If Nureyev had not been a dancer, he would have been a musician. He discovered music in his earliest childhood. In Ufa, with his ear pressed against the radio set broadcasting the music of Tchaikovsky, the small boy escaped from a world where hunger and misery reigned. He first danced in folk groups, the rhythmic, expressive music of which stimulated his fiery temperament. Before he was ten years old, he wanted to learn to play the piano but his father advised the accordion instead: “You can take it everywhere with you”. However, his dream was not to come true until he joined the Vaganova School in Leningrad where the learning of an instrument was compulsory. He went to concerts, and bought as many scores as he could from an old music shop. When he could not find anyone to play them for him, he would try to read the music himself. He was intoxicated by the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. Nureyev’s ballet was characterized by his extremely deep-rooted responsiveness to music, and his ability to relay every nuance of the score through his body. He danced the music more than he danced to the music.
His career as an orchestra conductor was encouraged by three of the most outstanding conductors of his time: Karl Böhm, then Herbert von Karajan and finally Leonard Bernstein. The latter advised him to attend conducting classes at the Julliard School. But by the end of 1990, when he was seriously considering this training, all three of his mentors had passed on. He took up conducting with the same relentlessness that he had for his ballet. He took a portable keyboard with him wherever he went for practising “The Well-tempered Clavier” by Bach. All his companions from the “Nureyev and Friends” tour remember having carried the small but heavy case containing the precious keyboard.
In Vienna, Wilhelm Hübner, “Papa Hübner”, teacher at the Academy of Music and former violinist with the Philharmonic Orchestra, took on the guidance of this pupil. With several musicians from the Philharmonic, Nureyev practised without respite to master this new discipline. Hübner was amazed at the ability and the speed of assimilation that his pupil possessed. Having founded the “Residenz Orchester” two years previously, Hübner prepared Nureyev for his first concert with the Symphony known as “The Chase” by Haydn, the “Serenade for string orchestra” by Tchaikovsky and Mozart’s violin concerto K218. The musicians in the orchestra were not particularly enthusiastic about being used as guinea-pigs by the prestigious dancer in his search for a new outlet for his talent. However, they respected the earnestness in their new conductor’s attitude, and forgave his ineptitude because of his personality together with his humility and his desire to be of service to the music. Michel Sassoon, the orchestra conductor who directed at numerous performances of the ballets danced by Nureyev, notably “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev for Nureyev and the Scala Opera House in Milan in the 1980s, said: “We rowed violently when I refused to change the tempi as they were what Prokofiev wanted. Nureyev, finally, adapted his choreography so that it was in harmony with the score of the composer. He had a great respect for music. He would not really have been able to become a great conductor as he had no idea how to talk to musicians, but if he had started with music, he would certainly have been one of the greatest.”
After several months work, Nureyev made his debut in June 1991, conducting the works cited above in front of an audience of several hundred people at the Palais Auersperg. Nureyev, ill, would never acknowledge himself beaten, and this was the message he put across to the world as he embraced this new career. He added: “Apollon Musagète” by Stravinsky which he had danced hundreds of times, Beethoven’s third symphony “Eroica”, and a clarinet concerto by Mozart to his repertoire. Peter Schmidl, a clarinettist who played several times under Nureyev’s direction, said: “He directed with enormous sensitivity, and remained totally modest. We could feel the momentum of the ballet in his way of directing”. How could it be any other way?
His career as an orchestra conductor hardly spanned more than a year, but once again, given his inexperience and his illness, he astonished those close to him as well as his public, with the number of concerts that he gave. He appeared in Vienna, Athens, Budapest, Deauville, Ravello, Czestochowa in Poland, New York, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. In March 1992, he went to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan but his illness compelled him to rush back to Paris to undergo an operation. It was the idea of directing “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev at the Metropolitan in New York which gave him the energy to survive. On the 6th May 1992, he directed “Romeo and Juliet” which was danced by Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire with the dancers of the ABT. We guarantee that all, public and dancers alike, were totally captivated by what went on behind the conductor’s music stand.
His very last conducting appearance took place at Berkeley University in San Francisco on the 17th July 1992. Right up until his death, he received a great many offers to direct ballets, but was unable to fulfil them. His state of health forced him to give up his dream of directing the opening night of “La Bayadère” at the Paris Opera on the 8th October 1992.