Harnoncourt Interview Transcript
The following interview was conducted live by phone and aired on December 29, 2005 at 11:00 AM EST on WKCR-FM in New York during our annual BachFest. Harnoncourt, of course, is Austrian, and English is not his first language. In making this transcript, I sometimes altered his syntax slightly to conform to normal English, without changing his meaning.
JT= Jonathan Toren, NH = Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
JT: [Intro omitted] Thanks so much for joining us.
NH: I’m happy to be there, and I’m ready to answer your questions.
JT: Ok, terrific. First of all, let’s start from the beginning. What prompted you and your wife to start performing works on original instruments, when this really hadn’t been done before? Where did this come from?
NH: The reason was when we were very young music students, we found that the way baroque music and also the works of Bach were played then was very boring. It was not interesting, without any passion, and very boring. And so we looked at the other arts – we looked at the sculptures of the time, and at the pictures of the same time – and we found the pictures and the sculptures [to be] very passionate. And we looked at the old tools in
JT: Absolutely. So in this museum, even the strings and the bows had been preserved over all that time?
NH: Not the bows, and not the strings. We made copies of old bows, but the real old bows are very seldom in playable condition, and the strings never. For the strings, you need to use modern sheep to use the [guts? perhaps he used the wrong word?] to make the right strings from them.
JT: Well, it’s the strings and the bows that really make a big difference in terms of the original baroque violins versus the modern ones, isn’t that correct?
NH: Absolutely. But it’s not the string and the bow itself; it must be played with the skills of the Baroque era. Because you can, with the idea of a modern sound, get the modern sound out of any instrument. But with the idea of a baroque sound, if you know the old instrument, you can come very close to the baroque sound on modern instruments if you know how to do it.
JT: So when you formed the Concentus Musicus, you and your wife had played these instruments and learned about all this, so how did you put together the group, a whole ensemble ready to play on these old instruments that required special training? How did that come about?
NH: It was very difficult, because there was nobody in
JT: That must have been an incredible experience, after a lot of hard work.
NH: It was incredible, it was really an incredible experience.
JT: I’m sure it was an incredible experience for a lot of people hearing the performance, for audience members and people who got the recording, hearing it for the first time.
NH: But it’s still a great experience, it has not ended. The shock is still there.
JT: Absolutely. So who’s in this orchestra, the Concentus Musicus, now? Has it survived as an independent body through all these years, or have you re-assembled it at various times?
NH: No. I never wanted to have the group as a full-time job. I don’t want specialists. All the musicians of the Concentus are at the same time playing either in orchestras or playing as soloists and they play also music of the 19th Century on other instruments, and if possible also modern music on contemporary instruments. And a small part of the time is just for the Concentus. [And as for the founding members,] a lot of them are already dead, some are still alive, and two of them are still playing. We [i.e. the original members] are all between 70 and 80 years old. And in the time between 1953 and now, when a musician came to retiring age, we replaced him with a young musician, so that the ages of the members of the Concentus range from 22 to 70. There are lots of musicians who are eager to play with us, and we have always the same players, we don’t change. So a player who is 60 years old has been playing for 30 years in the group.
JT: In making those pioneering Bach recordings, or in the first performances before that, what were the most significant predominant practices of the time that you had to change? What were the biggest things that created the “shock” that you described?
NH: I think that the biggest thing was in the articulation. Because in that time, almost all of us were in the orchestra [presumably the Vienna Symphony Orchestra]. It could be that in the morning, we had a recording session for the St. John Passion for the Concentus, and in the evening of the same day we had to play the St. John Passion in the Musikverein in concert. And it was like day and night, it was black and white. It was totally different.
JT: Recording versus performing?
NH: No, playing with the Concentus and playing with the great orchestra and with the great chorus [by “great” he simply means large]. Because the tempo was different, but the greatest difference was the transparency. When the string instruments play with a little bit less vibrato and articulating like speaking with the bow, and with the winds playing the same way, even in the greatest [i.e. largest] works, you have absolute transparency. You can hear everything. And when you play it with the great orchestra, with lots of vibrato and not listening to all the parts, you get a beautiful, fat marmalade.
JT: [laughing] That’s a good word for it. It sounds cloudy and lugubrious.
NH: Right, absolutely.
JT: Yesterday, we had an interview with a fellow named Teri Towe, who has done a lot of work listening to very old recordings, the very first recordings of Bach from the 20s and 30s.
NH: Oh, yes.
JT: In your notes to your original B Minor Mass recording, you wrote a wonderful long introduction that I was just looking at. And you lay out the basic argument that resulted in these recordings and these performances, and in this whole movement. The idea basically is that there was a long period of time when Bach wasn’t played at all. And when they started playing it again in Mendelssohn’s time, they started playing it through a romantic lens.
NH: Yes, absolutely.
JT: And our tradition of playing, at least up until your movement came along, had evolved from that practice and was still played through that lens. Towe’s argument yesterday was that this romantic style of playing, with lots of vibrato in a large orchestra like you described, really only started in the 30s and 40s, that there was a shift then in the way things were played. A lot of vibrato was instituted, and before that people actually played Bach with a lot less vibrato. He said he’s actually talked with you about this, and that you also have listened to these old recordings. Have you heard these, and what do you make of this argument?
NH: My memory goes far back into the 1930s, my actual memory. And I think, this way started really with Mendelssohn. And when they played Bach for instance in
JT: You also mention in your introduction that the same problem does not exist for composers that have been performed constantly for all that time, like Beethoven.
JT: But since then a lot of work has been done by academics and maybe by you, I don’t really know, and Beethoven is often played with his original metronome markings, and in original style, based on research, and it is completely different from what had been played by Klemperer and von Karajan.
JT: So how do you explain that difference, without the gap? And also why have you decided, despite all that, to record and play Beethoven usually on modern instruments?
NH: I think that the instrument is just a tool, it is not the thing itself. It’s like a teacher. You can learn a lot about the instrument, but it is not the ultimate important thing. It is more important to be really familiar with the instrument. If you live with an old instrument, it’s better that you play with the old instrument. But if you, as a musician, take the old instrument just for special occasions, you will never play it in the best possible way. So they are very different things. And it is a great question if it is really the goal to play exactly in the same way as Bach or Beethoven or Mozart wanted it in his time. It makes a great difference if, for instance, a symphony of Beethoven is played in Beethoven’s time with the ideas and tempos of Beethoven, on the basis of Mozart symphonies and Haydn symphonies. But we have now heard Stravinsky and all the works of the 20th Century, and the message of Beethoven’s time or of Mozart’s time has to be brought into the 21st Century. And there are slightly different parameters to be fulfilled now. It is not just a museum thing.
I think it is necessary to know everything. There is nothing you must not know. You must know whatever it is possible to know. But then you must find out what is the best for our time.
JT: So why do you think, for out time, that Mozart and Beethoven might sound better on modern instruments, while Bach or Handel might sound better on period instruments?
NH: This is difficult to answer in five minutes. I do a great deal of Mozart with old instruments. But it can occur that I do a passion of Bach now with a modern orchestra also. Beethoven, I have done just very few works of his with old instruments. But in general, I would not do 19th Century works on old instruments because: I think that the orchestra is also a grown thing. An orchestra has a special sound. You cannot put together an orchestra, saying, now I have the best possible violin players and the best possible wind players, and now it is an orchestra. Because an orchestra, as a great instrument formed of 80 or 100 musicians, is a living thing, where the older members teach the younger. An orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic has a very special sound which you cannot reach in ten years or so. It is a grown thing. It is a very valuable thing. Now, I could say the Concentus has already existed more than 50 years, so it is in some ways also like an old orchestra. So with the Concentus, I think when we play Bach or Handel or Mozart, we are very close to this grown thing. But still the idea is: to find a way of performance that is important for our time, not just a repetition of a performance of 200 years ago. Because this would be too museum-like for me. And I don’t think that the question of instruments is of the same importance for 19th century [music] as it is for 18th Century. We know much more about the sound of the
NH: That’s interesting, yes?
JT: Yeah. So what you’re saying also is that, when you conduct, when you perform, say, Beethoven, with the Vienna Philharmonic, you’re not just presenting the music on modern instruments, it’s not just modern instruments playing it, it’s the Vienna Philharmonic playing it.
JT: And it’s their own unique cumulative experience, and tone and character, that has it’s own value.
NH: Absolutely, yes. And I use my experience with the old instruments. So I can tell the flute player or the oboe player what he should do with his instrument so that the whole sound becomes more transparent. The musicians accept my advice because they know that I am a practical musician, too.
JT: This relates a lot to what you’ve been talking about already, but Mr. Towe said yesterday that you said once, “There is no such thing as authenticity.” Do you mean that authenticity is impossible, that we simply can’t know everything, or that it might be theoretically possible but it’s just not worth it?
NH: Both. I think it is impossible. I think that the only thing that is really authentic is a living composer playing his own works. When I listened to Bela Bartok playing piano, in 1937 in
And it makes no sense. Because I would like to be a mouse or a fly in Bach’s room and listen to him play. This would be very interesting. But I would not like to turn an audience, a hall full of 2000 people, into an audience of 1720 or so. They are people of our time. What is really important is: I have to find out what the message of the music is. And it is not a message which is only important for people of 1720, but the message is so important that it must be heard and must be projected to people of our time. And then the question is, How can I do that? And my result is that I can do it best with the instruments and with the tutors of the time, but with the brains of our time.
JT: Right. And I can say as a listener, to audience members, authenticity just doesn’t matter. I don’t care when I’m listening to Bach whether it is exactly the way he played it. I care what sounds best, what’s going to give that inner meaning and convey it the best.
NH: What is most convincing, yes.
JT: And period instruments tend to just sound better, they’re more convincing.
NH: Absolutely, yes.
JT: You also wrote in your introduction, “The attempt must thus again be made today with Bach’s masterpieces in particular to hear and perform them as if they had never been interpreted before, as though they had never been formed nor distorted.” But it seems to me that you’re selling yourself short a little bit. You didn’t just present the works in period form, and that’s it. You also added a lot of your own personal flair and you did a lot of very interesting things that are just musically unique, that have nothing to do with modern practice versus period practice.
NH: It is impossible to do otherwise. If a human musician is working, he always carries his own personality into the work. You cannot avoid that. And I think this is very important. Because to be convincing, you must be convinced yourself. And you cannot just make the musical sound. You always give your own personality in it.
JT: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. [Station ID, etc. omitted] You also launched an amazing project to record all of Bach’s cantatas, together with Gustav Leonhardt. So how did you get together with Leonhardt, who is sort of the great father of modern harpsichord playing, and how did that project come about?
NH: I am a very, very long-time, good friend of Gustav Leonhardt. He came to
JT: So how did you approach a work that was absolutely never played before? And how difficult was this for the players, for the members of your orchestra and chorus? How much time did you have to rehearse for these recordings?
NH: Years. We had years to rehearse. For instance, all these cantatas where Bach writes for some instruments only “corno.” You don’t know: is that a cornet, or is it a horn, or is it a slide trumpet? Or even a woodwind instrument? There were lots of questions. Or “oboe da caccia,” what is that? The orchestra played that with English horn. And sometimes Bach wrote, “Taille.” Is that an instrument? Is it just a part? There were lots of questions, and all the editors of the new Bach edition joined us in answering questions, or in bringing new questions, and we had to visit all the museums to find new instruments, maybe to find instruments which Bach used himself. It was highly interesting. It was like finding a new continent.
JT: Yeah, and even more Bach works have been discovered since that time.
NH: Yes, right. But now it’s not that difficult anymore, since the tools, all these basic questions, are solved now.
JT: So how do you feel about the directions in which the style of early music performance has evolved since that time? It’s gone in a few different directions, different practices. There are still debates today about, say, one voice per part versus a larger chorus, et cetera.
NH: Yeah, this “one voice per part” is a bit ridiculous for me. I know also the reason for that. Because when you have just one sheet of music, you can always have three musicians play from it or just three singers sing from it. I have visited all the original parts from
JT: Right. But for a while that groundwork had to be laid. There was so much work and there required so much specialized expertise just to put forth more historically stylistic performances that the people who had that expertise didn’t necessarily have on top of that all the general musical insight that people such as you have. Now that you and the pioneers have laid that groundwork, a lot more people who are just interested in playing Bach and just have musical ideas can more easily put it together.
NH: You are right, yes. The groundwork is done. But I must say I think it was very interesting work. And I think when you use all your vacations to be in libraries and to test instruments and all that, it is a good waste of time.
JT: Recently, you came back to the studio and recorded the Bach passions again in 2000. So what changed? What prompted you to re-record those works? Did you just want to put out a recording that was a little more polished with better sound, or did your interpretation actually change?
NH: No, no, no. I never wanted to make something more polished. If you live with special music, it would be a shame if you don’t gain experience. If I would play a passion of Bach or the B Minor Mass or great, great cantatas today in the same way I played it forty years ago, it would be a shame. There must be a little bit of growth. And we never played these pieces so often that it became routine. It was always- When we played it after ten years or after five years again, it was like playing it for the first time in life. So we always wanted to make just first performances. And this is the reason that in some of the great works, one gains some insights which I think are worthwhile to be performed again, to be recorded again.
JT: So going back, what might you have done differently in the Bach recordings that you made in the 60s?
NH: Oh, I cannot answer that question. I don’t look back. I’m still, I’m very old, but I look forward. And I don’t know what I did 50 years ago or 30 years ago. I can look in my photo album and say, “Oh, I was very young then.” But my questions are, what am I doing tomorrow? Not, what was I doing yesterday?
JT: So do you have more Bach performances or recordings in the works?
NH: Performances, yes. Recordings, I don’t think so.
JT: What are you working on right now?
NH: An opera of Haydn.
JT: Live performance or recording?
JT: Do you have any plans to come to
NH: No, to
JT: So no performances?
NH: No, I don’t think so. Maybe with a local orchestra in
JT: Why is Bach still important today? You talked about how we should be performing composers for our own time. What about Bach is especially important today?
NH: I think that Bach is, if not the greatest composer, one of the two greatest composers who ever lived.
JT: Who’s the other one?
NH: Mozart. We have a very few great artists, some Greek artists, some sculpters, a few composers, a great poet like Shakespeare, who are not historical. Their works are so important that as long as humans are on the earth, those works must be performed because we cannot miss them, they remain important for us. For this reason, if we lose contact with the great works of Bach, we lose our contact with humanity in general.
JT: When you play late 19th Century works, let’s say Bruckner, do you build more off your experience with the great 20th Century Bruckner conducters such as von Karajan, or Furtwangler, or Klemperer, et cetera, or more from your own insight into the score and a focus on transparency carried over from your experience with period performance?
NH: I think when I play Bruckner… I have played all the symphonies of Bruckner with Karajan, some with Klemperer, with those conductors you mentioned. So I have that experience myself. But what is interesting for me is to study the score in an absolutely new way. I don’t look to all these later editions, just to the autograph score. I try to find out what was important for him, and find out is it still important for out time or for me as a performer, and I’m not interested in what others in between Bruckner’s time and our time did with this work. I have this experience. I cannot erase it, it is there. But what’s important is the [inaudible].
JT: This might be an impossible question to answer, but what do you think it is about Bach that makes him so great, if there is any way to summarize it?
NH: I think this is the real great question which cannot be answered. Because the greatest composers, like Bach or Mozart, used everything which their contemporaries also used. The vocabulary of Bach is the same as the vocabulary of Telemann, and the vocabulary of Mozart is the same as the vocabulary of Dittersdorf. When you hear five notes by Bach, you can say, “This is Bach.” It towers above everything else. And the same with Mozart. And you cannot say why this is so. And I think this is because Bach has the keys of the muses, and Mozart also, and the others [laughing] are not in that dimension.
JT: Do you think in recent decades there have been any composers, if not quite at Bach’s stature, at that level of composing even though the tools have changed, or if there’s still potential for it?
NH: 20th Century, I would say Alban Berg or Bela Bartok, but then I have problems later. But maybe I have not the measure to find out.
JT: To what extent have you been involved with contemporary music?
NH: I have done one first performance by Berio, and of really contemporary music this was the only thing. But of music from up to the 1930s I have done a lot of works.
JT: So how do you feel about the future of classical music and classical composing?
NH: The composers will always mirror the spiritual situation of the time. The future depends on the spiritual situation, because the composer cannot compose anything else but what is the spiritual situation. And I’m pessimistic, because the general direction is toward materialism, and materialism and art are not compatible. And it is a great loss. Maybe the wave will go in another direction, but I am a little bit pessimistic.
JT: But didn’t Mozart spend a lot of his time composing for and worrying about income?
NH: No. No, he had no problem with income. He had enough money. He was never suffering.
JT: What about the world of conducting? How do you think that has changed since you’ve been involved in that and how do you see the future?
NH: They are too important. They are printed in too-large letters on the advertisement. The composer should be printed in large letters and the conductor in small.
JT: [I stupidly tell a story about Maazel holding up a score during ovation after a performance]. How do you think that can change? Maybe the big problem is that people aren’t very familiar with the music. How do you get people more literate again? How do you think we can get people more familiar with the music and get people to love the music?
NH: The education system is wrong. We only learn things that we think we need in life. So reading, writing, arithmetic, mathematics. And for a thousand years in Western culture, it was equally important to train the fantasy. The arts. Children aged 3, 4, or 5 were already familiar with music, with drawing, with any kind of art. And this is not important for a profession, but it is important for the personality. And the goal of today’s education system is just, how can I earn money? And as long as the school systems don’t change, until the little children are already singing and dancing and made really familiar with the language, the vocabulary of music… they need the music for their whole life. And at the same time, it makes them better in all other fields. Even a good musician is a better mathematician than a bad musician.
JT: It’s also a problem of exposure, though, right? Even education side, as recreation, back then, they were exposed to great music from a very early time, but now people are mostly exposed to popular music. How do you think we can get people exposed to it, and familiar with it, and love it?
NH: I think when they learn the vocabulary as little children, they get a good estimation of what is good and what is bad. And all this junk music which is pouring out of television and of radio and of the walkmans, in most cases it is of really miserable quality. And [if they had the vocabulary], they would not estimate that, they would not use it, because they knew too much about it [to like it]. And then the quality would become better, and there would not be a great threshold [i.e. gap or division] between classical music and other kinds of music, because the question is of good and bad, not of classical or popular.
JT: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today, Mr. Harnoncourt. It was really an honor and privilege. I hope we can keep hearing your work, not just in Bach, but in Mozart and other great composers, for years to come. Thank you very much.
NH: Thank you, it was a pleasure.