INTERVIEW | Daniel Müller-Schott | "music can have that power to help you embrace things you don’t know"

In conversation with Daniel Müller-Schott
Interviewed on 26 January 2019.

Daniel Müller-Schott, © Uwe Arens

Everything exists through time. Things are born and thrive, before new things are born again. The birth of an idea and the fall of civilisations aren’t too different, after all. Music has a particular bond with such nature of time. The exposition is an exposition insofar as it is followed by developments of those initiated themes. And once notes pass by they are of no longer immediate avail, and they exist as nodes of memories in relation to notes that are currently played. The unique beauties of music, thus, derive from the imaginative reconstructions of what is not immediately present, all made possible by the essential constraints and free flow of time.

Daniel Müller-Schott, too, is a musician of time, and even more so a musician of our time, being in touch with both music of the past but also of the present. In a composed and friendly tone, Daniel replied to my questions that broadly surround ideas of time. After chatting on the life of Dvořák, we discussed what makes a piece of music successfully stand the test of time. We then talked about the importance and quirks of studying the life and works of past musicians, and how they relate to his perceptions of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement and to his musical upbringing. We then talked about the future, specifically of how Daniel would like to be remembered by future generations, and of his instalment as artistic director of the 2019 Music Spring Festival in Rügen. We concluded with thoughts on ways paintings and music may interact, and on the role of fear in transformational processes of music appreciation.

Daniel studied under Walter Nothas, Heinrich Schiff, Steven Isserlis, and Mstislaw Rostropovich, he has given global tours with the renowned personals as the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Haitink, Neeme Järvi, Andris Nelsons, Lorin Maazel, Kirill Petrenko, André Previn, Julia Fischer, and Anne-Sophie Mutter. With a substantial discography under his name, Daniel is also a tireless educator in music who believes in the inspirational powers of music.

He performs the Dvořák cello concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lionel Bringuier on the 5th of February at the Royal Festival Hall.

Below is a transcript of our phone conversation. I have polished some sections, but when done so, made the utmost attempt to maintain the intentions and structure of the original conversation.


Daniel Müller-Schott (DMS): Hello there, this is Daniel.

Young-Jin Hur (YH): Hello, Daniel. Pleasure to meet you. I’m Young-Jin.

DMS: Yes, pleasure to meet you on the phone. Thanks for calling.

YH: Before I begin, I would like to thank you very much for making time on a Saturday.

DMS: That’s fine. I am enjoying some days at home, off from travelling and from 
recording and all these things. So it’s a nice and quiet time, which is good.

YH: And if my understanding is correct, you are located in Munich now?

DMS: Yes, that’s right. I was actually born here, and I studied for many years in Munich, and I still enjoy living here. And you are based in London?

YH: Yes, I am based in London. I’ve also been to Munich few times. I was in fact born in Germany.

DMS: (In German) right, we can converse in German then?

YH: (In German) yes that is possible. However I forgot much of my German.

DMS: (In German) in case words do not spring to mind, we can possibly switch between languages.

(both laugh)

YH: (In German) well, yes we could. I can understand German somewhat, so it is definitely possible, but still I would prefer English.

DMS: Okay that’s fine.

YH: So, I’d like to first ask about your concert that is to happen on the 5th of February in London. You are playing the Dvořák cello concerto. It is a popular work and you certainly have experience playing it. What's it like to play this piece? Have your ideas or thoughts of the piece developed over the past years?

DMS: I can still remember when I started studying the piece. I must have been 17. And from the first minute I was fascinated by the writing of Dvořák because he added all these ossia sections, so they allowed the cello soloist to choose between two versions. Later when I found out more about the piece’s historical context, I found that there was this conversation between Dvořák and Hanuš Wihan, who was to play the premier of the piece. The piece had seemed almost unplayable at the time. There were technical difficulties, and this is an aspect I became more and more fascinated by. Against his previous idea that the cello is suited most as a solo instrument and that is should be rooted in chamber music, Dvořák really wanted to create an innovation for the instrument. So he was brave enough and took the chance to create this masterpiece and something for cello and a huge symphony orchestra.

I think the diversity of contrasts between the soloist and the orchestra is immense. There is this sense of deep grandeur, and yet on the other hand you have to be as sensitive and sensible as possible for the places where you really make chamber music-like interactions. The slow movement and also places in the development of the first movement are good demonstrations of this latter point. In these places you have these incredible moving emotional conversations between the soloist and orchestra. So that’s something that I still find fascinating and exploring each time deeper and deeper when I play.

YH: It is an innovative piece as you say. There weren’t many cello concertos at the time Dvořák composed his. I can think of the two cello concertos Joachim Raff and Joseph Haydn each wrote under their names, both of which you have previously recorded. What I find remarkable of Dvořák's concerto is how the composer was able to bring out the character of the cello as an instrument, maximizing certain nostalgic, singing, and perhaps autumnal qualities. And then we have the famous episode of Brahms remarking that if he had known that a cello concerto could come out so well as done by Dvořák, he would have written one himself!

DMS: Yes! Unfortunately this came at a very late stage of Brahms’ life. I believe Brahms would have written something for the cello. If you think about the time, even Tchaikovsky wasn’t brave enough to write a bigger solo concerto for the cello. From his youth, Dvořák wrote this incredibly colourful cello concerto in A major, but only published the piano score. The commonly played B minor concerto is one of the most remarkable examples of solo concertos where all is in balance. It’s such a natural way of creating music. There is a reason why it’s one of the most renowned cello concerto even in our time.

YH: To touch upon something you said earlier, you mentioned how moving the Adagio is. For the Adagio, is the way you were moved when you were 17 different from the way you are moved these days?

DMS: I think so. At 17 I was very in intuitive, without realising the structure and connections between the themes and the harmonic interactions. I was moved naively, one could say. There’s plenty of folk elements, and I think this was what I was moved by back then. In the end, it’s a work that has everything.

YH: Yes indeed. Dvořák sometimes reminds me of Mozart because he has this balance of simplicity, complexity, familiarity, and this innovativeness as you’ve mentioned. And they all come together in an accessible way.

DMS: I think it’s a very good comparison. In Dvořák's years when he was in New York in America, he took up everything he heard, the folk elements especially. He could just insert these influences into his music. That’s amazing. He must have been so curious and attentive. And yet he had this incredible homesickness. He was longing for Bohemia. Then his sister in law became very ill. I think all this mix of folk elements and personal sorrow at the time created this incredible cello concerto. This is what I feel and see in the concerto.

YH: It seems Dvořák was almost born to compose music using folk elements. I visited the Dvořák house museum not too long ago in Prague. I learned that he loved talking with his local people in evenings, playing cards and having few drinks. It doesn't surprise me a bit that he picked up elements of the everyday and packaged them in an approachable manner too.


YH: I now want to ask you about the other side of the repertoire. You are known to play works that aren’t performed much, including new works. Works of the last category include works by Sir André Previn and Peter Ruzicka. What is your mindset when approaching these works compared to works more central to the repertoire?

DMS: I am actually working on a trio [Ghost Trio, 2018] that the American composer Sebastian Currier just finished. I am premiering it with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis in New York. While working on this, I am always in contact with the composer. This is something I am grateful for, that I can come up and suggest something or ask some questions what stands behind the music, what he wanted to create. This reminds you of also composers like Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann, that music making is a living process; it’s very immediate and there’s always possibilities of changes and nothing is set in stone. It makes all my studying and my work and joy of playing music more alive (laugh). Especially enjoyable was working with André Previn, since we’re good friends and he wrote this wonderful cello concerto. I think it’s great to have that balance between playing works by composers you can’t talk to anymore (laugh), and the ones that are writing music these days.

YH: I agree think that music making, not only in the performance, but in all the stages, is such an organic and alive procedure.

DMS: Yes, yes.

YH: I take a personal interest in these so called forgotten works especially from the early 20th century. These include cello works by Martinu and Myaskovsky, for example. Talking about music being organic, I think one can think of works having life cycles of their own. In this respect, and I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, I often feel that many of these forgotten works are less played perhaps for good musical reasons. Do you have an opinions on what makes a work stick in the concert hall?

DMS: (deep breath) well it’s hard to say because some works should be played more often in concerts and the ones you mentioned, certainly, I would think should appear more often. The Hindemith concerto, I also love very much. I think it can depend on the  composer. Someone like Beethoven wrote such an enormous amount of music that was central at the time and still is. So for composers like Beethoven, it’s justifiable to find all the things he composed and present them in concerts. But for other composers, you have to look for their most inspired works. Also, sometimes I feel for the cello repertoire, the orchestras and the organisers want to go for the secure option, risking to programme the same pieces over and over. I see it as my responsibility to bring pieces to the audiences in concerts. Simultaneously, l don’t want to diminish the role of my CD recordings too. In both concerts and recordings, I want to increase the awareness that there is great music out there.

YH: PR could also be an important aspect. I cannot help but think of the German composer Richard Wetz, who wrote these expansive Brucknerian symphonies, but who is suffered unjust neglect because of his terrible PR skills. He excluded himself in Erfurt and ultimately failed to disseminate his works. So I think it’s sometimes a mix of inspiration and PR. Why certain works stick or not is multi-layered.

DMS: I totally agree. Still, the quality of the music should always be in the focus. We don’t always want to hear the same pieces and this is something that is very important. I also feel that in England they are more open to contemporary music. The audiences are more adventurous than in other countries.

YH: I did hear some mixed thoughts, that cities like New York and Berlin are much more open in choices than in London. But what is true is that London is getting increasingly open. And certainly, London is more open toward new music than most cities anyway. It’s always a great delight to listen to new works in live concerts.


YH: As I was going through some of your past interviews, I noticed, and it’s becoming evident in our current conversation as well, that you enjoy branching out into other domains of knowledge related to music. According to one source, you read and study about a piece’s history before playing it. Is this true?

DMS: Yes that is true. In a similar manner as you’ve previously said about having visited the Dvořák museum in Prague, when I was just in Hamburg to play the Brahms Double Concerto, I went to the Brahms museum. I spoke with the director there and tried to know more about Brahms the person. This is what I believe counts the most in the end. You want to be friends with the composers because you spend so much time playing and reflecting about their music. You want to have that background and understand what kind of person was writing the music. There is no end to it, and we can always learn some more.

YH: That very true, and something I can very much sympathise with. I find it fascinating how one wants to understand a person through words. There’s a certain mystery to this endeavour, because it’s impossible to fully know someone just like that. It explains why we have so many books on Beethoven alone, for example.

DMS: Exactly. These sources of information usually provide just a hint. Especially with composers like Beethoven, no one contemporary to Beethoven really knew him, of course. But in our times we rely on his letters and correspondences, that we can get some kind of picture of Beethoven as a person.

YH: So when you say you are studying a work through historical research, you are really studying the person. Relatedly, do you also link yourself with the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement? People have gone in lengths to understand how music was played in the past and have tried to replicate it on contemporary performances. Do you also study music in this way too?

DMS: I have a general fascination over the HIP movement. I grew up with the HIP movement because of my mother. She was a harpsichordist and she was fascinated by that movement from an early age. She went to Harnoncourt to study with him and she knew Ton Koopman, so I grew up with Baroque music in our house. She had all these Baroque books on music history and composers, so I learned a lot in my youth about the HIP movement. And I found that this movement opened new doors, even though it wasn’t that relevant for the Romantic repertoire. In many ways I found it greatly inspiring for me and for my musical development, to see beyond what the Romantic tradition sought, that things always have to sing and have to be smooth that is. Baroque music brings out the most vertical and consonant elements of the music, which can hit you in a different way. It was incredibly fascinating, especially also because I studied with Steven Isserlis, and he always wanted me to play on gut strings. But in the end, I decided to stay with my set up of my instruments, but to learn more about the HIP movement, and to apply them in my interpretations.

YH: That's a fascinating history. The fact that your first recording in 2000 was Bach cello suites is quite telling in this regard. Do you think you’re knowledge and experience of the HIP movement may have changed your reading of these Baroque pieces?

DMS: Oh, I sound very different now.

(both laugh)

YH: It’s just like the two Goldberg Variation recordings of Glenn Gould, recorded in different occasions of the pianist’s maturity – they do sound incredibly different!

DMS: Yes!


YH: I want to return to this idea of getting to know someone through words. Given that are you also a musician, how aware are you of what people in the future might think of you, in a similar way you’re studying musicians from the past?

DMS: That’s a very interesting question, to think about the future and what you leave behind…

YH: Exactly.

DMS: Something that I leave behind is certainly the way I approach music and how I try to bring music to many people, including those who aren’t involved in classical music. One of my goals are to inspire people. I want to get out, reach out to young people, and make them understand that music is such a rich part of our culture. That is what I want to leave behind. The recordings I made will help, and there are the possibilities that the Internet provides. Although I am a bit careful about the Internet, if you use it intelligently, you can reach a huge number of people that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.

YH: It seems you are already making important steps in that direction. As far as I am concerned, you are the artistic director of the 2019 Music Spring Festival Rügen. Maybe it’s a way you are opening up more public opportunities of classical music? Can you tell me more about this?

DMS: Yes. I started planning this festival from two years ago. First of all I wanted to create programmes that were very dear to me, consisting of works I played many times in the past and of composers I love. The second step was to ask friends if they could join me in the festival and work on the programme. It’s more of a personal way of sharing music with the audiences. I will stay there for two weeks, and I am preparing the programmes months before with my friends. Actually yesterday I was in an atelier with a friend and we sprayed a painting for the festival. It was so much fun to do something different – art in a different way of experience. Actually one of my hobbies is to spray modern art.

YH: Amazing! And when you take part in these visual arts activities, do you think about music? The reason I ask this is because firstly, you’ve said in a previous interview that you’re interested in 19th French paintings, and I wanted to ask you something on the relationship between music and visual arts anyway. Secondly, when Richard Strauss was in London, he used to go to the National Gallery, and he is known to have said that the paintings of Veronese reminds him of Mozart while the paintings of Caravaggio reminds him of Beethoven. So I am curious how you may potentially link the auditory and visual aspects together.

DMS: Ah interesting! I always have some kind of visual images in my mind when I play the music. On the French Impressionists particularly, I always found that their music and paintings share theses freshness, lightness, and watery qualities, along with dream-like colourful scenes. So when I play French music, I have those 19th century French paintings in my mind.

YH: It makes sense!

DMS: But when I play German music I think of much darker and deeper images. When I play a piece I also like to image where the music was made or composed. So now when I think about Rügen and the pieces I will perform there, the place evokes images of this island with water, light, and sun. This is what I put together in the programmes. I hope this also gives some inspirations.

YH: (laughing) have you heard from others that you are very Romantic, the capital R Romantic that is?

(both laugh)

DMS: Yes, yes. I want to be.


YH: I would like to conclude the interview with one big question. I hope it brings together some things we talked about during the past 10 minutes related to nature, grandeur, and inspiration. As a PhD, I scientifically study the experience of the sublime. One of the questions I have is whether a truly amazing experience can also fearful. Philosophers from the past have commented on how great forces of nature, such as the mountain or the sea can evoke fear, even though they are magnificent in their own ways. The British conductor Jonathan Nott once said in a BBC Radio 3 interview that "You're afraid at the end of Brahms, I think, if you do it properly, and you're afraid at the end of Bruckner, even though you've really got it, and you're certainly afraid at the end of Mahler." So I am curious what your take on this topic might be?

DMS: It’s a fascinating thought. Sometimes I compare a piece to a mountain that you have to climb. I think you lose the fear more and more the more you are climbing the mountain. If you have big pieces or you listen to big symphonies, the more you get to know them, you can make them your friends. I would think you’ll have to embrace your fears, and once you embrace them, they actually disappear. I think this is what my philosophical conception would be, so to speak.

(both laugh)

YH: So the sublime, in this sense in a transition.

DMS: Yes, it transforms things into something different. Maybe this is your philosophy for life. For some things that you’re first afraid of, if you embrace them you will be surprised how they change you. This is also relevant to modern societies, where people can be afraid of new things and changes. And certainly we have many changes in our days. If you give people hope and trust, and music can have that power to help you embrace things you don’t know, I think you will be positively surprised how things change. This is something I feel very strongly about and is central in my life.

YH: That was a beautiful, or shall I say sublime answer, so I thank you for this. There were so many follow up questions I had in mind and would have loved to talk about them, but time being time, and we are beings of time after all, so …

DMS: Yes, but we can certainly continue at some point. I enjoyed it very much.

YH: Thank you so much. I enjoyed the conversation too. I wish you a wonderful rest of Saturday.

DMS: Thank you. Same for you. And I hope to meet you in person some time, I mean London or somewhere. 

Daniel Müller-Schott, © Uwe Arens

Young-Jin Hur