The Compleat Conductor

by Gunther Schuller (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-506377-5, 571 pages, hardcover, $49.95.)

Reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman in Schwann/Opus, Spring 1998, pp. 22A-24A. (revised, 2005)

Bernard D. Sherman's articles appear in The New York Times and many other national and international publications; his books include Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Invaluable but infuriating, masterful but misguided, The Compleat Conductor should be read by anyone who cares about orchestral music. It should be read, however, with a skeptical eye.

That’s not because its author, Gunther Schuller, lacks expertise. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Schuller brings a craftsman's insight into how music is put together. As a one-time orchestral player, he understands what orchestras need from the podium (and his comments about performing under such legends as Toscanini, Reiner, Monteux, and Beecham are among the asides that keep one from skipping the footnotes). Above all, as a skilled conductor who has led orchestras around the world, he speaks as a practitioner.

If Schuller’s résumé isn’t enough to whet your appetite, the table of contents might suffice. Schuller devotes much of the book to detailed, bar-by-bar discussions of how to conduct a core group of masterpieces: Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7, Brahms 1 and 4, Schumann 2, Tchaikovsky 6, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Second Suite. Not only has he conducted these works himself; for the book he listened to over three hundred recordings, taking what must have been thousands of pages of notes. Think of a favorite conductor, and the chances are good that his recordings are discussed here, in fascinating detail.

The chances are also good that your favorite maestro’s recording leaves Schuller not merely cold but enraged. Thanks to all that listening, he says, many of his “former heroes—Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Walter—have fallen from their high pedestals.” Most contemporary conductors fare little better. Why? Because these maestros have either overlooked or willfully contradicted the instructions in the scores they conduct, the grids of dots and squiggles that communicate which notes to play and, to varying degrees, how to play them. To Schuller, these conductores violate “a sacred trust to translate” the scores “with as much insight and fidelity as is humanly possible.” Schuller argues that we must have “unquestioned respect” for scores, and must “consider reliable (and in some sense, perhaps, even definitive) what a composer, after much exacting selfscrutiny of his ideas . . . has written unless we have overwhelming documentary evidence to the contrary.” He considered calling the book Nobody Gives a Damn about the Composer, and while Oxford’s marketing department must be relieved that he changed his mind, the original title does capture both his philosophy and his righteous wrath. (Alex Ross calls the book a jeremiad.)

Schuller’s concern with the letter of the score can pay off nicely, particularly when he brings gems to light that often get buried in the mud of routine playing: piquant harmonies made bland by the submersion of a crucial note, twos-against-threes that are ironed out, wide dynamic contrasts reduced to all-purpose mezzofortes, beats (or measures) that are given equal stress when they should be differentiated, counterpoints drowned by overloud winds, strings, or timpani, crescendos diffused by being brought on too early. His grasp of musical structure also brings rewards. His analysis of the bar structure of Beethoven's Fifth (what theorists call its "hypermeter") is accessible enough for most readers to follow, but is at the same time a worthy contribution to the literature on this symphony.

Expected Deviations

So why should it be read with a skeptical eye? Because even though he grants the performer a small degree of leeway, Schuller carries his devotion to the score too far. That conclusion seems inescapable, for a variety of reasons.

One reason has to do with the one excuse Schuller accepts for departing from the score: “overwhelming documentary evidence" that the composer did, or expected it. Yet there is far more evidence than he acknowledges of composers expecting some of the deviations from the page that he deplores. A few examples involve a composer he writes about at length: Brahms. Was his notation, as Schuller says, really as “meticulous and precise” as that of a 20th-century composer?

Consider the matter of speeding up during crescendos, a practice Schuller decries repeatedly. Schuller puts down Furtwängler for having “built a career” on this device, which is common among older conductors. But recorded musicians who came of age in the last century were so given to the practice that we might wonder whether it would have bothered 19th-century composers —or rather, whether they would have considered it normal, the sort of thing that doesn’t need to be indicated.

As it happens, we have plenty of evidence about their views, and some of it involves Brahms. Joseph Joachim reported that when Brahms accompanied his D-minor Violin Sonata, he increased the tempo markedly at the point where the music suddenly becomes loud for the first time—yet no change of tempo is noted in the score. If you doubt such eyewitness reports, listen to the surviving recordings not only of musicians in Brahms’s circle, but of the composer himself; all of these artists tend to accelerate during crescendos. And if you think this type of freedom couldn’t have applied to conducting, we know that Brahms wanted conductors to accelerate during various crescendo passages in in the finale of the Second Piano Concerto, even though the published score doesn't mention the speeding-up[1]; he also wanted the Vivace section in the sixth movement of his German Requiem to begin “not too fast” and then gradually accelerate. Not even Furtwängler dares to accelerate in that section. (Brahms also accelerated in a couple of places in the finale of his Symphony 4—but more on that later.)

Or consider one of Schuller’s other self-described bêtes noirs, cutting off the last note under a slur, at less than its full value. In a letter to Joachim, Brahms explicitly called for this practice. Brahms also made use of another deviation that Schuller rails against regularly. At the end of the Vivace section in the Requiem, on the text, “Hell, where is thy victory?”, there are three dramatic pauses; if a conductor elongated the last of them, Schuller would (to judge by his comments on other works) accuse him of “recomposing” the music by “adding an unwritten measure.” Yet we have strong evidence that Brahms himself conducted it this way. And if a conductor compounded the effect by slowing the tempo during the ensuing climax on the words, “Wo ist dein Sieg?”, Schuller would thunder that Brahms had already composed a slowdown into the score by using longer note values. To slow further, says Schuller about similar situations, is tasteless. Once again, though, the composer seems to have done exactly what Schuller detests; was Brahms tasteless, or merely the product of an era that had a different sense of "taste"?.

Brahms was not atypical. A slew of historical performance practices involves reading the score less literally than modern performers do. To be fair, Schuller discusses some of these practices with respect to Beethoven; and he doesn’t rule out all liberties with tempo. But as the above examples suggest, he does not seem fully informed about how performance styles have changed since Brahms’s day, or even since Sibelius’s active years. Schuller speaks of a rise in orchestral standards since then, but fails to see that much of the change reflects a revolution in taste (best documented and analyzed in Robert Philip’s Early Recordings and Musical Style). Schuller, who began his career at mid-century, reflects the aesthetic that dominated by the end of World War II, in which accurately realizing the details of the score is an end in itself. The score was regarded as a perfect blueprint of exactly what should happen in performance. But this view of the function of the score held only in one era - it was certainly not shared by Handel or Mozart, or even by Brahms. What Schuller ignores is that his own era's performance values differ markedly from those of composers as recent as Elgar and Bartók—as proved by their recordings of their own music, which deviate considerably from their scores in many of the ways that Schuller detests. And unlike the recordings of Richard Strauss, which Schuller does discuss, these recordings cannot be discounted as reflecting the composers’ “casual” approach to performance. (And the very "casualness" is itself a marker of a different era's values.)

Schuller thus underestimates the importance of historical shifts in style. The only truly weak chapter in the book, in fact, is the second, where Schuller gives a history of conducting. It contains a great deal of interesting information, but tends to interpret it according to Schuller's modernist ideals. Thus Wagner’s use of the adverb “imperceptibly” is taken as evidence that his views on tempo modification were similar to the author’s. No consideration is given to contemporary reports that in a classical symphonic movement, Wagner slowed his tempo by a full one-third when he arrived at the second subject.

A subtler but more telling misreading occurs when Schuller discusses some markings that Brahms penciled into the autograph of the Fourth Symphony’s finale, indicating speed-ups and slow-downs for specific variations.[2] Brahms removed these markings before publication, and Schuller takes this to mean that he had changed his mind about them. “These facts,” writes Schuller, “ought to serve as another reminder to us that Brahms did not relish tempo modifications in his works beyond those he specifically indicates in his scores.” We’ve already seen that Brahms did modify tempos in performance well beyond what his scores indicate; but more to the point, Brahms gave a very different explanation for why he removed those pencilled-in markings, and this explanation goes to the heart of Schuller’s enterprise.

Brahms wrote that when he conducted a new work he couldn’t “do enough pushing ahead and holding back to come near the desired expression, passionate or quiet.” But after an orchestra had “completely absorbed” the work, he said, “everything just falls into place,” rendering the extra markings superfluous. If the markings are left in the score at that stage, they may be abused by maestros who like to “make a big impression with what they call a free artistic interpretation.” This does seem to condemn Mengelberg-like extremes - but not to rule out any unmarked tempo modifications at all. After all, when Brahms says that the markings become superfluous once an orchestra has “absorbed” the work, it implies that he expected performers to modify the tempo more than is indicated. Indeed, many of the conductors that Brahms enthused over — Mahler, Artur Nikisch, and Fritz Steinbach, to name three — were noted tempo modifiers, and his least favorite among his champions was Hans Richter, who was known for being undernuanced.[3]
Another interpretation of Brahms's remarks comes from Robert Philips, in his excellent Performing Music in the Age of Recording. He notes that Brahms seems to have suggested that one would play a work more demonstratively for an audience that had never heard it before than for an audience that knew it well. Thus, in his view, there was no one ideal way to play a piece; how to play it depended not only on the music's internal content, but on the audience's knowledge. Again, Schuller's ideal of the score as an ideal realization of the music turns out to be historically contingent.

Do Composers Always Know Best?

The above objections involve composers expecting performers to do certain things that are not marked literally on the page. One could also raise another, more basic objection. Schuller’s core belief is that composers know best how to make their music work in performance; but while that is often the case, it’s not as inalterably true as it may seem. One can recount dozens of tales of performers having interpretive ideas that never occurred to the composer, but that work just as well or even better than what’s in the score — as judged by the appreciative composer himself. And, pace Schuller, there is sometimes good reason to value the considerable emotional power that performers’ insights can add.

Schuller opposes such ideas, so let me try another thought-experiment, again involving the Brahms Requiem. I imagine that Schuller would agree with the English critic who gets apoplectic whenever the chorus enters with a celestial pianissimo at the work’s opening, since the entry is marked only with a single p. “Brahms was perfectly capable of writing pp when he wanted it,” this critic fumes. What the critic doesn’t know, however, is that late in his life Brahms told the conductor Siegfried Ochs that he wanted the chorus to enter with “the softest pianissimo.” Suddenly, those conductors who take it much more softly than the marked piano (like Barenboim and Furtwängler) become the ones who are in tune with the composer.

Now, if you believe that only composers should have a say in how to perform their music, then the pianissimo entry becomes acceptable purely because of the conversation with Ochs. But that position is easy to refute. Suppose that the conversation had never taken place, or that Ochs had never written about it: the effect of the pianissimo entry would be exactly the same. I have always found the pianissimo beautiful, and was delighted to learn that Brahms wanted it. But if he didn’t, it would still be moving. Brahms did want it, but we would never have known if we had only the score to go by.

We can go further. Sometimes composers perform in a way that is effective for their audience or performance situation, but not for ours; or they come up with one solution that works, but not the only solution; or (quite often) they change their minds about how to perform a piece. If they are allowed such second thoughts, why should we deny that skilled performers might have equally effective second thoughts?

Indeed, anti-Schullerian though it may be, sometimes the performer knows better than the composer about how to perform. Consider the cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As the Beethoven Forum has noted, Beethoven calls for a sudden "a tempo" - a return to the main tempo after a slowdown - just before the mysterious coda to the first movement begins, but no interpreter on record plays it that way. Every conductor, even the most literal-minded, slows into the coda. In my view, they differ from Beethoven because they have more real-world experience of how this passage works in performance. Beethoven may have known more than anyone else about the construction of this music; but he never had the chance to actually hear it played. Conductors may, by contrast, have led many dozens of performances of the Ninth. Maybe that kind of experience counts for something.

Schuller does show that the difference between a piano and a pianissimo can sometimes have great musical significance, which performers should try to grasp. Thus my examples don’t necessarily imply the extreme opposite view to Schuller’s, in which performers should do whatever they want and ignore the composer’s markings. In practice, a good case can be made for considering Schuller-style scrutiny of every detail of a score to be the best starting point for interpreters. But the words “starting point” are crucial. Schuller agrees, of course, that one must go beyond what’s in the score; but he also believes that “if an interpretation—no matter how compelling, how exciting, no matter how sublime at certain moments—is achieved from outside the score’s basic information, to the extent that it ignores this core, it is to that extent invalid.” Compelling, exciting, sublime - but invalid? I have yet to hear any strong ethical or aesthetic reason why.

I fear that if conductors and critics are too cowed by Schuller’s literalist strictures, it could lead to performances that are inhibited and overly strict. If they are not cowed, however, they can certainly learn from Schuller. His book could be an effective antidote against the routine or sloppy habits that mar orchestral playing. And listeners who loves the works Schuller examines will get an insight into their performance challenges that has rarely been equaled in print. Like all of us, Schuller is the product of a certain time and place, and his failure to recognize the limitations of his era's worldview can make him sound dated. But when he is at his best, his insights transcend fashion.

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1. The autograph contains these instructions written in by the composer, then crossed out before publication; he wrote the same markings in the four-hand piano autograph score. A detailed discussion by Robert Pascall and Philip Weller will appear in the book Performing Brahms, which I am co-editing. The authors speculate that Brahms entered these markings (and metronome markings as well, which are published) for the benefit of conductors he would be working with when he premiered the concerto in various parts of Germany. He didn't publish them because they would likely be overdone in performances by many of his contemporaries. I would add that many performers even today observe the accelerations and slowdowns that Brahms marked in the finale - they come to most musicians "naturally," as Brahms later said would happen when he refrained from publishing similar markings in the Fourth Symphony autograph.back to text

2. Schuller’s account of these includes a slight error. He reports that “a sost. and largamente were added in m. 193,” but in fact they were added in m. 57. At m. 193, an animato was added. His account of the other three marks is accurate (p. 424). back to text

3. Yes, Brahms praised the supposedly strict Felix Weingartner’s way with Symphony 2, calling it “healthy”; but Weingartner’s 1940 recording, which is undoubtedly stricter than his performances 45 years earlier, accelerates far more in some of the exciting passages than modern recordings do. And yes, during a tiff with Hans von Bülow, Brahms complained about the conductor’s mannerisms and said that if he’d wanted them, he would have written them into the score. But his warm praise of Bülow at other times, plus evidence regarding his own playing and that of other performers he praised unequivocally, shows that this statement is not to be taken as a general principle, but as a response to a specific situation (a spat between two difficult men) and to a specific performer who was often considered mannered even by the standards of his day. back to text