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Rigor, Imagination and Mythology in Music: An Interview with Eduardo Chibás
by Marc Medwin

It’s neither a chord nor a tone and much less a bang than an interregistral declamation, though neither descriptor does it real justice. It is not simply a statement, and it doesn’t overwhelm with brute force, although power is at its center. In conductor, educator and philosopher Eduardo Chibás’ hands, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s first symphony enters as something like a totality, with the calm dignity of discovery captured in the moment, of a goal reached and the subsequent one coming into focus.

Born in Havana, Chibás left Cuba for the United States when he was 11 years old. His career, as president of a thriving advertising company, led him to settle in Venezuela, where he now makes his home, but all the while, music was ever-present in his life, a conduit and unifier for the various artistic and scientific interests he had been cultivating. He studied its fundamentals with fervor, largely autodidactically, and conducting of it in particular, ultimately coming to the attention of Sándor Végh. He was so taken with Chibás’ Beethoven interpretations that he wrote a letter of recommendation that eventually led to Chibás being invited to conduct the Camerata Salzburg on a visit to Caracas. Beyond simply being a musician, Chibás is a natural presenter, drawing on the riches of his long studies of mathematics, politics and the arts. To that end, he has now launched a new website containing a unique series of video lectures placing the Beethoven symphonies in the multiple contexts befitting their historical importance. “For me, meaning is an extremely important component of the music, extending well beyond the notes. This is what I hope to convey in these lectures.”

Chibás’ voice is certainly that of a communicator. He chooses each word with care, phrases separated by the contemplative pauses of a born teacher in search of the most applicable metaphor, and there are many in his lexicon. His interests range from philosophy through literature and cinema, while he describes his mind as mathematical, a partial truth but too limiting. Music, for him, is as much doorway as expression. Above all, if such a blanket phrase holds any validity, Chibás’ musical interest lies in the Romantic Germanic and Austrian repertoire and in interpretation of Beethoven in particular. Listening to his set of Beethoven symphonies, performed with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, it is immediately clear that his readings transcend what he views as a literalist trend toward sameness in recent interpretation.  Chibás ascribes the forces behind his interpretations initially to extra-musical concerns. “When I was a small boy, maybe 12, I was reading Greek tragedy. I was also deeply interested in history but from an ethical standpoint. I saw it as the story of good and bad, certainly the simplistic view of a child. However, when I heard Beethoven’s fifth symphony for the first time, that ethical struggle was there.” The symphony’s polarized narrative of darkness transformed into light would shape what became a journey for Chibás. In his formative experiences as a Cuban exile in 1960s New York, during early public library excursions, his studies at Columbia University and his eventual co-founding of the Wagner Society in Venezuela, the study of ethics revealed deeper and more multi-layered parallels in Beethoven’s dramatic forms and their attendant structures. By the late 1990s, Chibás had combined elements of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal research with his own studies of musical form and Greek mythology to create his own version of the hero’s journey. The video lectures detail his own pilgrim’s progress and what he views as Beethoven’s heroic journey as the first symphony plants the seeds of individual discovery that would lead to points of definition, like the third, fifth and seventh symphonies.

Those looking for the usual Beethoven biography and conventional musical analysis will find at least some of both, or it may be more accurate to say that those elements are present to support Chibás’ more inclusive philosophical concerns. For him, the most important element of the heroic journey is the contribution of the individual, or what he calls the self. In Chibás’ view of a Beethoven symphony, the self that inhabits the first movement is not exactly the one in the fourth; there are levels and degrees of transformation and affirmation. “Campbell does talk about that journey, and I learn from his contributions and then put my own spin on it. For me, that learning process is the most important, whether from Campbell, from Hegel or from Furtwangler.” In Chibás’ formative years, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was, and remains, of paramount importance, but he is quick to observe that he is far from a Furtwängler copy. “I absorb what these people offer and then remake everything. The most important thing to me is to act from the heart. I do this with as few compromises as I can, especially in art. I believe that artistic pursuit deserves purity of heart.”

Of utmost importance in Chibas’ vision of Beethoven’s symphonies is the organic process. “It’s very difficult to explain, and of course, that’s why I’ve made these 14 lectures, but essentially, organicism refers to an element from within influencing the work as a whole. The obvious example is the famous motive that opens the fifth symphony and appears in each movement, but the concept goes far beyond that.” One of the highlights of Chibás’ lectures initiates his exploration of the third symphony’s first movement. “After those two opening chords, we get a triad arpeggiation and then a chromatic motion toward D-flat. This is a very important moment.” Indeed, as that opening material goes by in the lecture, we read, on screen, dramatic descriptors that will chart the heroic journey guiding the movement along its trajectory, the macrocosm contained in its initial details, a wonderful example of unity through dramatic action. In treating the first symphony, Chibás elucidates, movement by movement, the conventions against which the young Beethoven was rebelling and his burgeoning relationship to them. That opening gesture of the fourth movement is a case in point. “The traditional way, in the Classical period, is to make the final movement of a symphony fast, which Beethoven actually does but not before a slow introduction with a weighty opening gesture.” Weight is what Chibás was after when conducting that opening, but for the mostly self-taught conductor, the exact sound he heard in his head proved practically elusive. “When I first conducted it, it came out too much like an exclamation,” he explains. “I wanted something heavier, something to lay the groundwork for the coming contrast.” A similar instance concerning the Eroica’s opening chords also proved formative. “I sent my first concert recording to a musical friend, a critic. He told me the chords didn’t have enough heft, weren’t heavy enough.” Over zoom, during one of our conversations, Chibás plays me the opening chords from three of his performances. They gain body as they evolve. The journey toward a deeper reading is clarified even in these minute statements. Chibás describes a similar situation concerning the increasingly complex relationships involving groups of two and three beats in the movement, linking these back not only to Beethoven’s musical world but to the mythological concerns underlying the movement’s epic journey. “The movement is in three, but you can hear groups of two beats gradually being foregrounded, and there are mythological parallels in play there as well.”

At the heart of myth and archetype lie conceptions of nobility, a theme recurrent in Chibás’ lectures and one apparent in every one of his recordings. To illustrate it, he invokes tropes well beyond those we normally consider to be associated with music, ranging from Wagner’s notion of orchestral sustain to the multi-layered narrative depicted in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. At strategic intervals, he introduces recording comparisons to demonstrate his points. I ask him why a sense of nobility is necessary in terms of interpretation. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t have to be there,” he responds, an uncanny echo of Joseph Campbell’s response to a similar question posed to him concerning mythology. “It happens to be something for which I’m striving, but I’m not really one for absolutes.” Chibás draws comparative attention to Carlos Kleiber’s famous recording of Beethoven’s fifth symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. “I loved it when I first heard it, but gradually, I liked it less and less, particularly the last movement. It was very difficult to figure out why, which took me some time and considerable effort.” Chibás maintains that in Beethoven symphonies, the center of gravity shifts to the final movement, but it must be prepared. If the final movement doesn’t work, something has gone awry earlier in the interpretation, perhaps even as early as in the opening movement.” Again, Furtwängler has been Chibás’ guide in achieving nobility and the related concept of depth. “By that, I mean getting at the heart of the work, that which lies at its core.”

Those who enroll in the video course will also gain access to downloads, in multiple resolutions, of Chibás’ Beethoven symphony set. To understand one is dependent on the other. The emphasis he places on final movements is inextricably linked to his conception of the archetypal elements in play. “If you allow yourself to go with Beethoven,” he observes, “he will bring you to the deepest recesses of hell but always bring you out again.” That contrast and attendant continua take on a visceral quality in Chibás’ interpretations missing from most of the recent recordings I’ve heard. If slow movements can be remarkably slow, faster movements take on a rapidity bordering on the dangerous, but that is only part of the picture. What really separates Chibás’ recordings involves flexibility of tempo and dynamics. Changes are somewhat drawn out but come off with the inexorability of a change in season or the naturalness of breathing.  The opening of the ninth symphony, so often underplayed and over-texturalized of late, is a prime example. It emerges from a place of mystery and evolves toward a cataclysm which Chibás views as storming the heavens. “By that point, Beethoven had moved beyond even worldly heroicism and into the cosmic realm. You don’t see that in many composers in this tradition” Again, organically, the central narrative dictates, and is indicative of, individual gestures, like the trumpet fanfares so often made “military” in the historically informed aesthetic. Chibás offers these with a kind of detached terror, one that informs much of the movement’s major-minor clash of wills. In terms of detail, Peter Maag and Ernst Ansermet seem to be close points of comparison, though Chibás’ dynamic and tempo range is wider and involves more immediacy. Through it all, beyond the imagination and dedication obviously informing each work’s narrative, a warmth of string tone and some of the most devastating timpani work I’ve heard set these interpretations apart, rendering them felicitously anachronistic.

There is a sense in which Chibás is wedded to historical performance, and to that end, he is also heavily involved in sound restoration. He has put his hand to much of Furtwängler’s catalog and has recently branched out to include Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter. “Again, I’m trying to render the sound of whatever ensemble’s work I’m restoring as naturally as possible.” He has even managed to bring some new life to the 1951 premier of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, no mean feat given the abysmal source material. “Yes,” concedes Chibás, “That was a very difficult project, and I spent a lot of time on it.” Listening to his restorations will not offer the boosted highs and bloated bass favored by other devotees of historical recordings. If bass is present, Chibás makes sure it remains but never overtakes. High end is often tamed but only enough to bring out the often glorious mid-range so integral to his restoration work, as on the Schnabel Beethoven sonatas. His efforts in front of the orchestra certainly inform his restorations, just as his time with the recordings of his heroes imbue his interpretations with the narrative elements synthesized in his video lectures, all combining to create a coherent and intellectually stimulating whole.

I ask Chibás about his next moves. It seems that he’s always preparing a fresh presentation for the Wagner Society, but now, his interests have turned, once again, to another composer of long-term obsession for him. “It’s difficult to explain the emotional reaction Bruckner has engendered in me,” he remembers. “He follows the heroic path, but there’s a certain level of what I’ll call detachment, a distance, as if so much of the music emerged from some lofty place.” This is true as evidenced by his recordings of the last three symphonies. The excitement in his voice is palpable as he discusses the lecture series he is now planning. “I’ve just begun to decide on the background images, a very important element given the linkages between the final three symphonies…” Having found his Beethoven lectures so edifying, it is now difficult to wait for the Bruckner talks.

What is certain is that whatever emerges, it will involve a healthy mixture of what Chibás calls the rational and the irrational, the dichotomy at the heart of artistic pursuit. “You can think of it in the way that Nietzsche describes the Apollonian and Dionysian principles, the opposition of reason and imagination.” For Chibás, the important component involves the engagement of the mind. He brings the conversation back to the Eroica, the second movement in particular. “It’s absolutely amazing, because depending on how you look at it, it can be viewed as a sonata form, a ternary form or a rondo. Where does it say that you can’t do that, combine elements of three different forms to create something both novel and traditional?” Chibás’ voice rises as he describes the tripartite juxtaposition. “Beethoven combines the struggle of sonata form narrative, the tragic recurrence of rondo form, which I relate to death’s reappearance in the video lecture, and the lighter elements of song form, especially the major theme. These are the brilliant things in Beethoven that I find so intellectually stimulating and so moving to perform!” For Chibás, a performance of the movement entails highlighting whichever elements seem more important at the moment. “The experience is such an overwhelming totality that sometimes, after conducting that second movement, I feel like there’s no point in going on to the rest of the symphony, that everything’s been said already in a perfect balance of rigor and imagination. Of course, that’s not the point. It’s not over, and we should go on, as in life, it is always necessary to go on; there’s more to the story!”  

It could very well be this sense of balance in becoming that imbues all of Chibás’ work in Beethoven’s universe and beyond, from the seemingly trivial micro-gesture to the vast forms it anticipates and supports. This is the central goal of both his performances and of the video lectures that go such a long way toward elucidating their underlying concerns. The lectures contain certain opinions, notably concerning the recording comparisons, with which I do not agree. “Of course,” laughs Chibás. “What would the world be like without conflict?” Differing opinions aside, each point and comparison emerges with clarity and with a winning sense of integrity. Each well-plotted exploration of detail in context leads ultimately to the creative precipice, that point where the known and the as yet undiscovered meet in the freedom, fancy and exultation only a voyage through the depths and a re-emergence can afford. Beyond all of the various facets relating Chibás’ work, lies the sense of unfettered discovery underlying each musical and philosophical statement, a state of being and becoming as satisfying as it is infectious, the Apollonian and Dionysian in dynamic symbiosis.

Marc Medwin

Eduardo Chibás' video lectures on the Beethoven symphonies can be found here.

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