To coincide with the DVD debut of Tony Palmer’s Dvořák – In Love?, Flickering Myth spoke with British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber who features alongside the Czech Philharmonic and Czech maestro Václav Neumann. The documentary takes us behind the scenes of a recording of Dvořák’s enduring Cello Concerto, and whilst revealing the story behind its composition Palmer crafted what remains an important piece of documentary filmmaking.
Its political message meant that it could not be shown in the then Communist ruled Czechoslovakia. Following the Russian withdrawal two years later Dvořák – In Love? became an historical moment in television history when it became the first documentary to be shown on the newly-uncensored Czech TV.
Lloyd Webber shared with us his thoughts on the Dvořák Cello Concerto, modern classical music and Dvořák – In Love?. It was a conversation that depicts film and TV as a doorway through which other art forms can be explored courtesy of the penetrating gaze of the camera. In a conversation about music, there are frequent moments where it can easily be translated into a conversation that is more broadly about film, art and the creative process.
Paul Risker: Why a career as a musician? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Julian Lloyd Webber: I think it was when I was thirteen and I heard the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. At the time I was beginning to get into the cello – for me it was always the cello, but I had also changed to a great teacher at that time. Whilst I had heard other great cellists in concert, he made an extraordinary impression on me. I believe children need role models, and he was my role model and so I thought, hey I want to do this.
The other thing that influenced me was how Rostropovich was able to get so many other composers to write for him; to write for the cello. This was something that I wanted and managed to do as well, though I would have liked to have done even more. I have always felt that classical music should be a living thing with new music coming through, and Rostropovich did an awful lot to create a whole new repertoire for the instrument.
PR: Do you believe there is enough of a presence of contemporary classical works in concerts halls or is it too much of the old? Whilst there is the obvious need to play the works of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart amongst so many others, classical music as you say does need to maintain a contemporary relevance and not only focus on its past.
JLW: There is a lot going on. You have a composer like Philip Glass and now we have Eric Whitacre, two American composers whose music is being played a lot. So it’s not that’s it not there, though I do think that concerts tend to be a little bit too specialised, and tend not to mix things up enough. You’ll get a whole concert of Phillip Glass and a similar sort of music, but it would be nice to see some of this music taking its place in the concert hall as you say.
One composer who has proven to be quite interesting is the Argentinian Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla, whose music is on an awful lot of concert programmes, and people wouldn’t have predicted that. He is all about melody, rhythm, harmony and things that were not so fashionable in the fifties and the sixties, but he is one who has come through.
PR: I recall someone offering an opinion that Haydn was the only composer to write for his contemporary audience, whilst every other composer or musician since has been composing for a future audience. Would you agree?
JLW: I wonder if that’s true. Vivaldi was writing for his public – you’re saying they were a bit ahead of their time? It could be true. You look at Bach and its fantastic music and yet some of it was advanced for its time. It was the same with Beethoven, but not so much afterwards, as Brahms and other composers were writing for their public as was Shostakovich. But these composers transcend time – they write a piece, and does it really matter when it was written? It’s just a great piece of music, and sometimes a composer like Shostakovich will write something that in a way seems quite traditional, but then there will be passages in the music that are innovative.
PR: One of the great attributes of music and art is the ability to transcend time, to resonate with a contemporary audience and yet touch the sensibilities of the future audience.
JLW: They do if they work in the first place. The example I just mentioned of Piazzola is interesting because he was a sort of on the fringe, a bandoneon type, and yet now his music is performed all over the world.
PR: Why has the Dvořák Cello Concerto continued to endure?
JLW: The qualities of the melodies and the emotion behind the piece are just so inspired. He was feverishly in love at the time and there is also the pining for his homeland, because he was spending long periods of time in America. It all adds up to this incredibly dramatic piece of music, and it is kind of the king of cello music.
Do you know the story of how he came to write it – not the love story but why he decided to write a cello concerto? It was because the composer Victor Herbert who was also a very fine cellist gave a premiere of his second cello concerto in New York which Dvořák attended. It was that event that compelled him to write a cello concerto, though it tends to be forgotten. This story is also interesting from the point of view of the technique, because Herbert’s concerto is technically difficult, and I think that challenged Dvořák. I’m sure he studied the way that Herbert composed for the cello, and so the writing for the Dvořák cello concerto is to this day technically challenging.
But also something I’d like to say about this concerto is just how important the orchestra is, and it is the reason why at that time when we made this recording with the Czech Philharmonic who absolutely has this music in their soul, I have never been so nervous. At the first rehearsal for the recording I hadn’t played with them before, and it has five minutes of the orchestra before the cello comes in. They played perfectly, and so I was thinking, oh God I’ve got to come in now. That was a scary moment for me, but in the end it all worked out very well, and Tony Palmer must have captured all of that on film.
PR: Dvořák in Love takes us behind the scenes and allows us to appreciate the difficulty of recording a piece of music, as well as finding that creative compromise amongst the group.
JLW: It is one of the few films to do so, and Tony spent all of the time with us filming everything in order to as you say capture this. One of the things that people do not realise about how classical recordings are made is just how quickly they are completed. The whole process for this recording including rehearsing was completed over three days, and because there were a couple of other pieces on that CD they had other music to record as well as the concerto. So it is an incredibly intense process, and after the two or three days you feel mentally drained. It’s not like you can keep going back and rerecording like the way that all the old pop records were made – you go back; you record again and again, and then you maybe listen to it and then go into the studio another day. You don’t do it that way. The orchestra’s there; they’re paid for that time and you have to do it then.
PR: One of my editors once remarked to me, “Writing is the kind of endeavour that forces you to learn and then relearn what you need to know. It’s part of what makes the process so challenging, and ultimately so rewarding.” The working towards a harmony with everyone involved in a recording or performance leads me to consider that this applies to your profession.
JLW: Oh it does, and no matter how many times you’ve played a piece of music in your life. I’ve probably played the Elgar concerto more than any other, but I would never go into it thinking this is how it is going to go. It’s always a learning experience because you are working with different musicians, orchestras and performing in different concert halls which means it is new every time.
PR: Despite being made in 1988, the ideas of freedom and Czech identity which feature in the documentary resonate with the struggle for freedom we are currently witnessing across the world.
JLW: It is still absolutely relevant with everything that is happening all over the world, and for me what was interesting was that the recording was made in 1988 when Czechoslovakia was still Communist ruled, and when I went back to Prague a couple of years later the city had completely changed. I remember that there were no cafes open at night; the place was very dark – literally dark as there were hardly any street lights. Then I go back two years later and it is completely transformed. Now you could say that it was perhaps not entirely for the best because you had McDonalds and everything, but for the people I’m sure it was a massive liberation.
PR: Shostakovich composed under Stalin’s dictatorship, and I have heard it said that if you want to understand Shostakovich’s inner most thoughts then you should listen to his chamber pieces, as these would have garnered less attention from the state compared to his big orchestral works. This of course is probably true of most composers whose most private thoughts are to be found in their chamber music.
JLW: I’d think that’s absolutely right. I worked with Maxim Shostakovich, Dimitri Shostakovich’s son, and we talked quite a lot. He said, “You could not imagine how bad it was.” They were watched all of the time, and they were never allowed to speak about anything, and so it was a very difficult system under which to compose.
PR: Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is one piece of music that echoes a deep sense of pride, but the Dvořák has an undercurrent of tragedy, and yet it is an anthem for the struggle of freedom that is powerful and optimistic.
JLW: Dvořák is finally an optimistic composer in that there are moments that are very sad, poignant, but finally his optimism triumphs with this piece. You just listen to the end of that concerto and it is wonderful, though the cello is not actually playing.
The cellist that the piece was written for tried to get Dvořák to change the ending because he thought it all wound down and became too quiet – it didn’t have this big orchestral finish. He was so wrong because it is perfect, and Dvořák could see that it was absolutely perfect. It’s a stunning piece of music. The last lines of the cello are such an emotional cry, high up on the instrument and it is a wonderful piece to play.
PR: You’ve retired from live performances as a soloist?
JLW: Certainly as a cellist but not necessarily as a conductor.
PR: How important was the experience as a soloist when you step in front of the orchestra? Does it allow you to draw on the intimate exploration you undertook as a soloist?
JLW: I can only say that I was learning all the time, and every time you learn something it builds, and it builds and it builds. Quite recently I made a conducting CD, and I have obviously worked with many conductors, and every time I would take something away from working with them. So I didn’t feel phased standing in front of the orchestra. It was English music that I knew very well, and I think I instinctively knew what to do, which is the result of years and years of giving concerts myself. If I had perhaps started out as a conductor I would have obviously had to learn that from the beginning, but I believe that I’ve got a different kind of knowledge now.
Paul Risker: How important is it to access the personality of a composer to understand their sensibilities when you come to a piece of music or can the objective approach over the subjective be just as valuable?
JLW: Finally it is the music that is talking. It helps to know about the background, and I’m thinking now particularly about Elgar. If you know about the man, if you’ve visited the countryside where he was brought up then I think it helps to have some knowledge of that. I don’t think it is totally essential, but I think it helps you understand.
One of the questions that as always intrigued me is what would have happened if such and such a composer was born somewhere else? I once tried to create a link between Elgar and Buddy Holly. I was playing the Elgar concerto in New Mexico, and it is an impossible connection to make although I tried very hard. One thing that did occur to me was that in Lubbock, Texas where Holly was born the land is completely flat for 200 square miles; there is not a hill in sight. So I was wondering if Elgar would have written the undulating music that he composed had he been born in Texas. I think the answer is he wouldn’t have, and so from that point of view it does help to sometimes have visited the places a composer lived, because you get a feeling for what he was experiencing. But again finally the music transcends all of that.
Many thanks to Julian Lloyd Webber for taking the time for this interview.
Dvořák – In Love? Is available to own on DVD from 7 July courtesy of Firefly.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.