Leonard Bernstein & Opera Star Christa Ludwig Get Into a Vigorous Creative Disagreement Over the Tempo of Mahler (1972)

In his role as a kind of clas­si­cal music pro­fes­sor to the tele­vi­sion audi­ences of Amer­i­ca, Leonard Bern­stein came across as supreme­ly genial and patient. But that does­n’t mean he ded­i­cat­ed his own career as a con­duc­tor to agree­able­ness above all. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the occa­sion in 1962 when he con­duct­ed Glenn Gould’s per­for­mance of Brah­m’s First Piano Con­cer­to, but not before offi­cial­ly declar­ing his lack of “total agree­ment with Mr. Gould’s con­cep­tion” of the piece. Anoth­er notable moment of dis­cord arose a decade lat­er, between Bern­stein and the late mez­zo-sopra­no Christa Lud­wig, and it, too, has been pre­served for all time.

It hap­pened dur­ing rehearsals for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. “Lud­wig, seen in this clip in her first rehearsal, begins to sing a verse from the fiendish fourth sec­tion, ‘Von der Schön­heit’ (Of Beau­ty), but strug­gles to fit in all the words at Bernstein’s break­neck tem­po,” writes Clas­sic FM’s Mad­dy Shaw Roberts.

“She shakes her head and walks over to his stand, telling the mae­stro: ‘I can’t keep up.’ The pair then launch into a delight­ful­ly awk­ward, bilin­gual dis­agree­ment. ‘This is so much slow­er than I ever do it,’ Bern­stein retorts. They try one more time, but Lud­wig is still forced to stop as she runs out of breath.”

What­ev­er dif­fi­cul­ties arose in the prepa­ra­tion, Bern­stein and Lud­wig more than acquit­ted them­selves in the final per­for­mance, which you can see in full in the video just above. (The key moment comes at the 26:15 minute mark.) And accord­ing to Lud­wig, their artis­tic rela­tion­ship was far from dif­fi­cult. “With Bern­stein it was true love, I must con­fess,” she told the Ital­ian mag­a­zine Musi­ca. “When singing with Lenny there seemed to be an elec­tric cur­rent com­ing from the orches­tra, the con­duc­tor and the singers on the stage which went out into the pub­lic, form­ing a cir­cle in which love, sen­su­al­i­ty and eroti­cism became mixed. Bern­stein did­n’t just con­duct the music but he seemed to live it phys­i­cal­ly as though he was com­pos­ing it at that moment.” It could hard­ly be much of a stretch to sup­pose that, on the deep­est lev­el, she agreed with him that there are times — as in Das Lied von der Erde — when clar­i­ty must give way to pas­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bern­stein Awk­ward­ly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Car­reras While Record­ing West Side Sto­ry (1984)

Hear the Famous­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Con­cert Where Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces Glenn Gould & His Idio­syn­crat­ic Per­for­mance of Brahms’ First Piano Con­cer­to (1962)

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

When Leonard Bern­stein Turned Voltaire’s Can­dide into an Opera (with Help from Lil­lian Hell­man, Dorothy Park­er & Stephen Sond­heim)

Leonard Bern­stein: The Great­est 5 Min­utes in Music Edu­ca­tion

Leonard Bern­stein Demys­ti­fies the Rock Rev­o­lu­tion for Curi­ous (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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