Conductor Vittorio Negri
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Vittorio Negri was born in
Milan, Italy, in 1923. He first studied composition and conducting at
the Milan Conservatory of Music, then at Siena under Antonio Guarnieri.
In 1952, after studying under Bernhard Paumgartner at Salzburg, he was
appointed Assistant Conductor of the Mozarteum there. Maestro Negri is
a musicologist and a founding member of the Societa Italiana di
Musicologia; he is also editor-in-chief of the Monumenta Italicae
Musicae and has edited numerous works by 17th- and 18th-century Italian
composers. He occupied the chair of Chamber Music at the Conservatory
of Music of Perugia for two years and, since 1955, has been artistic
director of the recordings of the famous Italian chamber ensemble I
Musici. Maestro Negri’s musical activities have taken him all over
Europe, where he has conducted and recorded with many of the major
choirs and orchestras.
Vittorio Negri made his first appearance at the Ravinia Festival, the
summer home of the Chicago Symphony, in August of 1992, leading a
couple of single-composer programs. One was instrumental and
choral music of Vivaldi featuring the return after a decade of flutist
Jean-Pierre Rampal, and the other had the six Brandenburg Concerti of Bach.
It was during this visit that I had the chance to speak with this
renowned maestro. While setting up the recorder, he mentioned
that his “bloody English was not good.”
Notwithstanding his opinion, it turned out to be quite good, and he was
enthusiastic about the entire subject. This transcript does
smooth out a few of the rough edges, but leaves several of his
delightful turns of phrase . . . . .
We will just talk about our favorite
What is your favorite subject?
music! That’s great, we are
great. [Both laugh]
music your favorite subject?
VN: It is,
BD: Has it
always been your favorite subject?
VN: I must
say yes. When I was like a
very small boy, music — good music, I mean — was giving me something
special, a sort of
excitement, a sort of joy, a sort of feeling good. I don’t
know; it is inexplicable.
BD: Does it
still do that for you?
Fortunately, yes. [Laughs]
BD: Is it a
surprise that almost seventy years later
it still gives you that excitement?
think it’s the presence of God — or
something like that — because it is easy to get
into a sort of routine
and to think that this is just another concert, but the good music is
so great that even if I have done many times the same
symphony, every time I study again from the
beginning and every time I discover something new that I didn’t
understand before. I think that our attitude toward the music has
to be of great humility, because this great composer has put something
so incredible in the compositions, that even I wonder whether they
were really conscious on what they put in. Maybe it was just God
giving us all this beauty through them.
composer was just the conduit?
BD: Are you
the conduit to recreate the
VN: First of
all I’ll try to approach this
great music with humility, starting from the point of view that the
composer is always right. If he would be here I
could talk to him, but he’s not here. He just left his message,
and our duty is to understand exactly what he wanted to
communicate. This is the early Baroque
time, when the soul of the men got into the music. They wanted to
say something and they did say something. Sometimes it is
very easy to understand what it is and sometimes it is less easy, but
there is always a message in it. There is always something that
we have the tremendous responsibility to understand and to hand over
to the audience. That is what I think.
BD: Were they
saying the same things to
the audience in their day as they’re saying to today’s audience?
VN: I would
say yes because it is the soul of the man, and it’s always the
same. It’s sometimes something which could be
ignorance, which could be violence, which could be hatred, which could
be all the worst things, but the soul is coming from
God. This is just the spark of God, and it’s always the same for
everybody in this world — for me, at least.
BD: You work
primarily with eighteenth century
music. Without naming names, are there composers today who are
this same kind of God-given music?
VN: This is a
very good question because
sometimes one could have doubts about that. But I think that good
composers still do something like that. The means
have changed and the taste of the audience sometime is changed, but a
serious, a deeply involved composer cannot go out of this way. He
is forced to express something
coming from the high sky and from the friendly skies. Let me say
the ‘friendly’ and the ‘high’
because these skies are really friendly to us, even if we do not
realize immediately. We could say, “Oh, what kind of mess is this
world,” but it’s us and what we do. We do the mess.
BD: Not the
inspiration of the music?
no. Certainly not.
BD: Let me
ask the great big question,
then. What is the purpose of music?
purpose of music is as the purpose of all the
arts. It is testimony that there are higher worlds with
tremendous beauty. If you hear, for instance, the second movement
of the First Brandenburg Concerto,
it is a prayer. I
make a distinction here. I don’t think that
the prayer is just to ask for something. It’s correct to ask for
something, but the real prayer is
just a thank you. Thanks for all the beauty you have
given to us. If you think of it, these great composers like Bach
and Mozart and so on gave their music for nothing, practically!
We are so rich, and we didn’t pay anything to
BD: We are
rich because of them?
of them. Yes.
BD: Is there
a continuous line from, say,
Palestrina through Bach, through many composers?
VN: Oh, I
would say certainly, no doubt about
that. The communication was different in the Baroque
time — it was much faster than now! It seems a paradox, but it’s
not because all of these kings, princes and the Pope and Cardinals were
very eager to have the best artists. So they gave instructions
to their ambassadors to inform them first of all, not about the
and whatever, but about the composers, about the
virtuosos, about that kind of thing. The big
explosion of Vivaldi, which is Opus Three, L'estro Armonico, was known
by Bach a few years after that. Bach would transcribe many of his
concertos for harpsichord or for orchestra and harpsichord in that
horse-and-buggy period! There was no fax, no telephone, and no
BD: Are we
better off today when there’s the
truly instantaneous communication?
VN: I would
say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Yes, certainly,
because information is immediate, and no because sometimes
there are things that would be better not to know. [Both
laugh] This is a very selfish this position...
BD: When you
come to an orchestra, you rehearse
and then give the performance. Is all your work done at the
rehearsal, or do you leave something special for that night of
VN: These are very
good questions you are
putting to me. I try. I say ‘I’ because I’m speaking, but
conductors, we try. I think that my colleagues are the
try to do everything during the rehearsals. Sometimes the
rehearsal time is short, particularly if the program is longer. I
accept it is impossible to have all the time one would
like. We could have ten rehearsals for the Brandenburg and
still not finish with enough work on everything.
VN: It is
such great, perfect music in how it is
organized! We do our best and everything is in place, but now
I’m talking about me, not my colleagues. I know exactly that the
me who will make the concert is not the same person who has made the
rehearsal. It could happen that during the course of the
concert, suddenly a sort of inspiration arrives and tells me for the
first time, “Breathe
there at this point.” I never thought
about this before. This is the big joy to make music with these
outstanding musicians because they will understand immediately and will
follow immediately. This communication, to be together just
to celebrate the great music — I don’t know a
bigger joy in life!
BD: Are they
getting the same inspiration you are at
the same moment?
VN: I think
that there are vibrations coming
out. It’s sort of transmitting. I transmit waves, they
transmit waves, and we are in touch all the time.
BD: Do you
get transmissions also from the audience?
Certainly. Absolutely! There are people who say, “We can
sit home very
comfortably, put on a CD and listen to the music and
enjoy this.” I agree, but there are two things on which I
do not agree. First of all, the CD is an industrial
product. It’s as perfect as possible, and sometimes with
little tricks it’s improved. If there are mistakes, the
mistake is taken out and replaced by other takes. I don’t know
that the mistake is necessary but it’s part
of the human weakness, and to avoid completely these little things
an un-human performance. It’s too perfect, and man is not
perfect. So I prefer very much a little imperfection
just for the moment. Little things might be not be quite
together, but the expression for me is the most
important thing. Yesterday I heard the second movement of the Sixth
Brandenburg with the two violas, and I really cried! They
were so deeply
involved, so playing with the heart and with the soul, not with the
fingers. That is great! It was the same with the second
the Third Brandenburg and the
second movement of the Second
Brandenburg. It was all do the same.
BD: If you
heard those on a record, would
you cry a little less, perhaps?
thing with the
record is that one is alone, alone or with friends, but at the
concert the audience is there. It is a sort of community, in my
opinion a religious
community. The fact that the audience is there
listening to this music and sees the people making music is something
that makes both the audience and the musicians more rich. There
this transmitting of these waves going and coming. Now this is
very important, I think. It is very important to everybody.
BD: So no
matter what religion we are, we are all
praying to Orpheus at that time?
VN: There is
only one religion, as there is only one
God, and we are all brothers, like Beethoven and Schiller say in the Ninth
lot of eighteenth century music. Do you also conduct some newer
VN: Yes, I
do. Not some so-called avant-garde music. I’m
not criticizing, but it’s difficult for me to find the kind of
expression I’m looking for. But in modern music there are
things also. It’s really worth it to do them and to give them
to the audience, because without them there is the danger that the
audience gets in a habit of only wanting to listen to the same things,
and then it is difficult to push out of this
compare different performances is a sort of a sport, and is not very
BD: Do you also
explore for the forgotten composers
of the eighteenth century?
composers, I must say yes, of course they deserve to be known. I
made some research because I like this, and part of my formation is
musicology. I was among the founder members of the Societa di
Musicologia, and I found, for instance, a Requiem by Cimarosa, which is a
beautiful piece. Cimarosa is
certainly a very good composer, but if you think that one year after
the death of Mozart, he arrived in Vienna and got the salary of twelve
thousand ducats, while Mozart got only eight hundred, then something is
wrong in this evaluation of them. I do a lot of Vivaldi because I
thought there was injustice was done against him — calling
him a man who
was only interested in money, and that he was a false priest
because he had this relationship with a girl. That
he had the relationship with the girls is uninteresting for me.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Perhaps,
but not for him! [Both laugh]
said! But if this could have given him some inspiration to write
did, why not?
BD: So the
relationship with the women helped him
put more spark into the music?
VN: I would
say, yes, because music is love and you feel this from him. If
Vivaldi would have been as greedy as some of the critics
say, he would have died as a rich man. But he had to leave Venice
thirty years because he was no more fashionable, and he went to Vienna
he died in poverty, really poverty. This was fifty years before
Mozart, and we do not know where he is
buried — as we do not know where Mozart is
buried. I think there
is a sort of justice to this because they do not belong to this
They belong to a better world somewhere.
BD: So in a
way it’s good that we can’t go to their
graves — it’s better that we go to their music?
conduct a lot of music from
earlier times. Where do you come down on the original instrument
VN: That is a
very interesting question
because period instruments are, in a way, a reaction to the way to play
the modern instrument. We can still hear performances made in the
thirties and forties with the pianoforte instead of a harpsichord or
the violin played with the huge vibrato, and this really don’t fit with
music. It is not that in those times there was no vibrato at
all; there was a sort of vibrato, always. Even before the
Renaissance there was a form of expression, not that vibrato started at
the beginning of this century just to adjust the notes a little bit or
intonation of this kind. It’s also not to say (in a critical way)
like some gypsy music where they go “woo,
woo, woo!” [Both laugh] It’s a good reaction to this
idea. Of course, every exaggeration is not necessarily
good. With the old
instruments — recorder, flute, for instance —
Mozart had no sympathy at all
with the flutes, and it’s obvious because these instruments did not
have a big sound and the intonation was very doubtful. He wrote
two concertos for flute — one better than the
other [laughs] — but he didn’t love this
instrument. On the contrary, he loved the
clarinet very much at the end of his life when he wrote the Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto for Stadler.
BD: I really
love the basset clarinet. I’m glad it’s coming back.
Yes! In the Clemenza di Tito
marvelous part of the aria. It’s great this one, when it was
written. I think everything has to be so as not exaggerating
one direction or the other. But a good ensemble of
period instruments is certainly something very interesting and very
pleasant to listen to where there are good players. If not, why
should we not enjoy
the music because just we play with modern instruments? Let’s
enjoy the music; that is the first thing. Don’t be so
Calvinist to say, “If Bach is not played on period instruments,
it’s not Bach; if Vivaldi is not, it’s not Vivaldi; if
Handel is not...” We can enjoy Vivaldi played by modern
instruments; we can enjoy Handel; we can enjoy Bach, and
this is the important thing for me.
BD: Do you
conduct a lot of opera?
VN: Not a
lot, but many I would say, yes. I
like very much opera. The big problem is now the
directors. Last year I did
a Handel opera, and I was very lucky because I had a director
not too progressive. [Both laugh] But in spite of that,
there were people
smoking in the scene. There was a singer running all around, up
and down the scene while singing so far away from me, having problems
with breath because he was running! [Laughs] But there are
people that make much worse
things. I have this opinion — these works
done in a certain period with then-current subjects. They were
actual like, for
instance, Cosi fan Tutti,
which was very modern, in a way, or Don
Giovanni because Giovanni [winks] heh, heh, heh, any time!
Because The Magic Flute is
sort of an initiation, all is symbolic, but we do not need just to put
it in modern time because then there is a discrepancy between what
we see and what we hear. I would leave this very modern scenario
direction with modern works. There are plenty of these.
There could be a little different idea than usual, a fantasy, but still
in a shape that is not too contrary to
the music. In another production, if you hear Handel’s
music with period
instruments and then you see the harpsichord
player was put in the bar of a modern hotel in Baghdad... I don’t
know. I would agree even with this
direction without period instruments — maybe — but
already we have
this preoccupation of using everything of the time, so the
direction should also be in this time. That is what I think.
BD: Even to
use the old stage machinery with the outdated rigging
and the windlass and everything?
VN: They had,
things! Don Giovanni
and Zauberflöte in
Vienna in the
eighteenth century had big machineries, and there was no electricity,
nothing, and they could do all this kind of things!
BD: You could
hear all the ropes and pulleys
creaking offstage! [Laughs]
Yes. Sometimes it was a mistake, but
nowadays mistakes still happen.
should be the boss of the opera — the
conductor or the stage director?
VN: I think that a
cooperation is the
best result, and that these people are both cultivated and
both not fanatic. I hate fanaticism, I hate extremists.
It’s quite possible for civilized people to
discuss and come to an agreement to do things. If all the
responsibility is on the shoulder of one man, it’s not impossible that
the man becomes a dictator, and this also is not good. A good
balance is the perfect situation, and this
boss person, if he is a civilized person will make it is easy to
other and not just to profit off the weakness of the other. It’s
always wrong to profit. Each should say their own idea and then
see what is positive about one and the other and then put them together.
BD: And make
the finished product better from the two?
because that difference is what makes humanity rich. Everybody
has his own idea, developed it,
thinks how to do the best, and if the two of them come
together and they put the best of both together, then the result is
certainly very good indeed.
BD: Is the
composer at all a dictator?
wouldn’t say so. Beethoven could be
taken as a dictator, because his way says, “Sit down and listen
what I have to tell you.” But not Mozart, not Bach, and even not
Beethoven because if you hear any piece
by these composers, you sit there and you listen to it and are
BD: Is the
music that we’re talking about for
BD: Then how
do we get the rock audiences and the pop
audiences to come to more classical concerts?
VN: That is a
good question, but I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to this
because it’s this sort of over-fanticism. There are people who go
concerts that don’t want to hear anything else, and there are
people who go to pop concerts that don’t want to listen to anything
else. Maybe it is also to let their energy explode because you
can see scenes at the pop concert that you will
never see at the classic concert. Maybe these young people
need to shout, to roar, to strip themselves! [Both laugh]
But with time I think
that any manifestation of a human being has a positive part, and with
one’s energy is a little bit calmed down.
BD: So as
they get older, they’ll come to different kind of concerts?
VN: It’s not
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
VN: I would
say yes. [Laughs] Sorry for
laughing, but your question was, “Are you optimistic about the
future?” and you added, “of music.” Because of the other, I don’t
know whether it’s
possible to be optimistic, but let’s be, because life is the greatest
thing existing, and what we need is more respect for life, more love
for other people. It was all that was said centuries ago.
have just only to read or to feel this and everything is said.
We don’t need many things. We don’t need much to be happy.
music. Once I heard an interview
with Artur Rubinstein, the Polish-American
pianist. He was seventy-five or something like
that and he said, “You can tie me to this chair and I will be
happy. I have so many things to think about. A flower is a
joy. Beautiful ladies are a joy.” I remember having
seen him in a restaurant called Kaiser,
opposite the Concertgebouw in
Amsterdam. He was sitting near the big Dutch
window eating a gorgeous meal and drinking very good wine. When
he was finished he took a huge cigar out of his pocket, light the
cigar and was looking out to the beautiful girls going by. Then I
understood more about what he said during this interview. “All
this beauty costs nothing. It’s there to be enjoyed.” If
people would realize that it’s
useless to make money and all these things because one day one has to
go and to leave everything
here. Probably the son and the daughter will spend it all in two
years what the father had put together. So there are so
many things he said to enjoy if I am tied here; I still would be
happy. It’s a great
BD: Does it
please you to know that you are leaving
to history the recordings that you have made of many of these pieces?
VN: It’s good
to have records because
it is just a moment of your life you have set down there. It’s a
sort of book where you put your beliefs — your
love — and it remains
there and could be listened to by people after I’m gone. But to
I’m proud of that? If there would be someone in fifty years, in
a hundred years — if still the records will be
there — who will listen to
this and enjoy them, then everywhere I could be I would say, “I’m happy
conducted all around the world.
Are the audiences different from country to country and city to city?
VN: Oh, yes.
BD: How so?
VN: It’s very
different. For instance, the audience in France is pickier.
French are pickier people. It never happened to me, but a
Frenchman is quite capable, if he doesn’t like something, to stand and
just walk out
during the concert. No problem for that. [Laughs]
would just leave?
leave. On the other hand, I must say I
got the best reviews from French critics. There are some of them
who really understand. They are very fine people. They
understand this and
they write with beautiful words because French can be a very beautiful
language. If they don’t like someone, they kill him. There
is no medium — there is love or hate.
BD: Back to
extremes again. The German audience
is very good indeed, and reacts slowly. When you are finished
piece, you have to wait a few seconds before the applause. It’s
not because they don’t know that it’s
finished — which sometimes could happen.
It’s just because the reaction
is a little bit slower.
not just digesting it?
no! They are digesting, but they have to realize it’s
finished and then decide it’s time to start the
applause. They are very good audience. Here in America is
audience, too. The English also, it’s a very good
audience. They are faithful, the English, but I think the
Americans also are faithful. Once they like you, they like you
all the rest of your life. It is the same with the Dutch, they
very, very faithful.
BD: Have you
conducted in Japan and Asia?
VN: I did in
Japan. It’s amazing experience
because actually I was never able to go through their eyes to
understand what really they think. They are extremely gentle,
extremely kind. They always say, “Hai.” They never say no
because it’s not polite to say no. I tell you
this story. In my program there was the Seventh Symphony by
Dvořák. Before I had done Mozart, I did Beethoven, I did
Vivaldi. They are very good musicians with all of this mucic
which is rather
straight. It’s done perfectly, but when you arrive to the
where it has to be free, then it’s much more difficult for them.
I admire Japanese musicians because of the love they have for our
music. I’m incapable of understanding their music, to be
honest. I’ve not really the will to understand their music.
Coming back to the Dvořák, I
arrived in the moment in the first movement
where the flutes go up, and I wanted to wait a little moment before
coming to the next bar. So I explained this. Most of them
English well. Some speak German and some speak French, depending
from where they make their study. So I said, “Here I stay up with
my hands because
I don’t want you to go down immediately. Did you
understand?” “Hai.” So we arrive at
it and they went on. I stopped again and said,
“Sorry. I would like to breathe a little bit there. That is
why I stay with my hand high. I don’t go down, so please
don’t go down. Stay there just a moment.” I tried to
clearly, to try to change the form and they said yes, yes, of
course. So we go back and again they did not wait.
didn’t understand your rubato?
I stopped again, and as a third time they were going
on, then I didn’t stop anymore. I went on with them and the
performance was very good but a little straight. But they are
very good musicians, extremely good! Have you seen the children
with Suzuki who walk playing the violin?
VN: They are
playing Preludes of
with their reduced-sized violins!
Yes! Of course
there are people who understand Romantic music. Seiji Ozawa, for
instance, the Japanese conductor makes Romantic pieces
beautifully. But of course he lived maybe forty years in Europe
the States, which makes still a difference.
BD: Do you
have any advice for young
conductors coming along?
Yes. I would say the first rule is
humility towards the great works that they have to
study. They have to study the scores. One never knows
really a score; even if he knows a score by heart, it is not
completely known. Study, study, study, and again, study.
Secondly, I saw unfortunately some young conductors who hate the
musicians, who think they are enemies. This is the biggest
mistake we can do.
The musicians are friends, the best friends, because they want to
do their best and they want to do their best that you want from
them. Therefore, consider them as friends. Respect
them; love them. For a young conductor this is very
important. The people who play in orchestra are their best
friends and they have to consider them. Always
use love. Love is the answer to everything! That is my
BD: Thank you
so very much for speaking with me today.
VN: I thank
you, really. It was easy. You
put me in a very good mood.
To read my Interview with Felicity Lott, click HERE
To read my Intreview with Anthony Rolfe Johnson, click HERE
© 1992 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at the
Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, on August 27, 1992. Sections
were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1998.
It was transcribed
and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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