Riccardo Muti: An Autobiography — First the Music, Then the Words
By Riccardo Muti; afterword by Marco Grondona
Rizzoli; 244 pp. $29.95
Riccardo Muti got a violin as a Christmas present when he was a seven-year-old kid in the southern Italian town of Molfetta. He was disappointed in the gift — he had wanted a toy instead — and his first few months of music lessons were torturous. Luckily for us all, his mother forced him to continue, and the boy soon came around to a love of music.
That crisis over, Muti's subsequent life has been pretty much smooth sailing. He excelled in conservatory. By the time he was thirty, he was principal conductor of the Maggio Musicale; soon thereafter came his first engagements with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. The events of the four intervening decades have consisted of a series of music-director appointments and guest appearances with the world's leading musical institutions.
This is hardly the stuff of high drama. The memoir chronicles no triumphs over adversity, no daunting setbacks. Muti has not used it as a vehicle for settling scores or rehashing past traumas; he even glosses over his acrimonious departure from La Scala in 2005, preferring instead to write about his years of fruitful work there. His personal life, as presented here, has been singularly free of conflict: he has been married to his wife, Cristina, for his entire adult life. His one real regret is that his profession kept him from spending as much time as he would have liked with his children.
But for all its lack of suspense, this book still makes rewarding reading. The man we meet here is judicious and insightful, a tremendously serious musician with a charming streak of wryness. Muti studied philosophy in high school; whether due to these classes or to an inherently thoughtful disposition, he is a man who seeks not only to make music but to understand its meaning in the world at large. He sees music as a balm in troubled times: he writes of bringing the Cherubini Youth Orchestra to "martyred cities," like Sarajevo in the wake of the Bosnian war; he conducted "Va, pensiero" at Ground Zero for families of 9/11 victims. As music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he has taken musicians to local juvenile detention centers.
"A maestro shouldn't seek out the limelight," Muti writes. "Especially in the later part of his life, once he's had his career, he should withdraw from the media and try, as much as possible, to bring music to others so that he, ephemeral himself, doesn't fall victim to the ephemeral nature of conducting."
Muti offers a chapter of encounters with great musical figures — Sviatoslav Richter, Nicolai Gedda, Richard Tucker. These are often amusing and never mean-spirited. Renata Tebaldi would sit in on his rehearsals at La Scala; Giuseppe di Stefano, well after his star career, sang the one-line role of a servant in Muti's EMI Traviata. Muti put out feelers to cast Maria Callas in a 1974 Macbeth and received a call from a woman with a "very warm, mysterious, deep, bewitching voice," who said, "You don't know me, maestro, but I know you're looking for me." Callas sadly refused his offer with a regretful "E tardi!"
As one might have guessed, Muti places Verdi at the center of his musical cosmos. In a passage that any opera-lover will read with interest, he gives persuasive, and often amusing, justifications for his cleansing the scores of bad old traditions. He offers a detailed analysis of the distortions introduced into Trovatore by the interpolated high C in "Di quella pira." On the subject of the traditional F-sharp at Rigoletto's "All'onda," Muti says, "That's odd behavior; at that moment he should be thinking only of getting rid of the duke's body, without making all of Mantua hear his high note, if you will."
"If … Wagner or Beethoven or Spontini were to tell me, 'You were wrong, Riccardo!' I'd be able to take it," Muti writes. "But if Verdi were to tell me that — Verdi, to whom I gave my devoted love, and for whom I stood ready to retreat into an ideal orchestra pit and disappear — it would be terrible."
Rizzoli has produced a handsome, elegantly designed book. The generous forty-eight-page photo insert includes a number of choice images — Muti sharing a jolly laugh backstage at La Scala with Queen Elizabeth II of England; a note from Muhammad Ali ("You are the greatest and so am I"). But Alta L. Price's translation does the maestro a disservice, using terms guaranteed to perplex English-speaking music-lovers. "Acuti" are here "acutes," rather than "high notes"; verismo becomes "'realist' opera." At times the diction is just plain incorrect: a passage on Ottorino Respighi, obviously written in the third person, is here bizarrely cast in the first ("… my situation was a lot like that of Mascagni …"). Meanwhile, the book's afterword, by Italian musicologist Marco Grondona, is rendered in prose so convoluted and inexact that it's often hard to divine between two opposing meanings. Does Muti take the Norma overture slower than the norm or faster? Without recourse to the recorded evidence, the reader will be in no position to know.
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