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True Artist and True Friend: A Biography of Hans Richter.

Hans Richter is remembered first and foremost as a Wagnerian: the first conductor of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, amanuensis to Wagner at Tribschen in 1866 making a fair copy of the score of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and conductor of the first Ring cycle in English at Covent Garden in 1908. Yet when we look at Appendix I of Christopher Fifield's exhaustive and meticulously researched biography which chronicles the 2,263 performances of 94 operas which Richter conducted between 1868 and 1912, the third opera on the list, with the surprisingly high figure of 137 performances, is Bizet's Carmen--and this was a man who is supposed to have said scornfully 'Der ees no French music'. Top of the list comes Lohengrin (191), with Die Meistersinger as the runner-up (141). He never conducted Parsifal (except extracts), saying that he was 'saving two things until the end, the National Gallery in London and Parsifal'. (Incidentally, he never accepted any fee for conducting at Bayreuth--'I have the Master to thank for everything, and for that I should be paid! That would be fine!') The list has other surprises, not so much Fidelio (79) as Don Giovanni (97), Rossini's Barbiere (54) and Guillaume Tell (32), Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (58) and Brull's Das goldene Kreuz (40). In the symphonic repertory, Richter conducted 97 performances of Beethoven's 'Eroica', 91 of the Fifth, and 75 of Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique'. He was indeed an all-round musician--the lists range from Auber, Delibes and Mehul to Volkmann, Strauss, Bruckner, Verdi and Glazunov.

Mr Fifield has been fortunate in that Richter kept a diary and wrote a lot of very entertaining letters, so he has been able to bring to life this genial, hard-working and thorough conductor who started as an orchestral player. Richter was not a genius of the rostrum, like his rival Mahler, but it is doubtful if there has ever been a conductor better equipped to instruct the musicians in an orchestra. The claim that he could play virtually every instrument is shown to be true. He was able even to put one over on the redoubtable horn-player Franz Strauss (father of Richard), who complained to Bulow at a rehearsal for the first performance of Die Meistersinger that a passage in Act II was unplayable. Richter, present as chorus master, borrowed Strauss's horn and played the disputed passage perfectly. He said many years later: 'Strauss's son may be happy that he has not his father in his orchestra'.

As he acknowledged, Richter owed his career to Wagner, though he would undoubtedly have emerged at the top of the tree without such a patron, even if more slowly. Fifield convincingly justifies Richter's action, when virtually unknown, in warning Wagner of the inadequacies of the Munich production of Das Rheingold in 1869, an action which led to Richter's dismissal as conductor by the Munich Intendant, Perfall. Ernest Newman is strongly critical of Richter over this episode, but Richter's opinion that what the audience sees on stage is of equal importance to what one hears was ahead of his time and would be welcome if shared by some conductors today. On the whole, Richter was remarkably skilful in steering clear of musical politics, especially during Cosima's directorship of Bayreuth--he once remarked to Siegfried Wagner that 'another score would have been preferable' to his father's theoretical writings.

Richter's career in Britain began in 1877 when he went to London with Wagner to share the conducting of six concerts at the Royal Albert Hall to raise money for the continuation of the Bayreuth Festival. He slipped easily into English social life and was soon a friend of Parry and Stanford and a champion of their music. Now that this music is being recorded and revalued, this should be remembered--after all, Richter in Vienna was also championing at this time the music of Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak and eventually, with some reluctance, Richard Strauss. He enjoyed visiting English pubs, Pagani's restaurant, the London Zoo, music-halls, going to the theatre to see Bernhardt, Irving and Terry, dining at the Garrick Club, buying fish-knives at Mappin & Webb, and visiting the Royal College of Music to talk to the students. For all his Continental eminence, he never regarded Victorian British musical life in a patronizing light. He wrote on his return to Austria in 1895: 'I'm not in Vienna yet, my heart and soul are still in dear England'. He even conducted British works in Vienna, and for his pains received barbed notices from Hanslick about the dangers of turning the Vienna Philharmonic concerts into 'a little English colony'.

British critics, with the exception of Newman in Manchester, were on the whole kinder to Richter than the Viennese. In the 1880s he alternated between Bayreuth and the Birmingham Festival and in 1895 was offered the conductorship of Halle's orchestra after Sir Charles's death. Negotiations took four years, mainly because of Richter's anxiety over his Vienna pension. In 1897 Mahler became director of the Vienna Court Opera, a post Richter had twice refused and never wanted, and in the following year Richter resigned as director of the Vienna Philharmonic concerts, giving a patently false excuse of ill health. The real reason was that he wanted a change and felt undermined by Mahler's presence at the Opera. It is really rather surprising that Richter had sanctioned cuts in Wagner scores, and although he may have resented Mahler's retouching of the orchestration of Tannhauser and Der fliegende Hollander, he should have welcomed the younger man's fidelity to the full texts. But, to his credit, he stated publicly that Mahler was the right man for the job; and Mahler for his part doubled Richter's salary in an effort to retain his services in Vienna.

Fifield errs in twice suggesting that Richter's first full season as Halle conductor was 1900--1901, whereas he took over in full control in October 1899 and conducted all the orchestra's concerts in Manchester, Bradford and elsewhere. Richter entered fully into Mancunian affairs and liked his home, 'The Firs' (still inhabited by a musician today) in Bowdon, 'with wonderful parks and no air-polluting chimneys'. His settling in England in this year coincided with his discovery of the music of Elgar. Having introduced the 'Enigma' Variations in London in the summer of 1899, he conducted it several times during the subsequent Halle season. 'Elgar a nice man', Richter noted in his diary after their first meeting in June 1899. Fifield has little new to relate about the disastrous first performance at Birmingham of The Dream of Gerontius, but he rightly points out that criticisms of Richter in Manchester for conservative programmes were initially unjustified since almost every Halle concert contained a work new to the city and often to Britain--works by, for example, Bartok and Sibelius in addition to those he conducted by Elgar, Strauss and Bruckner and others (but not Mahler!). Richter's easy and avuncular relationship with Elgar is well illustrated by a letter in 1904 apologizing for not writing to congratulate the new knight, 'but was it possible for me to congratulate all the "Sirs" who are honoured by your companionship? As a sign of high estimation of our noble King, I am happy about the honour he has conferred upon you, but the highest title is: Edward Elgar!. Thousand thanks for the Schreibmaschine letter, God bless the inventor!'

Less well documented and all the more valuable is the saga of the 1908 English Ring. Richter, like Wagner, was a believer in performances in the national language and went to immense pains over this project and especially over the cast, telling the Covent Garden management that a certain singer was impossible as Donner: 'God put everything in the man's throat but forgot that a singer must also have something in his head'. The two cycles were triumphant successes, but after 1909 the Covent Garden Syndicate had had enough and would not risk financial loss. 'Outside the small circle of those who have an axe of their own to grind, the idea that a craving exists for opera to be given in English is an absolute delusion', Henry Higgins, manager of the Syndicate, wrote. The decision hurt Richter, who wrote to Percy Pitt in 1911: 'It was a crime of the worst kind when the breath of life was forcibly choked out of our English opera. Show this letter to Higgins; my language with which I describe that criminal is too tame.'

By 1911 Richter was tiring and his eyesight was failing. Life in Manchester had turned sour, with the emergence of a cabal who opposed his choice of programmes and openly declared that its aim was to 'kick him out'. He resigned the Halle post and retired from the concert platform to live in Bayreuth (where his house has now been pulled down). He conducted at the 1912 festival. His last performance, on 19 August, was his beloved Meistersinger, and, with tears in his eyes, he told the orchestra before Act III: 'Gentlemen, make my farewell really difficult for me'. Richter had always refused to appear on the state where his god Richard Wagner had once stood, and although the audience cheered for most of an hour at the end, he kept to that vow even on this emotional occasion.

Richter's reputation in England suffered in 1914 when, after hearing that English soldiers had used dum-dum bullets, he renounced his honorary doctorates. Later he regretted his hasty reaction and contrived to send conciliatory messages to his English friends. What emerges strongly from Fifield's superb book is Richter's humanity and humour--the image of him as a solemn killjoy is totally destroyed. 'You cannot play the bassoon on lemonade, you should have beer', he told Archie Camden, who was also the narrator of one of the best stories of Richter's remarkable ear. When the young Camden played a wrong note in a rehearsal of Strauss's Symphonia domestica, Richter said nothing at the time but later went up to Camden privately and said: 'E sharp would be nicer'.

Richter was 68 when he retired, young for a conductor, but when one reads of the work and travelling he undertook, it is perhaps not surprising. Like all conductors, he was best in the music closest to his heart. Breadth and dignity were the qualities he valued most; hysteria and frenzy were not within his range. British orchestral playing owes much to him. When Georg Szell conducted the Halle in 1934, after Harty had resigned, he told an interviewer: 'You can still feel Hans Richter in it. The orchestra still has the good Viennese tradition of Richter.' He deserved a balanced, thorough literary memorial and he has received it at last from Christopher Fifield. The only minor irritation in a well-written book is the common English habit of referring to 'Von Bulow' instead of 'Bulow' when the forename is not given--tantamount to a German writer referring to 'Sir Beecham'. And the index is inadequate, just names and lists of numbers. In a biography which is at the same time a comprehensive survey of musical life in Vienna, Bayreuth and England from 1865 to 1912 and is therefore also a valuable reference book, the publisher should have provided a detailed index.
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Author:Kennedy, Michael
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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