Herbert Blomstedt: Vanity stinks

June 8, 2018 by norman lebrecht


The nonagenarian conductor, in a snap interview about the secrets of a long life, talks movingly about his late brother.

‘He knew music as well as I did, but he became a doctor. We shared a room for 25 years. He caught all the diseases in the world and died very young. He said to me: you are shamelessly healthy.’

The most important things in life: ‘To be sincere and not to be vain. Vanity stinks.’

Comments (51)

  1. John Borstlap says:

    Unfortunately, the classical music world suffers from quite a lot of vanity theatre. This has always been the case but it is regrettable, since this type of music is about interior experience, not wrapping paper.

    1. Tamino says:

      The more money there is in it, the more vanity there is.
      Herr Blomstedt is commanding good fees. But I guess in his case they are sincere. Even though the fellow orchestra musicians make about 1-3% of what he makes in a concert. But I guess we can blame the vane agents. 🙂

      1. John Borstlap says:

        A music agency has big expenses – overhead, rent, office materials, etc. + investment of work over long periods before money comes-in: concerts are planned at least a season ahead. Agencies live of the commissions on performance fees, on average between 10 – 20%, but fees are only paid on or after the concert. And then, the higher the fees the higher the commissions. Vanity does hardly come-in, it is the pressures of running an agency which is the burden. Also: the bigger the agency, the greater the burden.

    2. The Irish Border says:

      H v K being a prime example, thankfully he is now annoying St Peter et al!

      1. John Borstlap says:

        My fly on the wall told me that he is still banging his fists on the closed gate in great indignation.

      2. Herr Doktor says:

        For whatever vanity Herbert von Karajan clearly had, the fact of the matter is, he hugely delivered the goods musically–where it counted. People are welcome to their own opinions for sure, but to my ears, he is the greatest Bruckner conductor of all time. And that means a lot.

        1. The Irish Border says:

          Indeed his greatest achievement was to take Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s world renown BPO and turn it into a Mantovani orchestra, playing everything from Bach to Zelenka in exactly the same way.

          1. M2N2K says:

            Yes indeed – superbly that is, with the same unmatched brilliance of execution and the same unfailing respect for the content of the musical text. But admittedly, with various degrees of success – just like any other orchestra/conductor combination – in terms of style and interpretation.

        2. Martin Atherton says:

          Cliché, and demonstrably untrue. Do learn to think for yourself.

          1. Martin Atherton says:


        3. Herr Doktor says:

          I couldn’t disagree with you more. But there’s no point re-hashing this issue, it’s pointless particularly because there is nothing one can say that will change minds that are already made up.

          You should just make a point to not listen to any of Karajan’s recordings, and put on Gunter Wand’s instead. While I own recordings of both conductors, I personally don’t feel the two conductors belong in the same sentence. To my ears, Karajan’s peers at his peak were few: Carlos Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Klaus Tennstedt, Carlo Maria Giulini, possibly Rudolf Kempe, possibly Yevgeny Mravinsky.

          1. Hilary says:

            He doesn’t always hit the mark in Bruckner. The 2nd Subject of the 4th Symphony is nothing short of glutinous (the 8th notes are marked staccato) in his hands. I’m not always in favour of adherence to the score butist seems to go against the grain of the music. With all that said, one of the most important conductors of the 20th century. No question.

  2. Caravaggio says:

    True indeed re vanity. True also that the industry is infested with empty vanity and the publicity sycophants that enable and nurture it. Could easily name names but won’t.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      I will be a bit more courageous… it is definitely [redacted] and [redacted] who are the worst examples of classical music’s exploitation, but the charlatanerie of [redacted] is at the top. And what about [redacted] and [redacted]?

      1. buxtehude says:

        You courage inspires me John. I can’t stand Redacted either, and the same goes for Redacted. On the other hand I admire the quiet humility of trad. and that goes double for trad. .

  3. Petros Linardos says:

    Blomstedt is now deservedly lionized. But back in 1995 he was called “a marketing nightmare”. That was when he was to be succeeded by Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony.

    1. Petros Linardos says:

      Blomstedt evidently outgrew his “marketing nightmare” phase. Seems like in classical music you have to be young or very old.

      1. Ruben Greenberg says:

        You have to have one foot in the cradle or one foot in the grave.

        1. Robert Hairgrove says:

          How true. Reminds me of an anecdote told about Wilhelm Backhaus when he was well into his 80’s. It went something like this, at an interview:

          Q: Herr Backhaus, if you look back on your career from the very beginnings until this day, what can you tell us?

          A: It’s actually very easy. It has come full circle. In the early days, people always said: “He plays marvellously, for his age.” Nowadays? They are saying exactly the same thing.

        2. M2N2K says:

          This cradle/grave dichotomy is a real phenomenon. The reason for it is that there are plenty of people for whom the present is never good enough – it is certainly never as good as the past for them, and since conductors who are over 80 represent the past, they are often tolerated and in best cases respected, with 90-somethings being at particular advantage. On the other hand, those who are under 35 represent the future, and since the present is so inferior, those young ones can for a while be the messengers of hope and therefore they can be at least temporarily of some interest.

          1. Ruben Greenberg says:

            I agree with your analysis. Just to qualify it a bit: young musicians are often the equivalent of the latest I-Phone. I-Phone 7 must be replaced by I-phone 8 to maintain interest in the product. These days, it also helps if they’re good-lucking. If you’re young and talented but as ugly as the back of a bus, you might not make it.

      2. Jon H says:

        Decca just never gave those recordings a chance – they would get discontinued too soon. Meanwhile there were conductors who weren’t really that great making hundreds of records. The Nielsen and Hindemith were nice to have. And that Mahler 2 – there’s some great Mahler 2s out there, but HB’s stayed in the catalog for about 20 years.

    2. MWnyc says:

      I think the marketing issue boils down to the fact that, fundamentally, the stern and abstemious Swedish Seventh-Day Adventist Herbert Blomstedt simply wasn’t as good a fit with libertine San Francisco as Michael Tilson Thomas is.

      1. barry guerrero says:

        I think most SFSO patrons are very happy to have Blomstedt back as often as they (we) do get him.

    3. Tamino says:

      Blomstedt‘s ethics and appolinic charisma do not resonate with the plutocratic and materialistic US classical music world.

      1. M2N2K says:

        This is a grossly exaggerated generalization: he has been having and still has a very fine successful longtime relationship with several US orchestras including the two leading ones in California – a decidedly non-European Wild West in many ways – where he was even the music director of one of them for a while.

        1. Petros Linardos says:

          Moreover, Haitink has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Boston Symphony. Haitink also has a reserved demeanor.

          I don’t think that the materialistic and plutocratic attitude is so pervasive in the US classical music world. One cannot generalize that way anymore than one can about arts connoisseurship and refinement being common among the general European population. I’ve lived in both continents.

          1. Sue says:

            Completely agree.

  4. Hilary says:

    As ever I’m trying to look for a positive take:
    ‘Vanity’ is the title of a fine orchestral piece by Richard Barrett, which in turn was inspired by this intriguing movement in art:

    1. Alan says:

      Now there’s a name you don’t see on this blog very often.

  5. Bruce says:

    The “marketing nightmare” reference above goes like this:

    {Michael Tilson Thomas] …is decidedly more salable than the highly respected Blomstedt, whom one local critic, Andrew Clark, called a “marketing nightmare — unphotogenic, not at all gregarious and not given to excitement on the podium.”

    Doesn’t sound like a musician’s — or music lover’s — nightmare at all.

    1. Robert Hairgrove says:


      Much the same could have been said about Rudolf Serkin, for example.

    2. Petros Linardos says:

      But that’s what I see as the point: the connoisseur’s musician not getting their due recognition by the media and, to some extent, by record companies, unless they are very young or very old.

      I believe Serkin was more affable. More important, he came from a generation where those traits were not critical. Rubinstein’s well publicized love of life may have helped his career, but how often did we hear say, Arrau’s voice?

  6. Novagerio says:

    Wonderful Kierkegaard quote there: “Live life forwards, but understand it backwards”.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      The same goes for memory, although it is a bit more difficult; ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’ ( The queen in ‘Through the looking glass’)

  7. barry guerrero says:

    But isn’t Blomstedt now a card carrying member of the evil global Mahler conspiracy – he’s conducting Mahler 9 here.

    1. Mike Schachter says:

      Don’t most conductors do Mahler these days?

      1. barry guerrero says:

        Of course. Mahler still packs ’em in and every city wants a piece of the action. I love most of Mahler’s music, so it sure doesn’t bother me. However, I get a bigger kick hearing community orchestras and youth orchestras rising to the occasion. Santa Cruz Symphony, of all places, recently blew the doors off with the “Resurrection” symphony.

        Also, conservatory kids wanting to audition must have ALL of their Mahler excerpts down cold. When I was in school in the 1970’s, I never once had a teacher or member of the ‘applied faculty’ even mention Mahler. That sure has changed.

        I’ve heard some pretty incredible concerts over the decades – many of them involving Mahler symphonies or “Das Lied von der Erde”. I’ve lived a charmed life in many ways.

  8. M2N2K says:

    What I find most remarkable about HB is the fact that in my opinion he became a better conductor in his 80s than he was in his 50s when I encountered him for the first time. I don’t know any other conductor about whom I can say that.

  9. Rob says:

    His Mahler is one of the few failings in a long career. As dead as a doornail.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      I think Blomstedt is a classicist, rather than a Mahlerist.

  10. Jack says:

    I think that in 100 years, nobody but nobody will be talking about Herr Blomstedt. I fall asleep just thinking of his name.

    1. buxtehude says:

      What Will people be talking about 100 years from now, and what else will be going on? I’d love to know.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        The other day I was at a clairvoyant where I actually asked this… She looked in her ball and informed me that we will all be speaking Chinese and be poor, except for a small group of people, and that all food will be fairly distributed through tubes throughout megacities and be vegetarian, that people will live till 200 but most will commit suicide, and that every child will be taught classical music at virtual schools through the internet on watches, but only the music up till and including Schubert. All music after that will be prohibited. ‘And Boulez?” I asked. ‘Bou who?’ wa the answer. But in her ball nothing Boulezbian was to be seen. I was greatly disappointed, the Chinese I could swallow but no PB was too much. I did pay her, though.


        1. John Borstlap says:

          Sorry about that… there’s ony one of us.

          (the real) Sally

          1. Sue says:

            Aunty Sally. (Think about it.)

    2. M2N2K says:

      That is roughly what I thought about him in early 1980s. But since then two things have happened: his musicianship has become much more interesting and so has my musical understanding.

  11. Alan k says:

    Saw him last year at the season opening at the Gewandhaus. After a long program he happily signed cds and programs. We even chatted for a few. He is a magnificent humble human being and wonderful artist

  12. Sue says:

    @Martin Atherton: my “bravo” went to the wrong person!! It was meant for Herr Doktor. Of course!!

    1. Martin Atherton says:

      Sue – then “Hear, hear”!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.