Kl’Empereur

Nicholas Spice

  • Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times. Vol.I: 1885-1933 by Peter Heyworth
    Cambridge, 492 pp, £15.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 24293 2
  • Score and Podium: A Complete Guide to Conducting by Frederik Prausnitz
    Norton, 530 pp, £18.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 393 95154 5
  • The New Oxford Companion to Music edited by Denis Arnold
    Oxford, 2017 pp, £37.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 19 311316 3

Inevitably, as time passes, the art of Otto Klemperer is identified in the memories of those who heard him with caricatures of the qualities that happened to distinguish it at the end of his career. In London, where between 1955 and 1972 that career was played to its close, Klemperer is recalled as a grand, old-style, Continental man of music, who presided over ponderously literal readings of the German and Viennese classics. People speak of his performances as if they were the over-mighty monuments of a defunct religion, mausoleums in orchestral sound for the burial and commemoration of Europe’s greatest musical dead, unfriendly, lugubrious places from which one emerged into the fresh night air, spiritually chastened but physically chilled. Accordingly, weight, breadth, depth, architecture and austerity are now seen as the canonical attributes of the Klemperer interpretation. And slowness.

The slowness of the later Klemperer was indeed shocking. No one who experienced it has forgotten it. Perhaps few, however, have remembered the sixty years of intellectual development and personal struggle which lay behind those supercooled, Stygian tempi. By explaining the earlier development of Klemperer’s art, Peter Heyworth’s biography places the notorious aspects of its last phase in a proper perspective, and restores balance to a reputation which has become, in England at any rate, lopsided. It teaches us, for example, that Klemperer’s tempi were not always slow; moreover, that the slowness of the later tempi was not a symptom of senility or geriatric motor deficiency, but the last expression of one of the century’s most unorthodox and subversive musical temperaments. Like his radically unromantic readings of the 1920s (criticised for being too fast), Klemperer’s later interpretations cut across prevailing idioms, compelling audiences to wake up and listen. At a time of creeping cliché in the performance of the standard orchestral repertoire, slowness was one of the ways Klemperer rescued music from glibness and triviality.

Lotte Klemperer, Otto’s daughter, does not recall ever having seen her father look at himself in a mirror. It never crossed his mind, she supposes, to keep a diary. Self-regard was no evident part of his nature. In a conductor that must be remarkable. Combining limitless executive power with the opportunity ritualistically to display it in public, the modern practice of conducting is wonderfully adapted to the expression of vanity. No other institution offers the individual (male) such scope for the fulfilment of ego. But it was not always like that. When Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself fatally in the foot during a performance of his immense Te Deum, in 1687, he was not executing an elaborate pirouette but beating the ground with a cane to keep the time. As late as the 1820s conductors were making do with a roll of paper. The modern form of the thing, which takes itself so seriously, was developed by Berlioz and Wagner, ostensibly to manage the complexity of directing their own music, but with a keen eye, we may be sure, on its potential for self-aggrandisement.

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