Conductor  Peter  Maag

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Peter Maag (Ernst Peter Johannes Maag) (10 May 1919 in St. Gallen, Switzerland – 16 April 2001 in Verona, Italy) was a Swiss conductor.

maag His father, Otto, was a Lutheran minister, and his mother, Nelly, a violinist who performed as second violinist in the Capet Quartet. His great uncles were conductors Emil and Fritz Steinbach. Peter attended the universities of Zürich, Basel, and Geneva. He was mentored by Karl Barth and Emil Brunner in theology, and Karl Jaspers in philosophy. He studied piano and theory with Czesław Marek in Zürich and received further training on piano with Alfred Cortot in Paris. His conducting mentors were Ernest Ansermet, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Franz von Hoesslin.

He described his association with Wilhelm Furtwängler to be the most important in his life. He performed as pianist in a concert of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. As recounted by Maag, Furtwängler told him, “Why don't you try to conduct? I have observed you while you were playing the concert tonight, staring at the orchestra more than at the keyboard. It was more you than me that have given the entry”. He followed Furtwängler's advice to start out at a small theater. His new career began as répétiteur, and then director at the Swiss Theater Biel-Solothurn from 1943 to 1946. After the first season at Biel-Solothurn, he served as an assistant to Furtwängler prior to the opening of his second season there. After Biel-Solothurn, he became Ernest Ansermet's assistant with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Maag was first conductor at the Düsseldorf Opera from 1952 to 1955, and then Generalmusikdirektor of the Bonn City Theater from 1955 to 1959. His first appearance at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden was in 1959, with Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. In the same year he made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. His U.S. debut was as guest conductor in 1959 of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and he made his U.S. opera debut in 1961 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

In 1962, Maag temporarily abandoned his musical career. Believing he was losing touch with music and theology, he sought guidance first from the Greek Orthodox Church, and then planned to spend a few months at a Buddhist monastery near Hong Kong. "I decided it was time to retire because I was having too much success," Maag said. The planned "few months" grew to over two years. “Those two years spent meditating and praying in a small cell purified my soul."

Maag was the chief conductor of the Vienna Volksoper from 1964 to 1968. His Metropolitan Opera debut was made on 23 September 1972 with Mozart's Don Giovanni. He became artistic director of the Teatro Regio di Parma in 1972 and of the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1974. He held posts at the RAI Symphony Orchestra, Turin, and the Orquesta Nacional de España. He was the music director of the Berner Symphonie-Orchester from 1984 to 1991, and served as the principal conductor of the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto from 1983 to 2001. He was also a frequent guest conductor with orchestras and opera houses worldwide.

As mentioned above, Maag made his U.S. Operatic debut in Chicago in 1961, but not just in one opera.  He led three: Così, and Don Giovanni of Mozart, featuring Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Berry, Simoneau, Waechter, and Wildermann in various roles, as well as Fidelio by Beethoven, with Nilsson, Vickers, and Hotter.  He returned the following year for another Mozart work, Marriage of Figaro, with Della Casa, Gobbi, Streich, Capecchi, Berganza, and Corena.  Then in 1974 he gave us the last opera of Verdi, Falstaff, with Evans, Ligabue, Zilio, Stewart, Alva, Chookasian, and Andreolli.  [Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.]

maag He returned to Chicago one more time, in August of 1991, for more Mozart
— the Symphony #39, and the Requiem at the Grant Park Festival.  It was then that I had the opportunity to speak with the maestro backstage immediately after a rehearsal.  His English was good, really better than he thought it was, and we delved right in to some very deep thoughts about both music and life.  

Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to chat with me today.  You were just rehearsing for a concert.  As the conductor, is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for the night of performance?

Peter Maag:   Of course, we have to leave something... and not even something, but many things for the night of the concert because our way of making music is not strictly technical.  We are easily impressed by circumstances
by health, or by blood pressure, or if somebody has the flu, or a cough.  Music is metaphysical.  It’s not resolved only by technique, so you leave it to the spirit of the moment.  It can be inspiration, it can be intuition, it can be many things, but it’s a spiritual event.

BD:   [Taking that idea to the extreme]  Then why do you need any rehearsal at all?

PM:   To put together the technical things.

BD:   So you have to balance the technical and metaphysical?   

PM:   We need technique because the score is mute.  You need an interpreter which the other arts don’t really need.  A picture hangs there.  You can’t change even one line in a picture, but the music is subordinate to the idea of the interpreter, so that means that to express what it’s meant spiritually needs to be technically perfect.  You can get lots of expression and mood in the rehearsal, but the final life mostly comes in the evening.

BD:   You say you can’t change even a line on a painting.  How much changing can you do in a musical score?

PM:   We can change practically everything.  If you listen to the Beethoven Eroica played on the record by Toscanini, or the same symphony played by Furtwängler, there are worlds of difference.

BD:   Which is right?

PM:   Nobody’s right, and that’s the fantastic thing.  In music there doesn’t exist objective proofs.  This is what fascinates me in music.  If the man who plays is convinced that he is right, then he is right.  If he tries to play like Rubinstein or Heifetz, then he can never convince.  He can only convince if he is convinced himself about himself.

BD:   So even if he thinks that Heifetz or Rubinstein was right in their approach, he can’t do it that way?

PM:   He can’t do it.  It must be him.  It must be the actual interpreter.  If he is strong person, and if his heart and his spirit and his mind are strongly behind in his interpretation, he is right.  That’s the only thing which I have experienced in my life.  The approach to music today is much easier than it was fifty years ago.

BD:   Why?

PM:   Unfortunately, young people today learn by taking a recording with Heifetz or Casals or Toscanini or Rubinstein.  They have models which we did not have.  We had only the score and the piano or the violin to make the first interpretative steps through the work. 

BD:   Isn’t it a mistake to start with a recording?  Shouldn’t everyone begin with the score?

PM:   They should, but it became much simpler.  You press a knob and hear Casals.  It’s simpler but you do not have to fight with the work.  For me, the right way is that you study the score, and possibly play the score at the piano.  That is why I say that young conductors need to play the piano, because this gives you your first steps into interpretation.  When you sit at the piano and play the piece, then you get your own idea of the tempo... or maybe you don’t get it.  But if you do that well, then maybe listen to a famous interpreter.  It might enlighten you, or it might also tell you that you are right and Heifetz is not.  It’s very complicated.

maag BD:   Does anyone ever get it just right?

PM:   Never!  It can’t be.  You have the music.  Take Mozart, who, with his bi-centenary, is on everyone
s mind.  How many ways have there been to interpret Mozart?  In the Eighteenth Century he was treated like the divine child, who had only grace and nothing dramatic or tragic.  Then came the Romantic Period with E.T.A. Hoffman, and Mozart was packed with the tragic and the romantic.  Then came an objective period with Toscanini, who pretended to play only what’s written, and today we have a new currencyMozart with antique instruments, which is like they want to send us back to the museum, and have it sound like it sounded once upon a time.  But honestly, for me, if Mozart would have had at his disposal a Steinway, he would have been the happiest man in the world.  I think Bach also would have thrown every cembalo out of the window if he would have known instruments like ours. 

BD:   Sure, but Mozart obviously had an idea.  Each composer has an idea.  Would the composers be grateful for these thousands of different ways of approaching their music?

PM:   I don’t think so.  The composer has ideas in his mind, and he writes them down.  When composers conducted or played their own works, we have seen that they haven’t been the greatest interpreters.  Stravinsky, for instance, understood that, and he innately preferred to let other people conduct his music.  So, you can’t say really what the truth was that came at the beginning.  The truth in music doesn’t exist.  Of all the modes, which is now the most valid?  Is the Romantic Mozart? No!  Is it the Mozart of the 1700s?  Is that a key?  It’s not.  The key is in the secret of music.  Music is always like our actual lives, and this is the right way that music itself changes.  The composer himself changes with the times.

BD:   So, music moves along as civilization moves along?

PM:   Yes!  It is like putting light in a crystal.  When you change the light, or put it from another side, it seems totally different.  That’s the thing you really have with music
it is the same substance, but with different lights, and conceived differently from other angles.  We have today a period of technology, so music is to be played just technically and without feeling, but maybe it’s not right.  I can’t answer that.  It metaphysical.

BD:   We’ve danced around it, so let me ask the question directly.  What is the purpose of music?

PM:   There is no purpose.  If you ask for a purpose, a utility in music, it is useful, yes.  We build houses, and birds build houses, but mankind has made all the big discoveries.  They are not inventions.  Newton didn’t invent anything, and Galileo didn’t invent anything.  They discovered things, but music has to be invented.  So, for me, what is clear is that I am a musician, and that gives me the possibility to say that maybe the greatest step in human history was the invention of music... besides the invention of a cosmos, which has its own laws.  When I give, for instance, the upbeat to the Eroica, immediately I am in another time, in another planetary system.  The time runs, and I can’t break it.  We are involved in another stream.  That’s one of the big mysteries of music for me
that it is running in its own time.  I think the purpose of music is to make people happy, because music has a big emotional power that can draw people through craziness or suicide to total happiness.  One can even be drunk on music.  It’s a drug!

BD:   [Optimistically]  A good drug?

PM:   [Smiles]  A good drug, yes.  So the purpose is that it is better to listen to Bach or Beethoven than to take coke.  [Both laugh]  The real purpose, if there is one, is to make happy people, or to make thoughtful people.

BD:   So it’s not just entertainment?

PM:   No, no, not entertainment alone.  I’m not a specialist in Rock, but I think this is entertainment.  But a Bach fugue is far more than entertainment, and Mozart
s Don Giovanni is also far more than entertainment.

BD:   In your life you have championed unknown works and also new works.  Without naming names, are there some composers
either living or recently deceasedwho will make their mark and take their place alongside Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, or any of these giants?

PM:   [Thinks a moment]  Nowadays in the present time, I hesitate to name a composer who I think has written works to think, but I’m not really in a place to judge.  There are so many composers and so many pieces which have been composed today, you can’t know all of them, and you can’t judge everything.  For me, there is no actual message as strong like Bach was, or even Stravinsky.  [Thinks again for a moment]  Oswald Spengler was the great German philosopher who posited that every civilization has its rise and fall. 

Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936) was a German historian and philosopher of history whose interests included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history. Spengler's model of history postulates that any culture is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan.

Spengler predicted that about the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre‑death emergency whose countering would necessitate Caesarism (extraconstitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of the central government).

He spent his final years in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading Molière and Shakespeare, buying several thousand books, and collecting ancient Turkish, Persian and Indian weapons. He made occasional trips to the Harz mountains, and to Italy. In the spring of 1936 (shortly before his death), he prophetically remarked in a letter to Reichsleiter Hans Frank that "in ten years, the German Reich will probably no longer exist".

He said at the finish of the Egyptian civilization there was a wonderful culture, and it disappeared.  He said the same held for the Chinese.  When we still lived in the wild, the Chinese already had libraries and pictures and so on.  There remains something of the spirit about the people who created these things, but their culture is gone.  We survive from the earliest days, and they are to be admired, but the culture has ascendants and descendants, and they have disappeared.  Spengler said the same is true with music.  If you think about music, maybe we understand only 400 years or so.

BD:   Are we on the backside, and well into the decline?

maag PM:   That’s my feeling but I hope I’m not right.

BD:   [With trepidation and disappointment]  So then are you not optimistic about the future of music?

PM:   [Thinks for several moments]  Not too much.  We are all too busy making money.  We are all too much in a hurry, and nobody wants to be silent and think a moment, and stay where we are!  We need to ask ourselves where we are, and what we are doing.  I know this by experience.  I was in the middle of my career, in the early
60s, and it was very brilliant, but I wasn’t very satisfied.  I went from airplane to airplane, and from interview to interview, and to everything else.  It was a life, but I’m a theologist.  I studied theology, and so there came the moment where I said, Stop!  I can’t bear it.  It has nothing more to do with music nor with theology, the two things which are very close to me.  God is about the spirit, and He is very near to the spirit of music.  You have to come back to metaphysics, so I stopped my career, and went for two years just to clean myself and to think.  I went into a Buddhist monastery in China, and I was there as a monk for two years.  Today I’m most happy I did that, and that I had the courage to break my career.  But two years is a long time, and people forget you.

BD:   Are you pleased that you resumed your career?

PM:   I resumed it... maybe not so spectacularly like it could have been, but I came back with an enrichment.  But I’m not so optimistic about music because very few people have the courage to stand still and to listen and to be calm.  Everybody is always busy!  There was once a film called You Can’t Take It With You.  I have a big memory and a wonderful experience of this film.

BD:   As I remember, it had Lionel Barrymore!

PM:   Yes.  A wonderful film, and it’s true, you can’t take it with you.  Why do you earn so much money, and want social status, and have a Cadillac, and an airplane, and a yacht on Lake Michigan?  You can’t take it with you!

BD:   What do you take with you
if anything at all?

PM:   My spirit!  But it is a fact that we don’t really know.  When the spirit leaves the body, and the spirit goes on, I would like to know where and how.  I’m very curious today.  I’m not eager, but I’m waiting to know what happens.

BD:   See what happens on the other side!

PM:   Yes, I am hoping I will not be disappointed.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to the music as we have it today, this 400-year mountain of material, how do you decide which pieces you will spend time working on and presenting, and which ones you will let go?

PM:   This is the kind of a luxury which you have if you pass the age of seventy.  [Maag was 72 at the time of this interview.]  You choose works which you love.  Before this, some manager would say,
“We want you to conduct that and that, and when that happens, you stay months and months, and you study and study, and you have not even time to climb a mountain or swim on an island.  Then you play it, or maybe you won’t.  So that’s one aspect.  The other aspect is that the works I have played many times in my life are becoming more and more familiar.  I’m getting to know more about what really happens in these masterpieces.  My directing technique is now allowing myself to express my thoughts.  I am not depending any more just on techniques and beating.  I don’t need to please anybody or everybody.  I go on, and there are some works that today I would like to do again.  I look for occasions to do them because I have the feeling now the moment is here, that I can really approach this particular piece from another angle and discover what this composer had in his mind.  When one has passed seventy, you can allow yourself the luxury of saying to the concert societies you want to do this or that.  You can also allow yourself the luxury of wanting to have this soloist or that soloist.  In Italy I have opened my own opera house, dedicated to the young people because I discovered that in the whole of music life, there is nobody who really cares for the young people.  They have to be instructed not only in the music school.  The difficult step for them is when they leave music school.  Then maybe they fall into the hands of eager impresarios who put these young people, who may be singing wonderfully, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera where they are burned out because they have no experience.  In this theater which I founded now, they get experience.  These are young people which I engage.  We have competitions, and they are engaged, and they have the occasion to work with great masters.  We did Don Giovanni with two months’ preparation time.  Now we are doing Così Fan Tutte.  We have three months, and we have many singers.  They have to learn languages.  That’s obligatory.  They have to sing the German Lied of Schubert, Brahms, and so on, not only the opera parts they just sing.  They make concerts.  Then there is a conducting school where I engage young conductors, but it’s not like a conducting course.  They conduct twice a week, ten minutes with the orchestra, and they work with the singers.  They are there for the whole timethrough the curtain calls, the light signals, everything, and they play all the rehearsals.  They make the lectures for the operas we play, and if they do very well, and if they develop brilliantly in these three or four months, they can also conduct concerts and performances.


See my Interview with Donato Renzetti

BD:   Where is this?

PM:   This is Treviso, a small city between Venice and Padua.  They have a wonderful theater, and there is no trouble with politics or with unions.  It’s a very good orchestra and a magnificent theater from 1795.  Everything is still done by hand.  Nothing electronic, just by hand.  Also, there are young pupils who learn to be producers and stage directors.  In this school they are all there.  They have to learn things from the very beginning, bottom to top.  They have a chorus master school and a coach school, so this is a very interesting thing.  We also do some symphonic concerts.  Of all my activities, I might say this is the one which interests me most.  The theater is called ‘La Bottega’.  ‘Bottega’ was the grand salon when master painters
like Michelangelo, Raphael, Tizianolived practically with their pupils.  If the master was tired, he told his pupils to paint the finger nail on this fresco.  Then he says it is wrong.  So they have to live together and be together.  In my ‘Bottega’, in this theater, the masters are there for three or four months, and we all live practically together in the same city.  That means we eat together, and the lessonsor the rehearsalsaren’t simply finished after three hours and we say ‘bye-bye’.  Everybody wants rally to learn, and this is very interesting and a very unusual thing.

BD:   You become completely immersed in it?

PM:   Yes, and we also make Lieder concerts and oratorios.  We do Messiah next month, and we will do Bach’s Matthew Passion.  The same singers who sing Così Fan Tutte and Figaro, have to sing both concerts and opera.

BD:   But you’re very careful to make sure they don’t sing roles that are too heavy?

maag PM:   Of course.  When the ‘Bottega’ is finished and they go on with their careers, they have wonderful luggage about how one should work.  Then they are still in contact with the ‘Bottega’, and if somebody asks if they should sing Siegfried in Bayreuth, I say no!  [Both laugh]

BD:   But perhaps he will a few years down the line?

PM:   Perhaps, yes.  I guide the people with what they should do, or what should not do.

BD:   And they accept your ideas?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Sherrill Milnes, and Anna Reynolds.]

PM:   Oh, yes, sure.

BD:   I ask because it seems today that singers very often want to sing big roles much too soon.

PM:   Much too soon, yes, that’s right.  In order to attend the ‘Bottega’, they get a large scholarship so they can live comfortably.  If a young person has a wonderful voice when he comes out of the conservatoire, maybe he has a family who says they won
t let him study for ten years.  Maybe he has to be in a hurry to earn money, and will do the wrong things.  Being in the ‘Bottega’ he can avoid those things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve conducted opera all around the world.  How do the various companies compare?

PM:   It’s a bit all the same because we have to star system, and big stars don’t like to rehearse.  They come if it’s a work they know.  For the pre-dress rehearsal they come, so if some young people are engaged, how do these poor men and these poor girls learn how to move when their partner is arriving the evening before the performance?  This is why my ‘Bottega’ is a very serious and a very important enterprise.  Today, opera life is the same no matter if it
s La Scala, the Metropolitan, Covent Garden... unfortunately, we have no more Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which was a great theater.

BD:   [Surprised]  There is no more opera there anymore???

PM:   Oh, they have opera, but it’s a total confusion.

BD:   Could that be straightened out by a good administrator?

PM:   It has to do with politics.  The whole country is in a crisis, and this happens.  Politics is also becoming very important in Italy.  We had big cuts of our subsidies from the Ministry, but for the ‘Bottega’ I succeeded not to cut one thing out of the production because we started to have very great and important and conscious sponsors.  That’s the future, really, the sponsors.  

BD:   You’ve mentioned a lot of advice to artists and singers.  What advice do you have for audiences and sponsors?

PM:   [Thinks a moment]  To choose well what they sponsor.

BD:   Do they have the ability to make that kind of choice?

PM:   The danger is also here that it’s all a question of marketing, and this is the crucial point for me.  I see it also with the gramophone recordings.  It’s all a question of marketing.  They don’t record if it doesn’t make business, or take young singers if they have no name.  Marketing is the danger of our actual life.  As to advice for audiences, there is nothing to give because the public always knows what is good and always new.

BD:   Is the public always right?

PM:   The public is mostly right, but not always.  The public is sometimes too easy to cheer a histrionic person, but mostly if the public declares a success, it has some reasons.

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings over your career.   Are you pleased with those documents?


PM:   Yes, and I wish I could make more.  I would very much like if some record company would forget the marketing and making a recording of this ‘Bottega’.  This would be very important.  Also, if they could record the whole production and insert the rehearsal work, to give it to the universities as a matter to study.

maag BD:   Make it a documentary?

PM:   A documentary, yes, but so far nobody has done that.  They go and buy a finished performance of an artist, and they have very little idea how they prepared their artistry.  The great conductors and great singers and great pianists, all the musicians of that generation have died away.  Furtwängler is dead, and Karajan is dead, and somebody should take the torch and teach the younger students how music is made.  Casals is dead, and he was a great teacher.  There is nobody today who has this call.  What miserable lives young conductors have today.  A pianist can play in his home.  He can even prepare his own career... up until a certain point.  Then he makes some competition, and that’s it, his is on his way.  But a poor conductor [sighs]...  Which young person has an orchestra at home?  Nobody!  So, where do they practice?  The good old provinces!  Little, small theaters of the provinces don’t exist anymore.

BD:   The old tradition of the German répétiteur is gone.  

PM:   Yes.  You were the répétiteur, and then you would go ahead.  When you conduct 200 times The Merry Widow, you learn.  That’s the way we all learned
Furtwängler and Karajan...

BD:   ...and you?

PM:   [Smiles]  And me, yes.  This is very big danger
that nobody cares what happens to music.  If it’s going ahead like it goes now, in twenty years we will have only five orchestras in the world, and five recording companies, and all music will be service by cassette.  That’s my opinion.  You asked me earlier if I’m optimistic.  I’m not optimistic.

BD:   [With a wink]  But I hope you’re wrong!

PM:   [Smiles]  I hope I am wrong.

BD:   I’m glad you’re back in Chicago after many years.

PM:   Yes, many, many years since I was at Chicago Lyric.
BD:   Thank you so much for the conversation.

PM:   Thank you.  I talk too much, as always.  Cut it well!

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 15, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three days later, and again in 1994 and 1999.  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.

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.

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.