The frontispiece of Zubin Mehta’s autobiography, The Score of My Life, shows the writing of this book to be a strange, tripartite process. Its contents were first born in Mehta’s mind, before being “told” to Renate Gräfin Matuschka and then further translated from the German by Anu Pande. So to which of these three do we owe the mediocrity of this book, with its flat prose and largely vacuous material?
Even those who know only the broad outlines of Mehta’s life will be astonished that a dull book can be written about it. There are not many stories like his—about a boy born in Mumbai, swaddled from his early years in his father’s passion for classical music, rising to become one of the foremost orchestral conductors in the world today. There are not many people who have met, and professionally interacted with, so many titans of the 20th century. It’s a fantastic tale; Mehta is apparently just not the right person to tell it.
The Score of My Life: Roli, 201 pages, Rs395.
When he was 18, Mehta made his way to Vienna to study conducting under the famed Hans Swarovsky—a “strict and inexorable” teacher who forced Mehta to stop flailing his arms by holding down the sleeves of his jacket. Over his seven years in the city, Mehta fell in love with the “Wiener Klassik”, a specifically Viennese sound that he will only describe as “warm”, but one he has carried with him throughout his career. Mehta’s graduation and his first professional appointment—as assistant conductor at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic—mark a turning point in both his life and his book.
The Score of My Life now begins to read like a catalogue of Zubin Mehta performances across the globe. The only revelatory aspect of this catalogue is the startling mobility of a conductor in demand, and the charming irony of a career spent hurtling from orchestra to orchestra to perform a job that involves standing very still. For the most part, the narrative of these performances falls into a template: “We had a performance once in Kiryat Chaim in the north of Israel. We played Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in an auditorium with all the charm of a cinema hall from the 1950s…” This is not so much an autobiography as a direct transcription of the jottings from a day planner.
On his life’s political and artistic allegiances, Mehta remains mystifyingly silent. He doesn’t elaborate on his connection with Israel—so strong that when the Six-Day War began, he painstakingly made his way to Tel Aviv to show solidarity—and he discusses politics only in the most breathtaking banalities: “I think people should try to talk to each other instead of shooting at each other.” Mehta is similarly dour about his personal life; he says little of substance about his first marriage and he inexplicably allows his second wife, Nancy, to guest-write the story of their relationship. Most frustratingly, Mehta says next to nothing about his relationship with his music. We discover his preferences in bald terms—he likes Anton Bruckner and Arnold Schoenberg; he works harder at Richard Wagner—but we never find out what they mean. What about Bruckner does he like? What missteps has he made with Wagner? When he studies a score, what does he do? What is the Zubin Mehta sound, apart from “warm”?
Full house: Mehta conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orches. Dieter Nagi / AFP
“If the details are right, the performance will work,” the great von Karajan once said. It goes some way towards explaining the tedium of The Score of My Life: The performance doesn’t work because, quite simply, the details are wrong.