Such a bad conductor, such a great teacher

Such a bad conductor, such a great teacher


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2018

The Vienna State Opera is putting on a centennial exhibition of the life of Hans Swarowsky, a Jewish musician from Budapest who became the influential teacher of Abbado, Mehta, Sinopoli, both Fischer brothers and many more.

He was the go-to conducting teacher of the mid-century.

As a conductor himself, he was terrible.

I recall a Mahler 4th and 5th with tempi all over the place and a Brahms 4th on Supraphon that never really got going (a fuller account of his recordings can be found here).

A case of those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?

The exhibition opens next Tuesday.



  • I wasn’t really interested in his recordings, but I do remember a wonderful Salome from him and the Vienna Phil from 1960. A television recording in black and white.

  • Van says:

    “Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach PE.” Dewey Finn, School of Rock 2003.

    • Gerald Stein says:

      Woody Allen said it before Dewey Finn. You can hear it on one of his “nightclub years” recordings.

      • Mark says:

        I suspect my high-school English teacher said it even earlier, but with a teacher’s twist: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. (so far from G.B. Shaw) Those who can’t teach, administer. (D. Ouvry)

        • Thrown_Out_of_the_Kremlin_for_Singing says:

          I had a high-school teacher–actually junior-high-school (seventh grade) who, when anyone would ask permission to get a drink (of water from the water-cooler in the corridor) would reply: “Sure, have one on me.” We didn’t know what he meant. And this answer became so automatic for him that he would answer the same to any request to be allowed to leave the classroom for any reason. So: “Mr. Wills, may I go to the bathroom?” –“Sure, have one on me!” Yikes!

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Absolutely correct. Allen was such an intelligent comic but in the ‘early, funny ones’. He was the one said who uttered those wonderful lines, so relevant to the testimony of a certain female academic against Judge Kavanaugh where she was ‘abused’ then went on to 10 more parties.. “the food is terrible, and it’s in such small portions!!”.

        • Thrown_Out_of_the_Kremlin_for_Singing says:

          Woody Allen: “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much rest.”

        • steven holloway says:

          Spiffing new name, Sue. I’m so glad you arrived, for I was starting to fear that this thread might actually stay on topic and not be politicised. And we can’t have that, now can we?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Wasn’t that an excellent film, too??!!

  • Mstislav II says:

    Not to forget Jansons

  • Symphony musician says:

    “A case of those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?”
    Was there ever a lazier saying, masquerading as an aphorism? A good teacher is one of the most important assets in a civilised society. When I think of some of the amazing, inspirational teachers, of many subjects, I’ve encountered, this saying makes me flush with irritation and cringe with embarrassment. I would never have got near my potential as a player without the input of a couple of very special teachers. Yes, I certainly experienced some duffers, who might not have been good at much else either, but to generalise from that and lump the good teachers in with them is appalling. To perpetuate the saying, Norman, is just plain lazy, and a moment’s pause for thought would have made you realise that.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The aphorism is incomplete. Maybe one should add, “Those who can teach, make the world a far better place.”
      Even with conductors who only do, a way to assess them is to look at what legacy they left aside from great performances. By that standard, Swarowsky’s pupil Abbado easily ranks among the greatest, for his continued work with youth orchestras.

  • Doug says:

    Very interesting. In other words, Swarowsky could speak the same language as other conductors, but could not communicate with musicians.

  • YS says:

    ???? You do not really try to say that Janssons can only teach?

  • Cubs Fan says:

    The first Ring I owned was Swarowsky. I liked it well enough, although the VW hub cap cover may have been the selling point. I picked up his complete Brahms symphonies on CD, and while they won’t replace classic sets by others, they are just fine. Most wonderful is a superb Schmidt 4th from an off the air recording. He loved that symphony.

  • MSC says:

    I can think of at least three good Swarowsky recordings: Beethoven 8, Schubert 9, and Franck Symphony in D.

  • Steve says:

    I thought, in the music business, those that can do, those that can’t become critics.

    • RW2013 says:

      You beat me to it.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Pierre Monteux’s version: When he was young, he started out as a violinist. When his violin playing was no longer good enough, he switched to the viola. When he couldn’t handle the viola any more, he became a conductor. And when he’s no longer good enough to conduct, he’ll become a music critic. {;-)

  • Rgiarola says:

    His recording of Mahler 4th with Czech Pilharmonic ins’t that bad as you say. Actually it is really good.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    The Brahms Symphony No. 1 album in the photo above was the first recording of the piece I ever owned. Even at that early stage in my musical journey of discovery, I found it weak tea, really dull stuff. Later on, when I started reading about Swarowsky as a great revered teacher of conductors, I had trouble reconciling the two situations.

    But if many great conductors found his pedagogy helpful, who am I to question it’s value??

    • John Rook says:

      There’s a difference between knowing what’s required and being able to apply it yourself. Not all great singers or instrumentalists are great teachers, either. Allowing myself a crass cross-reference, Alex Ferguson was a decent, but never a great, player…

      • Vaquero357 says:

        Yes, I absolutely agree. The “those who can’t, teach” canard is unfair. Teaching is a unique talent in itself. A great teacher can recognize a great talent and guide, nurture, and help the student develop without being better or even as good as the student.

        And there’s no better object demonstration of that than Hans Swarowsky. But clearly, a lot of super-talented students benefited from his teaching. (BTW, not that his Brahms 1 is terrible. Just pretty plain and workmanlike.)

  • Jack says:

    When the Philadelphia Orchestra did their big centennial (or whatever) box of cds, Swarowsky contributed the weirdest and fastest Mahler 5 I’ve ever heard. As great an orchestra as Philly is, I was surprised they could keep up with him. I keep it just for its weirdness.

    • John Canarina says:

      The Philadelphia Mahler 5 was Scherchen, not
      John Canarina

      • Vaquero357 says:

        Heh, when read Jack’s comment, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Wow, that sounds like Scherchen.”

        Then I scrolled down and read your comment.

        P.S. Naturalized Iowan here. Enjoyed hearing you conduct the Drake Orchestra a number of times. (And your bio of Pierre Monteux.) How’s retirement treating you?

    • John Canarina says:

      The Philadelphia Mahler 5 was Scherchen, not Swarowsky.

    • david walker says:

      That was not Swarowsky — but Hermann Scherchen — Swarowsky’s 5th is not fast — but moderate and detailed — Swarowsky was not a bad conductor — I have most of his recordings and learn something from all them — a very good teacher for listeners as well.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Another failed conductor, Robert Schumann. So this man is in good company.

  • Hermann Lederer says:

    „A Jewish musician“… are you really sure? Coming back during the war working with Strauss and Kruass in Munich and conducting in Hans Franks Generalgouvernement….

    • swarowsky fan says:

      From Swarowsky’s official biography: December 19, 1945: after reviewing the statements (especially regarding Swarowsky’s activities in the resistance and for the Allies) he was put on the ‘White List’ as blameless and was allowed to conduct again; nevertheless, Swarowsky leaves Stuttgart and goes to Vienna.

      More about all this in detail here:

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Actually, the issue is that lots of people who are good at something (conducting, playing an instrument, singing) find it very hard to understand what makes them good. Often-times people who are slightly less good have to think about it more, which makes them better teachers.

    Teaching is actually a very different skill from performing yourself. Some are better at teaching than performing, but many people who perform poorly also teach poorly.

  • swarowsky fan says:

    Mariss Jansons has a thing or two to say about Swarowsky:

  • Michael Ouldred says:

    Glib nonsense, his recording of Mahler’s 4th with the Czech Phil remains my favourite of the dozens of recordings of that work I have.