The Oxford English Dictionary defines a superconductor as a substance having zero electrical resistivity at sufficiently low temperatures. A good definition though this may be in the field of physics, it has no particular relevance1 to my doodlings in this issue of The Post. It does however have connectivity with the offering I wrote a couple of issues back entitled 'Do We Value Our Composers'. Toward the end of that piece I proposed that today’s superstars of the concert hall are the conductors—what I will now term Superconductors. Is this status a recent phenomenon or has it always been the case? Although *always* is probably too strong a way of putting it, the phenomenon is certainly not new either.
A professional orchestra is no easy beast to control, as evidenced by Sir Simon Rattle’s recent struggles with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, now thankfully resolved. It requires someone who can be both a leader and a diplomat, can teach old dogs new tricks, while at the same time commanding the trust and respect of the players as a fellow musician. Who would I pick as an example of this breed of Superconductor?
Well, having mentioned the Berlin Philharmonic, I could perhaps pick Herbert von Karajan, a predecessor of Sir Simon’s, as a prime example of the kind of person that could fill the shoes of our Superconductor. Certainly he was a man whose authoritarianism and egotism knew no bounds. In 1955, he put his own name forward as a potential successor to the great Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had died the previous year. When he was indeed offered the post of Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, he made his acceptance conditional on it being an appointment for life—an audacious demand, but one which was granted and which enabled him to reign supreme until his own death 34 years later in 1989.
However, I am going to offer two people who would perhaps not come automatically to mind, but who would IMO qualify as Superconductors, despite their having diametrically opposed characters: Richard Strauss and Anton Seidl.
My first selection, the composer/conductor Richard Strauss2, I make on the basis of the enormous sums of money that he was capable of demanding, and getting. Even by the standards of the celebrity superstars of today, this man had earning power. This was just as well, because for Strauss, composition and performance were opportunities to make money; he was decidedly a man focused on his income—not mercenary, but financially aware.
In early 1910 Thomas Beecham (as he still was then) put on a Season of Grand Opera at London’s Covent Garden, the season to include the UK première of Strauss’s opera Elektra; two of the five scheduled performances would be conducted by the composer himself. In the event, the production was so popular that additional performances were put on, and it was given a total of nine times between mid-February and mid-March. The London correspondent of The New York Times reported, 'It is stated that Strauss will receive a fee of $3,000 for conducting two performances, a record for any conductor in this country.' He may have exaggerated a little (in 1910, $3,000 would have been equivalent to about £615), but a London paper reported a figure of £200 per performance. Whichever figure you take, it was a considerable sum, at least £10-20K at today’s value, but perhaps not so very different from what a present-day big-name conductor would command. To put this in context, the prices for reserved seats for the Covent Garden Elektra performances ranged from 4 guineas for seats in the best boxes down to 12s 6d for the cheapest Grand Circle seats. At today’s values, 4gns would be about £300, 12/6 would be about £45.
But it didn’t stop there; in addition, Strauss would receive a royalty payment for each performance, worldwide. Further still, he required a one-off payment of some £5,500 (equivalent to about £325,000 today) for the publisher to release the music and parts: every opera house that wanted to stage Elektra would have to make this payment. Over the next five years, there were something like 40 productions at opera houses everywhere, equivalent to a present-day value for performance rights of about £13 million!
Ironically, Strauss did not benefit from this income. On advice, he had invested a substantial portion of his assets in London, when, in 1914, the British Government seized German assets held in London banks. As a result, Strauss lost more than £10 million at present-day values.
In great contrast to Strauss, my second selection, Anton Seidl, was a totally modest man. His supporters, especially the female ones, were fanatical followers. Seidl’s fame rested primarily on his authoritative interpretations of the works of Richard Wagner, with whom Seidl had a personal association. In 1872, Wagner asked the conductor Hans Richter to recommend someone to assist him at Bayreuth as personal secretary. Richter recommended Seidl, at that time his pupil. Seidl was to spend the next six years living with the Wagner family at their house at Bayreuth. The famous composer immediately appreciated the young Seidl's skills and love for his music. He began to depend on, and more importantly to trust him, to the extent that Seidl became the only person that Wagner would fully entrust with overseeing performances of his works at which he himself could not be present.
In 1882 Angelo Neumann, the General Manager of the Leipzig Opera, having engaged Seidl as the conductor at Leipzig, formed a travelling Wagner Theatre to tour the master's works around Europe. Between September and June the following year, 135 performances were given in various cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Italy and England, most of which were conducted by Seidl. Time and again it was said that hearing a Seidl performance of a Wagner opera was like hearing the work anew, so fresh and illuminating was his interpretation.
Richard Wagner died in Venice in February, 1883; Seidl was devastated. From then on, he was regarded as *the* authority on Wagnerian performance. Thus it was a great coup when in 1885 he was offered and accepted the conductorship of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. In a little over three years, Seidl gave the US première performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung and Das Rheingold. He was elected conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society in 1891 and became a naturalised American citizen in the same year. When, for the 1892-3 season, the Metropolitan Opera decided that too much German opera was being performed, and decide to revert to Italian opera again, Seidl devoted himself to conducting the Philharmonic Society concerts.
During Seidl’s time in New York, he received enticing offers from the Royal Opera, Berlin (three times), from the Royal Opera, Munich, from St Petersburg for an opera season there, from the Royal Hungarian Opera, Budapest (twice) and from the Hamburg Opera, where he was invited to 'Make your own terms'. Despite these offers, which would have been both financially rewarding and artistically prestigious, Seidl remained loyal to New York. His wife (he married in 1884) noted that he was a man of great generosity, always giving part-worn or sometimes new clothing to the needy: 'For the want of decent clothes, he might get a good position' he said. In bad times he would sometimes pay the musicians’ hotel bills personally just to enable the players to earn a living, and yet they were never aware that he had done so.
The musical illuminati of New York decided that their city should have a permanent orchestra like those at Boston, Chicago and Cincinatti. It would be Seidl’s personal orchestra with permanent, salaried players. The Metropolitan Opera guaranteed to engage the orchestra for the six months of the opera season, and also to provide the opera house free of charge for all rehearsals and concerts. However, before the project could be launched, Seidl died suddenly, of suspected food poisoning.
A public memorial service was held at the Metropolitan Opera House. Over 10,000 people applied for tickets, but there was only room inside for 4,000. Broadway was brought to a standstill. Crowds lined the route of the cortège from Seidl’s home. A hundred members of the Musicians’ Union formed a full military band that played immediately ahead of the hearse. Once in the Opera House, the coffin was placed on a catafalque, draped with a silk American flag. The coffin thus stood at the exact spot at which Seidl had stood to conduct so many times. The orchestra pit was draped in black and surrounded by floral tributes. One was in the form of a conductor's desk, bearing a score imbedded in the flowers. On the open pages appeared on one face a portrait of Wagner, on the other, one of Seidl. The stage had been set as a cathedral; on it sat the members of the Philharmonic Orchestra. After the funeral address, the orchestra played (inevitably) Siegfried’s Funeral March, from the final act of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
So we have two men, one whose own operas earned him great riches, the other whose dedication to one composer, Richard Wagner, earned him respect on a scale sufficient for an attempt to be made to raise an entire orchestra for his personal use. Truly Superconductors indeed!