When I spoke with Christoph von Dohnànyi about what he’d chosen to conduct in Sydney, there was no mention of symphonies and concertos. Rather, he spoke of men. As if arranging places at a dinner party, he told me he never ‘put Bruckner with Beethoven, he’s better with Mozart’ but that, this time, he’d decided to put him with Berg. Speaking as if he knew them, he explained that Berg and Bruckner shared a mentality, but took a different approach to life. Bruckner looked inward, his ideas centred in themselves, whereas Berg asked a lot of questions. Why did this have to happen? Why did this wonderful woman have to die so young? As Dohnànyi painted it, I imagined that if they met in heaven they would discuss romance long into the afterlife. For that was the reality: even though Dohnànyi spoke of them in present tense, he could not restore them to the present. All he had were their scores and the secrets bound up in them.
Before I interviewed Dohnànyi, he was merely the name I couldn’t pronounce at my radio audition.
kris-toff fon dokh-nahn-yee
When I researched him, I grew fascinated. When I spoke to him, I fell in love.
In many ways, I was predisposed. I am enchanted by European men of a certain age. Some time in their 70s, they acquire a gleam in their eye and a pair of blue and white pyjamas. For all I know, Dohnànyi was already dressed when I spoke to him at 9am on that Tuesday morning, but I like to imagine he was nocturnally donned, seated at the breakfast table with his wife at the elbow. I know she was there because, when he turned our conversation to Beethoven, she interjected:
You’re performing Brahms, not Beethoven.
She was right! But I didn’t mind the detour. Where many speak, Dohnànyi created and like any good piece of music, the diversions made the themes more exciting.
If this were a piece of music, the above paragraph would be the transition between two themes. The deftness of a conductor can, in some ways, be measured by how they handle these transitions. Smoothly operated, the audience should not discern the mechanics but arrive at the new theme as if there were no possible alternative. Dohnànyi was a master of this. For his second Sydney concert, he had selected Brahms and Lutoslawski. (Now you know why Brahms popped up in my transition.) Where Berg and Bruckner would discuss romance, Brahms and Lutoslawki would discuss emotion. As Dohnànyi explained, ‘an artist like Brahms, does not necessarily have to be in the best mood of his life to write a symphony in D major (a happy key). But then it is a different story with Lutoslawski who is much more emotionally connected, but it’s a different century… his is a sad piece, but Brahms is beyond sadness.’ I wondered where Dohnànyi fit on this spectrum of emotional explicitness. Ergo, I asked him about Vienna.
Vienna was the common link between Berg, Bruckner and Brahms. If Dohnànyi wanted to visit their graves, he’d only have to visit this one city. Was this a coincidence of selection or did Dohnànyi have a personal connection with Austria’s capital?
It was a trick question. Knowing that he did, I waited for him to tell me about his invitations from Herbert von Karajan and Riccardo Muti to conduct Vienna’s orchestras, or how he’d met his wife there. But those stories never came. Rather, Dohnànyi steered the conversation to VE Day 2016. He was to conduct the annual Freedom of Joy concert in the Heldenplatz: the Heroes’ Square. Dohnànyi described the pieces he’d chosen, Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw and Beethoven’s Eroica. He waxed lyrical about Beethoven and how he was ‘beyond politics’ but made no mention of his personal connection to the event. VE Day 2016 marked 71 years and one month since the Nazis killed his father. Thus, like Brahms, his story was beyond sadness.
In rereading the transcript to find where Dohnànyi eventually told me about his father, it struck me as fascinating that, in conversation, the brain makes sense of broken grammar but once written down, you can’t ignore the syntactical holes. English is a bugger for those not born speaking it. Fortunately, music is shaped in silence. A conductor speaks with his body: two arms, ten fingers, one face looking out at a sea of people who wait to breathe in his time. I wonder how much of his skill Dohnànyi inherited from his conductor grandfather? The answer is bundled up in what Dohnànyi had to say about his father. Diversion over, now back to the theme.
There was music in the way Dohnànyi told me about how he came to be a conductor. The information unfurled, with veiled emotion, built to a climax and left me affected. He entered university ‘studying law because I was 15 when the war was over and my father, you may know, died in a concentration camp.’ Germany, he told me (perhaps as a metaphor for himself) had been physically and mentally destroyed.
He needed security, something he could make a career out of, and the war had robbed him of the opportunity to develop his musical skills. So, following in his father’s footsteps, law it was. But slowly the inevitable began to creep in. ‘Music started to take over,’ he told me, ‘I was composing to the annoyance of the law professor but of course when you are 16 you can do both at the same time!’ He transferred to the Academy of Music and worked ‘really like mad’ completing his studies in three years and winning the Richard Strauss prize. ‘So,’ he said ‘I financed my trip to my Grandfather (in the US) because in those days we didn’t have much money, you know it is hard without a father, and so I studied with my Grandfather and with Bernstein in Tanglewood. Music had taken over and there I was…’ In the end, it was Dohnànyi’s brother Klaus who became the lawyer. Dohnànyi’s own tribute to his father was to name his eldest son Justus. But I only know that because I looked it up. For him to tell me would have been far too explicit.
It is easy to presume why Dohnànyi followed the Brahmsian school of emotion. Brahms himself learnt it from his musical (and emotional) ancestor, Beethoven. As Dohnànyi explained (before his wife interrupted), ‘when Beethoven was really in the worst place, when the Heiligenstadt testament was written, that was the same time that he wrote his 2nd Symphony… we think, how can you write a piece in D major if you are not happy but of course that’s not true.’ Out of despair over his deafness emerged a symphony of joy. Dohnànyi could not allow despair over his loss to triumph. Nothing could bring back his father but he could keep other dead men alive. He, himself, would live through their joy.
But living amongst ghosts soon becomes too much for anyone and so Dohnànyi needed a counterbalance. He found it in talented young women. Dohnànyi lavished praise on those he’d be working with in Sydney. ‘She is very something,’ he said of soprano Camilla Tilling, ‘wonderful singers actually approach lieder not only from their voices and she is a wonderful artist. She has a great voice and a great brain.’ This after what he’d said about violinist Carolin Widmann, ‘I haven’t found anyone who knows Berg’s concerto better than her and she is, as you know, from a very musical family, so it is fun to make music with her.’ Thus music has its own holy trinity. It is conceived by the conductors and performers of our time and infused by the spirit of those past.
Our piece of music is almost complete. The last paragraph was the recapitulation, returning to the opening theme that music is greater than its symphonies and concertos; it is made by, and the making of, men. All that remains is the coda and for this I’ll say, at most concerts, the score sits on a stand between the conductor and the orchestra – it is their signed contract for the performance. When Dohnànyi conducted Bruckner’s symphony in Sydney, however, he forwent the score and laid himself bare. I am sure that this confidence came from more than just a good memory. He knew that Bruckner would be there alongside to whisper in his ear.