Boulez on Berlioz, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Strauss as conductors
Boulez: Contemporary newspaper reviews describe the manner in which Berlioz and Wagner conducted—and from them we can imagine that Berlioz conducted in a more precise, better delineated, more nervous way than Wagner, whose tempi were certainly more flexible and varied and whose sonority was more homogeneous. This can also be found in their compositions. Take the Symphonie fantastique [...] or the later Roméo et Juliette—in both you will find a sort of rhythmic nervousness that requires a precision that was really exceptional for the period. The Queen Mab scherzo still remains one of the most difficult works to play with precision even today.
Interviewer: Because of its rhythmic difficulty?
Boulez: Because of the rapid and precise rhythms, the staccatos that must be even and regular in all registers, because of the isolated notes that appear right at the end of the bar, on the third quaver . . . all of which must fall into place with absolutely perfect precision. Berlioz was extremely demanding with respect to rhythmic drive. […]
Wagner’s idea of rhythm, one imagines, was more supple. His writings on conducting reveal some very interesting thoughts. When he conducted what we call the classics—Beethoven in particular, who was his favorite composer—Wagner clashed with the conventions of his time. The critic Hanslick, who was a staunch supporter of a certain classical tradition and a sworn enemy of Wagner, denounced in a most virulent way Wagner’s habit of varying the tempo, claiming that it undermined the internal coherence of a work: since musical ideas were linked to a general idea of a tempo, such a procedure made the work chaotic. Wagner’s writings, however, recommend that the tempo should be varied. He states that each musical idea must have its own rhythmic profile, its own impetus, its own tempo—and he gives several precise examples. [...]
Wagner, incidentally, never showed any hostility towards Berlioz in this matter, whereas he harbored a deep and virulent hostility towards Mendelssohn, not just because of his anti-Semitism [...] but because he considered that Mendelssohn lacked this flexibility of tempo, that everything was constrained within this straitjacket of an excessively rigid interpretation. [...]
There are enormous differences between Berlioz and Wagner, but both of them stem from the same roots: Beethoven, Gluck, and Mozart, almost in that order, except that Mozart was probably much more important for Wagner than he was for Berlioz. The more Wagner develops, the more he owes to others—for example, Beethoven in the late quartets. [...]
All [of Wagner’s] operas belong to the early days of Romanticism, Gothic Romanticism, whereas Berlioz is attracted by neoclassical antiquity. In Les troyens, Berlioz takes Gluck as his model, with all the stylistic consequences that implies. There is a divergence in point of view, therefore, which led to irreconcilable differences between [Berlioz and Wagner] as regards conducting. Whereas Wagner’s music, given the suppleness of his forms and transitions, becomes more and more characterized by fluidity, flexibility, and changing tempi, Berlioz’s works become more and more set in isolated categories, which implies a specific tempo for a piece, an aria, an ensemble […] Berlioz, unlike Wagner, did not invest the musical flow itself with this freedom. […]
There are composers who have a gift for instrumental color that does not depend on how they conduct. Liszt conducted a great deal when he was at Weimar, especially the works of Wagner, but his greatest gift was writing for the piano, which went hand in hand with his virtuosity as a pianist. His very first works for the piano are extremely inventive. It is not [...] the sober and austere Liszt of the final period who is interesting, but the young Liszt who completely changed the way composers wrote for the piano, even more radically than Chopin, who, in this respect, was relatively traditional. When Liszt writes for the orchestra, it is clear that his imagination does not really take off. [...] Compared to Berlioz and Wagner, he is not really a genius of color. With Mendelssohn, it is different: he knew how to use the classical orchestra with great success and facility. The Italian Symphony and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are extraordinarily well written and orchestrated—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after all, was written by an adolescent who had already composed a great deal. [...]
Mendelssohn was a genius of timbre, but he was less inventive, less erratic than Berlioz. [...] Schumann, by comparison, shows little invention, and even little skill, especially in the longer works [Boulez is referring to Schumann's gifts an orchestrator, not as a composer tout court!] His Scenes from Faust spring to mind, in which one sometimes wishes for greater color. Put simply, there are composers who possess this gift of instrumental invention and others who, more or less, lack it. Chopin was not interested in the orchestra; Brahms was much more astute in this respect than Schumann. Yet, if you compare the symphonies of Brahms to the operas of Wagner solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation, it is clear that Brahms followed Classical models very precisely and very well in a way that corresponds to his musical thoughts—but one is not bowled over by his instrumental imagination per se. [...]
When Berlioz wrote the Symphonie fantastique, he was still very young and had very little direct experience of the orchestra. And yet in my view it was with the young Berlioz that the modern orchestra, as one now perceives it, really began. Moreover, it must be remembered that Wagner, early in his career, was greatly impressed by the virtuosity of Berlioz and also deeply influenced by him. [...]
With Berlioz there are a number of obvious characteristics. Although he derives from Beethoven, he uses features that run counter to the rules of composition in general, such as the chords in close position in the low register of the double basses at the beginning of the March to the Scaffold. They are nothing but triads [...] but in this register, with those instruments, with this type of playing (pizzicato), it has more to do with the composite timbre than a simple triad. Similarly, his use of the kettledrums at the end of the pastoral movement is, harmonically, very blurred—literally unclassifiable—but it produces a sound that is very remarkable for its time. These are some of the elements of his vocabulary that are highly original. And the use of extreme registers in the Requiem—trombones deep in the bass, flutes in the treble, and nothing in between—produces something very strange that I find again in certain Debussy preludes, where the left hand plays deep in the bass and the right hand high in the treble plays parallel chords. [...]
Wagner was struck by the richness of [Berlioz’s] orchestral imagination. He recognizes as much in Roméo et Juliette. But Wagner’s orchestration developed along with his polyphony. The more he refined his use of the Leitmotiv—Götterdämmerung is truly exceptional in this respect—the more his orchestration evolved. […]
Boulez: Paul Sacher told me that when he commissioned Metamorphosen, Strauss asked him, “How many strings do you have?” “Twenty-three!” And he kept to these twenty-three strings. [. . . ]
Interviewer: I believe you have seen Strauss conduct on film.
Boulez: Yes, filmed on two different occasions. The first was between 1933 and 1934 in Vienna, when he was still in good health. The second was during a gala in Munich in celebration of his 85th birthday. On the first occasion, he looked to be in excellent health, and, although his gestures were limited, he was completely in control. On the second occasion, when he conducted a scene from Der Rosenkavalier, he no longer had the physical energy of the earlier years, but you still had the feeling that he was utterly in control. He indicated the entries with the smallest of gestures, but these were extraordinarily effective. Given the circumstances, of course, I imagine everyone was aware of the slightest wink, the slightest nuance. What you observe, however, is a professional who, despite his failing strength, was a complete master of his trade. No one who saw him conduct Mozart’s operas at Salzburg, especially between the wars, has ever forgotten it. He also gave advice to young conductors, fairly sarcastic advice, saying, for instance, that it was not the conductor who should sweat but the audience!
From Boulez on Conducting: Conversations with Cécile Gilly (Faber and
Faber, 2002), 37-45, 53.