Blazing Batons with Arthur Bloomfield: A Voice from the Pit

Surfing the net the other day I stumbled on a bundle of pure anecdote heaven, the memoirs of Mr. Richard Temple Savage, the bass clarinet of London’s Covent Garden Opera back in the 30s-40s-50s. This charming book, titled A Voice from the Pit and originally published in 1988 — some of it was serialized in Opera Magazine — doesn’t stint on backstage, upstage and down-in-the-pit “stories,” but it’s also immensely valuable for Savage’s deft observations on the styles of numerous conductors — Covent Garden, you may remember, saw the likes of Erich Kleiber, Clemens Krauss, Rudolf Kempe and other podium giants in those ‘great old days.”

A story to start! Savage and his colleagues were on tour in Manchester where Aida was mounted in a house with a small orchestra pit and the overflow of players was seated under the stage beyond open passage doors. Early in the Tomb Scene as Radames addressed the murk with the pregnant question Aida, where are you? what should be heard in response but a “rusty clanking and flushing from the stagehands’ loo.” The audience, of course, broke up.

Savage is certainly one of your basic references on the art and personality of Erich Kleiber (his dates, by the way, 1890-1956). As the reverent clarinetist remembers, “This short thickset bald man with the piercing eyes had such a powerful personality he could inspire devotion in the most cynical players and in return he was immensely considerate of our welfare . . . he could be very severe but he always knew when to make a joke and had a very infectious laugh.”

[Conductor Erich Kleiber; resized image of an undated historical photograph, from the Bain Collection of the Library of Congress.]

Der Rosenkavalier led by Kleiber became “totally translucent,” this opera that “can too often turn into a thick swirl of sound.” One evening in this opera a pad came off a key on Savage’s instrument during the prelude and he missed quite a few bars. But Kleiber soothed him: “Don’t worry, I sang it for you, and anyway, only you and I and Strauss in heaven will have noticed.”

Important information: Kleiber told his players that a certain descending scale in violins and oboes during the levee scene of the first act indicates plainly that those puppies brought in by the animal vendor have piddled on the carpet.

He also told the orchestra that in the vengeance duet at the end of the second act of Verdi’s Rigoletto the music passes through no less than seven stages of “increasing and carefully controlled intensity.” Well, I looked in my vocal score and there certainly are four crescendo/diminuendos, another crescendo after that and a piu mosso . . .

Meanwhile Erich Kleiber was very concerned that his teenage son Carlos would ruin him because he was playing the pinball machines in the Strand. Carlos of course would grow up to become a perhaps even more iconic conductor than his father although certainly his repertoire was far smaller.  Papa Kleiber had some blind spots, he almost never conducted Brahms or Schumann but he was Erich-on-the-spot for Handel, Janacek and Berg.

[Below: Conductor Carlos Kleiber conducts Brahms; resized image of a promotional photograph.]

Carlos certainly inherited from his dad a wonderful lightness in conducting the music of Johann Strauss and other Viennese lollipoppers. And Erich is often mentioned in the same breath as his contemporary Clemens Krauss because they both were so at home with the good Johann.

But their styles were quite different, Kleiber’s musicmaking more sharply profiled although he was capable of a truly squishy slowdown when he sought one out, as in the beginning of the development in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on an NBC broadcast, this is a passage that can be read as saying Oh dear, Oh Dear!

His wide range of crisply delivered and evocatively colored tempi in the long opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony — the famous “love theme” evolves, appearing first way below the composer’s tempo then faster when the violins take off their mutes and with it, one might say, their inhibitions — is something every conducting student ought to know about.

Tenple Savage has fine memories of Clemens Krauss who was “immensely tall, immensely aristocratic, dressed in a flowing cloak and wide brimmed hat [a happy Wanderer out of Siegfried perhaps?], spoke perfect English and claimed Dickens as his favorite author.”

[Below: Conductor Clemens Krauss in the late 1940s with Composer Richard Strauss; resized image, based on a historical photograph.]

Krauss, says Savage, used a very long baton and like many conductors had a small beat way out at the end of it. Players had to watch carefully! Krauss placed a white handkerchief on the lectern and would hold it quietly in his left hand to warn the orchestra of a difficult moment, possibly unrehearsed, that was coming up.

Handkerchiefs are useful onstage, I remember singing in Kodaly’s Te Deum with the Stanford University Chorus and Sandor Salgo would always wave a handkerchief at us when the music climbed to a particularly lovely Cloud 9 near the end, head tone all the way. We knew what we had to do.

“I have never again,” Savage tells us, “felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as they did in the Death Motif of Tristan und Isolde with Krauss conducting,” and your present commentator has never heard a more moving Prelude and Liebestod from that opera than the recording made by Krauss and the London Philharmonic with Mr. Savage perhaps in the orchestra, a delicate, luminous performance subtly escaping into milky shadows.

Rudolf Kempe (1910-76) was another of Savage’s heroes. Rather frail, with a face somewhat suggesting a Saxonian Toscanini in the heat of conductorial zest. Kempe was an extremely lyrical, and precise, conductor. If anyone ever conducted a sweeter, more delicate opening to the third act of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” this chronicler of blazing batoneers hasn’t heard it.

[Below: Conductor Rudolf Kempe; edited image, based on a promotional photograph.]

At Kempe’s first rehearsal for Salome at Covent Garden the “small neat flick” of his cue to the opening clarinet was so unconventionally subtle the player simply didn’t come in! Kempe quickly made it plain that no more fuss from the podium was needed to get Richard Strauss’ opera going  and soon enough the orchestra was perfectly content with Kempe’s beat which was small but, when you thought about it, eminently clear.

Like Erich Kleiber, says Savage, Kempe produced such an effect on the orchestra “we would have followed him through fire and flood.”

Kempe’s Rosenkavalier, Savage recalls, didn’t quite have the ultimate champagne sparkle of Papa Kleiber, but “the delicacy and beauty of sound he obtained were absolute, helping the singers to ride the orchestral storms and enabling the words to be heard at all times.” This was the Bayreuth effect as with a covered pit.

Kempe used to say: “Without [hearing] the words it’s so boring.” He also liked the idea of plenty of women in the orchestra — “otherwise it’s too much like the Army!” This from a fellow dragooned into the Wehrmacht.

Savage also thought Kempe the best conductor of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly he ever encountered — “he managed to avoid the usual feeling of constant stops and starts arising from the rather awkwardly written short phrases.”

Another conductor who greatly inspired Savage was Carlo Maria Giulini. “His Verdi had a wonderful springing rhythm and singing quality.” Even a staccato for Giulini was “ma sempre legato.”

[Below: Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini; edited image, based on a promotional photograph.]

Now a few more stories. The great Lehar tenor Richard Tauber in his early days at the Dresden Opera loved to do Narraboth in Salome because he’d be dead and carted offstage in 20 or 30 minutes and he could see the last show at the cinema. But one night the guards forgot to cart him off and he had to remain in the rigor mortis position for an hour.

Then in another city the great pre-Flagstad soprano Frida Leider was singing Isolde with a Brangaene she didn’t get on with and the latter placed her foot firmly on Leider’s train as she was prostrate over the corpse of Tristan, so she couldn’t get up and had to sing the Liebestod  from a considerably lower position than usual.

Savage also remembers the timpanist Jimmy Bradshaw who counted bars with clacking dentures, and Charlie Turner the triangle player who cut things awfully close getting back from the Nag’s Head just in time to do his tinkly thing in Rheingold.

And there was the new bassoonist who turned up in white tie for a performance designated as a black tie night, so he simply dipped his white tie in a bottle of ink.


Please go to morethanthenotes dot com for Arthur Bloomfield’s e-book on the styles of the great old conductors. With more than four hours of sound clips!