Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Blomstedt Conducts an all-Mozart Concert

Herbert Blomstedt
Courtesy of the Artist
Herbert Blomstedt

Saturday, May 22, 2021
8:00 PM

In a 2018 all-Mozart concert, Herbert Blomstedt leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in three of the Austrian composer's greatest symphonies: No. 34, the "Linz," and the "Jupiter."

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor

Symphony No. 34
Symphony No. 36, Linz
Symphony No. 41, Jupiter

Encore broadcast from February, 24, 2018

Hear WCRB's Alan McLellan in conversation with Herbert Blomstedt in the player above.


Alan McLellan (AM) [00:00:00] Herbert Blomstedt, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me and for coming to Boston to conduct Mozart and to give us an opportunity to broadcast your performance of Mozart. Can you tell me what your earliest experience of Mozart was?

Herbert Blomstedt (HB) [00:00:17] I think it must have -- I was a violinist as a boy. My mother wanted me to have a little bit piano too. So what I could play by Mozart was the "Sonata facile," [sings], so all, only white keys, but I could play only the first bars, of course, I was just a kid, but that was perhaps my first acquaintance with Mozart. I did have another experience with Mozart that was quite remarkable, and that was when I listened to the radio on summer vacation. I was up with my grandparents, farmers, up to the northwest of Sweden, and they had little radio. This was the 1930s, mid-1930s, a very primitive radio for our taste today. But we could hear also foreign countries. And we listened to a radio station in Germany, because on every Sunday at 11 o'clock, there was a concert on that little radio. And I heard my later orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, play [sings]. And so on. The A Major theme from one of the piano sonata theme and variations written for orchestra by Max Reger with lots of wonderful variations and a giant fugue at the end.

[00:02:02] The sound was absolutely captivating. It was like sorcery to me, another world, and that was Mozart. I had played a little bit of that also on the piano, just the first few bars I could play of the piano. And when I heard it from the orchestra, that charmed me for forever. Then later, of course, uh, when we played string quartets at home, we played Mozart's quartets. After we had been done with all 76 of Haydn, they were a little bit simpler for younger students. And Mozart was then a revelation. And I remember when we played the Dissonance Quartet, which is a C major, that that was especially impressive because it was so weird harmonies, really weird dissonances that fascinated me at that time also. And that is really the background of this program, also. When we put together a program of three Mozart symphonies, usually you hear the three last ones, then E Flat, the G minor, and the "Jupiter." But I would like to do something different. I think the others were not possible for their program planning. So I decided to why not do a program with three C Major symphonies? That is, the first one is really a minor symphony for a time, but it is C Major. But also then this was back in Salzburg. I think it was the last symphony he wrote in Salzburg.

AM [00:03:41] This is the 34th you're talking about. In what sense is it minor?

HB [00:03:46] Well, it's short. It's only 23 minutes.

AM [00:03:49] I see. "Minor," in the sense -- I see. Yes.

HB [00:03:51] It has the only three movements. Has no menuetto. But it's great music. Oh, it's great music. And he doesn't go on for many bars until he's in the minor mode. And during the movement, also the first movement, he oscillates between major and minor in the most striking way. It's in 4/4, and the first quarter can be in minor, next bar is in major, next one is again in major, just as if he couldn't make up his mind. He's torn between positive and negative, simply speaking, feelings. [Sings] It's almost like crying, but in a dance setting. [Sings] It was very dramatic, and that he does that relatively early. This is before he went to Vienna. But already then he was wildly experimenting with keys. And of course, the jump between the 34th and the 36th, that we are playing next, which he wrote in Vienna, for Linz, but he was already in Vienna, is enormous. Yeah. Also in length. "Linz" Symphony is almost twice as long as this first 34, and it's very rich in harmony, very rich, extremely varied. But he's written for exactly the same orchestra. Exactly. No flute, no clarinets, just oboes and bassoons in the wind section, and of course horns and trumpets, which are quite rare that he uses trumpets also for the slow movement. The first time he did that is in this, already in the 36th. In the 34th, all the winds are silent in the slow movement, which creates, of course, a completely other sound. But he knows that with this, with the special sound, with even timpani and trumpets in the slow movement, some new sounds playing very soft, extremely charming and wonderful sound conception.

AM [00:06:21] And then the 41, the "Jupiter," is something completely different.

HB [00:06:25] Of course, that is his opus summum, the greatest symphony here ever wrote. After that, he wrote no symphony, and this, he lived still three years, but he wrote no symphonies. You know, some other great works, piano concertos and of course, the Requiem and so on, and wonderful chamber music. But this is his last symphony. I don't know why he did not write any more symphonies. He wrote some wonderful operas after that. And in the piano concertos, his fantasy is just unbelievable. He was a pianist, but he played, practically even [as] well, the violin. His father, who was a violin teacher, a famous one, told him often, "You must play more the violin. You're as great, as a violinist."

AM [00:07:18] He brought him up as a prodigy violinist, didn't he.

HB [00:07:22] So, he when he comes to the piano concerto, his imagination is boundless, but also in the symphonies, in the 41, you also hear that he had studied Bach. He had discovered Bach. He had heard very polyphonic music also when he was traveling as a boy in Italy. You know, the famous story, he heard the Miserere of Allegri, which is in then 18 or 20 parts, and he wrote out them from memory. An incredible story. He was interested in polyphonic music. He wrote in some fugues imitation of Bach. But in the Jupiter symphony, the last movement, he has a fugue already, after half a minute, there comes a fugue. [Sings] Uh, a very tight five-part fugue. And of course at the end of the symphony, he adds another fugue that's even more remarkable. It's also in five part, but he not only uses one theme, it uses three themes, fugue in three themes! One is the [Sings], which is the main theme of the movement, but he also uses that [Sings]. And the second theme, [Sings], then put this together in the most genius, genius way.

[00:08:58] We love Mozart, all listeners love Mozart, and professionals perhaps love him even more. He can be so simple and moving and so, so complicated at the same time. But you don't notice how complicated it is. That is his trick. He knows that he has to please the listeners who are not so well into his music. He wants to please because that gave him income. He had to depend on art and he has to please. But he never pleases with simple music. That is simplistic. You know, it's simple on the surface, but in the background is very complicated. We always marvel at this, how that is possible. To write complicated music is not difficult. I could write that. I'm not a composer, but I could write complicated pieces. No problem. But to write a simple piece that is beautiful and meaningful is really difficult. It takes a master. And to do it at the same time, something very simple and something extremely complicated at the same time, there are very few who can do that.

[00:10:14] The more you study him, the more you understand what a master he was. He combines two ages. You know, he knew knew the baroque music very well. He had a friend in Vienna, Baron van Swieten, and he was a collector and he had many of Bach's works, all the printed works. There are not many, but there are some printed works at his time even. And then he had many manuscripts and he showed them to Mozart. Mozart knew them and also got fascinated by this composer. Immediate successors of Bach, 1750s and 60s, forgot him. They thought he was an old, uh, belonged to another era that was all stuffy music, wig music. You know, they wanted to be modern, more pleasing, light stuff. And Mozart was a child of that time. You can hear that perhaps especially in the slow movement of the 34. The early symphony is very sweet music, very, very full of emotion: [Sings]. It's like looking at a wonderful piece of ceramic, you know, in a glass mounter. It's so fragile and so fabulous, so full of feeling. You can cry here. You can feel it here, here and here, and joy a couple of bars here, but it's very emotional music. That was his time. And then a little bit later comes Beethoven, the revolutionary. Uses this and expand this to something enormous, some even violent, uh, choleric emotions. Mozart is just as deep, but under the surface. Very elegant.

AM [00:12:24] Yes, and I was thinking, as you're talking, that Bach's sons had a big influence on Mozart. He was friends with Johann Christian Bach in London, and he must have absorbed something from the CPE Bach tradition, all that feeling, you know, that "Empfindsamkeit," or whatever it was. Yeah.

HB [00:12:48] I don't know what that is, that's a good word in German, I don't know what it is in English.

AM [00:12:52] I don't have any idea. That's why I said it in German. No, it's yeah. It's this feeling.

HB [00:12:56] Extreme sensitivity. Sensitive and emotionally, but it's never sentimental. Never cheap feelings. That's also very easy, to write sentimental stuff, sentimental song or a little ditty. Any of us can do that. And we have lots of popular music from that time that abounds in that kind. But at the same time, it must be noble. And that is not so easy. That is true, he came to London as a boy, I think already as a six year old, and he met Christian Bach, who was living in London. That was the youngest son of Sebastian. And he was, of course, a man of the new age, completely new age. And Mozart was, was playing piano with him, you know, sat in his lap.

AM [00:13:52] As an eight year old, or something.

HB [00:13:54] Yeah. A young, young boy. And of course, he admired Johann Christian Bach enormously. And Christian Bach came to London after being in Milano, in Milan, and writing some wonderful operas that also, I'm sure young Mozart knew and stimulated his fantasy for the stage. He was a great influence on Mozart.

AM [00:14:21] Speaking of influences, I wanted to ask you about one of your influences, because we're celebrating the Bernstein year. And I noticed that on one bio of you, there was an indication that you had studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. Was that an experience you have memories of, that you can talk about? Any stories there?

HB [00:14:46] I never forget that. That was in the summer of '53. Many years ago. That is the 64 years ago. I went up, I was studying in New York, Juilliard, and I went up to Bernsten. He lived on the 57th Street, across the Carnegie Hall at that time. And I dared to go up and knock at his door. And I had a scholarship for one year, but it was ending already in June '53. And Tanglewood starts in July. And I dearly wanted to go up to Tanglewood before I returned to Sweden and my scholarship is finished. So I asked him, would that be a possibility for me to to study with you in Tanglewood before I go back to Sweden? And he was very sweet, which he always was. He had a special love, I think, for young musicians. He secured a scholarship for me. I didn't have to pay any tuition. I didn't have to pay for room and board. It was the Koussevitzky Prize he gave me, which meant really, not the prize for conducting, but for studying at Tanglewood. So I was there for the whole season in Tanglewood and it was a great experience.

[00:16:12] He didn't teach very much himself. He was newly married, had a child, and I think even two children at that time. And I remember going to his birthday party, not far from Tanglewood, where he lived in the summer house. I think it was 26 August or 27 August or something like that. Late in August. And he was, of course, most charming, a family man, with his children and his wife. Very, very moving to see him that way. But he was very, very occupied, of course, with concerts in Tanglewood. So he didn't teach very much. We had, most classes, we had Lukas Foss, which was a wonderful teacher. Lukas Foss I think was born in Berlin and came to America and was a wunderkind. He was a fantastic pianist. And he sat at the piano and played the scores for us and analyzed the score with us. He didn't teach us conducting either. Neither did Bernstein. It was study of scores, which was a revelation, because that's the basic of our whole profession, is to know the scores.

[00:17:37] I went to Juilliard in New York for a season, just half a year in '53, before I went to Tanglewood, and my teacher there was Jean Morel. He was a fantastic musician, percussionist by profession. He played the first performance of "L'histoire du Soldat," by Stravinsky, the great percussion part, as you know. That spring he didn't teach conducting at all. We studied solfege with him that semester. I'm sure other semesters he was teaching also conducting. But this semester he taught only French solfege, which was completely new to me. I had another system of solfege from my conservatory. So this was a revelation for me and wonderful. Lots of sight reading, uh, lots of dictation, writing down what you heard, a little fugue, writing down all the parts. So that was also very good training. So actually conducting training, moving my hands, in front of the orchestra, was not what I got to study in America. And I don't think that Bernstein was very interested in that. He was interested in the music and in transmitting his feeling about the music and analyzing the music. And in that he was wonderful. He was a great inspiration for anybody who played with him and watched him. I'm very grateful for those experiences.

[00:19:12] I knew him until the very end of his life. When I went back to Sweden after the American experience, I had a wonderful debut concert with the Stockholm Philharmonic. And I was so successful and I wrote to Bernstein, immediately reported, because he had told his students, "Please let me know how you are proceeding in your studies. It will always interest me." I wrote him a letter and he even answered, you know, in a few days here, a handwritten letter, full, very full of appreciation. "I am very proud of you," and so on, and he ended by saying, "When are you coming to America?" So I didn't come to America until '79. So there were many years in between.

[00:20:00] Last time I met him was in San Francisco just a couple of months before he died. I was in San Francisco conducting my orchestra in a two week period. I had done conducting them every year for forty years, almost, because I am still the conductor laureate of the orchestra. And it happened so that, uh, Bernstein was on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic during that time and he came to San Francisco to play with them. I remember they played Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He was already suffering very much and he was very depending on alcohol and nicotine. He was suffering. When he got offstage, he immediately had to have a puff and then a glass of whiskey. He was completely done, really. But he made music, and in that capacity was incredible.

[00:21:05] He was music. He was music, the whole person. And at the same time, he was always so, so generous, generous, open. So you could imagine that with such a history as his, you know, he would be demanding and since he was really depending on these drugs, that he would show that he was suffering. But he was always open and generous and friendly. We sat together after the concert in my, in the conductor's room in San Francisco and talked about old memories. And he was smoking like mad, of course. And I hate smoke. And he had this cigarette under my nose. I could not ask him to put it away because he was my mentor. He needed it. He needed it. And he even spilled some ashes on my tie. And he was so sorry! He tried to clean the tie. He was absolutely wonderful person. I am sad he was suffering so, so much. But at the end, he always made music.

AM [00:22:28] Herbert Blomstedt, thank you so much for your time today and for all this history, your long history, and what a great life you've had so far. And it continues. And I'm so glad that you're conducting now.

HB [00:22:41] I'm very grateful.