This week, The Music Treasury presents the noted conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. Featured will be works by Johann Strauss, Richard Wagner, concluding with Bruckner’s Symphony #3 in D Minor. The show is hosted by Dr. Gary Lemco, who has generously provided an overview of the life and music of Knappersbusch, appended below.
The show can be heard on Sunday, 8 October 2017, between 19:00 and 21:00, PDT. Dr. Lemco is the show’s host, it is presented as a radio show with streaming broadcast: kzsulive.stanford.edu
Hans Knappertsbusch, Conductor
Hans Knappersbusch (1888-1965) noted conductor of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, and the German orchestral tradition, was born in Elberfeld and studied music and philosophy at the Cologne Conservatory and Bonn University. His studies with Fritz Steinbach led to an assistantship with Siegfried Wagner and Hans Richter at Bayreuth. In 1922, Bruno Walter left Munich for New York, and Knappertsbusch succeeded him as General Music Director of the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera, with a lifetime contract. His open resentment of the Nazi party led to frequent encounters, and he found himself suspended from musical activities. His first concert after WW II had him remark, “Now, let us hear Beethoven the way he was meant to be heard.” Much admired in Britain and Vienna, he often led recording and operatic engagements in those venues.
The early influences of Fritz Steinbach and Hans Richter, two of the most pre-eminent conductors in the period before the First World War, must have been very strong upon Knappertsbusch. Perhaps even more profound would have been contact (through Richter) with the conducting style preferred by Wagner himself and outlined in his slim pamphlet ‘On Conducting’. In this, Wagner railed against metronomic conducting – identifying this with the ‘lighter’ music of Mendelssohn – and instead urged the adoption of a flexible style, in which the main criterion was to be the beauty of the moment: ‘the law of beauty is the sole measure of what is possible.’ Wagner strongly urged a spontaneous approach to the performance of his music.
Kna, as Knappertsbusch was often affectionately known, certainly followed this lead, believing firmly in the inspiration of the moment. As the historian of the Vienna Philharmonic, Otto Strasser, has pointed out, he believed that the doctrine contained within Wagner’s idea of ‘tempo modification’ was ‘central to every performance’. Kna was thus likely to adjust tempi if he felt that the results ‘sounded particularly beautiful, and this imparted a pronounced individuality to his interpretation of a work.’ This stylistic approach stands centrally within Wagner’s own preferred conducting method. An extension of this conducting style is the characteristic of positively seeking spontaneity of expression. Thus throughout his life, Kna continually surprised audiences with impromptu discoveries within even well-known scores. This revelation of previously obscured detail was still set within a careful molding of the overall architecture of the piece.
Technically, Knappertsbusch seems to have been highly undemonstrative as a conductor. Comparison with Richard Strauss was often made. At his debut in 1923 with the Vienna Symphony, his restrained style of conducting was noted and favorably commented upon. As the commentator Erich Deiber noted laconically: ‘Knappertsbusch is the only conductor who can transform a pianissimo into a fortissimo by moving his cufflinks.’ (Another conductor of the same vintage but from an extremely different stylistic background—Fritz Reiner—also possessed a very disciplined and small-scale baton technique. And like Knappertsbusch he was both a friend of Richard Strauss and a fine interpreter of his music.) With this lack of rostrum showmanship went a high degree of platform modesty. Contemporaries noted that Kna rarely allowed himself and his orchestra more than two curtain calls. Tonight’s program features Kna exclusively with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.