The book was published back in 1991, and, since there has been an awful lot of conducting since then (though not perhaps of the quality of the golden age conductors and orchestras discussed here), the book is now entirely a history book.
Lebrecht is especially good on the early history of conducting—which seems to have been an addendum to composing, and to stem mostly from Wagner and from Hector Berlioz. Handel and Haydn conducted from the keyboard. But then Lebrecht devotes a chapter of the book “The Tears of a Clown”) to the wildly improbable, anti-heroic career of the first professional conductor, that committed Wagnerite, Hans von Bulow (“…the first professional conductor was a born loser….”). “On June 10, 1865,” writes Lebrecht, “Bulow conducted the first performance of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner, the master-conductor, had forsaken the podium to superintend the ‘complete work of art’ and Bulow conducted the four-hour score entirely from memory. ‘He had,’ said Wagner, ‘absorbed every last nuance of my intentions.’ The profession of conducting was born that night.” But the rest of Von Bulow’s life wasn’t quite so accolade-filled. It reads, in fact, like a rousing bittersweet, semi-comic novel.
Lebrecht is also very good at bringing back to life legendary conductors whose work we cannot hear because it predated recording—figures like Arthur Nikisch (”Orchestral players called him the Magician and sat transfixed by his wand….”). Audiences watched him conduct in uncritical rapture. “Now don’t forget to tell me, Olga,” Nikisch once overheard a Berliner whispering in the front row, “the moment he begins to fascinate.”
The Maestro Myth is full of conductorial fascination. Lebracht is scintillating on Mahler as a conductor, on Toscanini’s temper, on the agonizing political divisions within the great Wilhelm Furtwangler (“Facing the Dictators”) as he tried to coexist with the Nazis, on the alarming career (speaking of the Nazis) of Herbert von Karajan (“The trouble with Karajan,” noted conductor Zubin Mehta, “is that music was never enough for him.” on the mysterious careers of Erich Kleiber and his son, Carlos Kleiber (my favourite conductor of all time). He’s brilliant on the fierce Georg Solti, on the unbelievable Leopold Stokowski (“a Cockney born and bred….”), on the Riccardo Muti-Claudio Abbado contention, on the tragic career of the great Greek conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, dropped from the New York Philharmonic essentially because of his unapologetic homosexuality (his successor, Leonard Bernstein, would be infinitely more discreet about his sexual proclivities), and on the bizaare antagonisms aroused by Giuseppe Sinopoli (1946-2001)—who by the way, had studied medicine and in 1971 had qualified as a doctor, though he never practiced.
As Lebrecht writes, “Just to mention the name of Giuseppe Sinopoli is enough to make other conductors foam at the mouth and players throw up their hands in anguish.” To find out why, please read Lechrecht’s chapter titled “Formula Uno.”
Well, it’s all like this. The Maestro Myth is a brimming book, stuffed like a Christmas turkey with enough riveting anecdotes and telling incidents to keep you reading to the very end. I devoured the whole book at a single suiting—which I had certainly not meant to do.