Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beethoven's Birthplace

Beethoven’s Bonn

  When I  was in high school, I read a number of biographies of composers, including Robert Haven Schauffler’s Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. I don’t remember many specifics about the book, but I am quite sure that it had very little about what is to be found in my current reading about Beethoven,  Jan Swafford’s more recent monumental biogra;phy, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.
   Here I just want to make a few comments about Bonn, where Ludwig was born in 1770 into a musical family, with both his grandfather and father professional musicians. Not distinguished ones, mind you. Bonn, then was ruled by a succession of aristocrats, who fostered the cultivation of music, a major and competitive “trade,” with  the Elector, Max Franz, becoming a patron of young Ludwig.      

    He financed Ludwig’s first trip to Vienna and thus helped to introduce him to the city of his future. With the “leveling” effect of the spillover of the French Revolution, Bonn’s short time in the cultural sun came to an end, not to see stardom again—if that what it was—as the capital of West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, Bonn’s most significant claim to fame is as the birthplace of Beethoven, one of the three greatest composers ever. I’ll let you guess—not difficult—who are the other two.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My First Opera Performances

Attending Operas When in High School

 I don’t remember all the operas I attended at the old (38th Street) Met while I was in high school (that is before my stint in the Navy), but I remember clearly seeing Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in 1942 or 1943 and that I also saw the Zauberflöte as early as that. The Ring, about which I remember much more, had a cast of Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund and Siegfried) and Helen Traubel as Brünhilde. It also had Lotte Lehmann in her very last (or, possibly, next to last) Sieglinde.
   My seat was in the next to last row of the Family Circle, what seemed like a block away from the stage. Because I had also taken out the (miniature) scores of the operas, my attention to the stage was only intermittent. No great loss, as I recall, since the visual aspect of the performances—acting, sets, lighting—was pretty mundane. Not so the music! Still, I recall that I was indignant because only four harps—rather than the six I found in the score—portrayed the Rhine in Das Rheingold. (Remember that I was 15 or 16 years old at the time.)
   I actually saw my first opera in Heidelberg, age ten or so; it was Der Freischütz. (My mother, who was emphatically not a fan of opera, called it Der Schreifritz, The Screaming Fritz.) I was taken there by my piano teacher, who also took me to Edwin Fischer conducting a chamber orchestra and playing a Mozart piano concerto. These were my first experiences of professional performances.
   To come back to the Met, I saw several other operas while in high school, most notably Die Zauberflöte with Charles Kullman as Tamino (the only cast member whose name I remember). I single out the Magic Flute because it became a particular favorite of mine, in part because of the Beecham performance on the very first records I bought—two volumes of 78 rpms.
  I won’t go on with a recitation of operas I have seen, but I do want to make one point. Now and then people ask me whether I’m an opera fan, a question to which I can’t give a straight answer. What I tend to say is that I’m really a (classical) music lover. I like good voices well enough, but I don’t go after them, unless they are singing what I want to hear. Maybe more significant is the fact that Mozart and Wagner are at the top of my list—but also Alban Berg, among other composers, from Gluck to Schoenberg. But I pay very little attention to the likes of Bellini and Donizetti. I once sat through an opera by the latter (I don’t remember which) and was annoyed because I couldn’t stop myself from counting seemingly endless phrases of eight bars each.

   And I do have a candidate of what I think is the most perfect opera—the music, of course, but also all aspects of the libretto: the characters, the varied bunch of them, the plot, and the witty text:  Le Nozze di Figaro—which in English would be more correctly known as Figaro’s Wedding.  I’ve never heard the passage in which the Count asks the Countess to forgive him (Contessa perdono!)—just before the brief, cheerful finale—without getting tears in my eyes.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Parsifal and More When in the Navy

An Opera Adventure in Chicago

   Here is an account of one of my most exciting experiences in Chicago—while in the Navy, no less. I reprint the whole letter and will have some comments afterwards.*

October 20, 1945
Hello again,
   That I should write again on the same day must seem pretty unusual to you – well, it is, and so are the circumstances leading me to write.
   Quote: This afternoon, you know, I went to hear Parsifal. The performance was excellent – excepting perhaps the orchestra – and the sets & stage effects were superb, and far above anything the Met has ever had.
   Well, still dazed from the finish of the performance – and with no plans – I walk along the opera house and into the stage entrance – just to look around. After gabbing with a few people there, I walked out again, & fumbled with one of the doors which wouldn’t open. Someone yelled “This way, Sailor” and opened the other door which wasn’t locked. I said “thanks” & walked away. All of a sudden I said to myself: “I’ve seen that man before.” (He had an accent, too) and went back & told him so. He then told me that he just finished singing Amfortas and I immediately answered with his name: Martial Singher. He was in the process of catching a taxi to take him to Orchestra Hall for a rehearsal. We walked together a while – the name Weingartner appealed to him & got to talking. When the taxi did come, he asked me to come along, could I refuse?
   I then met the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Désiré Defauw when I stayed for the two man rehearsal. (All of that was in French) The next on the program was dinner. “The poor man is all alone in Chicago & said he would enjoy my company.” Anyway, the way he put it, I could not have refused!
   (The dinner was excellent.) The conversation was still more interesting. He is the son-in-law of Fritz Busch & knows, intimately everyone, (Schnabel, Serkin, Lehmann, Melchior Kipnis Peerce, etc. etc.) and told me a lot about them. He then walked back toward his hotel (on the way we both decided not to go to a movie after such a tiring thing as Parsifal (he only had to sing, I had to listen to it, so we went to his hotel room next.) In the lobby, I was introduced to Bidu Sayao and Nicola Moscona, but we soon went to his room! We talked a lot then & he sang some of Debussy’s opera & at 10:00 I left – with a hearty invitation to look him up when I go to Chicago – and promised rehearsals!
   How’s that for an afternoon?

This is my enrollment as a pupil of Onkel Alfred. [The musical guru of the family.]
*Those comments, about my early opera experiences at the Met--then on 39th Street--will appear later on this blog

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Scope of Jewish Humor
   When Mark came down to visit on my 90th birthday, he brought along a couple of books, one of which is Michael Krasny’s Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it All Means. Besides a running text, there are “More than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of All Time.”
Well, maybe. Many are indeed funny, though another large batch doesn’t quite make it for me.  Still, there is probably no list of that kind that does any better.
   But here I want to point out that the sources of these jokes are quite limited. Limited to the largest subclass of Jews, to be sure, but by no means to all of them. Home base seems to be New York, with by far the majority of its Jewish population coming from Eastern Europe.  Many of those 100+ jokes are translated—not by Krasny, but by the people he has tell them or their informants, from Yiddish, the language in which they were born. The “Jewish Humor” displayed is that of a large class of Ashkenazi Jews of which there are, give or take, five and a half million in the United States. There is another big batch of them in Israel, though I am doubtful—without actually knowing—that you’d get far in Tel Aviv or Haifa with Krasny’s Jewish humor.
   I am also an Ashkenazi Jew—really Ashkenazi, since it’s the Hebrew word for German. There were half a million of us in the Weimar Republic before Hitler started to solve the “Jewish Problem” by pushing their emigration. That made us refugees in America Holocaust Evaders in my language.
   Why bring up all of this? Because those jokes were not part of the culture of those five hundred thousand Yeckes.* While my father liked to tell a joke now and then, these “Jewish jokes” were not in his repertory, nor in that of my grandparents. So that is the first subdivision of Jews going back several centuries that does not partake of Jewish humor as here advertized.
   And there is another, much larger population of Jews whose humor has other roots. I cannot imagine a most properly attired congregant of the great 17th century Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam resonating to the humor in this book. The jokes recounted do not pertain to the more than two million Sephardic Jews symbolized by that Amsterdam synagogue. These Sephardim have their origin in Spain and Portugal and North Africa. Moreover, Yiddish is Greek to them; they have their own language, Ladino. And as Yiddish is rooted in old German, so Ladino is rooted in old Spanish. I have no idea what kind of jokes Sephardim tell, but they are surely not covered by that Treasury of Great Jewish Humor.
   There is a minor moral to that story. New Yorkers—and it is they who populate this book—believe themselves to be at the center of the universe, an island that comes to an end in Yonkers. But, heh! there are Jews who live beyond Brooklyn and the Bronx.
   *The word, Yecke or Yekke is a mashed version of the German word Jacke, that is jacket. German Jews were notorious for being “properly dressed.”