From Wagner to Janis Joplin, Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber's Musical Muses
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold [excerpt]. Vienna Philharmonic. Sir Georg Solti. Decca 455 556.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor. Second movement [excerpt]. Richard Goode, piano. Elektra/nonesuch 979211.
Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth, “Ah, la paterna mano” from Act IV, Scene I. Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala. Claudio Abbado. Placido Domingo. DG 449732.
Franz Schubert: Fantasy for Piano in C Major, “Wanderer-Fantasie” [excerpt]. Maurizio Pollini, piano. DG 4474512.
Kris Kristofferson / Fred Foster: Me and Bobby McGee. Janis Joplin. Columbia C2K 87131.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major. First movement [excerpt]. English Chamber Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim, conductor and pianist. EMI 572930.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” with my guest today, the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber.
KAPLAN: He has been a journalist his entire career joining the Financial Times in 1985 and rising through its ranks as Washington correspondent, overall news editor, and managing editor of the paper’s American editorial operations. He was called upon to brief President George W. Bush on European affairs in preparation for the President’s inaugural trip to Europe. Then in 2005 he reached the FT summit – appointed Editor.
Since then, beyond running the paper, he has personally interviewed many world leaders, including President Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. During his tenure as Editor, the FT has won numerous awards including the coveted “Newspaper of the Year” citation. But in the midst of this flurry, music -- his passion for it and its power in his life -- has always held a prominent position. Lionel Barber, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
LIONEL BARBER: Good to be here.
KAPLAN: Now let’s start by comparing the role and the power of a newspaper editor with that of a conductor. Conductors, generally regarded as all powerful and sometimes their description is a military one: a command and control type leader. This question was recently asked to the new editor of the New York Times, there called the Executive Editor, and she said that’s not really appropriate for the editor of a newspaper. How do you come out on this?
BARBER: Well, leadership is absolutely vital. You need to be able to show a vision for what a newspaper is in the digital age and you need to be able to inspire people to produce great journalism. Where I agree with Jill [Abramson] is that you can’t control everything. You know at a place like the Financial Times which is global; you’ve got news editors around the world, in Hong Kong, here in New York City. You can’t control every aspect of the day’s news.
KAPLAN: Now, you had an idea that you wanted and you went to a particular writer and they said “this really didn’t sound right” to them. Would you accept that or might you go to another writer if you thought, for example, you had identified an upcoming political person who you thought ought to be written about?
BARBER: I would go to a news-editor first and ask for the story to be looked at. I may speak to an individual reporter, but I would never go to one of our specialists and have that specialist turn me down, and then go to another reporter because I’d be second guessing that specialist. I think it’s important - occasionally editors, they have privileged access to people around the world. They pick up stories and they should pass them on.
KAPLAN: OK. Now, the Financial Times, although essentially a business, economic, political newspaper, has a first-class cultural page, at least in my opinion. And it also has superb coverage of music. So how important is it in selecting the editor of the paper that that person know a lot about classical music and opera?
BARBER: I think for the Financial Times it’s probably not top of the list. But the Financial Times -- one of the greatest editors, if not the greatest was a gentleman by the name of Sir Gordon Newton. And he was editor for 23 years and he created the arts page and took a great interest in that page and in developing a stable of great critics. And I think I would aspire to what Newton achieved for the Financial Times and I’ve taken an interest in arts and culture and I certainly try and look at the pages as regularly as possible.
KAPLAN: Now, if you had decided that, because you’d been hearing this from readers, that you thought that the coverage, say of contemporary music was not being given enough attention in the paper, is that something that you could go to the editor of that page and say: “You really ought to do this”?
BARBER: Absolutely, because I am responsible for all the content inside the Financial Times newspaper, on, and on our website, FT.com. And in that sense everything flows from me and given I’m responsible. I can take up reader’s complaints or suggestions. It’s very important that we are open to feedback from our readers and viewers around the world.
KAPLAN: Yes, of course you could pass on the observation you just mentioned. But supposing that you thought this was important for the paper but the particular editor didn’t think so, that say, my example contemporary music was not as important as you thought it was.
BARBER: Well, I have a phrase that I occasionally bring out when discussing matters with colleagues. And when I think that something needs to be done, if there is a bit of resistance, one listens very politely and then one has to maybe occasionally say: “This is not a Polish parliament.”
KAPLAN: I assume that means they’re going to do what you want.
BARBER: That means that everybody can speak but at some point there has to be a decision.
KAPLAN: OK. Let’s turn to your musical selections today and I see we begin with Wagner’s opera, Das Rheingold.
BARBER: I can still remember watching and listening to that opera when I was twenty years old. I was in Munich. I was about to go to Oxford University to study German and history and I found myself in Berlin with an opportunity to go to the Deutsche Oper. And I saw that it was Wagner’s Rheingold and I wondered – I was quite interested. I heard a bit about Wagner from the German au pairs who were at home who talked to me about Wagner and I thought “I’m going to go and see this.” And I can still remember that performance and particularly the scene where Wotan and Loge, the god of fire and the king of the gods, go down into the sea to try to recover the ring from under the sea, under the Rhine. And the music is quite extraordinary.
KAPLAN: An orchestral excerpt from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the Vienna Philharmonic with Sir Georg Solti on the podium, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. Now, you were talking about your first exposure to Das Rheingold, but from the way you told it, it sounded like that might have been your first opera.
BARBER: It was indeed. I’d never been to the opera before, certainly not in Germany and I’d listen to piano music and concertos but never the opera so this was the chance to see whether George Bernard Shaw was right, that actually “Wagner’s music is actually better than it sounds”. And also to test the concept which I was vaguely familiar with, through the study of German literature, about Wagner’s idea of a gesamtkunstwerk which is the idea of a total artistic work, which brings in theater, acting, music and stagecraft, and of course, that is what opera is at its best. And I think Wagner’s Rheingold is a wonderful opening to the four-part Ring.
KAPLAN: But it’s quite remarkable. I don’t know too many people who weren’t familiar with opera, in terms of visiting opera houses and hearing it, seeing it, who would have come away from a first performance of Wagner thinking “Wow, opera’s great.” But I think your German studies background helped with that.
BARBER: Well, also that Wagner and opera, at its best, can transport you into a different world and it is that combination of high theater and music which is so compelling at its best.
KAPLAN: Yes, now looking over your list today, we’ve just heard one opera and I see one more is coming and three solo piano pieces. Is there a reason why so many of your selections are solo piano?
BARBER: I really have tried to pick pieces which I think at a particular moment in my life had an influence or shaped my views and musical tastes. And if we go to Beethoven’s last piano sonata, I can remember hearing that for the first time in an Oxford college, not my own college, which was by the way a college called St. Edmund Hall, where most of us including myself spent almost all of the time playing rugby -- and doing a bit of work. But to my twin brother’s college, St. John’s, and there was a mutual friend there who really knew his classical music. He had dozens of Deutsche Grammophon records and he said at one point “this is the piece of music you should listen to for the most beautiful piece of music” and it’s the – Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata. And I later came to appreciate that even more when reading one of Thomas Mann’s great novels, Doctor Faustus, where there is a particular passage in that book where the author deconstructs, to use a terrible word, but analyzes that piece and says why it is so good.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, his final piano sonata, performed here by Richard Goode, and a musical choice by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. Now, I had asked you why you picked so many piano pieces and you were talking about you picked music that influenced your life in some way or influenced your coming to know music. There are no symphonies in that category.
BARBER: I thought long and hard about this because I was tempted to choose the Eroica Symphony, which I think was probably the first piece of classical music that I ever heard – in my father’s bedroom. My father was a journalist, like myself, and he wanted to introduce the children to classical music and he played the Eroica Symphony and said “this is a piece of music which you’ll find both uplifting but interesting.” So that was a close call and, I might have chosen some Mahler, possibly. I can remember the Death in Venice, the - Mahler’s Fifth, the slow movement – that was tempting too. But in the end I went for the pieces that are really, what I might call ethereal.
KAPLAN: Now, I noticed a complete absence also of home-country music, British composers.
BARBER: I’m afraid that is because I’m an unreconstructed internationalist and I’ve spent a lot of my life outside Britain particularly in America – ten years as a journalist in Europe. I’m very proud to be English and I was actually recently at the Proms where we had played “Rule Britannia” and so that can stir the emotions - the patriotic blood. But in general I’m afraid I find, I am not afraid, I actually believe that the German, the central European classical music is so much more profound than the classical music of my – of native composers, even Britten was.
KAPLAN: Now, you know, I’ve had many guests on this show, when I’ve asked if there are any composers they simply don’t connect to and they often mention British composers for some reason. I mean there are some great ones but not, maybe in the league of the ones you’ve picked today. All right, the other category I suppose – just since we’re doing categories – contemporary music. Does this speak to you at all?
BARBER: Contemporary classical music –
BARBER: - Is not something that I’m particularly familiar with. I probably would define contemporary classical music as something around Alban Berg, early 20th century, I fear.
KAPLAN: All right, we’re going to take a break now and when we return we’ll continue to explore the role of music in Lionel Barber’s life.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. All right, let’s talk about music in your life. As a child, did you ever study music?
BARBER: No, I was an unreconstructed, passionate sports player and I played cricket and rugby and I really enjoyed it and that didn’t leave a lot of time – spare time to do anything else. I was probably a little afraid of music. It was not seen as particularly manly to be studying music in the 1960’s and I think as well, I was just interested in other things. So I came to music, and particularly classical music, relatively late.
KAPLAN: Now, when you are working, either writing your own material or editing the paper, do you have music on in the background?
BARBER: If I’m writing something which requires a lot of attention, constructing a 2,500 word piece or writing a lecture – because I write my own lectures – then I won’t have any music on. If I’m doing something which I would regard as routine, emails or things, then I very much like to have music on and I will often listen to opera in the background. I think it’s – I try and grade – I think there are sometimes when you really need to be very much concentrated on the words and if you’re distracted by music it’s not possible to write really well. I see writing as composing so I don’t want to be dueling or competing with another composer.
KAPLAN: Now, how often do you get to attend live performances say in London, where you live?
BARBER: Probably about ten times a year, roughly. I receive quite a few invitations to the opera often from corporate business people and I have to be a bit careful not to go along too often, certainly not accepting the same invitation from the same company. But if it’s interesting, there’s a chance to spend a little bit of time with people quietly then that’s I think acceptable, as long as it’s disclosed. And I will go myself with my wife, either to a concert or opera or up to a festival. Most recently, for example, we were holidaying in Germany, in upper Bavaria and we had the chance to go to the Salzburg Festival which was truly wonderful. It was the first time I’d ever been and the first time I’d been to Salzburg in nearly forty years. And at that moment, we went down and we, we saw a performance – the first ever of Macbeth, of Verdi’s Macbeth and it was breathtaking. Salzburg opera, Salzburg Festival, in the main hall, which is truly cavernous and it’s a chance to provide the audience with something which I’ll call “epic theater.” It was an epic performance and they did it beautifully with Macbeth and this is my next selection.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Verdi’s opera, Macbeth, sung by Plácido Domingo with the Orchestra of La Scala led by Claudio Abbado, and a musical selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. You know, before we went on the air we were chatting about you and music and you described yourself as a suppressed romantic, and I wondered, why suppressed?
BARBER: I think if you’re a journalist you need to have a fairly hard-nosed, hard-headed view of the world. You need to praise the good things but you also need to be alert to the things that are not so good and you need to be dispassionate. And, I’m not sure whether romantics are dispassionate. They tend to be – get carried away. Nasty things happen to them, often, in their mid to late twenties and that’s not me. I’m now in my mid fifties. I’ve been a journalist now for 33 years and so I have the suppressed romantic – because I think I am a romantic. I love reading literature and I love listening to music and I love the music of that particular era. So it’s there, it’s just, maybe not suppressed, it’s just controlled.
KAPLAN: Now, does that mean that your response to music is more emotional than intellectual?
BARBER: I would say that my response, in the -- in the festival hall, in the concert hall is emotional. I would say listening to music perhaps more intellectual. It just depends whether you are in the mood, to be if you like, transported and I don’t think you can be in that mood all the time, all – every day of the week. But there are certain pieces of music which are so powerful and so enriching that you really can be transported. And I would say that this particular piano sonata by Schubert, the Wandererfantasie which I heard again, first time ever in Oxford University, introduced to me by the same friend, is one of those pieces. And that’s why I’ve chosen this particular piece of music.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano, the “Wanderer,” here played by Maurizio Pollini, a work chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. When we return we’ll hear Lionel Barber’s “wildcard” selection – music that can be neither classical nor opera.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. You know, before we were talking about the emotional quality of music and you talked about music that can transport you. Yet, on the other hand, you mentioned when you’re listening it can sometimes be an intellectual exercise. How often does music bring you to tears, if ever?
BARBER: Not very often. But, I would say, sometimes Mozart, sometimes an opera like Tosca, at the end. Probably Callas - Maria Callas could bring me to tears.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, we’re going to come to another artist maybe who can move you. I think probably can because we come to that part of our show we call the “wildcard.” Here you have to pick a work that’s not classical, not opera. Over the years of the show we’ve had some wonderfully, very, very original selections. So, what did you bring us today?
BARBER: Well, I’ve chosen a piece of music which is contemporary-ish. But, we spent a lot of time during this wonderful program talking about classical music, and in essence it’s the Germanic, central European, deep, intellectual music. Whereas, this particular piece is by Janis Joplin and it evokes many important memories for me at the time – and I’ve spent more than ten years of my life in America, working as a journalist. I visited it numerous, numerous times, and “Me and Bobby McGee” is a love song. And the words convey just the size of America. I can still remember driving across America for the first time, I’ve visited 46 states in America. And if you listen closely, you can get a sense of the vastness, which in Janis Joplin’s case, brings both love, but also sorrow and that’s why I’ve chosen Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” right here. And so if I ever want to get a real shot-in-the-arm, I’ll listen to Janis Joplin.
KAPLAN: Janis Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber – a musical memory of many years from working in the United States, music he said that provided a shot in his arm when he needed it. Now, music often provides a soundtrack that illuminates our lives and beyond Janis Joplin are there any other favorites, in classical music or opera, you turn to for inspiration or consolation when things go wrong? Something you just would like to listen to?
BARBER: Well, I was very close to selecting Bob Dylan’s “Angelina,” another painful song, but is one I listen to when I’m running. That’s the first one on my favorite tracks and I run to work, which is about six miles, when I’m working on a Sunday sometimes, and other times. And so that’s always - I know, that’s at the top.
KAPLAN: I was thinking more classical music or opera.
BARBER: Oh sorry, sorry.
KAPLAN: Something you might turn to for consolation on a bad day or something went wrong in your life.
BARBER: I would choose Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto as my shot-in-the-arm. It’s such a joyous piece of music and it’s really uplifting and it gets bigger and stronger – starting off quite modestly and then really building to a crescendo. And, of course, Beethoven does that tremendously well. The other piece of music which is not immediately shot-in-the-arm, but is profound and moving and tells you that if you think you’ve got it hard, then you have no idea. And that’s Shostakovich, maybe his tenth symphony. There’s a real struggle going on there. If you remember, that he was trying to compose music during the Stalinist era, you have even more respect for it. So maybe those would be two pieces of music that I would turn to when times are hard.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, let’s then turn to your final selection which is a Mozart piano concerto.
BARBER: I can still remember listening to this at my father’s funeral in London, back in 1999. He had been a journalist for more than fifty years. He’d left school at fifteen. He believed that journalism was a vocation, not a profession; it was not about money, it was not about celebrity. This was a real privilege and he was self educated and he had a profound influence on my life. He sadly didn’t live long enough to see me made Editor. I’m sure he would have been immensely proud. And so we, being a twin, and I have a younger brother too, he’s a journalist, come very much from a family of writers and journalists, we decided that we wanted a piece of music which would be a fitting end to his life and to commemorate it -- and almost to point us all in the direction of the afterlife. And I think that Mozart’s last Piano Concerto, No. 27, which we’re going to hear, does point us in the direction of that afterlife.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto, played by Daniel Barenboim, who also conducts the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard, the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. Now, you said that the music that was played at your father’s funeral was that last choice. You’re kind of young for this question, but I ask it to everybody on this show. Have you thought about what music you’d like played at your own funeral?
BARBER: I haven’t given this a great deal of thought for reasons you might imagine. It would be tempting to say the funeral march in Götterdämmerung, at Siegfried’s death, but that is so – almost bombastic, that I think that would be too much. So I would probably choose Mozart or perhaps even Beethoven’s last Piano Concerto, the second movement, because that again – it’s not of this earth. It is somewhere else and somewhere, where we all hope – even if we’re not religious, that we’ll be headed at the end.
KAPLAN: All right, well then, let’s turn away from funerals and turn to fantasies. And we arrive at the final section of the show we call “fantasyland” where all guests are asked to reveal a fantasy – a musical fantasy. Don’t look so nervous. And the question is always the same. If you could be a star in classical music or opera, would you like to be a conductor, a composer, a pianist, play the violin, be a tenor; who would you be? What would you be?
BARBER: I’d have to be the conductor.
KAPLAN: Why am I not surprised?
BARBER: That’s what I love doing is making sure that I’ve got an eye on all members of the orchestra and to put together the symphony. I mean, others are doing it, but isn’t it fun to actually hold the baton? My back-up role might be, might be, the cello.
KAPLAN: That’s a beginning of an idea. I haven’t heard cellos today at all.
BARBER: That’s a suppressed romanticism coming up I think – the cello.
KAPLAN: I guess I should ask you, if you were going to be a conductor, I have a feeling you’re heading for an opera – not a symphony.
BARBER: It would be opera. And it would have to be at Bayreuth. I’ve never been to Bayreuth. That is one of my life’s ambitions. One of the ambitions was to be a foreign correspondent in America. I always wanted to cover a presidential campaign. I’ve done two, stroke three – certainly two as a reporter, so I’ve fulfilled that ambition. So I guess, getting to Bayreuth is pretty imperative.
KAPLAN: I suppose conduct The Ring.
BARBER: That would be too much. I think I would be quite happy to just conduct Rheingold, on the basis that that was the first opera I ever saw and it’s not too long so my arm wouldn’t get too tired. Whereas Götterdämmerung, at five hours – probably too much.
KAPLAN: Lionel Barber, thank you for appearing today and for revealing your musical tastes, the role music plays in your life and your secret fantasy to be a conductor. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”
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