Jun 10th 2021

The Conductor

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.


I am always surprised and rather dismayed whenever I hear my fellows disparage the vocal production of our avian cousins. Do you not know, I want to say, that many birds – from the nightingale to the song sparrow – are consummate musicians? The Lyrebird, that clears a patch of forest floor, prepares his stage on which to sing and dance. Is this not an artist, in the most complete sense? Birdsong is indeed music, a spontaneous expression of how a particular bird experiences and feels the world. So much so that some birds have been known to sing with such intensity and passion that their little heart has burst in the very ecstasy of the transport – as if their poor frame could not contain the overwhelming spiritual force of the music.

The great Austrian conductor, Otto Hübek, was reminded of this phenomenon as he lay convalescing after a sudden collapse during his ninety-seventh performance of Tristan and Isolde. Earlier in the day, Hübek was visited by Dr. Tausig, his personal physician, and an amateur ornithologist. In the good doctor’s professional opinion, Hübek could by no means return to the podium: “You escaped this time with only a stern warning, my friend. Next time you may not be so fortunate.” It was then that Tausig brought the maestro’s attention to a certain nightingale that had died while singing, while giving what was undoubtedly the most illustrious and extraordinary concert of its all-too brief career: surely, Hübek could exercise greater wisdom and restraint than a bird, however ingenious. A skeptical expression must have flashed across the sick man’s face, because the doctor immediately went on to add that he would not have believed it had he not witnessed, or rather heard the event, himself – indeed, it had been witnessed by thousands of people, for it happened on live national radio. 

The story was apparently that the renown violist, Sophia Honig had taken to practicing in the verdant woods that encompass her country estate just south of Salzburg; and while doing so, she discovered that a particular nightingale would join in with her, and together they would play duets of sheer magical delight. This happened continuously for days, and their musical dialogue only grew in its variety and depth. The bird, according to Honig was undoubtedly learning from her, though not nearly as much as she was learning from the nightingale. Their improvisations soared and undulated, expressing the most nuanced shades of emotion, of longing and loneliness. (Honig made it very clear in her autobiography years later that she regarded these spontaneous collaborations as the greatest musical experience of her life.)

After some initial reluctance, Sophia finally arranged to have a radio crew visit her home and broadcast a live concert with her and the bird, the sole performers, on three consecutive nights. “The first two nights produced some of the most extraordinary music I have ever heard,” observed Tausig. “It is not more than the truth when I tell you there were many moments when I felt on the verge of tears. But the third night: the third night was something else altogether. The bird soared and took the music to such exhilarating heights and such somber depths that no one could believe what they were hearing. Then the moment came I shall never forget – I thanked God I had lived to see and hear this day. No sooner did I complete the thought (for I said it silently to myself) but the nightingale, in such a feverish pitch of ecstasy, suddenly became silent, and right there and then, it fell from its perch, onto the ground as dead as if it had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Well, as you would expect, the event affected Ms. Honig terribly: she blamed herself you see, for overtaxing the poor creature. No, she was never quite the same after that. Of course, she tried to find another nightingale to play duets with but none she encountered ever revealed the same interest. Some would accompany her, to be sure, but none had anything of the musical imagination of the first.”

Hübek looked at Tausig for a long time in complete silence, before finally thanking the doctor for making him aware of this incident. “Unfortunately, I fear it is unlikely to have the influence on me that you would appear to be hoping for.” Dr. Tausig grimaced and muttered something under his breath about not being surprised in the least, and then turned to go. “One more question, doctor. You would agree, would you not, that how we die matters every bit as much as how we live? Then tell me, do you really believe that bird, that Mozart of nightingales, would have preferred to go in any other way? Could you imagine a finer moment than that for the little creature to let go, to be swept up and away by the sheer power of music? Can you not see that the bird was blessed – yes, blessed – to die at that supreme moment of joyous ecstasy?” The doctor opened his mouth as if to say something but found to his surprise that he was speechless – or rather, that there was simply nothing to be said. He just nodded silently and solemnly, flashed Hübek the shadow of a smile and quietly left the room.   

Maestro Hübek recovered gradually, and not before long he began preparing himself – and, more importantly, his wife – for his return to the podium. She was, to be sure, against his conducting The State Opera again; but reserved her most vehement opposition to conducting any of the operas of Richard Wagner, and most especially Tristan and Isolde, the opera which had initiated the crisis. She accused her husband of loving Wagner more than her – and this was certainly not far from the truth. Wagner was for all practical purposes a religion to Hübek; the operas of the master were neither more nor less than living things, complex organisms, each with an unmistakable essence of its own. The master himself was simply the most extraordinary artistic genius the world had ever produced (and sometimes seemed to take on a kind of semi-divine status for Hübek). What was worse, the wife accused Hübek of actually wanting to die on the stand, of hoping he would find death while conducting the love-duet during the Second Act of Tristan and Isolde. Apparently, Hübek’s words to the doctor regarding the ill-fated nightingale had made their way back to her – but that hardly mattered: she had always suspected as much. There were also times when she thought to herself that if this is truly the way her husband wishes his life to end, then what right had she to deny him that?

In a concession to his wife, Hübek did not return immediately to Tristan and Isolde, but to the incandescent Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera. When Hübek took the stand, the considerable score lay unopened before him. He proceeded then to conduct the entirety of the opera – running well over six hours, mind you – and never once laid a finger on the score. He knew every note, every nuance of that massive work as if the entire thing had been his own spontaneous creation. But as was inevitable, The Munich Opera invited him to conduct three performances of Tristan and Isolde, and Hübek agreed, or perhaps more precisely, he refused to refuse. The first two performances went off without incident. During the notoriously demanding moments of the Second Act, he could feel his heart rate increase rapidly, but said little of it to his wife, more for her sake than his own. On the third night the orchestra found something, some magic, that was absent on the previous evenings – a phenomenon that has been known to occur. Hübek felt it immediately and the excitement began to grow within him. It was as if the orchestra had suddenly discovered the melody within every measure; and it began to sing, the orchestra began to sing that melody, together, as if with one voice. This was Hübek’s one-hundredth performance of that opera, and he began to realize that it was also becoming the single greatest performance of his long, illustrious career. 

As Act II began the Maestro’s eyes were aglow with a fire such as none of the musicians in the pit had ever witnessed before. He seemed oddly to be at once both ecstatic and yet perfectly at peace. As the music began to soar, a kind of organic unity emerged among the singers, the orchestra, and the Maestro, as if they with one mind realized the meaning and true melodic significance of every last note and rest. As the love-duet approached, Hübek could sense the ecstatic power of the music welling up within him, surging forth from some hidden recess of his innermost self. The thought did indeed occur to him right then that his life could potentially end in just a few moments, but he knew nothing of even the slightest fear. For just then Maestro Hübek was too much, far too much, in love.   

Need I tell you what happened next, my friends? The following morning newspapers across Europe and America carried an obituary for Otto Hübek, Austria’s finest conductor of Wagner.     

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