The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize-Winner Michael Gielen

By Rainer Peters

Art, Michael Gielen once said, is something we should "put our brains to work" for, and: art is "one way of approaching the truth", which is after all "not always pleasant". Unable to see and administer music "as a palliative", as a sedative, he admits that music can indeed "be fun", but "it isn’t there just for fun". Michael Gielen has given us numerous quotable observations about music as "intellectual material" - succinct versions of a comprehensive credo, which holds that the conductor’s task is above all to scent out and uncover composed meaning, as well as to impart the insight that art and music are neither luxury items nor entertainment, nor are they vehicles for glamour, luxury and indulgence; and they are certainly not about the presentation of well-kept museum pieces or an unexamined tradition. The interpreter’s task is - while producing clarity and transparency - to highlight each work’s disconcerting potentialities, its unsettling aspects and violations of the norm. 

As a result of these insights Michael Gielen has blessed his listeners and musicians with not a little discomfort and – to quote Thomas Mann – an "austere happiness". No doubt this has to do with the fact that he was born into a family which made taking the more arduous path a natural choice: his father Josef Gielen, was a famous director from Cologne (he directed first performances of Richard Strauss’s operas "Arabella" and "Die schweigsame Frau") who later became director of the Burgtheater in Vienna. He was married to a Jewess from Galicia (Gielen’s "adored and beloved" mother, the actress Rose Steuermann, who had performed Schoenberg‘s "Pierrot lunaire" in Dresden), and emigrated with his family from Vienna to Buenos Aires, where his son Michael embarked on a career as a professional musician. One of Gielen’s uncles was the famous pianist and teacher Eduard Steuermann, who had been a student of Busoni, and a student, interpreter, and friend of Arnold Schoenberg; and also a teacher and friend of Theodor W. Adorno. Gielen’s aunt, Salome Steuermann, better known as Salka Viertel, was the wife of the writer and director Berthold Viertel; she later became Greta Garbo‘s friend and scriptwriter, and the much admired hostess of a famous salon in Santa Monica, where fellow emigrants Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Brecht and Eisler, Feuchtwanger, Max Reinhardt and Schoenberg were regular guests. Gielen grew up in a familial coordinate system, whose axes were art and intellect, from which it is, of course, not easy simply to steal away. Happy circumstances – lessons from émigré teachers from the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern circle – meant that he matured just as intensively with the classical tradition as with the music of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer, who, according to Adorno, brought an end to Gemütlichkeit and demanded that music should not be decorative, but "true". At the age of 11 Gielen had attempted Schoenberg‘s Klavieraphorismen op.19; and in 1949, in honour of Schoenberg‘s 75th birthday, Gielen performed his complete works for piano – receiving a hectographed message of thanks from the already terminally ill composer. Gielen was at the time already répétiteur at the Teatro Colón; he wanted to be a conductor and composer, not a pianist. His musical experiences in Buenos Aires had been of the highest possible order: he had admired Erich Kleiber and Fritz Busch, he had sat at the continuo during an unsettling and impressive "Matthäus-Passion" under Furtwängler; he had learnt the ins and outs of the opera business and heard some of the world’s best singers, from Maria Callas to Lauritz Melchior. When Gielen the conductor describes his "idol Kleiber" as a musician who "mastered Mozart and Wagner, Beethoven and Berg – or Johann Strauss - with equal naturalness" and goes on to note that "everything came directly from his inner being, without taking a noticeable detour via the intellect" – it sounds a lot like a piece of Gielen’s own autobiography.
Gielen became a conductor, back in Europe, during an arduous apprenticeship as répétiteur at the Vienna State Opera, where he worked with Karajan, Karl Böhm, Clemens Krauss, and with Dimitri Mitropoulos, whom he especially admired. It was in the 1950s that he began his recording career as a conductor, too; and there were more and more engagements as an interpreter of new music – including his own, which he always talks about with conspicuous understatement – and also the marriage to the Viennese singer Helga Augsten, whom Adorno and Otto Klemperer also found particularly charming. For five years from 1960 Gielen was musical director of the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm (Swedish was the sixth language he had to learn).In 1969 he became director of the Orchestre National de Belgique in Brussels, and in 1973 he was made principal conductor of the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. During and between these periods of responsibility for institutions and ensembles, performances took place which were decisive for Gielen’s reputation as a conductor and brought the first entries in the annals of music history – for example his commitment to Bernd Alois Zimmermann. The relationship between these two musicians was not a normal composer-interpreter relationship; it was existential and bound the two together in a special way. Gielen, who had conducted the first performance of the once-in-a-century opera "Die Soldaten" and the "Requiem für einen jungen Dichter", probably knows more than anybody else about the difficulties facing the composer, who finally, as prefigured in the Requiem, took his own life. Gielen’s comments on this interconnection between life, work and death have often been quoted. A glance at the score of the "Soldaten" with its seven layers of movement gives an idea of the colossal effort behind the 1965 performance, and of the inner and physical strength necessary to push the piece through against all sorts of resistance and intrigues. The then choir conductor still remembers "how amazed the orchestra was at the accuracy of Gielen’s ear, which was able to make out a minimally out-of-tune bongo amidst the enormous instrumental ensemble." To one of the violists it seemed, "as if he had a computer in his head."
Gielen’s consistent commitment to his contemporaries stems from his belief in the "indivisibility" of music: he thought it only natural to give attention to living composers, just as to those of the past. He felt it to be not only his "duty and inclination" (Pflicht und Neigung - the programmatic title of one of his compositions), he also had the ability – the baton technique, an unerring ear, a quick eye - to decipher the highly complex scores of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti, and Lachenmann and to teach them with emphatic and not seldom feared authority to both musicians and audiences - addressees, who were generally not as convinced about the indivisibility of music as Gielen himself.

Gielen is a rare example of an intellectual musician, historically and philosophically well-versed, a thoughtful conductor, an analytical mind – complete with perfect pitch. He is a born dialectician, he speaks of an inherited "Jewish spirit of contradiction" and quotes Hegel: "it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity." When Gielen, the clear-thinking specialist for modernity, approached classical romantic music, which he cherished at least as much, it became obvious that he here too reconsidered more or less cherished habits and – in Gustav Mahler’s words – felt some traditions to be masked slovenliness. He drew attention to the importance of  Beethoven’s metronome markings - at first on his own, and later with the support of Rudolf Kolisch‘s ideas. He confused and angered musicians and audiences with his fast tempi, although they were true to the score and not at all arbitrary. Gielen examined and called into question a tradition concerning the "musician of ideas" Beethoven, according to which his sentiments had been passed on to the discourses of enlightenment, revolution and idealism. In the Finale of the fifth symphony – political music, which forcefully attempts to conjure up the ideals of the Revolution despite Napoleon – Gielen exaggerated the "affirmative C major" so that one shivered. And like Thomas Mann’s German composer Adrian Leverkühn, alias Dr. Faustus, he attempted to take back the Ninth with its "murky idealism" by confronting the happy and confident final call to brotherhood with musical testaments to collective and individual horror - or even integrating them: Zimmermann‘s "Ich wandte mich…" and Schoenberg‘s "Überlebender aus Warschau". The effect was – and that was Gielen’s intention - a musical analogy to Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conclusion in the "Dialectic of Enlightenment", according to which the enlightenment already contains its counterpart – barbarism. 

Like Beethoven, Gielen always has "an eye for the whole", and so the question of tempo is of decisive importance. If only one movement is taken too slowly, the whole symphony can be ruined, as Gielen demonstrated with Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. And indeed: Mahler! He has been a life-long challenge for Gielen, even more so when the offer of recording all nine symphonies gave him the chance to leave his version of the cycle to posterity. Of course, Mahler’s proximity to the Vienna school made him "so important" to Gielen; but he was also important because he "expresses the conflicts of our world, mankind’s inner conflicts…in a language which the audiences think they understand." Gielen’s intention was to expose the homelessness and ambiguousness of this language, to highlight the symptoms of crisis it exhibits, its utopian visions, its fissures and ruptures, its apotheoses - both the self-destructive and those offering glimpse of eternity - and he did so with overwhelming success, setting a new benchmark. He thought deeply about the physiognomy of each symphony, of each movement, worked exhaustively on the passages considered to be problematic (the "affirmative bluster" in the finale of the first symphony, for example). He discovered that his "inner and sentimental relationship" to the fourth movement of the fourth symphony meant that he "forgot himself"; he conducted against critical reservations of Adorno, whom he admired in most things (in the case of the finale of the Seventh with its "last C major in music history", which a conductor should "overdo"). And he conducted the finale of the Ninth so that we "learn more about eternity than from the Bible." Gielen’s holistic view proved to be a particular blessing for other large symphonic formats, too: for his contrapuntal investigation of Brahms’ works, as well as for the dimensions and proportions of Bruckner’s Symphonies.

In 1977 the "Gielen Era" began at the Frankfurt Opera. Together with his dramaturge Klaus Zehelein and directors such as Hans Neuenfels and Ruth Berghaus, Gielen confronted representative theatre with content-oriented theatre, put "repressed content" on stage with such determination that the gourmands, including a leading literary critic-cum-pontiff, were up in arms. "Regietheater" which is always either celebrated or demonized, has its roots principally in this decade in Frankfurt, when Mozart, Wagner and Verdi were performed against all convention, when Berlioz‘s "Les Troyens", Busoni’s "Doktor Faust", operas by Janáček and Schrekers "Die Gezeichneten" were (re)discovered for the German stage – Schreker, it must be said, only after Gielen had rid himself of his own and Adorno‘s reservations about acoustic hedonism and discovered the music’s psychoanalytical categories.         
Gielen’s main concert activity during this time was in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his non-conformism grated on the American music scene – and on an audience which he had to convince, as he had done in Frankfurt and Brussels, that "music communicates ‘everything’ about mankind", including that which one would "like to push away". Of course, Gielen was not only hoping for confrontation, not only aiming at educating the public by his Schubert/Webern montages or by confronting Bach with Feldman. He has conducted Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, too, Scriabin, Josef Suk and Richard Strauss; he has a weakness for Debussy and Ravel, treasures some Puccini operas as "great music" and performed Bellini’s "Norma" in Berlin a few years ago.  
Together with Frankfurt, the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Baden-Baden and Freiburg) – and thus the Donaueschingen Festival for New Music – also boasts a "Gielen era". Gielen’s appointment was not only in the great tradition of directors who thought deeply about their work and were prepared to take risks, such as Hans Rosbaud and Ernest Bour, it was also a clear signal with political implications for both the music world and the public broadcasters: it was a vote against those radio symphony orchestras whose disastrous "philharmonic ambition" was to work towards a global classical infarct and self-abolition, with glossy repetitions of the same old music. And at the same time it was a vote in favour of sticking as closely as possible to the guidelines of the broadcasting mandate, which requires the broadcaster to provide in the first instance "information" and "education", and then "entertainment" ("fun" gets no mention at all). The combination of Gielen and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra worked extraordinarily well and became well-known in the music world, which slowly realised that their concerts and recordings offered striking alternative performances: in comparison with the usual concert programmes and the luxurious timbre of interpreations by the maestros with their magic wands. And the CDs with symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, with compositions by Bartók and Stravinsky, Schoenberg‘s "Gurrelieder" were not only awarded with prizes, they also – horribile dictu – sold well. 

When Gielen’s memoirs "Unbedingt Musik" appeared in 2005 there was a certain degree of relief and pride in the Southwest: he had called his chapter about the time with Southwest German Radio "the fulfillment". Gielen’s autobiography was highly regarded, not only in musical circles, because he is an important, a "directly affected" witness to the 20th century, and because the book is honest, uncompromising in insight and self-knowledge and spares no ugly details. He doesn’t retell his life as a success story, but rather as a series of highs and lows. He makes it clear what he is proud of, but he omits neither disappointments, nor hurt, failures or misfortune. He is hard on others, without sparing himself. Reading the book, one notices the paradox that Gielen became nolens volens part of the music industry whose extravagancies and cynicisms he had fought against so vehemently. And the music industry’s self-healing powers have meant that Gielen has often received medals, prizes and awards in part because of his nonconformity: ranging from the Adorno Prize in 1986 to the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2010. We learn from the book that Gielen’s basic mental state is one of melancholic scepticism, brightened up by moments of happiness, which include not only moments of artistic fulfilment, but also landscapes, literature, Riesling form the Rheingau, cigars from Nicaragua and "mango duck"; we learn that he has more difficulties loving "humanity" as a whole than loving a few select people; that he generally finds the world – as Goethe alleged of Beethoven –"detestable", but also that Schubert often brings him "to tears". Particularly touching is the almost mild conclusion he draws looking back on his life and work: "I have always thought – and I still do – that the function of art and music is to show humanity paradigmatically the conflicts of its age and of man’s inner life – and only that is the truth of art … Now I have realised that there is something else which is no less important: that music above all shows us utopian, longed for moments."