Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Queen Victoria Gets Chummy with Mendelssohn

The Columbus Symphony presents Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3 "Scottish" this weekend, along with Beethoven's Piano concerto no. 4 and Kenneth Frazelle's Elegy for Strings-this weekend at the Ohio Theater. Jeffrey Kahane is the pianist and conductor.

Composer Kenneth Frazelle promises me a phone conversation later today.  I'll report back tomorrow.
In listening to and researching the Mendelssohn Symphony, I came across some delightful references to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's fascnianton with this young German melodist.

Victoria and Albert bonded over music and her sexual passion for the dashing German princeling. Let's stay with music for now. The Queen loved her Bellini and Meyerbeer. She thrilled to Norma and I Puritani. No doubt she too sighed over Bellini, a lovely young man, most fetching and dead at 34. The Queen did love her dead friends. Albert was a respectable pianist and organist. He and the royal Mrs. were known to play piano four hands and Her Majesty was often most graciously pleased to sign. Withal, both Queen and Prince loved music, showed some gifts in performance. Aside from Albert and music, the Queen also adored Scotland. "Home of oatcakes and sulphur" Disraeli was heard to moan. As The Queen spent more and more time in seclusion at Balmoral, all of her ministers were forced to make the chilly trek north to conduct business.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) became a star at 17 with his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. His Songs Without Words were all the rage. The early string symphonies were considered decorative and good fun. Mendelssohn's four Symphonies lack the drama and passion of Beethoven or Schumann, but they have a grace and melodic perfection all their own.

During a visit to Scotland in 1829, the young was impressed by the ruins of the chapel at Holyrood House-once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots. The sight of that unhappy lady's home in the moonlight led Mendelssohn to jot down a tune. Over years this blossomed into his third symphony. And why not call it 'Scottish'. "I have come up with the theme for my Scotch Symphony", wrote Mendelssohn. Indeed he had, even though thirteen years passed until the Symphony was ready. But it begins with that haunting tune, inspired by ruins in the moonlight:

So here we have Mendelssohn: handsome, German and purportedly in love with Scotland. How could Victoria resist? She didn't. During one of his many trips to Britain, the composer was invited to Buckingham Palace. Many an eyebrow raised as court, since Mendelssohn was Jewish and a composer. Not exactly respectable, since composers were known to run with fast women and have a predilection for drink

Mendelssohn's first visit to the Royal couple was on June 15, 1842. The Queen and the Prince were "quite fluttery" anticipating Mendelssohn's arrival.  The Queen reported that Mendelssohn "was very pleasing and modest...At one moment he played the Austrian national anthem with one hand and Rule Britannia with the other. We were all filled with the greatest admiration. Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he was done playing."

Mendelssohn came back a month later. The queen decided to sing for the composer "She will sing you something by Gluck. Meanwhile, . the Princess of Gotha had come in and we all proceeded through the various rooms and corridors to the Queen's boudoir. There stood a piano and two enormous bird cages. The Duchess of Kent came in, and while they were all talking I rummaged through the music and found two songs of my own, which I asked her to sing in place of the Gluck.":

 Mendelssohn and Queen Victoria reckoned without on of the Queen's favored pets:

"Just as we were about to begin, the Queen said 'But first we must get rid of the parrot, or he will scream louder than I can sing! Prince Albert rang the bell and the Prince of Gotha said 'I will take him out,'.  I came forward and said "Please allow me?' and lifted up the big cage and carried it to the astonished servants. "

Mendelssohn grit his teeth when Victoria chose to sing "Schoner und schoner schmuckt dich".  Mendelssohn could overlook the Queen singing D instead of D sharp but he pouted when admitting that this song was written not by himself but by another Mendelssohn, his sister Fanny.

 "I gave him a little ring in remembrance" wrote the Queen. They met twice more, in 1844 and 1847. Albert heard the composer conduct Elijah in London and sent a signed copy of the program with a windy but admiring inscription. The one favor Mendelssohn asked, to visit the Royal children, further endeared him to the couple.

Felix Mendelssohn died on November 4, 1847. The Queen was "horrified, astounded and distressed" at this news. "We liked and esteemed the excellent man & looked up to & amp; esteemed the wonderful genius and the great mind, which I feel were too much for the frail and delicate body."

For all his vigor in fathering nine children, Albert himself was frail. He did in 1861. Victoria was prostrate and claimed she would soon join him, so weak and heartsick was she. Forty years later-she did!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Biographer's Art: A Visit with Margot Peters

Margot Peters

Margot Peters has had a distinguished career, both in academia and as a biographer.

 Her subjects have included George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and poet/icon May Sarton.  Her latest book is a biography of poet Lorine Niedecker, Lorine Niedecker, A Poet's Life, available now from University of Rochester Press.

I was interested in how a biographer begins her work, and whether of not views of the subject change over time.

Margot Peters spoke to me on the phone from her home in Wisconsin

CP: What does it take to be a biographer?

MP: An organized mind. And the ability out of the million facts that you get, to see patterns.
And you have to have a narrative sense, to carry the reader. But if you can see patters out of all your research, that's when it begins to become a biography.

CP: How long does it take to find those patterns?

MP: I know that I have it when I tell myself, even if I discover things about his person, they won't surprise me. They will fit in.

CP: Many of your books deal with the theater
MP: Yes!
CP:  I know the theater is a passion of yours. The first book of yours that I read was your book on Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I had heard then name but didn't really know much about her. What inspired you to go to her?

MP:  I had written a biography of George Bernard Shaw. It's called Bernard Shaw and the Actresses-bad title!-it should have been called Shaw and the New Woman.  He wrote wonderful roles for women. He was very involved with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. He was in love with her. After I was finished with Shaw and the Actresses, which dealt with many actresses I thought, Oh-there's not a good biography of Stella Campbell. I think there should be. She's witty. A Wonderful snob, She was a great-some people say-actress, and she had a colorful life.

CP:  Could you tell strictly from your research what kind of actress she was?

MP:  I think so. There were lengthy theater reviews in those days. We're talking the 1890s--1910-1920s, Theater reviews went on and on. They'd describe the tone of voice, timbre, action, how she turned her back at crucial moments in a play. They really described very thoroughly. I think I think I have a sense of how she would have acted. The films did not help me very much. She was older, she had let herself go, she was unused to film as a medium. It was good to see her on film, but I think I grasped her acting as a young actress.

CP: When you're researching a subject do you start with one mindset about them,  then through your research change your mind?

Stella Patrick Campbell 1865-1940
MP: I think all biographers-or many of them-change their minds.  Shaw was an absolute hero to me. For his socialism, for his feminism, for his brilliance. But he was not very nice with women. He was a philanderer when he was young. He could be cruel. I had to make all kinds of adjustments in writing that book. I had to reconcile this true feminist who wrote great roles for women, with a sometimes  nastily behaving man towards women. That was a problem. He tore some actors apart. He was out for Sir Henry Irving. He felt Irving was behind times, he wasn't current with the new drama. He just ripped him apart. Later Irving said, "I'd be glad to pay for this man's funeral!"

CP:  You have reintroduced Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne to the public. Tell me who they were in context of their own times

MP: Lunt and Fontanne are a genius, as one critic said. Together-and the seldom performed separately-they created absolute magic. Their timing was perfect. Their sense of humor, their comedy. Alfred I think was the far better actor. But after he hitched up with Lynn, Lynn had to have wonderful women's roles. I  think he would be the greater actor.

CP:  Some of the plays they did were not very good. Without them they would not be performed. Was that deliberate on their part?

MP:  Noel Coward was their closest friend. One of the plays he wrote for them, Quadrille, is not good. I suspect it was one of these friendships, you did it to be all involved together. Yes, they were in some bad plays, but they had good roles--for them.

CP: Why do you think they so seldom worked separately?
MP: They started separately. The acted together after they got married. Then, I think, as this sounds really petty, I think that she was horribly jealous of his leading ladies.Helen ?Hayes was in love with him. Lynn didn't want anyone with Alfred except herself.

CP: As far as I know, only one of your subjects was living at the time you were working with them, and that was May Sarton.
MP: How true! Never work with a living subject!
CP: Will you ever do it again, after that?
MP: Never
CP: What's the difference between a subject living or not living.
MP: I did the living subject because I was interested in her, and her feminism and I thought it would be interesting to talk with a live person. But there quickly grew a battle between us. She wanted to talk to me, and yet she wanted to control her own life. She wanted to read and then control what I said.  She fired me twice!

I told my husband, "She's going to bury me!" She was so difficult, I really thought I could never do this. I was able to publish the book after she died.  It's a very blunt biography, but she told me most of it....all of her affairs, all of her philandering was incredible. And her temper. She was fascinating, but I would never work with anybody alive again.

CP: It a blunt biography and I know you've had some criticism
MP:  I got death threats!
CP: But people were so attracted to her. If you're into her you're really into her, you're really into her. Like Wagner.

MP: She had fans. She didn't have readers, she had fans.

CP:  Why were people attracted to her?
MP:  The vitality. I used to show a film of her to my students, called A World of Light. I taught a class called Women's Voices Women's Lives, and in that film she is incandescent. She is so vital, so alive, I thought what a wonderful woman! And it turned out she was almost empty. No, she couldn't be empty, but she had so little self.

CP: She was an actress

May Sarton (1912-1995)
MP: She was.  She overwhelmed these audiences with her beautiful voice and her poetry. She was a huge success.
CP: I  think the bluntness of the book reflects her very well. She should not have been surprised .
MP: No! She told me all of this

CP: If she read the book herself she may not have liked it but he could not have been surprised. I don't appreciate her work any less. I don't think she was a great writer

MP: I don't either

CP;  That's why I was really curious why she had such a fan base

MP: Some of her novels are good. Some of them are quite good, but that's the most you can say. Some of them are very bad. Her poetry has appeal, especially when she would read it aloud. I was interested in her because of her journals.  I said to myself, it doesn't matter that she's a lesbian, well it certainly did!

CP: In what way?

MP: Not being lesbian myself should I be writing this person?  But no, it doesn't matter. She's a human being. But she was so lesbian, she was so involved with so many women. Her promiscuity bothered me.
But it would bother me in a heterosexual.
CP: She seemed predatory about it

MP: Yes, she was predatory. Yes.
Lorine Niedecker

CP: Finally I'm intrigued by your latest book about a poet I didn't know .

MP: Lorine Niedecker. A wonderful poet. A hard, hard life. Poverty. Living alone on Blackhawk island that flooded frequently. There was loneliness. Then she makes a connection with a poet in New York and that gives her energy to publish. She had only four books published in her lifetime.  She is a wonderful poet. She's a wonderful human being.

CP: A little different than May Sarton.
When you speak of poets working alone Emily Dickinson always comes up. but if you've been to
Amherst you know there's a difference between splendid isolation and really living alone .

CP: Any final thoughts for a would be biographer? Make sure they're dead.

MP: Make sure they're dead. Number one. Don't write about anyone living. Don't choose a living celebrity. you have to split fifty-fifty with them. You can't say what you want. If the person's living, you don't gt an honest biography. Very few subjects would allow that. Do lots of research. Looks for the pattern always. I use psychology but I don't broadcast it. I don't go in to long psychological  analyses. Write well!