Commentary Magazine

Two Conductors

The context I find necessary for an evaluation of Pierre Boulez and Michael Tilson Thomas begins with the remarkably perceptive statement Bernard Shaw made at the age of twenty: that the “highest faculty of a conductor” was “the establishment of a magnetic influence under which an orchestra becomes as amenable to the baton as a pianoforte to the fingers.” I would apply the word “essential” rather than “highest” to the faculty cited by Shaw: it is the one required to give effect to the others. A good piano presents built-in tonal capacities to the fingers capable of realizing them in the beautiful or brilliant sounds the pianist puts together in his performance. But the sounds a conductor puts together are those provided by the playing—and thus by the capacities and efforts—of the hundred or so musicians of his orchestra; which means that facing the orchestra at the rehearsal or the concert with an idea in his mind of the sounds he wants, he must be able to get these hundred musicians to produce them. And the movements of his baton or hand that communicate to the players what he wants of them at every moment derive their effect on the players from the magnetic power Shaw cited. Certain famous conductors of the past—Mahler, Ni-kisch, Toscanini—exercised extraordinary power of this kind; and Toscanini's was described to me by the musicians who experienced it as uncanny.

Just as there are pianists with powers of virtuoso magnitude in the manipulation of their instrument, there are conductors who demonstrate such virtuoso powers in the obtaining of extraordinary playing from an orchestra. A historic example of this was described in the late George Szell's account of the impact which the New York Philharmonic's concerts with Toscanini in Europe in 1930 had on the Central European musicians and music-lovers who had for years been hearing the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras perform under Weingartner, Nikisch, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter, and Furtwängler:

This was orchestral performance of a kind new to all of us. The clarity of textures; the precision of ensemble; the Tightness of balances; the virtuosity of every section, every solo-player of the orchestra . . . set undreamed of standards literally overnight.

And just as there have been the occasions when Vladimir Horowitz has excited his listeners with sensational displays of piano fireworks that distorted the shape and falsified the expressive content of the music, and on the other hand the occasions when Vladimir Ashkenazy or Van Cliburn has used his mastery of the piano in the service of distinguished musical insight and taste—so there have been such occasions involving conductors and orchestras. The final concerts of the New York Philharmonic's 1930 tour were given in London, where the great English critic W. J. Turner had written a few months earlier about a performance by Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic:

These extraordinary pianissimos, these marvellously manipulated accelerandos, ritardandos and crescendos can absolutely get in the way of the music when they are all produced for the sake of effect, as a piece of showmanship. . . . On this occasion [Furtwangler and his orchestra] were quite obviously displaying their virtuosity to the disadvantage of the music.

But after a concert of the New York Philharmonic with Toscanini Turner wrote:

No conductor I have heard has succeeded in achieving such virtuosity and in keeping it always subservient to a purely musical intention.

Concerning this musical intention Turner added: “The basis of music is rhythm . . . and what a beautiful, clear, and vital rhythmic structure Toscanini made of Haydn's symphony!” And after the Beethoven series in which Toscanini conducted the BBC Symphony in 1939 Turner wrote that Toscanini's “grasp of the musical structure of the work he is conducting is unique,” and that “one of his greatest virtues is his subtle variation of tempo, but always in the service of shape, and the shape is derived from the rightful expression of the music. It is in discovering this rightful expression and hence the perfect shape that Toscanini is supreme among living conductors.”

To the foregoing paragraphs describing the powers involved in conducting, and the exceptional powers of a Toscanini, must be added one further statement of Turner: that with full recognition of the merits of conductors like Nikisch, Weingartner, Strauss, Walter, Furtwängler, and Klemperer, he considered Toscanini to be “a unique phenomenon.” I add it because of one feature of a Toscanini performance that was in fact unique: the joint operation of his powers appeared to be controlled by a mental governor which held them to the accurate achievement of the absolutely exact Tightness of statement one heard from the first phrase of the work until the last. This was something I had experienced only with him, and expected not to experience when he was gone; and so it was astounding, in January 1949, to hear a similar exact rightness, similarly achieved by powers as extraordinary as Toscanini's, in the performances of young Guido Cantelli, in whom Toscanini found a continuation of his own musical self: “I love this young conductor,” he exclaimed delightedly. “I think he is like me when I was young.” This continuation, however, ended suddenly in 1956, shortly after Toscanini's retirement, with Cantelli's death in a plane crash; and there followed the famine years—of Bernstein, Munch, Ormandy, Szell, Leinsdorf—in which nothing was heard, that even resembled the “unique phenomenon” that had been experienced for many years with Toscanini and briefly with Cantelli.1

But in the spring of 1966—impelled by what Stravinsky had written about Boulez's conducting—I attended a concert of his with the BBC Symphony; and though I had expected to be impressed by a conductor who had impressed Stravinsky, I was unprepared for what I actually heard: the special, unique operation on what I would call the genius level, as distinguished from what is achieved by excellent conductors, that I hadn't experienced since the performances of Toscanini and Cantelli. I heard, that is, the marvelous sounds of strings and winds in marvelously clear textures and perfectly shaped progressions, the extraordinary precision of ensemble execution, the absolutely exact Tightness of statement, that revealed Boulez's possession of an ear for orchestral balance, a sense for continuity and proportion in shape, a power of magnetic compulsion exercised over the orchestra, and a mental governor exercising control over him.

With this momentous and exciting fact of Boulez's singular powers as conductor and musician the concert revealed another fact of importance to the musical public: that he chose to devote these powers to the performance of a special limited repertory of the 20th-century music that interested him as a composer—a composer, as it happened, of some of the century's recent far-out music. The program of this concert ranged from Debussy's Images to excerpts from Alban Berg's Wozzeck, Webern's Six Pieces Op. 6, and Boulez's own Doubles; and though the programs of his guest engagements the next few years with the Cleveland Orchestra and his two guest engagements in 1969 and 1971 with the New York Philharmonic did include a few works of earlier centuries that I will speak of in a moment, they continued to offer chiefly music by Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Ives, Varèse, Messiaen, and Pousseur. Moreover, while this music included a few of what the general musical public regards as the century's great classics—the climactic masterpieces of Debussy's fully developed orchestral writing, La Mer, Rondes de Printemps, Ibéria; the young Stravinsky's astoundingly original Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps, his delightful Pulcinella—it included the much larger number of works by the other composers that I think most of this public finds as meaninglessly ugly as I do (except for Berg's Wozzeck, whose distorted vocal writing and discordant orchestral context do make the expressive sense of the nightmarish drama). And to the great examples of Debussy's late orchestral writing Boulez added Jeux, a boring succession of the mere mannerisms of that writing; to the young Stravinsky's masterpieces Boulez added, on the one hand, his ugly and uninteresting Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and on the other hand the old Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, one of the pieces that resulted from his belated involvement with Schönberg and Webern, which are as ugly and meaningless as those of Schönberg and Webern. As for the few works of earlier centuries, broadcasts enabled me to hear Boulez's superb performances of Mozart's Posthorn Serenade and Piano Concertos K. 453 and 467, Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, Schubert's Symphony No. 5, Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet and Symphonic Fantastique with the Cleveland Orchestra; his Philharmonic programs in 1969 included a group of Purcell's string fantasias and Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 89 and 91; the ones in 1971 offered excerpts from Gabrieli's Symphoniae Sacrae, Schubert's Symphony No. 6, excerpts from Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict, and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. And it was interesting to note in these choices the avoidance of the major symphonies of Mozart, the dramatic and grand symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, the symphonies of Brahms, the various orchestral works—symphonies, suites, ballets—of Tchaikovsky, the engaging earlier Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 of Mahler.

I have gone into these details of programs because a conductor's value to music-lovers is not only in how he conducts but in what he conducts—which is to say, what he makes it possible for them to hear. Art-lovers can see the great art of the past whenever they like at the Frick Collection or the Chicago Art Institute or the National Gallery in Washington; but music-lovers can hear only the great music of the past that is performed by the Boston Symphony or New York Philharmonic or some other orchestra. And in the years when subscribers heard programs that ranged from the classics of the 18th century to those of the 20th, with an occasional new work of a contemporary composer as a novelty, these orchestras performed what could be regarded as their proper museum function. The Frick Collection was not browbeaten into replacing its old masters with canvasfuls of Campbell soup cans and the other recent types of pseudo-art; but the New York Philharmonic did yield to the pressures of the music-of-our-own-time polemicists in its programs; and Boulez, one of the most vocal of these polemicists, was allowed programs for his guest engagements that reversed the old formula—programs predominantly of 20th-century music, most of it the music of the radical innovationists which the general musical public finds ugly and meaningless, with the occasional work of Haydn or Schubert as the novelty.

A Philharmonic subscriber could accept one such program of a remarkable conductor if the other programs of the series satisfied his one simple requirement—that they make it possible for him to hear the music, old and new, that he was interested in hearing, as the museum made it possible for him to see the paintings he was interested in seeing. But it turned out—when Boulez was made musical director of the Philharmonic in 1971 and had the task of planning the programs not just of his own concerts but of all the concerts of the next three seasons—that the subscriber's one simple idea was not among the numerous ideas about the Philharmonic's programs that Boulez disclosed at his first press conference in January 1971 and in an interview with the English critic Peter Heyworth a few months later. One major idea he revealed at the end of his Heyworth interview: he had, he said, accepted the Philharmonic post, and the similar post with the BBC Symphony, in order “to create models of concert life . . . in London and New York,” by which he meant “conditions in which the music of our own time is once again an integral part of concert life.” This was to be achieved not at the Philharmonic's subscription concerts, but in the two new series of concerts outside of the subscription series: “Prospective Encounters: 7-12,” four concerts in a small hall at which programs of contemporary chamber music performed by members of the Philharmonic under Boulez and other conductors would be preceded and followed by discussion involving performers, composers, and listeners; and “Informal Evenings,” two concerts in a small hall at which Boulez would conduct the Philharmonic in works (in 1971-72 works of Berg) that he would discuss and explain and answer questions about. These two series—like Boulez's Domaine Musical concerts in Paris in the 50's—were set up for the people interested in “the music of our own time,” in accordance with the belief which Boulez expressed to Heyworth—that just as people in London who wanted to see Titian could go to the National Gallery and people who wanted to see Klee could go to the Tate, audiences with different tastes in music should be given the possibilities of hearing the different programs they wanted to hear, and it was wrong for orchestras to put a contemporary piece in a program of classical pieces.

This was admirable good sense, which, however, Boulez didn't adhere to in his programs for the Philharmonic's subscription series: he did put pieces by Nono, Ligeti, Maderna, Eliott Carter, Schönberg, Berg, Bartók, Ives, Varèse, Ruggles, and Riegger into programs of older repertory works. And he damaged the programs further, from the subscribers' viewpoint, with other ideas of his that represented interests and attitudes different from theirs. The ordinary listener approaches a piece of music very much as E. M. Forster—at the Harvard Symposium on Music Criticism in 1947—said the critic, the professional listener, should:

[Criticism] has two aims. The first and the more important is esthetic. It considers the object [i.e., the work of art] in itself as an entity, and tells what it can about its life.

Boulez, on the other hand, is concerned with what Forster said was the second and subsidiary aim of criticism:

the relation of the object to the rest of the world [e.g., other works of art] . . . the influences which formed it (criticism adores influences), the influence it has exercised on subsequent works. . . .

For the Philharmonic subscriber, who listened to a piece of music in and for itself to perceive what he could of its life, a good program was one in which each of the works had such a perceivable life that made it worth listening to; but for Boulez, who “adored influences,” a good program was one in which the works—even uninteresting works—demonstrated such relations among them. A good museum, he said to Heyworth, exhibited not only Rembrandt masterpieces but “other paintings of the same period that form the background to his work and help you to understand more precisely why that particular work [of Rembrandt] is a real masterpiece”; and for the same reason one had to perform Telemann as well as Bach. But actually the greatness of a masterpiece of Bach like his D-minor Clavier Concerto is apprehended directly, and solely, from that concerto, not from anything outside of it—not even from the other clavier concertos of Bach, and certainly not from a boring work of Telemann. Boulez was mistaken, then, in thinking it was necessary for the Philharmonic audience to be bored by Telemann's work in order to be excited by Bach's D-minor Concerto; but he had the power to act on his mistaken idea; and so the Philharmonic subscribers had to listen to the Telemann work and be bored by it.

This lack of interest in the individual quality and effect of the particular work, and concern instead with relations between works, produced Boulez's opening statement in the Heyworth interview, about not wanting to give a series of concerts that were like so many menus of which one remembered particular works or performances, and wanting instead “to give each season a profile” which listeners would remember: “Ah yes, that was the year of so and so.” This was one reason for the “retrospectives” of certain composers' work that he planned for the Philharmonic seasons; and at his press conference he had, the Times reported, given another reason for them: “Museums . . . always have masterpieces on display, but they also arrange special exhibitions devoted to a big painter, an important period, special phases of art. . . .” The Philharmonic's 1971-72 season would, then, offer a retrospective of the music of Berg, which Boulez had chosen to emphasize as the “most obvious link between the late romantic style and the new language of today”; and another of the music of Liszt, “a great innovator” whose choral and symphonic works, in the words of the Philharmonic's press release, “had great impact and influence on the musical life of their time, but are virtually unknown and unperformed today.” And the season of 1972-73 would offer retrospectives of Haydn and Stravinsky—Haydn, Boulez explained to Heyworth, as the example of the famous composer “who wrote a lot of works that are very rarely performed”; Stravinsky, “not just as an act of homage, but to try to get a general view of his music and see what he really means in the music of his time.”

Translated into the realities of the actual music to be performed, these impressive words of Boulez meant that because of Liszt's influence on the musical life of his time the Philharmonic subscribers were going to have to listen to works of his that were unperformed and unknown today for the simple reason that in the hundred years since then music-lovers had found them empty and boring in their pretentiousness. (“[Liszt's] devotion to serious composition,” Bernard Shaw wrote after performances of St. Elizabeth and the Dante Symphony, “seems as hopeless a struggle against natural incapacity as Benjamin Hay-don's determination to be a great painter.”) And the Philharmonic subscribers were going to have to listen to a number of works by Berg—the Lulu Suite, the Violin Concerto, the Lyric Suite, among others—in a musical language they found ugly and disliked, in order to perceive that these works provided a link to the musical language of today which the subscribers disliked even more.

On the other hand, a Haydn series offering the subscribers the great works that were rarely heard—the masses of Haydn's last years, his incandescent last symphonies, Nos. 92-104—would have been something to rejoice over; but the actual series Boulez put together—though it included the Theresien-messe and Harmoniemesse and the Symphonies Nos. 95 and 96—offered in addition the less consequential Symphonies Nos. 26, 31, 49, 60, and 79, Sinfonie Concertante, and Cello Concerto in C in preference to some of the greatest of the final symphonies, Nos. 92, 93, 97, 98, 99, 101, 102, 103, and 104. And the subscribers would have had reason to rejoice over a Stravinsky series offering certain great works of his that were unfamiliar to them—above all the ballet score Le Baiser de la Fée, in my opinion his greatest work after Le Sacre, but also the scores for Apollo, Jeu de Cartes, and Orpheus. But not one of these or the other great works of Stravinsky was included in the profusion of pieces—most of them trivial or unattractive or ugly—which gave the subscribers a general view of his music that was, in its incompleteness, inaccurate and misleading.

Moreover, whereas a museum keeps most of its collection of masterpieces on view during a special show, Boulez's retrospectives, added to the contemporary works, crowded out all but a few of the masterpieces the Philharmonic subscribers attended the concerts to hear. In the season of 1971-72 they heard several major works of Mozart and three of Brahms, but only two major symphonies of Haydn in addition to a cello concerto; only Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in addition to the Leonore No. 1 Overture and Prometheus music; not one major symphony of Schubert, but only the early Nos. 4 and 5; not one major work of Berlioz, but only the Corsair Overture; only the Symphony No. 5 of Tchaikovsky; only La Mer of Debussy; and not one of the major works of Stravinsky, but only Song of the Nightingale and Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. And in the current season—in which the retrospectives are replaced by a number of works offered as demonstrating the continuity between the early romantic composers Schubert, Weber, and Berlioz and the late romantic Strauss, Mahler, and Schönberg, and by the three settings of passages of Goethe's Faust by Berlioz in La Damnation de Faust, Schumann in Scenes from Faust, and Mahler in his Eighth Symphony—the subscribers are to hear a larger number of major works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, and Debussy, but not one work of Haydn, not one of the great works of Stravinsky, only the Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto of Brahms, and only the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky.


As it happened, the first time I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the Boston Symphony, early in 1971, he performed the Webern Six Pieces Op. 6 and Debussy Images that Boulez had performed at his first New York concert; and I was astounded again by what had astounded me in the Boulez performances. I was in fact even more astounded this time, since it was someone so young whose extraordinary gifts produced those marvelous sounds and textures, those perfectly shaped progressions, that absolutely exact Tightness of statement. Those gifts in one so young led Leonard Bernstein to say to Thomas, “You're me at that age”; but Bernstein was mistaken: the unfailing Tightness of statement in Thomas's performances was evidence of the control of his gifts by the discipline that is the rarest gift of all, the one that is essential and crucial in the achievement of great art; and the young Bernstein's performances exhibited no such Tightness of statement, because he had, then as now, no such discipline controlling his gifts.

At that first concert of his that I heard, Thomas added to the works of Debussy and Webern Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for strings and Ingolf Dahl's Concerto for Alto Saxophone, in accordance with his idea that the way to make a program interesting was to present works for groups which differed in size and instrumental composition. One could point out that such interest was achievable with the works in which essentially the same orchestra was used in the different ways of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, and Stravinsky. And on the other hand the next program I heard Thomas perform with the Boston Symphony demonstrated how boring Bach could be with a small group of strings, winds, and drums in his Suite No. 4, how boring Schönberg could be with the entire symphony orchestra in his Five Pieces Op. 16, how boring Stravinsky could be with a differently constituted small instrumental and vocal group in Rénard, but how interesting Tchaikovsky was with his varied use of the entire orchestra in the different styles of the divertissements in Act 3 of Swan Lake.

This act of Swan Lake, which I doubt had ever been performed at a symphony concert before, illustrated the wider range of Thomas's musical interests that made his combinations of old and new more satisfying than Boulez's. Thomas's very first program with the Boston Symphony in October 1969 began with Haydn's Symphony No. 98, continued with Ives's Three Places in New England and Stravinsky's Variations, and ended with Debussy's La Mer. And similar programs for his subsequent guest appearances included a piece by the 12th-century composer Perotin, part of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, Bach's Cantatas Nos. 4, 51, and 140, Mozart's Symphonies K. 297 and 338 and Serenade K. 388, Haydn's Symphony No. 97, Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, Brahms's Symphony No. 2, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, Borodin's Symphony No. 2, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Mahler's Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Le Sacre du Printemps, and Pulcinella Suite, Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

Thomas made it known that he didn't want to be tied to the old format of symphony concerts but wanted to do special things; and also that he liked to hear music he had never heard before. And so after a couple of years he began to do special things in his Spectrum Concerts outside of the regular Boston Symphony series. His two-part “Stravinsky Retrospective” did, unlike Boulez's, include two major works—Le Sacre du Printemps at the end of the first concert, the Symphony of Psalms at the end of the second; but these were preceded by some of Stravinsky's most unattractive works—the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Violin Concerto, Scènes de Ballet, Requiem Canticles. Enough people wanted to hear his performances of Le Sacre and the Symphony of Psalms for these two concerts to be sold out; but a Boston friend informed me there wasn't much interest in the other concerts, which offered some of the oddities Thomas had discovered in his exploration of unfamiliar music. Certain of the programs my friend characterized as “awful,” referring specifically to “Variations of the Orchestra,” with pieces by Mouret (“Music from the court of France c. 1675”), Stamitz, Richter, and Filtz (“Music of Mannheim c. 1770”), Webern's Sommerwind (“Music from Vienna c. 1900”), and Berio and Cage (“Music of the world c. 1972”); and to “A Multiples Concert,” with a piece for four organs by Reich and Liszt's Hexameron for six pianos and orchestra.


“I haven't always been in music,” Thomas was quoted as saying. “I have other areas of interest”; to which he added, “I never want to be just a conductor,” and “I'd hate to be tied to the old format of conducting symphony concerts.” Boulez too began to conduct only quite recently, and with the interests of a composer of today, which may lead him to give up conducting for the direction of the projected research center in Paris in which there will be the collaboration of composers, performers, and scientists that he thinks necessary for the renewal of a dying art. All this reveals an important difference between these two supremely gifted conductors of today and those of twenty years ago. Cantelli, like Toscanini, had always been in music, had no other areas of interest, and had no intellectual sophistication to keep him from being content to be just a conductor and to perform the music it was considered the conductor's duty to perform within the established format of symphony concerts. And the result was that with the occasional uninteresting piece by Martucci on a Toscanini program, or the one by Ghedini on a Cantelli program, music-lovers heard great performances of music which for the most part they were interested in hearing; whereas today they can hear the Boulez performance of the one work they are interested in, or the Thomas performances of the two such works, only by sitting through the two or three unattractive works Boulez and Thomas are impelled to perform by their thinking about new models of concert life.


1 See my “In Memory of Guido Cantelli,” COMMENTARY, January 1968.

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