Conductor  Günter  Wand
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

The Telegraph, 15 Feb 2002  [Text only]

GÜNTER WAND, the German conductor who has died aged 90, did not attain international recognition of his extraordinary gifts as an interpreter until he was nearly 70; indeed, most of his career was spent in Cologne and Hamburg, where he was a Kapellmeister in the highest tradition.

Although he made his London debut in 1951, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a Beethoven programme at Covent Garden, it was not until 1981, when he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that he made the kind of impact on the British public and critics that the elderly Klemperer had made 25 years earlier. This appearance led to his appointment for several years as chief guest conductor of the BBC orchestra. His London concerts thereafter became occasions at which one could be confident of encountering the traditional virtues of lucidity, balance and integrity.

wand In recent years, his visit to the Edinburgh Festival with the North German Radio Orchestra of Hamburg, usually to perform a Bruckner symphony, was the musical climax of the festival. He was especially fond of the Eighth, which he also took to the London Proms on several occasions. Ironically, when he unexpectedly succeeded Klaus Tennstedt as the orchestra's conductor, it was booked for the Festival with Tennstedt. But because at that time no one in Edinburgh had heard of Wand, the booking was cancelled. The Proms invited him instead and enjoyed a triumph, often repeated.

The performance he conducted of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in the Festival Hall in November 1986 was by common consent held to be one of the greatest in the hall's 35 years of existence. His Schubert Great C major had a momentum and vitality akin to Sir Adrian Boult's in this work, and his interpretations of the Brahms symphonies - fortunately available on discs, like his Schubert - were distinguished by tempi that sound exactly right, and by an inner fieriness that one feels comes direct from the music and not from something alien imposed upon it by the conductor. For Wand, time, space and light were of the essence.

It was, though, in Bruckner that Wand could be heard at his finest, not only in the monumental splendours of the last three symphonies but in the more problematical early examples, such as Nos 1 and 2, where cogency and enthusiasm combined to give a deeply satisfying result. He favoured the editions by Robert Haas.

He recorded all the nine symphonies with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, preferring to work with radio orchestras because they provided more rehearsal time, and re-recorded most of them with the Berlin Philharmonic or Hamburg orchestras. His style of conducting was unflamboyant, although he did not eschew the occasional expansive gesture. Flashiness, however, was outside his ken.

At the Edinburgh Festival in 2000, he looked almost too frail to reach the podium but, when he got there, unleashed a remarkable Bruckner Eight.

Gunter Wand was born at Elberfeld on January 7 1912. After lessons in Wuppertal and at Cologne University, he studied at Cologne Conservatory and High School for Music under Phillip Jarnach for composition and Paul Baumgartner for piano. He worked as repetiteur and assistant conductor at Wuppertal and Allenstein before becoming chief conductor at Detmold. He was then principally an opera conductor, specialising in Mozart and Verdi.

He was a conductor at Cologne Opera from 1939 until 1944, when the opera house was destroyed. For a year Wand went to Salzburg to conduct the Mozarteum Orchestra, but returned to Cologne in 1945 as music director of the opera. Cologne's population had been reduced by war from nearly half a million to 40,000, and Wand wanted to take part in the revival of the city initiated by his friend Konrad Adenauer.

He now began to study the orchestral repertoire so that from 1946 he could take over the Gurzenich concerts which had once been conducted by Fritz Steinbach. This engagement, on a 10-year contract, was later extended to a life appointment. Wand also joined the teaching staff of Cologne High School for Music, becoming a professor in 1948.

Although Wand's programmes usually had a classical basis (some would say bias), he did not neglect contemporary music. He conducted much Stravinsky and Bartók (he recorded the latter's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) and works by the Cologne composer Bernd-Alois Zimmermann. He also conducted works by Messiaen, Varèse and Ligeti. In 1974 he resigned his Cologne posts and went to Switzerland as guest conductor of the Berne Symphony Orchestra. He then began his regular association with the Hamburg Radio Orchestra, becoming its chief conductor in 1982, and with Munich. He was also a composer.

Wand was not the easiest of men to deal with. In his autobiography, Sir John Drummond, who encountered him when he was Edinburgh Festival director and later as Controller of BBC Radio 3, described a visit to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1995 when Wand was "frail, short-tempered, and endlessly critical of the orchestra". At dinner at the Hyde Park Hotel after a successful concert, Drummond asked Wand to cheer up and was shouted at for his pains. This, Drummond wrote, was typical of Wand's "Janus-like behaviour - all sweetness and light and `Du, mein lieber Freund' one moment and foul language and boorish behaviour the next".

Wand and his wife lived in Switzerland in recent years.

[Note: A tribute from The Guardian by Sir John Drummond appears at the bottom of this webpage.] 

Wand In January of 1989, conductor Günter Wand made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  His program included the Symphony #1 of Brahms (which was recorded by RCA, photo at left) and the Schubert Unfinished Symphony.  Early in the following season he would return for the Bruckner Symphony #5.  Despite his lack of self-aggrandizement, he agreed to meet with me the day after completing his first series of concerts.

His English was quite good, though we had a translator on hand to furnish words and phrases as needed.  He would often repeat thoughts with slightly different words in hopes of making his ideas clear and understood.  At the end, he mentioned that the English he learned in school was still used in England, but it was different than

In editing the conversation, my aim (as always) is to render the thoughts as clearly and accurately as possible.  To that end, I have corrected grammatical errors, but have left some of the charming turns of phrase which reveal the process going on in his mind.  Consider this an oil painting which displays artful feelings.  I have removed a few smudges and framed it in appropriate light.  It is not a photograph which is cold but accurate to the sharpest detail.

Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I want to ask perhaps an impertinent question.  A lot has been made about your desire for many rehearsals, and I don’t wish to go into that so much, but I’d like to ask if the first performance of a concert is perhaps an additional rehearsal for the second performance?

Günter Wand:    Not one musician, I think, said we had too much rehearsal.  Not one musician.  When I had five rehearsals and I’m satisfied, then it’s good.  But I’m absolutely convinced when I had seven rehearsals it’s better than five rehearsals.  With the BBC Orchestra in London
— which is a very good orchestraI had twenty-five or twenty-six hours of rehearsal, and not one musician came to me and said it was too much.  They all say, “We had a fantastic week with you.  Thank you, thank you.”  So, that’s my answer.  A conductor has to say some practical things to the music professional, not philosophical ideas.  It’s only in Chicago that I am always asked why I had five rehearsals.  I think it is better to look what happens after the rehearsals.  In the newspaper was written that I had a double rehearsal, like Georg Solti.  That’s not true.  He had four, I have five.  That’s all.  I see the orchestra the first time in my life, and it was very exciting.  It’s not so easy to come in a country that you have never seen.  It’s my first time in America.  Nobody speaks German and I don’t know what’s happening, but I am so happy to feel that the musicians agree with me.  That is the most important thing for a conductor — to have the feeling the musicians are also happy.

BD:    We are very happy that you have come to Chicago.

GW:    But you already know that before?

BD:    Some of us were anticipating this with great eagerness.

GW:    [Laughs]

BD:    You have the rehearsals and at the first performance you are pleased or not pleased.  Is the second performance and the third performance and the next performance after that better each time?

GW:    I hope it is better each time!  I try to do my best, and the musicians do too, but we are human beings.  Not every day is the same.  I was very happy on the Saturday concert.  I think it was the best of the three concerts. 

BD:    All the time in rehearsals and performances you’re working toward a musical perfection.  Do you ever get that musical perfection?

GW:    Oh, I think it’s not possible.  No human being can make it total perfection, no.  Nobody can do it.  Not in this time, not in earlier times, not in the future.  I am absolutely sure.  It cannot be.

BD:    Do you get very close to it, though?

GW:    A wonderful piano player is one person.  He has a wonderful instrument and he plays well.  A conductor has an instrument of eighty musicians or a hundred musicians, and each musician is a personality.  He has his own distinct effect, his own health and his own daily condition.  Perhaps he is frustrated and perhaps he hates the conductor.  I can understand that.  So how can you have perfection?  You are very happy to feel that all is ensemble in feeling with you.  The baton makes no sound and can’t produce a tone.  The music comes from the flute and the oboe and the trumpet and the horn and the strings and so on.

BD:    You talk about the conductor and the soloists and the orchestra.  Does the audience have all of these problems and expectations also?

GW:    Not so much.  When I begin to conduct, I forget absolutely what’s behind me.  It’s true.  Surely, if anybody coughs loudly I hear it, but I forget it.  I am of that ilk.  I forget everything except the music.

BD:    Do you have any expectations of the audience? 

wand GW:    That they are quiet; that is all.  That they listen also with their heart, not only with their ears.  I can feel it when it is absolutely quiet.  It’s fantastic in the proms in London.  Seven or eight thousand people.  I made there the Fifth Bruckner, the Eighth Bruckner, the Fourth Bruckner and Brahms, and you hear nothing!  You think there’s nobody there!  It’s fantastic.  It’s really fantastic.  It’s absolutely quiet.  Young people, old people, sitting people, standing room only, but it’s absolutely quiet.  It is similar in the NHK Hall in Tokyo with four thousand people.  It’s absolutely quiet.  I feel that I have taken the audience only for the music.

BD:    Can there ever be too much concentration on the music?

GW:    Not at all.

BD:    Let me ask a balance question.  In the concert music that you conduct, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

GW:    It belongs from the music that I do, but I think a Mozart serenade, like the Posthorn Serenade or the Haffner Serenade is also great music.  It is written for entertainment, but it is eternal music.  It’s Mozart!  You like a little flower from the meadow and you like a great big tree, but they both are creations of God.  You can serve God very seriously, and perhaps also when you are happy.  A Mozart serenade is entertainment music and also eternal music because it is so right and divine.  In my earlier years, I began with twenty years as a professional conductor in the opera house.  I conducted many operettas of Strauss and Lehar and I always tried to do them with all my professional knowledge and also with my musician
’s heart.  I like to do music when I have fewer worries with dumb administration things.  It is always every time, administration.  When I take a score of Schubert or Bruckner, for theses two hours I am absolutely quiet.  It is like medicine.  When I then think what happened with these fantastic, great composers, what happened in their life, what they must do, how they must have suffered, then I am absolutely quiet.  You know the great biography of Beethoven by Thayer?  When I read that, then I become quiet in comparison, like Beethoven and what he must have suffered in his life.

BD:    Do you suffer with Beethoven?

GW:    No.  I think it’s not so important that I must suffer also.

BD:    What is it about the scores of Schubert or Bruckner or Beethoven, that make them so great?

GW:    I think they all — Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven
have written music that gives the feeling of the time when they were living.  The beginning of Beethoven was the French Revolution.  It is absolutely clear what happened there, but the real great music is never private.  Never!  It’s always a feeling of circumstances of the time, a feeling of the society.  Haydn and Mozart, and then came the French Revolution with égalité, liberté, fraternité.  In the First Symphony of Beethoven, you hear this idea in the music, but you do not hear the private feeling of Beethoven.  He gives an impression of the feeling of a time.  Bruckner gives the feeling of the cosmos.  After Beethoven it began with Schumann and then Brahms and then Mahler to give the private feeling of the composer in the compositionhis troubles, his love, his all.  It was a time when one human being seemed to be so important that his own feeling is most important.  Now we have self-awareness, the importance of my person!

BD:    This is a mistake?

GW:    Yes.  It’s a great mistake, I think, absolutely a great mistake I am sure.
  Bruckner goes back in thinking sometimes to Bach and the Middle Ages.  You never can feel a private feeling in Bruckner’s music.  Never.  When a conductor needs this music to give his feeling, this is criminal.  You can not play Bach with your own feeling; you have to serve.  This is what I try to do, and it’s the most difficult to feel once more what happened in the composer’s life when he wrote it.  That is the most difficult.  I will not need the music to express my private ideas.  I will feel why the composition goes so and not so.  I will feel the creative act, the composition’s act.  It is immense.  It’s like complete craziness.  When you try to do this, then you become modest, and then you agree only to serve the music.

BD:    Are you serving the music or are you serving the composer?

GW:    The music, the composer’s music.  I serve to the composer and his music.  The music has nothing to do with my entertainment.  I am not a play actor, not a pantomime, not a dancer.  I am only a conductor, a musician.

BD:    How much interpretation do you bring to all of this?

GW:    I just said it.  I try to feel the composer’s idea when he wrote it.  That is the most difficult interpretation that can be!  That’s the interpretation of the music, that I will feel why the composer wrote it so and not another way.  It’s a very long operation, a very long operation.

BD:    In any of these works, is there only one way to present them?

GW:    I will interpret the music.  I can do it.  I have a very warm and human feeling.  I can use the music for my own hoorah, but then I’d rather be dead.  Heilige Musik, holy music.  In the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos of Strauss, the Composer says the music is heilige Kunst.  Music is a holy art to change all matters of courage.

BD:    And you agree with this?

GW:    Yes, it’s fantastic! Ja.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ve talked about a number of composers.  Are there some composers still writing today who have this spark?

GW:    Yes.  There are some composers who are really my friends.  Bernd Alois Zimmermann was long my friend.  I did four or five premieres.  I conducted the first performance of his Symphony.  It’s shocking always, even now.  It is written more than thirty five years ago, but it’s still shocking.  I also think highly of Messiaen, Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  The Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus sixteen is fantastic music.  It’s written in the time of Emperor William II in 1910!  It was given for the first time in the Proms in London in 1912, before the First World War.

The 1912 and 1913 Prom seasons are singled out by historian David Cox as among the finest of this part of Henry Wood's career. Among those conducting their own works or hearing Wood conduct them were Strauss, Debussy, Reger, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Schoenberg. Rehearsing Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Wood urged his players, "Stick to it, gentlemen! This is nothing to what you'll have to play in 25 years' time". The critic Ernest Newman wrote, "It is not often that an English audience hisses the music it does not like, but a good third of the people at Queen's Hall last Tuesday permitted themselves that luxury after the performance of the five orchestral pieces of Schoenberg. Another third of the audience was only not hissing because it was laughing, and the remaining third seemed too puzzled either to laugh or to hiss; so that on the whole it does not look as if Schoenberg has so far made many friends in London." The composer was delighted with the performance and congratulated Wood and the orchestra warmly, "I must say it was the first time since Gustav Mahler that I heard such music played again as a musician of culture demands." Wood programmed the work again in 1914, when it was much more warmly received.

-- From an article about Henry Wood 

The third movement is called Chord-Colors.  You think it’s Ligeti because it’s all for the future.  It is so valuable!  It is genius!  I had a brief exchange of letters with Ligeti.  Listen to Atmosphères or Lontano of Ligeti
— you have the same music like from 1910.  There, Schoenberg is atonal, not dodecaphonic, not twelve-tone.  The atonal Schoenberg before becoming a dodecaphonist is the best!

BD:    Do you do any twelve-tone pieces at all?

wnad GW:    Ja, other Schoenberg works like the Klavierkonzert, the Piano Concerto is twelve-tone music, also Lichtspielszene, Music for a Movie Scene, as well as the Variations for Orchestra.  It’s absolutely twelve-tone music, and it is so like in a straightjacket.  I feel it so.  The young Schoenberg, the atonal Schoenberg, is absolutely free, a genius thinking very much to the future!  It’s fantastic!  I made a Nonesuch record of this
Schoenberg, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks and Webern First Cantata.  It’s very difficult to sing Webern.  I made much in modern music, I think more than any other conductor.  For the people and for the audience, I was a revolutionary conductor.  I did it all for the concerts in Köln in the subscription concerts.  Not in special concerts, in subscription concerts.

BD:    Did the public take to it, or no?

GW:    It was after the War, the first years after the War, and this great music couldn’t be played in Hitler time.  It was forbidden, you know, Entartete Musik (degenerate music) for twelve years.  After that, I came with all this very hard avant-garde music.  I was almost thirty years chief conductor of the concerts in Köln.  I gave them Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Matthäus-Passion, h-Moll Messe, Missa Solemnis and all, so that they take also the modern music from me.

BD:    Should there always be a balance between the masterworks and the modern works?

GW:    You have masterworks, surely.  Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of Bartók is absolutely a masterwork; also the Divertimento.  It’s fantastic music, and you have things like the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky.  What you have, you have, but I don’t think that very much will be kept from the last twenty years.  I’m not sure.  I cannot say.  I did so much for modern music.  I used the manuscript when I did the Turangalîla-Symphonie of Messiaen for the first time in concert in Köln.  Messaien was there in the audience.  He was a friend of mine.  Two or three hundred people walked out during our playing.  After five minutes they went out and slammed the doors.  So I stopped and said, “Just a moment, please.  Two weeks ago I was here for the Third Symphony of Bruckner led by Hermann Abendroth, and you were very appreciative.
  Please remember that when Bruckner himself conducted the first performance of this work in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, at the end of the concert there were only twenty people left in the hall.  All others had gone!  They were upset and cursing and laughing, but Bruckner himself was standing there quiet.  Please think on it,” I said to those people in the concert with Messaien.  “Please think on it, and perhaps now you will let us play this new work.  After we have played, if you think it is bad then you can say so, but let us play now, please.”  There was a roar from the crowd!  Messaien was sitting in the audience and asked, “What did you say?  What did you say?” because the people were so excited!

BD:    Do you have some advice for composers today who are writing symphonic works?

GW:    For the existence of the composer, it’s necessary that he earns money to live.  So perhaps it is right that the radio stations like the ones in Köln or Hamburg or Munich give commissions to write a symphony or a piano concerto.  They don’t need to depend on the audience.  In earlier times, the composers must have a success not for the radio station but for the audience in the theaters and the concert halls.  Think about Stravinsky and Sacre du Printemps.  People hit each other out of pure ecstasy and excitement, but it was the public and Stravinsky learned from all these things what to do.  To write music, one needs to think how music today must sound, but also you must have an audience.  The modern composers have got their money whether they have audience or not at the special concerts called “Musica Viva.”  It’s only a little circle who are interested.  I had in Köln the subscription concerts, and for each subscription concert there would always be a modern piece.  Whether the public liked it or not, there was a really modern piece of avant garde music.  I had that chance to do them.  After twelve years of the War we had not heard these fantastic works of Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, so I also was able to conduct masterworks of modern music.  It was a great opportunity after twelve years.  I remember when I did for the first time the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky.  The old head of our culture ministry of the city of Köln was a well known accountant and almost eighty years old.  He came in the intermission and said, “I like more Brahms.”  [Laughter]  I said, “But Dr. Fuchs, I hope you agree with me that is absolutely great music.  It is already noteworthy in the history of music.
  He said, “Your history, Mr. Wand, is not my history.”  [Much laughter]  I will never forget it.  It was fantastic because he said it with so much love and devotion.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’ve asked about advice to composers.  Do you have advice for young conductors?

GW:    There are great temptations
trialsbecause if anywhere there seems to be a gift or talent for a young man, the media comes immediately.

BD:    Records and films?

GW:    Yes, and they do not have the time for development, for the musician to develop himself.

BD:    It’s too fast?


GW:    Ja!  Absolutely.  Here in America you do not have these little theaters that we have in Germany
city theaters or village theaters that do Shakespeare and operettas and operas with an orchestra of maybe forty.  It is best for you to begin there, like I did.  It was 1932 and I was twenty years old.  It was the year before Hitler came.  I was asked to study with the singers, to do piano rehearsals with the singers to study, for example, Rocco in Fidelio.  I was twenty years old and had to work with people who were much older than I was.  They were learning these roles for the first time, and this is already a psychological experience for me.  I had to play on the stage when the director came and began the rehearsals.  We had no orchestra then, just a piano player and I had to do it.  In my first year I had to play a long time with the director of the theater who made the production.  So you must play piano.  You must not play like Horowitz or like Rubinstein, you must play like a conductor.  That’s quite another thingnot like a pianist but like a conductor who knows how it sounds in the orchestra and helps the singers with his sound.  I had so many students later who could wonderfully play a Mozart sonata or a Beethoven sonata, but they couldn’t play Tosca.

BD:    They couldn’t play an operatic score?

GW:    Couldn’t.  They tried to play it so exact
Tosca or Ballo in Maschera or the otherslike it should be a sonata.  Every time.  It’s hard.  You must give the impression to the singers of what comes from the orchestra to help them.  The last years when I did operas, it was in Frankfurt where Christoph von Dohnányi was the Director.

After the war, Dohnányi studied law in Munich, but in 1948 he transferred to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München to study composition, piano and conducting. At the opera in Munich, he was a stage extra, coached singers, and was a house pianist. He received the Richard Strauss Prize from the city of Munich, and then went to Florida State University to study with his grandfather.

His first position as assistant was at the Frankfurt Opera, appointed by Georg Solti, where he also served as a ballet and opera coach. He was general musical director of the Lübeck Opera from 1957–1963, then Germany's youngest GMD. He also served as chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Kassel and chief conductor of the Westdeutsche Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester. In 1968 he succeeded Solti as general music director and later 'director' at the Frankfurt opera and served in both capacities until 1977. He took the positions of intendant and chief conductor with the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1977, and relinquished those posts in 1984.

As director of the Frankfurt Opera and with his team including Gerard Mortier (Director of Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Salzburg Festival, Opéra de Paris), Peter Mario Katona (Director of Casting at ROH Covent Garden) and Klaus Schultz, Dramaturg in Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper) and Berlin (Philharmonic Orchestra), then General Manager of the Stadttheater Aachen, Nationaltheater Mannheim, and Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich, the balance in programming of traditional opera performance and innovative Musiktheater, promoting the idea of Regietheater, established Frankfurt opera as a leading house at that time. He continued this concept in Hamburg.

--  From an article about Christoph von Dohnányi 

I did Don Giovanni and Fidelio, and Orfeo of Gluck and others.  I had this repetiteur who played my rehearsals on the stage, and I often said, “Come and conduct,” and then I played.  In Köln, with Otello and Così fan Tutti, the singers were always very glad when I played because they had the feeling of what comes from the orchestra.  Playing the piano reduction of Tristan is quite another thing than playing a piano work.  So I learned it and did it well by twenty years old.  Then I must keep attention for the moon
— there’s a moon going up in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the lightning in Rigoletto.  We did not have the computers like it is today.  I was sitting next to a lighting engineer with my piano score waiting for the piccolo to cue the lightening.  I also cued when the moon is up and the moon is down, and all these things.  I also conducted the four herald trumpets in the first act of Lohengrin.  They were on the stage and they couldn’t see the conductor, but they must see the conductor because it is very difficult with the orchestra.  So I was behind the great oak tree.  There was a hole in the tree, in the wood, and I looked at the conductor and the trumpets looked at me.  Then in the second act I led the Tower Music.  You have to learn all of this and do it with love. 

BD:    You have to have all of this experience in order to bring the opera to life?

GW:    Yes.  A young conductor must know all of what happens in an opera house, and that is not so easy.  Another example is in the third act of Tosca.  After the shephard
’s song there are the morning bells of Rome.  We had not a computer then.  Today it’s very easy.  We had a telegraph.  The conductor could use his left hand for the telegraph, and he would send one, two, one, two.  We were backstage and could see it. 

BD:    So that solved the problems of coordination!

GW:    In my second year I had to do eight or ten compositions for plays
Die Räuber and Tell of Schiller, and Faust.

BD:    You conducted the incidental music?

GW:    I wrote the music for these.  I was young and had success with my compositions.  I think it is good to try to do it.  It was a very good success with songs to texts of Rilke.  Elisabeth Höngen sang it.  I wrote a very difficult thing, more difficult than Zerbinetta.  It is published by Schott.  The first performance was in Lausanne in Switzerland in 1949 or
50, and in Berlin and in Frankfurt and so on.  I am always asked why I didn’t write more, even operas.  I wanted to conduct the symphonic masterworks.  Before the end of the War, I was just an opera conductor.  After the War, I had the need to present the great symphonic repertoire, and so it was for me finished with my composition.  When you can conduct a Mozart symphony or a Schubert symphony, there is an enormous difference from what you feel you do as composer.  I thought I can conduct.

BD:    Fortunately, you conduct extraordinarily well.  One last question.  Is conducting fun?

GW:    Ja, it can be heavenly.  There are certain things that one doesn’t talk about.  The musicians, they feel it also; they don’t speak about it.  It is not usual, but it’s like meeting in another world.

BD:    Thank you for bringing your music to Chicago.

GW:    I am very happy that it was possible, but I was also anxious.  They were playing with so much love, it was fantastic.

Günter Wand

Volatile conductor who specialised in Bruckner

John Drummond, The Guardian, Friday 15 February 2002 20.46 EST    [Text Only]

The German conductor Günter Wand, who has died aged 90, was a latecomer to the music scene in Britain, but in the past two decades he established himself as one of the great interpreters of the 19th-century tradition, impressing most especially in his interpretations of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.

Though Wand made his British debut as long ago as 1951, it was only on his appointment as chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s that his visits became a regular feature of the London concert season, and were eagerly awaited and highly praised. Yet this late stage told only part of the story.

wand Born in Elberfeld, he initially studied piano and composition at the Musik Hochschule in Cologne, a city he was to be associated with for much of his career. Beginning as a repetiteur, his early conducting engagements were in Wuppertal and Detmold, until, in 1939, he became a staff conductor at the Cologne Opera, where he worked until it was bombed in 1944. He moved for a year to the Mozarteum in Salzburg, but when the Cologne Opera reopened in 1945, he was appointed music director. In 1946 he became conductor of the Gurzenich Orchestra, the concert-giving element of the Cologne Opera Orchestra, and continued in this role until 1974.

During this time he was much associated with the new music of Varèse, Messiaen, Zimmermann and Ligeti, something which no doubt will come as a surprise to his British fans, who only heard him in a much more traditional repertoire. In this he resembled Otto Klemperer, who had also turned away from the contemporary in his later years. But even after Wand moved to Hamburg in 1981 as conductor of the Nord Deutsche Rundfunk Orchestra, he maintained a much wider range of works in his programmes than he ever offered in Britain. In addition to recordings made with orchestras in Cologne and Hamburg, he recorded commercially with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

His association with the BBC was the result of the then controller of music, Robert Ponsonby, checking out the new appointment in Hamburg. The orchestra, under their principal conductor Klaus Tennstedt, had been invited by me to the Edinburgh festival. When Tennstedt suddenly resigned, the management of the orchestra asked for a few weeks' grace to sort the situation out. After they appointed Wand, I felt unable to maintain the invitation since he was so completely unknown here. Ponsonby took the trouble to go to Hamburg to hear him, and the eventual result was the invitation to the BBC and many outstanding concerts.

On succeeding Ponsonby, I, as it were, inherited Wand, whom I had still not met, though I had heard him and been much impressed. At our first meeting he insisted he would only perform Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Bruckner (though he did on one occasion conduct Stravinsky's Firebird Suite). I did not find this a problem, since his interpretations of the composers he wanted to concentrate on were both memorable and authoritative.

He insisted on a minimum of eight rehearsals for a standard programme, a luxury that only a broadcasting organisation could afford to offer. His rehearsals were meticulous and much appreciated by the orchestra, who respected him as part of a vanishing tradition. He demanded the highest standards of players and their total concentration, finding it hard to cope with any absences, especially of players he came to know and like, notably the co-leader Bela Dekany.

But with the passing of time, the problems became more worrying. He became extremely reluctant to commit to programmes in advance, and tended to want to change at the last moment. This usually meant the substitution of whatever he had agreed by one of his favourite Bruckner symphonies. In 1995, he refused at the very last moment to conduct a Prom programme of Mozart and Tchaikovsky and insisted on Bruckner's Eighth, the fourth time he had conducted it in five years.

His rehearsals became more irascible, and usually included at least one walk-out with threats never to return. His English was limited, and after the retirement of Bill Relton, the manager, and Dekany, there was no one in the management who spoke good German. This led to misunderstandings and, coupled with increasingly poor health, to frequent cancellations. On one occasion, he cancelled a Prom after the first day's rehearsal, the more galling since he had appeared earlier that week in Edinburgh with his German orchestra.

Though he spoke often of his veneration for Furtwängler, in many ways his behaviour reminded one of Klemperer, outspoken in his contempt for his colleagues, notably those such as Dohnányi or Pritchard who had followed him at the Cologne Opera. He was capable of great kindness and considerable charm, but also of appalling bursts of irrational rage, directed most often at his long-suffering wife. Like Klemperer, he chose to live in London in the Hyde Park Hotel and, since he always ate in the restaurant and liked very expensive wines, complained regularly that his hotel bill was more than his conducting fee.

Despite the challenge of his unpredictable temperament, few conductors of our time have come closer to a deep understanding of either Schubert or Bruckner. Putting up with the insults was almost always worth it in the end.

· Günter Wand, conductor, born January 7 1912; died February 14 2002.

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on January 23, 1989.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB later that year, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2013.

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.