Herbert von Karajan in Rehearsal and Performance
Weiner Symphoniker and Berlin Philharmoniker
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
At the start of these two performances we see Karajan in casual clothes. He is wearing a black turtleneck and matching slacks as he leads the Weiner Symphony in rehearsal of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. The music begins and then suddenly the conductor motions the musicians to stop. He addresses them: “The piece begins slowly, heavily. That’s the atmosphere at the beginning.” This is Karajan the teacher. He then goes on: “So don’t begin with an accent. Give yourselves time, till the double basses come in.”
Herbert von Karajan in Rehearsal and Performanc forms part of Stanford University’s “Conductors on Film Collection.” This series of filmed rehearsals includes over 250 conductors who have been filmed over the last century. This particular film is a collaboration between Karajan and French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977). Clouzot is best known for making such films as Manon in 1951, Wages of Fear in 1953 and Diabolique in 1955.
The orchestra begins to play once again, but once more, the conductor halts its progress. He doesn’t particularly like its sound. This is vintage Karajan, the Teutonic perfectionist. This rehearsal dates from November 1965 when Karajan was arguably still creating a reputation for himself. Today, some 41 years later, his name is legendary in classical music circles. Karajan raises his hands, the orchestra plays and the venerable conductor’s head begins to sway ever so gently -- approvingly -- feeling the music, it seems, but then… “I cannot stress often enough the importance of these two crescendos. So don’t bring out the note too fast; prepare it.”
It is one thing to witness Karajan conducting in a concert hall, but another altogether to sample his rigor as a teacher. He is totally in control, yet he bargains with the orchestra: “Just let me have this detail.” Henri-Georges Clouzot’s direction turns this otherwise mere rehearsal into a drama. His black and white photography retains an imaginative flair. Make no mistake about it, these two Karajan rehearsals are drama in more ways than we first realize. Clouzot’s photography, with its quasi chiaroscuro accent dictates the mood of these films. After a while we come to recognize Karajan’s emphasis on the visual component of the music that he is trying to objectify.
The first rehearsal is an interesting and moving portrayal of Schumann’s romantic music, but it is equally important in the vital passion that goes into its presentation. This rehearsal is almost like an interview with Karajan where the viewer gets to pick his artistic mind. Throughout the many stop and go sequences, we are privy to the musical acumen and idiosyncratic quirks of a master at work. I am willing to suggest that this film should be required viewing for leaders of any staple: industry, education, culture, etc. Ironically, the musical component of the rehearsal alone is a joy to watch for fans of Karajan’s approach.
The rehearsal of Beethoven’s 5th symphony was recorded in January of 1966. This portion begins with an interview. When asked why he has taken the trouble to go through with these filmed rehearsals, the conductor answers: “It’s a confession to myself and to the audience about what most deeply moves us, and how we can realize it. The sometimes much misunderstood profession of conductor probably suffers from a false perspective: people think they stand there and conduct a bit and none of the musicians are really watching. I want to show how much work and concentration go into it and how even the spoken word gives the musician an idea of how the deeper meaning of a composition is to be found in the score.” Then his perspicuity for contemporary culture makes itself known: “It’s a trend of our time to want to know exactly how something is done. The Americans put it like this: ‘I want to sit in the cockpit.’”
Then Karajan, in a prophetic piece of advice for us today in the video era argues that in these rehearsals the viewer gets to see “how hard it is to make music and above all the beauty with which it’s done.” He also argues that these rehearsals add “to an optical interpretation of what is heard.” The irony here is that while popular music which is solely geared toward making a visual “statement” and that lacks all semblance of musical rigor and/or musicianship, it is classical music that benefits most from being seen in all its complexity and grandeur. Ever the showman, Karajan places this music on a pedestal to be enjoyed for posterity.
These rehearsals showcase Karajan as dramatic personae. Yet the film is ultimately about how difficult this music is to compose and perform.
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.