Interview with Daniel Barenboim

By Juergen Otten 

  • 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?


  • Mr. 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.

其关联是很紧密的。比如,奥托·克伦佩勒(Otto Klemperer)非常相信——并且鼓舞自己相信——指挥家是没有文化的,他们只知道自己在指挥什么。可悲的是,这并不意味着一个对舒曼的钢琴作品比较了解的人,就能指挥他的交响曲。然而,这仅仅意味着他获得了某种优势。

  • 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.





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