Testo tratto dall'autobiografia

The Odyssey of an American Composer

Charles Scribner's Sons
New York, 1980

pp. 258 - 262 

The most famous guest conductors were Richard Strauss and Arthur Nikisch. Strauss was internationally known as a composer, conductor, and accompanist, and his imprint on music history is very much apparent today and will probably last. The mere knowledge that Strauss would conduct in the Tonhalle immediately improved the orchestra, for the players practiced and took home the parts of the Strauss works. This gave a lift to all our intervening performances.
Strauss was tall and slender and seemed more like a bank president than a composer. But his dreamy eyes and modern hairdo gave him away. He was admired for being an astute businessman and we had heard that he had been paid an advance of 100,000 marks for his Alpine Symphony. He used a fairly long baton, and got an expressive movement from it with a flick of the wrist. The tip of the stick had a click to it, so that the rhythm was quite precise. He often used very small motions and sometimes hardly conducted at all. He called himself «an expressive musician».
As a composer he put expressivity into the music; as a conductor he called the orchestra's attention to it - but never, under any conditions, would he go into physical gyrations or dance steps to make his point. He used his left hand sparingly, and once remarked that a conductor's left hand should be kept in his pocket. Occasionally at climaxes he would rise to his full height and look around at the players in a commanding fashion in order to get a big effect.
He used a score and had a very fine conducting trick. He would glance at the score, which he probably knew from memory, and then look up and nod to a particular player or section of the orchestra when he wanted some special effect. His dreamy blue eyes, unlike Nikisch's, were not hypnotic but magnetic, and very expressive. His comments to the orchestra were rather frequent. They were generally about basic musical matters and were given in a matter-of-fact way that put the burden for an actual musical performance on his players. He did not always like music to be «beautiful». Sometimes he would call for a blunt performance of a section in order to make the overall musical experience more vivid. Sometimes he would call for greater vulgarity in playing. Once he said, «Gentlemen, this passage was perfect and very smooth... much too perfect and too smooth. There has to be a certain vi-tality and boniness in music to make it really expressive».
His ear was so sensitive that he could detect any kind of imbalance immediately and would correct it without stopping the orchestra. Because he expected the players to respond as mature musicians, he could generally achieve a balanced sound in twenty minutes of rehearsal time. When he conducted us it was astonishing to feel the orchestra change into the equivalent of the Berlin Philharmonic. He was patient up to a point, then it was a kind of «three strikes and you're out» technique. He would stop and say, «At letter B, the horns were dragging. Again, please». He would stop a second time. «The horns are still dragging.» If, on a third try, they did not correct the error, he would go on without stopping, hoping that things would correct themselves. Sometimes he gave up, turning to the concertmaster as he proceeded, with an expression that said, «What kind of oxen do you have in the horn section?»
He liked fast tempi, and I don't believe it was - as his detractors alleged - because he had to make a train or get to a restaurant or a card game, but rather because of his musical conceptions. These were that the right speed was necessary to make the ties and relationships between the various musical phrases musically expressive. This was a matter of individual taste and experience and could not be precisely defined. Allegro to him meant lively, but not necessarily a fixed and mechanical beat.
He had a great pictorial sense about music, developed both from his opera composing and his symphonic poems. He claimed that a sensitive listener could deterrnine by the sound of the music alone whether in his symphonic poem «Don Juan» the libertine's ladies he described were blond, redhaired, or bru-nette; also that one could describe a knife and fork in music. All of the larger pictures and musical descriptions that were in his scores and that he detected when conducting other works were carefully paced and held together.
Strauss had a rather earthy Bavarian way when he wanted results and he spoke an expressive Bavarian dialect. The «Symphonia Domestica» was a symphonic poem about the home life of Herr and Frau Strauss and their son, Franz. The directions in the first forty score pages indicate what went on; they read: Dreamy, Fiery, Fresh, Graciously, With Feeling, Angrily, Very Tender, Tired, Tearful, Stubbornly, A Slumber Song, Singing, and Swinging. In the rehearsal, he had an extended private conversation with the concertmaster, who had a long and difficult solo that illustrated the character and temperament of Frau Strauss. We couldn't hear what Strauss said, but on a second try the concertmaster's solo was much more capricious, cajoling, seductive, angry, and tranquil in turn. Schreep, the oboist, played an oboe d'amore solo with a prosaic tone. Strauss tried to indicate the proper degree of expressivity by asking for more piano, but this didn't work. He then told the player about his son, Franz Strauss, and what a darling baby he had been. He was unusually sentimental in his descriptions, and the verbal picture he painted of the little pink baby in his crib was vivid enough to make everybody play softly, so as not to wake the little dear. On the next try, Strauss got exactly what he wanted. In the fugue theme at the end of the work the strings sounded rather limp; this Strauss corrected by calling for a downbow on every beat, something he mentions in his Berlioz book on orchestration. He liked the horns to range from a mellow, warm tone to a brilliant, brassy sound. For the latter he would ask them to put their bells up into the air and blow hard!
We also performed his «Alpine Symphony», a musical description of life in the Bavarian Alps. The subheadings convey the general idea. They read: Night, Sunrise, The Ascent, Entrance into the Forest, Wandering Beside the Brook, At the Waterfall, Apparition, On Flowery Meadows, On the Alm, Lost in the Thicket and Brush, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moments, On the Summit, Vision, Mists Rise, The Sun Is Gradually Hidden, Elegy Calm Before the Storm, Thunderstorm, The Descent, Sunset, Night. This seemed naive to the critics, who didn't like the work. Only conductors and audiences liked it, and under Strauss's direction it was really effective.
The symphony has a part for wind machine, and Max Hen-gartner and I were assigned to take care of it. It was an ol-dfashioned contraption, consisting of a wooden frame with a wooden wheel on the principle of a mill wheel, over which was stretched a piece of heavy canvas weighted down at both ends. When turned it gave out a whishing sound that was much like the white noise we now produce electronically. The loudness and softness of the wind sound varied with the speed of the turning.
Hengartner was six feet three inches tall, and heavy, so he did the manual work of turning the wheel and keeping the stand in shape. Being the young genius of the conducting and composition class, I was assigned to the artistic work. The ma-chine was offstage, and my job was to relay Strauss's beat to Hengartner. I had a stand and a score and the wind machine part was underlined in blue. I watched Strauss through a crack in the door picked up his beat from there, and passed it on to Hengartner.
As an experienced orchestra player, it was no problem for me to bring Hengartner in right on the dot. We came out even with the rest of the orchestra, but Strauss stopped, nevertheless, and asked, «Who is operating the wind machine?» Hengartner and I were both pleased and surprised at this recognition of our precision and stepped forward proudly to accept Strauss's compliments. He said «Gentlemen, at two measures before one-oh-eight the wind machille is piano. There is a crescendo in the next measure and at one-oh-eight it is piano again. One measure after one-oh-nine there is a crescendo, a diminuendo, and then a forte. It doesn't reach fortissimo until number one-twenty-four. You know, gentlemen, the wind blows musically, sometimes loud and sometimes soft; and you can even be good musicians on a wind machine». He repeated the passage. This time he didn't stop.
I never forgot the episode, and I've always referred to myself as a pupil of Richard Strauss. I took his statement as a motto, and in recent years decided that one can even be a good musician when producing electronic music.