Conversations with Klemperer

Compiled and edited  by Peter Heyworth. Gollancz


This small book offers 5 pages of introduction, 6 of index, 12 of illustrations (mainly photographs), 17 of discography and 78 of substantive text, which is half autobiography and half commentary on music and musicians (notably Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg). The text is a conflation of two inter­views by Peter Heyworth (one in English, one in German) used in radio programmes (in Canada and West Germany) in 1970, plus some unspecified material provided by other interviewers.

   The present format is an excellent piece of book-making (though the price seems rather over the odds). But it still suggests a radio or TV script; 3 chat-show which aspires to documentary status, acceptable at the high table as well as the coffee-table. So even trivial observations have their own apparatus. Thus we learn from text, footnotes and index that Felix von Weingartner (1863-1942) hated Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), who once spoke angrily about Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). This quest for added significance culminates in the solemn display, on a separate page, of a so-called Epilogue, in which Ecclesiastes the preacher provides a sombre sermon (i, 4-18) which though only marginally relevant is textually edifying.

   With all this elevation of aim, the range is limited, perhaps because the original pieces were loaded towards radio. In that context the questioning was; no doubt shrewd and purposive. In print it seems unduly obtrusive. Despite the title, there is no con­versation to speak of. Interrogation would be nearer the mark, verging at times on cross-examination:


   heyworth: But the motive behind your conversion [to Catholicism] was faith and intellectual conviction?

    klemperer: (after a long pause) Yes.


Other passages approach a parody of Socratic dialogue:


   heyworth: But can one not say that there is a symphonic element, even if not in the precise meaning of the word, in[Wagner's] later operas, without which he could not have sustained the dimensions of The Ring?


   klemperer: Yes, of course. That one can say. That is also true.


But in general the interviews were genuinely designed to elicit information. Far too many of the questions call only for a brief factual reply; which makes the long and detailed rejoinders look curiously oblique and contrived. No doubt this is a result of editing; but it seems rather unfair on the contributor. So does the admitted loss incurred in “correcting” Klemperer's English, or in failing adequately to translate his idiosyncratic German.

   In the circumstances Klemperer must have responded (in every sense) rather well. In the pauses, and between some of the lines, we glimpse the great man. His cyclic temperament, alternating euphoria with depression, will strike many a responsive chord among musicians. So may his evident affection and admiration for the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. His other likes and dislikes are note­worthy, especially those few which are announced as statements of fact; the late Strauss works are 'unimportant', Act 4 of Les Huguenots is “incomparable”, and so on. Especially remarkable is the tranquil tolerance of one who “was obliged lo flee his native land”. Pfitzner “wasn't anti-Semitic”; and when Strauss was, “one couldn't be angry”. What the maestro finds really unforgivable, to judge from this book, is the making of unacceptable orchestral arrangements, whether by Strauss of his own waltzes (p.43), by Deryck Cooke of Mahler 10 (p.35) or by Walter Legge with the Philharmonia (P.83).

   Of course, the autobiographical material will be of great interest and value to any Klempererian not already familiar with it; and so may the comments on composers, which the interviewer took special pains to elicit. But t doubt whether the informed reader will find any revelations here, whether about the maestro himself or other musicians. On such scores, who ever yet heard of an enlightening conductor? Bringing flashes of inspiration down to earth may be their forte. But interpreting music in sound is worlds away from interpreting musicians in words. And Dr Klemperer of all conductors, as this book keeps on explaining, is “a man of few words”, “no writer”, “the least literary of men”, and so on. Yet here he is an author of the words, while Mr Heyworth conducts the interviews. I think the converse might have improved the conversation.


The Musical Times, July 1973 (pp. 700-701) © the estate of eric sams