…one of the most talented conductors I have ever worked with, he has the passion, intellect and artistic ability to take the lead of an orchestra and bring it to great heights. David Murphy is on his way to becoming one of the most important conductors of our time ~ Leon Barzin 1997
I had the great privilege to be Barzin’s last student, living and studying with him during the summers he spent in Europe from 1993 until 1998. Aged 93, music still gave him the energy of a twenty-year-old. My first lesson lasted for seven hours without a break! The keyboard was only rarely used, the voice he felt was the ideal instrument for teaching conducting. For lessons, every note of a score had to be learnt from memory in order to comprehensively grasp the music’s structure. He would often stop me in mid movement and say something like “sing the second clarinet part here…..now sing what it had in bar 56….what is the structural relationship between these bars?”
His approach came through absorbing the work of both Toscanini and Furtwängler, and later through conversations with Einstein. He was particularly concerned with the relationship between gravity, space and time and how the conductors gestures, if free of personality quirks and ego difficulties, could naturally convey this relationship. When conducting, one felt that he could look right inside you, physically and mentally and see what needed to be fixed for you to reach a higher level of understanding. The most remarkable teaching of anything I had ever encountered!
Technique was taught (apart from some basic warm up exercises) only in relation to sound and expression. His warm ups would include freeing the whole body from the toes upwards to make sure every joint was flexible, mobile and free to react to the music. Flexibility and balance were tremendously important to him (his mother was a prima ballerina). The next stage of warming up involved developing a natural relationship with gravity. A variety of circles or “orbits” with the baton were explored. Over time my awareness of gravity changed radically. I will never forget the day in 1997 when it all clicked into place. Difficult to put into words, it is a kind of awareness of the context of musical time: of all of the pulses in and around us, and how time moves through them and binds them all together. In recent years I have found a direct parallel to this experience in my work with Ravi Shankar and other leading Indian musicians.
Considered by colleagues such as Milstein, Huberman, Heifetz, Feurmann, Serkin, Stravinsky and Bernstein to be one of the finest conductors of the twentieth century, Barzin was not interested in a career as a “great conductor”. He was a man of the highest moral and artistic principle, and his ideals often came into conflict with the business side of making music. Being outside the rough and tumble of the music business gave him a special position. Many famous musicians: conductors, composers and instrumentalists would come to him for confidential advice, which he unfailingly gave freely and generously.
He remained a friend of Toscanini, Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, and played string quartets socially with Heifetz and Einstein. He had many interesting stories to tell about these occasions, including Einstein explaining scientifically to Heifetz why the level he achieved on the violin was, despite the sound, a more complex accomplishment than Heifetz’s virtuosity : “What I do is difficult, what you do is easy!” said Einstein. He also recalled a message from the President interrupting a chamber music session. Roosevelt wanted to talk to Einstein about plans for the nuclear programme. Einstein was inconsolable: “They just don’t know what they are doing” he kept repeating.
Barzin found his greatest satisfaction inspiring the young with the passion, joy and intensity of his musical vision. He had incredibly high artistic standards and could be a very hard taskmaster, but unlike his own mentor Toscanini, never lost sight of the fact that he was dealing with people.
He received many awards: was made a member of the Légion d’Honneur, Columbia University Ditson Award, Gold Medal of Lebanon and shortly before he died, received the Theodore Thomas Award from the Conductors’ Guild in recognition of a lifetime’s service to the art of Conducting.
Recently Barzin’s concerto recordings have begun to be re-issued. These include:
Emmanuel Feurmann: The Legendary Association with Leon Barzin Label: Arlecchino ASIN: B0000065I5
Mendelssohn/Bruch Violin Concertos Nathan Milstein/Philharmonia Orchestra (1961) Label: EMI ASIN: B000003X3X
Dvorak: Violin Concerto/Adolph Busch/NOA Label: Arbiter ASIN: B00000IPRY (CD also includes Busch playing the Brahms Concerto conducted by Munch)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto/Bronislav Huberman/NOA Label: Arbiter ASIN: B00000IPRY
Barzin was full of ideas to improve the world right to the end of his life:
Today’s society remains full of hope. Talents must never be spoilt nor lost… Education is a top priority : as early as Primary School, it is paramount that talents should be discovered so as to offer children the opportunity to develop their gifts. Music at school should be as important a subject as their first language… (extracted from an interview in “La Liberte”)
Perhaps not everything in the legacy is beneficial. Although it is Leonard Bernstein who is now generally remembered as one of the earliest podium athletes, Barzin was there before them all. He was described as “one of the first of America’s choreographic conductors” by the critic Harold C. Schonberg in a graphic pen-portrait in 1976: “He was of the crouch and tiptoe school. We all looked forward to his entrances. A slim and aristocratic-looking man, he would glide through the orchestra like an eel around pilings in a dock, arriving at the podium in a sort of uninterrupted streak of motion.” The activity carried on into the performance, as Schonberg explained: “He would not only crouch for pianissimos and get on tiptoe for fortes. He would also dance to the music – his beat was all curves. He was fluidity itself.”
Barzin was born in Brussels in 1900, to Belgian parents who emigrated to the United States when Leon was only two. It was a musical family: his father played viola in the Brussels Opera and in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and his mother was a ballet dancer.
Leon studied with his father – violin and viola – and then with the great Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysae. Indeed, with the deaths of the French violinist Robert Soetens in 1997, at the age of 100, and now Barzin, the last living links with Ysae, whose teaching and playing bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, may have gone forever.
Barzin entered the musical profession like many young aspirants to a career in those days – in a salon orchestra, in this instance in the Hotel Astor in New York, in 1917. Within two years he was in the second violins of the National Symphony Orchestra, shortly before it merged with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; there he was principal viola from 1925-29. And there his big break as a conductor occurred.
Among the conductors who worked with the Philharmonic Symphony, with Barzin sitting in the violas, were Willem Mengelberg, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini, and it was Toscanini who one day asked Barzin to conduct a rehearsal so he could bend an ear to the balance from further back in the hall. When they had finished, Toscanini’s advice was direct: “Put your instrument away, Leon: you’re going to be a conductor.”
And so, in 1929, he joined the American Orchestral Society as assistant conductor, moving up to become principal conductor and music director a year later, when it became the National Orchestral Association (NOA). The association was America’s leading pre- professional training orchestra, and thus a springboard for generations of young American instrumentalists, rather as the BBC Training Orchestra (later the Academy of the BBC) was in Britain before the axe fell on it in 1980. Barzin stayed at the NOA until 1958, returning for a brief postscript in 1970-76.
Thus, while Barzin worked with soloists of the calibre of Szigeti, Gabrilowitsch, Elman and Feuermann within only a few years of becoming a conductor, he was also shaping the musical mannerisms of the thousands of young players who emerged from the NOA to people orchestras across America. It was axiomatic that, if an orchestra required a replacement player for whatever instrument, it would go to the pool of talent being shaped by Barzin.
Of course, Barzin taught conducting. The eminent American conductor Jonathan Sternberg, who was an auditor in Barzin’s class in the 1930s before taking a handful of private lessons with him, discovered that Barzin’s “phenomenal technique” depended on communication through body language informed by a thorough knowledge of the score: “The clarity of Barzin’s beat mirrored his exact intention; there was never a surprise because the musicians knew exactly what he wanted.” Sternberg remembers him advising his students to flick the tip of the baton as if flicking ash off the end of a cigarette.
In a 1941 article Barzin put his approach in words:
Co-ordination means absolute control from the tip of the toe to the very end of the stick, so that no motion of any part of the body may confuse the musical content of the score. A definite sign of a conductor’s lack of co- ordination is his need to explain all his meanings through speech rather than through his stick during rehearsal periods. There is no question that a certain amount of speech is needed. But if you talk to your violin all day it will not play the passage for you. You must create the sound, the precision, the interpretation. So should the baton. It saves a great deal of time. The average orchestral musician is a sensitive human being, who reacts to the slightest motion, even that of a muscle, if it is intended to convey a musical message.
It was Barzin’s viper tongue that hindered what might have been a more glorious career, though it didn’t prevent him taking up the position of founder music director of the New York Ballet Society in 1946; when two years later that organisation became the New York City Ballet, Barzin remained as music director for 10 years, working alongside Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, then at the height of his collaboration with Stravinsky.
Barzin’s performances in the pit were accredited with a good part of the company’s success, not least because he realised that the ballet conductor has rather different duties, which he characterised whimsically as ranging from increasing the sensitivity of the dancers to music to knowing whether they had had steak or lobster for dinner. His 22in-long fishing-rod of a baton must have made his beat clear to his dancers no matter what they had consumed.
The communication of why music was important occupied Barzin all his life. He was involved in building new audiences, particularly in the design of concerts intended to let children perceive that classical music could be fun. He told The New York Times in a 1951 interview: “You can’t take a child into a tremendous hall, throw a hundred men at him and expect him, with no previous preparation, to concentrate on the music.” Under such circumstances the “big thrill of the occasion” was generally “launching paper airplanes from the balcony”.
In 1958 Barzin returned to Europe, partly because his fourth wife, Eleanor Post Close, heiress to part of the Post Foods fortune, did not want to stay in New York after their marriage. In Paris Barzin conducted the Orchestre Pasdeloup and taught at the Schola Cantorum; after only two years he was awarded the Legion d’honneur. His conducting lessons continued in Paris and Switzerland after his short encore at the NOA, although he travelled widely in Europe and America to teach at festivals and workshops and for guest conductorships.
Although Barzin was severe with his students, he was just as hard on his fellow professionals. As a hallmark of a good performance, he wrote in 1941, “I should say that you watch constantly for the evidence of sincerity in the conductor’s approach to the music he is performing.” His goal was simple – the disappearance of the conductor from the audience’s consciousness:
I look forward to the day when we may no longer hear people say, “I am going to hear Toscanini”, or perhaps Barzin or whoever the conductor may be, but instead, “I am going to hear Beethoven, or Brahms.” Then, and not until then, will the conductor have achieved his destiny – not as a prima-donna conductor, but as an interpreter of the great masterworks of all times.
Leon Barzin, conductor and teacher: born Brussels 27 November 1900; married 1928 Marie Sherman Vandeputte (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1939 Jane Goodwin (marriage dissolved), 1949 Wilhelmina Quevli (one son; marriage dissolved), 1956 Eleanor Post Close; died Naples, Florida 29 April 1999.
Mr. Barzin played ”a quiet but prominent part in the musical life of the country,” Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote in 1976, when Mr. Barzin retired from conducting.
Mr. Barzin helped train several generations of conductors and symphony musicians, pushed for hiring of American conductors and women and black musicians. He also supported new music, particularly by American composers. Mr. Barzin helped to establish the New York City Ballet as one of the most musically sophisticated ballet companies in the United States.
Mr. Barzin had a distinctive podium style. ”He was one of the first of America’s choreographic conductors,” Mr. Schonberg wrote in 1976. ”As a conductor, he was of the crouch and tiptoe school. We all looked forward to his entrances. A slim and aristocratic-looking man, he would glide through the orchestra like an eel around pilings in a dock, arriving at the podium in a sort of uninterrupted streak of motion.” During performances, Mr. Schonberg added, ”he would not only crouch for pianissimos and get on tiptoe for fortes. He also would dance to the music — his beat was all curves. He was fluidity itself.”
Born in Brussels, Leon Barzin and his family moved to the United States when he was 2 years old. Mr. Barzin, an early proponent of linking music and dance programs, may have absorbed the idea during his childhood as the son of a father who played viola at the Brussels Opera and later in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and a mother who was a professional ballet dancer. He studied violin and viola with his father and later with Eugene Ysaye in Belgium.
Mr. Barzin began his professional career playing in the salon orchestra at the Hotel Astor in New York in 1917. He joined the National Symphony Orchestra as second violinist in 1919, the year before it merged with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Barzin was principal violist at the Philharmonic from 1925 to 1929, playing for conductors including Willem Mengelberg, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini.
Mr. Barzin’s conducting career began when Toscanini asked him to conduct a Philharmonic rehearsal so he could listen from the back of the theater. ”Put your instrument away, Leon,” Toscanini told him at the end of the rehearsal. ”You are going to be a conductor.”
Mr. Barzin joined the American Orchestral Society in 1929 as assistant conductor, and became principal conductor and music director in 1930, when the group reorganized and was renamed the National Orchestral Association. In 1958 he resigned from the association, a training orchestra for musicians and conductors, but returned to it from 1970 to 1976.
Mr. Barzin participated in many projects to develop audiences in schools and at the free summer Lewisohn Stadium concerts and programs at college theaters throughout the nation. His one obsession, he told John Battison in an interview in The Christian Science Monitor in 1941, was to see ”every city of 100,000 population or more with an opera house and a symphony orchestra.”
He also developed formats for children’s concerts that were designed to communicate that music is fun. ”You can’t take a child into a tremendous hall, throw a hundred men at him and expect him, with no previous preparation, to concentrate on the music,” Mr. Barzin said in a 1950 interview in The Times, adding that in such instances, the ”big thrill of the occasion” is usually ”launching paper airplanes from the balconies.”
Mr. Barzin was a founder of the New York City Ballet and of its precursor, Ballet Society, with Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. In The Times in 1951, John Martin wrote that Mr. Barzin and his musicians were among the ”unsung heroes” responsible for the company’s popularity. Mr. Barzin felt that ballet conductors needed to develop special abilities. A ballet conductor’s duties ranged, he said, from pushing dancers toward a greater musical sensitivity to knowing instinctively whether a dancer has had steak or lobster for dinner that night.
He served as music director of the ballet company until 1958, when he went to Paris to conduct and teach. He returned to Paris in the late 1970’s, and taught conducting in France and in videotaped sessions in Fribourg, Switzerland.
Mr. Barzin received the French Legion of Honor in 1960. He was a frequent judge in conducting competitions, a guest conductor of orchestras in the United States and Europe and a guest teacher at many American festivals and workshops. He also conducted the WQXR and Symphony of the Air radio orchestras.
Mr. Barzin is survived by his wife, Eleanor Post Close Barzin of Paris and Vaux-sur-Seine, France, and Fribourg; two sons, Richard, of Marco, Fla., and Leon Q., of Westwood, Mass.; a daughter, Lora Childs of Spring Island, S.C.; a stepson, Brewster Q. Morgan of Sacramento, Calif., and nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
On his retirement from conducting in 1976, Mr. Barzin spoke grimly of the state of the arts in the United States. He said there needed to be more places where young musicians could train and get experience, more ways for professional musicians to relate to their communities, and more general education in the arts.
Without such education, he said in an interview at the time, ”people will become drooling morons in front of TV sets.”
Those of us who had the good fortune to work closely with Guruji know that he was in touch with the Divine. Through his music he embraced the underlying oneness of the universe and expressed its many faces through his spontaneous creativity.
Very few people in history have had this Divine connection and managed to express it for humanity: Mozart and Einstein perhaps are other examples. It is not surprising that as Guruji intuitively understood the mathematical patterns and rhythmic cycles of the universe he would become probably the most influential musician of his time of any genre of music.
For us as his students, his teaching and continued presence in our hearts when we perform is the most precious gift imaginable.
Ravi Shankar’s musical mind is incredible. It is like a volcano of energy and infinite possibility- ready to move at any time in any direction, and yet with the poise and balance of a composer like Mozart. Ravi Shankar has taught me much about the power of music. Perhaps most importantly in this age of technology I have learnt an appreciation of music’s universal context, its magical, non-materialistic power drawn from ancient roots deep within the human psyche.
In Ravi Shankar’s words:
“Our tradition teaches us that sound is God- Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works towards in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe – its unchanging, eternal essence….The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended.”
Many people are unaware that Beethoven also shared this perspective: this is made clear in an autograph document currently in the Royal College of Music collection in London. In it, Beethoven has written:
“There is no greater than He, Brahm; his mind is self-existent. He the Almighty, is present in every part of space……” (Brahm or Brahman= God in Indian philosophy).
Apart from a wonderful sense of perspective, Indian music can teach Western musicians many practical lessons. To give one example:
Leading Indian musicians have a particularly heightened rhythmic sense. Rather than being constrained by bar-lines they have a system of talas or rhythmic cycles. These talas can range from cycles of 3 beats right up to cycles of 108 beats!
On a basic level studying Indian rhythmic cycles hones a Western musician’s sense of the passage of time. As the rhythmic skills involved are likely to be complex, this study facilitates concentration on the here and now. Less experienced Western musicians can tend to drift from beat to beat without real awareness of what is happening in between: Indian skills tighten up the concentration on the moment and enhance rhythmic accuracy to a remarkable degree.
The rhythmic sophistication of Indian music also encompasses a concept known as “laya”. On one level laya means the feeling of the pulse of the music: a musician with an exceptional sense of rhythm is described as “having good laya”. On a deeper level it means an awareness of what could be described as the fabric of the music meshing with the fabric of time. This feeling of laya is evident in the performances of the finest Western musicians too; one only has to think of some of the recordings of Furtwangler or Kleiber. The bar line has been transcended, taking its rightful place in the music’s structure, rubati are perfectly judged; stretching and releasing the music’s fabric organically where lesser musicians would either tear this fabric or ignore it altogether. There is also a profound sense of organic rightness as the music unfolds through time.
Laya is an ancient concept rooted in the Vedic idea of an all embracing universal rhythm. In an inspired performance the musician feels the pulse of the music within this universal pulse. Laya therefore is one of the means by which Indian musicians aim to raise individual consciousness. To quote Ravi Shankar: “to a realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe – its eternal and unchanging essence – can be joyfully experienced”.
I am still coming to terms with the fact that Sir Charles has departed this world. He and Lady Mackerras had a huge effect on my life: both such shining examples of down to earth honesty, generosity, integrity, superlative musicianship and just wonderful people. I can’t begin to express how much I will miss Sir Charles. His supreme dedication to music kept the flame of inspiration alight right to the end. With illness hovering over him he produced performances of the most searing intensity. Our generation has a lot to live up to.
It has been a great privilege and inspiration to work in depth with Sir Charles over the last twelve years. He is an all round conducting genius: and his musical mind, like Ravi Shankar’s is a fountain of creativity. His non-stop probing of the intellectual and expressive depths of whatever score he is working on is combined with with an incredible practical focus. This manifests itself as meticulous rehearsal preparation and the equally meticulous preparation of orchestral parts so that players are always working from the most authentic material possible.
His work with Janáček is legendary, but his repertoire ranges from the early baroque to Gilbert and Sullivan. He is a master of a vast range of genres proving that musical specialism is often just a barrier to understanding the big picture.
He has achieved so much of great significance: for example the pioneering recording of Handel’s Fireworks Music in 1959 plus his ground-breaking performances of Mozart and Handel operas in the 1960’s have profoundly influenced whole generations of musicians.
His ability to bring out the best in any orchestra, be it modern or period and his continuing quest deliver the composer’s message with the utmost clarity has led in recent years to the development of an orchestral sound which combines the virtues of both modern and period styles, a fine example being his remarkable recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
~ David Murphy, August 2010