Tolstoy said: ‘I don’t believe in the art of conducting’

It was one of the sayings of Gennady Rozhdestvensky and it opens Bruno Monsaignon’s film on the late conductor.

Switch off the football and watch this now.

So wise, and so funny.



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  • “There are three things I don’t believe in: …medicine, … sunspots, and … the art of conducting.” Tolstoy, according to Rozhdestvensky.

    • There were more things Tolstoy did not believe in, like love, marriage, sexuality, and classical music, as can be read in his novella ‘Kreutzer Sonata’.

      • He didn’t believe in law either, a trickster’s substitute for the sermon on the mount. In this he was very Russian and it accounts for much of what we find today.

          • That takes a long answer but he believed in — what shall we call it? — Tolstoyan Christianity, an almost impossible discipline that exhausted its practitioners; and in qualities of simplicity endurance and devotion he detected in the Russian peasantry; and in the professional annihilation of any and all living writers, especially Russian, at least in his own mind, though he loved Chekhov personally and adopted Gorky as a kind of pet.

            It’s a pity that this man, this almost unbelievably powerful writer who more than any other individual destroyed the prestige of the Tsardom, left no guidance toward something that might replace it. Nothing practical, in effect a vacuum.

        • PS: Rozhdestvensky with his belief that conducting is essentially charisma would naturally be drawn to Tolstoy, almost the definition of that quality. It is difficult indeed, while reading him, not to fall in with any argument he happens to be making, however goofy.

          Anyone looking for a taste might try his late novella Hadji Murat.

          • “try his late novella Hadji Murat”

            In this recommendation you are joined by Harold Bloom, who seems to think it is one of Tolstoy’s greatest works. It’s certainly worth reading, and is much shorter than most of Tolstoy’s fiction.

          • It’s all worth reading.

            And while you’re at it, Pushkin (the prose at least), Lermontov (A Hero of Our Time),
            Gogol (everything!), Turgenev, and then on and on it goes.

  • Fascinating. I have never seen footage of him conducting before. I only watched a few minutes of it – I’ll catch the rest tomorrow. Thanks for posting this.

  • At 37:19: “What I love most is performing things I’ve never played before.” Oh, how I wish more conductors would take that sentiment for their own! Maybe then we wouldn’t be bored with hearing Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler year after year.

    • If you are bored by another performance of Brahms at al., it’s probably the contractor’s fault, not the composer’s. Or perhaps it just wasn’t the right choice for your mental and emotional state that day.

      Either way, the “first thoughts” a musician has about a piece — which is what you get when they’ve not played it before — are often not as interesting as their second, third, and later thoughts.

      • That’s not it at all. I recognize that the symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven et al are extraordinary masterworks. But after over 50 years of hearing them played in concert I just don’t care anymore!!!!! I don’t care who’s conducting, playing…it could be the Berlin Philharmonic or the Orchestra of Southern North Dakota at Hoopla. I just don’t want to hear yet another Brahms 3, Tchaikovsky 5, Beethoven 8. There’s so much more music that has been ignored and swept aside. I’d far rather hear a symphony of Raff, Schmidt, or Rangstrom. Just once I’d like to hear someone play a piano concerto of Rubinstein rather than sit through another Rachmaninoff 2, Tchaikovsky 1, Grieg, or Beethoven 5. I love the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler and company. But there’s so much more! I know I am in a distinct minority. I realize that most classical listeners (and performers) are content to play and replay the same standard repertoire over and over. But doing this has killed classical music. God forbid we should have a festival of music Schnittke or Schmidt. Nope, but Mozart and Beethoven will have festivals forever – and I will not partake!

        • Or either of Moszkowski’s Piano Concertos for a change. I concede that It’s not too drawer music, but it deserves more exposure.

        • Indeed, one can have too much of a good thing.

          Programming the core repertoire often is merely the result of lazy routine and indifference of the performers.

          There is also a general suspicion that performers and programmers are actually not much interested in music.

    • Very interesting. Russians tend to do Mahler very much on the quick side, so it’s nice to know that there was an exception out there.

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