About the Book

Dear Mr. Barber!

Tho’ honestly + immensely impressed by your qualifications and accomplishments (wish I could compete!) I am sorry to say:  I hardly conduct at all; so that would mean you would be totally hors d’oeuvre (out of work) and horrified at my lack of interest, energy, initiative, and so forth […]  I’m a real mess, actually. Don’t tell anyone, please.

Yours Sincerely
Carlos Kleiber

The letter went on like that, for two short pages. And so began my correspondence with Carlos.

His letters were in hand or typewritten, with occasional combinations of both. For the first five years they were sent by mail. Thereafter, except when one of us was travelling, they were usually sent by fax. He found someone in Grünwald (the suburb of Munich where he lived) who had a fax machine, and liked its speediness. My replies were always by mail, as Carlos said that the fax-owner didn’t want to receive any on his behalf. He never owned a computer. E-mail was out of the question. Even typewriters troubled him.

The letters were as unusual as the man.

In this book efforts have been made to reproduce the layout of Carlos’ originals, as their topography often spoke to his frame of mind and points of emphasis. He frequently drew pictographs, notated musical excerpts, wrapped after-thoughts around the edge of the page, and inserted visual interjections much as if, I imagined, he were speaking in person. I have made occasional changes in ‘paragraph’ order so as to rationalize the actual thought-train we were pursuing at the time. No effort has been made to correct spelling or syntactical ‘error’ — for the simple reason that it was often a joke or a crafty pun. It revealed his love of language and his remarkably idiomatic command of it.

We wrote almost entirely in English, Carlos’ native tongue. 2  Because he had a deep awareness of American pop culture, there are numerous in-jokes sprinkled across his pages. For readers unfamiliar with that culture, with northern California, and with the trend-thought of the day (which he insulted hilariously), I have attempted to provide footnoted explications. Most of them are inadequate to the wry subtlety of his wit.

To protect the publisher, I have in a couple of instances substituted a letter for a name. Wise readers will see through this scrim. I have also withheld a number of letters whose subject matter was wholly personal, unrelated to music in any way. These came along late in our relationship. Their content does not justify their publication.

Researching this book, I struck up a correspondence with London-born Sir Peter Jonas while he was Staatsintendant at the Bavarian State Opera, a position he held from 1993 to 2006. Prior to that he had served in important posts at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as General Director of the English National Opera. In 2000, he was knighted by HM Elizabeth II for his services to music. He was also a friend of forty years standing to Carlos Kleiber, and persuaded him to give his only symphonic performances in North America, among other coups de takt.

In the summer of 2009, at the invitation of producer Paul Frankl of BBC Radio 3, Sir Peter and I, together with Plácido Domingo and Christine Lemke-Matwey, participated in a long-form radio documentary, Who Was Carlos Kleiber? Paul and his colleagues did a terrific job on this project, having rounded up four people who actually knew the subject of the piece.

During the course of its preparation I received an e-mail from Frankl: “Incidentally, we interviewed Sir Peter Jonas this week. I asked him (pre interview) if he knew of you and he looked very surprised and said: “It’s very odd you should say that because the only other person who ever mentioned that name to me was Carlos. He said, ‘He understands more than most.’” Rather a great compliment I would say. I hope you think so too.”

I certainly did, was happy to know that the BBC engaged in due diligence, and took the occasion to renew my connection with Sir Peter. Out of that came another dozen or so letters from Carlos to Sir Peter that now appear in this book, further illuminating his way of grasping and engraining music. My thanks to Sir Peter for his tremendous generosity. No wonder Carlos was so fond of him.

From the same radio broadcast came another surprise. I heard from KD, a professional bassoonist who had been for almost three decades a close friend of Carlos, seeing him privately and spending time with him discussing pretty much everything. I am indebted to KD for her recollections, her fascination with our mutual friend, and for her clear-eyed awareness of Carlos the man. As will be seen, her insights are both comic and telling. She recently came to visit when I was leading Britten’s Curlew River at City Opera Vancouver, and her further awareness of the man was sweet, modest, and wry. Invaluable.

And then, via my friend and colleague John Stubbs, I was put in contact with Bonnie Lynn Adelson. She is a gifted timpanist who trained in San Francisco, and with Saul Goodman in New York. Back on 12 April 1991, while playing principal timpani in the Symphonic Orchestra of Radio-Tele-Luxembourg, she received a fan letter. It was in French, and praised her playing “avec une alert et tension de tigre”. Bonnie did not realize who had signed it “vôtre Carlos Kleiber” and dutifully replied: “I can tell by your letter that you LOVE music, and that you attend many concerts… I do hope that you will continue to enjoy our concerts on television.”  Bonnie laughingly declares that the shoe did not drop for some while. It is an extraordinary correspondence, and I am deeply grateful to her for allowing another avenue into his musical and very human personality.

Although I wanted to learn from Carlos, a conventional master-student relationship was not in the cards. Sending him videos of other conductors (including myself) and asking his views came to be the next best thing. Over time I sent him 53 videos of leading (and misleading, he would say) conductors. Asking his advice about them, and about upcoming concert and opera repertoire in my own career, provoked unmatched insights. We did, of course, eventually meet in person.

No one will want to read my own letters to Carlos. However, to make sense of his penetrating and occasionally caustic comments about scores and performance, other conductors, literature, politicians, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Danny Kaye, nekulturny and kultur, I have included excerpts from mine so to make context for the whole of his.

Similarly, I have footnoted the aural, visual, and printed sources to which he refers throughout our correspondence. Appendix C advises the insatiable reader how to obtain the source documents about which Kleiber comments. Concerning the videos which I sent him, and which he so usefully analyzed, several of them are commercially available. All of them are in the Conductors on Film Collection in the Archive of Recorded Sound at Stanford University. This is a collection which I created to aid in my own study, and my own teaching; however, soon enough a significant motivation came to be that he liked to receive them, and he liked to talk about them. This ruse succeeded for years. I can’t imagine he was actually deceived by my machinery.

During the period of our correspondence, I confided to a few close friends what I was up to. After expressing astonishment that such a dialogue even existed, to a person they declared the historic importance of these written materials.

While Carlos was alive he allowed release of one of them. He gave me a letter of recommendation in 1997, and I began to include it in my resumé. I soon came to learn that, among musicians and managers, it was widely viewed as a forgery or a joke. At first blush, no one believed that Kleiber had actually written such a letter. At second, no one thought that anyone could ‘study’ with such an utterly unique force in music and not end up a mere (and merely second-rate) puppet. For either reason, Carlos’ letter did my early career no good at all. Rightly so, he would add.

A word about the ‘Hilde’ referred to in our correspondence. Her name is Hilde Binford, she was my study partner in graduate school, and did a brilliant PhD on tropes. When preparing for our doctoral qualifying exams, she got me through early music. I helped her with new music, and together we trundled up the heights of German. Contrary to Carlos’ assumption — unchallenged by me because I was initially unsure of his attitudes, and afterwards because it was too complicated to explain — she and I were never married. We did share an apartment, together with her now-former husband and her sons Trent and Alex, for some months. But it was no ménage, save in the most respectable sense. Hilde remains to this day one of my closest friends, and gave me permission to disclose this much but no more.

As before, this book is not a biography in the conventional sense. Such a project will have to be undertaken by a scholar more objective than myself. I wish that author good luck. There will, I expect, be many such books over the coming years. As with any force of nature, Kleiber will be described from many angles. None of us will get it quite right.

This was the rarest of musicians, and most influential of conductors. He was a complex and self-doubting genius who never gave an interview, published virtually nothing under his own name, avoided the usual forums of public debate and scrutiny, for decades held no regular appointment, over time gave few and fewer concerts, and happily and sardonically contributed to the mystery-cult which surrounded him. For all of this, he had such an influence on our profession, and our audience.

The greatness of the art of Carlos Kleiber demands a bit of explanation.

I hope this book contributes to it.

4 Responses to “About the Book”

  1. Kent Bach March 9, 2012 at 9:06 pm # Reply

    Long time no see, Charles, but I’ve been reading your wonderful understated book and now, right after hearing CK’s luminous VPO Brahms 4 on the world’s #1 classical radio station, Rete Toscana Classica, I discovered your site. #1 attraction here? It’s a toss-up between the Blake passage and the Bhagwan.

  2. Dr Victoria Hart March 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm # Reply

    I just closed the cover on this magnificent book. Really, superlatives do not do it justice. The letters are, of course, in themselves a wonder. But perhaps even more impressive is your writing, which enfolds these treasures lovingly and insightfully, thus illuminating the journey for your readers.

    Of CK’s talents, musical abilities, quirkiness, etc., others have commented on, and I emphatically agree with all that. In the end what struck me most, however, was the nuanced and deeply heartfelt portrait of the emotional life of the man that you were able to convey. CK’s hunger for your correspondence was moving to witness. Your epilogue was the most moving tribute to him I have read, and I was moved to tears and am weeping as I write this.

    An incredibly beautiful, moving, nuanced portrait of a unique, difficult, wonderful, gifted and conflicted artist. What a worthy friend you were and are to him! Thank you for producing this indescribably wonderful book.

    Dr Victoria Hart
    Colburn School of Music, Los Angeles

  3. Matthew Straw May 22, 2015 at 4:26 am # Reply

    I am so incredibly excited to finish this fantastic book. What an incredible resource for an aspiring conductor! This man has become my idol. Thank you so much for your wonderful efforts in creating this wonderful book.

    • admin May 22, 2015 at 4:29 am # Reply

      You are very kind to say so, Mr Straw. I am glad you enjoyed the book, but far far happier yet to know that you have discovered Carlos Kleiber. The man was as near-miraculous as his music, and that is saying a very good deal. Thanks!

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