In the spring of 1945, Richard F. French '37, assistant professor of Music, was Technical Sergeant Richard F. French, cryptographic technician 805, stationed in Paris. For ten weeks, French got up early Sunday mornings and stood in line for a ticket to the 5:30 p.m. concerts of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, then conducted by Charles Munch, Finally, he wrote a letter to A. Tillman Merritt, professor of Music and now chairman of the Music Department asking, "have you ever heard of a conductor named Charles Munch? He seems to me to be the logical choice to succeed Koussevitzky in Boston."
A year later, in the spring of 1946, the now defunct New York newspaper PM published a music column written by "Nostradamus," which attempted to predict the quality of coming musical events. In his final column of the year, discussing the 1946-47 season of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, Nostradamus warned his readers to watch out for a conductor named Charles Munch. His success will be immediate and enormous, he predicted.
Both of these statements about Munch have now been fulfilled, but to the average American concertgoer, the new conductor of the Boston Symphony is still the unknown that he was in the early '40s.
When Munch arrives here next fail, Bostonians will meet a distinguished-looking man of great personal charm and sociability. His success with the all-important ladies around an orchestra seems assured. Although his spoken English is at the moment extremely tentative, his French manner more than makes up for it. (In France, affectionate females dubbed him "le beau Charles," and from all signs, the Boston press is not going to let him forget it.)
First Years Hard
During the first years, however, Munch's critical treatment probably won't be too gentle. Most Boston critics are just as provincial as Boston society. For 25 years they have been accustomed to one way of doing things, and the shift will be a tough one. Already, snide little references have appeared in Boston papers. Rudolph Elie of the Herald, for instance, fears that absolute disaster will result if Munch should dare to reseat the Orchestra.
In more informed circles, most people are optimistic. A few members of Harvard's Music Department are looking for-ward to Munch's arrival with frank relief. And while this attitude may not be characteristic of most members of the Department, it is certain that almost all those who have heard Munch conduct predict a great deal of fresh, interesting music for Boston audiences next year.
Munch's training for a musical career started almost from his birth. This event took place at Strasbourg in 1891 at a time when the Alsace was part of Germany. But, as Munch explains it, "true Alsatians have always remained French, as the country itself has remained a French province ..." His father, Ernest Munch, was organist at Strasbourg, professor at its Conservatory, and founder of the celebrated choir of St. Guillaume. The organist of that church at one time was Albert Schweitzer, author of the great work on Bach. He is a relative and close friend of Munch, and participated in the eight-day Bach Festival at Strasbourg which Munch conducted in June, 1947.
Munch received an extensive musical education from his parents, but this was directed towards his becoming a violinist, not a conductor. It was not untill relatively late in life that he began to conduct. In 1919, Munch was appointed professor at the Conservatory and concertmaster of the Municipal Orchestra in his native city--Strasbourg. This orchestra is now conducted by his brother Fritz.
Then followed several years of training in orchestra leading from such men as Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, and, chiefly, Furtwangler. He was eventually offered a high-salaried position at the Gewandhaus at Leipzig, but only under the condition that he become a German citizen. Since Much was disturbed by the political makeup of Germany at the time, he decided to return to France, explaining to friends he "just wanted to come back home."
In 1932, he made his official debut as conductor, and soon received invitations from all over Europe. Then in 1935, he was appointed head of the Paris Philharmonic, and three years later became the conductor of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, France's oldest and one of the world's best.
World War Problems
During the Second World War, Munch faced the same problems which confronted all musicians in occupied countries, and came up with what many people consider the most intelligent solution. To protect the members of his orchestra, he was obliged to continue conducting and thus keep a foreign conductor out. He defended his musicians from possible capture by the Germans on political grounds, and did not allow investigations of religious or racial backgrounds. At first he refused to conduct before Nazi audiences at all, but when obliged to go so, he accepted his fees and turned them over to the Resistance. He was asked to conduct at the Opera by its director, Jacques Rouche, but refused because of the many known collaborators associated with the organization. Munch has been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his services to French music.
The end of the occupation gave Munch his chance to get the world-wide reputation he did not have time to acquire before 1939. He was the first conductor invited across the Channel, and soon after he was touring Europe, South America, Palestine, and Egypt.
Munch was invited to the United States first by the New York Philharmonic, but because of booking confusions, he made his American debut in Boston. (This is probably the principal reason why today he is conductor of the Boston Symphony and not the New York Philharmonic.
In both New York and Boston Munch had spectacular success, and, unlike many conductors, his success with the musicians was just as great as his success with his audiences. During his Philharmonic engagement the musicians spontaneously got together one afternoon and chipped in to present Munch with a gift symbolic of their respect and admiration. And after his last concert in New York, they honored him with a cocktail party, something which had been done only once before--when Toscanini finished his last season with the Philharmonic.
There are many reasons way Munch is such a popular leader. First of all he is one of those few conductors doing their best to destroy the image of the "super-man maestro." When he conducts, he is working with an orchestra, he does not stand on a pedestal and dictate to it. He never plays favorites among the players, as many of his colleagues are accused of doing. A tyrant conductor usually develops a clique of musicians who will support him, and help him keep control, but Munch never needs such a clique. One of the violinists in the Philharmonic described him as the "most perfectly just man I have ever known."
But the fact that he does not cultivate favorites does not mean that he refuses to be friendly with the orchestra. Philharmonic members often went up to his room to chat with him, on any subject from the most abstruse musicology to plain gossip about available jobs for conductors--gossip of which, incidentally, Munch strongly disapproved.
An excellent illustration of his attitude towards musicians is the way he led the United States tour of the Orchestra National de France last fall. For almost the entire trip, Munch rode in the busses with the men, enduring their hardships, and bolstering them. His spirit was probably the principal thing which prevented the tour from collapse. After the completion of the trip, he travelled a considerable distance so he could testify for his musicians in New York, when they brought legal action against the American manager of the tour.
The basic philosophy characterizing Munch's approach to the orchestra is that every musician is talented and a master of his instrument. Otherwise he would not be a member of the orchestra, Munch reasons. Consequently he seldom corrects individuals in rehearsals, and though he is careful of details, he does not pick out one particular player for picayune criticism. Only when he strongly disagrees with a man's particular interpretation will he stop a rehearsal to correct him. Thus, although he spends as much time in rehearsal as other conductors, less of this time is spent in repetition of short phrases. Munch's approach worked extraordinarily well in New York and Boston; whether it would work with groups of lesser stature is another question.
In every Munch performance, there is a certain amount of "calculated risk." That is the orchestra never is absolutely sure that everything is going to work out perfectly; consequently they are on edge, always awake, and always sensitive to the wishes of the conductor. This contrasts with the technique of a man like Bruno Walter, who sometimes repeats a few measures so many times that the orchestra becomes bored, and, of course, their playing shows it. Munch never takes a big chance in any performance, but just enough is left in doubt to create the effect he desires. Thus, in performance, his personal hysteria mixed in with the highly sensitive orchestra often leads to extraordinarily exciting music.
Munch's baton technique is perhaps his most unique characteristic. One moment he may be beating time with the sparest possible motion, left hand by his side, and the next he literally whips up the orchestra with violent arm movements. He conducts not only with his arms but with his entire body. During the performance of a choral work here recently, he was conducting four separate elements of the orchestra with different parts of his body, all the while singing the French words along with the chorus and carefully exaggerating his lip movements of assist the singers in pronunciation. He usually uses a baton, but occasionally, he may leave it idle in his left hand. He sings along with the strings as loud if not louder than Toscanini does. He shushes for pianissimos, exhorts for fortissimes. Sometimes he depicts the music physically, but where other conductors often merely imitate the motions of a violin bow or a cymbal, (something which has no value for anyone except the audience) Munch attempts to portray the spirit of the interpretation he is seeking (something which can be of considerable value to the musicians as well as to the audience).
Boston Critics Perturbed
Some critics notably those in Boston, have criticized Munch's technique as excessively flamboyant. This may seem justified to the casual observer, but many orchestra musicians explain that the technique is an extremely illuminating one that assists them greatly in performing complicated rhythms or melodies, especially those encountered in modern works. At any rate, the musicians of the Boston Symphony will have no doubt when Munch gives his downbeat--something which cannot be said for his predecessor.
The one fear that haunts Munch when he is leading a performance is that the music is dragging. This to him is the worst thing that can happen, and thus when he feels a piece sticking, he is apt to rush it.
Despite his great popularity, Munch is a very modest man very much aware of his own defects. Once many years ago, when Toscanini was conducting a French orchestra usually conducted by Munch, he unobtrusively took a seat in the first violins and played with the orchestra to learn how Toscanini gets his effects.
Joie de Vivre
Munch's preoccupation with music has not prevented him from living well off the podium. He is an highly civilized man, deeply interested in painting and craft. Walter Hendl, assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and newly-appointed conductor of the Dallas Symphony likes to tell about the time Munch came to visit him at his home three years ago. He arrived with a bouquet of roses for Mrs. Hendl, and then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening teaching Hendl different kinds of solitaire which he uses when traveling. Hendl had a wonderful evening, but when it was over, his house was completely bare of food and liquor. The next day, Mrs. Hendl, who is a painter, decided to do a still life of the roses which Munch had brought. The story eventually hit the papers, and Munch read it is a Swiss journal while he was a in Geneva. He kept the clipping, and months later when he saw Hendl, he presented the article and demanded his painting. When he saw it, Munch was quite impressed, and promised to show it to his friend Please. Since their the Hendl's have heard nothing, but they're still hoping for an encouraging word from Picasso.
Munch appreciates art for what it is, not for its monetary value. He is by nature completely unmaterialistic, although it has been pointed out that a men with a millionaire wife has no real need for being materialistic. But in this case, the spirit is not superficial. He has one abiding interest in life--music. That is why he is so impatient with musicians who discuss with him the positions he might get. That is why recently, when he heard indirectly that an orchestra he was guest conducting was in financial peril, he returned his salary. These are superficial examples to be sure, but they illustrate an essential part of his personality.
A lot has been said and written about what Munch will do with the Boston Symphony when he comes here next fall. Unfortunately, much of it is guff. For example, some chronic worriers are predicting that the programs will be overwhelmingly, and for them unbearably French. But an examination of the programs Munch gave with the Conservatory in France proves quite the contrary. An analysis of two full years' programs show that over two thirds of the music played was not French. A surprisingly large amount of all the music Munch programmed has seldom been played in Boston during Koussevitzky's reign. Munch has an extremely broad repertory, and there is no doubt that he will widen that of the Boston Symphony considerably. The same is true for the Harvard Glee Club, which will be singing many works for the first time in years under Munch.
While guest conducting, Munch has placed a great deal of emphasis on French music, but this is perfectly understandable in view of the fact that since 1944, France's Orchestre National has played more works of living Americans than all the orchestras of America combined have played of living French composers.
Munch is greatly interested in contemporary American music; he is also greatly puzzled by it. He like many others both here and abroad, has been unable to figure out just where American music is going. He is studying many scores in all effort to find clues, but one of the real question marks about him is whether he has Koussevitzky's ability to analyze and evaluate a modern composition.
It is doubtful whether the tonal characteristics of the Boston Symphony will change greatly under Munch. There will be shifts among the musicians--there always are--but it is very unlikely that Munch will attempt to completely shake up the orchestra in order to make it sound like a French ensemble. Aside from the impracticality of such a step, Munch looks at the Boston Symphony as a completely different instrument from those he has led in France, not necessar-