Music as Alchemy by Tom Service

Music as Alchemy is writer and broadcaster Tom Service’s first book. In it, he unpicks the apparent ‘magic’ of six ‘great’ conductors; what they do and how they do it, described in poetic rather than technical terms through a series of personal encounters with them and their principal orchestras in rehearsal and performance. Informal interviews provide access to this traditionally exclusive world, whilst a smattering of information about the orchestras and repertoire in development paints a basic background picture.

Service considers each pairing in turn, observing a typical orchestral schedule as a fly-on-the-wall and marvelling at the arcane, unteachable gestures which form part of the unique arsenal of every ‘great’ conductor. He discusses charisma and body language; how each conductor handles the orchestra musically and psychologically, how they view their leadership role and how the orchestra responds artistically and individually before assessing the musical results from the perspective of a largely enraptured, if not always entirely convinced, listener.

Disappointingly, Music as Alchemy glosses over issues of social and artistic relevance at a time when many orchestras world-wide are struggling to find funding in a climate of savage cuts to the arts. Rather, Service chooses to re-explore territory controversial in its own right – the relationship between a conductor and ‘his’ orchestra being notoriously tension-laden – but in almost entirely positive terms; content to put a ‘happy family’ spin on the ensembles concerned (to use Iván Fischer’s description of his Budapest Festival Orchestra), whilst adopting the rarefied, Romantic position that the music itself and musical values are autonomous. Nowhere, for example, does he consider the controversial museum aspect of a classical music culture in which a proliferation of orchestras depend on ritualistic performances of the same, familiar works from the past to ever-shrinking niche audiences of ever-increasing average age.

The masculine emphasis on ‘his’ orchestra is a given in this survey, as Service’s roster of ‘great’ conductors are all men, even as he notes that well-known maestros such as Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki are no longer merely described as ‘women conductors’. Indeed, it is a very select, European few who gain inclusion here, from Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons and Jonathan Nott to Simon Rattle, Fischer and Claudio Abbado; a choice justified on the dubious grounds that a) material is readily available on others such as Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez (when Rattle, for example, has had huge exposure) and b) the amount of space needed to do justice to further conductors (when the loosely-written chapters could comfortably have been shortened).

Tom Service
Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras
by Tom Service
292pp,
Faber and Faber,
£18.99

Service is careful to note that the days of the tyrannical, megastar maestros such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan are over; that a healthier, more democratic culture of mutual respect now prevails. But his conductors are presented as superstars nonetheless; they, their musicians and even the music are lionised as culture heroes in terms that often stretch credulity. For instance, he writes that Abbado’s

‘body language is only translatable into sound because the musicians…believe that’s possible…that Abbado’s gestures communicate everything they need to know…they can safely go further into the music and their musicality than they could otherwise and Abbado himself is pushed to explore the extremes of what’s possible because he knows there are no limitations imposed by institutional politics or personal conflicts’

thus idealising the orchestral environment and reifying the aesthetic experience. Throughout, Service talks about music in universalised terms separate from society and real life, writing, for instance, of a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony that:

‘Having looked at the music’s terror and fear and premonitions of death squarely in the face, it was possible to return to the world drained but renewed.’

Yet, at the same time, he describes music in exalted emotional terms as, for instance, in a performance of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique:

‘We all became Berlioz’s doomed protagonist that night, wracked by obsessive love, experiencing moments of sensual joy and pastoral calm and then going through the fires of hallucinogenic hell until the ultimate extinguishment of our collective ego in the final moments…’

Emotional transport is often central to the hearing of extraordinary music and the impetus to share the effects of it on oneself is matched only by the paradoxical impossibility of doing so through the medium of words. Service is clearly a knowledgeable as well as passionate advocate but his grandiose descriptions infantilise both the experience and his readers; moreover, he skirts uncomfortably close to condoning a kind of artistic submission and escapism despite his intention to encourage the opposite and, indeed, to de-mythologise the orchestral world. Submission to the composer via the score, submission to the conductor, to the collective entity of the orchestra and to the performative moment are all ultimately lauded as a means of giving up the self in order to transcend the self through ‘great’ music. Such utopian ideals of social or individual harmony are all very well, but it is arguable to what extent music sets out to achieve that – even if such healing transformation is possible in purely musical terms; a question which, alas, continues to resound as we see in Service’s recounting of the Berlin Philharmonic’s shameful allegiance to the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

Ultimately, it is not enough to suggest, as Service does, that transported listening amounts to active participation in the artistic experience; for that, one also needs a good deal more critical engagement than is offered by Music as Alchemy, for all that Service is not always won over by the music-making he describes. His book may open the door a crack for those unfamiliar with the workings of such cultural monoliths. Nonetheless, it is a missed opportunity to gain deeper insight into the contemporary symphonic world at a time of increased global musical reach, yet urgent social and artistic challenge.