Johann Strauss with the Chicago Symphony, I’d forgotten my score at home, and I took the score that was in the orchestra library.  There was a Forward in the score that told a little about Johann Strauss and about the waltz, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  It was a conductor’s score, and yet it told a little about the composer and about the piece, and about Vienna in that time.  Then it said, “There is a very good recording of this piece on Such-and-such a label, conducted by so-and-so, for study purposes.”  [Both have a huge laugh]  For study purposes!  If in a score you are recommended to seek recordings for study purposes, then I think we are not really going to get very far!

BD:    [Trying to make sense of this]  Are the musicians short-changing themselves by not going to the score but rather going to the records?

DB:    Well, the recording cannot be a substitute for studying.

BD:    Should the young conductors, perhaps, go to study performances?

DB:    Of course they should study performances.  They should have great curiosity to see also how things are achieved, to find out about the instruments, to find out about the orchestra, to find out about the structure of the music, and find out about performances of other conductors.

barenboimBD:    By attending performances of other conductors?

DB:    Yes, and rehearsals, especially.  It’s in rehearsals that you can really learn much more.

BD:    Despite all this, you’ve made an immense number of recordings.  Do you conduct differently in the recording studio than you do when you’re in concert hall or the opera house?

DB:    No.  I conduct differently in different acoustics.  If I’m conducting in Orchestra Hall, then I conduct differently than if I conduct in a very resonant church because the sounds really only exist at that particular moment and in that particular space.  We are so used to living with the noise of sound around us
noise of cars and of elevators, and of hundreds of things that surround usthat we have sometimes difficulty remembering that sound in music really exists only at that particular time and in a particular space.  It’s not just something that can be amplified.  Those are things that you can do for certain purposes which have nothing to do with the music.  It can be very laudable purposes, like education, but it has nothing to do with the nature of the music.

BD:    So there’s an artificiality to it?

DB:    Yes, of course.

BD:    Perhaps you should start each Chicago Symphony concert with a minute or two of silence, to allow us to listen to the hall before the sound comes in.

DB:    The first note that the orchestra plays, or that any instrument plays, doesn’t exist on its own.  It is already in relation to the silence that precedes it.  If the flute would start the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, out of a lot of noise, or crackling papers, or whatever it may be, it’s a very different thing.  The very first note, the famous C-sharp, or the flute itself, is expressive in relation to the silence that precedes it.  Therefore, silence is absolutely essential.

BD:    Do you, as the conductor, have any control over that preceding silence?

DB:    I don’t have control over it.  I wait in the hope that it comes.  I wait until it is really absolutely quiet, and then I can establish and feel that silence onto which will come the first note.

BD:    So you wait for your silence to come along?

DB:    That’s right.

BD:    Do you usually get it?

DB:    Yes.

BD:    Has your relationship with the Chicago Symphony changed at all now that you’re Music Director?  You’ve been conducting here for something like twenty years.  These last couple of years now, you’ve been Music Director.  Is it different at all?

DB:    Not in essence, no.  The main difference is that as the Music Director you don’t only rehearse the works for a given concert, but you rehearse in such a way that you build a common style to the orchestra and to you.  In other words, when you rehearse one Beethoven symphony, in a way you are rehearsing also for the other symphonies, for the development of a style of articulation, of balance, of color.

BD:    Are you rehearsing Beethoven, or are you rehearsing Romantic Style?

DB:    What is Romantic Style?  You rehearse everything that has to do with the realization of music, articulation, and balance, every means of expression that is expressed through sound.  The work in question gets brought to performance level as a result of that work.  But if you come as a guest conductor, then you have three or four rehearsals, whatever the case may be.  You prepare the program and you give the best of yourself.  The orchestra gives the best of itself, and it’s finished.

BD:    If you are appearing as a guest where you may or may not have conducted before, how long does it take before the orchestra is yours?

DB:    It would be very difficult for me to answer this question, because it’s so many years that I have not conducted in a new situation.  I don’t conduct out of Chicago and Berlin, and once in a while the Vienna Philharmonic.  I conduct really only orchestras with which I feel a great affinity.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there a secret to playing Mozart?

barenboimDB:    Not more and not less than to play something else, except that it is more transparent, and therefore more dangerous.  You hear everything.  Everything!  The slightest sin in phrasing or articulation, which can pass unnoticed, or relatively noticed in other music, really strikes the eye immediately.  If the accent is too sharp or too soft, or the balance is not right, or the articulation is not exactly perfect, those things really jump to the eye with Mozart.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Is this to say you can get away with more in Bruckner?

DB:    In a certain way, yes.  In others, of course not, but in a certain way, yes.  It’s not as transparent.

BD:    Is there something special in the Mozart concerti when you are playing and conducting?  Is there a special affinity, or a deeper affinity that you have because you are both soloist and conductor?

DB:    It’s not a question of deeper affinity.  It’s more a question of a greater homogeneity, because if you have a separate conductor, still you have to relate to him.  He is understanding what you are doing and then he transmits it to the orchestra.  Whereas this way, the channel is directly from the soloist to the orchestra, and when the orchestra does not have somebody in front of them beating every quarter note, they listen also in a more sensitive way.  So, it brings out the best in everybody.

BD:    When you are conducting a guest soloist, are you, perhaps, a little more sensitive to a pianist than, say, a violinist or a bassoon player?

DB:    I don’t think so.

BD:    You make a conscious effort not to be?

DB:    No.  I don’t even have to make a conscious effort because when I conduct with a piano soloist, I don’t think how I would play this piece.  If he is a convincing musician, then it is the same for me whether he plays piano or violin.

BD:    So you wait to be convinced?

DB:    Yes.

BD:    Should the audience wait to be convinced by you?

DB:    I don’t know.

BD:    If money were not a consideration, would you bring more operas like the three by Mozart you did a couple of years ago?

DB:    I thought the experiment of the Mozart operas was very, very positive, and I would like to do some more, yes.  To have an orchestra of the quality of the Chicago Symphony playing operas puts them really on a new level.

BD:    Should money, the expense, be a consideration when you’re dealing with purely musical ideas of setting up a season?

barenboimDB:    Of course it shouldn’t, but it is.

BD:    How much of a burden is it for you to have these financial considerations?

DB:    Difficult question to answer.  Some.  Of course it would be nice sometimes just to not think about financial considerations and just do this, that, and the other.  But sometimes out of difficult material situations there is even more spiritual energy.  Or sometimes out of difficult situations, one finds solutions that one wouldn’t find in a climate of total freedom from material difficulties.  For some time now, all over the world we are fighting with the difficult economic situation, and my hope is
as I’m sure everybody else’s isthat it won’t last very much longer.  It would be very wonderful to be able to do the Mozart operas again, or to do another opera with the same setup.

BD:    How much should you play the same works over again, and how much should you bring new works and unknown old works to the audience?

DB:    I think you need a bit of both.  You need to be able to bring the works the audience knows and loves, and bring them on as high a level as possible for the audience, and also bring some new works in the hope that they will also become known and loved.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

DB:    Oh, yes.  Very much so.

BD:    As Music Director you have to plan at least the season or two, or maybe even three or four in advance, at least with some of your ideas.  Do you like having these ideas so far out in the future?

DB:    Sometimes yes, because it allows you to prepare for special events or special series or a special idea, with enough time to do it.  Other times, of course, it is difficult, because you don’t really know exactly what you will want to do two and a half years from now on a Friday afternoon.  It’s very difficult sometimes, but altogether, one gets used to that.

BD:    You’re never disappointed when you get to that Friday afternoon two and a half years down the line?

DB:    No.

BD:    With all of the various things you do
— conducting, playing piano solo and in chamber groups — how do you divide your career among all of those things?

DB:    I do four months with the Chicago Symphony, I do four or five months at the opera in Berlin, and I go to Bayreuth in the summer.  In between, whenever I can, I play the piano.  That’s all.

BD:    Is there something that you wish you could give more time to, or do you just let it happen?

DB:    Sometimes there are periods when I wish I could play a little more the piano than I do at the moment, but in the situation that I am, trying to build the opera house in Berlin again after so many years of difficult situation there, I can’t do it.  But with time, I hope I will be able to dedicate more time to piano playing again.

BD:    Is it safe to assume that if you could, you’d have 48 hours in every day rather than 24?

DB:    Absolutely.  Wouldn’t you?

BD:    Of course!  Thank you so much for chatting with me.  I look forward to the season.

DB:    Thank you very much.


© 1985 & 1993 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on November 2, 1985 and September 11, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following days, and again in 1997.  The first interview was published in Nit&Wit Magazine in March, 1986.  This transcription of the second interview was made in 2015, and both were posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.