“The radical changes in these late periods were to have lasting, irrevocable consequences for the future of composition, and this is what makes their absolute value different from other composers.”Daniel Barenboim
One might ask why Beethoven and Schönberg should be performed on the same program. Both produced great masterpieces; Beethoven's works have enriched the lives of millions of people for the last 200 years and Schönberg is well on his way to becoming one of the most accepted 20th century composers. Yet their significance goes beyond even the quality of the masterpieces they bequeathed us: both Beethoven and Schönberg are veritable structural pillars in the historical development of music.
Only a handful of composers in the history of classical music have had the capacity to summarize and even culminate the development of an entire era of composition, while at the same time pointing the way toward a radically different new paradigm or style, and Beethoven and Schönberg are undoubtedly among these few.
Beethoven's early period is characterized by the development of the existing idioms of Haydn and Mozart, just as Schönberg's first period is marked by his two greatest influences, the unlikely bedfellows Brahms and Wagner. In Schönberg's time, Brahms and Wagner had been considered antipodes with few followers in common, but Schönberg ingeniously married Brahms's structural complexity and Wagner's harmonic language in his early hyper-romantic works. The middle periods of both Beethoven and Schönberg reveal their own distinctive style, now independent of earlier influences. Beethoven's middle period takes him into greater clarity and dramatic expression; Schönberg's ambiguity gradually grows into the twelve-tone system.
Perhaps most fascinating are the late periods: Beethoven's movement toward ever further disconnection and disintegration, and Schönberg's "emancipation of the dissonance" in which he establishes the equality of all twelve tones. Beethoven in his late years arrived at extremes of expression; in the piano sonatas these are manifested quite literally by stretching the voices to opposite ends of the keyboard. One could say that he reached a philosophy of discomfort.
The radical changes in these late periods were to have lasting, irrevocable consequences for the future of composition, and this is what makes their absolute value different from other composers. A composer like Mendelssohn left us no shortage of masterpieces, but his contribution to music did not alter the course of events in any way. Beethoven and Schönberg, on the other hand, have left audible fingerprints on the scores of all their successors, and will most likely continue to do so for as long as music is being written.
This text first appeared in the concert programs of the Southbank Centre in January 2010.
James Jolly speaks with Daniel Barenboim about the ideas behind Peral Music and the record label’s forthcoming projects.
James Jolly: How did Peral Music come about?
Daniel Barenboim: I came up with the idea because I have had the good fortune to record for 60 years and always with major companies. I’ve seen all the developments that the industry has made: my first recordings were on 45s. then LP, then stereo, then CD - so I’ve seen a lot of changes. And I’ve also seen the changes to the place of music in society which is, in my view, much weaker than it was, say, 60 years ago. There’s now no music education in the schools whatsoever. Even in the cradle of music, in Austria and Germany, music education is practically non-existent and instead of crying about the fact that more young people don’t go to concerts, we have to ask ourselves the questions ‘Why should young people go to concerts? Why should young people buy records, if they get no initiation into it?’ Just imagine a child being born into a perfectly normal, relatively well-educated family. (It doesn’t matter where - in London, in Berlin, in New York, in New Zealand.) And there’s no music made in the house, no music listened to. The child has no contact with music. He goes to Kindergarten, again he has no contact with music. He goes through his whole schooling and he’s a very good student, very clever, and he’s now 18 or 19. He’s finishing his high school. He still has had no initiation into music. He has no contact with it. He goes to university, he becomes a lawyer or a doctor. He gets married, has a family of his own. And still he’s had no contact with music whatsoever. Then he has the ill luck to be taken to a concert by a friend who means well of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. What is he going to get out of that? Nothing! I was thinking about the fact that there is really nothing being done for the continuity of the existence of music in society.
Do you think we’re at a critical time for music?
Yes, I think for the first time in civilisation you can be a highly intelligent, highly cultured person and have no contact whatsoever with music. You can know a lot about literature, philosophy, painting, architecture and yet music plays no role. This is one of the philosophical reasons why there is such difficulty with the recorded music scene. I didn’t want to accept such a negative verdict and therefore I wanted to find a way to start something that might get through to the younger generation who are completely at home in the digital world, and might get interested in project like this that is exclusively digital [for download].
Where will the label’s focus be?
I want to do it across several categories. I want to do one which is a normal, conventional recording initially mainly of the central repertoire but maybe becoming a little bit more original as time goes on. I also want there to be an educational side to it. By that I mean that I would like to record, for instance, the little pieces that every child who studies the piano learns – pieces by Diabelli, Burgmüller, Clementi and so on – but never hear them properly played. They have difficulties with it, the teacher tells them ‘Don’t hurry here. Don’t drag there. This is too loud. This is too soft’ but they never actually hear the piece properly played. So I would like to have a kind of ‘educational department’, if you want, on this label. And if that works, maybe do it with other instruments as well. Maybe get some of my distinguished colleagues who play other instruments to do the same thing, so that the students who are real beginners can hear the pieces they are learning, and maybe having difficulties with, properly played. What I thought I’d do is record a piece and maybe give three or four sentences of advice about playing it, the pitfalls and challenges it presents: a sort of ‘Beware!’
If you are reaching this audience who have basically arrived at this music without any kind of musical education, do you feel the need to tell or show people how to listen to, say, a Bruckner symphony.
You can hear and not listen, and listen and not hear! The English language is particularly strong on this subject because it makes the distinction between listening and hearing; in German, there isn’t that distinction. And the message that I want to get across is that with music – as with everything else in life – you get in proportion to what you give. You give the concentration, you listen and if you hang on to the first note you will travel to fantastic regions in a Bruckner symphony. But you have to hang onto that first note like something that flies. If you just sit there, not listening, but merely hearing the music, maybe playing with your phone, or gaming, or cooking – tuning in and out – you will get nothing out of it, digital or not. What I would like to get across to the younger generation is that they have to have the curiosity to really concentrate and listen: to basically really hang on – to use that metaphor again – to the first note and stay with it. Digital is a wonderful means because you don’t have to do anything like putting a needle onto an LP, or putting a CD into the player. And the recorded quality is superior.
We’ve created the generation of the soundbite and to expect someone to sit still and invest 70 minutes to a Bruckner symphony is quite an ask…
Yes, but on the other hand I’ve also heard many people say that basically they have the desire to just sit still, relax and enjoy a quiet solitary moment. Some people know it, some don’t. People want a solitary moment – not to forget everything – but where they have a certain input themselves. And I believe that many young people have that too. You have to really awaken their curiosity. If I was 22, 23 years old and I was starting my professional life I wouldn’t do this because we don’t know how it will work. But I think now, with the experience that I have assembled, I want to try and look at the future … whatever future I have left! I want to really get myself into the mentality of the digital world. I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by young people who have such a dominion of everything that is digital. I like the purity of it. I like the fact that you don’t need all the clutter - there’s something incredibly direct about it. And I’m fascinated by the possibilities it offers – there are so many opportunities!
I’m interested to see that Bruckner symphonies feature large on the plans.
Bruckner plays a big role in the beginning of the label, for very practical reasons. I have recorded the Bruckner symphonies twice before in my life, both times with wonderful orchestras: once with the Chicago Symphony in the 1970s and then with the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1990s, two great Bruckner orchestras. Since I have been at the Staatsoper and doing quite a lot of Bruckner with the Staatskapelle I have noticed how much their preoccupation with Wagner has given the musicians, especially with the music of Bruckner and Mahler. I first noticed this when I conducted Die Walküre at the Vienna State Opera in the 90s where the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic when not in the opera-house. It struck me then that the knowledge and preoccupation with Wagner was a great asset – which orchestras that do not play the operatic repertoire, and don’t know it so intimately, do not have. It has to do with a certain freedom in the playing, a certain freedom in the phrasing and with a certain vocal – as opposed to purely instrumental – quality. And this is why I wanted to record the Bruckner symphonies with the Staatskapelle and why I think it will be very different from the other two versions. And of course no disrespect is meant either to the Berlin Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony orchestras.
Was Bruckner an important milestone on your way to Wagner?
Absolutely! I conducted my first Wagner opera only in 1980 and I would have never been able to do that without Bruckner. I didn’t grow up in an opera house as a répétiteur knowing all these pieces from playing them at the piano. So I had to come, not from the hands-on, but from the musical, angle and I also, as it were, got to Wagner through Liszt, Bruckner and, to a lesser extent, Berlioz - I did quite a bit of Berlioz when I was in Paris, and I’ve always played quite a lot of Liszt. And that’s how I felt I could get closer to Wagner.
Does making a studio, as opposed to live, recording require a different approach or mind-set?
I obviously took advantage, as time progressed, of using more subtle editing techniques here and there, but I’ve always felt that it had to be a document of a performance. Of course, if you can correct the odd wrong note or adjust a tiny accent here and there, why not? But I’ve never believed in patch-work performances; I never liked that and still think it’s basically false. In the 1960s, when I was recording the Beethoven sonatas, I used to go to the Abbey Road studios and I would play through either the whole sonata or at least a whole movement at a time, listen to it, listen to what the producer said, and do it again. And only then if necessary to make any corrections. But I don’t think there’s a recording of mine that’s just a collection of snippets put together.
So how did you decide on the name ‘Peral’ for the label?
All sorts of suggestions were made to me and one of them was ‘peral’ which is what my name really means. Barenboim is a Yiddish version of the German ‘birnbaum’ - in English ‘pear tree’, in Spanish ‘peral’. And that’s how we agreed on a name.
And the logo has been created by Frank Gehry…
Yes, I’m very good friends with him and he’s building the concert hall in the Academy in Berlin for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I was telling him about the label and I said ‘You wouldn’t like to do the logo for it?’ and he said ‘Of course’ and he sat down and designed it. I’m very happy with it - it’s a pear shape with a musical note inside.
On Silence and Sound
In the beginning, there was silence. And out of the silence came the sound. The sound is not here. The Fifth Symphony of Beethoven existed in his brain as he was imagining it and comes into being every time a group of musicians get together somewhere on this globe and literally bring the sound from space. They bring it into the world. The sound does not exist in this world. It comes and goes. It is ephemeral. It is here at one moment and then it goes.
There are many types of silence. There is a silence before the note, there is a silence at the end and there is a silence in the middle. This whole Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, the whole beginning of the prelude, is built on the use of silence as a means of expression.
On why it is important for musicians to listen to how they fit in, to listen to the changing musical landscape.
This is important for the same reason that it is important for a human being to know his place in society and to know his place in the world. You can’t feel well in yourself and with yourself if you don’t have an idea of what your place is in relation to society and in relation to the world and in relation to nature. In the same way, you can have a musician playing with total disregard to everything around him, just by himself, – even very well, but it has for me exactly the same attribute. Everything is always connected in music. The volume - is it too loud so that something more important cannot be heard? Is it too short, thereby diluting the importance of the harmonic progressions? Is it too long, therefore not making the harmonic change audible? Does it have too much intensity so that it doesn’t blend in the chord? Is this a passage where there is one main voice and the rest are accompaniment? There are hundreds of possibilities. Is this place in the musical composition a transition or is it the arrival of a new statement? In other words, are we in a situation of being or are we in a situation of becoming?
On the relationship of intensity and loudness in terms of energy
I think that intensity and volume are two elements that could be interrelated but are totally independent of each other. Volume is exactly what the word says, how loud it is. Intensity is an inner energy within or outside that volume. Very often, one needs a much greater intensity to play very softly than to play very loud. And unless one has mastered the art of playing fortissimo volume with low level of intensity and pianissimo dynamic with a high level of intensity, one has not really achieved control of this very important means of expression. It is like, when speaking, if I really want to threaten somebody with something very dreadful, I don’t shout it at him but I whisper it with great intensity. And if I whisper it with great intensity, I am speaking with much more intensity than if I am actually speaking louder.
On the importance of playing with courage.
Is it a psychological or a physical phenomenon?
The two things are inseparable. It is related to the principle of oneness of music and the principle of oneness in life. In some cases, it is a psychological inhibition; in other cases, it is physical. I think it is a combination of both.
There are many examples: The first one that comes to mind, as a piano player, is when there are big jumps in the piano. The easy way out is, instead of jumping from one extreme of the keyboard to the other, to divide between the two hands, and play the low note with one hand and the high note with the other. What happens then? It is practically impossible or it requires an extraordinary amount of concentration and something totally artificial to make up for the lack of effort because the effort of the distance between the notes is an integral part of the expression. This is one example, one very simple physical example.
A slightly more complex example is when there is a crescendo in the music and then there is a subito piano. It is much easier to make the crescendo to a certain point and then just before the subito piano to either make a break in the sound or stop the crescendo at the very end so the transition is, as it were, smoother. The element of courage is to carry something to the very end without really taking into account the consequences and then, when absolutely necessary, like walking to a precipice, only then really stopping it. These are two examples.
On Maestro Celibidache’s statement that "nothing is worth a damn unless the orchestra musicians feel it for themselves and can play it directly."
Any orchestra of able musicians and of willing musicians can actually play in a way that the conductor wants them to play, regardless of what they think or what they feel or what they know or what they want to avoid. Anybody can do that – as in daily life, one is able to deal with situations that are required by politeness, regardless of what one thinks and feels. Any human being with a relative amount of intelligence and good manners can do that. But this is not what music is about. It is very possible for a conductor to tell an orchestra exactly how to play. But it is the musicians in the orchestra who make the sound and therefore the conductor can influence the orchestra, can teach them, can change their way of playing drastically but at the moment of the performance, it has to come from the players. It is the players themselves who make the music. A conductor can cajole them, inspire them, animate them to make the crescendo grow more and more and to stop them from starting too soon. But this is not really the importance of making music. The importance of music making is that the crescendo starts out of nothing and it begins to boil and that needs the internal aspect, not the external aspect. Besides, if an orchestra plays only the way a conductor tells them to play, they are merely reacting. It is a reaction. It is not action. They are the ones who actually have the duty of the action and this is very important because it has to do with the whole attitude. It has to do with the attitude for orchestral players that it is not possible to think we play the notes as well as we can, in tune, perfectly correctly – and the conductor makes the music. Totally impossible – a contradiction in terms and, by the same token, a conductor says, "I am a great musician. I make great music." No conductor makes great music. A great conductor is able to bring an orchestra to the point that it makes great music because they are the ones who actually make the sound.
On the analogy of sound as a stick of butter
Sound is often talked about in a very subjective way, as if it had a colour. This is a bright sound, this is a dark sound. I don’t believe in that because I think that is much too subjective. But the weight of the sound is something very objective. If one could measure it, we could weigh it in so many kilos or so many pounds, like a piece of butter in the refrigerator. It is cold and it is very solid. But if you take it out on a hot day and you leave it out long enough, little by little it begins to dribble and it becomes liquid. For me, the perfect analogy is of a sound that is sustained absolutely against all attempts by silence to draw it away. It is sustained very solidly, like the butter in the refrigerator, and then with the diminuendo, as it becomes softer and it goes toward silence, it is exactly like the solid stick of butter becoming more and more liquid.
On young conductors aspiring to make a career in music:
What do they need to do to be successful?
Are today’s young conductors afraid to rehearse with real orchestras?
I think that very often young conductors don’t have the knowledge to rehearse because they learn scores through recordings and then they can’t even begin to understand the problems of the execution because, in the recording, these problems have been solved in some way or another by the orchestra who is playing it.
I think the most important knowledge that a young conductor needs to have is to understand exactly what the sound does, how the piece is constructed, what are the different means of expression, what can one do with the volume, with the intensity, with the speed and, most important of all, how does one interrelate all these things and not take the easy way out? Again, we come to the question of courage – to say this is the speed, now let’s see how we can play it. It only is right when the speed is the exact one for the content.
We have become completely slaves of tempo as if the tempo were an independent phenomenon that controlled everything. The tempo doesn’t control anything at all. The only element that tempo controls is how long a piece takes. Does it take 3 minutes or does it take 5 minutes? Basically, this has nothing to do with the content. It gives the possibility for the contents of the music to come to the fore and be audible or not. But this is about all.
It is as if you are going on a trip and you don’t have a suitcase. What do you do? Do you buy a suitcase and see what you can put in it or do you try to imagine what you want to take: how many pairs of shoes, how many books, how many this, how many that and then you find the right size suitcase. The tempo is the suitcase. If the suitcase is too small, everything is completely wrinkled. If the tempo is too fast, everything becomes so scrambled you can’t understand it. And if the suitcase is much too large for what you are taking, all the objects inside swim inside and cannot really stay in place as they are supposed to. If the tempo is too slow for the content, the whole energy of the music dies away and there is no continuation. This is what tempo is. It is very clear that the wrong tempo for the content can be catastrophic. Therefore, it is the last decision to be taken by a performer but in many ways the most important.