Magazine article Gramophone

Hermann Scherchen: Philip Clark Recalls a Conductor Whose Championing of New Music Was Fruitfully Balanced by a Devotion to Beethoven-And a Penchant for Classical Lollipops

Magazine article Gramophone

Hermann Scherchen: Philip Clark Recalls a Conductor Whose Championing of New Music Was Fruitfully Balanced by a Devotion to Beethoven-And a Penchant for Classical Lollipops

Article excerpt

'The force, the ferocity and the genius of his talent carried orchestras, often against their will, along a totally different path of aesthetic sensibility--fine, powerful, luminous and absolute,' wrote Iannis Xenakis in his preface to a 1980s French translation of the German conductor Hermann Scherchen's Treatise on Conducting.

To a composer of Xenakis's generation, Scherchen (1891-1966) was the kingpin pioneer--the first conductor properly to understand that music like his, or that by Varese and Stockhausen, required fresh thinking from the podium too; that 'different path of aesthetic sensibility' requiring orchestral musicians to transcend their understanding of what music already was; those new challenges equating to anew liberation --within those unfamiliar and perhaps non-idiomatic note patterns lay uncharted expressive terrain which, get it right, might fuse intellectual and emotional energy like the greatest music of the past. That was Scherchen's message, and the list of premiere performances and recordings he led is a catalogue of 20th-century music's most defining moments: Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1, Berg's Violin Concerto, Webern's Variations, Op 30, Varese's Deserts, Stockhausen's Kontrapunkte, Madema's Composition No 2, Henze's King Stag, Nono's Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica, Xenakis's Pithoprakta and Terretektorh.

But, despite his track record, Scherchen defied all orthodoxies of how new-music specialists are meant to operate. This conductor who mined new-music gold out of the arithmetic of Xenakis and Stockhausen, whose Treatise on Conducting became the standard textbook for fledgling maestros, didn't formally study conducting--or even music. Instead he learnt on the job, teaching himself to play the viola and picking up orchestral work in his hometown of Berlin (including with the Berlin Philharmonic). And once Scherchen's reputation as anew-music Svengali had been established, he relished veering wildly off message. In his discography, alongside Nono, Xenakis and Dallapiccola, sit recordings of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade and Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. He loved classical lollipops too.

In 1912 Scherchen assisted Arnold Schoenberg--no conductor he--in preparing the first performance of Pierrot lunaire in Berlin, and made his conducting debut touring the piece through Europe. His association with Schoenberg was easily the most important and enduring musical relationship of his life, although trust apparently emerged only over time. In a 1914 letter, Schoenberg hauls Scherchen over the conductorly coals for his overly bright tempi in a performance of the First Chamber Symphony. 'I beg you to observe [my] criticisms exactly if you want to remain on good terms with me, Schoenberg adds, his words tinted with menace. But a letter written in 1945, from Los Angeles, could hardly have been warmer. Schoenberg regrets that Scherchen didn't follow him to the United States: 'It would be the greatest importance to have a man like you here, who dares to stand up for modern music, he says.

But how would Scherchen really have fared in America? Although he recorded Stravinsky's The Firebird, Petruskha and Symphony of Psalms, his total commitment to Schoenberg, and the creative repercussions of his serial revolution, underscored his devotion to Europe and to the Austro-German tradition. …

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