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.

Otto Klemperer seems to have taken his size for granted. Tyranny came as naturally to him as to a child, and he exercised it with a child-like innocence. ‘Among other incivilities, he had, it was claimed, forbidden a member of the chorus to satisfy “an urgent need” ’ (Barmen – 1913); ‘throughout rehearsals he maintained “a hellish degree of tension” ’ (Leningrad – 1924); ‘his bullying methods excited an almost mutinous atmosphere’ (London – 1929). All over the world, in opera houses and orchestras, ladies fainted or collapsed in tears, while gentlemen took umbrage and threatened not to play. ‘On the platform,’ says Heyworth, ‘he was a ruthless authoritarian, who sometimes seemed bent on breaking an orchestra’s will as a preliminary to securing its co-operation.’ To the public he appeared ‘tyrannical’, ‘imperious’, ‘fanatical’. In New York he is described as hovering over his orchestra ‘like some fabulous, gigantic birdman, menacing and inescapable’. In Berlin his acolytes call out ‘Vive Kl’Empereur’ as he takes his bow. His interpretations are ‘colossal’, ‘pulverising’, ‘overwhelming’. Above all, they express ‘will’. But despite the theme of domination which Klemperer’s behaviour as a conductor relentlessly varied, it is clear that this had nothing whatever to do with interest in power or an obsession with self. On the contrary, he seems to have been a lovably unself-conscious individual who lacked all art of calculation. He was a man without margins, incapable of mediating the impact of his personality through diplomatic social manoeuvre, driven by a single aim, under which his own ego no less than the egos of others was forcibly subsumed: to get the music right. He was a poet, not a policeman. As for the profession of conducting, he thought it greatly overrated.

Although nobody else did, Klemperer preferred to think of himself as a composer, and it was as a composer more than a performer that he approached conducting, being concerned with the recomposition of a score rather than its rhetorical presentation, and always aware of the role of the conductor as entrepreneur of new works. During the period covered by this book, he was especially active in bringing before a reluctant public the music of Janáček, Hindemith and Stravinsky. His interpretations of the classics, meanwhile, sought clarity and authenticity in the place of an established romanticism. In all this his great predecessor was Gustav Mahler, to whose work as a conductor Klemperer’s was often compared. Mahler was also Klemperer’s fairy godfather. As a result of a recommendation he wrote for Klemperer in 1907, on the back of a visiting card, Klemperer got his first job as a conductor, at the German Theatre in Prague. From there OK, as he was sometimes known, moved in a more or less straight line to the top, hopping from rung to rung of the German operatic ladder until he reached a position – at the Kroll Theatre in Berlin – which satisfied his need for undisputed control.

From 1927 to 1931, as the artistic head of the Kroll Opera for its entire existence, Klemperer experienced the most intense creative period of his life. There, with Hans Curjel, Ewald Dülberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky as his chief collaborators, he led an experiment aimed at a people’s opera for a people’s society. Needless to say this failed, because the people had other ideas. But for the liberal cognoscenti Klemperer’s Kroll, by rejecting the repertory system and regularly presenting contemporary work, revitalised the operatic corpse. There were innovations in staging and design, and an attempt was made to forge a new unity between music and drama. The experiment did not run smoothly, because the administrative and political apparatus supporting it was shaky. When, under the pressure of encroaching Nazism, this apparatus collapsed, the Kroll experiment came to an abrupt end.

The story of the Kroll is intricate, and Heyworth unravels it with a scholar’s thoroughness and the imagination of a historian, managing to show how the fate of the Kroll was both the effect and the expression of irresistible historical forces. His analysis of the episode will justify the book to anyone interested in the history of opera or cultural life in the Weimar Republic. Heyworth is at his best throughout this book when he is chronicling the times of Otto Klemperer, less good, though not bad, on the life. In Klemperer he has found a subject that acts on the detail of 20th-century musical history like a magnet on iron filings, drawing innumerable small facts and forgotten figures into a dense and satisfying pattern. He has known how to exploit this, writing a sophisticated history. As a biography, however, the book has two limitations, one of which, since it arises from the fact that Klemperer was a performing artist, was unavoidable. The other is in its treatment of Klemperer’s psychopathology.

Educated as a German, brought up as a Jew, Klemperer could not have avoided, living when he did, the experience of mental division, whatever his temperamental inheritance. As it was, his nature was bifurcated at a far deeper level. He suffered from manic depression. The condition, which first appeared in an acute form when he was 23 and returned thereafter at intervals to blight his mind for the rest of his life, seems to have followed a familiar cyclical course, its only unusual feature being the length of the cycles, which could last for longer than a year. When depressed, Klemperer withdrew from the world, became intensely anxious, stopped sleeping, lost belief in himself. When manic, he was extrovert, hyperactive and delusively self-confident. Both depression and mania seriously disrupted his early career, notably in 1910-11, when he sank to such a low that he considered abandoning conducting for the book trade and took 18 months’ leave from his post in Hamburg; and in 1912, when, on a high, he enchanted Elisabeth Schumann, bore her off with him away from Hamburg and her husband, and consequently lost his job.

Heyworth tends to repeat himself on the subject of Klemperer’s highs and lows, and though he has clearly done his homework on the symptomatology of manic depression, he has not decided how to fit the condition into a coherent model of personality. At times he writes of it as an intrusive disease, from which Klemperer returned, as it were, to normal. At other times he is liable, in a circular fashion, to attribute any small excess in Klemperer’s behaviour to the manic-depressive cycle, as though this were the main determinant of how he was.

Klemperer would not have thanked us for thinking that any of this mattered. He regretted his mental problems and didn’t go around telling people about them. He preferred even his friends not to know. Now everyone knows.

Since, in the nature of things, the bulk of Klemperer’s achievement is irrecoverable, knowing what he was like can sometimes seem irrelevant, if not indeed irreverent. William Wordsworth is reputed to have slit the uncut pages of new and expensive books with a breakfast knife sticky with jam, Immanuel Kant to have controlled his socks with sock suspenders operated from his top pockets: facts which would interest us decidedly less if all we know of the one was that he wrote ‘sublime’ poetry or of the other that he had ‘deep’ thoughts. Heyworth’s researches tell us more of Klemperer’s art than this, but what we learn of it from this book, through no fault of its author’s, is still vague, adjectival, generalised. Music criticism has never been a very precise art, and when it tells us that Klemperer’s performances were ‘shattering’ or ‘magisterial’ or ‘lifeless’, it is telling us little that couldn’t equally well be said of the performances of others.

When their fame outlives the causes of it, great performers are quickly canonised and made the object of hagiographical veneration. Heyworth is no hagiographer, but where it concerns Otto Klemperer rather than Klemperer’s world his book is unavoidably restricted to the old-fashioned function of edification through example. The example of Otto Klemperer, it must be said, is one we need. As laser technology irons out the last acoustic crumple on the surface of those smooth, frictionless performances which have come to typify music-making in the 1980s, it is salutary to be reminded of a man for whom, despite a towering genius (or perhaps because of it), music was still difficult. Difficulty is the enemy of profit. Easy versatility in its performers and easy readability in their interpretations is what the music market wants. And what, with ease, it gets. So anyone who, like Klemperer, still thinks that adequate rehearsal time is a sine qua non of the job or who limits his repertoire to what he understands and insists on understanding it in his own way, is unlikely to get very far.

Frederik Prausnitz, conductor, pedagogue, pedant, knows this all too well, and at the end of his book, Score and Podium, sends his pupils out into the world with appropriate cautions, delivered in the true avuncular idiom of a Commencement Day address. The book is designed, I take it, to produce just the flexible young professionals the market is looking for, but whether anyone will conduct a note after reading it is open to reasonable doubt. Zeno’s paradox disproving the possibility of motion comes irresistibly to mind as one labours in vain to reintegrate the undivided actions of musical direction which Prausnitz has in this book so painstakingly unpacked (and often with such intelligence) into their constituent parts. I suppose the Director of Conducting Programs at the Peabody Conservatory could scarcely opt for anything less than this stultifying thoroughness. But, for all its flow charts and diagrams – its specious technography, as one might call it – Score and Podium fails in its well-meant objectives because the author has overlooked the fact that you can no more teach musicality through a system than you can teach language by the rules of transformational grammar.

If Prausnitz’s book is one sign of the times, then The New Oxford Companion to Music is another. It is the work of some ninety contributors and is twice as long as the old one, which was written by Percy Scholes with the help of, among others (we are told in the tenth edition), his mother-in-law, and was published in 1938. That was probably the last date at which one man (and his mother-in-law) could have completed such a task with complacency, and complacency was the chief condition that made it possible.

When Otto Klemperer visited London in 1929 and 1931, he didn’t go down especially well. With his usual singlemindedness he insisted on playing Bruckner, which the audiences thought was a bore and the critics condemned as ‘a typical example of German bad taste’ and ‘a mass of platitudes and clichés’. Such attitudes and the musical world they belonged to found their fullest and fairest representation in Scholes’s Companion, which discovered in Bruckner ‘a certain naivety’ and ‘lack of musical contrivance’, commented on Mahler’s symphonies that ‘they are taken very seriously in Germany and Holland ... but have never had much hearing elsewhere,’ and gave twice as much space to George Dyson and Ebenezer Prout as to Webern. Unapologetically partial, this was the last ‘full’ account of musical history to be given in the British Imperial perspective. It was written for Wasps, says Denis Arnold, from a Waspish point of view and aimed at ‘a middle-class audience, whose children were choirboys, learned the piano and the organ, and prepared for the theory examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’.

Bits of the original Companion, here and there retouched, are still to be found embedded in the new, and the form of the thing – part dictionary, part encyclopedia – is unchanged, but in 95 per cent of its substance this is a completely fresh book, which reflects the great broadening and deepening in musical interest and knowledge that has occurred in Britain since the war, notably in the directions of contemporary music, non-Western music and the history of Western music before Bach. A significant fraction of The New Oxford Companion to Music has been written by Denis Arnold himself, who has imparted to the enterprise as a whole the spirit and manner of his own concise, fresh, unfussy contributions.

The old Oxford Companion to Music had outlived its usefulness a good thirty years before it outlived its publisher’s affection for it (incredibly, it was still being reprinted, in a modestly revised edition, in 1972), so that the long overdue appearance of The New Oxford Companion to Music is unequivocally to be welcomed, especially in the form it has taken. For all practical purposes, it is a thoroughly good thing. Scholes’s book meanwhile has become valuable in a different way, as a richly informative primary source in the history of British cultural attitudes. In time, the new book will come to have this purpose too, and it is worth reflecting now on what people will discover in its attitudes thirty years hence. They will, I suspect, find a work aimed at a white, Anglo-Saxon (if not exclusively Protestant), middle-class audience (and affluent at that), whose children were choirboys or choirgirls (choirchildren perhaps), learned the piano and the organ and prepared for the theory exams of the Associated Board, and whose particular manner of reassuring itself lay, not in unmisgiving chauvinism or snobbery, but in the subtler complacency of believing itself to be international and classless.