What follows is a bit of a treasure. It is an interview with Hans Gál, done in 1971. It is unknown who the interviewer was, or if , when and where it was published. Nevertheless, it contains some of Gál’s most extensive commentary on his own creative work, his activities as a performer. He shows his wit in several places, notably saying of conducting that “But I am afraid I could not have been a professional conductor, properly speaking; I am all but physically unable to perform music I dislike. Doing music is, as I see it, an act of love. Doing it without, resembles dangerously the oldest trade in the world.”
The interview was published in the Gál Society Newsletter in 2010, and is reproduced here by permission.
Q: A general question: what do you regard as most fundamental regarding the art of composition?
HG: That’s a question difficult to answer concisely. One thing is impossible to define rationally: the primary urge, the which is the source of artistic expression in general, and is obviously the soul of the matter. The only thing one can talk about is what takes place on the level of consciousness. An all important thing, of course, is spontaneous invention, combined with the trained capacity of accepting or rejecting it, or transforming it into the proper shape. The shrewdest remark on this matter I can remember came from Richard Strauss, whom I was fortunate to meet at several occasions. The start of “Rosenkavalier” was mentioned, and Strauss said, thoughtfully: “Yes,- the first four bars are a gift of the Gods; then it becomes difficult”. Well, I have a conscientious objection against the term “inspiration”, the only one we have for it in English. It sounds terribly pretentious! In German we call it “Einfall”, “impromptu”in French, something that drops into our mind, as it were accidentally, and this is what it really is. Who hasn’t got it should never put a note on paper, and who has got it cannot be careful enough in accepting it, or rejecting it out of hand. This is probably the most essential thing in composition. There is another: continuity of the flow of events. Scraps never add up to a tolerable piece of music. This is why there is no music for me without form, a clear design, and form is not a ready-made mould but a pattern of events that has to be found individually for every individual work, a pattern resulting from the thematic content and its peculiar conditions. So there is every time a new problem to be solved with patience and with the combination of intuitive feeling and critical awareness without which no artistic achievement is possible. Like good prose, good music must be a coherent, well reasoned argument, based on a clear statement of facts.
Q: Being a pianist, do you compose at the piano?
HG: A piano player is always in communion with his instrument. But since my earliest beginnings, with a reliable ear, I became used to be independent of the piano when composing. What one writes for piano is necessarily very much a matter of two hands on the keyboard and must be tested on the keyboard. But I had a hard upbringing and had to learn at an early stage not only to be independent of the piano. As a boy, I sat in my tiny room, just big enough for a table a chair and a bookstand, and composed when next door three sisters of mine did their piano practice. I would be hesitant in recommending this heroic kind of training to others. But it did the trick for me, and at least some of this capacity of concentrating I have retained through life. Well, I’ve told you of my opera, written on a high mountain pass and far from any piano. Another wartime situation, more than 20 years later, springs to my mind. In summer 1940 I spent several months behind barbed wire as an enemy alien, first at Huyton, nearLiverpool, then on the Isle of Man. In Huyton, among about 2000 prisoners, with intense boredom and not even a piano available, I found in the end three tolerable musicians who had taken their instruments with them, a flute and two violins. So I wrote a trio for this unlikely combination, called “Huyton Suite”. It provided fun for the players and a great many listeners but it was only published last year, together with another two trios for one woodwind and two string instruments.
Q: You mentioned keys: what do you think of tonality?
HG: Well I do believe in tonality as much as I believe, say, in gravitation; I have it in
my musical constitution, and I cannot imagine music without tonality. In my consciousness, tonality is as firm as a rock. But I have never theorized about it. We are subject to gravitation, but we have learnt that weightlessness exists. So atonality may exist, but I cannot imagine it any more than I can imagine weightlessness. I am speaking of myself; I have accepted the fact that people can live without weight and without tonality. I am afraid I can’t.
Q: What place did performing take in your professional life?
HG: As I’ve told you, I started as a pianist and accompanist when I was young and, much later, in this country, I even gave piano recitals. When I had left school at 18, I did consider the possibility of a conductor’s career. I gave up this idea, however, when I went to the University, and after my graduation I could find a modest living as a teacher, and writing music was so much the centre of my life that I could not make up my mind to give up my independence. But I jumped at every opportunity for conducting. For a num- ber of years I was in charge of music at a playhouse inVienna. Later, in the 20s, al- ways passionately interested in vocal music, I founded the Vienna Madrigal Society, at that time the only chorus inVienna who performed unaccompanied vocal music. It existed until the Anschluss in 1938. Dur- ing all these years, I had frequent occasions to conduct my operas — usually without an orchestral rehearsal, just taking over a repertory performance — and this contributed to my developing a reliable technique as a conductor. InMainz I was in charge of a very competent student orchestra; the training of orchestral musicians was an important part of our activity, and so was the training of singers for the operatic stage; and a large mixed chorus was attached to the institute. I had to conduct a cycle of symphony and oratorio concerts, and also operatic performances at the theatre. Back inVienna in 1933, I conducted, beside the Madrigal Society, which had maintained itself meanwhile, a newly-formed ensemble, the Vienna Concert Orchestra. So, without ever having had the ambition of a conductor’s career, I was always in charge of one ensemble or another, also, later on, here inEdinburgh. Well, I always had an urge to do music actively and did it all my life, as I am still doing for myself. But I am afraid I could not have been a professional conductor, properly speaking; I am all but physically unable to perform music I dislike. Doing music is, as I see it, an act of love. Doing it without, resembles dangerously the oldest trade in the world.
Q: Which were your relations to your colleagues inVienna? And did you belong to any group, did you follow any flag, so to speak?
HG: My personal relations to so many musicians in Vienna, of my generation or older ones, were always very friendly. I was never personally acquainted with Schoenberg, but Berg was a friend of mine and we met often, especially since in 1929 we became members of the jury of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, who gave a festival of contemporary music every year. Several works of mine had their first performances at these occasions. I was on friendly terms with Webern too, and I had pleasure when, after a performance of a very difficult choral work of his, “Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen”, which I did with my Madrigal Society, he told me it was the first time he had heard it sung in tune. But as to a group, I never belonged to one. At that time I felt instinctively, really, what I know now retrospectively: that I had too little in common with anyone of my contemporaries, and my early developed sense of quality [resulted] in a strong reaction of critical discrimination. I had a great many friends among composers, inVienna as well as In Germany. But I never found any with whom I could have agreed regarding principal tenets.
Q: Could you define what you would regard as of principal importance?
HG: Yes, clarity. Opaque, muddy sound was always a horror to me. A transparent texture was always my chief aim and demand, and this regards my style of performing as much as my ideal as a composer. The hypertrophical orchestral splash fashionable when I was young appealed as little to me as, later in the twenties, “new classicism” and its ideal of an emaciated sound that always reminded me of St. Anthony who ate grasshoppers in the desert What I became more and more intolerant against is what I call dirty sound, the sound of a badly used piano pedal. To put it bluntly: if I were very hard up one day, I would seriously consider to sell the pedal of my piano.
Q: Are you stimulated by an actual demand, by a suggestion of writing something for an occasion, by a commission or something of this kind?
HG: An actual demand has always been a strong temptation for me, a temptation I could not easily resist. I have published quite a number of works that were stimulated by such a suggestion. I’ve written music for recorders, for groups of fretted instruments and for all kinds of vocal ensembles — and even for such an odd combination as the “Huyton Suite” mentioned before. A proposition of this kind was always a stimulus to my imagination, a challenge to find the proper technique for a peculiar ensemble. Apart from the satisfaction of writing for an actual occasion, an actual demand, I have always regarded the big chasm between the composer and his audience, which is a fatal phenomenon of our time, as the greatest danger for music. The only really direct approach to music is to do it oneself. And the composer who does something to bridge the gap, to write music for the consumer, acquires merit.
Q: Did you not also write some books in order to bridge that gap, to make music understood by the reading public?
HG: Yes, I did. But I had never the ambition of being a writer. It happened, so to speak, accidentally: my books were side effects of my lifelong activity and of a natural urge to make as much music as possible my own by intense study, to know as much about it as possible. I never wrote a book on my own: they came owing to suggestions by publishers both German and English. But doing it, I tried to do it as well as I could, writing prose with as much care for every detail as I am used to write music.
Q: And what are you writing now — music or prose?
HG: I am suffering of an old superstition: I never speak about anything in my workshop before it is finished; at this stage there is still a danger of abortion. Well, there is something on my desk and I hope there will always be as long as I am healthily alive. I have inverted the device of Descartes; my motto is “sum ergo cogito”: being alive, I must think, — be it music or prose.