Interview with Daniel Barenboim

Rondo: Mr. Barenboim, can you imagine returning to your roots some day, perhaps spending all your time at the piano?


Daniel Barenboim:
In essence, I'm already doing that. I have reduced conducting to a minimum. You know, in addition to my home orchestras in Berlin and Chicago, I currently only conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. And I'm once again practicing the piano a great deal. Which, by the way, has become more difficult than in the past. The transition from conducting to playing piano doesn't happen as quickly anymore.

Rondo:
You have now been general music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden for twelve years. Have you achieved your personal goals, in particular with regard to the sound of the Staatskapelle?

Mr. Barenboim:
Yes. Oh, yes.

Rondo:
Is the recording of the four Schumann symphonies a milestone for you, or only a way-station?

Mr. Barenboim:
Everything in life is a way-station. When I think about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which I have been conducting almost every year since 1991, I'm seeing it; I'm hearing it. We actually started down the path with two great cycles as part of our main repertoire—the Wagner operas and the Beethoven symphonies. The Schumann idea came about as a result of a conversation in Vienna, as we presented the Beethoven cycle there; all of the piano concerti and the symphonies. The director of the music society asked me: "What do you want to do next time? Brahms?? My impression has always been to couple Brahms with, for example, Schoenberg or Schumann, and so we settled on Schumann. That is, a contemporary who did it differently. And, then, we presented the four Schumann and the four Brahms symphonies on four nights in Vienna, as a sort of double cycle, in the combination of one-one, two-two, three-three, four-four.

Rondo:
And what conclusion did you reach after this dissection?

Barenboim:
The difference between Schumann and Brahms, personally and orchestrally, is more interesting than what they have in common. Schumann is a very different world.

Rondo:
But what is fundamentally different about Schumann? What makes him unique? And why does the Fourth Symphony, although composed before the Second and Third, segregate itself so clearly from the rest of the framework?

Mr. Barenboim:
In the Fourth, we sense the spirit of Wagner more clearly than in the other symphonies.

Rondo:
But even in the Third, Tannhäuser already shines through, in the fourth movement.

Mr. Barenboim:
Yes, of course. And Schubert in the first movement. For me, the four symphonies are like an anthology of distinct types. I don't know if one can cloak it in words. Somehow it's clumsy, self-conscious, external to the main idea. Schumann's symphonies are like a human being who doesn't quite fit into society, who thinks differently, who dresses differently. I think what essentially separated Schumann from Brahms is this: He is, far more than Brahms, a composer at the extreme.

Rondo:
Schumann, as it were, throws a curve that always surprises us.

Mr. Barenboim:
Yes. It's strange, but the orchestration in Schumann's case has often suffered from the fact that the interpreters thought it had to sound like Brahms. But it's a completely different language. What occurs to me is that the more removed we are from a time in history-the more removed we are from a particular epoch-the more we see what the people had in common, and therefore the less that differentiated them. A further problem of the poor reputation of Schumann as a composer of symphonies is that we have not properly read the musical "diary" of this composer, in the case of Schumann that means the piano pieces. A conductor who only views Schumann's symphonies from the orchestral perspective will only understand the works to a limited extent. One needs to think of the symphonies from the point of view of piano pieces, as with Debussy. The associations are significant. Otto Klemperer, for example, believed very strongly in-and agitated himself over-the fact that conductors have no culture and only know what they themselves conduct. Distressingly, this doesn't mean that one can conduct Schumann's symphonies better if one knows his piano pieces well. Nevertheless, one then has a certain head start.

Rondo:
Let's deal with the programming of the works. Although Schumann later deleted the appellations to the First and Third symphonies, that is, "Spring" and "Rheinish," is there a certain poetic intent to be recognized? And does that really mean, in Schumann's case, the program? Can we read it?

Mr. Barenboim:
I don't know. I believe it's unimportant. The problem is that music is not just a collection of tones and sounds. Music aspires to far more, in the sense of what Adorno said about Beethoven's symphonies: that they are a conception of life. The problem appears to me to be that this humanistic idea in music that we now speak of basically can't be expressed in words. If we could do this, the music wouldn't be necessary. Whether you think of spring when you hear the B-major symphony, and I of the desert, is actually not important. The main thing is that this music affects us as humans—emotionally or rationally, in the best case both. How we describe, so to speak, the feelings is less important in the final analysis. It's too bad that today, in our politically correct society, we always expect a message. That is not the correct disposition. Everyone must learn to actively listen. One cannot sit in a chair with a glass of whiskey in hand and expect that the music will transport one into another world. The transport has to be ordered, even as it arrives, by us. And there may be conductors who achieve much by attempting to use imagery—I am not one of them. We awaken the associations, the human thoughts, considerably more if we work with musical means and in the process take subtle note of the thoughts. The impressions that one thereby has, do not play the main role. Take, for example, Ravel's Boléro. One person sees a single, wonderful, upward assault in it, another experiences the fantasia of repetitiveness and this opus has even been viewed as a piece of music alluding to coitus.

Rondo:
And the Spring Symphony?

Mr. Barenboim:
It contains a certain serenity and lightness. For me, the association is with the Humoresque, op. 20 for piano by Schumann. A similar world, a similar rhythm, similar structures are illustrated in it. And the piece is in the same key.

Rondo:
The rhythm in Schumann appears to play a similar, relevant role as with Beethoven. How do you see this?

Barenboim:
It isn't the rhythm that plays the decisive role, it's the proper emphasis that's decisive. That is, where the emphasis is not placed. Basically, I believe that too frequently we attempt to solve musical problems in only one direction. In the process, everyone practices the rhythm, the sound, the intonation, the phrasing, the articulation—at least in tonal music one exerts influence on the other. Why is so much spoken today of the selection of the tempo? I do not understand this. As if tempo were an independent phenomenon. The tempo is, however, determined by the content; we don't hear the tempo. We hear only the content. If the tempo is proper for a specific content, then it is correct.

Rondo: But then there would still be the problem of the sensed and the real time

Mr. Barenboim:
In this regard, I will tell you a story. As a young man, Sergiu Celibidache heard Furtwängler's interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth every night, and, every night, it was different, in particular as far as the tempo was concerned. Thereupon, Celibidache asked, "Herr Doktor Furtwängler, how do you determine the tempo?" Furtwängler responded: "Depending on how it sounds." It took years until I understood the deep, philosophical significance of this remark. I believe that musicians come to terms with tempo far too soon. One must, however, also establish the sound content to a much greater extent. The decision on tempo is last. Only at the moment when I comprehend the piece, the content, the sound-consequently everything that belongs to it—do I ask the question, "What tempo suits this?"

Rondo:
Schumann himself in later years corrected the metronome information for his symphony. Did he get a different feel for the timing?

Mr. Barenboim:
No. He heard the pieces. Why is so much metronome data by composers too rapid? Because the composer does not physically hear the piece. When they write it they only hear it in their heads. The weight of the sound isn't present. Imagine a poem that you learn by heart. You read it much slower than you remember it in your head. Another example: As I was to play number VII, the "Notation" of Pierre Boulez, for the first time, I found the tempo indication "quarter note = 60" in the score. To me, it appeared too rapid, I conducted the work at "eighth note = 90"—and Boulez was satisfied. When I asked him how that was possible. After all, he was not only a renowned composer but also an experienced conductor, he said, "When I compose I cook with water, when I conduct I cook with fire." Very French. But correct. I think that's the point. One speaks of the sound as if it were only color. But the weight of the sound is not subjective, but rather objective. And therefore, metronome data is frequently too rapid. For all that, what one must respect is the relationship of the tempos to one another.

Rondo:
Isn't this exactly what's more difficult with Schumann, due to the fitful nature of the course of the music?

Mr. Barenboim:
Absolutely.

Rondo:
In the Fourth Symphony, it appears to me that your interpretation is a bit too drawn-out, too emphatic. Is a conscious attempt concealed behind this—that is, with a view to Schumann, who once called the work a "symphonic fantasy"?

Mr. Barenboim:
Yes. The feel of the tempo in the first movement is completely different from that of the other symphonies, maybe that is the reason. But listen to the Fourth with Furtwängler. For Furtwängler, it is not important whether it is slower or more rapid, whether the tempo changes itself organically or not. What is important, and what places Furtwängler above the rest for me, is that the musical discourse is influenced, imprinted by the harmonic tension as with no other conductor. I will give you an example: If, in Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, immediately after the exposition, there is a sudden transition into a totally alien key, according to B Major, you almost need a visa to go there, this key is so alien. Furtwängler accomplished the transition like no other. And why? Because he was able to make the new harmonic realization clear. To come back to Schumann's Fourth, I believe the work moves at a very different speed harmonically. The harmonic tensions are different, despite the chromaticism in the other symphonies. And that is at least as important. In the Fourth, the vertical pressure is much greater. One cannot express this with any other sound. If one wants to experience the "Es" (E-flat) as a shock in the course of execution for ears that are used to living in D minor, it takes time. The tonality has to be established.

Rondo:
Does the selection of the key play a leading role in romanticism? Does it describe a certain state of being, as was the case with Beethoven? If Salopp were asked: Would the same tension be possible if the Fourth were in A minor?

Mr. Barenboim:
I don't know. Kubelik contends certain keys are the same as certain colors. In A minor, the piece must first be instrumentally different. You know, I grew up with a completely different relationship to keys. I studied harmonics and composition under Nadia Boulanger. I was twelve years old when I had my first hour with her. She was an older lady and appeared, to me at that time, like a museum piece. She introduced me to the Prelude and Fugue in Es (E-flat)-minor from volume one of the Well-Tempered Clavier and said, "Now, young man, you will play that in A minor."

Rondo:
Could you?

Mr. Barenboim:
The prelude was OK. But the five-voice fugue was hardly doable ad hoc. But Boulanger trained me that way: every week, a prelude and fugue. This forced me to realize the harmonic relationship independent of a specific key. I am, therefore, the wrong person to ask about transcribability.

Rondo:
Then perhaps this one. In 1841, as Schumann first spied the light of the world in Leipzig, fifty musicians—violins and even violas—played in the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Purists contend that the circumstances of this performance would have to be recreated in order to play an authentic Schumann. What do you think about that?

Mr. Barenboim:
Mozart was highly impressed when, in Mannheim, he had twenty first violins for a performance of his C Major Symphony, No. 34. What do the purists think of that?

Rondo: A recommendation for compromise: Would it be possible with 50 musicians?

Mr. Barenboim:
Naturally. It depends on the space. In the Palais Lobkovitz, where "Eroica" was first played, one can of course play with six first violins. The most important thing, be it easy or difficult, slow or fast, in the final analysis is: does the content come through? Is the relationship between vertical pressure and horizontal discourse correct? Just as in our lives. We speak about music as if it were an island that lay aside the world. This is wrong. If I want to have contact with anyone, the important thing for me is how he lives the moments, the most important, almost historical moments. The main issue is how one can experience these tensions and relaxations within the harmonic world, at what intensity and speed. And can I put the music to it such that, when I come to the last note, I can re-experience it in its entirety. This influences my musical thinking more than anything else.

Rondo:
Apropos influence: Is Furtwängler the role model for Schumann?

Mr. Barenboim:
He is a role model for everything. That does not mean that I imitate him. If I try to understand why he has done a certain thing, then I am on the right path. But I use my own means. In that regard, he is my role model for everything. You can learn a lot more from him than from all the other conductors.

Interviewer Juergen Otten spoke with Daniel Barenboim. January 2004.

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