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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

EDWARD DOWNES: METROPOLITAN OPERA , 1927

Critic, teacher, broadcaster and mentor Edward Downes is speaking to me in his living room in 1995:


I suppose the earliest great memory I have of the Metropolitan New York was Rosa Ponselle singing in the 1927 revival of Norma. I was lucky in being able to attend the dress rehearsal. People who have her recordings know that Ponselle was a very great Norma, but that dress rehearsal, the first time anyone heard that splendid voice in Bellini's opera, was was unique. I knew I would not hear the like of it again, and I tried to attend every performance of Norma that season. I knew absolutely from the Casta diva, which she sang in F instead of G, that this was extraordinary singing.. At the end of the first part of Casta diva, in the descending chromatic scale coming down an octave and a half, every note was perfectly articulated and had a sense of flow of this gorgeous sounding voice. It was the kind of sound that just hits you in the midriff.

Rosa Ponselle remained a great favorite of mine, as did Feodor Chaliapin.
He was fabulous. In some cases he took great liberties with the score, but his interpretations were so powerful that this scarcely mattered. Like Ponselle, the sheer natural sound of Chaliapin's voice was very beautiful. I remember hearing him at the Met and thinking at the time, who else has such a beautiful voice?
There was a good deal of ranting and raving in Boris Godunov. But when he sang for beauty of tone he had it, not only in the middle range where it was beautifully controlled, but even in the high pianissimi which are not easy for a bass. With all the emphasis I can summon I can say that Chaliapin's was among the most beautiful voices I ever heard live. I heard him in two roles. Boris and Massenet's Don Quichotte. This last was written for Chaliapin and characterized by critic Lawrence Gilman as " piece of junk" and I'm quoting him charitably. But Chaliapin had you in tears at Quichotte's death. He was also an extraordinary make up artist, extending not only to his character of the spindly, aged Quixote, but to the skinny old horse, Rosinate. I remember my father telling me about Chaliapin as Rossini's Don Basilio in Barber of Seville, blowing his nose through his fingers and mopping his face with a filthy old handkerchief which trailed out of his costume. Chaliapin on stage tried to do things to deliberately grab the audience, and he succeeded!

EDWARD DOWNES: Wm. Schumann, Hindemith, Hanson

Edward Downes reviewing Boston Symphony concerts in The Boston Evening Transcript

WILLIAM SCHUMAN
November 18, 1939

Frigidly, politely and firmly, a Boston Symphony audience revolted yesterday afternoon at the begining of the regular Friday matinee symphony concert. All through the opening number, "An American Overture" by 29 year old William Schumann, there had been dubious shaking of heads. But when Dr. Koussevitsky finished his exhilarating performance of the overture on a particularly strong discord, a shudder of disapproval ran through the hall, and the applause that followed was so weak that it constituted a negative demonstration. One felt that only impeccable manners and a certain instinctive restraint stood in the way of more positive expressions of annoyances.

HINDEMITH
February 24, 1940

The Hindemith of 'Mathis der Maler' is not the musical enfant terrible of yore. He has sowed his artistic wild oats in an earlier period of near atonalism and sensational radicalism. What remained was a quickened sense of harmonic values, and an intensely emotional basis for this music. Or so it seemed yesterday, for Mathis is of exalted feeling both in contemplation and action. There is no question of the composer's ability to express clearly and forcefully whatever his mind and emotions prompt, and thus with this symphony one as the feeling of listening to a classic work.

HOWARD HANSON
March 22, 1940

Mr. Hanson's third symphony had been heard at these concerts earlier this season under the baton of the composer, with only moderate success. First and second hearings made the impression of a definite, derivative work, Sibelius being the most generous contributor...Dr. Koussevitsky has been more than generous in his support of this new American score. It has been given its chance. Is there any reason we should hear it again?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

EDWARD DOWNES: LOTTE LEHMANN IN RECITAL...DIE WALKURE...THE BIRTH OF OPERA

Edward wrote these pieces for The Boston Evening Transcript.

LOTTE LEHMANN IN RECITAL
October 30, 1939

It is only artists of the stature of Lehmann who are able to supply that something new we demand simply by giving a great performance of a simple composition. And she does it, not by making poor defenseless Schubert stand on his head, nor by doing something startling and sensational with Brahms. She does it by penetrating to the very core of the composer's thought. What stands reveled to us then is not a clever idea that Lehmann had, but Schubert or Brahms himself in all the freshness of primal inspiration.

___________________________________________________________________________

EDWARD DOWNES ON LOTTE LEHMANN AND RICHARD STRAUSS, speaking to CP in 1995:

The first thing that comes to mind about Lehmann is that she was the only singer I ever met who seemed to be exactly the same off stage as she was on stage. She always sounded spontaneous on stage, whether it was "Abseulicher!" or some casual remark or action, it always sounded totally echt...there...present...spontaneous. As if somehow it just happens that way at this moment. And that was very powerful. It was powerful enough so that it extended to her physical actions aside from singing. Particularly in Tannhauser, one quite short moment was the very end of Elisabeth's role, after 'allmeagtige jungfrau', when Wolfram comes on and says "May I escort you back to the castle" or whatever. She doesn't answer with words but is supposed to gesture that the place she is going is not "over there" but "up there". It's a somewhat pretentious stage direction. But there are only a few bars from that to her exit, and a relatively short distance backstage, where you saw her in profile, she made an exit in a diagonal, not singing, no gestures, just walking,
and it was one of the most vivid moments I remember in opera. This moment was always magical. You never know how much is an accumulation of what went on in
the opera before, and how much is the gift of the artist, but she always had that.

Very close to the end of her career, when I was briefly a music critic for the Boston Transcript, Lehmann came to Boston to give a recital. It must have been one of the morning musicales. I hadn't seen her in quite a long time. Sine it had been a morning concert, I did not need to rush to write my piece, and I knew her somewhat, not well, but I knew her well enough that I had been to her house for lunch. She was a warm and gracious woman. I decided to go and see her after the performance. I knew it was long enough that she would probably not remember me, but I had dined with her and her family a few times at the Salzburg Festival, and in New York I knew her well enough so that she asked me one time why I thought the Met didn't give her more performances. My only answer was that they have this idea that for Italian operas it should be Italian singers and so on. I didn't really know the answer. In any case I knew her well enough for her to have asked my opinion. But many years had gone by. Now in Boston after the recital she was sitting at a table chatting with people and shaking hands and autographing things and she saw me come in, and somehow I knew she recognized me, but as not sure from where. But she gestured and half got out of her seat and said to me "Sie hab nicht ewig lange gesehen!" which was very tactful and friendly, but it was even with the little social fib implied, still a spontaneous and honest reaction. I think she was characteristic of everything she died. Lehmann herself mentioned in a talk she gave that when speaking to Richard Strauss he complimented her and she replied, you are too kind, Aber Herr Meister, ich schwimme...meaning I'm 'swimming' or cheating in your music. Strauss according to her replied, Ja, aber sie schwimme so schoen! Apparently she knew him quite well--she was after all the first Composer in the revised Ariadne and the first Farberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She said to me, "I sang that opera quite a lot for ten years and I never figured out what as gong on!"

Richard struass was a very fine conductor. His third act of Tristan was the greatest I ever heard. heard him conduct it in Munich, in 1931. He conducted the first two acts well enough, but in the third act he took fire. You entered a different world with him. Quite extraordinary. Everything had an intensity that was tremendously focused, but it had a kind of feverish quality to it, which is part of the score. Tristan here is supposed to verge on madness, delirium, and it all combined of course with Strauss's style of conducting, which was very small. Small beats, small gestures. Very contained. It grabbed you by the throat. Strauss was a great conductor in everything. I remember being told that to hear his Cosi fan tutte in the Cuivillies Theatre was out of this world. Fidelio, French opera, Italian opera, Tristan. He was superlative in an astonishingly wide repertoire.

______________________________________________________________________________

OPERA
February 3, 1940

Opera was founded on a mistake. A group of Florentine noblemen and dilettantes got together to revive the classical Greek tragedy. They were extremely proud of their success of their revival, but what they actually had done was to invent the modern opera. The first prophesies of the death of opera followed quickly after its birth, when composers began to use rousing tunes for their own sake. The reason: rousing tunes had never been used by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides! And thereafter regularly, every time of opera superseded each other, with the Baroque, the Rococo, the Classical, the romantic, the realistic, the impressionistic opera, every time there was a change, somebody wrote that opera died.

DIE WALKURE
April 1, 1940

Our mind still ringing with the magic of Wagner's "Magic Fire Music", and our heart full of thanksgiving to Erich Leinsdorf for having given us an integral and uncut Walkure, we were progressing slowly towards an exit of the Boston Opera House last Saturday afternoon when a loud and obviously bored voice exclaimed behind us to her matinee companion: "Did you EVER hear such a long opera in your LIFE? Really, you know I don't mind so much at night, but in the afternoon it all seems to take so much TIME!" Which of course IS pretty dreadful, ISN'T it? Unfortunately, Die Walkure just is long, and even if we were to slash it as mercilessly as does the Paris Opera, the good lady would still have to miss her tea.

__________________

NOTE FROM CP:

Edward is being mean spirited here, nothing like himself in person, but this sells newspapers.

The Walkure performance that seemed so long was broadcast. I have it on CD.
It is thrilling. I'm no Wagnerian but I wouldn't miss a note.
The cast on that April afternoon in Boston:

Brunnhilde Marjorie Lawrence
Sieglinde Lotte Lehmann
Siegmund Lauritz Melchior
Wotan Julius Huehn
Hunding Emmanuel List
Fricka Kerstin Thorborg

Erich Leinsdorf conducts

Friday, November 25, 2005

EDWARD DOWNES: Flagstad and Nelson Eddy

Edward gave me several large scrapbooks of articles he wrote for The Boston Evening Transcript from 1937-1941. Edward left the paper in 41 to join the war effort at what later became the CIA! But here are two of his pieces, and part of another of the conversations I had with him in 1995. Edward died at ninety on Christmas Day, 2001.


KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD AS ISOLDE
Boston Evening Transcript
April 2, 1940

If rumor is true and the performance of "Tristan und Isolde" which the Metropolitan Opera Company gave last night in the Boston Opera House is the last one in which Bostonians will have the privilege of seeing and hearing Kirsten Flagstad's impersonation of the Irish princess, it will have been a worthy performance to remember her by and one which will go down in the musical annals as a historical event. It was the greatest impersonation of Isolde we have seen Flagstad give, and the miraculous thing about it was the way in which her conception of the part has increased in depth and subtlety.

Two years ago, Flagstad's Isolde, thought the finest then to be seen on the operatic stage, was still lacking in the passionate bitterness, the vitiating irony and sovereign contempt which are part of isolates emotions in the first act. At that time Flagstad still appeared too fundamentally sweet and amiable a character ever to be able to master and express the wild storms of destructive rage or the intense inward suffering which Wagner makes his heroine hide behind a mask of icy scorn.

One thing,however, has always remained true of Flagstad: her art continued to grow. You see her do the same role two years in succession invariably has meant being witness to a fascinating development,end of dramatic instinct and musical intuition. And today she has accomplished what to many spectator's seemed impossible a few years ago. As always, since she has been at the Metropolitan, Flagstad has been the greatest Wagnerian soprano to be heard since the World War, but now her acting, too, equals the greatest acting of Isolde that has been seen there in the same period.


NELSON EDDY
Boston Evening Transcript
April 3, 1940


Nelson Eddy, famous all American baritone of the stage, screen and ether waves, gave a recital last night in Symphony Hall which began with Albert Hay Lamotte's setting of Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark", and ended with "The Lord's Prayer" set to music by the same intrepid composer. The program informed us "Of all vocal compositions, Maltese setting of The Lord's Prayer is requested most often, a significant indication of the reverence of a people who know how to turn to God." This last confused us considerably. Does it mean he real way to turn to God is to write a fan letter to Nelson Eddy asking him to sing "The Lord's Prayer"? Or does it mean that the number of requests Mr. Eddy receives for this kind of vocal composition is a kind of barometer of the devoutness of the American public?


ON CRITICISM
talking to CP i New York, October, 1995

I can remember only one or two occasions when father
(New York Times critic Olin Downes)helped. One was the very first criticism I wrote for a newspaper. This was a song recital, a debut recital, imagine sending a kid to review a debut! It was for the New York Post. I came on as (Samuel) Chotzinoff's assistant. No critic went to the office at the Post.. You went home and late a at night a messenger came over to pick up your copy. I cam home and my father must have asked me what it was I had to write about. And he made this suggestion: If you can find something which is of legitimate interest about the songs, which throws some light, or gives some detail which is relevant, use it to add to whatever your personal opinion is...

I read my father's stuff regularly, and I remember my mother pointing out to me that one of the important things in a news story, in a reporting sense, is to get the facts straight: What, when, why, where and how?!

My first review turned out well, and the young man who gave the recital wrote a letter to the Post. I remember the boss reading this letter and saying, "Friend of yours?" which would have been bad but I was able to convince him I didn't know the man from Adam.

Writing criticism was comfortable but I wouldn't say I felt any great sense of mission. In Boston I reviewed Johanna Gadski, appearing on a vaudeville bill. I had heard her as Isolde, and she had to pay her bills. To appear at kit's orphan on a vaudeville bill, I wrote a review of this for myself...I remember writing about the ignorant audience that was giggling when they should have been listening respectfully-I was twelve at this time!-but poor Gadski looked like a caricature of a diva out of the New Yorker. She could still sing, she sang Brahms Wiegenlied and
Brunnhilde's Battle Cry, but naturally the audience at Keith's thought it was a joke. I remember my indignation was aroused that she was reduced to this."

NOTES FROM CP

KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD went home to Nazi occupied Norway in 1941. At the end of the war, her husband was arrested for collaborating with the Quisling government. He died in prison awaiting trial in 1946. Flagstad lived under house arrest until 1947 when she was allowed to resume her career in Europe and America. Her appearances in the US were often picketed, she was reviled in the papers as a Nazi and did not return to the Metropolitan until 1950. Flagstad was never formally charged of any crimes and nothing was ever proved against her. She died, in Norway, in 1962.

NELSON EDDY (1900-1967) Popular American baritone, known for his films with JEanette MacDonald. Edwat is being rather patronizing here. Eddy had a significant operatic and concert career. He sang the Ameircan premiere of Berg's Wozzeck with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1935. Oter opera roles included Germont, Rigoletto and Amonasro, and his recital programs always included Schubert and Brahms. He died onstage during a recital in 1967.

JOANNA GADSKI (1972-1932) Distinguished soprano, often partnered Caruso in Aida. A huge voice with a large repertoire. Her recordings are well worth seeking out. Her career was daamaged when German opera was banned World War I. She made tours singing in English until 1930. Died in a car crash, 1932.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

EDWARD DOWNES: THE RING CYCLE IN 1925

These are excerpts from my notes taken during extensive conversations with broadcaster/teacher/critic Edward Downes (1911-2001) at his New York apartment in 1995. Edward was the son of New York Times critic Olin Downes and was himself a celebrated critic for The Boston Evening Transcript. From 1956-1999 Edward served as host of (Texaco) Opera Quiz over the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. He was a faculty member at Queens College and The Juilliard School. These are verbatim transcripts, little editing attempted unless you see (CP: )

Edward Downes talking to me in 1995:

I heard my first Ring cycle at the Metropolitan in 1925. The Brunnhilde was the Swedish soprano Nanny Larsen-Todsen. She had a wobble in her voice which bothered a lot of people more than it bothered me. I thought she was a great singer, marvelous in the Ring and as Isolde. She had a lot of dramatic power, and I suspect she represented the end of the Wagner tradition which had been insisted upon by cosine Wagner. There were the big gestures, which often looked foolish. Larsen-Todsen was very effective in Goetterdaemmerung at the end of the prologue where they ring out the high Cs and Siegfried goes off. There's a certain point where Siegfried plays his horn and the orchestra comes in with a great sweep of violins. At this point, Larsen-Todsen gave the impression, from way in the back of the Metropolitan, that she had just caught sight of Siegfried. She made a large gesture just as the curtain came down, but the thought behind it, the impulse, was very moving.

In Siegfried, at Brunnhilde's awakening, Larsen-Todsen was likewise wonderful. The stage directions are just awful. She greets the light. She greets the sun. But Larsen-Todsen managed to do it just right. Big gestures complete concepts with a lot of feeling behind them. It was very powerful. Larsen-Todsen understood Wagner's text on a very subtle level and this came across in the slight colorations and little bits of rubato. Her voice was wobbly but very dramatic and it had something even Flagstad lacked. While Flagstad had the most gorgeous voice in these roles, she tended to sound a bit matronly. Larsen-Todsen had a strong visceral quality in her voice, similar to Lotte Lehmann. She was not the actress Lehmann was, but she was close.

There were no great tenors for Wagner before Lauritz Melchior arrived in '26. In fact, they were all horrible. There was one tenor willing to attempt Tristan in the 1920. His name was Kurt Taucher. He had been quite famous in Vienna, but by the time I heard him he made an awful sound!

_____________________________________

NOTES from CP:

Nanny Larsen-Todsen (1884-1982)
Swedish soprano
debut in 1906 as Agathe in Der Fresichutz
Three seasons in new York: 1925-1928

Kurt Taucher, 109 performances in New York between 1922 and 1927

Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) Norwegian dramatic soprano. Her career and box office success rescued the Metropolitan Opera during the depression. She was unknown here and her debut in 1935 was broadcast. During the first intermission, radio commentator Geraldine Farrar, herself a great singer, threw her script away and told the public: "You have just heard the most exciting thing than can happen in any theater. The birth of a new star."
For power and beauty of voice, Flagstad is to this day hard to beat.

Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) Danish heldentenor. Unmatched in all of the Wagner operas. There has been no one approaching him since he retired form opera in 1950. He worked another ten years in Films and in Vegas! Often partnered Flagstad-reportedly they disliked each other. If you have never heard his many recordings and broadcasts, then you have never really heard Wagner!


P.S. Edward lived in the Dakota, the grand building at 72nd Street and Central Park West, notorious for the filming of Rosemary's Baby and the murder of John Lennon in 1980. Edward had lived in the building since he was ten and died there at ninety in 2001. Yoko lived just below him. Leonard Bernstein's apartment had a three storey living room. Lauren Bacall, Al Pacino, and Gilda Radner were among Edward's neighbors.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

WINIFRED WAGNER, A reminiscence

Edward Downes was a teacher and critic and the long time host of "Opera Quiz" on the (then) Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Network. I have the honor of considering him a mentor. He died in 2002 at 89. In the mid 1990s he dictated about thirty hours of memoirs to me in his apartment in the Dakota in New York, just upstairs from Yoko Ono. I went back through some of my notes recently while reading the new book, "Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Center of Hitler's Bayreuth" by Brigitte Haman. Bayreuth is a town in Central Germany where Richard Wagner established a theatre to perform his works in 1876. The Bayreuth Festival remains today the world's most prestigious, some would say the world's most notorious. Winifred Williams was a British born orphan of 18 when she married Siegfried Wagner, who was over thirty years her senior, in 1915. Siegfried, the only son of Richard Wagner, died in 1930. Four children were born of this marriage. Friedelind escaped to New York during World War II and made anti Nazi propaganda broadcasts. Wieland became one of the most renowned stage directors of the 20th century. Wolfgang, now 87, runs the festival to this day.

Winfred Wagner's devotion to Hitler and the Third Reich is unquestioned, least of all by herself. Here are some of Edward's reminiscences of Bayreuth, and the Wagner family. Edward's father was Olin Downes, critic of the New York Times.

We are in Edward's living room in 1995. He is speaking of 1930:

I got to Bayreuth in 1930. It wasn't difficult to smuggle myself in, because there was a time when all the orchestral players streamed in, but one day I made the mistake of asking where Frau Winifred Wagner was. Then it was clear I did not know her by sight. I was quickly booted out. I found Frau Wagner drinking coffee in the Bayreuth restaurant. This was the year Siegfried died, leaving her a widow with four children. She was English and had been orphaned, and was raised in Germany by acquaintances of her family. She became thoroughly German. She was very gracious to me. My father had given me a letter of introduction to her. She wrote on a slip of paper, "Admit to any rehearsal." I still have the slip. (CP: And he did. He showed it to me. Creepy)

After the war she was in disgrace. She took the whole Nazi era in her stride. I got a message the first year I went back, around 1958, that Frau Wagner knew I was in Bayreuth and would like to see me. Friedelind's book was out (note: Friedelind Wagner, youngest child of Winifred and Siegfried had written "Heritage of Fire" detailing her mother's close ties to the Nazis) And I thought, Oh, Christ, what do I do now? I had never seen Winifred since that day in 1930. And now thirty years later here she was. I sent back the answer, that it was very nice of Frau Wagner, and we only met once thirty years ago, and she couldn't possibly remember me. Back came a message. Oh, no, she remembers you very well and she knows just who you are, and she would like to see you, so I went to Friedelind and said What do I do now?

Friedelind, cool as a cucumber said, Mama receives on performance days. I'll take you over tomorrow.

Frau Wagner came to the door and she and Friedelind kissed and cooed. Then she turned to me: "What do you think of our Wieland's productions? I think he does it just to be different, don't you?"

I tried to be as neutral as possible but I thought his productions were just marvelous..

Frau Wagner was very chirp and urbane and seemed at peace with her life. In a long TV documentary made shortly before her death (1980) she said, "Yes, I was Hitler's friend, certainly. We were very fond of one another. If he came knocking at the door today I would get up to greet him as an old friend." She made these absolutely flat statements that Hitler never knew anything at all about the horrors that went on. And I sat there thinking, does she think I'm really stupid or is she pretending an ignorance she can't have? She seemed a very bright woman. She was playing a role right up to the hilt. I never heard her apologize or repudiate Hitler in any way, and this went on until her death in 1980."

---

The book is Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Center of Hitlerism Bayreuth by
Brigitte Hamann. It's a devatstating cultural history.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF (INCARCERATED) BABES

Ohio Arts Alive is a one hour arts/news/magazine program I produce, showcasing a wide spectrum of arts programs throughout the state. Of special interest are those people and programs who work with grievously underserved communities. Last year we did a program from the Lebanon Correctional Facility near Cincinnati, of a men's choir -UMOJA- and its remarkable conductor, Dr. Catherine Roma. Now, we look at kids.

The Madison Correctional Facility is about 40 minutes west of Columbus in London, Ohio. Inmates are young men aged 14-21, all of whom have been convicted of crimes as adults and serving adult sentences. At 21 these guys will be shipped off to adult prisons. My colleagues and I will be going out there next week to sit in on a creative dramatics and bull session. Again, these are-to me, anyway-kids. And the authorities made it very clear: the crimes range from possession to murder.
Yeah, they look like choirboys, but these are (or were) some scary people.
Our auspices for this visit is ArtSafe Ohio, an organization dedicated to bringing educational opportunities to the incarcerated, and to young school children who have next to nothing.

Preparing for next week, I have learned:

85 % of these kids in prison come from broken homes
at least 75% were themsevles abused, from rape to other forms of physical abuse. Neglect and parental indifference means getting off lightly.

The guys at Madison have published a book called Inside Looking Out: It's a collection of writing and art work done by these guys, some of whom will never get out of prison.

Here are a few samples:

In this cell, I always think about my future and my past.
For in this cell, you just don't know how long you can last. (Antwan)


It's crazy here, but you have to do the time.
Do not let the time do you.
I have never been to a youth center or juvenile jail.
It was my first time committing a felony crime.
Now, I am in the pen for something I could have avoided.

This place is hell. You sit and stare out the windows all night
and you are never happy. You think about all the fun you had.
You will be be mad because the holidays come and you cannot spend that day with your family. If you have the chance to change your ways, do it, because jail is no place
to be, and that's "the real" (Vernon)


Now I have to go back to my soul being my best friend.
My soul and I must remain in hell-this 6' by 9' prison cell.
Thoughts of the past constantly run through my mind.
I only hear the devil's voice telling me to die in sin.
Instead of God's telling me to live again. (Steve)



But I can tell you this...the next time your Grandma or Mom kisses you and leaves lipstick on your cheek, don't wipe it off. You might regret it in years to come. (Marcus)

_______________________

Inside Looking Out is available from ArtSafe: Arts for a Child's Safe America Foundation, 614-237-9077. See www.artsafe.org

Friday, November 04, 2005

COMPOSER'S CHILDREN

I've been working on some notes and a pre concert talk for Stravinsky's
Symphony in C. The composer writes that this was written in the early 1930s, during a terrible period of his life. His wife Catherine had been hospitalized for many years with tuberculosis. She died, as did their daughter, of the same illness.
It got me to thinking about the children (and spouses) of famous composers. There don't seem to be a lot of happy families in the history of western music. Is every unhappy family really unhappy in its own way? Verdi, Puccini, Mahler and Richard Strauss were artists and businessmen, and these roles overlapped. Why no large families? Would Verdi have written Aida if he had been raising a houseful of kids?

Here's a list I've made in my head. No reference material used, so bear with me:

Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

Two wives. Twenty children. Yikes! Those were cold and long nights in Leipzig. Several of Bach's sons followed him in music: Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Phillip Emmanuel. His daughter Anna Magdalena was immortalized by a book of keyboard exercises dedicated to her.

George Friedrich Handel 1685-1759

Never married, no children. Died old and rich.

Franz Joseph Haydn 1732-1809.

Long and unhappy marriage. No children.

W.A. Mozart 1756-1791

Of the six children born to Mozart and his wife, Constanze Weber, between 1784 and 1791 only one, Franz Xaver, born shortly before his father's death, outlived the composer.

Beethoven 1770-1827

Never married. Several miserable love affairs. No children.

Gioacchino Rossini 1792-1868

Two marriages, the first to contralto Isabella Colbran (divorced) then to his long time mistress, Olympe Pellesier. No children.

Franz Schubert 1797-1828

Never married, no children.

Robert Schumann 1810-1856

Six children born to Clara Wieck Schumann. By all accounts this was a boisterous and happy family until Robert went mad, probably from tertiary syphilis. After several attempts at drowning himself, he was institutionalized, and starved himself to death.

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

Never married, no children

Richard Wagner 1813-1883

Two marriages, the first to Minna Planner. Began a liaison with Cosima von Bulow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Wagner's protege, conductor Hans von Bulow. Three children were born to Wagner and Cosima while she was still married to von Bulow. Cosima and Wagner did eventually marry. The dynastic miseries of the Wagner family are well documented, and on going.

Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901

Two children born from his marriage to Margherita Barezzi. Mother and babies all died duirng a typhus epidemic 1839-1841. By 1842 Verdi was livving with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. She had several children by previous lovers, all of whom were raised in orphanages from birth. No children with Verdi. The two did not marry until 1859 and remianed together until Strepponi's death nearly forty years later.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911

Married Alma Schindler in 1900. Two daughters, Anna (1902-1907) and Maria Anna, who died in 1988.

Giacomo Puccini 1858-1924

Unhappy marriage with Elvira Casazza, who left her husband when she became pregnant with Puccini's only child, Tonio.


Richard Strauss 1865-1949

Long and stormy marriage to Pauline de Ahna. She was a general's daughter who swore all her long life that she had married beneath herself, and that her husband should write commercial music, like Gilbert and Sullivan. Strauss reportedly adored her. One son.

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971

Four children from his first marriage, to Catherine. All but Milenka lived long lives. Took up with painter Vera Soudeikeine while Catherine was hospitalized, married her after Catherine's death. A long and devoted marriage. Stravinsky seemed an absent minded father. Late in his life one of his granddaughters bore a child out of wedlock, which, according to biographer Lillian Libman, the composer "could not understand"

_________

Well, I can't imagine a slew of Father's Day cards for any of these guys. Only Bach and Schumann seemed to have had a happy family life.
You can hear this in a lot of Schumann's music, especially the lieder and the piano works he wrote for Clara. We don't seem to have any drunks or wife beaters in the bunch, and public health being what it wasn't years ago, one can hardly hold a touch of syphilis now and then against them.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

DICHTERLIEBE DIARY 9

Two days ago Ben and I were supposed to perform at First Church. We postponed several weeks ago, but in fact a few people did show up. I'm sorry they were inconvenienced, but hey, at least people are interested. Which may or may not be a good thing. We did another rehearsal yesterday.
It's becoming physically easier for me, less of a workout. I'm more pumped when finished than exhausted. What to my ears sounds too light, too bright and over focused still doesn't carry all that well against the piano in a rehearsal hall. In the sanctuary, we'll see (hear).

Like all important works of art, Dichterliebe continues to feed anyone who really wants to dig into it and discover what's there. You can't be bored, and you are never, but never, finished. Just when I think I've caught the right tone of irony, or joy, or anger, the mood in the piano contradicts what I have going on.
The irony of a lot of major keys and bright colors, and of mood changes, the protagonist happy and bitter (not defeated, bitter) in the same verse, maybe with ten or eleven notes of separation, is overwhelming. I wonder if Schumann or any of our composers expected their work to provoke so much study years after their deaths. Mozart wrote often on spec, and once a work was performed he was onto the next one, for money. Did he think people would be writing books about the Jupiter Symphony in 2005? They are. Did Bach, who had to produce a slew of music for each Sunday of the liturgical year, think his cantatas would be sung in churches and concert halls and recording studios two hundred and fifty years after his death? I wonder if Mozart or Bach would have cared. Bach was a salaried employee for many years. Mozart wanted to be, and never in his best years could attracting enough patronage.

Sometimes the larger orchestral works and the big operas overwhelm a listener in their complexity, and in their size. With lieder, its two people, voice and piano. So there should be more transparency; easier for the listener to really hear what is going on. You'd think, wouldn't you? Forget it. A one page Wolf song is as confounding as all of the Goldberg variations. I love what Janet Baker says: The preparation is the best part. Sometimes the audience gets in the way! (Not really)