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.