Conductor  Erich  Leinsdorf

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


During the course of my career, I have had the pleasure of speaking with many of the world
’s leading musicians.  Most were just single events, but occasionally I would be able to set up a second date a few years later.  What you are about to read with conductor Erich Leinsdorf is one such duo-encounter.

In the first interview from March of 1983, we spoke mainly about opera, beginning with the works of Wagner.  Our second meeting was held just a few weeks before his 75th birthday, and was a discussion mostly about the symphonic repertoire.

Leinsdorf came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions.  I remember distinctly enjoying his performances, and being amused at the end when he would wander amongst the woodwind and brass players toward the back of the stage, shaking hands and pulling a few of them out of their seats to get a specific ovation. 

Both meetings were genuinely enjoyable and the conductor certainly pulled no punches in his responses.  Here are those two conversations . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let me start with a bit of Wagner.  Some years ago you mentioned in an article that you envied people who had yet to make the acquaintance of Die Walküre.  Do you still feel that way?

Erich Leinsdorf:    Yes, just as you envy people who still have to go to Wyoming to the Grand Tetons, or something you particularly enjoyed and admired.  It’s like a great event of nature, all of these great works.  I envy anybody who hasn’t seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and in the same sense I envy anybody who has not yet made the acquaintance of the Wagner work.

BD:    The Ring is being broadcast on television [Bayreuth production directed by Chéreau].  Is this the right way to make its acquaintance?

EL:    You open here what we call a can of worms, and this has to do with the question of whether it is better to get acquainted with the distortion of an idea, or not get acquainted at all, because this production certainly has very little reference to the original Ring.  I would say that the musical version, under the guidance of Mr. Boulez, certainly gives an appropriate enough picture for anybody to first get acquainted with it.  I was terribly pleased, because after the reports when he started with the Ring in ’76, it seemed that he had to get acquainted with it, too.  But evidently by 1980, when this tetralogy was filmed and recorded, he had become sufficiently acquainted and familiar with it that the music rendition, with the splendid Bayreuth Orchestra and some excellent singers, is certainly one for a person who will get a sleeping mask over their eyes while the television is on, to get the proper acquaintance with the music.  With the dramatic action, one cannot get properly acquainted with this version because it is a total
politely called reinterpretation, impolitely called distortionof Wagner’s libretti.

BD:    Let me modify the question just a little bit.  Would a televised performance of a traditional Ring, or a Ring that you approved of be a way for people to get acquainted with it?  Or should they still come to the theater, and perhaps specifically Bayreuth?

EL:    To be completely realistic, a televised production today of anything as complex as the Ring will be probably the only way of getting acquainted with it, since no opera house is in a position today to mount the Ring.  I want to remind you that in the last few years, Vienna had to abandon the Ring halfway.  Paris had to abandon the Ring and New York had to abandon the Ring under its original producer.  I don’t know who else had to abandon the Ring, or produced it in an unsatisfactory manner.  So I would think that if today some money were collected to record the Ring, I would consider it very appropriate if it were done with the least effort of restaging it, but almost like a half-concert performance with just the stage action indicated in some painted backdrop, so that we know that we are in the mountain spot and not in Valhalla, for instance.  When I brush off the Chéreau production, I do it for the reason that only people who know the words of the text of Wagner can be fully aware how absurd some of this is.  The opening of the Second Act of Die Walküre takes place, in the Chéreau version, inside a living room with a pendulum swinging forth and back.  After the opening scene with Wotan and Brünnhilde, she announces the arrival of Fricka, the jealous and suspicious wife of Wotan.  Fricka comes into this living room and her first words in the text are, “Wherever in the mountains you are hiding, I’m here to seek thee out.”  What kind of nonsense is this?  Wagner, after all, is a major figure not only in music but also in the literature of the nineteenth century.  So if he writes, “Wherever in the mountains, I seek thee out,” and you are in a room, this is something which to me is unacceptable!  It would be as if the woods in the Midsummer Night’s Dream were turned into a bargain basement where the elves and clowns all meet!

BD:    Let me pursue this just a little bit.  Wagner demands that Fricka arrive in a chariot drawn by rams.  Brünnhilde announces it as such to Wotan.  Should there actually be a chariot and a couple of rams onstage?

EL:    No, that was never done on stage because evidently we can’t get rams out where they would be.  I compliment you on your knowledge of the details, but this, of course, is just like the horse
rather impractical for a stage production because the horses don’t always behave appropriately, and then it’s difficult to cope with them.  So we refer to these things.   But for instance, in order to refer to a horse in the third act of Siegfried, the landscape where we find Brünnhilde has to be one in which you can imagine a horse grazing in the distance under a tree.  There have to be sets which at least satisfy the minimum romantic imagination the text and the music demanded.  You can’t just turn something into a modern construction which has been an old-fashioned romantic landscape.

BD:    Then let me turn it the other way.  How do you feel about the old Wieland Wagner productions where he stripped the stage almost clean? 

EL:    Wieland Wagner
[Richard Wagner’s grandson, who ran the Bayreuth Festival in the 1950’s and directed many operas] did things, too, which I thought were completely absurd.  I refer here to my own personal acquaintance with a Meistersinger production.  In Act Two, where Beckmesser implores Sachs not to disturb him anymore because the window of his house opens up, there is no house and no window!  And Magdalena, in order to be replacing Eva in response to Beckmesser’s announced serenade, merely steps on a bench.  In a bourgeois comedy like Meistersinger, this is absurd!  Of course, anything is accepted in Germany if you give it proper metaphysical explanation, but I have long ago foresworn this kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo!

BD:    Of course, this is a realistic setting where you have to have the city of Nuremburg.  What about the Ring, where the landscapes are very clear and most of the effects are done with lighting?

EL:    I think that Wieland had a great deal to offer because he was a very imaginative person.  The only trouble with Wieland’s production is that the seminal influence has been devastating.  I think that in the Ring and in Parsifal, Wieland never went into the absurd, but what was produced by these things?  Let me explain to you what happened to me in 1969.  I did Parsifal at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires with a German stage director.  In the last scene, when the spear is returned with Parsifal and Gurnemanz is behind him, I said to the stage director in rehearsal, “Where is Kundry?”  She obviously got lost on the walk from the well to the temple.  He said, “Kundry, Kundry?”  Evidently he had looked at the book and found there was nothing to sing.  I told him, “Kundry is redeemed and dies in the view of the grail.  So she has to be there!”  Then he apologized.  He said, “You know, we Germans don’t believe in Wagner anymore.”  I said, “Then you shouldn’t stage it.”  [Smiles broadly]  This story with Kundry not having anything to sing reminds me of something that allegedly happened here in Chicago, and I believe it.  At the time when they had the big opera company under the sponsorship of Mr. Insul, I understand that there was a Rosenkavalier production planned.  Rosenkavalier is a very long opera and the music director at that time was a venerable old gentleman; a very good-natured gentleman, but not particularly well-briefed in that kind of repertory.  He opened the vocal score and cut anything where no singing was visible.  So in cutting two or three pages in the second act, he cut out the big waltz...

BD:    [Taken aback]  Oh, my heavens! [Laughs]

EL:    ...which is the hit piece of the whole opera!  He cut it out because nobody sang.  Of course later, I suppose, he restored it again, but there is the story!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is opera going today?

EL:    Where is it going?  Bankrupt, I guess.  That’s the only quick thought I have! [Both laugh]

BD:    What about modern compositions of opera?  Do you think that any of these are going to take their places beside the great masterworks?

EL:    Quite possibly, depending on the composer’s ability to write well for the human singing voice.  To me, this is always the key.

with mohrBD:    Do composers today not understand the voice?

EL:    Oh, no, they do understand the voice, but some of them, I think, overestimate what the voice can and should do.  I don’t think the voice can be necessarily treated like a developing Picasso treats the human face.  If you put the two eyes in reverse order or up and down instead of side by side, you can see through the Picasso image.  When I came out of the tremendous retrospective of Picasso in New York a few years ago, people began to look to me like the pictures of Picasso!  But I don’t think you can quite make this kind of genius distortion for the human singing voice.

BD:    The voice is what it is and that cannot be changed?

EL:    There are certain things.  Certain composers — as a matter of fact, most composers — cannot write idiomatically for the harp because the harp is a strange instrument which few composers know.  The French have been masters in writing for the harp, but it is a very difficult instrument to write for because of its nature.  It’s a diatonic instrument with three positions for each tone, and there are certain things you can’t do on the harp
or too many things you can’t do.  If you don’t know the harp, you can’t write for the harp imaginatively and idiomatically, and something of the same order prevails with the human singing voice.  The human voice is a peculiar instrument with its limitations, and if the limitations are not understood, it is difficult to write idiomatically for it.

BD:    This is perhaps an indelicate question...

EL:    [Interjecting]  No, there are only indelicate answers.

BD:    All right, let me ask for an indelicate answer, then!

EL:    I don’t know if I’m going to give it, but you try.

BD:    I’d like you to compare three voices, please
Flagstad, Varnay, Nilsson.

EL:    With the greatest of pleasure.  I was preasant when Miss Varnay began to replace the dramatic sopranos at the time Flagstad returned to Norway and Marjorie Lawrence was stricken by polio.  I don’t think that Varnay was genuinely ever a high dramatic,
as we call it a  Hochdramatisch, a heroic dramatic soprano.  I think she was pushed.  Then she developed the famous waverwhich is what happens when you over drive the voiceand then she landed as a mezzo.  Of course her incredible talent for drama and her musicality and her mastery of the whole repertory secured her a career of many, many, many years.   But we speak now of voices.  Flagstad’s voice was broader in sonority than Nilsson’s, while Nilsson seems to me to command more the overtones that cut through an orchestral fabric.  I would compare them, if you forgive a very long comparison, between two woodwindsthe clarinet and the oboe.  The clarinet has the broader sound and the oboe has more ability to penetrate, even though the sound, to the naked ear, is thinner.  But these are methods which have to do with overtones.

BD:    Is Nilsson’s a sharper sound?  [See my interview with Birgit Nilsson.]

EL:    Nilsson’s is a sharper sound.  When you get in an instrument or in a voice, the odd-numbered overtones
which are the dissonant overtonesit has great penetrating power and sounds a little more, as you say, sharper — not in the sense of sharp and flat, but sharp like the honed edge of a razor.  While Flagstad, in all the ranges, had almost a mezzo kind of sonority, Nilsson never sounded like a mezzo, but always like a soprano.

BD:    Are there any voices today that compare with those two?

EL:    I think that Miss Ute Vinzing is a legitimate heroic dramatic soprano, and from the little I hear of her because she won’t come to America, I think Miss Ligendza is a genuine dramatic soprano.  Neither of these people have so far been able to create the legends which surround these other two ladies.  These legends have a great deal to do with the way they made their original impact, at least in America.  This is certainly not parallel, because in European careers these people come through gradually.  You hear them on a guest engagement.  I heard Nilsson for the first time, I think, in 1958; it was either Dortmund or Duisburg, so you can imagine — I can’t even remember the town!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

EL:    Opera is one of the most wondrous creations, where the greatest emotional manifestations of dramatic characters are brought forth through great music.  No, no, no, opera is definitely art.  That it becomes often a caricature in performance has nothing to do with the original creation.  In the field of opera we have some of the milestones of music, and we have some of the milestones of the theater.  I think three comedies
Figaro, Meistersinger and Falstaffwill be hard to duplicate in the spoken theater.  You will find them, indeed yes, but in their perfection, in the fusion of music and play they are unique.  Or if you take tragedies, such as Don Giovanni, Otello, Carmen, you cannot find greater.  I didn’t make it up, but a lot of people agree that the libretto of Otello is superior to the play because Boito, a tremendous literary figure — better than as a composer, as we know — condensed the drama to its essence, and what you get on the stage in Otello is certainly much more and has a much greater impact than the Shakespeare play, Othello.

BD:    Would that libretto work as a spoken play?

EL:    No, that you couldn’t do because the verses of Shakespeare cannot be replaced.

BD:    I just wondered how much of it was the impact of Verdi.

EL:    For instance, in Falstaff, when you get some of the soliloquies which come out of Henry IV, together with Verdi’s music, they certainly are magnificent.  He says, “Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?  [Can honor fill your belly?]  No!”  When this “no” comes in the clarinet and the bassoon — bruh!  You almost get the hiccup of his having drunk too much.  Opera is that way, at its best.

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

EL:    Another question which we have been debating for the last hundred and twenty years.  Does it work in translation?  Some yes, some no.  It works in translation if the bulk is recitative.  Basically, opera consists of two elements which are alternating with each other, and the more the alternation is not noticed, the greater the composition.  One is the recitative which advances the action; the other one is the contemplation or the expression of an emotion which goes then into the high points
the arias, duets, trios, ensembles, or finally the marches and entrances of people or the chorus.  It is the same for Wagner as it is for Mozart or for Rossini or for Strauss.  I would think that it was totally vain to translate Verdi’s Don Carlo into the vernacular; if that be German or English or Serbo-Croatian, I don’t care.  But to take Falstaff and try — which will be particularly difficult because of Shakespeare to get into the language, because it has so much to offer — that, I think, is worth the effort.  So you have to go from case to case, from work to work, to decide should it be, or shouldn’t it be?

BD:    In what language should we do Don Carlo?

EL:    Italian!

BD:    But it was written in French!

EL:    Yes, but the composition is still an Italian composition.

BD:    You’ve brought back original versions of a couple of different operasFidelio and Ariadne.  Did you find those especially attractive, better, worse, than the final version?

El:    I would certainly not stage the original Leonore.  I would always perform it again in concert if I had the opportunity.

BD:    Why?  What about it makes it work in concert and not on the stage?

EL:    What makes it work in concert is that as a musical concept, it is on a par with the later version.  As a matter of fact, orchestrally it is more complex; it poses greater difficulties to the players.  Therefore it is more challenging, it is more difficult to sing, and in a historic perspective, it has still more contact with the Italian opera; for instance, in Florestan’s F minor aria which does not quite rank with the later version.  But I must say, having done it, I would immediately do it again in concert.  The Ariadne certainly could be staged if one could try a production of the original idea to pair the Hofmannsthal version of Molière’s comedy Bourgeois Gentilhomme with all the music of Strauss.  But together with the Ariadne it makes an incredibly long evening!  Therefore, I suppose, nobody will undertake it, but I would think that the original Ariadne is very stageworthy.  The original Leonore less so, but both in concert, I think, are splendid things.  If you have the cast and the wherewithal to do it, I think it can and should be done.

BD:    Is that the kind of thing that would work on a video disc, where there’s a limited audience but potential over the whole world?

EL:    Oh, yes!  All these things could be done very successfully because your audience selects what it receives.  Yes, this is for select audiences; no question about it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made many recordings in your career.  Do you think that recordings are a good way to acquaint the public with music?

EL:    Definitely, definitely very good — an excellent way!

BD:    Are recordings too perfect?

leinsdorfEL:    No.  I make here a very clear distinction
and I have written about itthat recordings should never be used by the professional performer as a study aid or as a means to learn the music.  As such, recordings are absolute poison for the professional who misuses them.  For the public, I think they are a great and lasting benefit.

BD:    Can the public misuse them, also?

EL:    Anything can be misused!  You can misuse a vacuum cleaner, so why not a record?  Misuse is absolutely general.  You can misuse coffee, you can misuse the bathroom, you can misuse a record.  So there you have to be a liberal on the fallibility of humanity!

BD:    Are you pleased with the direction that opera and concert music is going today?

EL:    No because I think that both opera and concert are suffering from too much travel of its major participants.  The performing organizations for opera and concert are institutions that thrive on permanency and residency, and not on peregrinations of its major participants.  Therefore, I don’t think we are progressing; I think we are getting more and more cynical about the whole thing.  Many years ago, the brilliant critic Virgil Thomson
who spent a few years at the Herald Tribune in New York [see my interview with Virgil Thomson] — wrote that the conductor who goes conducting various orchestras reminds him of the preacher who finds a pulpit in every town where he can give his sermon.  The congregation may change, but it’s always the same sermon by the same preacher — no matter if it is Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist — and so do we musicians, without too much responsibility!  This is so particularly in opera.  Opera is based on a sitting ensemble, and this doesn’t exist anymore.  Recently in New York, we prepared for four weeks this rather difficult comedy, Arabella.  We perform it in the next three and a half weeks seven times, and then everybody is gone to the four winds.  By next year when they try to revive it again, there’ll be a different this and a different that, and everybody will be different.

BD:    So if you were writing contracts, ideally, you would write it so that the artists would stay?

EL:    You can’t.  You cannot!  Even money today wouldn’t buy you the people to stay.  Nobody will.  So any contract you write will not be accepted.  But I can say as an observer and a participant when you asked am I pleased, the answer is no.  A permanent musical manifestation cannot be changed into a constantly changing one, and that is what is happening.

BD:    One last question:  Are you good audience?

EL:    I think very good.  I like to hear music.  I don’t know what your definition is of good audience, but I think I’m good audience, yes.

BD:    Do you enjoy going to other people’s performances?

EL:    Oh, yes, but I pick.  It has to be music that interests me.  I look forward tremendously to certain things, and my favorite listening is chamber music.  That is what I like the most, and if I could write my own ticket, I would have opposite our apartment in New York, where the museum is, every week one concert of quartets or quintets.  That I would patronize enthusiastically because I also think that today, in chamber music you find the best performances.

BD:    You’ve been very, very gracious to spend time this afternoon.  Thank you very much.

EL:    You
’re welcome; this was lovely.  It has been a pleasure.

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We now move ahead nearly four years to mid-December of 1986 . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you for taking time again from your busy schedule.

Erich Leinsdorf:    Pleasure!

BD:    As you approach your seventy-fifth birthday, what is the most important or the most surprising thing you have learned about making music? 

EL:    That it is better not to be affiliated with any organization.  That it is better to be a freelance, self-employed, strolling player, than be the musical head of any orchestra, no matter how distinguished.

BD:    That gives you more freedom?

leinsdorfEL:    It gives you freedom, and I would broaden this by saying it is not only for a musician, it is for any professional, even in business.  An orchestra organization is as any other corporation, so I want you to take this as a broad statement, going through the entire spectrum of our society and civilization.  If you are a member, no matter how high up, of an organization, between you and your aims and objectives you have always to consider a number of issues which are not entirely part of your aims.  This is true if that be public relations, if that be labor relations, if that be personal relations, if that be overexposure or underexposure.  In show business, there’s all these things.  If it is a board of directors or whatever it is, you are not your own completely free agent.  Let us say you are a professional cook.  If you have your own little diner and you are alone in the kitchen, you decide what menu to produce, how to produce it, what the portions will be, what the price will be.  You are in direct contact with your customers and you gauge yourself as to what you want to produce and how it is liked.  If you are chef in a large, distinguished restaurant, you may get a better salary and you have no risk, but you never are in direct touch with your objective
how your food sits with your audiences — because you have so many in-between decisions which either you don’t make, or to which you have to adjust, or which you pretend you make when it is really made by others.  This is the same if you are a cooking chef or an orchestra chef or a bank president or head of a retail chain.  It makes absolutely no difference.  You are an independent, free person only if you are not affiliated with an organization.  This is my great wisdom-finding going up to age seventy-five.

BD:    Do you not find when you’re conducting and you have the audience right behind, that you have direct contact with the public?

EL:    Oh, I have a lot of contact.  But I make my menus not according to what any board wants or what any record company has to get.  I prepare the menu of course with all proper consultation.  What I don’t have
the main thing which I am not missing, which I’m rejoicing in — is that for the last eighteen years I have not had a board of directors.

BD:    You answer only to yourself?

EL:    I am only responsible to the dead composer or to the live composer, whoever it be.  That is my first responsibility.

BD:    For whom do you design the menus, the programs
— for yourself?  For the public?

EL:    The menus?  No, no, no, the menus are designed to the best of my ability to fill what I deem a need of doing predominantly things and types of programs which are not enough done.  My objective is to see where gaps exist
gaps of acquaintance, gaps of knowledge, mainly gaps of repertory — and I try to fill those.  I have a specific system with which I deal and it is very popular with the auspices who invite me.  I ask for a want list, like a stamp collector.  Then it comes back, “We haven’t had enough French music,” which is one of the great outcries from every orchestra where I go.  I can do almost anytime a French program or French music, and it’ll be highly welcome because nobody else seems to want to do it.  I think that for the last ten years or so, French conductors have been in very short supply, and the non-French conductors somehow or other either feel uncomfortable, or don’t feel that their image is French music, which, of course, is all bloody nonsense, the whole business image; that is advertising copy talk.  I love to do French music and so I’m always very well-received when I propose some French music, and then am specifically asked to do more French music.

BD:    Have you worked specifically to get the French style, or is this part of the bloody nonsense?

EL:    Well, I don’t dare to talk that way to you, to speak of anything you say as bloody nonsense!  That would be most impolite on my part.  But I do conceive of a symphony conductor as an encyclopedic musician.  That means about two hundred years of repertory which should be at his fingertips, at least.  If I worked as a specialist, which is usually the other side of the fence, I would get bored with the whole thing so quickly that it wouldn’t be funny.  I could no more exist like some people exist, alternating between four Bruckner symphonies and five Mahler symphonies when they guest conduct.  I was thinking of specific people.  I would go out of my mind if I had to do that!

BD:    Is it safe to say that you are a specialist in this two hundred year repertoire?

EL:    Yes because really you put me up as an encyclopedist.  Then you say
which I consider a tremendous compliment which I’m almost too modest to acceptthat I’m a specialist in encyclopedia.  This I will accept, even though it completely overestimates my specialty.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say you serve the dead composers and the live composers.  Is there a difference between serving dead ones and live ones?

EL:    The live ones have a way of telling you if they like it or if they don’t like it. 

BD:    Are they right in their assessment of their own works?

leinsdorfEL:    That is a very, very interesting and good question.  I want to be very cautious about this because sometimes composers need not be necessarily their best interpreters.  There are things on record in the rewritings of Stravinsky which prove that he did things differently the moment he started conducting; these did not necessarily improve things in the ways of tempi and in transitions.  I could go specifically into it, but it would make no sense because you actually need examples at the blackboard or a projecting machine to show the music.  But let me assure you, I have done this in my seminars for conductors to show how the later versions of Stravinsky were affected by his own conducting.

BD:    Are we getting the giant composers today that we used to have?

EL:    The question itself, in my view, after laboring over the whole problem, is not one which should be posed — not that one cannot pose any question.  But they are not in demand.

BD:    Why not?

EL:    They are not in demand — and I’m afraid of what I’m saying, but I’m rather convinced of it — because instrumental music, music without a purpose, music as a primary form of playfulness on a high level of accomplishment, is not in demand.  Music today is in demand as long as it serves a purpose.  It is in demand when it serves a purpose of dance, when it serves a purpose of song, when it serves a purpose of underscoring films.  It is a secondary art.  It has a service function today and it is no longer a primary expression of musical creativity.  I think that this has to do with the replacement of the dilettante amateur home music-maker, who instead of his piano and his violin or his cello or his flute, has now his record player.  I think that in the last fifty to sixty years we have made a seesaw change.  Look at the entire music of the two hundred years between Haydn and the arrival of Hitler, or maybe the end of World War One — it’s one or the other because the fifteen years of the Weimar Republic hold a very interesting balancing position.  But let us say the entire music between Bach and 1910 was published and issued for people who were both, or either, professional and amateur performers.  When Beethoven wrote a string quartet, it was not only for people who played for money in public, it was for people who played in private.  The piano music which was written was not only written for people who performed in public, because the sheet music sale was the main income of composers.  They sold the original to publishers, and then got some financial settlement from arrangements.  Do you realize why I’m stressing this so much? 

BD:    They were arranged to get them sold and played, obviously!

EL:    Why would quartet movements of Beethoven be issued today for two guitars? 
A movement in Opus Eighteen, Number Five was issued for two guitars and called, because its titles were published in French, “Variations pour deux guitares,” and the slow movement of the E minor Quartet, Opus 59, the Second Razumovsky, became “Andante favorite pour deux guitares.”  Do you know that the slow movement of opus hundred and twenty-seven was issued as a song with a text by somebody — that was after Beethoven’s death, and it must have been an act of criminal kitsch. 

BD:    [Laughs heartly]

EL:    Yeah!  We don’t know these things, but they can all be found in the Kinsky catalog.  The entire music of the second half of the eighteenth, and the nineteenth century was issued in numerous transcriptions.  Do you know that for instance, the Clarinet Quintet of Brahms was issued in three of four different versions as a sonata for piano and violin?

BD:    This all becomes hausmusik!

EL:    Exactly!  The adagio was issued for harmonium and organ, or some such wild combination.  Everything was done to sell the music.  Every orchestra piece of Brahms including all his symphonies were published for piano, four hands; two pianos, four hands; two pianos, eight hands!

BD:    Is there any correlation between the old idea of hausmusik, and the idea that every kid on the block nowadays plays in a little rock band?

EL:    Does every little kid play in a rock band?

BD:    Many of them have a guitar or a keyboard and they’re playing in some kind of band.

EL:    Well then you have a double proof that my thesis has some merit, because nothing can draw bigger houses and crowds, and makes more money than rock music.   So you see, music without text, in the ideal sense, has no purpose.

BD:    What should be the purpose of music?

EL:    There is no purpose.  The purpose of music, if you must have a purpose, is entertainment.  Entertainment does not necessarily mean only amusement, because I have looked up the whole thing.  In the O.E.D., the Oxford English Dictionary,
amusement is the tenth definition of entertainment.  The first nine are something else, and the first one is “to hold mutually,” which of course is the only original; entre tenir, to hold between, or hold mutually.  That means the personal presence of those who play and those who listen is of the essence.  I correlate this.  The moment the people who play and the people who listen are no longer under the same roof, you have a document of a performance, which automatically is no longer the entre tenir, the holding mutually.

BD:    So you lose something on recordings?

EL:    Because you hold it unilaterally!  You don’t hold it mutually anymore.  The other side has done their job, and has codified it, so to speak.

BD:    So you don’t find that there is a
holding mutually just with a time shift?

EL:    Oh, no, you can’t!  Where’s the mutuality?  If I today dig up a recording of something which was made in 1940, and the people who have made it are either in Timbuktu or are dead or dispersed — or even if they are in the same room and listening with me, where’s the mutuality?  I can’t affect their performance, as the audience affects our performances.

BD:    Should concert music try to get a mutuality with larger and larger and larger audiences?

EL:    We unfortunately try for larger audiences.  We should try for different quality audiences.  That means we should spot our programs for different segments of the public.  We treat the public as a unified crowd, when it is totally fragmented.  Just as our music is fragmented to many styles, so our public is fragmented into many different likes or dislikes.  This is one of my main ideas — that we are presenting music as if there only one large audience, maybe for something smaller, but always concentric circles.  It is not so.  They are not concentric circles.  They are circles which may intersect, but they are not concentric.  They are circles that may touch each other, yes, indeed.

BD:    There’ll always be some common ground?

EL:    There is some common ground, but not all!  In concentric circles, you could say that the chamber music crowd is one radius and the symphony crowd is another radius, but that is not enough.  There are differences and the circles are in different spheres.

BD:    We’ve been talking about is concert music.  Does the same hold true for the opera house?

EL:    No.  There are, of course, some people who just go no matter what, but a person who goes to Gioconda will not go near Wozzeck; or better, vice versa.  A person who likes Wozzeck will not go near Gioconda.  Of that we can be fairly confident.  There may be some liberals who go to Gioconda and to Wozzeck, but nobody goes to Wozzeck and Gioconda!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are the performers today as good or better than the performers thirty, forty, fifty years ago?

EL:    Why thirty, forty, fifty years ago?  Why should there be a difference?

BD:    This is what I’m asking.  Is there a difference?

with lbjEL:    I don’t know because thirty, forty, fifty years ago what I heard was then all new to me.  I did not have the critical faculty
or the uncritical faculty [laughs]which ever way you want.  I had different ears and a different receptivity.  I could not answer this question honestly; I would only have to speculate, and my speculation is that they were certainly not worse.  I cannot say that they were better because I don’t think so.  In a printed interview in Piano Quarterly, I commented on an article in which the critic Harold Schoenberg was very hard on the young pianists.  He found little merit in them when compared to the grand old masters such as Friedman, Rosenthal, Pachmann, Rubenstein, etcetera, etcetera.  I said that I thought that was a little unfair.  I don’t think that the young ones are all missing in romanticism, or whatever Harold complained about.  I think the outward situation of the artist today has changed, and I will say quite frankly what performers today take on in scheduling themselves must have an adverse effect on their involvement when they actually go up on stage.  You cannot carry on the way some of these people carry onwith airplane rides and last-minute arrivals, with quick rehearsals and meetings in betweenand then go on and do some of the challenging works of the music literature.  It cannot be as involved and as intense as when one [pounds hand on table] sat and took one’s time and had preparation of various kinds.  Also, in one’s own inner life, I don’t think that it is possible to carry on as some people carry on today.

BD:    Is this the advice, then, you have for the young performer
to slow down?

EL:    Not slow down; know your own limits of turning on the switch.  People are different.  Some people, as several I know, have to arrive a minute late for rehearsal or they feel they are not important.  I find this is a fake and a fraud, but maybe they have to wind themselves up this way.  I have known a pianist — he is no longer active — who sat on the toilet until the stage manager knocked on the door and said, “You have to go out.”  That means he sat on the toilet; if he had to or not, I don’t know.  Maybe his inspiration came from the toilet because certainly the way he timed it, it must have been an inspiring performance to sit on the toilet up to curtain time.

BD:    [Laughs]

EL:    You see, everybody has his own way!  I only say that the schedules today are not conducive to concentration.  There is also so much movement around in over-crowded cities.  A driver for the New York Philharmonic, who drives us from and to rehearsals and concerts, told me that he once picked up a young colleague of mine from his hotel.  When they arrived at the hall very, very late — just in time — it turned out that the conductor had overlooked the fact that this was a matinee, and his matinee clothing was in the hotel and they couldn’t go back.  It is certainly a trivial story about forgetting his suit, but if you are mentally prepared, you program yourself and you know the night before, “Next day I have a matinee at two o’clock so this way I leave in the morning in order to get myself ready.”  You have an obligation toward the public!  You have an obligation to be in your best form.  That is the obligation of a performer, of a professional.  That is where the professional differs from the amateur.  The amateur can be just as good as the professional, and he has no obligation because he can decide, “I don’t feel like playing this Brahms trio now.  I want to play a Haydn trio.”  We cannot!  We have to feel like playing the Brahms trio on that day at seven-thirty or at eight o’clock, and not the Haydn trio, because it’s on the program.

BD:    So you have to gear up for it, then?

EL:    We have to prepare ourselves to be in the right frame of mind, which is the one great difference between being a professional and being an amateur!

BD:    Where does one go these days to become an up and coming conductor?

EL:    To Europe, to the opera houses, to the small provincial opera houses in Germany and wherever they are.  You can’t learn it on the concert stage.

BD:    This is the way it’s been for two hundred, three hundred years.

EL:    Yes, and anybody here who comes out with these foundation grants and hangs around the orchestras is never going to get much benefit from it.  You can’t learn what is known as the métier because I don’t think there is a technique of conducting.  Because it’s something that you can’t practice, it doesn’t have a technique.  You can’t practice conducting.

BD:    You don’t practice it every time you are giving a concert?

EL:    No!  I have to be past the practicing stage in the first rehearsal, otherwise I would be escorted politely to the border of the state of Illinois or the state of California, and told never to return!

BD:    [Laughs] Are there some working conductors today who should be escorted away?

EL:    Yes, and the orchestras know best.  If they had an escort service, they would do it!  [Both laugh]  I don’t mean the escort service as advertised in Playboy!  Different kind of escort service!  Escort service with sirens on the cars, not sirens of the feminine varieties.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    From where do you draw your inspiration?

EL:    From looking at the miracles of the scores.  If I look again, after so many years, at something like the Jupiter Symphony, I’m struck by the singular privilege to be allowed to perform such pieces.  It is the same, I think, as somebody being struck when they see, after a few years again, the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, or the Duomo in Firenze, or the Last Supper in Milan.  When you see a Leonardo at the Hermitage, you know that you are a privileged person to be seeing it.  You don’t perform it; I just want to say it is the same kind of sensation.  This is why I don’t like the idea of people doing these great works every week in a different town, because after a while you cannot keep this kind of freshness.  It is impossible!  It must become somewhat fossilized and that, then, leads to exaggeration.  I’ve thought about this a great deal, and I find that the people with the small repertory, who always play the same music — twenty or thirty party pieces
— as they do it more and more, they exaggerate more and more.  Their slow tempi get slower; the loud passages get louder; the fast passages get faster.  Everything is being poured a little bit into the extreme in order to freshen up their own lagging involvement.

BD:    So rather than doing the same pieces differently, they should do different pieces?

EL:    Oh yes, yes!

BD:    Does the same hold true for audiences if they hear the same repertoire year in and year out?

leinsdorfEL:    Oh, yes!  You must never take certain things for granted.  From a different field, if you eat caviar three times a day, it will take a few days and then first of all you’ll ruin your stomach, and second of all you’ll be sick of caviar
— instead of looking forward to this great privilege of this exquisite fish egg.

BD:    When you come across a new score, perhaps a new work or just a work that’s unfamiliar to you, what do you look for to decide whether or not you will conduct that?

EL:    I read it.  If it interests me, I’ll do it.  If it doesn’t interest me, I’ll lay it aside.

BD:    This is what I’m looking for.  What makes it interesting to you?

EL:    Same as a book
if it keeps my attention.

BD:    So you feel that if it keeps your attention, it’ll keep the audience’s attention?

EL:    I hope.  It is there we come to these different circles for whom we play.  You have to also try to place these works in proper contexts.  I know Adorno once wrote that pieces are being programmed when neither composer, conductor nor audience ever understand why it got onto that program.  And that, of course, is terrible!

BD:    You say the various audiences are not concentric circles but they may be overlapping circles.  Are the audiences for the same concerts in different cities different?

EL:    Oh, yes!  There is a basic difference which goes world-wide, that the subscription audiences are not as involved as a non-subscription audience.  A non-subscription audience comes because it wants to hear the program and/or the performers; it buys its admission because of the offering.  The subscriber is committed a year ahead to whatever is being offered.

BD:    Doesn’t that help to expose them to more different things that they might not elect to come to?

EL:    It gives the organization the security to be a little more experimental, but it also gets them more back-talk of the protesting kind.

BD:    One last question
— are you basically pleased with the recordings that you have made with the orchestras all over the world?

EL:    I don’t listen to them much, so I don’t know.  I’ve always felt one is in the hands of the mixer.  I get sometimes some reverberations which please me.  Probably I wouldn’t get them if they were unpleasant.  But I’m not an expert on my recordings because I listen very little.  I’ve made it very clear in my book that one shouldn’t study with recordings.  I think if I listened much to my recordings, I would only find what I want to do differently, and I don’t have to subject myself to that kind of constant punishment.

BD:    Is it punishment, though, when a member of the audience comes up and says they loved your recording of this or that?

EL:    Oh, that’s not punishment!  Compliments are always welcome!  Sometimes I find that they are unjustified, and then I just store them away with a very grateful smile, but I know in my own mind that that was an easy success.  I sometimes say to the concertmaster as we shake hands after some very effective piece — you know, there are certain potboilers which get a lot of applause — I say, “That was a cheap success!”

BD:    Thank you very much for speaking with me again.  Continued successes here and everywhere!

EL:    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Erich Leinsdorf, 81, a Conductor of Intelligence and Utility, Is Dead

Published: Sunday, September 12, 1993, in The New York Times

Erich Leinsdorf, a conductor whose abrasive intelligence and deep musical learning served as a conscience for two generations of conductors, died yesterday at a hospital in Zurich. He was 81 years old and lived in Zurich and Sarasota, Fla., and until recently also had a home in Manhattan.

The cause was cancer, his family said.

Mr. Leinsdorf's utilitarian stage manner and his disdain of dramatic effects for their own sake stood out as a not-so-silent rebuke to his colleagues in this most glamorous of all musical jobs.

In addition, Mr. Leinsdorf -- in rehearsal, in the press and in his valuable book on conducting, "The Composer's Advocate" -- never tired of pointing out gaps in culture among musicians, faulty editing among music publishers and errors in judgment or acts of ignorance among his fellow conductors. He rarely named his victims, but his messages and their targets were often clear. Moreover, he usually had the solid grasp of facts to support his contentions.

His long career continued until early this year, when his health deteriorated. After conducting the New York Philharmonic in January, he was forced to cancel performances the next month.

Help From Toscanini

Mr. Leinsdorf moved to this country from Vienna in 1937. Helped by the recommendation of Arturo Toscanini, whom he had been assisting at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. Leinsdorf made his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera a year later with "Die Walkure." He was 25 years old at the time. A year later he was made overseer of the Met's German repertory, and his contentious style -- in particular an insistence on textual accuracy and more rehearsal -- won him no friends among singers like Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. Backed by management, he remained at the Met until 1943.

At the New York City Opera, where he became music director in 1956, Mr. Leinsdorf's demanding policies in matters of repertory and preparation made him further enemies, and he left a year later.

His searches for permanent employment turned mostly to orchestras. After the briefest of tenures at the Cleveland Orchestra during World War II, Mr. Leinsdorf took over the Rochester Philharmonic and stayed for nine years. During that period, he and the orchestra made a series of admired low-budget recordings that brought Rochester to the music world's attention.

Mr. Leinsdorf's last and most prestigious music directorship was at the Boston Symphony, where he replaced Charles Munch in 1962. No contrast in style could have been sharper: Munch had viewed conducting mystically, as a kind of priesthood; Mr. Leinsdorf's policy was to make performances work in the clearest and most rational way.

Cool Objectivity

Observers both in and out of the orchestra could not deny the benefits of Mr. Leinsdorf's discipline, but there were some who were hostile to what they perceived as an objectivity that could hardly be called heartwarming. Perhaps his principal achievements with the Boston Symphony were not in Boston but at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he presided over the orchestra's summer season in the Berkshires.

There Mr. Leinsdorf introduced 32 works, including Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," and began a Prokofiev cycle. He also worked closely with Tanglewood's conducting students.

The administrative and social burdens of the music director's job became increasingly onerous to him, however, and not enjoying total enthusiasm from the press, he stepped down after the 1968-69 season. "Only six years earlier," he remarked at the time, "I had been overjoyed at being asked to a position considered one of the most prestigious in my profession, and now I could only hope to get out with my health intact."

Subsequently, Mr. Leinsdorf found happiness as a guest conductor, touring the world's major orchestras, working with them for several weeks at a time and avoiding the burdens of a permanent position. Although his performances were rarely dramatic or even rousing, he brought to music a kind of rectitude that at its best provided an antidote for orchestra musicians and listeners used to flamboyant and often empty conductorial salesmanship.

One American orchestra manager a few years ago responded to musicians' grumblings over Mr. Leinsdorf's rehearsal manner by saying that he was "good for my orchestra." And so he probably was.

Played for Webern

Erich Leinsdorf was born in Vienna on Feb. 4, 1912, to Ludwig Julius and Charlotte Loebl Leinsdorf. His father, an amateur pianist, died when Mr. Leinsdorf was 3 years old. Mr. Leinsdorf was already a good pianist by age 7. As a teen-ager he studied the cello, musical theory and composition at the University of Vienna and at the city's Music Academy. He was a rehearsal pianist for Anton Webern when that most ascetic of composers was conductor of a chorus known as the Singverein der Sozialdemokratischen Kunstelle; there he made his professional piano debut in a performance of "Les Noces" by Stravinsky.

Aside from the early Rochester recordings, Mr. Leinsdorf recorded extensively for the RCA label, including full operas, all the Mozart symphonies, other items from the standard repertory, and modern works by Elliott Carter, Alberto Ginastera and others.

Mr. Leinsdorf's first marriage, to Anne Frohnknecht, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, the former Vera Graf, and five children from his first marriage: David I. of Crested Butte, Col., Gregor J. of Manhattan, Joshua F. of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Deborah Hester Reik of Hartford, Jennifer G. Belok of Belmont, Mass., and 10 grandchildren.

A version of this obituary; biography appeared in print on Sunday, September 12, 1993, on section 1 page 58 of the New York edition.

© 1983 & 1986 Bruce Duffie

These interviews were recorded in Chicago on March 19, 1983, and December 15, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997 and 1999.  The first interview was transcribed and published in Wagner News in June of 1984.  It was re-edited along with the second interview which was transcribed and posted on this website in 2009. 

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.