Riccardo Muti interview for his 80th birthday, part two
You don’t work for success, or the amount of applause and number of newspaper articles; you do it because you understand that our profession is a mission. I conducted the first concert in Sarajevo after the bombings, Va’ pensiero in New York in the pit left by the demolished Twin Towers. One evening I conducted in Yerevan, Armenia, and the next evening in Istanbul. I remember a wonderful children’s choir in Nairobi where they had studied Va’ pensiero with absolutely perfect pronunciation. But sometimes I feel like I’m talking to the deaf. Muti speaking to the deaf… disheartening. It is not lack of will; it is atavistic ignorance. And when you think that the roots of world music are in Italy: Palestrina, Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Luca Marenzio, Scarlatti…
Dad gave me a violin for Christmas, and I cried… I wanted a popgun. After two months of unsuccessful attempts to read the notes, Dad said, “’Little Riccardo is not musical”, but Mum said, “Let’s try another month”. Rapidly I learned to sightread, but the determining factor was Nino Rota. I took the exam for the fifth level piano course with him in Bari as a private student and he gave me an A+ in all the tests, so I decided to enrol at the conservatoire. In the morning I would go to school, and in the afternoon I would take the bus to Bari.
There was always mutual admiration between [Claudio Abbado and me]. People wanted to create a rivalry like Callas-Tebaldi or Coppi-Bartali [Italian cyclists Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi] but that’s all false. When I went to the conservatoire in Milan, Abbado was already into his career. We met rarely, but when we did it was always cordial.
I started working with [Luciano Pavarotti] in 1969, with Puritani for the RAI [Radiotelevisione italiana, Italy’s national public broadcasting company] in Rome. Then we had moments of disagreement over technical issues. Musical misunderstandings. But it turned into a great friendship. His was one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful voice of the second half of the 20th century.
I had such wonderful times working with him: a Pagliacci recorded in Philadelphia, a Verdi Requiem at La Scala, and above all La Scala’s Don Carlo, where Pavarotti, especially in the finale, gave a lesson in vocal technique and perfect phrasing – it was truly inspiring. Singing the words of ‘Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore’ [But up there we will see each other in a better world] ‘ you can understand his generosity.
Several years before he died, my wife and I invited him to a benefit concert in Forlì [in Emilia-Romagna, Northern Italy] for a community of drug addicts. Pavarotti came all the way from America and he didn’t want a penny, paying for his own plane ticket. I accompanied him at the piano for the whole evening in front of seven thousand people. It was a gesture I will never forget.
When his coffin was in Modena Cathedral, the piazza resounded with ‘Vincerò…’. I would have preferred the finale of Don Carlo, not just for the meaning of the words, but also for the singing lesson, underlining of an aspect of Pavarotti’s vocality that is not triumphalist but intimate and delicate.
In canto XIV of Dante’s Paradise, he writes,
And as a viol or a harp, attuned
with many strings, a pleasant tinkling makes
for one by whom the music is not caught;
so from the lights which there appeared to me,
a melody was gathered through the Cross,
which rapt me, though I made not out the hymn.
Music is rapture, it’s not understanding. Go home all you music critics! There is nothing to understand. As Mozart said, the most profound music is that which is between the notes or behind the notes.
I spent lockdown studying Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I got my first score in 1970 so I’ve been working on it for more than half a century, but I’ve never dared to conduct it, but I will in August in Salzburg. [The Missa Solemnis] is the Sistine Chapel of music and the very idea of approaching it has always frightened me. There are details in it of enormous importance. To the ‘Miserere nobis’ Beethoven added an ‘O’, which implies an interlocutor. Beethoven felt that the invocation was addressed to Someone. It seems like a detail, but it opens up a world. It means that a superior Being exists.
Apart from studying, [lockdown] was horrible. The dehumanisation went even further. The lack of human relationships is terrifying. You walk into a restaurant, and you see five people at the table all hunched over their smartphones…. I don’t have one and I don’t want one. They had to give me one to get into Japan, but I couldn’t turn it on. Television should have taken advantage of the lockdown to make educational broadcasts. Instead, apart from a few good documentaries, we were invaded by virologists and self-styled ‘scientists’. For me, Guglielmo Marconi was a scientist!
I can follow a counterpoint in eight musical parts that intersect with each other, but I can’t understand two people talking over each other [during a talk show]. They create disharmony, cacophony, whereas eight musical lines, each different from the other, must contribute to achieving harmony. The banality of TV and the interne, with its superficial entertainment, and the lack of conversation, make me very worried about the education of young people.
I am neither [right-wing nor left-wing]. I am one of those who tries to give useful suggestions. In Florence, in the 1970s, I was friends with many communists, including the constitutionalist Paolo Barile, but since I often used words like “patria” (homeland) and I liked to play Mameli’s national anthem, some suspected right-wing ideas. I was born a free man and I remain a free man. I grew up with the ideas of Salvemini*, a socialist not a Bolshevik. I have never joined a political party.
With #MeToo, Da Ponte and Mozart would end up in jail. They say that Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert wrote ‘colonialist music’, but how can you say that? Schubert was a very sweet person… There is a campaign according to which, when preparing a concert season, there should be a balance between men, women, different skin colours, people who are transgender, and so on, so that all social, ethnic, and genetic issues are represented. I find that very strange. The choice should be made on the basis of worth and talent, without discrimination one way or the other. I feel I have the right to voice my opinion because most of the composers-in-residence we have introduced over the last ten years in Chicago are women.
* Gaetano Salvemini was an Italian antifascist politician, historian and writer. Born in Muti’s hometown, Molfetta, he became an acclaimed historian both in Italy and abroad, particularly in the United States, after he was forced into exile by Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Riccardo Muti was speaking to Aldo Cazzullo, Corriere della Sera