Looking Back #4

Hermann Scherchen was never interested in teaching us baton technique. He insisted that if we concentrated intensely and conducted what we were hearing inside, we could not fail to produce gestures that would show the orchestra how to play.

If you have ever seen a great conductor from the front, you will observe, in addition to clear physical gestures, a flow of facial expressions that inexplicably convey the conductor's deep image of the music. If you attend a performance in a concert hall with seats facing the conductor from behind the orchestra, the players won't show you anything. But a good conductor, and, if you are lucky, a great one, will unconsciously enact the music for the players, and show in his face, as well as in his more down-to-earth body movements, how he wants the music to take life. One cannot analyze this almost tribal communication, so rich and unfailingly understood. A great mystery of orchestral playing is that musicians do respond, and perform what they see.

Since conductors differ in their physical stature, and in their movements on the podium, the quality of sound produced by an orchestra can differ from conductor to conductor, even when they are performing the same piece. I once attended a conducting class in which five students of varying height and weight - and self-possession - mounted the podium, readied the orchestra, and gave a downbeat for the opening chord of the same symphony - one chord - that is all. All the downbeats were different in a hundred ways: in strength, in freedom of motion, in the amount of the body used, in the conductor's attitude of commanding versus inviting the orchestra to play - and in many more physical characteristics. The conductors did not speak. They simply gave the downbeat. In playing that one chord the orchestra responded with five completely different qualities of sound - surprising, but clear to everyone.

Sometimes orchestral musicians delight in distracting an inexperienced conductor, to relieve the routine of rehearsals and to find out if he really knows the score. They will look around in studied inattention, chatter to each other, complain about the lighting, and ask the conductor foolish questions about "unclear" notations in their music. With a new guest conductor, they may even play wrong notes on purpose to see if he hears the mistakes. Most important to them, they want to see if the conductor can communicate a compelling image of the music from his first downbeat to the final chords. If he doesn't, if he stops the players for unimportant errors that will correct themselves the next time through, if he doesn't hear the mistakes, or if he simply talks too much, they will go after him.

Strangely enough, these are challenges they hope to lose. At heart, the musicians do not want to master the conductor; they want to be won over. Playing well is what they have studied all their lives. It is what they long for, season after grueling season - to be respected, and yet to be compelled to play beautifully together.

And so I continued, striving to hear the music ever more vividly, hoping that the inner image would make its way to my arms and hands – and face. 

I stayed with Hermann Scherchen for two years, and during that time became better and better at concentrating and hearing the music, without the concrete sounds of an orchestra – conducting Scherchen and the other students, who "listened" and watched together. We studied each other's scores, the better to participate in the lessons. We also began to conduct for each other away from Scherchen, taking advantage of the opportunity to cover large sections or whole movements without his interruptions. We would unhesitatingly report weak spots in each other's gestures, and almost always agreed whether the one who was conducting was hearing many lines or only one. These were eerie, yet intensely musical experiences.

Scherchen's lessons usually took place at home in the quiet of his Gravesano studio, or in his private concert hall dressing rooms on the road. As he was guest-conducting a good deal, he took us with him from city to city, and gave us lessons in every kind of venue. He continually presented us with distractions to overcome. We had lessons in hotel lobbies, in train-station waiting rooms, and once on a balcony overlooking a crowded Sunday park in a Berlin suburb - very entertaining to the afternoon strollers. In a restaurant after a recording session in Vienna, I was settling into my schnitzel, when Scherchen looked over at me and commanded, "Beethoven!" I folded my napkin and stood up, quite accustomed to this by now. It took only a moment to blank out the noisy diners, the clinking glasses, and the waiters' shouts, before I heard the opening chords of the Eroica Symphony crash silently through my brain at the command of my downbeat. I continued through the entire first movement of this most dramatic work. No one in the restaurant seemed shocked or embarrassed. They were startled at first - all that intense waving - but they soon settled down to watch quietly. For reasons I still don't understand, they never seemed to take my "performance" as a trick, or as Scherchen showing off his trained animals. Maybe the fact that our group watched me with such focus communicated something to them. When it was over there was no applause, just a few smiles, perhaps to show how relieved they were that I had come through unscathed. Scherchen said he would save his comments for the next day, and invited us to order dessert.

  Hermann Scherchen

Hermann Scherchen

His criticisms were always illuminating. He indicated where I had not been not clear, and remembered exactly where I had lost concentration or cued the wrong instrument. Corrections began with singing, then conducting. He would discuss the structure of our scores in detail, showing us where we needed to give particular attention to achieve emphasis or gradual transition, and others where the orchestra would best be left alone. He wanted us to understand the difference between a Haydn forte and one by Beethoven, how to determine dynamics and tempo in Bach. He was demanding and often impatient, but never harsh. We always felt that he was committed to us - devoted, even.

When we traveled with Scherchen to his concerts in Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland, he introduced us to composers, musicians, managers, and others involved in the musical life of each city. We were included in his meetings and dinners with his family if they were traveling with him. He called us to his hotel room to talk about the history and philosophy of music as he saw it: he had read widely, and connected his music to what he had studied. Composers of every school sent him their scores, and he went over many of them with us, especially those from his upcoming concerts. He knew the music of composers from Bach and Handel, through the nineteenth century, to the most difficult music of our own time. He kept sharpening our ears, teaching us to sing difficult passages. We loved competing with each other to fill in the twelfth note of a tone row, when he had sung us the first eleven. 

And we did a lot of tasks for him, running errands at home and on the road. We made phone calls, carried his scores - I even washed his back after several concerts. It was like being apprenticed to Hans Sachs.

Once, while he and his family went on ahead by plane, I drove his old Citroen - an official sedan familiar from World War II newsreels - through Communist East Germany from Hanover to Berlin, explaining myself to skeptical guards at numerous military check points. On another occasion, he left rehearsals at La Scala, in Milan, and returned to Gravesano in anger. I was summoned to the opera's elaborately furnished board room, with its gilded ceiling and velvet arm chairs, to face the wrath of the theater director and a bunch of assistants whom Scherchen had apparently insulted. The director insisted that I get Scherchen to return and apologize. I understood his Italian, and could speak a little, but mostly I responded with an assortment of vague gestures and nods. I didn’t know exactly what the problem was, but I telephoned Scherchen, and he had cooled off enough to return. I'm sure he never apologized.

Looking Back #3

Hermann Scherchen, one of the great conductors of the day, had now tested me enough to have decided I was worth a try at teaching me how to conduct an orchestra.

But there was to be no orchestra. Scherchen's goal was for his students to hear the music internally with a strength that could resist all distraction. Only then would they feel secure enough to stand in front of a hundred wary musicians, and convince them to give their all to yet another conductor who thinks he knows how the music should go - music they may have already played dozens of times.

After Scherchen's last rehearsal in Geneva, with the concert coming up that night, the three other students and I gathered in his dressing room. He took a chair and placed me a few paces in front of him. “Now,” he said. “Sing the opening of the Brandenburg Number 1, starting with the first violins.” A few orchestra members were still talking in their dressing room next door. Some were practicing, others slamming their instrument cases shut, walking by the open door, laughing, saying goodbye. 

I hesitated. “Go on, go on.” Scherchen leaned toward me. I inclined my head at the door, expecting someone to close it. “Think only Bach,” he said. “Please – begin.” I started again, trying to block out the noise, but didn’t get very far. He stood up. “Go back to Gravesano, he said. Turn on a radio. Sing Bach. Ignore the radio.” He closed his leather bag and we followed him out into the street. One of the students reassured me: “Don't worry. He is spending time with you.”

Scherchen's concert that night was a big success. No more starting and stopping - a live performance, full of electricity. The orchestra was with him every measure. 

Back in Gravesano, I continued singing the Bach - outdoors, with mule driven carts rattling by, the local churches sounding their uncoordinated quarter-hours – wherever I could find commotion to ignore. I got better at it, even when the villagers sang their own songs back at me, grinning as they passed.

By now, I would occasionally meet with the other students, for a meal, a walk, or a talk in our rooms. We were getting to know each other a little. The Chilean was from an aristocratic family; he affected a studied regal bearing. He had brought his wife with him to Gravesano. She was a shy woman, especially in the presence of her husband. The Italian was tall and looked underfed, with deep circles under his eyes. He had a very friendly wife, too friendly at times, and a two-year-old son, whom they included when they invited us to dinner, setting him on a potty next to the table. He punctuated our conversation with steady grunts, smiling when his parents applauded his successful efforts. The older American woman, a very good violist, who acted as Scherchen’s part time secretary to pay for her conducting lessons, did not usually join our get-togethers. We never saw the German pianist either, or the studio technician he was assigned to help. 

We were always kind and encouraging to each other. There seemed to be no competition among us – we felt we were a part of a special team, novices devoted to the word. Each of us had been assigned a score and from listening to one another sing, we began to recognize whenever one of us achieved true concentration.

After a week or so back from Geneva, when I was beginning to wonder if there was anything to life with Scherchen but singing, we received word to come to his studio. Early dusk had settled on the hills. It was chilly October. I had now been in Gravesano, except for the trip to Geneva, for three months.

In the studio, all the equipment had been shoved against the wall. Scherchen sat in the center. He asked me to stand facing him, a few paces away. The other students spread out behind him, suggesting a small orchestra.

“Please begin,” he said. Begin what, I wondered - I guessed he meant singing, since it was all I ever did. So I began. After half a minute or so, he stopped me: “You are singing the notes. Sing music, please.” I started again, with what I thought was more phrasing. “That is better. Continue.” Then he stopped me again. “You have sung the first violin part in these measures. What is the viola doing at the point where I stopped you?” I blanched. I decided to go back to the beginning of the piece, and sang rapidly in my head, jumping back and forth between the violin and the viola lines. When I got to the point where Scherchen had stopped me, I sang the viola part out loud. Scherchen was pleased, but I thought to myself: Scherchen could have asked me to sing any instrumental part in the orchestra - strings, winds, horns - and he would have heard if I was right. While I sang the one line, he apparently was hearing everything else as well.

To hear a whole score is very difficult. Some musicians, I think, must be born with the ability, and these are names everyone comes to know; others learn it gradually. I never fully mastered it. But I could come close. At a live concert I could hear almost everything, but when, later, I finally stood in front of an orchestra, it became much more difficult. 

Finally, on a rainy day in November, Scherchen decided it was time to see me conduct. He asked for the beginning of the Bach. I looked around to see if someone was going to play the music on the piano, or if I was to conduct to a recording. “Please,” he said. “I asked you to begin.” No accompaniment, no sound from anywhere. “Hear the music in your ear, and show us how to play.”

I started but stopped awkwardly, smiling in embarrassment. Scherchen - and the students - did not find it funny. I began again. I beat time, without a baton, as the music went by in my head. Scherchen stopped me again. “Thank you, Mr. Metronome, my West Point cadet, but little children can wave 1-2-3-4. Listen to the music in your head, and show me with your hands that you want me to play what you hear - that it is impossible to play it any other way. Begin.” I started. This time he let me go on for several pages before he stopped me. Alter a long, fearful silence, he stood up. “You have begun,” he said. He looked at the other students, shook my hand, and left. Later they told me they had started to see the music in my hands and in my look.

Looking Back #2

In 1958 when I arrived, the village of Gravesano, in the Italian Swiss canton Ticino (also known as the Tessin), claimed about 30 farmers and wine growers who lived in a handful of stone cottages along a single unpaved road. A pleasant, energetic woman named Vera, whose German was better than Scherchen’s Italian, ran a small general store, but her main attraction was her telephone. Orchestra managers, opera intendants, composers and writers from all over the world came to know Vera over the phone, and she kept herself slim running up a cobblestone path to Scherchen's house, to find out whether Scherchen would come down to the store and speak, or send her back to say that Herr Professor, as she called him, was busy, and would they please call back later. It did not take long for Vera to recognize the names and voices of those whom Scherchen wanted to avoid, and she would simply put them off. The many dignitaries who visited Gravesano always insisted on being introduced to Signora Vera, the gatekeeper to Hermann Scherchen.

Scherchen had been married several times, at one point to Xiao Shuxian, a Chinese composer and educator. Their daughter, Tona, became a composer. Scherchen once left the table at a dinner party, I think in Vienna, and asked if he could use the phone in the next room. He was gone quite a while. A month later the phone bill showed that he had been talking to Tona in China for nearly an hour. 

His current wife, Pia, was a tall, forceful, but kind woman in her late thirties. She was a mathematician, half Italian and half Romanian. She and Scherchen had five children, all born after quick flights to London in order to qualify the newborns for English passports. The children had biblical names - Myriam, David, Esther, Nathan, and Alexander. But at home they were given variations on the syllables of their parents’ names, Hermann and Pia – Hera, Herpi, Piher, Aher , and Aman. Myriam (Herpi) grew up to run a recording label, Tahra, devoted to famous conductors, including her father.

Scherchen used Gravesano as his base. He had fled to Winterthur during the war, leaving his post as violist in the Berlin Philharmonic. I don't know how he became a conductor, but he was soon in demand, particularly for his skill with the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, for whom he conducted several world premieres. He also recorded the classical repertory for Westminster Records, which gave him an international reputation and invitations to guest conduct the major orchestras of Europe and South America. He finally conducted in America, a few years before his death. He died in Florence in1966 at the age of 75.

In Gravesano, he had three or four students, whom he taught in the stone house and the acoustic studio. When I arrived I found an Italian and a Chilean, both about my age, an American woman in her forties who handled his correspondence, and a German, who helped run the studio in return for piano lessons. There was also a German technician who maintained the equipment.

Before he left for South America, Scherchen had left word that I was to memorize the first movement of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No.1, to have ready when he returned in three weeks. I was given a room at the back of Vera’s store, and I started by singing all the individual lines of the Bach, over and over, using the tuning fork. I did nothing but sing and memorize for hours every day. Pia Scherchen fed me at the family table, and she tried to include me in the conversation, but I said little. I took some walks around the village and into the hills, but the singing kept on inside my head. This constant focus made me oblivious of my surroundings. I seemed always to be staring straight ahead, singing Bach, or playing in my head what I had just sung. I almost never saw the other students. Finally, I could sing any of the instrumental lines by heart.

Part of my stipend included traveling with Scherchen and the other students, so when it was announced that Scherchen would be flying from South America directly to Geneva, where he was to conduct the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, we all went by train to meet him. We found Scherchen backstage in the conductor’s room getting ready for his first rehearsal. He greeted us and immediately asked me if I had learned the Brandenburg first movement. I said yes. He asked that I be provided with score paper, told me to write out the movement from memory, and went on stage for his rehearsal. It was 10 or 11 in the morning. I was still writing when the rehearsal ended around 1 PM. The others left for the hotel. I finished writing around 9 PM and went to meet them. They had gone out but left me a key to my room.

The next morning, backstage again, Scherchen asked me for the Bach score I had copied out, and handed it to one of the other students. “Check this,” he said, and went through the door to the stage. I guessed I was supposed to wait, so I observed the rehearsal through the doorway. It was wonderful to finally hear some music, and thrilling to see Scherchen work with the orchestra. After the rehearsal, he asked the other student, “Well?” The student said, “Yes, Herr Professor – no mistakes.” Scherchen said, “Fine. We will start tomorrow.” Looking back, I think he may have been as relieved as I was that this new arrival had so far not failed him.

Looking Back #1

I would like to step back and show how my experiences with music have brought me to the positions I have been advocating. I was fortunate to have first-rate teachers, as a young student, and later, working on films with some of the great musicians of the day. 

When I was seven years old, my parents noticed I had perfect pitch and could play almost anything by ear, so they started me on piano lessons. But my fingers were somehow never independent and my struggles to keep from bending two at a time made my wrists tighten. I ended up practicing only half an hour a week – 15 minutes before the lesson and 15 minutes during. My teacher, an excellent pianist named Myron Klempner travelled by car to his pupils' suburban houses, sort of a glorified paper route. He tried months of tricks and diversions to calm me down: eventually my unintentional resistances became too much for him, and he had to give up on me. But I loved music, and kept playing, copying what I heard on recorded hits of Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and Rodgers and Hammerstein - with still a little Mozart and Beethoven from my lessons thrown in..

In high school I formed a barbershop quartet for which I made the arrangements, and at Harvard College I sang in choruses and musical shows, some of which I was allowed to conduct. I graduated, but continued to be so involved in music that I left law school after two months and finished the year at the New England Conservatory of Music. That was followed by three more years back at Harvard graduate school where I took the music theory and history courses I had missed, plus the rest of the material required for a Masters degree. During all this I was appointed conductor of the Harvard Freshman chorus.

By then, after eight years in one place, though it was strongly hinted that I might some day take over as conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and be offered a post in the Music Department, it was time for me to get out of Cambridge. I decided to see if I could get to Europe and study orchestral conducting. One of my teachers recommended Hermann Scherchen, a great conductor and a dedicated teacher - he had written a well known book on conducting. During the war, he fled Germany, leaving his post as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, but no one knew where he was now. A piano teacher told me to ask Pierre Monteux, who was in town as a guest conductor of the Boston Symphony. I got a ticket to his concert, and in the intermission I somehow talked my way backstage, found the maestro, and with no introduction asked if he could help me find Scherchen. He grunted “Burgin,” meaning Richard Burgin, the concert master, who was standing next to him, and Burgin told me that during the war, Scherchen had been in Winterthur, Switzerland. I tried to find out more, but the two of them turned and walked away.

I did the only think I could think of. I addressed a letter to "Hermann Scherchen, Winterthur, Switzerland," and after two months actually received a reply. It turned out that Scherchen had left Winterthur more than ten years before, but Switzerland resembles a small town, and everyone knows the whereabouts of the famous. My letter had found him in Gravesano, a village in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, just north of Lugano. He was willing to take me on, he wrote, just like that, but he warned that it would be very expensive - $2,000 a year. (This was 1958. Harvard tuition had just been raised from $1,000 to $1,250).

I wrote back to Scherchen saying that if he would take me as a student (I knew he already had a few from around the world), that the New England Conservatory would give me a generous scholarship, and I told the conservatory people that if they gave me the scholarship Scherchen would surely accept me. It worked.

In September I traveled by ship to Genoa, took the train to Milan and then to Lugano. A bus brought me to Gravesano, a village in the foothills of the Alps, an hour south of the Gotthard Pass. Scherchen had bought an old stone house built into the bottom of a hill on the edge of this tiny village. He had added an acoustic studio – a large, insulated room with no parallel surfaces, in order to minimize reverberation - and had filled this large anechoic chamber with up-to-date recording and editing equipment. Scherchen was at the forefront of electronic-music experimentation, working with Pierre Schaeffer, the master of musique concrète in Paris, and with other leaders in the field in Germany and Switzerland. 

I had arrived just in time - he was leaving for a conducting tour in South America that afternoon, so I was taken right away to meet him. He was waiting on an open, second floor porch a few feet from the house next door, with a narrow dirt path running between.

Hermann Scherchen was just under 70 years old, tall and ample, with broad shoulders and a prominent chin. He had fine white hair evenly combed, and blue eyes that could be icy or warm. His open gray cotton shirt fitted loosely. He sat me down across from him at an old wooden table and asked me for the tuning fork I had been told to bring. First he sounded an A on the table and looked at me expectantly – I understood I was to sing the A back to him. When I matched the pitch exactly two or three times, he studied me. Then he continued, in English: “Now I will start to count very evenly. When I stop you will go on, in exactly the same tempo - exactly the same. You must keep my tempo.” He watched me. “Do not ever stop counting until I tell you. I will learn if you can be absolutely steady.” He started – “one – two – three – four –“ and nodded to me. I continued - “five –six –seven -----“ 

I must have been in a trance. Somehow I had reached thirty-seven. I stopped counting and looked up. Scherchen had left for South America.