The two most substantial documents of the conductor Carlos Kleiber’s career released in recent years—the epistolary biography Corresponding with Carlos by Charles Barber and Kleiber’s Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon—have a notable feature in common: Kleiber, who died in 2004, would surely not have wanted either to see the light of day. Conductors tend to be acutely conscious of their legacies, which may be embodied both in the cultural institutions they lead and the recordings they leave behind. But the German-Argentine Kleiber, a once-in-a-century comet of conducting talent, had nothing but disdain for legacy-building: one of his lifelong mottos, according to his sister, Veronika, was the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou’s dictum that “as far as possible you should leave no traces behind in life.” He never served as music director of any orchestra or opera house, he found the act of approving recordings for release to be a “horror,” and he would have recoiled at the idea that his letters, which reveal that he was (on top of his other gifts) a wryly saber-witted prose stylist, might someday be published.
In the eyes of many of his fellow conductors, Kleiber remains the nonpareil of podium alchemy. His arms seemed to emerge from a bottomless well and to extend beyond the viewer’s line of sight; he did not beat time so much as trace uncanny, previously unimagined four-dimensional shapes in the air. So singular was his artistry that the harder he sought to leave no traces, the harder music lovers fought to unearth every note he coaxed into being. By now the treasures contained in the Deutsche Grammophon box set are well known, even if Kleiber’s studio recording of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—which was stitched together from rehearsal tapes after he walked out in the middle of the recording sessions and released, shockingly, against his will—does not bear comparison to his incandescent live recording of the same work from the Bayreuth Festival.
But the letters collected in Corresponding with Carlos, which was released in 2011 to relatively little fanfare, deserve a closer look. This correspondence, one of the strangest and most illuminating documents in recent musical history, is full of candid assessments of practically every major conductor of the twentieth century by the conductor who may have been the greatest of them all. And in his letters, Kleiber speaks with a voice that might surprise listeners who know only his effervescent podium persona, a voice that is by turns fatalistic, earnest, brutally funny, and poignantly, inconsolably self-doubting.
It’s worth underlining how astonishing it is that these letters, a gossipy fourteen-year correspondence with a young American whom Kleiber barely knew, exist at all. His insistence on privacy verged on the totalitarian: he never gave an interview in the period of his artistic maturity (though a radio interview from 1960, featuring a bashfully ambitious thirty-year-old Kleiber, has surfaced on YouTube), he habitually canceled performances without offering so much as a word of justification, and his rehearsals were hermetically sealed to would-be auditors. It didn’t hurt Kleiber’s mystique that he was blessed with enigmatic good looks: with his aquiline nose, his high forehead, and his eyes usually avoiding the camera to gaze into some unseen distance, he had the bearing of a being from another age, a figure who could have wandered out of a Caspar David Friedrich landscape. (Kleiber also bore a striking resemblance to portraits of the English Romantic poet John Clare.)
With this in mind, it’s indescribably weird to encounter Kleiber, who in the few widely circulated videos of his rehearsals speaks only German, writing to Barber in a genially idiomatic American English that brims with gee-whiz colloquialisms and lovably bad puns. “My mother was from Waterloo, Iowa,” he explains, and he spent his formative years at English-language schools in both South and North America. (In the radio interview, he describes having spoken somewhat “broken” German when he arrived in Zurich as a college student.) It is psychically dislocating to find Kleiber, whose performances seem to exist out of time, weighing in on the O.J. Simpson trial, commenting on the ascendance of an American political dynasty (“Hey, don’t you just adore Clinton’s grin?”), or gossiping about the aftermath of wildfires in LA. (“We are trying to feel sad about Barbra Strysand’s [sic] villa in ashes. Difficult.”)
Kleiber’s music-making frequently reduced critics and fellow musicians alike to preverbal stupefaction; descriptions of his performances typically have a helpless, babbling quality, as though the listener had witnessed an alien landing or a Marian apparition. Michael Walsh, reviewing his recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, likens the listening experience to that of hearing Homer come back from the dead to recite the Iliad. I sympathize with such listeners—Kleiber has left me speechless plenty of times—but euphoric statements like these can’t tell us much about his artistic values.
The Kleiber aesthetic is founded on the interdependence of delicacy and violence. There is a persistent, quasi-erotic interplay in his work between extreme refinement—a desire to luxuriate in the voluptuousness of sound—and a kind of death drive, an impulse to burn down the edifice he has just conjured. He seemed to have an equal passion for sculpting sonic textures of infinitesimal detail and for blowing the whole thing sky-high with his own brand of gestural TNT. It’s not for nothing that Kleiber described the experience of conducting Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture with the Berlin Philharmonic as “like running into a wall at 60 MPH with a Rolls Royce.” Those are the ingredients of a Kleiber performance: a luxury vehicle, breakneck velocity, and a wall waiting at the end. His accelerandos rush forward exponentially, vanishing into light speed as though inhaled forward from the future.
The sound Kleiber wrought from orchestras was characterized by lightness, fleetness, and fire; every ensemble that encountered him transformed into its most agile possible self. He elicited this sinewy vivacity from every instrument in the orchestra, but it’s perhaps most obvious in the strings, from whom he invariably sought an extreme sheerness of sound, a fineness that drilled like a laser cutter at forte but that in quieter passages bordered on the incorporeal. If you looked at Kleiber’s string sound sideways, it would flicker into invisibility.
He possessed a rare mastery of the gestural languages of the old and new worlds, a dual fluency that it is tempting to ascribe to his polyglot upbringing in Europe and the Americas: he was born in Berlin but spent much of his childhood in Argentina, Chile, Cuba, and the US. From his absolute command of the fluid, elastic rhythmic idiom that is native to Central European orchestras, you might guess that he was raised in Vienna or Budapest, yet his obsession with tightness, precision, and pulse sounds, to my ears, quintessentially American. This meant that Kleiber could encourage an orchestra’s best tendencies while holding its worst ones in check. Plenty of other mid-twentieth-century conductors knew how to ride the waves of the Vienna Philharmonic’s undulating rubato, but the orchestra didn’t always play together in the process; under Kleiber, this ensemble’s legendarily deluxe, sometimes oozy sound was matched by an uncanny rhythmic precision. He had a knack for having it both ways.
Kleiber’s aesthetic of tenderness and violence did more than shape his sound: it also informed, and sharply restricted, the repertoire he performed. He had a strong preference, especially in opera, for stories of sensual excess—lust, jealousy, rage, hedonism—followed by a catastrophe or unmasking. This pattern is obvious enough in the tragedies he conducted—Tristan und Isolde, La traviata, Otello, Carmen—but it’s also present in the two ambivalent comedies beloved by Kleiber, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, works in which an opulently untenable dream of old Vienna is forced to a reckoning in the final scene.
Performance for Kleiber was an act of immolation, and accordingly he seemed to find some music so beautiful that it would almost be immoral to subject it to the carnality of sound. To perform Mozart’s operas risked desecrating them: when Barber tells Kleiber that he’s preparing to conduct Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Kleiber’s response is wryly forbidding: “Good luck with ‘Così’! (Yeah, go ahead, rush in where angels fear to tread!)” He clearly knew Mozart’s operas inside and out—he gives Barber detailed advice on how to navigate certain tempo transitions in Die Zauberflöte—yet in his mature years he conducted none of them. This never-articulated philosophy of performance guided Kleiber’s choice of repertoire even within the oeuvre of a single composer: he relished the Promethean fierceness of Beethoven’s Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies but steered clear of Beethoven the lofty spiritual seeker—the Beethoven of the Ninth, the Missa Solemnis, and Fidelio.
In the twilight of his career, many colleagues and listeners lamented that Kleiber conducted the same few pieces over and over: Why couldn’t he have shared his reading of Parsifal with the world, or of Bruckner’s symphonies, or Mahler’s? Such listeners were surely perplexed by the extreme care he continued to lavish on, say, La bohème or the array of Viennese bonbons that stuffed his immaculately pyrotechnic New Year’s Day concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. But Kleiber’s choice of repertoire is inextricable from his ferociously joyous podium manner: not all music can survive the Kleiberian conflagration. It’s no accident that throughout his career he seems to have avoided sacred music altogether; it feels almost sacrilegious to imagine some innocent mass or oratorio being deflowered by this conductor’s sensuously Don Giovannian touch.
The first half of Barber’s Corresponding with Carlos is a lovingly if eccentrically assembled multigenerational biography that encompasses not only Carlos’s career but that of his father, Erich Kleiber, a major conductor in his own right. Kleiber père held the perilously prominent post of music director of Berlin’s Staatsoper during the years of the Nazis’ ascendance, and he resisted the meddling of Hitler’s goons with a rare blend of fearlessness and panache. When the Nazis shut down the premiere of Alban Berg’s masterpiece Lulu in 1934, he defiantly performed an orchestral suite from the opera anyway. Erich resigned in the ensuing scandal, and when Hermann Göring tried to lure him back, the conductor set the intentionally impossible condition that upon his return, his first concert must feature only music by one of the greatest of Jewish composers, Felix Mendelssohn.
Barber’s account of Erich’s musical journey is a high point of his book’s biographical section; of particular interest is his illuminating portrait of the bustling South American musical scene into which the Kleiber family immigrated. His narration of Carlos’s more elliptical path teems with irresistible anecdotes of the conductor’s life, even if it occasionally veers into hagiography: broad, unprovable statements like “No one had ever witnessed anything like it” (in reference to a particular concert) don’t do any favors to a biographer’s credibility. But it is the second half of the book, which consists of selections from Barber’s extensive correspondence with Kleiber, that makes this volume required reading for anyone with an interest in the art of conducting.
We owe the existence of these letters to the nonexistence of YouTube in the early 1990s. Today music lovers with the inclination to seek out, say, static-shrouded operatic recordings from the end of the nineteenth century or rehearsal footage of Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic can summon such material in seconds from the limitless accretions of YouTube’s vault. Thirty years ago this kind of material was more difficult to find, and it’s largely on the basis of Barber’s access to rare concert videos that he and Kleiber maintained their friendship.
In 1989 Barber, a graduate student of conducting at Stanford, had the audacity to write to Kleiber and ask if the maestro might accept him as his student and assistant. Kleiber never taught conducting and never had need of an assistant, but he did send Barber a prompt and winkingly self-deprecating response:
I hardly conduct at all; so that would mean you would be totally hors d’oeuvre (out of work)…. When I do venture out (about once a year)…it has to be a group that will play nicely any old how—I mean, sort of in spite of me, kinda.
The latter statement might appear in the dictionary next to the term “humblebrag”: it is a circuitous way of saying, in effect, “These days I pretty much only conduct the Vienna Philharmonic.”
Barber was canny enough to sense that Kleiber had no patience for the fawning attentions of ambitious young conductors; no doubt he received dozens of stultifyingly earnest letters every year from would-be maestros seeking to ride his coattails. But since Kleiber, to judge from that first message, had a certain élan as a letter writer, maybe he would enjoy corresponding with a young musician who could match wits with him. Barber wisely stopped pressing to work with Kleiber directly and instead wrote letters designed to entertain him: he enclosed a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and sent a photo of a truck, glimpsed at an antique car show in Santa Rosa, that bore the unlikely marque KLEIBER.
In 1992 Barber struck gold: he was gathering rare footage of conductors from the first half of the twentieth century for a class at Stanford; might Kleiber like to see some? The great conductor responded with the endearing eagerness of a teenage music nerd: some of the conductors on these tapes were artists he had venerated since childhood, and in some cases he had listened to their recordings but had never seen them in action. Every time a package containing a new tape arrives at his doorstep, Kleiber says, “picture me as doing the kind of dance a dog will do when you come home or get ready for a walk with him.”
The tinge of surreally Nabokovian comedy that permeates this correspondence is traceable to the curious power dynamic between Kleiber and his devoted young interlocutor. Kleiber evidently finds Barber a pleasant and engaging pen pal, but it’s clear enough that he is mainly in it for those precious tapes. There is a whiff of Scheherazade to the whole thing: Kleiber will continue to dispense gnomic nuggets of musical wisdom as long as Barber continues to supply him with videos of Furtwängler, Leopold Stokowski, and the rest. In one letter, Kleiber thanks Barber abundantly for the latest VHS tape before warning that his mood, “being one of gratitude immense…might not last long. Or do you believe that a drug addict will be grateful for a shot eternally?”
This delicate dynamic is made more precarious by Barber’s palpable desire to gain Kleiber’s approval as a musician: he is an aspiring conductor, after all, and a few years into their correspondence, he succumbs to the temptation of asking Kleiber for a letter of recommendation. The notion of a young conductor brandishing a written endorsement from Carlos Kleiber would have been roughly equivalent, for sheer improbability, to a young writer applying to an MFA program with a letter of recommendation from Thomas Pynchon. Kleiber does not exactly jump to fulfill Barber’s wishes. “I haven’t seen/heard you conducting, now have I?” he responds, reasonably enough. When Barber finally, and seemingly with some reluctance, sends Kleiber video footage of himself leading an orchestra, the old master isn’t especially encouraging: “You should…watch how the orch. reacts (how sweet of them!) to each of your movements…. If you’re perceptive…you will see what not to do. (That’s about 90% of what you did).” Don’t fall into a “calisthenic rut” when you beat 4/4 time, Kleiber advises; if you do, you’ll look “like Piglet, saying ‘look at me swimming.’”*
Conductors, like airline pilots, cannot acquire their trade through distance learning; there’s no substitute for hundreds and hundreds of flight hours. And most conductors cannot verbalize, even to one another, the elusive rules that govern how orchestras respond to physical gestures. So it’s a little exasperating to witness Barber repeatedly asking Kleiber to put the inexpressible into words.
Like many American conducting students, Barber is perplexed by European orchestras’ habit of seemingly playing behind the conductor’s beat, rather than strictly on the beat. To those not raised in certain Central European traditions, it can be disquieting to see a conductor give a clear downbeat and then to hear a pronounced delay in the orchestra’s reaction: in musical time, even a fraction of a second’s lag can feel like a skipped heartbeat. How exactly, Barber asks innocently, does this work?
Kleiber’s initial response is playfully brusque: “It’s a subject indelicate and universally avoided.” Musicians don’t talk about such things! But Barber persists, and Kleiber ultimately obliges with an explanation. Barber initially understands the tradition as being one of conducting ahead of the beat; Kleiber corrects him, explaining that it’s better thought of as the orchestra playing “behind the visible beat.” And really it’s an insurance policy, “a grand old Boche tradition which avoids tailgating and bent bumpers.” If the orchestra plays absolutely in sync with the visible beat, it can be difficult for the players to anticipate sudden changes in tempo or dynamics; and especially when accompanying a potentially mercurial soloist, this creates risks of a musical car crash. Some conductors do insist on orchestras playing on the beat, Kleiber says, but this is “a big mistake in my view…. Especially in opera. (You don’t want the soprano’s bumpers dented, now do you? So don’t tailgate. Like the fellow said.)”
One of this book’s many delights lies in Kleiber’s running commentary on the tapes Barber sends him. He brims with giddy, boyish glee at the chance of seeing Stokowski at work: “Stokey, the GENIUS! Isn’t that SOMETHING?… He isn’t present with aches and pains and hopes of a little ‘Atempause’ like us mortals. No, he’s there and nowhere else, but he disappears by being there so completely.” He admires “the almost Mafioso understanding between professionals (in the best nuance of the word)” that he senses between the octogenarian Pierre Monteux and the Chicago Symphony. And he proves himself capable of a pithy, pinpoint accuracy that puts most music critics to shame. On Otto Klemperer, whose performances, in his later years, tended toward the somnolently monumental: “Klemp is a delight, like dictation to a slow typist.” He wryly recalls the “well-known tarantella of hate and murder” Arturo Toscanini was liable to unleash in rehearsals but gets to the heart of what made Toscanini special: “He (AT) was a distorter in monk’s skin. But…I LIKE HIM. ’Cause he makes you feel: the moment is all-important, every moment.”
Kleiber tends to be tougher on his contemporaries, but he pens notably generous assessments of Herbert von Karajan, who “swam circles around other stickwielders like a dolphin around oceanliners,” and the understated, underrated musicality of Klaus Tennstedt: “A lot met the ear that didn’t meet the eye…. And isn’t that what it is all about?” And has there ever been a cannier assessment of Leonard Bernstein’s personality than Kleiber’s observation that “maybe the great thing about him was his kindness…. (Kindness must have been very strong in him to survive that temperament every day!!)”
He displays a fierce allergy to self-aggrandizement and skewers a number of legendary conductors for talking nonsense in rehearsals. Poor Ferenc Fricsay takes a lot of heat: “He talks + talks…. Some conductors used to scare the shit out of orchestras. Fricsay bored the shit into them, additionally…. Look at the ‘Legion d’horreur’ in his lapel! What a prick!” And since Kleiber demanded the utmost physical and psychic intensity of himself and the orchestras he worked with, he is perfectly justified in poking fun at conductors who affected a lofty disinterest on the podium: “Stalwart [Pierre] Boulez’s poker face implies that the silly noise” (in this case, music by Edgard Varèse) “neither surprises nor bothers him. Determined professionalism. It’s a job, you see.”
Tough as Kleiber is on others, he is tougher on himself. One of the book’s poignant through lines is his repeated insistence that he himself, compared to the greats of earlier generations, is an artist of an objectively inferior order: “U and I and the many others…are, say, moles, poodles, warthogs, goldfish, etc (which is OK, I guess) and Furty [Furtwängler] + the like were, say, Giraffes, Whales, Rhinos, Dinos,—oh well.” The lightness and litheness of Kleiber’s textures and the fiery swiftness of his pacing are precisely the qualities for which he was admired, but he seems to have felt that his lightness made him a lightweight, that his work was unworthy of comparison to the burly muscularity of, say, the sound that Furtwängler plumbed from the Berlin Philharmonic—a sound ominous in its superabundance, a sound that seemed to drip moisture, like a rainforest at night.
More than once Kleiber claims—joking but not joking—that previous generations of conductors were creatures of a superior, giantlike species: “Ever notice how some have forearms the size of your thigh? Other dimensions therefore do exist.” He seems resigned to permanent second-class status: “Ain’t nothing to do or worry about. There’s room for us all. There’s just no comparing.”
Even the greatest artists, it seems, sometimes long to be something they are not. How many conductors, over the past four decades, would have given anything to possess a modicum of Kleiber’s birdlike agility, his intelligence, his grace? And yet Kleiber himself, it seems, looked longingly at the conductors—including his own father—whose sound was weightier, grounded, tethered to the earth.
A few years into his correspondence with Barber, Kleiber signs a letter “Carlo” (rather than Carlos) and explains why in an oblique footnote: “Did I tell you I was E. Dickinson’s dog in a former life?… How I adore(d) that lady!” Emily Dickinson did indeed have a dog named Carlo, whom she called her “shaggy ally” and who served as her constant companion for seventeen years, including her period of greatest creative fecundity. Throughout the remainder of the correspondence, this most reclusive of conductors touchingly takes America’s mythically hermetic poet as his spirit guide. More than Strauss or Beethoven, Toscanini or Karajan, Dickinson is the artist for whom Kleiber expresses the deepest kinship, and it’s not hard to see why: the elusive Kleiber had a Dickinsonian habit of insisting that he was “Nobody,” and he shared Dickinson’s disdain for publicity and self-promotion, for the indignity of sweatily announcing one’s worth “to an admiring Bog.”
Since his young correspondent is evidently American, Kleiber slyly defines himself not only through his identification with Dickinson but in relation to two other famous Americans for whom he has much less respect, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. “Whitman I hate, loathe and despise,” he announces: the ascetically self-effacing Kleiber has no room for America’s foundational self-glorifier. His eccentric abhorrence of Lincoln seems, at first, to be nothing more than a provocation, a test of whether Barber will put up with him:
Confession: you are the only person that ever writes to me! I have successfully [alienated] all other would-be correspondents. If they are American, I do it with Abe. With other countries…well, I find a way!
But Kleiber isn’t joking; he viscerally distrusts empire-builders of all stripes. When Barber sends him Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Kleiber gleefully compares the book’s subject, Robert Moses, to “other famous people who went out and did things,” including Hitler and Nero. The book seems to confirm Kleiber’s sense of “what a mistake it [is]” to build institutions, nations, megacities, cultlike movements of any kind.
It is surely impossible for a conductor to be genuinely anti-institutional, since conductors depend on the institution of the orchestra—a highly skilled assemblage of salaried professionals—for their very existence. But Kleiber’s anti-guru stance is more than empty rhetoric, since he rejected one aspect of the profession that most of his colleagues cherish above all others: the institution of the music directorship. For many conductors, the desire to be the music director—that is, chief conductor—of an orchestra or opera company is practically inextricable from the desire to conduct in the first place. An orchestra’s music director hires musicians, has first pick of repertoire, and sculpts the ensemble’s sound and musical ethos week after week. These positions bring with them power, money, and stability. Conventional wisdom dictates that it is only as a music director that a conductor can cultivate a personal aesthetic or make a lasting impact on an orchestra.
With stability, however, comes routine, and Kleiber’s horror of routine—of turning music-making into a mere job—kept him from ever accepting a permanent post. His refusal of the directorship of Hamburg’s Staatsoper in 1973, relatively early in his career, seems to have dissuaded other ensembles from being too importunate in making similar invitations—until 1989, that is, when the much-venerated Berlin Philharmonic sent a delegation of musicians to woo him as a possible successor to Karajan, its longtime music director. I doubt whether any other conductor on the planet would have rebuffed such an overture, but Kleiber gave no indication of even considering it with any seriousness.
One of Kleiber’s greatest legacies, then, is his refusal to leave a legacy. He insisted on independence, like his beloved models Emily Dickinson and Zhuang Zhou. At one point Barber aptly quotes another favorite text of Kleiber’s, the Tao Te Ching: Kleiber, like the Taoist Master, is one of those rare beings who “doesn’t display himself.” It is because of this quality, not in spite of it, that “people can see his light.”