Commentary Magazine


Topic: composer

Signs of Life Strife

A few days ago, I called attention to a quote from one of the creators of a new musical called Signs of Life, which is set in and around the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. (I compared it to The Producers, and specifically to “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical-within-the-musical, described by its deranged creator as “a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.”) The quote in question averred that the questions about Nazi era Germans and how they responded to their leaders had a great deal to teach us about America over the past decade — an observation of which the best that can be said is that it is a bit more tasteful than the very notion of a musical set at Thereseinstadt.

The writers and creators of Signs of Life, evidently thrilled that anybody is willing to write about them at all, have fired a broadside at me using the old “how can he criticize our show without seeing it” gambit:

You are well-known as a protector of the memory of the Holocaust and as someone who, by his own admission, knows “the lyrics to every show tune ever written.” We were therefore dismayed to read your post on Commentary about our new off-Broadway musical, Signs of Life. Your casually insulting aside about the “wonderfully tuneful” quality of the show-which as far as we can tell you have not seen-is irresponsible enough, but to make the ugly accusation that we believe “the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush” is contemptible.

The characters in our show must participate in the Nazi propaganda machine in order to survive; when they realize the implications of their participation they face ethical choices that endanger their lives. But the obligation of citizens across the political spectrum to question our leaders and evaluate the truth of their answers did not end on V-Day.

The idea you seem to advocate-that if you put an event as vastly horrific as the Holocaust onstage you should do it as a museum piece, rather than exploring what we might learn from it about human nature-implies that today’s society is no longer capable of a Holocaust, which is a position both false and dangerous.

We would like to invite you to see Signs of Life and to judge based on experience rather than distortion and mockery whether our show honors the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust. Please e-mail us and we’ll arrange tickets for whatever date you’d like.

Now, while I do place myself very much on the anti side on the admittedly complex aesthetic question of using the Holocaust as an artistic setting — and, not incidentally, on the anti side when it comes to the use of the musical form as a vehicle for the serious treatment of just about any topic, notwithstanding my deep love of musicals and the American songbook they created — that wasn’t the reason I wrote the item. I wrote the item because of something the show’s composer, Joel Derfner, said. Which was this: “The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad.’ It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”

Now let’s parse this. What happened 30 years ago in this country? Ronald Reagan’s election. What happened nine years ago? George W. Bush’s inauguration. Who’s making repulsive and unwarranted associations now? The Signs of Life team is right that someone said something contemptible, but it wasn’t I.

And thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass; I already did my time years ago when, courtesy of P.J. O’Rourke, who secured it from God-knows-where, I once read the entirety of the screenplay for the Jerry Lewis epic, The Day the Clown Cried.

A few days ago, I called attention to a quote from one of the creators of a new musical called Signs of Life, which is set in and around the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. (I compared it to The Producers, and specifically to “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical-within-the-musical, described by its deranged creator as “a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.”) The quote in question averred that the questions about Nazi era Germans and how they responded to their leaders had a great deal to teach us about America over the past decade — an observation of which the best that can be said is that it is a bit more tasteful than the very notion of a musical set at Thereseinstadt.

The writers and creators of Signs of Life, evidently thrilled that anybody is willing to write about them at all, have fired a broadside at me using the old “how can he criticize our show without seeing it” gambit:

You are well-known as a protector of the memory of the Holocaust and as someone who, by his own admission, knows “the lyrics to every show tune ever written.” We were therefore dismayed to read your post on Commentary about our new off-Broadway musical, Signs of Life. Your casually insulting aside about the “wonderfully tuneful” quality of the show-which as far as we can tell you have not seen-is irresponsible enough, but to make the ugly accusation that we believe “the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush” is contemptible.

The characters in our show must participate in the Nazi propaganda machine in order to survive; when they realize the implications of their participation they face ethical choices that endanger their lives. But the obligation of citizens across the political spectrum to question our leaders and evaluate the truth of their answers did not end on V-Day.

The idea you seem to advocate-that if you put an event as vastly horrific as the Holocaust onstage you should do it as a museum piece, rather than exploring what we might learn from it about human nature-implies that today’s society is no longer capable of a Holocaust, which is a position both false and dangerous.

We would like to invite you to see Signs of Life and to judge based on experience rather than distortion and mockery whether our show honors the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust. Please e-mail us and we’ll arrange tickets for whatever date you’d like.

Now, while I do place myself very much on the anti side on the admittedly complex aesthetic question of using the Holocaust as an artistic setting — and, not incidentally, on the anti side when it comes to the use of the musical form as a vehicle for the serious treatment of just about any topic, notwithstanding my deep love of musicals and the American songbook they created — that wasn’t the reason I wrote the item. I wrote the item because of something the show’s composer, Joel Derfner, said. Which was this: “The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad.’ It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”

Now let’s parse this. What happened 30 years ago in this country? Ronald Reagan’s election. What happened nine years ago? George W. Bush’s inauguration. Who’s making repulsive and unwarranted associations now? The Signs of Life team is right that someone said something contemptible, but it wasn’t I.

And thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass; I already did my time years ago when, courtesy of P.J. O’Rourke, who secured it from God-knows-where, I once read the entirety of the screenplay for the Jerry Lewis epic, The Day the Clown Cried.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

Read Less

Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

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Bookshelf

• “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Max Beerbohm once observed. No more so than the Wagners, a family whose head was the most fascinating and least likable great composer in the history of classical music. Even those who find Richard Wagner’s operas exasperating beyond endurance—a group that is legion and whose members include, more often than not, myself—are not infrequently willing to read just about anything about the man himself, provided that it’s sufficiently well-written and dislinclined to fawn over its subject. Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family (Atlantic Monthly, 409 pp., $27.50) hits the bull’s-eye on both counts.

A British journalist whose strangely sorted resume includes lives of Helmut Schmidt and Gustav Mahler, Carr clearly knows a fair amount about music, but The Wagner Clan is not primarily about the works of the composer of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde, nor is it solely about his wildly tempestuous life. Carr’s main interest, rather, is in Wagner’s family and what they wrought, with and without him. Cosima, the mother of Wagner’s children, was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Hans von Bülow, the great German pianist and conductor, until Wagner stole her from Bülow (who had previously been one of his adoring acolytes). After Wagner’s death she ran the family business, the Bayreuth Festival, with an iron hand undisguised by the slightest trace of velvet. Siegfried, Richard’s youngest child, was a second-rate composer, a highly accomplished conductor, and a secret homosexual who struggled throughout his life to come to terms with the burden of his family heritage. Winifred, Siegfried’s wife, developed a lifelong crush on Adolf Hitler and delivered the festival into the hands of the Nazis after her husband’s death. Wieland and Wolfgang, their sons, dragged Bayreuth into the 20th century and made it a postwar center of up-to-date thinking on operatic production style. To this day members of the Wagner family continue to run the summer festival, which has long been one of Europe’s hottest tickets.

All this adds up to an immensely interesting tale that Carr tells with great skill, and anyone who wants to know what became of the Wagners will find it both informative and entertaining. As for those whose main interest is in Der Meister himself, The Wagner Clan offers readers unfamiliar with the vast Wagner literature an exceptionally accessible short introduction to the complicated subject of his life and personality. What I like best about Carr’s book is that it is even-handed but not bland: he takes a distinctly jaundiced view of Wagner the man without ever failing to acknowledge the genius of Wagner the artist, and he seems to have no axes of any kind to grind.

I was especially impressed by the section of The Wagner Clan in which Carr discusses Hitler’s consuming interest in Wagner, a famously difficult subject that the author plays straight down the center:

If Wagner’s works really were “the exact spiritual forerunner” of Nazism, surely the Führer of all people would have drummed that point home ad infinitum. But one looks to him in vain not only for fascist interpretation of the music dramas but, stranger still, for direct references to the [anti-Semitic] theoretical writings. There is, indeed, surprisingly little evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose works…Grotesque though it may seem, Wagner’s life and works were almost certainly mirrors in which the Führer thought he saw himself reflected—at least in broad and, to him, imposing outline.

I couldn’t have put it better.

• “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Max Beerbohm once observed. No more so than the Wagners, a family whose head was the most fascinating and least likable great composer in the history of classical music. Even those who find Richard Wagner’s operas exasperating beyond endurance—a group that is legion and whose members include, more often than not, myself—are not infrequently willing to read just about anything about the man himself, provided that it’s sufficiently well-written and dislinclined to fawn over its subject. Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family (Atlantic Monthly, 409 pp., $27.50) hits the bull’s-eye on both counts.

A British journalist whose strangely sorted resume includes lives of Helmut Schmidt and Gustav Mahler, Carr clearly knows a fair amount about music, but The Wagner Clan is not primarily about the works of the composer of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde, nor is it solely about his wildly tempestuous life. Carr’s main interest, rather, is in Wagner’s family and what they wrought, with and without him. Cosima, the mother of Wagner’s children, was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Hans von Bülow, the great German pianist and conductor, until Wagner stole her from Bülow (who had previously been one of his adoring acolytes). After Wagner’s death she ran the family business, the Bayreuth Festival, with an iron hand undisguised by the slightest trace of velvet. Siegfried, Richard’s youngest child, was a second-rate composer, a highly accomplished conductor, and a secret homosexual who struggled throughout his life to come to terms with the burden of his family heritage. Winifred, Siegfried’s wife, developed a lifelong crush on Adolf Hitler and delivered the festival into the hands of the Nazis after her husband’s death. Wieland and Wolfgang, their sons, dragged Bayreuth into the 20th century and made it a postwar center of up-to-date thinking on operatic production style. To this day members of the Wagner family continue to run the summer festival, which has long been one of Europe’s hottest tickets.

All this adds up to an immensely interesting tale that Carr tells with great skill, and anyone who wants to know what became of the Wagners will find it both informative and entertaining. As for those whose main interest is in Der Meister himself, The Wagner Clan offers readers unfamiliar with the vast Wagner literature an exceptionally accessible short introduction to the complicated subject of his life and personality. What I like best about Carr’s book is that it is even-handed but not bland: he takes a distinctly jaundiced view of Wagner the man without ever failing to acknowledge the genius of Wagner the artist, and he seems to have no axes of any kind to grind.

I was especially impressed by the section of The Wagner Clan in which Carr discusses Hitler’s consuming interest in Wagner, a famously difficult subject that the author plays straight down the center:

If Wagner’s works really were “the exact spiritual forerunner” of Nazism, surely the Führer of all people would have drummed that point home ad infinitum. But one looks to him in vain not only for fascist interpretation of the music dramas but, stranger still, for direct references to the [anti-Semitic] theoretical writings. There is, indeed, surprisingly little evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose works…Grotesque though it may seem, Wagner’s life and works were almost certainly mirrors in which the Führer thought he saw himself reflected—at least in broad and, to him, imposing outline.

I couldn’t have put it better.

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Piano Teachers

The Piano Teacher, by Julia Cho, which opened recently at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway to mixed reviews, features a haunted keyboard pedagogue with nasty secrets to hide. The Vineyard Theater production benefits from the presence of the veteran actress Elizabeth Franz in the title role of an isolated, shunned teacher who is only marginally more sane than the sado-masochistic piano teacher incarnated by Isabelle Huppert in the 2001 French film of the same title, based on a perverse novel by the Austrian Nobel-Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek.

The reiterated imagery of peccant piano instructors is so ingrained in our culture that a Google Search of “piano teacher” by anyone actually trying to learn to play the instrument will bring up references to Jelinek’s book and film, first and foremost. The world of music education as represented by such writers belongs to an earlier, less psychologically acute era. It is a relief to escape such querulous and indeed unmusical paradigms and look at today’s real world of superb piano teachers, who represent a vastly more intriguing, mysterious, and gratifying accomplishment.

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The Piano Teacher, by Julia Cho, which opened recently at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway to mixed reviews, features a haunted keyboard pedagogue with nasty secrets to hide. The Vineyard Theater production benefits from the presence of the veteran actress Elizabeth Franz in the title role of an isolated, shunned teacher who is only marginally more sane than the sado-masochistic piano teacher incarnated by Isabelle Huppert in the 2001 French film of the same title, based on a perverse novel by the Austrian Nobel-Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek.

The reiterated imagery of peccant piano instructors is so ingrained in our culture that a Google Search of “piano teacher” by anyone actually trying to learn to play the instrument will bring up references to Jelinek’s book and film, first and foremost. The world of music education as represented by such writers belongs to an earlier, less psychologically acute era. It is a relief to escape such querulous and indeed unmusical paradigms and look at today’s real world of superb piano teachers, who represent a vastly more intriguing, mysterious, and gratifying accomplishment.

Juilliard’s Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, the Tel Aviv-born chair of the school’s piano department, also teaches in the Pre-College division, where some of America’s most astonishing prodigies are currently thriving. One such is Conrad Tao, a pianist and composer born in Illinois in 1994, whose live recordings on CD and video convey a sense of musical line (with the entire score evoked in every measure of a given work) as found only in the greatest musicians. Tao is also a characterful, accomplished composer of charm and nuance; his early compositions on CD sound more adult, individualistic, and masterful than those by any preteen composer I have heard, including Mozart.

One of the most admirable aspects of Tao’s musicality is his collaborative acumen, and another outstanding Kaplinsky pupil, the Chinese pianist Peng-Peng Gong, born in 1992, often plays with Tao, in addition to his solo performances. Such brilliant students are allowed to flower into musical maturity in a healthy, non-neurotic way. Encouraging, rather than stifling, prodigies allows them to develop as artists and human beings, instead of condemning them to becoming the stunted, frustrated, unhappy leftovers, some of whom are alas still present on the concert scene today.

Another outstanding Juilliard piano teacher, Oxana Yablonskaya, is helping to guide the destiny of Alice Burla, born in Toronto in 1997. In such challenging works as Chopin’s “Variations brilliants,” Burla displays the suavity and maturity of an adult musician, quite apart from her fabulous technique. Tao, Peng-Peng, and Burla already are more accomplished artists than a number of adult pianists who trudge around the concert circuit; the challenge for their teachers is clearly not to spoil or discourage their inborn talent. This custodial task of wonderful young talent is far more thrilling than any fictional elaboration of a pathological teacher.

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Dave Brubeck

On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

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On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

Brubeck has avoided faculty meetings to this day, and his classically-influenced jazz has duly drawn some criticism from academic purists. His 1961 jazz musical The Real Ambassadors is a quintessential anti-purist work, involving collaboration with Louis Armstrong to address subjects from Civil Rights to the Cold War. Textual complexity makes The Real Ambassadors especially intriguing listening.

A more grandiose, four-square example of Brubeck’s mixing of genres is his 1969 cantata The Gates of Justice, which contains musical settings from the Old Testament, Hillel the Elder, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Rerecorded in 2001 for Naxos with a resonant tenor soloist, Alberto Mizrahi, who serves as Hazzan for Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, Brubeck’s Gates of Justice is no less than an attempt to reconcile African-Americans and Jews. Its 1960’s-era social ambitions may belong to a more idealistic age, but Gates of Justice’s kaleidoscopic range puts it in the category of good crossover music, like the best of Leonard Bernstein. When Brubeck performs, he does not tread lightly on the keyboard; yet in life, he always treads the path of righteousness.

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Music’s Golden Age

A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

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A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

Hamilton must attend some odd concerts to inspire such notions. As for me, on November 3 at Carnegie Hall, I heard the pianist Murray Perahia in a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Perahia plays Bach as love music, with plush, seamless legato and a strong sense of polyphony. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” sonata (1801) was played with an ideal sense of rubato, capturing the agitation that bubbles beneath even Beethoven’s works with tranquil-sounding subtitles. The “Pastoral”’s second movement “Andante,” played in a forward-moving yet mysterious way, showed Perahia at 60 to still be a youthful musician (his left hand ardently conducted while he played a passage for right hand alone). Perahia is in his prime today, as indeed are other magisterial pianists like Richard Goode, András Schiff, Maurizio Pollini, and Peter Serkin. Who needs Pachmann? Could our own time be a golden age of performance?

For me, the question was answered definitively on November 7 at Rockefeller University, where the Peggy Rockefeller Concerts series presented the Claremont Trio. Consisting of twin sisters Emily (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) with Donna Kwong (piano), the Claremonts, all in their mid-20’s, play and record with exceptional maturity. At Rockefeller University, they performed Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63, capturing the composer’s obsessive energy, yet with deep feeling, which allowed Schumann’s romantic fantasy world to materialize. Despite their sylph-like appearances, the Bruskin sisters play their respective instruments with hearty, plangently eloquent tones.

A splendid up-and-coming ensemble like the Claremont Trio is the perfect counter-argument to any critic who bemoans the present or future of classical music. Learning from past great musicians—not freaks like Pachmann—is a sine qua non for today’s musicians, yet desperate nostalgia born of boredom obscures all the evidence that we are in fact living in our own golden age of performance. After hearing such spectacular concerts by exemplary artists like Perahia and the Claremont Trio, only a thick-skulled ingrate would react by complaining that something is wrong with classical music performance in our time.

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Bookshelf

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

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• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

As those last two observations make clear, autobiography is never very far away in Epstein’s work. No small part of the kick of his criticism comes from the fact that, like his familiar essays, it is so unabashedly personal—and that he so well exemplifies his own preferred virtues:

I have a weakness for minor artists. But they must be genuinely minor, by which I mean that they mustn’t lapse into minority through overreaching, want of energy, crudity, or any other kind of ineptitude. They must not be failed major artists merely. The true minor artist eschews the noble and the solemn. He fears tedium for his audience, but even more for himself. He sets out to be, and is perfectly content to remain, less than great. The minor artist knows his limits and lives comfortably within them. To delight, to charm, to entertain, such are the goals the minor artist sets himself, and, when brought off with style and verve and elegant lucidity, they are—more than sufficient—wholly admirable.

This is the first paragraph of an appreciation of Lord Berners, a writer (and sometime composer) whom Epstein places alongside Max Beerbohm in his personal pantheon of admirable artists. It has the smack of a credo, one to which Epstein himself lives up with the utmost completeness, though I find it no less interesting that he can write about the truly great without the slightest touch of deprecating envy. W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, I.B. Singer: all these heavy hitters are summed up in the pages of In a Cardboard Belt! with the same appreciation extended to the lesser likes of Berners and Beerbohm.

If I had to choose a favorite piece in this collection, it would be “Books Won’t Furnish a Room,” in which the author tells what it felt like to get rid of the greater part of his personal library in the hope of simplifying his life: “Behind my selling all these books was a longing to streamline my life a bit, make it feel less cluttered, encumbered, book-bound. In doing so, I feel as if I had gathered my desert-island books about me without actually having to sail off for the island.” For me this essay passes the ultimate test of literary effectiveness: not long after I read it, I did as Epstein had done, and have never once regretted my decision. Talk about practical criticism!

Oh, yes, the title: it comes from The Producers. For further information, buy the book.

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The Legacy of Arthur Rubinstein

Earlier this month, The Juilliard School announced that the family of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) donated 71 music manuscripts and other documents that had been seized by the Nazis from Rubinstein’s Paris apartment in 1940, and restored to his family by the German government only last year. This collection includes hand-written scores by Villa-Lobos, George Antheil, and other composers. The Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries’s 1996 study, Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, details how in 1940, Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg founded the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (ERR, or Operations Staff of Reich Director Rosenberg) in order to accomplish what de Vries terms the “greatest systematic theft of art and culture in history.”

Renowned German musicologists Wolfgang Boetticher and Karl Gustav Fellerer helped to identify Jewish collections to be looted in Nazi-occupied Europe, and among those plundered were world-famous artists, forced to flee to America because of their Jewish origins, like the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and composer Darius Milhaud. Most of the collections involved are still lost, or perhaps more frustrating, in Russia, where some were shipped after 1945 as Soviet war booty. In an exceptional move, Rubinstein’s 71 items were sent back to East Berlin around 1958, as a Soviet gesture to repatriate so-called “German cultural assets.” More of Rubinstein’s property still remains in Russia, but in 2002, the Russian parliament voted to block any further such restitutions.

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Earlier this month, The Juilliard School announced that the family of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) donated 71 music manuscripts and other documents that had been seized by the Nazis from Rubinstein’s Paris apartment in 1940, and restored to his family by the German government only last year. This collection includes hand-written scores by Villa-Lobos, George Antheil, and other composers. The Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries’s 1996 study, Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, details how in 1940, Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg founded the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (ERR, or Operations Staff of Reich Director Rosenberg) in order to accomplish what de Vries terms the “greatest systematic theft of art and culture in history.”

Renowned German musicologists Wolfgang Boetticher and Karl Gustav Fellerer helped to identify Jewish collections to be looted in Nazi-occupied Europe, and among those plundered were world-famous artists, forced to flee to America because of their Jewish origins, like the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and composer Darius Milhaud. Most of the collections involved are still lost, or perhaps more frustrating, in Russia, where some were shipped after 1945 as Soviet war booty. In an exceptional move, Rubinstein’s 71 items were sent back to East Berlin around 1958, as a Soviet gesture to repatriate so-called “German cultural assets.” More of Rubinstein’s property still remains in Russia, but in 2002, the Russian parliament voted to block any further such restitutions.

That Juilliard should have wound up with anything at all may be ascribed at least in part to Rubinstein’s amazing luck and talent for survival. Rather than feeling bitter that the majority of his collection probably never will be restituted, Rubinstein himself would doubtless have rejoiced at his family’s beneficence to Juilliard. The quintessential glass-half-full personality, Rubinstein sometimes put off some listeners with his strenuously expressed “love of life” credo (the delightful 1969 French documentary Arthur Rubinstein: L’Amour de la vie is long overdue for DVD transfer).

The French author Roland Barthes dismissed Rubinstein’s hearty sense of psychological well-being, preferring an overtly neurotic pianist like Glenn Gould, although Gould himself worshiped Arthur Rubinstein. I well recall attending Rubinstein’s Carnegie Hall farewell recital in 1976 (70 years after his New York debut in 1906) when, after a full program and three encores, in the final piece—Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53—descending octaves were played with such force that the balcony floor shook, as the 89-year-old pianist’s aureole of white hair glowed brightly.

A recently available DVD from Deutsche Grammophon filmed in 1975 captures Rubinstein near that time, playing concertos by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Chopin with verve and panache. The magnificent complete Sony/BMG Rubinstein edition on CD fortunately still is available, including live concerts with music by his friend Villa-Lobos as well as music from Spain; France; and even Norway. These lasting delights remind us of the international range of this performer, whose musical legacy triumphs over the injustices he suffered during the Nazi regime.

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Enjoyable Brit Moderns

Readers of this blog have repeatedly expressed distress at the way classical music is going. Indeed, in February, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has commissioned two new works from the Argentinean composer of specious tourist kitsch, Osvaldo Golijov, as well as the trite, repetitive, and opportunistic headline-grabber John Adams, who notoriously found inspiration from terrorists in his deeply offensive opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1981).

The ballyhoo of journalistic support around Klinghoffer shows not merely that most of America’s salaried music critics are tone-deaf; they are also stunted as human beings. Still, even while such egregious composers are cosseted by the Met’s box office-obsessed director Peter Gelb, there are signs that neglected modern composers can offer genuine listening pleasure.

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Readers of this blog have repeatedly expressed distress at the way classical music is going. Indeed, in February, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has commissioned two new works from the Argentinean composer of specious tourist kitsch, Osvaldo Golijov, as well as the trite, repetitive, and opportunistic headline-grabber John Adams, who notoriously found inspiration from terrorists in his deeply offensive opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1981).

The ballyhoo of journalistic support around Klinghoffer shows not merely that most of America’s salaried music critics are tone-deaf; they are also stunted as human beings. Still, even while such egregious composers are cosseted by the Met’s box office-obsessed director Peter Gelb, there are signs that neglected modern composers can offer genuine listening pleasure.

An affectionate new biography of Australian-born British composer Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003) by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris points out that by disdaining the desiccated modernist approach, Williamson was able to create accessible works like a wistful, moody “Organ Concerto,” a 1974 recording of which, conducted by Adrian Boult with the composer as soloist, has just been reissued on Lyrita. The same doughty small label (devoted to lost classics of modern British music) has transferred to CD a 1971 recording of a piano concerto by Williamson’s friend and colleague Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936), a wry, elusive talent of considerable braininess. Bennett, like Williamson, was successful in a wide variety of genres, including choral music, despite being generally remembered for his delightful film scores to hits like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express. A mentor to Bennett and Williamson is Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose spry, deft “Piano Concerto in B flat” and elegiac “Concerto for Two Pianos” are also reprinted by Lyrita. Likewise, the music of Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) inspired generations of British musicians, especially his vocal works like “Intimations of Immortality” and “Two Sonnets by John Milton.” Recordings of these works from the 1970’s, by the sublimely mellifluous British tenor Ian Partridge, are also reissued on Lyrita.

Why are such enjoyable composers so rarely performed on our shores, while a more recent, omnipresent name like Magnus Lindberg, who writes heartless music that sounds like an explosion in a glass factory, is everywhere? Then, as now, so-called classical music “experts” are suspicious if they find concert-going fun. In 1966, the Spectator pointed out that Williamson was despised “a) for writing tunes in Richard Strauss-Puccini idioms; b) for writing tunes that aren’t good enough; and c) for being so archaic as to write tunes at all.” Another composer in the Lyrita series, Constant Lambert (1905–1951), wrote Music Ho!, a 1931 study of “music in decline,” as well as the zesty, Poulenc-like ballet Romeo and Juliet. Most of these composers let their music do the talking. After years of heavily-promoted (although all-too-often sterile and soulless) contemporary music, many works reprinted by Lyrita sound better and better.

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Old Gould

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

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The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Some readers may be allergic to the Second Vienna School, but Gould was one of the rare pianists (like Italy’s Maurizio Pollini, who played Arnold Schoenberg’s works with genuine love. A 1960’s meeting with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the Schoenberg “Phantasy,” has a feeling of affection (tied to Gould’s admiration for Menuhin) unmatched in the discography. A gentler version of Schoenberg’s modernist investigations came from the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen (1887– 1952). Gould found spooky poetry in Valen’s work, too.

All of these achievements are essential elements of Gould’s artistry, and those who love—or dismiss—Gould based on his Bach recordings alone are missing the forest for the trees. Some who admire Gould’s Bach have missed his obsessively intense recording of Johann Sebastian’s “Art of Fugue” on the organ. Yes, Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” from 1955 and 1981 are both remarkable, but they are not the summa of all things Gouldian. Yes, there are bad recordings by Gould, like his Mozart sonatas (music he despised) or his famously ungainly 1962 Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein. Yet the best of Gould is splendid indeed.

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A Soprano Rediscovered

All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

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All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

The most recent of these is VAI’s release of a 1963 televised performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” from Tanglewood, in which the statuesque Curtin sings the Latin portions of the Requiem with womanly warmth and dignity. As the soprano soloist in Britten’s “Requiem,” Curtin is vastly better than the unbridled Slavic-accented yowlings of Galina Vishnevskaya as conducted by the composer himself on Decca. On Phyllis Curtin in Recital, another recently issued live recording from VAI, also from 1963, the soprano performs a variety of songs and arias by European and Latin American composers, from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Alberto Ginastera. Her utter directness and conviction is wholly admirable, while her ability to communicate emotion in foreign languages is exemplary. Her English diction is no less fine in VAI’s CD Phyllis Curtin Sings Copland & Rorem, although the characterful Aaron Copland songs on this CD necessarily overshadow the weak-as-water banalities of the ever-puerile Ned Rorem. VAI has also cobbled together a CD of previously unreleased material, Phyllis Curtin—Opera Arias (1960-1968) including music by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.

Taken together, these interpretations construct the image of a singer of great poise and even majesty, of gleaming intelligence and devotion. Two years ago, as part of a convocation address which she delivered at the Northwestern University School of Music, Curtin observed: “Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of!” She advised the listening students: “Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.” She added as an example of her longtime generosity of spirit: “At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year…. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program.” New York’s movers and shakers in the classical world (especially at pricey locales like Carnegie Hall) would do well to imitate this kind of openness.

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

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Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

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Why We Remember Jerry Hadley

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

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Happy Birthday, Maestro Masur

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

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New York Philharmonic: New Conductor, New Season

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

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Sins of Commission

It was announced in May that Britain’s Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at 101. Charles had previously commissioned (also in memory of his grandmother) Reflections on a Scottish Folksong, a work for cello and orchestra by Richard Rodney Bennett, which premiered in London last year. Bennett (born 1936), a student of Pierre Boulez, is an adept composer of classical works, as a bewitching CD of his choral works on Collegium Records proves. Bennett is also a noted composer of popular scores for hit films like Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Unfortunately, few composers share Bennett’s range of talents. Nigel Hess, the composer chosen by Prince Charles for the forthcoming concerto, is known mostly for his work in TV and films, as composer of the theme music for such BBC-TV series as Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and the score of the film Ladies in Lavender. Prince Charles, who briefly studied the cello in his youth, is a self-proclaimed fan of classical music and opera. But he expresses his appreciation with the kind of backward-looking stance he has notoriously applied to modern architecture. In 2000, Charles appointed a young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, to be official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales—an honor last granted in 1871.

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It was announced in May that Britain’s Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at 101. Charles had previously commissioned (also in memory of his grandmother) Reflections on a Scottish Folksong, a work for cello and orchestra by Richard Rodney Bennett, which premiered in London last year. Bennett (born 1936), a student of Pierre Boulez, is an adept composer of classical works, as a bewitching CD of his choral works on Collegium Records proves. Bennett is also a noted composer of popular scores for hit films like Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Unfortunately, few composers share Bennett’s range of talents. Nigel Hess, the composer chosen by Prince Charles for the forthcoming concerto, is known mostly for his work in TV and films, as composer of the theme music for such BBC-TV series as Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and the score of the film Ladies in Lavender. Prince Charles, who briefly studied the cello in his youth, is a self-proclaimed fan of classical music and opera. But he expresses his appreciation with the kind of backward-looking stance he has notoriously applied to modern architecture. In 2000, Charles appointed a young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, to be official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales—an honor last granted in 1871.

Musical traditions dating back to 1871 may appeal to the prince, but those of only slightly later vintage apparently do not. The late UK arts administrator John Drummond revealed in his autobiography Tainted by Experience that, after a concert performance of Alban Berg’s String Quartet, written in 1910, Charles declared: “Well, you can’t call that music.” Dealing with living composers is necessarily a challenge to anyone who still finds 1910 too avant-garde.

If Charles ever does decide to devote any time to new music, he need not look far. Two of Europe’s most exciting younger composers, Thomas Adès (born 1971) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (born 1960) are flourishing in England today. Outside the UK, the venerable French maestro Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is still thriving, while Germany’s Wilhelm Killmayer (born 1927), Russia’s Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), Hungary’s György Kurtág (born 1926), Switzerland’s Heinz Holliger (born 1939), Norway’s Arne Nordheim (born 1931), Estonia’s Arvo Pärt (born 1935), and America’s Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) have all produced recent work of permanent value. To overlook composers of this stature when it is time to commission new works may be called a sin of omission. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas states that such sins are generally less grave than sins of commission—but he was not referring to piano concertos.

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Remembering Oskar Morawetz

The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

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The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

Morawetz composed a meditative concerto for harp (an instrument that rarely seems pensive) available on CBC Records, and a rambunctious Carnival Overture in the tradition of Dvorák, available on Naxos, and a deft, angular clarinet sonata (sensitively played by the virtuoso soloist Joaquin Valdepeñas) on CD from Musica Viva. Morawetz also wrote more somber works inspired by historical figures such as Anne Frank and Martin Luther King; these are frequently performed, although they lack the appealing lightness of his other compositions. Prone to severe depression, Morawetz composed sprightly works with an element of triumph over his natural low spirits, born of a lifetime of historical and personal struggle. A longtime bachelor, he embarked at the age of 40 on a miserable marriage lasting a quarter-century, through which he continued to compose. Only the death of his mother ten years ago at the age of 103 silenced him.

Lest Canada feel too proprietary about his achievements, it is useful to recall that Morawetz was almost refused admission as a refugee. Canada’s wartime director of immigration, Frederick Charles Blair, blocked the entry of all but a paltry 5,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 (by comparison, Mexico accepted around 20,000 escapees from Hitler and the U.S. around 140,000). When asked how many imperiled Jews Canada should offer refuge to, Blair notoriously replied, “None is too many.” Still, Morawetz was finally allowed to join his family in Toronto in June 1940.

An apt memorial tribute to Oskar Morawetz would be the long-overdue transfer to CD of a brilliant recording on Capitol Records of his Piano Concerto No. 1 by the Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (led by another Czech-born refugee, Walter Susskind). Morawetz (a trained pianist) made his own recordings of piano pieces like Scherzo and Scherzino, which would also be well worth transferring to CD. CBC Records, which has kept a quantity of other Morawetz CD’s in print, should consider releasing these valuable documents of his talent.

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Messiaen’s Dark Past, II

After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

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After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

Odette’s studies with Messiaen were interrupted in the fall of 1941, when she received a letter from the Conservatory’s director, Claude Delvincourt, who had received his appointment as a reward for his right–wing political beliefs. (Gartenlaub would tell me decades later: “Delvincourt might at least have summoned me to his office to tell me this, instead of just sending a letter.”) Delvincourt cited a decree by the French Ministry of National Education stating that it was forbidden to admit or instruct any Jewish student, and explained that Odette would be removed from the student lists in a week. The prominent musicologist Jacques Chailley, then secretary general of the Conservatory, went so far as to chase after Odette during one of her last days at school, saying, “After September 30, you are no longer allowed to eat in the student cafeteria. Don’t forget!”

Odette managed to survive the German occupation of Paris, and although her Conservatory friends knew where to find her, Messiaen never wrote to her during the War. After the Americans liberated Paris, Messiaen finally sent Odette a letter dated September 1, 1944, declaring that it was now possible for her to take his course and that he’d be happy if she could resume. She felt odd about returning to the harmony class after her wartime difficulties, and did not accept the offer. On December 30, 1944 Messiaen wrote to Odette again, announcing that he was offering a free class in composition, during which Stravinsky’s Petrushka would be analyzed. Gartenlaub still refused to become one of Messiaen’s regular students.

Gartenlaub told me that during the War, “Messiaen had my address; he just didn’t want to compromise himself.” She added: “After the War when I returned, all the Conservatory people were very friendly and pleasant again, but these were the same people who ignored me after I’d been thrown out. I might have wound up in a crematory oven.” Fortunately, unlike Messaien’s previous hagiographers, his new biographers show an interest in examining the composer’s political commitments and motivations during and after the war years.

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