My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years

So this is, to put it mildly, worth 33 minutes of your time.

It's the Vienna Symphony, conducted by Karl Böhm, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4 in G Major, op. 58 with Wilhelm Backhaus on the piano.  

It was filmed and recorded in a studio in 1967.  The image and the sound are flawless.  The performance is unimpeachable.  There's no audience, and the camera work is silent and almost magical in is unobtrusiveness.  The work itself is one of the three or four greatest works that Beethoven composed in his life, which is another way of saying it's one of the greatest works in the entire classical repertoire.

(For everything that I'm going to say below, I need to underscore that.  This is a work of staggering genius.  I started listening to this piece when I was too young to even know what an orchestra was.  Five decades of hearing it hasn't diminished it one bit.  This is as good a performance of it as I have ever heard.  It is by far the best that I've ever seen.)

There used to be this thing called "the mainstream."  It was a commonly-held set of values that ran through the dominant culture.  One of those values was that two things can be compared, and the comparison would usually reveal that one was better than the other.  "Better" was assessed by comparing various qualities that things possessed, those qualities themselves being part of the commonly-held-set of values.  It was generally not questioned that some things were better than others.  And, as you do when you have a set of things that can be sorted using a comparator function, some things rose to the top of the list.

This would be an example of that.

An important thing about the mainstream, and how it worked, was that it was right about a lot of things.  Things it judged to be very good were indeed very good.  

The problem with the mainstream, as the culture as a whole came to learn starting in the decade or so after this film was made, is that the shared values that comprised it were shared by a really very small subset of the people.  Also, many among that small subset of people were engaged in a lot of self-protection and unfair dealing in order to keep things running to their benefit.

I like to refer people to Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success.  My avatar at work is J.J. Hunsecker, who in Mackendrick's movie is the sole arbiter of taste, the man who makes or breaks artistic careers, and who is also a monstrous villain who ruins the lives of everyone around him.  (And it's Burt Lancaster, playing the bad guy!)  By 1957, it was starting to be okay to see the mainstream for what it was.  The movie is a devastating indictment of the mainstream.  It's also shocking in its depiction of moral depravity, full of some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear, and shot in luminous beauty by James Wong Howe.  Everyone should see it.

(George W.S. Trow, in his essay "Collapsing Dominant," says that when he showed Sweet Smell of Success to his younger friends, he perceived among them a genuine sense of sadness that the mainstream it depicts is gone.)

Which brings me back to this recital.

The first thing you need to know about Wilhelm Backhaus is that he's 83 years old in this video.  When he was a child, his talent was spotted early on.  He attended the Leipzig Conservatory between 1891 and 1899, i.e. between ages seven and fifteen.  His piano teacher there, who was a student of Johannes Brahms, took Backhaus to see performances of Brahms's two piano concertos when he was ten or so.  Brahms himself conducted.  In short, Backhaus was a product of the heart of the German classical-music machine and is, in this film, a living link to its past.

Karl Böhm, you will see, is the symphony conductor that the one in Plato's universe of forms was copied from.  I don't think it's even theoretically possible to look more like a Viennese conductor than Böhm does.  Every gesture, every facial expression, every little hunch of the shoulders, the white tie, the tails:  He is perfect.  He is not a conductor of the Viennese Symphony, he is the conductor.  It is beyond fantastic to watch.

The orchestra itself is absolutely splendid.  You have to go deep into musicology to find anything to fault in their performance, and you'd have to enter into the argument on some pretty arcane terms to do it.  

If there's anything really wrong with this performance, it would have to be the whole thing.  Well, there kind of is.

The man at the heart of the German classical tradition who is 83 years old in 1967, why, he was 53 years old, at the peak of his career, and one of the most significant figures in German classical music at the same time the Nazis were coming to power.  On the occasion of Richard Strauss's 80th birthday, Karl Böhm conducted the Viennese State Opera's performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, which was (checks notes) five days after Allied soldiers stormed ashore in Normandy.  

Both of these men, and many of the musicians that they are working with here, were deeply compromised by the Nazis.  Böhm was unemployed for two years after the war because of de-nazification.  Backhaus famously snubbed Jewish colleagues even when he encountered them in London, because he was afraid that word of his politeness would get back to Berlin.  

The glory of German musicianship was something that Hitler went out of his way to preserve, in his way.  Any number of the men in this room are sitting on seats that might well have been occupied by Jewish musicians, had they not been removed from play 30 years earlier.  (American symphony orchestras got distinctively better in the 1940s, for some reason.)

They're also all men.  This video was made in 1967, and the Vienna Symphony didn't start appointing women until feminism started making strides in Austria in the late 1970s, when, for the first time...ha ha, I'm just kidding.  They didn't admit their first woman until the 21st century, seven years after the government threatened to cut off their funding if they didn't admit women in 1996.  (It was Ursula Plaichinger on viola, in case you were wondering.)

This is part of the reason that we don't have a mainstream anymore.  We started dismantling it because of all of the people it was excluding, and because of the ways in which it was misusing its power.  It was great, but it was also lying to all of us about how great.  (In America, the high-water mark of the mainstream was probably four years after this performance, right before the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971.)

One of the best pieces of academic writing I ever read was a short essay that  the geographer Peirce Lewis wrote for Landscape in 1982, called "Facing Up To Ambiguity."  It's maddeningly unavailable online; to read it, you'll have to go to a library like a savage.  

Lewis wrote about the incomparable beauty of agricultural landscapes:  The peacefulness of vast, neatly-trimmed fields, the dazzling rainbow as the sun falls behind the spray of a center-pivot irrigation system.  You feel this beauty in your heart every bit as deeply as your head is aware that the aquifer is being pumped dry and the poisons that keep the fields so lush and lovely are running downhill towards where all the poor people live.  He wrote of how necessary, how essential it is that we know what's wrong with what we're looking at, and how essential it also is that we allow ourselves to apprehend beauty wherever it finds us.

There are few things that are as beautiful as this.


  1. This would be the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. There's a Vienna Symphony but it's a different orchestra. (

    I'll give this a try, but Backhaus's heyday was...long before the 1960s.

  2. Strange. Bohm conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, but the credits in this film clearly say "Wiener Symphoniker."


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