Friday, April 26, 2013


(pic: Robert Schumann)

I, the Widder, thank all who have joined up. Rather brave, it seems to me. Just for info, I am on Facebook as Mrs John Claggart. Ahi! Facebook! Quelle cliché !!! The Widder could use a poke, but not cybernetically!!!! But those looking for a disembodied "friend" can look me up. I mostly post You Tube links, some surprising, but my hate boils over too, so that's fun.

I have been most moved by a film of the old Alfred Cortot, playing "Der Dichter Spricht".

This is the the thirteenth and last piece of the Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) composed in 1838 by Schumann; and here, Cortot is filmed giving a masterclass (in French, but his intent is clear). It's a very simple piece, which he acknowledges. We can assume the child is asleep. Somehow, through touch and intent, Cortot suggests -- through touch, for this is the piano -- that percussive instrument -- "you must dream this piece, rather than play it." Notes become spirit and immortality -- is there such a thing? Or is that merely what we dream as children, when sleep has obliterated time, indeed, has cured us, oh, so temporarily from that disease called consciousness? Neither life nor death matters for a little while but perhaps there is something fluttering about us that we can almost touch, "spirit" Cortot says. The adult who plays, in this case a very old man, 81, knows, that we will live, most of us, coarse and silly lives, make serious and stupid mistakes, lose the game, and that we will die. But in playing this piece he must convey that impossible hope we all have in dreams -- the good ones --- that suspicion, that just beyond is ... well, who knows? This little piece ends. Or rather as Cortot says, "fades away"

Roland Barthes, who loved Schumann, wrote of this piece, "Schumann is truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and intimate soul that speaks to itself...."

The frightening Theodor Adorno (nee Wiesengrund) makes a distinction between the "false" in art: that merely depicts, and the "true", which speaks. He seems to have thought that the earlier scenes, charming as they are, are standard genre scenes of a Biedermeier childhood. It is in this final movement that Schumann tells the truth, gently casts aside the artist pose and even his announced theme, and seeks to express in this simple style, his deepest, private thoughts. Adorno thought Der Dichter Spricht was an early form of "expressionism"

Schumann, in a very simple way, instructs us to listen, perhaps differently to this piece. The one before it, Kind im Enschlummern (child dozing off), ends unexpectedly on the subdominant (A minor) not the tonic (E minor). This is a cadential dissonance, which means that the piece is left unresolved. A question hangs in the air. Der Dichter Spricht is in G major, the prevailing key of the work, and since this is the final piece it is where the work has been tending all along. It contains as Cortot remarks, questions, but no answers; perhaps no questions have answers in life. The lucky among us fade away to nothing. Heart stops. Body bleeds out. Brain collapses. It is important,  perhaps crucial, merely to have raised the questions, bravely, without expecting answers.

Schumann was a double spirited creator. For one thing he had aspired for a time to be a poet; music made that impossible for him, it engulfed him. His access to odd or emotionally immediate states of mind may have led to his later breakdown. For a long time, scholars asserted that Schumann was bipolar, and they used his febrile, self contradictory work to justify a popular theory that all creative artists are bipolar (but not bi), though not all end up in insane asylums, as Schumann did. Holders of this theory point to "fatigue" in his late work (the violin concerto for example), and notice that he and many other creators experience "manic" moods, where they are very productive, brave, sometimes "original"; and "depressive" periods where their creativity lessens, even dries up, and any work produced is "tired", "halfhearted", not "fully realized".

(pic, the young Clara Wieck Schumann)

Looking at the short Kinderscenzen, these people argue that there is a feeling of spontaneous invention, though Schumann worked hard and generated more pieces than he used. And that there is role play and disassociation,  two symptoms of bipolar disturbance. These people argue that some of the pieces are "manic". The composer as child, tender dreamer (the famous Träumerei, also the opening and closing musical theme in the 1947 Hollywood film Song of Love starring Katherine Hepburn as Mrs.Schumann) 

(Cortot plays Träumerei)

Robert was never an earner and was thought eccentric. The 1830's were his best decade.  He accompanied his far more successful and practical wife, the famous pianist, Clara Wieck, to Russia where she enjoyed enormous acclaim. On their return, in late 1844, he abandoned his critical writing, brilliant as it was, and began to have periods of sustained exhaustion, shivering, a terror of death and worst, for a composer, tinnitus. He confided in his diary that he heard the A5 (a very, very high A) clanging almost continuously in his ears.

(pic: young Brahms)

On September 30, 1853, the twenty year old Johannes Brahms, a genius certainly, but what was probably more immediately apparent, a beauty who looked younger than his years, knocked on the Schumanns' door, unannounced  It was love at first sight on all sides. Later, Brahms worked closely with Clara to popularize Schumann's work (a difficult task, the English in particular hated it). Some assume Brahms and Clara had either a consummated fling, or an intensely neurotic, sexually obsessive but tensely restrained involvement. 

The Schumanns were awed by Brahms' talent, though even their connections did not ease his way to prominence. Much later, in 1869, Brahms wrote one of his most popular pieces, The Alto Rhapsody, as a wedding present for Julie Schumann, daughter of his close friends. The text from Goethe -- a confession of lifelong loneliness by a man pessimistic about finding love -- and the undertone of heat broken longing, has led many to assume that Brahms was secretly in love with Julie. But I wonder if this was simply a cover; the love of his life may have been Clara and this moving piece may have been about the impossibility of either expressing that love openly, or perhaps, even fully to each other.  

Marian Anderson sings The Alto Rhapsody, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Municipal Chorus of San Francisco, Pierre Monteux, conductor. Recorded March 3, 1945.

It is forbidden to speculate on whether Robert Schumann and Brahms also were in love. Schumann confessed to his diary that he had indulged homosexual experimentation as a young man, though young ladies also figured in his imagination (the prolonged and bitter effort to marry Clara against her father's wishes, two days before she was free of needing his permission, suggests what Nietzsche might have called "self overcoming" through terrible struggle and upheaval. There are those who would snark that Schumann was "trying too hard to prove...") The Schumanns had eight children, the girls were more stable than the boys, and Robert apparently loved Clara at first. Somewhat peculiarly, given all those children, his postlude to Widmung quotes Schubert's Ave Maria, a hymn to the Virgin Mary, odd in a non-Catholic  -- and then -- Clara was needed to keep things going and money coming in through her well compensated tours. She was made of steel. Eventually he seems to have come to resent her.

This is from the movie: SONG OF LOVE with Kate Hepburn. Perhaps the Widder Claggart, one of these days, will tell of an August in her youth, spent with Kate at Fenwick, invited officially by her, but really by her playwright brother, the too aptly named Dick. I love my small band of followers, but perhaps need more to venture into autobiography.

 (Katharine Hepburn - Clara Schumann, Henry Daniell - Franz Liszt, Robert Walker - Johannes Brahms, Paul Henreid - Robert Schumann
"Widmung" Schumann versus Liszt Transcription)

Brahms hardly had a conventional sex life, female prostitutes figured heavily in it (It's possible he played in the parlors of brothels early on to make ends meet -- some scholars have doubted this story, but Brahms told versions of it throughout his life -- self dramatization? But at the time, it was a shameful confession for someone finally acclaimed as a great master. I believe Brahms. One wonders if some of the "trade" parading those parlors or dance halls were transvestites, a typical way gay young men sold themselves when the need arose. In later years he cashed his royalty checks and kept the money in a closet in his Vienna apartment. The working girls simply helped themselves and thus adored him, no doubt choking on the composer's excessive cigar smoking. His addiction to cigars occasioned a painful, lonely death. Well, how does the cliché go? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! And sometimes...?)

And yet, given the softness of his features, his androgyny as a young man, can one view his frustration and longing for female love as a "screen"? And, as successful as he came to be, surely it would not have been impossible for him to find a loving woman. After all, Alma Mahler gave her virginity to her composition teacher, Alexander Von Zemlinsky, mainly, perhaps, to shock her parents -- he was considered "the ugliest man in Vienna". But she went on to marry the second ugliest man in Vienna, Gustav Mahler, though, no doubt, his power was a potent aphrodisiac  Also strange, both men were Jews, and Alma's private writing reveals a considerable degree of Antisemitism. Of course, she betrayed Mahler with a much better looking, younger man, broke his heart, but still... is one to think the Great Brahms couldn't have done better somewhat earlier but in the same milieu? 
(Mahler: A Life by Jonathan Carr uses over-looked and recently discovered documents by Alma to paint quite a portrait, though it's not a surprise that she was a monster, the degree to which she was is amazing.)

One of my favorite Schumann works is Carnaval, composed in 1834-35. This amazing group of 22 pieces (only 20 are numbered), most of them titled, revolves around three ciphers of four notes each. They are threaded through most of the pieces but not all. The first, Preambule, does not have them but instead contains an homage to Franz Schubert (Schumann was an early champion, and he chose Schubert's Waltzes of Longing -- Sehnsuchtswalzer -- initially for a set of variations, which gave him the opening theme for Carnaval. A key to the work then, longing within a festive context.)

Schubert has been thought of as a candidate for homosexuality, though he died at 31, probably of syphilis. It does seem as though he was, now and then, "kept" by better off men in a circle that seems full of intense feelings between males. Schubert's letters to a young man named Schober, a divisive figure in the circle, who lived with Schubert (supported him?) for a time, suggest an erotic charge between them. Searchers after Schubert's gayness have noted that the cafes and bars his entirely male circle frequented were also frequented by transvestites; that the arrest of four members of this circle including the composer, though ostensibly political, may have also been for "immorality" (gayness). Young women were conspicuous by their absence in Schubert's Bohemian group and the composer doesn't appear to have had a serious girlfriend; a very early attempt to marry a soprano is used by the "no genius can be gay" group as proof of something, overlooking the number of gay men and women of gifts who have been married or who, when young, considered marriage (and there is no indication there was a sexual charge between them as there was between the composer -- nicknamed "Schwämmerl" -- "mushroomie" by his pals -- and Schober.) Schumann might have heard rumors; and if he thought Schubert was gay, he isn't the only composer to have "intuited" that, Benjamin Britten thought so too.

In Carnaval, among the characters is an old girl friend of Schumann's, "Estrelita" (she was Ernestine von Fricken), that's number 13. That's followed by a movement marked animato and titled Reconnaisance -- apparently they bump into one another at a party and run away from each other! And she's followed by those commedia figures, Pantelone and Columbine, we've already run into Pierrot and Arlequin, and it's all tending to the thrilling finale, an attack on "philistines" (we live in a society full of them, I think Herr Schumann was luckier), this is called Marche des "Davidsbündler" contre les Philistins, number twenty, which quotes a 17th century waltz, some of the earlier sections of Carnival and then whirls into a wild, whirling dance of life and defiance. 

There are two sections that I especially love: One is a tribute to Frèdèric Chopin and in fact is called Chopin (number 12). Schumann was a great and prescient music critic, and adored Chopin. Alas, Chopin didn't think of Schumann's output as music. But there is such restless longing in the music (it is marked agitato and is part imitation of and part comment on Chopin's songful style married to Schumann's double nature, a testing, fast bass moving against a lush melody).

That is Cortot.

Another part of Caranval is called Sphinxes. This has three sections, one bar each -- no key, no tempo, no other indications. Schumann seems to have wanted listeners to intuit what was going on there and it usually isn't played. Cortot plays it, and so does Rachmaninoff. and some think these pianists were arrogant to improvise around these notes, since solutions must be found as to just what should sound.

Sphinxes is at the core of the work, and the "theme" of Carnaval is ciphers, mystery, a casting off of public identity -- a convenient cloak for getting along in a society. In Carnaval as celebrated in history, people wore masks, dressed up, even cross dressed. Men can be feminine under their disguises, women can dispense with the required reserve, and an entire personality can whirl itself into a creative flux: neither male nor female, good nor bad, fully itself or completely other. Carnaval is, for me, a triumph of what only great artists can do, abandon all the rules of what "I" or "You" must be, play, sing, act, joke, tease, mystify, dance -- and escape gravity. It is a phenomenal work. So naturally, anyone who creates something like that must be nuts, and should be put in a mental asylum. An enormous number of researchers into the workings of the mind (!) right up to the present day, seem to feel that is only just.

However, Schumann did cooperate. On 27 February 1854, he jumped into the Rhine. Rescued by boatmen and taken home, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until he died on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46. But he had voluntarily committed himself and early on, to a considerable extent, he recovered. He might have discharged himself but he didn't feel "cured". Then again, he hated where he was being held and repeatedly asked friends and family to have him transferred somewhere else. Who was he trying to get away from? Himself? Clara? His identity as the man of a family where the woman wore the pants? Schumann was convinced that he was misunderstood by the physicians who were supposed to cure him — and there is evidence to support his claim. But when he was upset, the ministrations of the young male trustees calmed him. He asked for Clara but she didn't want to visit. No one knows why. Finally, perhaps succumbing to pressure, she did visit her husband once, two days before his death.

(Carnaval, recorded by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1929).

The older Clara.

Schumann wasn't well regarded in his lifetime but when he finally came to be considered a great composer, a vast ocean of books were written about his mental condition. As recently as 2004 Dr. Richard Kohan of Cornell and Julliard asserts that Carnaval "could not have been written by someone who did not suffer from bipolar disorder". He calls it, "practically a catalog of bipolar symptomatology". In a delectable and sadly necessary marketing ploy, The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestra used "bipolar Schumann" as the basis for mini-festivals. Don't come for the music, but for the insanity! Using the title of a sentimental and foolish film, the Baltimore Symphony presented something called Schumann's Beautiful Mind. If one accepts that Schumann's music is great because he was crazy then I don't know what that tells us about how arts are valued in Fecund America Today. Though Robert really wanted more appreciation for his work, I don't know how comforting this kind of acclaim would have been.

However, not every investigator thinks the issue was bipolar illness. In 1906, the German psychiatrist Paul Julius Möbius, who thought that mental illness was typical of hereditary degeneration, published a “pathographie” of the composer. “Listening to Schumann’s music,” Möbius wrote, “instructs one that Schumann was an extremely nervous person. It seems evident that from youth onward Schumann was mentally ill.” And he 'diagnosed" Schumann, without ever meeting him, of course, with dementia praecox, which we call schizophrenia.

There was some disagreement. The Nazis held Schumann up as a shining example of German biological superiority. They lost little time in passing a law that mandated sterilization for anyone diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness (psychiatrists were battling over what suit best fit Schumann long after he was dust). By 1945, almost 400,000 people had undergone forced sterilization. At least 70,000 had been murdered. 

But the Nazis needed Schumann. They had banned Mendelssohn's "Jewish" Violin Concerto. so Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, arranged the premiere of Schumann's Violin Concerto in 1937. Nazi psychiatrists (I seem to have paid a few of them a lot of money) held that Schumann's troubles and death were brought on by a series of strokes.
However, the American villain isn't a Nazi, but a sweet academic genital female known as Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor at Johns Hopkins University whose hit was a book of essays about Schumann sweetly titled “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” (Free Press) from 1993. It is probably the best-known study to argue for connections between bipolar disorder and genius. Performances and marketing of “manic-depressive music” are largely indebted to her work.
But were no records kept about Schumann's condition when he was confined? Did no professionals of that era keep notes stemming from interviews with and observations of him?

In 1991 Schumann’s "lost" medical records from the Endenich asylum resurfaced. Aribert Reimann, composer of the impressive opera, Lear, though I am very fond of Melusine, and also of The Castle, whose grandfather’s sister had married a son of Schumann's doctor, Richarz, inherited the records on the condition he keep them secret. Reimann eventually offered them to the Berlin Academy of the Arts. In 2006, 150 years after Schumann’s death, the records were published in their entirety (a few pages were evidently lost during World War II). Many scholars believe they indicate that Schumann died of neurosyphilis. But because conclusive diagnosis of syphilis was not possible until the early 20th century, the records cannot resolve all diagnostic disagreements. Published alongside the records are analyses whose conflicting readings dispel notions that the records relay straightforward or easy truths.

According to studies by the musicologist and literary scholar Eric Sams (author of one of my favorite books on that eternal puzzle, William Shakespeare, The Real Shakespeare, retrieving the early years, 1564-1594, but also of The Songs of Robert Schumann (1969; revised 1993), and a brilliant consideration of The Songs of Hugo Wolf, who also ended up in an asylum, Schumann's symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning, mercury at this time being a common treatment for syphilis and other conditions. Sams also wonders why none of the posthumous pychoanalysts looked at Schumann's autopsy. That exists and suggests that he had a "gelatinous" tumor at the base of the brain; it may have represented a colloid cyst, a craniopharynggioma, a chordoma, or a chordoidmeningioma -- meningiomas are known to produce musical auditory hallucinations, such as Schumann complained of.

Sams was a student of ciphers and in an interview given to John Tibbets for a book from 2004 called The World of Robert Schumann, remarked: “I began as a linguist in the intelligence corps but I didn’t hear cipher in Schumann until I heard the D Minor Symphony and what you hear in that is what everyone had heard in different generations. You hear monothematicism, to use one word for it. You hear the same thing and the same theme and almost in the same meaningful sense over and over again repeated almost obsessively. You hear it at the beginning of the Symphony most clearly, and what it says is C,B, A, G#, A—in other words, C, something, A, something, A, and it’s perfectly clear that what it’s actually saying is Clara. I don’t mean that it’s actually depicting her in her various moods, but I mean that Schumann throughout the length of the Symphony had his wife and his relationship to her and his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness in that connection and his hope for later triumph and future happiness all go into the Symphony, and I think they all come to the ears of the listener through an awareness of that theme."
Sams continues, "and when he comes to the end to see the theme again in the major—the last movement is kind of a triumphant finale—and what it seems to say is that he has been—and I’m sure he had good reason for thinking this—that he has been guilty and unworthy of Clara. But in the future, the music seems to say, all is going to be happiness, radiance, and light, and “I will prove worthy of her.” In thinking of the Clara Symphony, he isn’t just saying things about her; he’s saying things about himself and their relationship and making a programatic type of music pattern. That’s as I hear the music."

If one views the organization of pitches as a code (and that seems just) then music is full of secret meanings. They may be intuited, and perhaps it is in the nature of the artist using code (as opposed to the spy in a war) that one shouldn't expect consistency or clarity. But codes, symbols, dreams, illusions, "madness" mean multiple things. They signify the uncertainty of life lived as we live it; they call into question the very notion of "reality". Oh, we must label things, we humans, never more so than in the idiot crammed America of today. But were there superior beings watching us, in on the joke, how they must be laughing. And if some tiny mote of Schumann became "spirit" as Cortet suggests we may all, somehow, become spirits, perhaps that spirit finally has some joy knowing that what he created wasn't noise, or silliness or "not music", but a gateway to the safe danger the sane madness that art must offer us to be art.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


After the catastrophically bad Met Siegfried Saturday, April 21, with an unbelievably painful to hear final duet, (and they had their propagandists telling everybody this conductor, Luisi, was great -- maybe at making cold vegan Lasagna) -- I was reminded that last week I was wondering whether the lousy casts of the Met's Ring were a response to the awful Lepage production. Given the long lead time of opera casting, I doubted it. But I received the following communication from an "insider":

"A good friend of mine stood on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera when Bryn Terfel said he would honor his contract for the complete three cycles of the Ring last year, but would cancel his contract for Gelb's second coming of the disaster. He described the production as unsafe and he was no longer going to risk his life and limbs as he cared more about being a Father to his children. This necessitated the hiring of the bellowing Delavan and even worse Grimsley, as anyone else worth their weight in salt either was booked, or would not work with the Lepage debacle. Apparently they are running at 51% capacity, which necessitates Gelb to go to "little old lady land" to find money to offset the disastrous take. My understanding from my spy on the Board is he has been given a contract extension at the whim of Board Chairperson Ann Ziff who has now given a genuine fortune to cover his disasters. The Board has remained mute for fear if they try to push her, they will have to cover the losses themselves....though the majority would like to see his backside I've been told...."

Further this confident wrote:

"Ziff initially gave 38 mil, which essentially was gobbled up by the Ring, the second gift brought her to 53 mil and guaranteed her chairmanship and with it Gelb. It's sad, meanwhile Deborah Borda who was given the job, only to have it taken away is in LA..."

I have no reason to distrust this person and know from other sources that his numbers are ballpark. Although I think most people know the Borda story, perhaps it's worth repeating. She had run the New York Philharmonic with great success; she is a musician of superb training, and has a passion for opera. She was assured she had the job. Now I don't know if that means that some board insiders promised it to her, or if there was a handshake all 'round. Gelb had been dismissed from Sony, which he left a wreck. A stupid man, uneducated, a philistine and a fool, he had already been thrown out of the Met by Joseph Volpe (no threat to Niels Bohr but actually a decent practical manager) as a money wasting idiot. He needed a job.

Suddenly!!! Like the Yenta of the Night, Beverly Sills --

-- about to eat lunch. ("You know," she told the Widder Claggart over breakfast once, "I started my career in a whore house... singing" If that was singing give me syphilis! But she knew all about selling herself. And stabbing people in the back. Just ask Phyllis Curtain, June Anderson, the late Jerry Hadley and the great Patricia Brooks).

Sills was a superbly connected operator politically and socially, through her wealthy WASP husband. She decided to help Peter Gelb. His father, the homophobic idiot, Arthur, had helped her in her career by pushing her at The New York Times, where he was the Capo, as they say in the Mafia. She paid back the favor. She stabbed Borda, and proposed Peter Gelb, who was jabbed into the job, and Borda went to LA to run the Philharmonic.

I asked a friend, a wealthy insider, about operations there. He responded:

"She's a major success with innovative programming, raves from the public and critics alike and a healthy operation which to my understanding is in the black."

Although I think opera is dead in America, and is probably dying as a form, as most art forms inherited from the 19th century are in a world suddenly inimical to what these arts require from their audiences, it's a sad story about the Met. Stupidity has conquered there as it has throughout American society.

But since I was talking about Die Walküre there's a recent recording: I call it Once Over Lightly Through The Magic Fire:

Complete recordings of Die Walküre, the most popular opera from Richard Wagner’s Ring, can be stacked into a mountain. This one is conducted by the highly promoted Valery Gergiev conducting “his” orchestra from the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. It stars three of today’s hottest Wagnerians: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, René Pape as Wotan, and Nina Stemme, our reigning Brünnhilde. It’s a multi-miked, sonically highly contrived bore. Gergiev is superficial, scenes don’t play for theatrical impact, he fails to get his (sometimes iffy) orchestra to dig into rhythms, phrases lack imagination, and he seems to miss the point of details, even when he observes them. Slow or fast doesn’t matter that much—one of the best studio stand-alone Walküres, the very inexpensive Leinsdorf recording, now on Decca, is fast but firm, alert and well pointed. The live Bayreuth performance conducted by Clemens Krauss in 1953 is swift but thrilling. Gergiev is simply noncommittal.

There isn’t much the singers can do in this context. Siegmund is low for Kaufmann; here he settles for dignity. His most beautiful moment is his farewell to the sleeping Sieglinde in Act 2, “Zauberfest”. There are some other wonderful sounding phrases, but exaltation and grief are gone. He is a mid weight tenor, a very dark sounding lyric and his voice sounds its best live when he can move upwards. He has an exciting top, maybe a little short of overtones but still potent. He's audible throughout the range even in the huge spaces of the Metropolitan opera but not in a way that carries much sheer impact. His Parsifal recently was a well gauged performance, which he paced well, taking some understandable refuge in atmospheric whispers, but he was able to sing out to some effect in both "Amfortas! Die Wunde" and the final declaration, "Nur eine Waffe taugt".

But Parsifal is an essentially lyric part, with little to sing in act one, carefully set up moments in act two, and a moderately demanding though not exhausting act three. Kaufmann had neither the enormous impact nor emotional abandon of Jon Vickers, who literally sought to become Jesus Christ in act two and did, in the best of his performances, even doing a little levitation.

Kaufmann has artistic intent, genuine intelligence, a voice that works and he looks great --

(Jonas and Mrs. John Claggart's granddaughter, though we are often taken for twins!)

--for the queens of New York that is God enough. But there is something a little business like about him live; he's always a careful pro measuring out his effects. Siegmund is too low for him; everyone knows it's virtually a baritone part, though one that has an exposed climax in act one in "Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater" as the beset warrior poet cries out what he thinks is his father's name -- Waelse. It is sung twice, first on a G-flat and then again on a G -- this is passaggio area for a tenor and difficult. Melchior used to sit on it for days (as can be heard on broadcasts from the Met), Vickers would shake the walls. Kaufmann manages within his means. That he must calculate his effects in a role so consistently low mutes his performance and robs what he does of color. At the Met live, he was sabotaged by Lepage's amateurish direction of the singers, the tremulous Levine's shaky control, especially on the first night, and his own caution. This shouldn't matter on a recording but it does; he's dull. His recent Decca Wagner collection is far more compelling (though oddly the Walküre selection, "Ein Schwert...", is weak there too).

Rene Pape should have been a truly great singer. That the various and abundant idiots describe him as such is only an admission of their ignorance and lowered expectation. After all, just think of the scum bag opinion makers such as the moron Charles Michener, the former priest James Oetreich (well, whether he got fucked as he fucked over writers in his Times post, he got shrived and arranged to marry a genital female)and the monstrous, Manuella Hoelterhoff Bloomburger-muncher whose last ghost writer -- she doesn't know anything about music though she won a Pulitzer for writing about it (!) -- committed suicide rather than take another phone call from her.

Pape began with a magnificent rolling basso cantante, ideal for the Wagner "Heldenbariton" roles.

I once encountered the mighty Aussie, Sally Billinghurst, a secretary, who, through will and the fact that dumb as she is, everyone around her was dumber, rose high at the Met in casting. This encounter happened in the late 90's but I remember the conversation thus:

Mrs. John Claggart: "Pape is so wonderful sounding that he should be moving into Wotan." Billinghurst: "He's too young."
The Widder Claggart: "But Freidrich Schorr and Hans Hotter had done complete Ring Cycles by the time they were 25."
Billinghurst: "Who?"

She had no idea who they were -- two of the greatest and most iconic Wagner bass-baritones of the 20th century, and well documented as well. How do you advise on casting when you have no standards, no idea of what can be achieved in difficult roles? Pape was always an interpretative lightweight but at the time one reasonably expected more depth would come. Well by miracle or magic spell or mayhap both, or perhaps it was true love -- lovelovelove!!! -- Billinghurst --

-- has made a formidable marriage to a power on the Met Board so we know The Met's an institution where cretins rise, as farts do in a steam bath after everyone has lunched on baked beans.

But then again, there is her colleague in charge of casting at the Met, one Jonathan Friend, a homely dwarf who is the niece or nephew (one would need a gynecological investigation to be sure) of the horror with the wooden teeth, Joan Ingpen. She was casting black widow spider at Covent Garden and then the Met when both often offered the worst casts to be found in a world vocally richer than ours. Friend (enemy of the art)was made head of casting at the Met in her wake, before her wake (nothing splinters a family more than wooden teeth, maybe they decided not to wake her, I'm sure they didn't want to wake her up!). It is rumored that Friend got his job through sexual intrigue (if true, desperation and blindness would have to explain such an erection to power).

Astrid Varnay was mentioned to him. "You mean the comprinario?" He responded (it is averred) in his fraudulent upper class accent, for like Eliza Dolittle he is from the London gutter -- that comprimaria -- as Varnay being a genital female for certain would be described -- was one of the greatest and most widely documented Brünnhildes and Elektras of the 50's and 60's, a great star.

These are the insects who cast at the once great Met. Gelb's Met.

Pape sounds pressured even on the CD; the mikes are so close that a hoarse edge can be heard on his tone. It’s still often an impressive sound, but he makes nothing at all of the words and, like the conductor, skates over the trickier passages while phrasing like a lump. No rage, heartbreak, or terror here: when he accuses and punishes Brünnhilde in Act Three it sounds like he’s chiding her for leaving the crusts on the cucumber sandwiches.

Anna Kampe, Sieglinde, and Ekaterina Gubanova, very tame as the fierce Fricka, are well-routined pros, no more, no less. The Valkyries drafted for the famous “Ride” are nothing special compared to any number of other complete recordings, Gergiev’s rhythm is unsteady, and the thousand mikes do not pick up the wonderful orchestral details in this sequence. They can be heard on another speedy but spectacularly played and recorded Walküre, that by Marek Janowski (soon to be cheap on Sony).

Nina Stemme, Brünnhilde, takes over when she can and shows that even in this glib, glossy context, the words and phrases can matter; tension, suspense, grief, and exaltation can be expressed. She can’t do it enough to save the performance and one might argue that it is a good, very secure voice rather than a great one, but it shows her as a powerfully expressive singer. Those obsessed with this over-sold conductor and these famous singers will bite, others interested in Die Walküre should look elsewhere.

Leinsdorf and Janowski are genuine bargains. Leinsdorf has the better cast and also the London Symphony playing splendidly. Jon Vickers in his prime, and Birgit Nilsson more or less at the start of her big international career are thrilling, as is Rita Gorr, an amazing Fricka. George London and Gré Brouwenstijn, great singers both, struggle here a bit, and David Ward sings Hunding as as Head Butler.

Janowski starts off small scaled and a little cautious though he has the advantage of the spectacular Dresden Staatskapelle. His first act has Jessye Norman and Kurt Moll in their absolute primes and both are thrilling. Siegfried Jerusalem, a light tenor, who none the less went on to sing ALL the heavy Wagner roles is a capable Siegmund. The Valkyries who include Cheryl Studer in her prime and the less famous but very good Ruth Falcon are frankly amazing. Trills are real and in place. Tuning, blending and contrasting is perfect, and as for the orchestra, when was the last time you heard the harp glissandi in "The Ride"? Not "miked up" but as part of the entire orchestral sonority. Janowski has an old sounding but authoritative Wotan, Theo Adam, and the gifted but out of her depth American, Jeannine Altmeyer as Brünnhilde, who does some good and some not so good singing in a twangy American accent!!!

One could go on to two Furtwaengler performances, the one, recorded live an act at a time, from Rome radio, not a very good orchestra and with a somewhat spotty, though committed cast. The second, an EMI commercial recording, is a stand alone. Furtwangler died shortly after it was made. EMI had hoped to record a complete Ring with him.

The Rome performance, though a must for widders who adore this conductor,

(He worshipped the Greeks and Stefan George as a young beauty, latter changing to worshiping women!!!)

(He was said to wield a huge baton in life as well as in art!! Ahi..........)

The Widder fainted there--

but was saying, The Rome performance has serious limits in execution, though with no retakes, a standard broadcast set up and a lesser orchestra he runs rings around Gergiev not only in understanding, but in technical skill, the more impressive given the limits of some of the participants.

On EMI he has the Vienna Philharmonic who know exactly how to provide the ripe carefully inflected bass line he wanted, manage the gorgeously shaped transitions seamlessly and give unstintingly in the more emotional music. I adore this Brünnhilde, Martha Mödl (also on the Rome set)

but she is a special taste; a fascinating voice pushed up from contralto depths to an unreliable top, and apt to struggle through some of the trickier music. But what soul and emotional power!

(this is from The Ghost Sonata by Jay Reise, she sang until she was in her 90s)

Almost exactly the same things can be said about Ludwig Suthaus, the Siegmund. They and the conductor manage one of the two most moving Todesverkündigung ("Announcement of Death") Scenes I've heard on records, it's an overwhelming experience. (The other is the truly great part of the Karajan recording on DG, with a huge dynamic and coloristic range from the orchestra, which somehow, against the odds, sounds spontaneous here, and Jon Vickers and Regine Crespin as Brünnhilde -- she was a very famous and unforgettable Sieglinde, which she recorded for Solti -- but is among the most profound singers of this scene.)

Gottlob Frick is a stunning Hunding, and, one of the great German singers from the 30's, Margarete Klose, still has enough to make a fantastic Fricka. Unfortunately, Leonie Rysanek, a once in a lifetime singer, thrilling to see, cannot manage to sing a reliably tuned, consistently pleasant sounding Sieglinde (the role is too low for her), and the Wotan, Ferdinand Franz (also in Rome), though he began his career in the late forties with a beautiful voice, by the time of these recordings, tends to sound dry and struggle with the top, although he too has spirit and commitment.

Those who think I'm being hard on "Leonie" as she was known, can get a sense of her in the third act, recorded complete by EMI in 1951. Karajan's sweeping, thrilling conducting, the do or die abandon of Rysanek in what is the most congenial part of the role for her, the stunning Varnay and the beautiful sounding Sigurd Bjorling as Wotan (not to be confused with the legendary tenor, Jussi) makes this quite a statement of the act.

Well, my goodness, I could go on and on. But this week, I'll stop here. Next week, I will deal with the whoring of Maria Callas. The nonfictional account of the pimping of an artist by a raging bottom. Feeder, that is.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen should be playing in the background.

Mrs. John Claggart is sad. The Lumbago Rear-up afflicts her this week. So do the lacrimae rerum. Thanks to Publius Vergilius Maro, Virgil to you, for the phrase. I prefer to think that by "the tears of things" he means that "this is a world of tears". But then there are those consarned Latinists who think that the things poor Aeneas sees depicting the lost world of Troy weep for those whose eyes fall on them. In this sense even monuments weep. Well, Mrs. Claggart is monumental (see picture above). That, alas, cannot be denied. So she weeps for the world. But Mrs. Claggart is also sad, so she weeps for herself. In a monumental way.

She has more sobs than thoughts this week. Why bother with the appalling Die Walküre at the Met? There have been other awful performances there that have been broadcast and even celebrated. It's possible the ghastly setting and non-direction of Robert Lepage have discouraged good Wagner singers from committing to this revival. But since offers go out four or five years in advance, this awful cast may more support the notion that Gelb's Met is thought lesser by a lot of people internationally.

And the value of a big American career (crucial from the early fifties through the mid-eighties) has largely vanished. In a war wrecked Europe American fame had great prestige. And, after all, once upon a time when recorded music was a large and profitable business, record companies told singers that their getting a contract for more than a recital disc depended on a successful career at the Metropolitan Opera. And it was not only success in New York that mattered. The Texaco broadcasts were crucial in getting names out into the country. "New Releases" were always offered as part of the reward for having a question used on the famous Texaco Opera Quiz in the good old days, when they had guests who knew something about opera.

The Met tour, though not something every star liked, was important in giving singers prominent appearances and press in places where there was little or no professional opera. Finally, though travel was not as fast then as it is now, there were provincial companies that would cough up gilded fees for Met stars (though the star's colleagues might be Z league). They could be commuted to over a long weekend, which might include a no-rehearsal concert with a C level symphony orchestra.

There were rich symphony orchestras all around New York that would hire as a guest someone prominent from the Met and if they were famous, that was part of a "gala". And finally but importantly, from the early thirties to at least the early seventies, there were touring organizations that presented recitals by singers "Of The Metropolitan Opera", as part of season long series with "world famous" concert artists. These were a tremendous cultural gift to many remote places. I had a friend (yes, Mrs. Claggart has had them) who, in Anchorage, Alaska of all places, heard two or so "Stars of the Metropolitan Opera" every year in the local concert series. Naturally he and a lot of others (relatively speaking) went out and bought their records; and there, the local classical record store had an employee with stacks of LPs for signature and sale backstage after the final encore.

"Of the Metropolitan Opera" meant so much for a singer that the company had to threaten singers with suit for misusing it (or so Rudolf Bing's ghost writer avers in one of his books).

But the touring business is dead, sadly. The ramshackle "opera companies" of the fifties through the mid-seventies are gone too. Yes, they'd spend most of their budgets on a few Met stars, yielding up funny/thrilling performances, sometimes (unlike the "Old Met" or the new one for that matter) these were usually human sized theaters where big voices rang out resplendently, and the excited local obsessives drew sometimes committed performances from those who viewed New Yorkers more cynically. And sadly, all the local newspapers are gone. Those papers covered the visits of these stars as though the survival of the Western World depended on it. And the brick and mortar stores that stocked classical records, and used the visits of stars not only to sell their records but all the records on their labels that were in stock. And the radio is gone; the one local commercial station that played "classical" music (whatever the local definition). And the college stations that would saturate the air waves with the records of these stars and their colleagues and even their competition -- they're gone too.

And the record companies have all gone, and with them, the motive for singers to put up with their demands: royalties. Only a few super stars today have contracts that guarantee them one or two CDs a year and maybe a complete opera now and again. Sales figures can be hard to uncover, but it is safe to say that in comparison to the many recital discs and complete opera "sets" and "highlights records" of the nineteen sixties, for example, they are puny. In the past, Cecilia Bartoli and Angela Gheoghiu have sold between 150,000 and 200,000 copies world wide of each new CD, with good sales continuing for at least a few years. But Miss Bartoli, so I am told, is under 100,000 for her recent CD, for the first time since she became truly famous. And Madame Gheorghiu has fallen off more, with some recent recordings and one recent DVD described as "very disappointing". Opera DVDs are rarely much more than a break even enterprise.

With downloading, the carefully conceived and produced record album with its beautiful cover, expansive program notes, and texts and translations is really a thing of the past. Hell, that went the way of all flesh with the rise of the CD (the last profitable phase for classical recorded music; it's best years were twenty to thirty years ago).

I am sure for many very famous singers a triumph at the Met is still something they'd like; perhaps it is no longer something they dream of, and some even turn a potential triumph down. Met fees are not competitive with the biggest European houses; New York is far away from the always useful for income in and out guest appearances in Europe (especially since the death of the Concord). And while the HD broadcasts from the Met, with their doctored sound and carefully calculated camera angles are appealing, there is a long wait from their limited "live" transmissions to movie theaters to their appearing, frequently oddly scheduled and under-promoted, on sometimes hard to find PBS TV channels. This is very unlike Europe where telecasts of operas (and concerts) on TV and via Internet are commonplace and easy to find.

And naturally, the culture has changed. Who facing death now, can forget High Fidelity and Stereo Review, actual magazines, thick ones, with at least a few good writers on staff. Opera lovers were lucky to be able to read Conrad L. Osborne at High Fidelity, and William Flanagan (a composer with an interesting take on non vocal rep before he killed himself) at Stereo Review.

The tony, needless to say, waited, breath bated, for Gramophone, the English whore house, where record companies, through their huge ads, assured raves for often dreadful performances and expected reverence. (I remember enraging EMI, which paid for me to go to The Vienna New Year Concert as 1999 became 2000, Muti conducting. I was amused at how much fakery the producer ordered the engineers to do in "correcting" small performance flubs -- different players brought in for this or that solo for example, though the result of course would be be billed as "live".)

I was banned from the magazine for noticing how a recital record was laid out so that some music was recorded lower, then "lifted" to key digitally, how only sections of arias were recorded, so the final takes had in fact been assembled over four or so days each per aria, and most of the high notes were recorded on one long, tense morning, A, B flat and B and in reality, two very thin high C's -- later swollen by the magical console. Naturally, my copy was rewritten to avoid all hints of this phoniness. The relics who lasted at the Gramophone forever were mostly fools and frauds, but were revered by American idiots who of course could not consult a score, or even hear very well. Just read the recording morons at Opera Hell.

Well about Die Walküre, it hardly matters. I am told that ALL the Ring performances are being papered, and there is a heavy reliance on student and other discounts to try and "dress" the house. It may have less to do with ghastly casts and more to do with the irrelevance of the art form, which has a bad case of the lacrimae rerum, as it oozes from a "minority" interest into the esoteric and bizarre. Odd that "Gayness" once to be found all over the opera house (I saw lots of same sex acts in upstairs standing room but in downstairs standing too); and at best considered by the humane a "minority" sexual adaptation, is now a hot issue, with the quondam "impossible" gay marriage a litmus test of equality generally, but that opera is dead (in America).

But about Die Walküre, where are the voices? One would think that in the first world (and if anything is a first world entertainment it is opera)where nutrition and education have improved vastly since the days of Caruso, and health care is far more sophisticated and widely available than it was, there would be a plethora of grand, magnificent voices, some of them lodged in the throats of smart people with a commitment to new work, the only realistic way the form can survive.

Oh, there is one BIG EXCEPTION to that generalization. There is a huge first world country that has more starving people than China, one in six; where high school students are fifteenth in reading comprehension and writing skills, twentieth in science and twenty-fifth in math scores compared with other "advanced" countries, not all of them strictly "first world". Of course, people live less long there, suffer more and pay infinitely more for often restricted health care, too. That place is called The United States of America. Oddly enough there are lots of American opera singers, some very talented, who spend themselves into madness "training", then go out into the world. Most disappear.

In Europe it seems vocal talent has dried up -- yet it is there that the morons who are still at Gelb's Met in "casting" look, yea, even for Papagena and Zerlina, Masetto and Marcello. In the bygone era of a large, very poor working class, and a lower middle class richer in attitude than coin, there were innumerable singers emerging in Germany and France. They seemed to come from the mud in Italy. But French opera singing has died save for the Baroque specialists; there are good German voices but the system there as it has been revised from the "good old days" that lasted into the 1990's, now seems to ruin them before the singers mature and achieve technical proficiency. Dramatic voices are especially scarce. In Italy opera is a disaster. An interesting site, using "www. operabase/com" has complex numbers. At the end of the year 2010, twenty countries were ranked by number of operatic performances relative to population and size. Tiny Austria ranked at number one, Italy at number seventeen. In terms of 100 cities with the most operatic performances, Germany led the list with forty seven cities. Italy had only four cities that ranked -- Milan came in at number fifty four, Rome, at seventy one, and Trieste and Verona were ninety-five and ninety-nine.

In that year, Riccardo Muti, conducting Nabucco at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, addressed the audience when they hysterically demanded an encore of the "Va', pensiero" chorus. He ferociously attacked the government for cutting Italy's art budget (Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo). He said, "I don't want, today, in 2011, for Nabucco to become a funeral hymn to culture and music. I tell the chorus, the orchestra, the technicians to keep up their work, but their salaries don't even let them pay their bills at the end of the month. Culture is seen as some kind of aristocratic bonus by too many politicians, instead of being intrinsic to the nation's identity."

Oddly enough this year, Mrs. Claggart, old and alone, aweeping one afternoon, watched the trendy young political wonks (wankers might be the juster term) on MSNBC dismiss the value of PBS specifically because it telecast opera. This was led by one, Ezra Klein, who has learned to pleasure himself left handed (it probably feels like another person, a clumsy, tremulously shy frat bro doing it) while pecking out his screeds right handed, Game Boy close to hand, for even the young must fear chapping after their onanistic exercises. Other idiots on the program threw in the ballet, the symphonic concerts on PBS as ridiculous (I don't think there is much of either, actually). These morons are "liberals", the fighters for a better tomorrow in America.

Speaking of idiots there was excitement at Opera Hell this week:

Opera Hell (depicted)

Genevieve CR of shocked, pointed out that Richard Tarushkin, among the anointed, in giving a blurb to a recent book about opera A History of Opera by Abbate and Parker, wrote “Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: the mind people and the body people, the Kermans and the Koestenbaums."

Oddly, Genevieve's high dudgeon, especially about a "scholar" (Tarushkin?) taking Wayne Koestenbaum's roll of used toilet paper The Queens Throat seriously, prompted Cato the Censor of Opera Smell, one, Robert Kosovsky, to a rare bon mot: "Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: The idiots and the dopes."

Koestenbaum's tome is a preposterous display of idiocy and philistinism, which no doubt prompted his brief celebrity among "Opera writers" and the interest of editors who hire them, back when there was print media in America. Two of those who thrived were the creator of Alex Ross, the contemptible Charles Michener, at the New Yorker, a drooling fool and grotesque idiot, whose sayings on art were so stupid that even the well bred (and needy) gasped.

(Charles Michener disguised as human)

And James Oestreich of the New York Times, recently fired after long "service". I don't know what happened to Michener. I hope he is lying conscious but disabled in an excrement filled ditch while hyenas devour his flesh -- disappointed -- (there was less brain but there was little meat).

As for Oestreich" (Times air brush)

Just try reading his "reviews", the mistakes are so blatant they beckon one in for anal sex -- he wrote in a review of a recent Carmen that "​Anita Rachvelishvili, who performed the title role, shaded flat a couple of times in The Flower Song"!!! A correction cited that as even the fools who know only their highlight CDs are aware, The Flower Song is sung by the tenor! No doubt though, Oestreich received a handsome severance. But I hope he dies slowly starving in agony in a cardboard box. (Mrs. Claggart under a different name worked for both Michener and more often, for Oestreich, that is why she so often watches old fashioned Westerns, hoping the native American slaughter ALL the Americans they come across, these two fetid fools are what America has vomited up. And they haven't even run for office!)

But weep some more, Mrs. Claggart, that end in a cardboard box is more likely yours. The comfortable death of the monster Margaret Thatcher carried with it the truth. The Hebrew God, cruel, merciless and perverted, is a reflection of the Universe's Truth, evil wins out. After having been canonized by Meryl Streep in her cheapest, corniest performance in a ghastly movie called The Iron Lady (though "Mamma Mia" does give one pause in that respect), Thatcher is being widely celebrated in America, when she should have been slowly tortured to sustained agony over years. Some artists have integrity. One may, on You Tube, witness the great Glenda Jackson's astounding and profound rejection of Thatcher as even a human being."

Oh well, Mrs. Claggart will comfort herself with the RAI tape of Mildred, Madre sfruttato ma desolata. The opera, by Renzo Rosellini, was broadcast in 1951. This is based on the movie, Mildred Pierce (1945) based (with added inventions) on the wonderful pulp masterpiece of the same name by James M. Cain. He was quite an original and wrote Double Indemnity and the story of my life, The Postman always Rings Twice. Joan Crawford pretended to be sick on Oscar night but won and held her Oscar in bed.

Against all expectation, Cain came from an upper crust family and his mother is described everywhere as a coloratura soprano. In fact another of his novels, Serenade is about a failed operatic baritone who takes refuge in Mexico -- it was massaged into a vehicle for Mario Lanza. It's clear that Cain knew a lot about the business of opera in his time and the personalities of singers. One of my favorite lines in the novel concerns Mildred's ferociously selfish, ungrateful daughter, Veda, who is described thus by an Italian coach who knows her: "All coloratura, they got, 'ow you say ? -- da gimmies. Always take, never give."

Renzo Rosellini was the brother of the famous film maker, Roberto, (Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero all collected in a must have Criterion Box -- the brothers must have been close. Renzo provides all the music and it's deafening in all three films! Renzo is best remembered for his opera of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" (Uno sguardo dal ponte, 1961), a more intense take on the work than Bill Bolcom's rather awful version, though that has a nice tenor aria. But Renzo's opera of the movie rather than the novel Mildred Pierce is a must have for the spectacular cast of the radio broadcast:

La Mildred, aka as La Pierce (pronounced Peeeriche): Maria Caniglia (pictured)
La Veda: Lina Pagliughi

(both are listed under Pagliughi in Google Images!)

Signora Ida Corwin (Eve Arden in the movie): Maria Meneghini Callas
La Nera, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen in the movie): Maria Vitale

Signora Lee di Pasquale (Lee Patrick in the movie): Miti Trucato-Pace
La voce bellissima ch'implora la pietà di dio (add by the composer): Renata Tebaldi
Signor Valli Faie (Wally Fey in the movie) Jose Soler

(Jose Soler)

Conductor: Antonino Votto

Sunday, April 7, 2013


I saw recently on Facebook (god help us with social media!!!) a bunch of fools making generalizations about Mussolini's Italy and the composers who stayed there. They had no idea of what they were talking about. It's sad, in a way, that what, after all, are technical marvels, are thus used by the ignorant and lazy.

For those who would like to know what was going on, there are two essential books (so far), that are very well researched and were written long enough ago to be full of interviews with musicians who were trained or already performing in Fascist Italy.

In English, one's only choice is the very balanced and carefully considered Music in Fascist Italy by Harvey Sachs (Norton), published in 1988. For those who can manage Italian (with dictionary if needed) there is Musica e musicisti nel ventennio fascista by Fiamma Nicolodi, Fiesole, Discanto from 1984. For a reliable history of Fascism in Italy there is A Primer of Italian Fascism (European Horizons) [Paperback] Jeffrey Thompson Schnapp (Editor, Translator, Introduction), Maria G. Stampino (Translator), Olivia E. Sears (Translator) from 2000.

For this post I am more interested in Sachs and Nicolodi. Both concern themselves mostly with music under Mussolini's rule which peeked with his disastrous alliance with Hitler which began in 1936 in support of the monster, Franco, and continued uneasily until Mussolini joined the Axis and, ruinously, the war, in 1940.

Sachs makes the point that while Mussolini smothered architecture, literature and the cinema, his effect on music was less definitive. It was felt most in new operas. Unless they were comedies along the lines of the delectable Wolf-Ferrari works, without a satiric edge, librettos could raise "difficult" issues. But this is not the only reason non- operatic music blossomed under Mussolini for the first time in Italy since the extraordinarily rich Baroque period. Although The Fascists saw to it that only those they trusted were in power at the various institutions of training and performance in Italy, those functionaries felt far less in danger of reprisal from above than was the case in The Soviet Union, where everybody was a target, and prominence brought more danger. After 1930, Soviets repressed "experiment" and "innovation", using those words where it suited them. Because the intermediaries controlling music were politicians themselves, they were (rightly) paranoid.

In Italy, Mussolini delegated power to three musicians, all composers. The best of these was Giuseppe Mulè who shared power with the virtuoso suck up Adriano Lualdi whose slavishly adulatory letters and telegrams to Mussolini are shocking to read, and another true believer, best known as a music critic, Alceo Toni, although he also composed. Of the three, Lualdi was closest to the kind of nastiness one associates with Fascist regimes. There are those who think Toni was playing the game, while Mulè, the most gifted of these three, and by some interpretations the most influential within the regime, seems to have seen his mission as promoting living composers and seeing that they had commissions and performances. Though he was a fairly successful opera composer in Italy, without an international reputation, he had a passion for instrumental music, and all three of these men believed in the importance of a sophisticated and well formed technical basis for composition (and instruction in the conservatories became much more rigorous as is attested by members of the first Quartetto italiano and the conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, interviewed in Sachs' book).

This led to a preference for the genius, Luigi Dallapiccola, and colleagues of his, some more gifted than others, such as Petrassi, Ghedini, Pizzetti, Cassella, Malipiero, Rocca.

Respighi was the best known Italian composer internationally, though more for his colorfully orchestrated, somewhat empty of content Roman Trilogy, than some extraordinary intellectual efforts (his Variations on a Theme of Hindemith is a distinguished work by any standard). His enjoyable music based on Baroque composers was very much in the spirit of the times. Mussolini appropriated Respighi because of his fame but actually left him nonplussed; the composer had virtually no interest in politics. Puccini had been a passionate supporter of Mussolini in his last years, and all the older Italian opera composers of less than amazing work, Zandonai, Cilea (virtually an amateur though still beloved by the queens), Giordano and Mascagni had close ties to the regime -- though to be fair to Mascagni, as much a con as an artist, he manipulated huge sums out of the government in exchange for almost nothing, ending with the disaster called Nerone in 1935 almost totally a recycling of a failure from 1907 that in parts didn't even fit the libretto. It was a portrait of Il Duce that did not please Mussolini since it seemed to be a send up as performed by the great tenor, Aureliano Pertile. (Pertile as Nero as Mussolini is pictured above). Tenor and composer found themselves in bad odor after that but not in prison or the grave, which would have happened elsewhere. The tenor went on though less prominently, records show his voice as more worn. The composer, 70, was able to wrangle occasional conducting jobs, and ended up dying in destitution shortly after the war (kept alive in part by lunches sent him by his holiest fan, Pope Pius XII). His funeral was not attended by a single Italian in an official position.

The Germans gradually gained more control in Italy by the late 1930's, forcing Mussolini to enforce racial laws (there is some anti-Semitic language in Fascist speeches before then but nothing was done to Jews -- in fact the Jewish Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was selected to compose incidental music for a vast Fascist spectacle around the play Savonarola by Rino Alessi in 1935 and congratulated heartily by the Duce himself, as well as very well paid. In later years he voiced his surprise at the turn to racial repression on the part of the regime, the more so because his champions all along had been the anti-Fascist and, in Italian conservative circles, detested Alfredo Casella and even worse, Arturo Toscanini).

The Germans changed Italy so much that in 1939 Castelnuovo-Tedesco cabled Toscanini for help in getting out. Toscanini who was not an American citizen could do nothing concrete, but Jascha Heifitz and the great American violinist, Albert Spalding, arranged the tricky issues of getting entry visas for Castelnuovo-Tedesco's large family and between them brought pressure on the Italian government, which initially refused to issue exit visas for the family. The gifted Vittorio Rieti was one of the most acclaimed younger composers in Italy through the mid thirties, but when the Germans arrived he saw the future, and was able to arrange to get to America through Casella.

One reaction to the sudden shift caused by the Germans was a masterpiece composed by Luigi Dallapiccola, perhaps the greatest among Italian composers of the era.

He was married to a Jewish woman, which made no difference -- until 1939 when an article in a Fascist newspaper denying there was a "racial" problem in Italy, convinced Dallapiccola that this was Orwellian "Newspeak", and indeed, that Germans, with some opportunistic Italian collaborators, were about to start roundups. He realized his wife was in danger. He composed his magnificent canti di prigionia for Chorus and Instrumental ensemble. This is a profound expression of terror and grief, viewing what was going on as an Apocalypse. He arranged for one performance in Rome, 1940, days before hoards of Germans with the Gestapo arrived in Italy.

In 1943, working on his opera, Il Prigioniero in Florence, he realized he had to go into hiding -- he chose a rural area near by. Igor Markevitch, then 31, later a great conductor and gifted composer, would bicycle out from Florence with news of whether those "underground" thought the Dallapicollas should move (they did, several times) or split up (the composer realized his wife was safer in a back street apartment in Florence where the neighbors had no intention of noticing her, than she was with him). Casella, always a controversial figure with few friends in the government, had also married a Jewish woman, and their daughter was therefore Jewish. For a time they escaped the Gestapo in Rome, but were tipped off that their apartment would be raided. They split up and went into hiding. Already dying of cancer, Casella was able to live long enough to see the Germans beaten back and to write his farewell, The Missa solemnis pro pace.

Mussolini was fired by the King in 1943 and imprisoned, rescued by Germans and made a puppet dictator, but trying to escape Italy in 1945 was caught and killed by partisans.

For those who love music, the 'problem' of collaboration in Italy was not so great as it was in Germany and Austria under Hitler where the terrifying organization of repression was remarkable in its time -- it was John Simon, the now ancient critic (one of the few who deserves the term) who suggested in the '70's and 80's that the use of "originality" as an aesthetic quality was nonsense. He averred, as a (non Jewish) refugee from the Nazis, that the only great original in the 20th century was Hitler. He remarked that it was Hitler who had the unheard of idea that technology could be used for total control of a society as well as systematic mass murder.

But Italians have never been well organized or able to act in consort to achieve a communal goal. Although Mussolini's henchmen could inspire terror when they put their minds to it, all of them (mostly criminals who had done time) had their own agendas, mistresses and their own networks of influence, obligation, friendships and regional affiliations. That was (and in many ways still is) Italy. No doubt Mussolini did update some aspects of Italian government ("the trains run on time"), and try to force more organization on his supporters. But it was only when he ruinously joined the war that he was essentially made irrelevant and German technology took over with the usual resulting terror and cruelty (mitigated by a largely silent public resistance).

Mussolini was a strange figure, though perhaps not so strange in Italy. He was essentially a buffo bully, part strutting tenor, part gourmand, part sex fiend, a champion napper and, as it happened, a serious music lover with some training to support his love. Except his love did not extend to opera. Of course he had to appear at important evenings but he made this deal with his large, bulky sons: He would come to the front of the box and wave to the audience, making his presence known. Then he would sit on a sofa. His sons, instructed to act enthusiastic, would drag their chairs in front of the sofa, and Mussolini, now invisible, would recline to sleep for the rest of the opera.

Knowing the Internet, it's time to be careful. I am not defending a dictator who was sufficiently cruel and power mad to deserve the term, and I am not writing as an apologist for anti-Jewish or any "anti" politics -- and we still have plenty of those in "Fecund America today" (Emerson). But Italy under Mussolini welcomed Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, both banned by the Nazis. Igor Stravinsky was a popular figure in Italy (granted he was an opportunist and to the Right politically, but he was widely considered a musical radical and eventually had to flee Europe). Though European Fascism saw Communism as the greatest threat, Mussolini invited Soviet performers and, in defiance of their country, insisted they personally pocket their fees. Until and even past 1940 to some degree, Jewish composers and American black artists such as Paul Robeson and the choral Fisk Jubilee Singers were welcome. Bela Bartók, a ferocious anti-fascist, made much needed money in Italy before he fled Europe (and nearly starved in America, finally dying of medical neglect from initially misdiagnosed leukemia in New York City, but lived long enough to be evicted from his apartment on his death bed.) Strangely, the premiere of Berg's Wozzeck was a critical hit in Rome in 1942 -- starring the twenty seven year old Tito Gobbi, conducted by the sixty four year old Tullio Serafin.

But to make some final generalizations: When the great Primo Levi, poet, writer was arrested by Italian Fascists for working in the Resistance, in 1943, he writes in Se questo è un uomo, (Survival in Auschwitz in America) that he and his fellow prisoners were treated with the utmost kindness by their Italian jailers, visited daily by doctors, well fed, decently housed and kept warm.

(picture: Primo Levi around the time of his arrest)

Then the Germans came.

Levi was sent to Auschwitz where his expertise as a chemist kept him alive; but even as one selected to live, he was brutalized daily. Finally, desperately ill, he was heaved into a truck and fell under a pile of corpses. The camp was about to be liberated, the truck ("evidence") was driven away, captured by allies and unloaded. He was discovered barely alive and nursed back to health. The Italians who had been left alive when he was taken for dead, were all killed by the Germans before they fled.

Levi is not naive about the Italian Fascists but he was never beaten by them, starved, nor before his political activity and arrest, had he lived in fear. The second he was taken by Germans the beatings started, administered by German-Jewish "trustees" as well as Aryan soldiers. He understood something about the degrees of evil that possess humans here on this sick, ugly earth. His account is far from an apologia for Italian Fascism; but it is a terrifying realization that there are so many degrees of cruelty in the world that sane and decent people will still race to embrace one degree of cruelty or another. There is only the buffeted "self", a prisoner of that disease, consciousness, and then there are enemies, even of the same blood and background.

Before getting to a CD of Dallapiccola's best work, a few stories. One of the greatest post war Italian musicians was Bruno Maderna.

He was a brave and reckless partisan, who was sent to a concentration camp. It was lucky he wasn't killed. But perhaps he was aware that death was impatient for him; he died suddenly at 50, in 1973. Both Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio wrote memorials for him, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna is one of Boulez' most moving pieces. The amazing Quadrivium -- astounding to hear live -- along with Aura and Biogramma are on a DG CD (OOP but findable cheap) led by Giuseppe Sinopoli, also short lived. And Maderna led the best, most insightful performance of Wozzeck to be documented, on a DVD from Hamburg on Arthaus (one can listen to a music only track where his command of detail and precise realization of directions in the score are amazing).

One should be fair about opera singers -- it doesn't seem as though most behaved honorably in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or the Soviet Union -- where, again, long rule bred several generations of virtuoso backstabbers who had great voices. One can make an effort to single out this or that "star" as worse than usual, but most performers of all kinds went along to a degree. In Italy, productive composers were usually set up with a modest workload teaching job, and given generous commissions before the money began to run out in the late '30's. They were only incidentally in the line of fire. But performers needed engagements to survive and the best paying were used as rewards for those who were (sometimes) slavishly loyal as well as glamorous.

Perhaps one should be shocked that the world famous Beniamino Gigli loved Hitler so much that his home was a virtual shrine with autographed tributes from Der Führer and his genocidal friends. He had also fawned on Mussolini. His post war memoirs are cautious, of course, but an autobiography written during the war, Confidenze is franker. When officials searched his home after the Germans fled he was told his career was over. "You'll be back," he said. And indeed, within a few months, they were, begging him to perform. But most singers went to Mussolini -- in homage -- but also for favors. And then there were those who were of the genus, femme fatale. Like all dictators, Mussolini bugged the phones of everybody who worked for him. Sachs found a hilarious document of a furious conversation between Roberto Farinacci, one of Il Duce's most criminal henchmen, and the famous and beauteous mezzo, Gianna Pederzini. It starts with Farinacci passionately rebuking Pederzini for her fickleness and ends with her enumerating his shortcomings (literally and figuratively) in bed! (page 18)

But on to Dallapiccola and a CD from Chandos (part of a series).

These pieces from Dallapiccola’s prime have a glittering, caressing beauty, which masks an extraordinary musical mind. Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75) was arguably the most remarkable of an important group of Twentieth Century Italian composers. His main rival, Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973)was also very gifted, and like Respighi and Dallapiccola himself was fascinated with Renaissance and Baroque composers (Casella, likewise).

Malipiero prepared the first responsible performing edition of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and, while irrelevant now, what he did is much better than the campy, heavily cut romp scotch tapped together by Raymond Leppard after the war. Malipiero invented his own kind of serialism (Schoenberg would have been bewildered) and hated the very "German" idea of thematic development, feeling that musical matter had to move continually and never repeat. In some of his last works his took some advice from his pupils, who included the great Bruno Maderna.

Most of Dallapiccola's rivals wrote some operas as he did himself (Malipiero was an enthusiastic Fascist until he fell out with Mussolini over his setting of a Pirandello play. He remained pro-Fascist in a somewhat eccentric way, but though thoroughly cosmopolitan in training and experience hated Germans, writing virulently anti-German letters to the distinguished Ildebrando Pizzetti about how betrayed he felt by Mussolini's pact with Hitler).

But most of these composers emphasized instrumental rather than operatic work. In Dallapiccola’s case, ironically he was to become most famous for his moving opera, Il Prigioniero started when Mussolini was deposed by the King and imprisoned, continued in despair when the dictator was "rescued" by the Germans, and the composer had to go into hiding with his Jewish wife. In some ways, his later opera, Ulisse, is more profound and personal. But it may be that free of the demands and limits of the theater, his instrumental and choral pieces have more individuality and power.

He was the first Italian to master the twelve tone technique of Schoenberg (though with some personal touches, such as the mutually exclusive use of triads in harmonic progressions). But like Alban Berg, Dallapiccola often ‘punned’ on tonality, manipulating his tone rows and other vertically organized harmonic devices so that the horizontal melodic line ‘almost’ resembled recognizable if elusive ‘tonal’ music. Though the overall sound of his work is gorgeous, he is an inventor of fugitive but haunting melody.

The most imposing work on this CD is the Variations for Orchestra (1952). The row Dallapiccola uses breaks now and then for four notes: B-A-C-H (B natural in German usage), which are then reabsorbed into brilliant manipulations of that row through eleven short movements. In homage to the great German master, Dallapiccola’s counterpoint is breathtaking in its effortless complexity, yet the segments have a wide expressive range. In both the Variations and Piccola Musica Notturna (1954, the title is a tribute to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) Dallapiccola is paying homage to his friend, Anton Webern. There is a similar shimmering delicacy, an aphoristic quality, but the Italian’s sound world is his own, and the ability to allow sighing, sweet melodies to arise and subside into a beautiful well of soft but fascinating harmonic and instrumental gestures is hypnotic. In Due Pezzi (1947), Dallapiccola demonstrates that serial music can be utterly alluring. This is one of his most rigorous scores – but, as is often true in his music, there is a subtle glance backwards at the late Renaissance – Carlo Gesualdo with his spiky chromatic harmonies haunts this piece.

This school of Italians was highly cosmopolitan, and Igor Stravinsky loomed large in the work of most. Tartiniana (1951) superficially seems to be in the style of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (Dallapiccola’s older contemporary, Casella, in his Paganiniana and Scarlattiana uses a more obviously Stravinskian style). This is a “freely” tonal work -- the actual key of a given section is mysterious right up until the final, sometimes unexpected chord. From that tension, Dallapiccola derives a piece that combines the melodic sweetness of the selected Tartini tunes for violin (made more fascinating through artful fragmentation) with arresting, sometimes thorny, sometimes lovely harmonic procedures. It is evocatively scored for chamber orchestra without violins for maximum contrast with the solo violin line (skillfully played here by John Ehnes).

The Fragments from the Ballet ‘Marsia’ (1947) provide a sample of Dallapiccola in the theater. The exquisite music confesses Dallapiccola’s love for Debussy. On first hearing music by the Frenchman, the Italian was ‘paralyzed’ for a time, unable to compose. Thirty or so years later the example has been absorbed into a now luxuriously alluring, now eruptive series of meditations on music itself (at least in the suite) – the story is about the ill advised challenge of the flautist, Marsia (the satyr Marsyas in English) to the god of the lyre, Apollo. The five movements are almost a lexicon of the expressive choices, caressing to ferocious, a 20th century composer can make, held together by subtle motifs, varied, juggled, turned upside down.

The BBC Philharmonic plays with virtuosity and the conductor, Noseda, somewhat lacking in distinction, is careful and respectful.

There has been a rejection of serialism in some places and American Academic serialism (still alive here and there) eventually did the technique no favors. But used by a hugely gifted, endlessly inventive creator like Dallapiccola, the method yields much unforgettable, indeed, essential music.

James Ehnes, (violin, Tartiniana)
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
BBC Philharmonic

Chandos – CHAN 10258