The Jewish-born conductor who performs ‘Tristan and Isolde’ at the Teatro Real, recalls how he fled the USSR in the 1970s and the reprisals experienced by his family.
As a great Jew, Semyon Bychkov (St. Petersburg, 70) considers himself very unorthodox. As such, and as a musician – he is one of today’s great conductors – he has also decided to dedicate his life to composers who agree with this conflictive and revolutionary way of approaching art and life. For example, Wagner, whose opera Tristan und Isolde Bychkov conducts at the Teatro Real from 25 April to 6 May. As a great Jew, too, there are many contradictions that the performer has had to resolve when deciding to enter the universe of a creator who openly defined himself as an anti-Semite, who was a largely despicable man but a fundamental creator for understanding the whole human dimension, but also the world of today. A visionary of extreme genius and a wretch at the same time. Of this and also of his radical opposition to Putin, of his flight from the Soviet Union in the seventies and the consequences this had for his family, of Mahler, whom he is now tackling in a series of recordings with the Czech Philharmonic, of Shostakovich, the war in Ukraine… Bychkov, a great conversationalist, a great interpreter, unravels his wisdom and his paradoxes on a quiet afternoon, in his dressing room at the Teatro Real after a rehearsal.
When Wagner broke everything and started a revolutionary path in music with the first chord of ‘Tristan and Isolde’, was it for the best? Well, that issue has become fundamental. Let’s start with the good. In art, every so often, maybe once or twice a century, someone comes along who completely changes its course. Beethoven did it in 1803 with his third symphony, the Eroica. He changed our idea of what music could be, he took it further. Next was Wagner. First with Tristan, then with the Ring of the Nibelung and finally with Parsifal. He only undertook these changes three times.
Tristan… is about love, The Ring… is philosophy and politics, and Parsifal is about religion. Three operas for three fundamental themes, which affect us in everything. What attributes does someone have to have to succeed and impose themselves on all of that? You need vision and a desire, but that is not enough, you need courage and a deep, fanatical conviction in your ability to achieve it.
The will, that Wagnerian concept. Exactly that. To round it all off, you also need luck. And luck has to do with timing. Many people dream of great changes, but one of these factors has failed them. Above all, the fact of being in the right place at the right time. Timing does not so often converge with the circumstances, as happened, for example, to Mikhail Gorbachev.
In his case, for example, he was lucky to see it and many were lucky that he saw it. But in Putin’s case, for example, is it the other way around? Ah, but we cannot compare the two. Gorbachev is a very interesting example. I admire him without idealising him. He made a successful career and got to the top in a particular system. There he had to integrate himself with a concrete vision and be acceptable to others. For that you need incredible patience. The evolution of his thinking did not come to him overnight, it took years of maturation to come to certain conclusions and then he had to wait for the right moment. When he knew he could do it, he did. That’s what I admire about him. But back to Wagner…
Tell me… He went through a similar process in art. And we should not forget that he was also a poet. He wrote the texts before he wrote the music. The ideas, the themes came to him much earlier. In a letter of 1840, at the age of 27, he writes that the duty of a composer is to make sure that he writes the music as he has imagined it. Long before that he knew why he had come into the world and what he wanted to do. But he also lived and experienced what he wanted to portray. Each of the characters in The Ring… has to do with himself. Both male and female. And that brings us to another disturbing question.
Which one? Years ago, one of my mentors, Peter Diamond, who had a love/hate relationship with the composer, asked me: how I could explain why Wagner wrote such noble music for characters who are despicable? I replied: Peter. I can’t answer that. From then on, which was in 1990, I started to get into Wagner’s music and one day, while rehearsing Lohengrin, I noticed that in the second act duet between Elsa and Ortrud, they were singing the same melody. For Wagner, Elsa was an angel and Ortrud, the worst. An ambitious woman who knew no love, and with murderous instincts. That’s how he conveys her to us and that’s how we see her. But… that’s not how she sees herself.
Putin…? That’s another subject I’d love to talk about, but right now, please don’t ruin the argument for me.
Sorry, sorry. Although you see how with Wagner we can explain everything. Of course, and more than that: isn’t it true that the way others often see us is not the same as we see ourselves? That’s where I found the answer. And it was important for me because then I could reconcile myself with that music, understand it and believe in it.
Completely? When people ask me, how can you accept the fact that Wagner was a horrible person? I don’t accept it. For me, the fact that he harboured this pathological hatred of Jews, this anti-Semitism, literally, makes me sick. But at the same time, when I read his letters, which are fundamental for studying him, I understand some things in those intimate confessions that reconcile me to him. They bring me closer. When I think of him, I keep in mind that duality. The despicable and the man who, in his letters, sometimes showed himself to be very desperate. He betrayed and was betrayed, he destroyed and was destroyed, he loved and was loved… He received as much as he gave.
And in Tristan and Isolde as in few other works, did he anticipate the heartbeat of our time? Anguish, anxiety, a visionary description of a way of life. He does, moreover, chromatically. That is to say, through conflict.
A perpetual conflict without resolution. And so it is. In such a modern way, anticipating the contemporary, understanding it beforehand, foreseeing it.
The great conductor, Josep Pons, confessed to me that when he began to tackle the cycle of four operas from The Ring at the Liceu he had decided to enter that world but he was afraid because he didn’t know how he would get out. Did you? Of course, no one can know for sure.
Do you have to be brave to enter? Absolutely. You have to be aware of all that. And commit yourself totally to it as an interpreter. That means not being able to live without it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. But more difficult to answer than all that, and it’s something I constantly ask myself, is: what is the relationship that Wagner’s music has with me? The only way to find the answer will be when I meet him. But I hope it won’t be tomorrow…
Let’s move on to other composers who have marked you: Mahler, Tchaikovsky? Shostakovich…
Shostakovich, sure, but before you leave Wagner, as a Jew can you answer me as to how you resolve the conflict of how his music was used by the Nazis and what his art and creations could also entail? What is it that deeply transmits to you to, in spite of all that, and enables you to accept it? It speaks to me of who we are as a species. Of our nature and its radically opposing sides. I must be careful and choose my words in this matter. I was not taken to the concentration camps, nor did I perish in the gas chambers with Wagner’s music playing in the background. But I suppose I carry all that tragedy in my genes. It is there. Today, Ukrainians don’t want to listen to Russian music. We could argue that the great Russian culture has nothing to do with what Putin and the fascists who follow him perpetrate against them. But, it is easy to understand them and the Israelis with regard to Wagner. Today it is forbidden to perform it there in concert halls, Barenboim and Zubin Mehta tried and we know the result. Out of respect for the survivors, we can understand this. Just as certain of his positions represented the worst of humanity, his works carry within them the best of creativity. Should I refuse to delve into the best of someone even when they have been capable of the worst?
You left the Soviet Union in the 1970s because of your political position, but you have never renounced your Russian cultural background. What does that background teach us? One thing I realised after the war in Ukraine started is this: when we say Russia, we are not talking about a universal word with a single meaning. There is the Russia that Putin and his co-religionists defend, deciding who lives or dies. Then, unfortunately, there are his followers, like an army of zombies I call Putinoids and, finally, a significant number of noble people, not as many as the Putinoids, but who follow him and exist. That is the Russia of the fascists and Stalinists or, that of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn… This Russia has been abducted by the former. That is the Russia I love, my Russia. Not the other one.
How to bring them together? Take Germany, for example. It was completely destroyed in the Second World War and in one century it suffered two tremendous defeats. After that they were annulled as a state, punished for what they did not only to the Jews, but to everyone they considered an enemy. But when they were defeated, they had to undertake a profound process of revision: to ask themselves who they were, why they did it, and how to proceed from there. In a process that lasts to this day, they knew they had to atone for everything. It even affects a generation that was not even conceived in the Nazi era. On the whole, the country has reconnected with humanity. Russia, on the other hand, has not. Why?
Yes, why? Basically, because Russia did not lose the war, it won it. They believe that victories are not to be judged. Moreover, they claim that they defeated Nazism almost without the help of the rest of the Allies, especially the British and the Americans. With victory, the totalitarian system continued and atonement has never taken place.
Does Putin, know how to use all this to his advantage? He does and he believes it. In his wickedness, which is completely inside him. An evil that comes in his case from mediocrity. In that arrogance that gives him power, he reveals himself to be totally mediocre. That is our tragedy. They do not know and are not aware that Stalin killed 20 million of their own Russians during his time in power, a figure that even Hitler did not achieve. And when Putin talks about it, he says, they could do it again. There are times when we should only confront him with pure evil. And that is the battle we are in, between good and evil.
Pushed also by misused, unhelpful technology? Evil begets evil. My father was a scientist. We talked about it a lot. He explained to me that the biggest part of the USSR’s budget was devoted to defence, including research. That the efforts of that research went back into the military but that, on the rebound, some advances ended up benefiting the rest of society. Do you realise the absurdity of the approach?
Of course I do. Technology is a tool. It is for our benefit and our progress, but not only… This interview, for its part, raises more questions than it answers. Each answer leads to the next question. That is true also in Tristan and Isolde. The unsolvable. But that is the only way we can subsist. When my children were little, I once said to them: you look at me and think I have an answer for everything, but I don’t, I just know more questions than you do.
That’s very good. I’ll write it down. It’s like this.
Let’s go back to your departure from the USSR: what made you leave when you were a prodigy there and had everything in front of you after winning the Rachmaninov competition at the age of 21? That’s true. But before all that happened, one night when I was 12 years old, my father said to me: let’s go for a walk. It was winter, it was snowing, it was dark. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, he explained to me the basic lie in which we lived. He was brave, because explaining it to a boy who could go to school the next day and talk about it with his friends was a risk that could kill him. Even so, he said: “Look, this is what they tell us and here we see what we really live”. In very simple language he made me understand. That was the first time I became aware of the contradiction in which we found ourselves. The years that followed confirmed everything he warned me about. Once you face it, you have several options. The first is to become one of them.
A putinoid? You repeat what you are expected to say, even if you don’t believe it. Anyway, if you do it with great conviction, the rewards will come. You will be promoted, praised, rewarded… That is one choice. Another is internal exile. And the third is to leave. Also, for example, it was not easy when you see what was happening to your father. A great scientist who could not work for one year because he was Jewish and the quota of Jews in the scientific institutions for that period had been filled. He was depressed. It was not pleasant.
Even your success as a young conductor did not tempt you to stay? I was an unorthodox young man. I would have made my debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic earlier than anyone else, but they realised that my non-conformism didn’t make me worthy of the honour and forbade it. One of many episodes. But it was clear to me: I had to be free. That’s what life is all about: being free.
And what happened to your father? When I decided to emigrate, we discussed it together because we all wanted to leave. We decided that my first wife and I would go first and after my parents and younger brother would leave. If my parents asked for permission first, we would all be denied because as a scientist my father had access to classified information. So, we left and for the next 12 years all doors were closed to my father. Even so, he got into alternative medicine and survived by helping people to heal themselves, because he had great gifts with his hands and his energy, something that even he couldn’t explain. When the regime fell, he joined me in America.
And your mother? She came earlier with my brother. There were few opportunities for him, otherwise he would have ended up in the army. So, she divorced my father and left with my brother.
Did she divorce to get out or because her marriage wasn’t working? She did it to get out, but, really, it was good for them both. There was no reason for them to stay together. With my father I enjoyed a good conversation. He was a bright, warm man with a tremendous sense of humour and a sense of the ridiculous. I once asked him: Dad, what do you think is better: to know everything about nothing or something about everything? He looked at the ceiling and as a scientist he couldn’t answer.
From what you say, he reminds me of Victor Shtrum, the protagonist of Life and Fate, the great novel by Vasili Grossman. A physicist who, in the midst of Stalinism, is forced to resolve certain dilemmas in order to survive. Ah, yes, of course, what a great writer, what an incredible writer!
Born in Ukraine, but deeply Russian. Yes, because you can equate and unite one thing with another and still maintain the differences. It’s another thing if someone comes along and imposes that they don’t even have the right to exist. It is curious how Putin claims that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. That means, that the Holocaust is of no importance to him, that Stalin’s Gulag or the Second World War were nothing. And that something with no fatalities, no exterminations, no death was the greatest catastrophe: does he understand his mediocrity and ignorance? That is an intellectual!
We have yet to address Mahler and Shotakovich. As for the latter, would he fit into the category I mentioned earlier as a choice of internal exile? Shostakovich had to survive, and he was unique in finding a way to tell everyone what they wanted to hear. He could not leave, and even if he could, I am not sure he would have made the decision. He simply could not live without Russia. But, through sound, he found a way to make the government believe that he glorified everything while audiences understood the opposite.
Like Mahler, who could swing from the grotesque to the transcendental in the same movement. You are now the Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and are tackling the cycle of his symphonies. Mahler was also Czech. Of course, he was. And here’s the thing, people think of him as a Viennese musician but no, he was born in Kaliště, a town which today belongs to the Czech Republic. That’s where his roots are, and roots are tremendously important. From a very young age, he imagined in sounds, all that the great questions of existence entail. He had the need and was interested in developing them by means of complex and very rich contrasts. That is the key. The first time I heard his music, I didn’t know what it was. The Leningrad Philharmonic was rehearsing at the Glinka School, where I was studying. During a break between classes I stayed there to listen, without knowing what it was, and I didn’t go back into the classroom because those sounds blew me away. Then I saw on a poster that the orchestra was playing Mahler’s Third Symphony. I had never heard Mahler’s name before nor his music. And so the dream of Mahler was born in me. With that third symphony whose last movement is titled: What Love Tells Me….
And, here we are. We had begun with Tristan and Isolde, the great opera about love, and we ended up with Mahler tackling the same theme. Without being pompous or banal, I truly believe that if there is one fundamental thing in life, it is love. When it is missing, everything leads to tragedy.