Wednesday 4 August 2021

From Silence: Franz Welser-Möst's autobiography is a thoughtful meditation on the conductor's craft

Franz Welser-Möst From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World; Clearview Books

Franz Welser-Möst From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World; Clearview Books

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A thoughtful, poetic yet trenchant meditation on the music and its role in today's society

Conductor Franz Welser-Möst's book From Silence: Finding Calm in a Dissonant World is not quite an autobiography, though it is autobiographical in a sense as it is the conductor's meditations on the role of the conductor seen through the prism of his experiences. Written with Axel Bruggemann and translated by Christine Shuttleworth the book is published in the UK by Clearview Books.

It is a very poetic book, Welser-Möst takes a considered and thoughtful view of his craft, there are strong opinions here but also a feeling of the more mystical elements of music making. We begin in silence, with a profoundly serious car accident that Welser-Möst had when he was 18. And throughout the book, the sections on the conductor's craft are interleaved with meditations on types of silence, from the meditative to journeying up a mountain.

Welser-Möst's narrative interleaves his own personal development with passages about the role of the conductor and of music today, so that each time the young Franz moves on the older one thinks about what this means. There are trenchant views here, particularly about the role a conductor might play and the wider role of music in the light of his experience heading up the Cleveland Orchestra.

 'I must confess that I sometimes feel like a stranger in this loud and euphoric world, in which so much is dealt with on the surface and so little in depth'.

Many times during the book Welser-Möst feels like this bemused stranger, yet there are highly practical considerations too. He is thoughtful about the role of music and musicians in society, 'I have learned much in the USA, above all that it is important repeatedly to address the relevance and self-concept of an institution such as an orchestra'. Repeatedly we come back to questions of competence, relevance and craftsmanship, whether in opera or the concert hall.

'The whole company in a piano dress rehearsal should not have to deal with the question of how the dead Commendatore in Don Giovanni actually gets off stage'.

Quite often, underneath this poetic and thoughtful prose we can detect the rather serious, intense and somewhat unyielding man, who thinks deeply and holds opionions strongly. Yet always, we feel that his dedication is not to himself but the music, and he decries the modern tendency to self-promotion.

The problematic areas are here too. The episode in London is dealt with fairly frankly, and we get a feel for his sense of propriety and what is proper, even as a young man who certainly was not the yielding and malleable young conductor that the orchestral management expected. Similarly, he deals with the collapse of his relationship with the intendant in Zurich, whilst being clear and positive about what they achieved.

'For me it is the expression of a populist attitude when an interpretation is aimed at instant appeal and it is merely a question of who can play a work in the most extreme, exaggerated way'

His chapter 'On the production of sound' has some intriguing thoughts about the post-war generation of conductors, Bernstein, Karajan, Celibidache, their approach and what they achieved as figures of authority. 'I find it strange when orchestras today still want to be conducted by such domineering personalities ... Making music today can only be done in a spirit of togetherness.'

This section also includes thoughtful considerations of music itself, focusing on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. But we finish with a final meditation on silence, that on the brink of eternity.

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