Bernstein, Barenboim, Ceauşescu

December 28 2009

Christmas Day 1989:

Leonard Bernstein conducted members of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Staatskapelle Dresden, Kirov Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris in the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin in Beethoven’s ninth.

With June Anderson, Sarah Walker, Klaus König and Jan-Hendrik Rootering as soloists, and members of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, Berlin Radio Chorus (GDR) and Dresden Philharmonic Children’s Chorus.


“There seems to have been a conjecture that Schiller had written an alternate draft for the Ode ‘An die Freude’ [to Joy] entitled ‘An die Freiheit’ [to Freedom]. Most scholars now say that this was probably no more than a hoax perpetrated by a 19th-century [Prussian] political figure named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.

“But legend or not, I feel this is a heaven-sent moment to sing ‘Freiheit’ wherever the score indicates the word ‘Freude’. If ever there was a historic time to take an academic risk in the name of human joy, this is it, and I am sure we have Beethoven’s blessing.”

Here’s the section of the performance where the shocking change of words first occurs.

The whole performance doesn’t quite take off, not only this movement and not because of the “academic risk”.


July 16:

Herbert von Karajan had died, before the year of revolutions had reached its climax. Otherwise he would have presided over the musical proceedings in Berlin that winter, and Bernstein would probably not have entered the city.


December 26 2009:

Stephen Johnson compared performances of the ninth symphony on BBC Radio 3.

“It struck me again […] that the ninth symphony is very untypical of the late Beethoven. This single massive reassertion of his old liberal values comes after the final defeat of Napoleon and the return of the repressive old order with a vengeance. The dream of a democratic utopia must have seemed just about dead to many, which is one reason why the leaders of the new Romantic generation were turning to the world of imagination and dreams for escape. In most of Beethoven’s greatest late work, the journey seems increasingly inward, but here in the ninth symphony there’s something different, a last gesture of defiance perhaps, of hope against hope.”

Kenneth Clark: “The despair that poisoned the Romantic movement had not entered Beethoven’s veins.” Bernstein gives us the impression that it hadn’t entered his either. He is an early-nineteenth century man.

There are people, especially in England, with the bad habit of referring everything to the corruption of itself, who dislike the choral movement because they see in it the beginning of something quasi-fascist – joy in the submergence of the self in the mass.


“In the decade and a half after the Second World War there was a feeling [among] many musicians that the message that ‘all mankind should be brothers’ needed affirmation more desperately than ever. As a German Jew, and very much a German and a Jew, Otto Klemperer understood this as keenly as anyone, and he combined that understanding with masterly control and spellbinding authority, and a dignity all his own.”


November 12 1989:

Three days after the opening of the Wall, Daniel Barenboim had conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, partly from the keyboard, in the Philharmonie in West Berlin in a concert for the new visitors from the GDR. A CD containing Beethoven’s first piano concerto and seventh symphony was sold by Sony as Das Konzert.

If the Bernstein ninth, nobly flawed performance as it was, would lack some of the atmosphere of a live recording, the Barenboim could not feel more live. An encore, in which Barenboim performs the andante from Mozart’s C major piano sonata K330, was not on the CD, but is on YouTube. Here are the East Berliners three days after liberation.

[I will replace that as soon as I can.]

It all looks curiously like yesterday. (With a world continually reminded of itself in video playback, is fashion going to change more slowly? Did styles only change because we weren’t always watching ourselves and kept forgetting what we looked like?)


November 8 1987:

A precedent for ending a live orchestral concert with a Mozart piano sonata. A benefit concert in Carnegie Hall for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, led by Bernstein and James Levine, with Pavarotti, Yo Yo Ma and others, had ended with the two conductors performing the andante from the D major sonata for two pianos, K448.

Deutsche Grammophon issued a 2-CD box in the US. By the corporate standards of the time, they were acting bravely, even if the organisation on whose behalf the concert was held was identified by its initials, with the full name in smaller type, and even if the famous cartouche was shown in its smaller version and in deathly white.


October 9 1990:

Bernstein announced that he was retiring from conducting. I read this news in the International Herald Tribune on a flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong. It gave the next few days a feeling of unreality, so strange was it. But it was merely notice to the obituary writers: he died on October 15.


January 24 1945:

Beethoven wrote the Emperor concerto during the second siege of Vienna. In a recording with Walter Gieseking, and Artur Rother conducting the Grosses Funkorchester, made in the Berlin Freisender studio (was it broadcast live?), you can hear German anti-aircraft fire during the first movement cadenza.


August 24 2009:

Barenboim conducted an electrifying Fidelio at the London Proms.

Waltraud Meier, Leonore; Simon O’Neill, Florestan; Gerd Grochowski, Don Pizarro; Sir John Tomlinson, Rocco; Adriana Kucerová, Marzelline; Stephen Rügamer, Jacquino; Viktor Rud, Don Fernando. BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir.

The superb orchestra was his West-Eastern Divan, composed of young Arabs and Jews (you could not tell which was which by looking), including some Palestinians from the West Bank. The power of the performance did not come from knowing this. It came from the musicality of the performers. I had watched at least half an hour on television before I even noticed who they were.

Barenboim, not a great conductor for everything, is a supreme Beethoven conductor and probably a great Wagner one, and must be the least ridiculous of all conductors to watch. All the gestures are in the front of his body. There are no sideways movements and none of Karajan’s or Gergiev’s affectations.

Simon O’Neill as Florestan:


The first French Deutsche Grammophon edition of the 1989 Bernstein concert had a piece of what they claimed was the Wall embedded in the CD case.

A piece that I can vouch for, broken off by a German relative circa November 9 1989


Christmas Day 1991:

The last full day in the history of the Soviet Union.


Christmas Day 1989:

I can’t remember the time of day when the Bernstein concert took place, but many people will remember the image which reached their television screens early that evening – of the face of the executed Nicolae Ceauşescu, dictator of Romania and late ally of America.

There clearly is something in the “Romanians are Romans” story. They look, or rather many of the poorer ones look, like stunted Latins.

The Romanian revolution was the final and the most dramatic, and most ambiguous and murkiest, of the revolutions of 1989. Was it a people’s uprising or merely a communist coup d’état?

It had begun on December 16-17 with disturbances in Romania’s second city, Timişoara in the Banat, near the Hungarian border. Ceauşescu ordered the military to show force. The commanders put on a parade, with marching band. “I meant tanks, you fool,” Ceauşescu said to General Iulian Vlad, or words to that effect. Roughly a hundred Romanian citizens died in the streets and several hundred were wounded.

Ceauşescu visited Tehran on December 17 and 18.

On the morning of December 21, he stepped onto the balcony of the Central Committee Building in Bucharest. Cadres of state workers assembled to cheer, but from the rear of the crowd came shouts and jeers and “Ti-mi-şoara! Ti-mi-şoara!”, followed by “Down with Ceauşescu!”

Michael Meyer, Guardian, December 21 2009:

“His face sagged. He stopped speaking, waved his arms in timid bewilderment, the weak and ineffectual gestures of an imposter. This moment of truth lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough. He stood revealed. Everyone on the square and everyone watching on national TV saw clearly. The emperor had no clothes.”

The “moment’s surrender” on the balcony was the end. By the next day, the rebellion had spread to other cities. Ceauşescu and his wife, the “scientist” Elena, who had received an honorary fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry, fled from the roof of the Central Committee in a white helicopter. They landed at Ceauşescu’s residence north of Bucharest and took off again on the same day for Titu in the south. They continued by road, flagging down local cars, to Târgovişte, where they were captured by the army.

Part of the brief trial at Târgovişte, December 25:

The moment of execution was not filmed, not that I would show it if I could. The soldiers were too quick for the cameraman.


A day or two later we began to learn about the Romanian orphans.


Christmas 1961

3 Responses to “Bernstein, Barenboim, Ceauşescu”

  1. […] ‘real classical’.” It’s all just sounds. It’s also connected with the point I was making here: “With a world continually reminded of itself in video playback, is fashion going to change more […]

  2. […] Related post: Bernstein, Barenboim, Ceauşescu. […]

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