Carlos Kleiber

As long as there’s music, there will be mysterious men. Men who write oblique lyrics, record solitary albums at home, or refuse to give interviews. And while some of these men may act out of necessity, it’s also entirely possible that some see an advantage in acting mysteriously. Perhaps the audience rewards them for their behavior. I’m thinking back, now, to the rise of “mysterious guy hardcore” in the early ‘10s, when a bunch of bands achieved notoriety by putting out raw/distorted/sloppy/unrehearsed recordings accompanied by stark black and white imagery. The genre came off as gimmicky and soon disappeared. It now seems kind of quaint.

Okay, so that’s a cautionary tale about what could happen when musicians manufacture mystery to achieve some end. Of course, there are musicians who truly cannot operate in any other way, who must be mysterious because that’s the way they’re hardwired. Enter Carlos Kleiber. The son of Erich Kleiber, the famed Austrian composer of the early 20th century, Carlos took up his father’s profession, conducting for the first time in 1954 at the age of 24. It’s my contention that Kleiber peaked in the mid-‘70s when he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s fifth and seventh symphonies.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to start a day than by putting on Beethoven’s Fifth. Today, however, I’ll be talking about the Seventh because of an incredible video courtesy of the YouTube user, Wong Chung. In it, Kleiber directs the Concertgebouw Orchestra (the Netherlands) playing the Seventh in 1983. Catnip for fans of classical music and for people with hearts/souls.

As a high schooler, I thought the primary function of a conductor was to conduct the orchestra/band on the night of a concert by dictating tempo, downbeats, crescendoes, etc.. This, coming from a person who rehearsed every weekday for four years. Clearly, the job is misunderstood. This video captures Kleiber during rehearsal in 1970. He frequently stops the orchestra to offer abstract instructions, such as, “They must not believe it’s dangerous, but they’re wrong. We want to have that tentative… [He sings a passage.] Anything can happen, and it probably will.” Many times, a member of his orchestra is filmed looking on in disbelief or disgust, and Kleiber does apologize, time and again, for not letting the group play through, but nevertheless, he persists in his interruptions because that’s what being a conductor is all about. At one point he tells the bells player to pick up his instrument and move it to an alcove (he calls it a “bunker”) in the back. There’s no right way to inspire an orchestra.

Two things are for certain: the Concertgebouw Orchestra was inspired on that night in 1983, and Kleiber was in top form. At 2:10, the camera cuts to a close-up of Kleiber in a sort of dreamy state. Smiling faintly, he seems to be looking over the orchestra. His baton work is gentle but authoritative. The quiet section at 3:49 features some really controlled, light playing and conducting, and at 4:27, when the main theme is played in full for the first time, Kleiber very nearly stops conducting. He loosely holds his baton, a faint pulse running through his arm, and dances. Kleiber actually dances to Beethoven’s melody, which is so utterly dance-worthy that one can’t blame him. It’s as if he’s saying, “You got this guys. I trust this melody, and I’ve trained you well. I’m going to luxuriate in this shit for a bit.”

What makes any of this mysterious? For that, we turn to Kleiber’s biography. Throughout his storied career, the man gave but one interview. He conducted about 90 concerts and didn’t much care for recording them. To compare, his contemporary, the great Herbert von Karajan, conducted and recorded constantly for like 30 years. When von Karajan resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989, Kleiber declined to be his replacement, and in the 90s, Kleiber demanded an Audi as payment for a stint guest conducting in Ingolstadt, Germany.

But does that make him mysterious? Obviously, yes, I’d say it does. To watch Kleiber conduct is to glimpse human mystery. His movements are alien, beautiful, inspiring. The way his hair floats above his head, the fact that he smiles so much. Why would a person who so obviously loves music opt out of performing it (Kleiber was notorious for canceling appearances)? Because he didn’t like to conduct–didn’t like the scrutiny, the possibility of failing, the work. His father’s success weighed heavily on him, and in the end, he’d conduct when he ran out of money. He lived until 2004, and like all mercurial geniuses, his stature has grown in death. I wish I could’ve seen him conduct, but I’m glad he allowed cameras into at least a couple of his concerts.

Originally published at

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