Conductor / Composer Michael Gielen
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
The German conductor, Micael (Andreas) Gielen (July 29, 1927 - ),
is the son of the theatrical director Joseph Gielen. He studied under Erwin
Leuchter in Buenos Aires (1942-1949), then under Josef Polnauer in Vienna
An excellent pianist, Gielen made his debut in 1949 in Buenos Aires
and played the complete piano works of Arnold Schoenberg in concert cycles.
He became a répétiteur at the Teatro Colón, then went
to the Vienna Opera as a répétiteur (1950-1952) and conductor
(1952-1960). From 1960 to 1965, Gielen was the principal conductor of the
Stockholm Opera. In 1965 he conducted the first performance of one of the
major operas of the 20th century in Cologne, Die Soldaten by Bernd
From 1969 to 1972 he was the principal conductor of the Belgian National
Orchestra, and from 1969 he was a permanent guest of the South German Radio
Symphony Orchestra. From 1972 to 1975 he was the director of the Dutch National
Opera. From 1977 to 1987 he was the chief musical director in Frankfurt,
and in the same period from 1980 to 1986 he was the Musical Director of
the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 1979 he also became the principal guest
conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London. In 1986 he took on the
directorship of the SWR Sinfonieorchester BadenBaden & Freiburg. He
also taught orchestral conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum until he became
an emeritus professor in 1995.
Gielen was a particularly keen proponent of the music of his contemporaries,
and his first performances included Dramatic Scenes from Orpheus
by Hans Werner Henze
(1982), D'un opéra de voyage (1967) by Betsy Jolas, Requiem
(1965) and Ramifications (1st version, 1969) by György Ligeti,
Zwei Stücke (1978) by Detlev Müller-Siemens, L'Effacement
du prince Igor (1971) by Henri Pousseur, Carré and Mixtur
(1965) by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Symphonic scene (1961) and Namo
(1971) by Isang Yun,
Die Soldaten (1965) and Requiem für einen jungen Dichter
(1969) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. A tour with this work in 1995 took him
through Austria, Britain, France and Germany. His own compositions often
followed on from the Second Vienna School.
-- Throughout this page, names which are
links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
In March of 1996, Michael Gielen returned to conduct two weeks
of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The first week held
the Symphony #6 by Mahler, and the second week included another
(!) Symphony #6, this one by Beethoven, and a world premiere by
Steven Stucky. He had first been here in 1973 for a concert of Haydn,
and Scriabin, and would subsequently return in 1997, 2001, and 2002.
He graciously agreed to meet with me backstage at Orchestra Hall after
an afternoon performance for a conversation, and here is what was said
at that time . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You spent a number of years
conducting opera, and now you’re back into the symphonic realm.
Aside from the very obvious, what are the differences between conducting
opera and symphony?
Michael Gielen: I’ve done both all my professional
life. I started as a coach in the Teatro Colón in Buenos
Aires when I was only twenty, assisting Erich Kleiber, then Furtwängler,
and Böhm. I started to conduct very late. I came back
to Vienna after the War in 1951, and was a coach at the Vienna State Opera.
I was twenty-seven years old when I conducted for the first time
in concert, and two years later I had a debut at the Vienna State Opera.
Since then both things have gone parallel and together all the time.
If you ask me what is the difference, maybe opera is more exciting in the
sense that you never know whether the curtain will go up, and whether the
soprano is going to be on stage. [Both laugh] You never know
what else can happen. In concert things are little more assured.
BD: In a concert, is it nice to know that all
of the weight rests on your shoulders rather than having to worry about
the soprano and the tenor and the stage director? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Elliott Carter, and Ursula Oppens.]
MG: [Laughs] If you want to put it that
way. The big problem of opera conducting in German-speaking countries
is the contrast of the ‘stagione’ theater — where
you rehearse one piece, then you play it, and you get a maximum of two
or three pieces at the same time — and the ‘repertoire’
opera house where you have up to twenty-five or thirty different operas
running all season, but they rehearse only the new productions. So
if you have not prepared the piece in that house two or three years ago,
then you have absolutely no chance of rehearsing the whole thing together.
You have a piano rehearsal with the singers, and then you go with a lot
of confidence that your orchestra is going to follow you.
BD: Do they?
MG: Well, of course they do. Most of
them are extremely experienced. But personally I’d prefer to conduct
performances which I have been able to rehearse myself, to imprint my personal
views on the music.
BD: In opera, how much is it a collaboration
between the ideas of the musicians on stage and the idea of the conductor
in the pit?
MG: It’s a give and take. Certainly if
you have remarkable singers you accept what they have to offer and follow
them. On the other side, you may always say what you think it should
musically be. My experience has been that the greater the singers,
the more flexible they are. For instance, I was still pretty young
when I did The Magic Flute for the first time. It was Irmgard
Seefried singing Pamina, so of course before the performance I asked her
what kind of tempo she wanted in her aria. She said, ‘Oh, go ahead,
Michael. You make the music and I’ll be able to be with you.’
Because she had done it with so many conductors there was no problem for
BD: You say the great singers are flexible.
Are the great orchestras flexible?
MG: All orchestras are flexible. If you
behave in the right way as a conductor, you will find flexibility on
the part of the musicians. On the other hand, if an orchestra like
the Berlin Philharmonic has worked with a great conductor like Karajan
for twenty-five years, and they have been doing Brahms’ First Symphony
every second month of every season, and so many times on tour, they tend
to play the way they’re used to, and it is unwise to interfere too much.
Bruno Walter used to say, ‘Don’t interfere if everything goes well.’
So if you know this kind of tradition on the great classics and romantics,
and if you come to an orchestra like the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonic,
it is wise to know what they’re used in order not to interfere too much.
BD: Is it important when you’re the music director
of an orchestra to make sure that your orchestra will play for guest
MG: This is automatic.
BD: But is this part of your responsibility
to make sure?
MG: How could one possibly make sure? If
the guest is a good conductor and has the right attitude in a psychological
sense, you will get excellent results. I don’t think the music director
has to preach to the orchestra, ‘Please follow my colleagues.’
BD: You can’t teach them to be flexible?
MG: That depends on the kind of conducting
you practice yourself, whether you’re a rubato conductor or a rigid conductor.
In the ideal situation, one should be free enough to accept ideas.
Mainly one is engaged in order to communicate the ideas one brings.
But on the other hand, the phrasing in a great orchestra will also influence
the performance, so many things go without saying. So it is in the
case here in Chicago. This is one of the great orchestras of the
world, and they have been playing this Sixth Symphony by Mahler
with Solti, of course,
and with Boulez only
three years ago, and other conductors have been doing it lately, so it
is very well known. Then it is easier. With many orchestras
in Europe, I wouldn’t dare to do this symphony on just three rehearsals,
but it is so well known here, and this orchestra is so capable. The
language of this music is so familiar to the musicians, so it is not unknown
territory like modern music can be sometimes. This is their repertoire,
and I suppose that Mr. Barenboim also does
Bruckner a lot. So they won’t feel unsafe when one starts rehearsal.
They really know it. so they offer what they think it should be.
* * *
BD: You’ve mentioned modern music, and
you are also a composer. Does that make you a better conductor?
MG: Yes. This is one of my fundamental
convictions, that you can hear whether a conductor is or as also a composer
by the sense of form. When you write music, at least in the early
stages you try to fulfill great volumes of music, and that is a kind of
experience of musical form which you cannot get in any different way.
That is why the coherence of a very large form, like an act of a Wagner
opera, might be more consistent with a conductor who has been composing.
Take as an example, Furtwängler. He is an extreme example of
a very personal view of the music, and a grasp of the large forms because
he composed this kind of thing himself. Think of Boulez when he
does French music, or Stravinsky. These composers are near to the
music they do. Boulez has this understanding which gives a transparency,
a clearness to performances which is exemplary, and has to do with the
fact that he composes.
BD: Does what you conduct over the years affect
how you compose?
MG: I hope not. [Has a huge laugh] No,
I compose very little. I’m too busy learning scores during in the
summer. Also, my orchestra in Baden-Baden has a festival of its
own in South-West Germany in Donaueschingen, and for seventy-five years
it is a specialist festival for contemporary new music. We have
first performances of complicated scores every fall, in October, and so
most of the summers I spend learning scores instead of composing, as Mahler
did. He knew all the operas for Vienna so well that he could spend
the summer composing.
BD: Would you like to have more time to compose?
MG: Yes, yes, certainly. At my age, I’m
trying to reduce my conducting a little bit in the years to come in order
to be more my own master.
BD: As a conductor and a composer, perhaps
you’re the ideal person to ask this ‘easy’ question. Where’s music
MG: I have no idea. [Much laughter] It’s
a very easy question and a very easy answer. I am no prophet. I
have no idea.
BD: Do you like some of the directions that
MG: In the past, yes. I believe the renewal,
which happened after the Second World War with composers like Boulez,
Stockhausen, and Nono, got to a stand-still in the ’70s
and ’80s, and the kind of post-romanticism and
return to tonality which we have seen is not a path which interests me
very much. I wait for the next revolution to happen, and I hope it
will happen during my lifetime with the younger generation.
BD: Do you know where to look for this revolution?
MG: We look all the time for our festival to
find interesting scores.
BD: Are you looking into orchestral music,
or choral music, or electronic music?
MG: The development of the combination of electronic
music with computers is one of the more interesting aspects, and the live
transformation of electronics in concert — like
the last works of Nono, or Boulez’s Répons — is
an important step in a direction that has not yet been explored sufficiently.
BD: Are you taking part in those steps?
MG: No, not at all because I’m technically
an idiot. [Both laugh] I write with a pencil on paper for
the time being. But seriously, this is part of why I need more
time for myself in order not to lose contact with these developments.
I should really learn what a computer is. I don’t have one at home,
and I don’t know what to do with it.
BD: When you’re writing with the pencil, does the pencil
lead your hand across the page, or are you controlling where that pencil
goes all the time?
MG: The inner ear and the brain have to control
BD: So you control how it comes out, and it
doesn’t have a life of its own?
MG: I would say that one invents an idea, and
one has an idea of how a piece should be. One has the inner vision
of the total thing, and then as you’re working on it, it changes shape.
At least the last thirty-five per cent of the piece — what
earlier was called the recapitulation — in my experience
turns out different from what one thought in the beginning it should be.
BD: Are you happy with the change?
MG: It is a logic which comes out of the material
that you are employing. It has its own law. It goes its own
way to a certain extent. It’s like the input of musicians into
a conductor’s interpretation, so the material you are working with as
a composer also is feedback on what is going on in your brain.
BD: You get feedback from page and you get
feedback from the musicians. Do you also get feedback from the
audience that comes to hear your piece, or any new piece?
MG: Yes. One feels it during the performance,
whether they are coughing a lot or not. [Laughs] And the
applause, of course, is a thermometer. But one’s background has a
quite clear sensation of the attention, and with a cultivated audience
it depends on you how much you can interest them with what you’re doing.
BD: Do you write orchestral compositions,
and if so, do you conduct them yourself, or do you let other people conduct
MG: I’ve never written for orchestra.
I’ve written for groups, and the biggest piece I’ve ever done is Variations
for Forty Instruments, but that’s not for orchestra. However,
that’s exactly what I’m planning — an orchestra
piece — and the plans are pretty well defined, but
I need several months, otherwise I don’t even start. There’s so
much work. So far, though, most of my pieces are chamber.
BD: Have you been pleased with the performances
of your works?
MG: Yes. Some of them had to be conducted,
and most of the performances I conducted myself. Evidently my music
is not such that everybody’s trying to get it into performing.
But it is a nice thing to write and to perform a piece which is an ensemble
in size, and I felt very much honored to do it.
* * *
BD: Let me ask the great big question.
What is the purpose of music?
MG: That depends for whom. I don’t think
there’s an absolute purpose, but for the person who writes music it
is the desire to survive one’s own death, and the desire to be like
God creating a little word of one’s own. For an audience it is a
different thing. It can be like a mirror of what is going on in the
society, in the world, and even in nature. This is true of a piece
of music or a painting. It can also be just a past time, as if they
went to have a nice dinner, and so they are going to have a nice symphony.
This also is legitimate. After all, most people are hard-working,
so it will fill many different functions.
BD: Does it influence your section of program
material if you know it’s going to be a festival situation rather than
a subscription concert where people have been working all day and just
come for an evening?
MG: Certainly. A festival for modern music
is only that, and has a specialist audience. For the normal audience,
practically every program, or as many programs as possible, should have
music of the twentieth century — and maybe the second
half of the twentieth century — because the music
of one’s own time reflects one’s own problems. Life in our world
has become so difficult to bear that a large part of the normal bourgeois
audience doesn’t want to be confronted with these problems which express
themselves in wars, revolution, social upheaval, unhappiness, and in psychoanalysis.
When they go out in the evening, many people don’t want to be confronted
with that again. But on the other side, I believe that an art that
does not reflect the problems of one’s own period is untrue, so why should
it be there at all? Just for fun? As a musician I would feel
that I’m not taken seriously if I’m only there to be the clown.
BD: How do you balance the art and the fun?
MG: The amount of contemporary music in normal
programs has to be judicious. If you give too much of a certain
food, the stomach cannot absorb it, but in relatively small doses it
is fine. In a three-piece program there should be one new piece.
That should be possible, and I do think that one can educate one’s
audience as a Music Director. I’ve always tried to do that wherever
I was in charge. Even in Cincinnati, not everybody, but a large part
of the audience were grateful to be confronted with music they never heard
before. Of course, there are always some conservatives who don’t
want to know anything more than what they know already.
BD: Are they really conservative, or are they
MG: What’s the difference? [Laughs]
BD: From the vast array of literature, how do
you decide which pieces you will program? And of course this becomes
more important when you’re presented with new scores. How do you
decide which scores you will present and give birth to, and which scores
you will set aside or let someone else tackle?
MG: It is impossible to do justice to all the
different movements in art. One is conditioned by one’s education,
and by the life one has led as an artist to prefer certain things and
to reject others. I don’t think that my choices are always the best,
but they are my choices. I cannot do differently. I always
felt my first obligation was to confront audiences with the music by Schoenberg.
This music is absolutely central for the understanding of what is going
on in our century, and has been the source of so many developments. Twelve-tone
technique has fostered the serial movement, and there’s practically no
composer in the world who has not been influenced in some way or other by
Schoenberg. But, as I said, the problems which his music reflects
— the great tension, the inner tension of his music
— is something that not many people want to live with.
BD: If you get the audiences to understand
and accept Schoenberg, does that make it easier to accept the composers
that came after?
MG: Of course, certainly. It is also important
to show in which sense the revolutionaries are conservatives. Schoenberg
is a pupil of Brahms and a pupil of Mozart. If one plays his music,
one should consider these traditional aspects of his music, and they would
pave the way. They would make the bridge for an audience to understand
him better. For instance, if you play Brahms, you should insist
on the advanced aspects. The same for Beethoven as well as Berlioz.
All these advanced aspects of older music prepare the listener for the
traditional aspects of the modern music. So if you are in charge
long enough — you have to be there for several years,
let’s say six or seven years — then you can make an
overall plan, a five-year plan at least, of programming which will help
your audience to come to grips with the music of their own time.
BD: You want to help the audience to understand
MG: Yes. In the sense I understand it.
It’s like the preacher. He can only preach his own religion.
He cannot preach the contrary of what he believes in.
BD: Is your religion music?
MG: I have none other.
BD: You teach a class in conducting. What
advice do you have for young conductors coming along?
MG: I’m retired since last summer, ‘emeritus’
as they call it, but for eight years I’ve been teaching consistently in
Salzburg in the Mozarteum. The main content of what I had to tell
them was that there is no difference between modern and not-modern and
old. That is, there is only music. Somehow, in some way, the
same ingredients make the piece of music, and if you analyze classical
music, you have also the tools to understand more modern music.
It is very essential for students to understand this path of history, which
goes Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Webern, and on. If they
do not understand that Webern has these roots in Mozart’s composing technique,
then they will never understand what it’s all about. Though at first
it sounds so complicated, if you digest it slowly — take
it apart and then put it together — it becomes just
as accessible as older music, which is not as simple as it sounds at first
BD: Just as you want to have a new piece on
every standard concert, should you also put an old piece on every new
MG: That would be ideal. That would be wonderful.
For instance, I remember a program where there was music by Bernd Alois
Zimmermann, and I forgot who else, but right after the Zimmermann, the
two pianists played the F Minor Fantasy for Piano Four Hands by Schubert.
It was a relief because often modern music it not easy. The
audience has to concentrate, and with the Schubert the ears are cleaned.
So after this relaxation with music which has less volume and a different
sentimental content, the last piece of the program was easily absorbed.
But one danger of programs is that they have too many noisy pieces.
I don’t go to concerts very often, but sometimes I go to listen to colleagues,
and I’m so grateful when there’s a lot of soft music in it. That
is the function of the third movement in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony,
where after all this relentlessness, all these marches, all the unhappiness,
all the frustration which is expressed in the first two movements, and
you can breathe in a different way. Then you have the strength to
undergo the experience of listening to the finale, which is the longest
finale in history.
* * * *
BD: You conduct concerts for audiences and you
also make recordings. Do you conduct differently for the microphone?
I don’t want to, but somehow the recording should be, or is intended
to be, flawless — no
wrong notes, no wrong rhythms, all the dynamics right, and so on.
During the process of recording, of taking small passages maybe three times
and correcting this and that, automatically everything becomes more rigid.
The spontaneity of a concert performance, when you’re in a good mood
and in good health, and you think the audience is going to follow and
the orchestra been rehearsed well, this spontaneity in the recording
is often lost. That’s why I appreciate very much now the industry
that takes live recordings. Maybe there are a few corrections from
a second performance, but fundamentally the basis of the whole record
is a live performance. This is a very good idea, but obviously in
a recording you can cut and splice, and get something that is technically
BD: Is there such a thing as a musically perfect
MG: It’s a question of taste more than anything
else. Today many orchestras are so perfect, and many conductors
are so meticulous, that a technically perfect performance is certainly
possible. It’s feasible, but whether it is musically as inspiring
as a live performance with maybe little mistakes in it, this I’m not sure.
BD: I assume you are always striving for some
kind of perfection?
MG: Of course.
BD: A little more than a year from now, you
will hit seventy. Are you pleased with where your career has taken
you to this point?
MG: I’m happy to be alive, yes. [Laughter
all around] Some conductors grow very old, and as I said before,
I’ve also other interests. Because I was so voracious in conducting
and going ahead with the career, my wife and I did not travel as much
for pleasure as we would have liked in order to know parts of the world
which we don’t know yet. Traveling was practically always combined
with conducting. For that we need time, and for composing I need time.
I don’t know if I have the strength to do this, but I would like to write
a book about performance technique for the conductor. This would include
analyzing a piece, and trying to say what should be done in order to bring
out the aspects which one finds in analysis.
BD: One last question. Is conducting fun?
MG: Sometimes! [Laughs] If you’re
in a good condition, and the orchestra also wants to play, and to like
the piece, yes it can be enormous fun! You probably know this story
that Boulez was a very well-known composer when he started to conduct.
And somebody asked him, ‘You’re such a great composer, why do you want
to conduct?’ He said, ‘I want to dominate!’ And this aspect
of being on the one … he was into Paris, let’s say, Number 1 in a group
of musicians who are making music with you, is a power aspect which is challenging
and fascinating. It is I think a good thing that in our
time it’s changing more and more towards partnership. I think that
the autocrats, the dictator like Toscanini was, would not be accepted
any more easily, or here in Chicago, Mr. Reiner. We heard him in
Vienna in 1956 for the opening of the reconstructed State Opera house on
the Ring, and I assisted him for Meistersinger. It was a great
experience, and he was very kind to me. His reputation was terrible,
but in Vienna he was not a dictator at all. He had a fabulous ear.
BD: Did you learn something from Reiner, as
you learned from Furtwängler and Kleiber?
MG: Kleiber was my great model, but Fritz Busch
was also in Buenos Aires, and later Böhm and Serafin for Italian
opera. Serafin was an example. His Norma I shall never
forget. Reiner did just the Meistersinger. I added it
to my repertoire from that time on, but I only conducted it twenty years
later. One learns by observing any master and any person whom
you respect, so you observe when he is working, and there is something to
learn and to take from it. There’s a case here that some of the conductors
today said they learned from Michael Gielen, and if that is the case,
BD: Thank you for coming back to Chicago after
all these years. I hope you’ll come back again soon.
MG: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure
to be here.
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago
on March 22, 1996. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
year. This transcription was made in 2017, and 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.
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.
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.