‘He gave every orchestral player an F’

‘He gave every orchestral player an F’


norman lebrecht

March 01, 2016

Nathan Cole, associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has written a wonderful appreciation of his Curtis teacher Otto-Werner Mueller, who died at the weekend. Mueller was previously his parents’ teacher at Wisconsin-Madison and he came with a tough reputation.

“Who will be the one?” he would say, stopping the orchestra just before a giant ritardando. “Who will be the one? Who will be looking down at his music stand,” and here he would perform a grotesque imitation of a fiddler sawing away with head down, “raise your hand now so I can throw you out in advance!” I never saw a raised hand. But it was certainly not an idle threat, for I saw many people “thrown out”.

nathan cole otto werner mueller

Mueller never discussed religion or faith with us, except his contempt for strict religious doctrine and the insincerity of many so-called “leaders”. I always believed that the music was spiritual nourishment enough for him. There was, however, a definite morality about his music-making and teaching. There were clearly right and wrong ways to play. Like Luther, Mueller seemed to believe in “original sin”: that we were all lousy musicians to start with, but through the grace of the best composers, we were saved. Of course, unlike Luther, Mueller demanded that we also constantly perform good works to earn our salvation. Otherwise we would be cast out… of rehearsal, at least. 

Read the full lovely article on Nathan’s site, here.


  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    I love this story because it tells of a man who stood overtly strong in principle–although he had a brutal way to make his points clear. His proteges are very fine conductors, and they all maintain integrity in their reverence for the printed score and for sound. Well done, Nathan.

  • cherrera says:

    It frightens me, the cult-like devotion/adoration of musicians, even well into adulthood it seems, to their mentors when they were teens. The analogy to religion is apt. I hope they grow out of it, or at least gain some distance in perspective, by the time they themselves have teenage children.

    • cherrera says:

      mea culpa, I wrote before reading Mr. Cole’s post, I take my comment back, his piece is actually very clear eyed, well balanced between memories of a lived experience, awareness of its contradictions and hold on a young mind, and thoughtfulness about the present and the future. It’s actually a model piece of writing in memorial of a teacher.

      • John says:

        Yes, with Mueller you couldn’t not be in his spell, but if you look at any twenty of his best students today, the only thing they probably have in common are the musical values and standards he taught. He was at heart someone who would be offended if you idolized him in some way. I remember how he would become upset with anyone who dared to call him ‘maestro’.

  • Gary says:

    That was a terrific read. Thanks.

  • Nicola Lefanu says:

    ==I remember how he would become upset with anyone who dared to call him ‘maestro’. –

    I love to hear this sort of thing. You think of people like Antal Dorati who would barely make acknowledgment if not addressed as ‘Maestro’ (with incense flowing)

  • Zachary Smith says:

    He was pardoned by a US military tribunal after WW II- any idea what he was convicted of in the first place?