Producer/Director/Screenwriter: Philo Bregstein
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last night, in an act of pure kismet, I went in search of something to watch that wasn’t a feature film. I didn’t want to be bothered watching performances, analyzing dialogue, watching camerawork or set design. I just wanted to float through something that wasn’t so demanding on my analytical skills. Rather quickly, I laid hands on an old Facets video, a documentary about the great 20th century German conductor Otto Klemperer. The combination of cultural history and glorious music seemed ideal, so that’s what I watched.
As it happens, today is the anniversary of Klemperer’s birth, a fact I learned from Carl Grapentine, the morning host for WFMT, Chicago’s classical radio station. Klemperer (father of “Colonel Klink,” Werner Klemperer) would have been 124 years old, a number that shocked Grapentine as being too old for a conductor he witnessed in action. Klemperer lived to be 88, so just about any older adult who listened to classical music stood a chance of being able to see him conduct.
Klemperer’s long and tumultuous life threw a bit of a wrench into my plans for a leisurely evening in front of the TV screen. You just don’t loll around when a man talks about meeting Mahler and having him listening over his shoulder and correcting a score note written many years ago, discussing Jewish and Christian concepts of the divine with Sigmund Freud, or hanging out in Los Angeles with fellow refugees Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schönberg, Bruno Walter, and Albert Einstein. I had to stop surfing around on my laptop and really pay attention—and I’m very glad I did.
The documentary begins with Klemperer conducting under the opening credits and segues to the aged maestro rehearsing an orchestra. We will return to his rehearsals throughout this mainly chronological film, watching Klemperer’s seated form exert minimal movement to guide the musicians, sing measures of the score to show where he wants emphases to be, and scold one unfortunate violinist for not playing as instructed.
The story begins in Breslau, where Klemperer was born and given his first musical lessons by his mother, a talented pianist. He began his musical studies in Frankfort, though he wanted to become an actor. It was only when a theatrical production he was involved with lost its conductor that he was quickly seated at the podium. This, he said, thrilled him immensely—he just a music student and conducting an orchestra! This moment, I imagine, sealed his fate.
He went on to Berlin to continue his music education at the Stern Conservatory, where Hans Pfizner, a musician in the Romantic tradition, was his instructor. He mentions sitting in a park one day and watching a man walk slowly past. The man had a slight limp, and Klemperer realized that he was Gustav Mahler. I’m not certain how it happened, perhaps through Pfizner, but Klemperer and Mahler became acquainted. It was during this acquaintance that he received the score correction I mentioned earlier. Klemperer became enamored of modern music through Mahler’s influence, and it was Mahler whose recommendations secured Klemperer positions at the German National Theatre in Prague and in Hamburg. He continued to knock around Germany in the 1910s, accepting positions in Strausborg, Cologne, and Wiesbaden.
He conducted quite a bit of opera, thereby putting his actory ambitions into service in working with the production designers and singers on staging. His harsh musical opening and stark staging of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman borrowed Berthold Brecht’s technique of epic alienation, angering conservative audiences, particularly the fledgling Nazis who favored heroic/romantic stagings of Wagner. His Fidelio removed the pleasantries of the traditional staging, putting the chorus of political prisoners in this, Beethoven’s only opera, in chains rather than allowing them to walk freely. Photos and music from these productions accompany this portion of the documentary’s exposition.
In 1927, Klemperer made his biggest mark, as music director of The Kroll Opera in Berlin, championing the modernist works of Mahler, Schönberg, Paul Hindemith, Stravinsky, and even Kurt Weill. The documentary gives us an excerpt of Klemperer conducting Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Suite from The Threepenny Opera).
Throughout this cinematic resume, Klemperer continuously comments on the social conditions around him, particularly the rise of the Nazis and the growing threat to the Jews of Europe. He remarks that after World War I, when Germans saw their troops come home spiffy and bedecked with flowers, it was hard to imagine they had actually lost the war; the blame was, “of course,” placed on the Jewish bankers. Klemperer had contact with some of the great thinkers of his day, including Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose musical content for The Spirit of Utopia (1918) he reviewed. When Klemperer, a Jew, learned that the Nazis had arrested a Jewish professor of his acquaintance (“Where is he?” “Nobody knows.”), he determined to leave Germany. He journeyed to Austria, Switzerland, France, and was invited to Los Angeles by a wealthy patron of the conductorless Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the film, he makes fun of the fat-cat society matrons who were his new masters; accounts of how he turned the ragtag musicians into a world-class orchestra show that the scorn was not mutual. And he agonized that all he could do was sit in exile while the Jews of Europe were being exterminated.
In 1939, a brain tumor left him semi-paralyzed and virtually unemployable. His career resurrection came as the chief conductor of the Budapest Opera (1947-1950). In 1959, he was appointed “principal conductor for life” of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra by its founder, Walter Legge. When Legge decided to disband the orchestra, it reorganized as the New Philharmonia under musician management, with Klemperer at its head.
Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Wilhelm Furtwängler
Klemperer was devoted to the composer above all things and lived the philosophy of rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; he did something unheard of among penny-pinching opera companies—he rehearsed once with the orchestra alone and then with orchestra and singers. He studied scores as religious scholars study the Bible or the Koran; when he couldn’t get work conducting, this became his overriding preoccupation. Unlike the intensity of Toscanini or the romanticism of Furtwängler, he conducted without adding his own flourishes, and many of his recordings are considered authoritative—the “composer’s cut” if we put it in cinematic terms. His tempos tended to be slow (though I fancy nobody conducted a slower Mahler than Leonard Bernstein) and exact, which didn’t always please either his musicians or his audiences. Yet it’s very clear from this documentary that he was an emotional person who felt each note, and the excerpts to which we are treated sound just fine to my admittedly untrained ear. Among the musical excerpts in the film are the New Philharmonia playing Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture, Mozart’s Serenade KV 575, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [Resurrection]; the Amsterdam Concertgebouw playing Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht; footage of the Berlin Komische Oper’s production of Bizet’s Carmen; and the Berlin Staatskapelle performing the overture to Offenbach’s opera La Belle Hélène, as well as “Salome’s Dance” from Richard Strauss’s opera Salome.
Many of his professional collaborators were interviewed for this film, including conductor Paul Dessau, who worked under Klemperer at the Cologne Opera; Hans Curjel, who was Klemperer’s dramaturg at the Berlin Kroll Opera; Natalia Saz, a Russian theatre and opera director, whose good-hearted indifference to the male chauvinism of Western opera houses is delightfully expressed; and composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who was flabbergasted that Klemperer wanted to watch him rehearse. Moje Forbach, the soprano who sang Senta in Klemperer’s production of The Flying Dutchman at the Kroll Opera gave insight into Klemperer’s matter-of-fact stage directions: “You will go here and then you will move here.” It was clear she was enchanted with Klemperer, testament perhaps to his reputation as a womanizer, a reputation that is not even alluded to here. Instead, we get the adoring reminiscences of his daughter Lotte, who also pays tribute to her mother, mezzo-soprano Johanna Klemperer. All agreed on Klemperer’s imposing height.
I commend Bregstein for digging up footage of some of Klemperer’s less accessible works, and think the use of photos interspersed with short talking-head interviews and voiceovers moved well. The sheer breadth of Klemperer’s life and career poses a challenge to anyone who wants to recount them, yet I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the material Bregstein presented. I think the documentary should have given some background on his recordings—one is left with the impression that when Klemperer couldn’t conduct, he wasn’t doing anything.
It may be hard to take in how revolutionary Klemperer really was in his time—shattering the Romantic movement with a headlong rush into modernism. But I know firsthand how difficult and contentious progress can be, especially in the classical music world. At a performance of Wagner’s (again!) Tannhäuser, I actually witnessed people booing, throwing programs, storming loudly out of the opera house. Why? Maverick director Peter Sellars had dared to stage it in modern dress as the story of disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. No play, film, or popular music concert I’ve witnessed has ever aroused such passions on a purely artistic basis. l