Mahler Interview for Universal Edition

Interview conducted by Wolfgang Schaufler for Universal Edition Wien, 27.4.2009

WATCH THIS INTERVIEW ON VIDEO

Mr. Barenboim, do you remember when you heard for the first time the music of Gustav Mahler?

 

Barenboim: Not exactly. I remember playing the songs on the piano with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the early ‘70s. At that time we played the Wunderhorn-Songs, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückertlieder: all of them except the Kindertotenlieder, because they were not originally scored for piano. The first Mahler Symphony I conducted was the 5th, in 1973. But I came – in my biography, as it were – quite late to Mahler.

 

Do you remember a concert that opened your ears to the world of Mahler?

 

Barenboim: No, rather the opposite. I remember many concerts that made me dislike it even more, because I found, in the Mahler concerts I had heard, two extremes of realisation. One was exaggeratedly emotional, in the sense that the text was used as an excuse for self-expression on the part of the conductor, even if it was sometimes done at a very high level. Others withdrew from any kind of emotional content, making it rather dry.

I was ‘allergic’ to what I found at that time to be artificialities in the music.

I also disliked – I’m being very negative on purpose – the fact that Mahler was, and still is, the only composer who is discussed mostly in non-musical terms. Whenever somebody says, “I don’t like Mahler,” or “I love Mahler,” it usually has to do with a psychoanalytical take on his music: Sigmund Freud and all these things. And I think this is terrible. You would never think or talk about Beethoven like that, about his deafness or anything else or about Chopin’s tuberculosis. In other words, the biography of the composer, and the musical diary which he writes – and the oeuvres of all great composers are musical diaries – are not really related. Beethoven wrote some of the most positive music at a time of complete distress, and vice versa.

 

How did your opinion change?

 

Barenboim: Little by little – even when I thought I didn’t like it – I became interested in so many details about the orchestration, the use of the dynamics. Mahler was probably the first composer who consciously, and permanently, wrote individual dynamics for the instrument.

Most composers write a dynamic vertically in a score: piano, forte, crescendo. Now, the job of the conductor, of course, is to make this audible. If you have a whole orchestra making a crescendo from A to D,and already at A, the trombones, horns, trumpets, and timpani are making a crescendo, you will never hear the second flute, or the violas, or any other instruments. Therefore, part of the job of the conductor is to create a balance, and to make the crescendo audible, according to the importance of the instruments that are playing the music.

This is also another reason why this wonderful idea of ‘faithfulness to the text’ is absolutely not true. It doesn’t exist. If you play a symphony you don’t hear anything unless you understand the reason behind it. It’s not a question of changing; in other words, the choice for a conductor or a musician is not: “Do I faithfully reproduce what is printed, or do I change it?” This is not the right question; it is certainly not the right choice. The right question, in my view, is: “What does the composer mean by that?” It says crescendo, so how do I make this crescendo audible? I must make sure that the heavyweights - the brass, and timpani, the percussion - start their crescendo later, when the weaker instruments have already made the crescendo. When you see the second bar of the famous Prelude to Tristan and Isolde with the famous Tristan chord, if all the instruments make the diminuendo at the same time, you lose the line. Therefore the oboe, which is the instrument that continues, has to make a diminuendo later. Now if you talk about faithfulness to the text, this does not happen, because then you wouldn’t hear it. All these aspects fascinated me with Mahler.

 

Mahler very often wrote the same music, the same notes, in different groups of instruments, with opposite dynamics.

 

Barenboim: Absolutely. You have the same notes, but you have, for instance, the clarinets starting fortissimo and making a diminuendo, and at the same time in unison, the violas starting pianissimo and making a crescendo to fortissimo. So you have the line more or less sustained on one level of volume, but with a complete change of colour. This aspect, I realised then, was in fact indicative of his complexity, while I had thought before that this was artificiality.

And this is what drew me more and more to his music. I must say, my occupation with Wagner also drew me to Mahler, because the Wagner influence on Mahler is very often ignored. One only talks about Mahler’s Jewish origins and Klezmer music and psychoanalysis and all these things, but basically, without Wagner there would have been no Mahler. And the most interesting thing about Mahler is that he really had one foot in the past and one in the future, that he had one foot in Wagner’s world and the other foot in Schönberg’s, and as such was a great transitional figure. He wrote with a historical modernism, which is almost, I would say, unique, in the development of music, because it was tied to a very old-fashioned sense of form. The symphony with Mahler is a very old-fashioned form of the symphony, the same that started with Haydn and Mozart, then went through all the developments, through Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner. And you find yourself with this strange combination of almost an enlarged 18th century structure with a 20th century content and a 19th century musical idiom. So, in effect, the complexity of Mahler and its greatest appeal to me is that it is, in a way, the affirmation of three centuries of musical thinking.

 

There were three Mahler waves: one, at the première in Munich of his 8th Symphony, followed by some Mahler concerts in Vienna; then 1920, in Amsterdam, the Mahler-Festival. But the real Mahler renaissance started in the late 60s, more than 40 years later. Why so late?

 

Barenboim: With Bernstein in America and Barbirolli in Europe. One must not underestimate Barbirolli’s importance as a Mahler conductor. Barbirolli was less famous than Bernstein, and had less appeal to the general public, but Barbirolli was the conductor who brought Mahler to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at a time when Mahler was not only unknown but was never played. It was only after he created a furor with a recording of the 9th Symphony that Karajan himself became interested and conducted, I think, the 4th, the 5th, the 6th and the 9th Symphonies. He had always conducted Das Lied von der Erde. Also, it was more organised if you worked with Bernstein than with Barbirolli. But Furtwängler conducted quite a lot of Mahler, much more than one realises, in the early 30s and the 20s – the 3rd Symphony and other works.

 

But Mahler was one of those composers who inspired - and in a way still does – a sort of specialisation. Therefore, if you were not a Mahler expert, and you were an expert in other areas, you didn’t touch Mahler. But already in the ‘20s, as you mentioned, there were two directions; there was Bruno Walter on the one hand, and Klemperer on the other hand. And I remember I heard most of the Mahler Symphonies – most, not all, certainly not the 8th and not the 1st—with Klemperer in London, and it was a completely different world from Bruno Walter. And then of course came Bernstein with his unique exuberance and personal involvement, which was the antipode.

 

You mentioned Klemperer and Bruno Walter, and both knew Mahler. Did you talk with them about the experience?

 

Barenboim: I never met Bruno Walter, but I knew Klemperer – I played quite a lot with him, and also recorded all the Beethoven concertos with him in the 60s – and he repeated to me what he said on the television. They asked him: “You are a great Mahler conductor, you knew Mahler, and there was another conductor, Bruno Walter, who also knew Mahler. What is the difference between the two of you?” And he said, “Bruno Walter was a moralist, and I’m an immoralist.”

 

Bernstein said: “We are now ready to understand Mahler after the catastrophes of the 20th century”.

 

Barenboim: I don’t believe in talking about music in those terms. I really don’t believe that the world is more ready or less ready. With older composers, you see that there is a different Zeitgeist that led to performances of works, and some composers inspire, if you will, a certain way of dealing with their music very quickly, and others more slowly. Take Beethoven; there were different schools of thoughts about Beethoven in the piano world: with Schnabel, Backhaus, Edwin Fischer, and Kempff – I’m talking about the older generation – there were four different worlds. Different, if you like, ‘styles of interpretation,’ although I don’t like the word interpretation. On the other hand, even today the interest in Schubert, who died only one year after Beethoven, has not yet brought different schools of thought, not to speak of composers who came later, like Debussy. In the piano world there were Michelangeli, Gieseking. and Claudio Arrau, but it has not really been followed as such. I have a lot of admiration for Bernstein – I heard him and I played with him, and I heard so many wonderful concerts of his – but I don’t like speaking about music in those terms.

 

And in terms of the style of conducting Mahler, are you closer to Bernstein or to Klemperer?

 

Barenboim: I think you should answer that. If you come to the concerts yourself you will hear... I don’t know.

 

There were other figures that I remember hearing wonderful Mahler concerts with, who are not considered in the mainstream: I remember hearing Raphaël Kubelik once, conducting the most wonderful 1st Symphony with the Bayerischer Rundfunk Orchester in London, and suddenly you saw the connection between Mahler and Dvorak, not because Kubelik was Czech but because there was something so natural about it in that Symphony; Jascha Horenstein was also a wonderful Mahler conductor, and Paul Kletzki. These are all people who don’t mean so much today, but it wasn’t that Mahler was not played, he was just not played by the ‘big names’ as it were. All of this I’m talking about was in the 50s, before Bernstein and Barbirolli became interested in Mahler. But the development of how his music is seen is one thing, and another is the development of its popularity.

 

Richard Strauss said he doesn’t understand the obsession of Mahler with suffering and redemption. He simply didn’t know what he needed redemption from.

 

Barenboim: There is a very beautiful, very poetic, video document with Leonard Bernstein, called The Little Drummer Boy, where he talks all about Mahler’s Jewish background, and that Mahler had this feeling of guilt over having been Jewish. It’s very lovely and it’s very poetic, but it doesn’t help to understand the music one bit, in my view, not one bit. I remember the most wonderful performance of Mahler’s 9th with Giulini, but then people were saying: Oh yes, Giulini is a fervent Catholic, and you feel this redemption, and you feel this being as one with God, and all these things. In the end, I’m reminded of a reply by Toscanini, when he was asked about the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and they said: “Maestro, what do you think? Some people say that Beethoven wrote the ‘Eroica’ against Napoleon.” “Ah!” he said, “I know, they say it is against Napoleon, and then they say it is against Mussolini and against Hitler. For me, the ‘Eroica’ of Beethoven is allegro con brio.” In other words, it is very dangerous to try to verbalise music, because in the end we don’t speak about the music, but we speak about our reaction to it. And frankly, I am not interested in Leonard Bernstein’s reaction to the music, what he says, I am interested in how he conducted the music, and for this I don’t need these words. I know this sounds very radical, but it’s not an unimportant point. Because, if you think for a moment about all that you have heard and read about Mahler, it mostly uses non-musical terms.

 

So Mahler’s biography did not affect his music?

 

Barenboim: I don’t think you can find the reason for anything artistic in the biography. Some people are more articulate than others. Christoph Schlingensief, who is a fantastically talented stage director, creator, artist, who does so many different things, and who suffered terribly in the last couple of years from an absolutely devastating cancer of the lung, has written a whole book about this. He felt the need to do that, and I am sure that book, which I’m reading now, will help a lot of cancer patients, and people who suffer from other illnesses, to learn about the necessity to talk about it. But does it make me understand Schlingensief the artist better? No. It is a completely separate entity. And Mahler talked about his neuroses and things, and Beethoven didn’t. I’m sure he had his own; we all do.

 

Coming back to the music, what’s the most important thing a conductor has to avoid when conducting this music? Can it be conducted too emotionally?

 

Barenboim: I don’t believe that music is either emotional or rational. As I’ve said, all this terminology only speaks about our reaction to it. If there’s only emotion, you cannot really make music, because music is a combination of things; music is larger than all of this. And the difficulty in talking about music is that music definitely has a very strong content, but that content can only be expressed in sound. If you try to express it in words, you only reduce it. The greatness of music is precisely that it can laugh and cry at the same time, that it can be mathematical and sensual at the same time, that it can be all extremes and opposites put together. Music, in that sense, is a whole creation, it’s a creation of a world where everything is expressed through sound. And therefore whatever you say about it is not a description of the thing itself, but a description of your perception of it at that moment. Therefore you are not speaking about Mahler, and if I say to you, yes you can conduct Mahler 2 emotionally, it doesn’t say anything about the music. I think that in Mahler you need a combination of everything, like in all music, like you need in Mozart, though it’s a completely different style. Or, like you would need in the works of Pierre Boulez, although again it’s a completely different style. You need the structure; you need to fill the structure with emotional content and you have to give the emotional content a structure, because music happens in time. You play so many bars, and after so much time you go into another area, and in order to do that the time has passed, and you really need that. And when you talk about music in terms of emotional or rational, you take each section by itself, and you lose the fluidity of it. [Pauses] I am being very negative with all your questions.

 

Well, we are talking on Mahler and he was a very bad yes-sayer, - a quote from Adorno.

 

Barenboim: And you know, Richard Strauss, who God knows was a great composer, was the master of orchestration, the master of opera, the master of all these things – if you think about it, Richard Strauss’ most innovative works were written in his youth. The early tone poems: Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung, and also Elektra and Salome, are more interesting than Daphne, Frau ohne Schatten, Capriccio, the Oboe Concerto and the Four Last Songs. So, it’s not an example of how to deal with the passage of time. If you want to deal with the passage of time, you have to pick on composers who kept changing, and who kept developing, like Beethoven. Beethoven started as a completely classical composer, out of Haydn and Mozart, developed in his middle period into larger forms, virtuoso writing for the piano, very strong, expression-filled symphonies, and then went into his late periods where he tore everything apart. There is this convention of saying that when you get older you get milder. This is not true; Beethoven is exactly the opposite. Strauss got milder, Beethoven was a fury, and he didn’t feel the necessity anymore for these things, everything was extreme and cut into small pieces. Therefore, Strauss’ opinion about Mahler is, to me, not that important.

 

You’re conducting Mahler’s 9th Symphony. I quote: ‘It has no muscles, only nerves’ at the end, in the last movement. Can it be compared with Beethoven, Opus 111?

 

Barenboim: Well, of course you can compare it in the sense that both end with slow movements, both end very quietly, that both have peaceful conclusions, but I think that’s where the comparison ends. I remember Bernstein talking very eloquently, because he was extraordinarily eloquent, about the beginning of Mahler’s 9th, saying that this was his arrhythmic heart - the cellos and the 4th horns syncopated. Maybe, maybe. But in the end the expression is the evocation of a world where there is a pianissimo A that keeps being repeated with syncopations - in other words, with a feeling of instability in the rhythm between the low strings - the cellos and the 4th horn playing the same thing, totally out of context for two bars. And then you get the harp that comes in forte, and you hear for the first time another note, other than the A, the F sharp, and little by little, it takes a few bars, and then you know that you are in D major. And I’d rather think of music in these terms: that it is a search for tonality, that it is a search for rhythmic stability, and a search for a melody which is also constantly interrupted. I prefer this to talking about it in terms of nerves, muscles or flesh.

 

Bernstein said of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, it’s a composed farewell [sings motif to the word ‘farewell’]. Would you agree?

 

Barenboim: It’s F sharp, E. [Laughs]. I believe in the absoluteness of music. I think this is why we are still, in 2009, interested in music that was written in 1700. This is why this music is something that is part of our existence today, in the same way that music that is being written today, by Elliot Carter or Pierre Boulez or whoever it may be, is also part of our existence. There are some things in music that are so essential to the human being, and that apply to the qualities of the human being, that, throughout the centuries, are the things that interest, amuse and persecute the human being: the themes of existence. And it is very absolute in that. And the minute you start dissecting it, you only reduce the absoluteness of music.

 

Coming back to your biography, you conducted a lot of Mahler in America, in Chicago and with other orchestras, and in Europe. Is there a different approach, is there a different Mahler style in America, or would you say it’s quite similar?

 

Barenboim: I don’t think one can speak about America in one ‘garb’ like this, you know. The Mahler of Chicago, to name an orchestra that has been very closely connected with Mahler for so many years, through its music directors – before me, Solti conducted a lot of Mahler too, even Reiner did – and the Mahler of the Cleveland Orchestra is completely different. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra – like with so much of the repertoire – brings a perfection and a weight of sound, naturally, to his music, which is unique. But I don’t think one can talk about a clear transatlantic difference.

 

You started in ‘73 with the 5th. How did you proceed?

 

Barenboim: I conducted the 5th because I was a very stubborn child, and then a stubborn young man, and I went to a concert of Mahler’s 7th Symphony in London, which Klemperer conducted, and I hated the piece, and I told him: ‘I can’t stand it’. And it was on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Klemperer said to me, he said, “You are so terrible that you even preferred the 7th Mahler to going to the synagogue.” And then he gave me a whole lecture, saying: ”You are so limited; this is the Furtwängler influence.” Furtwängler didn’t like this because Mahler was Jewish, and all of these very exaggerated, unnecessary remarks. And he said to me, basically, “the only Mahler Symphony that is not good is the 5th.” So, of course, that is the symphony that I conducted. Aus Trotz [out of spite].

 

And which came later?

 

Barenboim: I didn’t conduct another Mahler Symphony for over 20 years. And it was Fischer-Dieskau who taught me a lot about Mahler, precisely about the nervousness, if you like, about the disquieting atmosphere that there is in his music. There is always something that is not at face value. There is always something behind it that creates a certain nervousness, also in the sound he looked for. And I remember doing an all-Mahler recital with him on piano – it must have been some time in the ‘70s – and I thought, my God, this is really quite extraordinary. And then I conducted a lot of songs, and I conducted Lied von der Erde after that. I cannot tell you an exact date, but it was only in the mid-90s that I conducted more Mahler symphonies: the 7th, the 9th, and then the 1st. And I conducted the Adagio of the Mahler 10th two months ago for the first time, so I’m anything but a Mahler specialist.

 

You’ve conducted the 9th Symphony. It’s the only Symphony Mahler never heard, and he never revised it. Do you think he would have revised some parts, or is the balance perfect?

 

Barenboim:  You know, the Mahler revisions are a very complex subject. If you take the 5th Symphony, and you take the first version and the revised version, there are some things which are obviously changed with a clear idea of what he wanted to change. But there are other changes which I feel were a result of the insufficiency of the technical qualities of the orchestras of the time. There are doublings in the 5th Symphony, between the violas and the 2nd violins, but he felt the violas would not be able to play some passages, and so he took them out. And other things like this. This is why, to this day, with the 5th symphony I conduct a mixture of the revised versions, which, I have to say, nobody who actually heard the Symphony, all the critics all over the world – and I have conducted the 5th  Symphony many, many, many times – ever noticed. So I think that this is very much a theoretical subject; it’s not something that is so obvious to the ear.

 

So, in the 9th Symphony, I don’t know whether he would have made some changes technically. Except for a few passages, it’s not of the difficulty of the 5th, the 6th and the 7th.

The difficulties are other than technical. The most wonderful thing, I think, about the Mahler Symphonies – and this is why Pierre Boulez and I decided to do this cycle in one go – is that it is as if Mahler looked for and found a different idiom for each Symphony. Very few composers did that; Beethoven did. If you don’t know too much about music and you hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and then you hear the ‘Pastoral’, you think it’s by a different composer, which you cannot say about Brahms, which you cannot say about Bruckner, and you cannot say about Schumann; but you can certainly say it about Mahler. Yes, there are the early Symphonies, 1–4; and then you have 5, 6, 7, 8; and then the end. But basically, in each Symphony, even between the 2nd and the 3rd and the 3rd and the 4th, it is like it is a different creator, a different composer. And this is the most fascinating thing. And when we did this cycle for the first time complete, in one go like this – two years ago – it was a fascinating experience: for us, for the two conductors, because we both heard each other’s concerts, so we lived the cycle in chronological order.

 

Is there any Mahler work you feel especially close to, that means more to you than others?

 

Barenboim: No. I conduct only the symphonies with which I feel, in the moment I’m conducting them, that they are my favourite pieces of music. But I say that not only about Mahler, I say that about every composer. I don’t conduct any music out of duty. I don’t conduct contemporary music out of duty; I conduct the Notations of Pierre Boulez, and I don’t know how many pieces of Elliott Carter I have conducted, and Harrison Birtwistle, because I like the music, and I like to delve further and further into it. I have been conducting Notations by Pierre Boulez since the world première in 1980 – next year it will be 30 years – and each time I find in them something new, in the same way that I find something new in the ‘Eroica’. And with the symphonies of Mahler that I’ve conducted I feel that very strongly each time.

 

To come back to the Jewish background, you said the Jewish background, and even that he faced anti-Semitism all his life, did not affect his music.

 

Barenboim: No, I didn’t say that. I said that Leonard Bernstein, in his very beautiful and very poetic essay, The Little Drummer Boy, talks about this, and he gives the explanation that Mahler’s sense of guilt came from having been Jewish. But I will tell you another Klemperer story, and that will tell you exactly what I mean. I met Klemperer in 1965 or 64, it was just a little bit before I met my then future wife, Jacqueline du Pré, and Jacqueline came from a perfectly, purely English background, from the English countryside. She had this unique musical talent, but in a childish way, she said: ”You know, there is something so beautiful and wonderful about Jewish tone in the string players, in Heifetz, and in so many other Jewish musicians.” They had this very vibrant sound, and because of that – it sounds like a great exaggeration but it isn’t – she said, if we get married I want to convert. And it was then that Klemperer also met her, and we told him that. “Oh”, he says, “then we must go to the synagogue together.” So, we went in London to the synagogue together: Jacqueline, who had not converted yet; Klemperer, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and back; and me, who was born a Jew. And after this service in the synagogue, I asked Klemperer: “Why did you convert? Was it because of the fear of anti-Semitism?” And he said: “No, when I was 23 years old I wanted to conduct the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, and in my stupidity I thought that in order to conduct and understand the St. Matthew Passion, one had to be Christian. So I converted to Christianity.” And I said: “Why did you convert back?” (He was already quite old when he converted back to Judaism.) He said: “Because I realised that it was not necessary.”

 

Now I don’t know so much about Mahler’s feeling about that, his guilt or lack of guilt or all these things. I am sure that the anti-Semitism under which he suffered so desperately was very strong and very real, no question about that. Did he feel the necessity, because of that, to write some parts that are Jewish-sounding, or not? Maybe. Probably, yes.

 

But this is not the content of his music.

 

Barenboim:  No. Aida by Verdi was, as you know, commissioned by the Egyptians for the Cairo Opera House. There was no Western music to speak of in Africa, in Egypt. Verdi was extraordinarily interested and persevered in finding out everything possible about that. And there was a book published, I think in 1869, maybe 67, by a Belgian musicologist [Francois-Joseph Fétis] about world music. This man wrote four volumes, one of which has a whole chapter about Arab music, about the Arab scales and everything; this is what you hear in some of this Aida. Now, yes, you can explain it in a thousand ways; this was the European cultural imperialist who was bringing music to Africa. Maybe. Who knows? The fact is that he was interested, and he went in a very scientific way into the details of all that.

 

I’m not suggesting that Mahler’s Judaism had anything to do with that. I’m just saying that sometimes certain things that have to do with the music, and with the music of foreign environments, foreign aesthetics, are interesting. Messiaen and Debussy were interested in the music of the Far East, and made some kind of interesting compilation of that with a European system. Carmen – one of the most famous operas ever written – the most famous piece in it is the Habanera. The habanera comes from Havana. In other words, it is the music of the Caribbean, as seen by a European in Paris. And the music of the Caribbean comes from Africa. So if you want, if you want to look at it like this, then of course it is true that the Habanera from Carmen is a triangle that went from Africa to the Caribbean and then was brought back and mixed together with Western music, in other words with Caribbean and African spices in the food. But these are all things which are of great interest in terms of curiosity, but don’t actually hold great interest in terms of the way we understand and perceive the music.

 

Did Mahler discover new dimensions in terms of orchestral power?

 

Barenboim: No. But in the harmonic world, in the use of compositional techniques and dynamics, in the orchestration, in the complexity of it all, here he discovered new worlds. But in what you would call the emotional content of the music: no. I think the emotional content of the music, the relation of the music to the human being, with the condition of being human, is already in Bach. And it went through so many transformations, and complexities, and new techniques, and new instruments of course. But I think that the problems that face the human being today, in the most intimate and personal way, are the same problems that faced the human being as many centuries ago as you want. Now it is quicker, the tempo of life is different; now we can fly in aeroplanes and then we went with horses, and we can cook with a microwave and all these things; there has been technological development, the development of understanding in so many realms, the acceptance of social development. I went as a 15-year-old boy in Miami in 1957 to a golf club where a sign read: “No Jews, No Negros, and No Dogs Allowed”. And now, 52 years later we have a black President in America. This is progress, because the human being learned about his mistakes in the past. But the human condition, existential human problems, I think have not changed.

 

And Mahler is the voice of the 20th century to express this?

 

Barenboim: Mahler has one foot in the 19th century, and one towards the end of the 20th century, no question. And you can imagine everything, you can imagine that this huge fortissimo in the 9th Symphony of Beethoven in the last movement, “Und der Cherub steht vor Gott, vor Gott, vor Gott, vor Gott”, and there is a fantastic, terrible modulation, that you feel the whole world comes to an end. And somebody will tell you, this is already a premonition of Auschwitz. Sure, you can imagine all those things, and these images very often are very helpful to many people in the way that they perceive the music, but the music is always larger than that.

 

But Mahler himself wrote programmes in the first symphonies.

 

Barenboim: Yes, Beethoven did too. And I’m still more interested in the music that he wrote than in the programmes. I don’t want to conduct a Mahler Symphony so that it justifies the programme! I want to conduct a Mahler Symphony according to what I am able to read in the score. And if you have read the programme and it fits, all the better.

 

You mentioned Auschwitz.  I read, in preparation for these interviews, that Hitler attended a performance of Lohengrin in the state opera, and Mahler conducted.

 

Barenboim: I didn’t know.

 

Is there a meaning behind it?

 

Nothing probably. No.

But how can you explain it? Hitler went to a performance of Lohengrin, he went to many performances of Lohengrin, and he is meant to have gone to a performance of Lohengrin in Bayreuth in 1936 conducted by Furtwängler, which I am sure was so wonderful, and he was moved to tears by it. How do you put together the fact that you can be moved to tears by music, and then murder millions of people? Or Stalin, whose favourite piece of music was the D minor Concerto of Mozart, probably was also moved to tears by it, and 20 million people were murdered by him. How is this possible? You cannot connect these things. That’s why I keep repeating the same phrase, ‘the music is larger than all of this.’ The music is like a complete world, a world you can talk about: you can talk about nature, you can talk about the lakes, and you can talk about the mountains, and you can talk about the cities, and you can talk about the desert. But the whole world always includes a lot more. And when you talk about Mahler’s neuroses and Mahler’s fear of anti-Semitism and all this, it’s as if you were talking about the world, about only one element in it. And these are all things that were inside him, and like all great musicians, what he gave us is not only an exercise in counterpoint, melody and rhythm, but what he felt as the innermost content of his being.

 

Mahler said: a mystery remains.

 

Barenboim: That’s right.

 

 

Sign Up for our email newsletter

Your email