Louis Langrée is chief conductor of Camerata Salzburg. For The Mozart Festival, Langrée conducts Camerata Salzburg in performances of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony in D, KV 504 and the overture to the opera La clemenza di Tito, KV 621.
WESLEY HORNER: Your father was a wonderful organist and a theory teacher. Was he a teacher of yours when you were a child?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Oh, yes.
WESLEY HORNER: What did you learn from your father about becoming a musician?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: With my two sisters, French, of course, is our mother language, but music as well. I cannot remember a time when I was not able to read music. So, not doing music, not studying an instrument, was just out of the question. I was studying piano, and then later continuing piano and starting flute. One of my sisters was studying the cello, and the other piano as well.
I remember listening to music several evenings each week, especially French music. My father, also, as an organist – There’s a big tradition of French organist composers, Gounod, of course, Cesar Franck, Olivier Messiaen, and so many others.
I was actually quite lucky to have this sort of double culture because, from my father’s side, French music, for him it was the accomplishment between meaning and structure, and with French music you need to keep control of your feelings. So he hates Mahler’s music, or Shostakovich’s music, this kind of music. He needs this kind of rigorous way of composing and of living, as well. We are not here on earth only to enjoy, we’re here to have a very serious relationship with ourselves, the others, and it’s not only fun.
WESLEY HORNER: What did he tell you about Mozart? What did your father tell you about this young, Austrian German fellow?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Mozart was not in the middle of his love for music. Bach, of course, because he was an organist, so any organist reveres Bach and his music. It was in Alsace, which is France but with a German DNA, so it was Bach for me.
Quite early, I had a strong knowledge of harmony, counterpoint especially, and analysis, but without the passion or the sort of romantic image of music, to open your heart.
Then moving to Strasbourg and meeting this teacher was an amazing experience, because I had a quite a strong technical background. I was ready, especially as a teenager, to discover music and romanticism. I felt that all the rules of composition were a sort of prison.
I wanted, like every teenager, you just refuse the world you’re living in. You want to open the barriers, destroy the walls, and have fresh air. Then later, you discover that you have to cope with the rules. Mozart is just on that moment. But when I was a teenager, Mozart was not my favorite composer. I much preferred Chopin, Liszt, Mahler, and Beethoven: This kind of expression in the musical language.
There’s this quote from Artur Schnabel, which was so true, that Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for professionals, for adults. It’s so true. Mozart felt, to me, too easy when I was 15 or 14. I was so wrong. But I needed to go through this way.
WESLEY HORNER: When you prepare for a concert such as the Mozart you’re going to conduct, what did you learn this time about the “Prague?” Any new discoveries?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Concerning rules and composition, this is just a masterpiece. Especially the first movement with its amazingly complex structure. Yet it has this sort of natural, almost evident language.
There’s a letter from Mozart saying that everybody should enjoy his music. Of course, people who have knowledge of music will discover more things. It’s exactly that. When you see in the development, and this is something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before, “beem‑bum‑bum,” and I took it as syncopation. If every musician plays with a feeling of his own metric system, when the meter is, “dee‑bum‑bum,” or when it is “bum‑bum‑bum,” and not, “bum‑bum‑bum,” you have people playing in 4:4 bar, and 3:4 in 5:4. And 5:4 can be three plus two or two plus three.
Then you just have this organized chaos, and when you go back to being unified, when people meet together again, there’s this jubilation, which is even stronger.
I try, when I’m studying, when I’m conducting pieces, to start from a blank score. Otherwise, when you read your markings, you’re just a prisoner of them. Not a prisoner, but when you studied it, if you saw that, it should be right. It should be true. But actually, you might discover now, different things, for two reasons: because you know more the score, because you have also conducted it. Your brain knows it, but your body also knows it.
You’re free. You have a higher view. Because you have a higher view, you’re more open to discover new things. From all the great Mozart Symphonies, the “Prague” Symphony was the last one for me, because the first movement seems too complex and the third movement too easy compared to the first movement.
But I think now it’s definitely the third movement, which is easier to understand. At the end, you just need joy, jubilation. The serious, the earnest, the deep feeling you had experience in the first movement. Also, the ambiguity. When we start, with the first note, we have no idea if it’s in D major or d minor. We say, “Of course it’s D Major.” But no. We shouldn’t make decision now. Mozart doesn’t. Are we going to go to Don Giovanni? There is a real darkness from this introduction. Dark tension. Then the joy of the first movement is built from this darkness, escaping that. You have to deserve this. You enjoy it more if it comes after a really tense opening like that. If it’s just joyful, it’s easy joy.
WESLEY HORNER: Your description of the metric complexity and the dramatic arch makes me think by this time in his life he had written a lot of opera.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Absolutely.
WESLEY HORNER: It’s almost as though the characters are coming together at the end of the act.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Completely, through a symphonic way, using the art of composing. You have this rhetorical way of writing music. It’s not only, at most, atmosphere and feelings. It’s more than that. That’s why, especially this first movement, has a sort of Gloria. But the Gloria comes after the Kyrie. There is really that in this symphony. Yes, he’s a master of theater.
In every theater piece, there is great opera. There is a symphonic dimension. At the end of Don Giovanni, the fugue, suddenly you’re in a symphony with singers. In his symphonic words, in other words, there is definitely a theatrical dimension.
WESLEY HORNER: If your son Antoine or another young person, listening to you on the radio or seeing you on television said, “That looks fun.” What would you tell that child about the best part of your job or the worst part of your job?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: I don’t know. Probably, and I think it’s a case of many conductors – not all – but if I would have known that it would be so difficult, that it would take so much time, that it would be so hard, maybe I wouldn’t have started.
But not knowing that, you continue and you spend days and nights to go deeper in scores. Then you meet musicians and you try to share a piece or a vision of a piece, or what you perceive that vision of the composer was.
What is the worst part? I don’t know. Solitude, probably. Because you travel a lot, of course, and you’re alone in front of a score. You’re alone in front of the musicians. The only one standing up and you’re alone at the concert with the musicians, facing the audience. The best part is also solitude, which is not feeling lonely but also feeling responsible.
Having this kind of archeological feeling of what did this composer mean? What did he want to say? How? It’s a never- ending process. The “Prague” Symphony, several times I’ve conducted it, and every time I discover something different as in any score.
I think that if you have the feeling that you have accomplished your journey with the piece, then don’t conduct it anymore, because it will be a repetition of what you have done, which means that it’s going to be boring. We need this feeling of experimentation, of what can be.
WESLEY HORNER: What’s more fun, the performance or the rehearsal?
LOUIS LANGRÉE: It depends. I gave several concerts as a pianist. Even if you know perfectly well, your score, you arrive in the concert, you have cold fingers and you hope, you pray that it’s going to be OK.
As a conductor, it’s completely different. If you really know a piece, sometime your heart beats faster, actually all the time, before the first rehearsal. Then when you have the musicians with you, you don’t have to fear anything. You’re together, arriving in the concert. If by any chance the musicians are not with you, anyway it’s lost, so no reason to fear anything.
It’s very different when you have to play music. The conductor is always the only musician on stage not producing music, but helping the others to play. Driving them, conducting them. Giving a direction. Creating the conditions of musical dialogue.
It’s a completely different job. That’s mostly for the classical and romantic repertoire. Yes, I should admit that when you arrive and you conduct Rite of Spring, it’s challenging. You always hope that you won’t be lost in the middle. So far, it’s fine. Fine for me.
WESLEY HORNER: Usually, when you’re on stage, you’re the only person that doesn’t have to worry about a string breaking or a reed cracking.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Yes. It’s completely different. If the rehearsal process has been what it’s supposed to be, musicians are ready. You have to trust them. They have to trust you. And then you’re free to make something special for each concert.
WESLEY HORNER: Apparently, you do.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: I try my best. To feel people united together for something so strong. With music, you have no philosophical or political message. Is Mozart’s music Republican or Democrat? It’s irrelevant. It’s music. It’s for everybody. Even for people who feel like they don’t like music, but when they hear “bud‑a‑dum‑doom‑doom,” they say, “Ah! Oh, yes! That piece I love.” There is no intellectual only point of view.
WESLEY HORNER: Pure emotion.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Emotion and elevating us.
WESLEY HORNER: Joy.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Joy. Absolutely. Ultimate joy.
WESLEY HORNER: You sound like you’re always a student, you’re always studying.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: That’s the life of every musician, of every man, actually. If you feel, “OK, now I know,” that’s the best. What do you know? Sometimes the questions are more important than the answer, because it forces you to open the possibilities, to imagine the possibilities. When you answer – you need to answer. If you’re in front of an orchestra and you’re full of question marks, they are not going to play well for you. They need direction, a very clear one, but this very clear one must come after so much questioning. That’s the fun of being a conductor. When we spoke about the good side and the bad side, there is no bad side. There are more difficulties. It’s very challenging.
WESLEY HORNER: It’s a challenging life.
LOUIS LANGRÉE: Absolutely.