Carlos the Ecstatic

Beyond every other dimension of his talent, Carlos Kleiber was an Ecstatic.

There is within traditions of faith and literature such a personality. An Ecstatic experiences the world distinctly. Qualities of prophetic vision abound. In ecstasy lies a unique capacity to see one’s own name from a distance, and to read it aloud with tremendous cold objectivity, with brutal self-doubt. For the Greeks, ekstasis meant to stand outside oneself, in trance.

Kleiber had that merit. He fused it to an artistic energy that was Blake’s ‘eternal delight’. While combining distance from his own ego with that ecstatic urgency, he made his unique art. Across his whole career Carlos lived an intensely integrated theory of music. All forces were co-determinate, correlate, all bent toward a burning sufficiency. No wonder he was so often disappointed. Few others of his time played for such stakes. Callas and Vickers and Stratas certainly did. Furtwängler and Gould, unquestionably. Add Argerich, Oistrakh, Richter, Kissin, Tennstedt and a few others and the list soon emaciates. A trait common to most of these personalities is that they belong to a subculture of secession. Periods of retreat, departure, disappearance were essential — and sometimes gained by dissolving into a role. In time, Kleiber exfiltrated into public shadow.

Carlos was no theologian. The manufactured evidence of Belief amused and repelled him. The shoddy politics of organized piety disgusted him. He shared Emily Dickinson’s view of God as “a noted clergyman”.

But he understood the practices of an aesthetic faith. The 10th Century poet and mystic Al-Ghazali made sense to him: ‘The purpose of music, considered in relation to God, is to arouse longing for God, and passionate love for Him, and to produce states in which God reveals Himself and His favor, which are beyond description and known only by experience. These states are called ecstasy.’ It was a state Carlos sought in every performance. It could only be gained through the disciplines of study and imagination and an insatiable desire for Proximity.

He came closer to these intimate visions, this molten awareness, than any conductor of his era. But when told so, when praised for it, he would shrug or laugh or ridicule. It was his pain that he — almost alone — could see how much further there remained to travel. He once listened to one of his own recordings, declared that it was “ok”, and then decided he made a mistake. “It must have been by Karl Böhm.” That could be read two ways.

I regret never talking with him about William Blake. Carlos’ own states of innocence and indifference were announced there. So too was his anxiety and belief. Emily Dickinson anticipated Carlos’ own desire for that special state. They understood one another. Like Blake, she foretold the cost of Kleiber’s achievement.

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittance of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

There will, inevitably, be a recalibration of his reputation. It began to occur before he died. Even now it accelerates…

4 Responses to “Carlos the Ecstatic”

  1. Richard Epp April 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm # Reply

    I just wanted to lodge a complaint about you being the cause of a psychic disturbance in my mind and in my view of the world.

    I have been reading your excellent book about Carlos Kleiber and so decided to go on Youtube to see the Maestro at work. New Years Day concert 1989 – beginning of the big tune in The Blue Danube – how can anything on this imperfect world be so perfect? It somehow seems almost like an affront in some wonderful, intoxicating way. My mind has been in a whirl, my wife cried because it was so beautiful. What is one to do? Likewise for the overture to Fledermaus, or the overture to Carmen, or the beginning of Beethoven #4 or anything else that wretched man has done.

    Mind you, I did learn something from your book that I will make use of. In the discussion of Lustige Witwe, Kleiber suggests conducting unclearly so that the orchestra must listen to the singers more. I can do that!

    Once again, thank you for the wonderful book. You are a lucky man for having had contact with that man.

    All the best.

    Richard Epp
    Department of Music
    University of British Columbia

  2. Peter Williams June 24, 2020 at 2:13 pm # Reply

    Hello! A while ago I sent the copy of a letter in which I addressed you and Charles Barber together, on various aspects of dear Carlos Kleiber.
    I have had a response from Charles, but none from you, or somebody writing for you – not sure how your ‘system’ works.

    Perhaps I have to send it again, and if so please tell me where best to send/post it?
    Sincerely Peter

    • admin October 29, 2020 at 10:33 pm # Reply

      Hi Peter. Just saw yours. The “you” is “me”, and we received all, with thanks. best, Charles

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