Forbidden Music

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From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

FM

From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

Of course, Richard Wagner plays the heavy early on. The opera giant’s anti-Semitism is well known, and Haas describes Wagner’s impact not only on Jewish composers of his day, like Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ignaz Moscheles, but also on those of the 20th century.

Offsetting this was Johannes Brahms, who embraced emancipation and did what he could for rising Jewish star Gustav Mahler. No composer epitomized the fully assimilated Jewish composer more than Gustav Mahler. It was from his shadow that many young Jewish composers spent their careers escaping. These were Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinksy, Hans Gal, Ernst Toch, and many, many others. Indeed, the extent to which Jews dominated German music in the early 20th century is astounding…not just with composers, conductors and musicians, but with publishers, impressarios, and librettists too. They dominated the music-savvy public as well.

Contrary to stereotypes, these men were no followers of Arnold Schoenberg. They were modern yet tonal, and were keen not to indulge in the heady excesses of Romanticism. At the same time they struggled to remain sufficiently “German” and contribute to a cultural heritage they felt was theirs as much as anyone’s. Some of them were also immensely popular.

Of course, the Nazis took a cudgel to all this. It was brutal and swift. We all know what happened. Only, we don’t. Haas walks us through the messy and untold aftermath of the Holocaust and the war from a musical perspective…the desperate escapes, the grinding refugee life, the depression and the sorrow. He tells of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “model” concentration camp which held geniuses like Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein before they were killed. He tells of brilliant musical minds churning out schmaltzy Hollywood scores for steady pay. He tells of great careers ruined by indifference abroad or by a postwar Europe that had no interest in reliving the past.

Not all of it was tragic. Remarkably, the composer Walter Braunfels managed somehow to avoid all of this. In 1937 he moved to a town near Switzerland called Uberlingen and stayed there completely unharmed throughout the war. He made his living as a school teacher and composed several major works there. Haas relates a quote from Braunfels explaining why he never emigrated. It is particularly telling:

…I was a stone in the dam that was keeping evil from flooding everything; but also I realized that should I decide to leave my homeland, I would be ripping out the most important roots to my own creativity.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.

One of these composers I have found particularly moving is Ernst Toch. I’m not one for string quartets, usually. But I found a CD of his String Quartets 12 and 15 at the incomparable Encore Records in Ann Arbor, MI. They were stirring and heart wrenching and reminded me so much of the ending of Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony, which I love. I wish any description I could give would do them justice.

Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
(As an aside, I love how the sense of discovery of classical music never goes away. You can study and enjoy the music for years and always have something new to discover. It’s wonderful.)

But if these composers are so brilliant, why are they virtually forgotten today? Haas offers a blunt and chilling response: because most of their public had been murdered. This is a hideous wrong he tries to set right with the excellent book Forbidden Music.

Johannes Brahms – A Mini-Biography

Brahms1

Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century.

In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.”

Brahms1 Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century. In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.” brahms2 Check out some of my Brahms favorites: The Horn Trio, The Academic Festival Overture, and of course, his Violin Concerto. And the way his Second Symphony just barrels to a close is nothing short of glorious. Brahms also produced a wealth of choral music (such as the German Requiem), and perhaps his most profitable works, the Hungarian Dances, demonstrate a deep interest in folk music. That, and he composed a classic lullaby (“lullaby, and good night…”) that rocks children to sleep even today. Brahms’ reputation as the stodgy conservative wasn’t helped at all by his famously brusque behavior. Born in 1833 to humble conditions in the waterfront city of Hamburg, Brahms never seemed to pick up the refinement and manners that one would expect from a star composer. Nor did he seem to care. He reportedly fell asleep while virtuoso Franz Liszt was giving a recital at his home. He did little to curtail his negative opinions of contemporaries such as Anton Bruckner and Peter Tchaikovsky. He was known to say offensive and acerbic things at parties, such as the time when at the home of a wine enthusiast, the host opened what he called “the Brahms of his cellar.” Brahms took a sip and reportedly muttered that host had better bring out the Beethoven. Another story involves how he tried to escape a group of female admirers by lighting up a cigar. Nearly choking on smoke, the ladies scolded Brahms about how gentlemen do not smoke in front of ladies. Brahms replied that “where there are angels there must also be clouds.” Indeed, the quintessential Brahms quote, probably apocryphal but definitely fun, was when leaving a party, he announced, “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I do apologize.” Brahms also had a passionate side, and this was famously expressed in his forty-year relationship with piano virtuoso Clara Schumann. Young and virtually unknown, Brahms fell in with Robert and Clara

Schumann in 1853 after the composer (not one for understatement) hailed him as a genius, a “Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove”. They were tremendously fond of each other, so much that young Johannes lived with the Schumanns for several months and acted as big brother to their many children.

Robert and Clara Schumann
Robert and Clara Schumann
When Robert died three years later, Brahms grew much closer with Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. There is much speculation as to whether their relationship was romantic or platonic, with most evidence (or lack thereof) pointing to a loving but platonic one. Then again, they did burn a lot of their letters, so one has to wonder. Regardless, theirs was a relationship for the ages, filled with passion and strife, and with love and music. It is speculated that this love, thwarted by an insurmountable age difference, is the reason why Brahms never married. He could never find another Clara. Clara finally died in 1896, and this set off a series of tragic accidents that made Brahms horribly late for her funeral. He received the news late, boarded the wrong train, missed his stop, backtracked and got off at the wrong city, and then spent the next forty hours without sleep correcting these mistakes. He arrived during the procession to the grave, exhausted and in tears, just in time to toss three fistfuls of dirt on her coffin. Later, he said, “Now, I have nobody left to lose.” Beyond the boorishness and this intense passion, those who knew Brahms knew him for the kind-hearted softie he really was. He lived modestly in a three room apartment and gave much of his money away to relatives or fellow musicians. He once offered his fortune to a young Antonin Dvorak and helped further the career of Gustav Mahler. He loved nature and the outdoors, and was famous for taking long walks throughout Vienna. He once claimed he could hear music in the croaking of bullfrogs!
Two of Brahms' famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Two of Brahms’ famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Brahms was also extremely humble for someone who was the toast of Vienna for practically three decades. Once at a party, when someone lifted his glass to Brahms to honor the greatest composer of all time, Brahms completed the toast by announcing, “Yes, yes, let’s all drink to Mozart’s health!” and quickly downed his glass. As rough and rude he was, Brahms was indeed a sweet, generous man. This is perhaps exemplified best when someone once asked him for an autograph. Brahms jotted down a few bars of the Beautiful Blue Danube by his dear friend Johann Strauss Jr., and beneath it wrote, “Alas, not written by…Johannes Brahms.”

Music Wars

So, I had an interesting experience today. I went to get some gas with my four year old in my backseat. And some dude was blasting rap music from his car. You could hear his speakers rattle, it was that loud. There is nothing more obnoxious than forcing your music on others at high volume. Now, normally, I would try to ignore it. But then I thought, ‘Am I just going to take this? This is my country too.’ And then I got angry. I thought, ‘You wanna play your music loud? Fine. I can do that too.’ So I opened my door and blasted WCPE the Classical Station. I set the dial to eleven and just went about my business. I couldn’t match his bass, but I took over the upper registers until I could barely hear his music at all. I’m sure no one else could either. I was a little scared because I was clearly trying to be kryptonite to his noise pollution. I was obviously sticking it to him. If the dude wanted to start something, I’d have a serious problem. Fortunately, he took the hint and turned his music off completely. I was much relieved when I turned down mine in response. Before he drove off, he looked to me and didn’t nod. Neither did I. That was the end of a very tense moment. And the music that cleared the air? Rachmaninoff’s Caprice Bohemien, Opus 12. Gonna go buy me copy just because.

So, I had an interesting experience today. I went to get some gas with my four year old in my backseat. And some dude was blasting rap music from his car. You could hear his speakers rattle, it was that loud. There is nothing more obnoxious than forcing your music on others at high volume. Now, normally, I would try to ignore it. But then I thought, Am I just going to take this? This is my country too. And then I got angry. I thought, You wanna play your music loud? Fine. I can do that too. So I opened my door and blasted WCPE the Classical Station. I set the dial to eleven and just went about my business. I couldn’t match his bass, but I took over the upper registers until I could barely hear his music at all. I’m sure no one else could either. I was a little scared because I was clearly trying to be kryptonite to his noise pollution. I was obviously sticking it to him. If the dude wanted to start something, I’d have a serious problem. Fortunately, he took the hint and turned his music off completely. I was much relieved when I turned down mine in response. Before he drove off, he looked to me and didn’t nod. Neither did I. That was the end of a very tense moment. And the music that cleared the air? Rachmaninoff's Caprice Bohemien, Opus 12. Gonna go buy me copy just because. And to clarify my position here, I would be angry if someone were blasting classical music, or any music, forcing it on others. I would be angry if it were Al Franken or Rush Limbaugh they were blasting. Doesn’t matter what; it matters how loud. I said it’s my country too because I got the impression that the dude didn’t think I had the right to enjoy my own piece of mind. I could have ignored him and scurried out of there quickly, but then I would have felt like a second class citizen, sacrificing my right to happiness to his obnoxious behavior. If it were his country and not mine, meaning if he had full rights and I only dhimmi status, then yes that’s what I would have to do or be punished. So it’s more than maintaining a soundscape, and it has nothing to do with what

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I like or don’t like. It’s about my (and everyone’s) right to have a reasonable amount of peace in a public place. That’s what the dude was intruding upon, thoughtlessly or not.

The Captive Outfielder

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

All this teacher has are these portraits of dead composers like Johann Sebastian Bach glowering at the boy like they’ll flog him if he keeps making mistakes. And the old man keeps talking about time. Time! What’s so important about the stupid time anyway? It’s not like time is going to help him hit the baseball in the big game this weekend. Let’s try this a different way. A violin teacher who witnessed countless tragedies as he escaped from Russia after the Revolution, an old man who’s impoverished family gave everything they had for him to study music as boy, a teacher who knows the meaning and beauty of music in the face of horrible privations is now stuck trying to figure out why this vapid American youth can’t tell the difference between a quarter note and five-sixteenths. He even transposed the boy’s homework from A major to C major to make it easier for him. He loves the boy.

The boy is a good boy with a good ear. The teacher is left asking dear Johann Sebastian hanging on the wall how he, an grizzled old foreigner, can get this fresh-faced American kid to experience the wonder of music. Two people who don’t belong together, yet have to. From this central conflict, the story produces one of the most wonderful resolutions I have ever read. Truly, it is magical. Just a few pages, and you experience the intersection of old and new, youth and adulthood, and music and (believe it or not) baseball. Through baseball, the boy finds his moment of clarity, the very moment after which his appreciation of music will never be the same. My appreciation of short fiction was never the same after reading this wonderful story.

An Equal Music

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music.

Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way?

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark

secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music. Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way? And before you condemn the novel for a plot which seems rather generic, try boiling Shakespearean plays down to brass tacks and see how interesting they become. One truth is that other authors had attempted to dramatize The Merchant of Venice since the basic story had been floating around Europe for years before Shakespeare came around. The bigger truth is that no one did the story better than Shakespeare. There are two things that raise An Equal Music above similar novels. One can only be described as class. Whole courses can be dedicated to this idea and pretty much get nowhere. What is class? My opinion: two or more characters who: are believable because they are like us, are surprising because they are truly individuals and therefore NOT like us, undergo meaningful change, and live in the same world we live in. Note that these characters don’t always have to be likable. For example, who actually likes Humbert Humbert? Heck, Gollum was my favorite character in the Lord of the Rings, and I found him loathsome. Anyway, Seth finds his class when he puts his characters nicely in our comfort zone and then slowly breaks them out of it when we slowly realize what they are capable of. Passion, you see, can take us places we don’t always want to go. The second thing that makes An Equal Music such a prodigious novel is the music. Of course, getting it third hand from me wouldn’t be very useful. If writing about music is considered futile by many, then what about writing about writing about music? At some point, it gets a little, erm, self-referential, if you know what I mean. Suffice to say Seth’s descriptions of the music and the people playing it reach moments of breathtaking clarity. Indeed, I have not read anything approaching them. It is enough to make one fall in love with the music again. This alone is almost enough for me to forgive Seth for his total cop out of an ending. The story basically stops rather than concludes. It seems that the art of plotting was lost on Seth. Either that or his editor insisted he keep his tome within a certain word count and something had to go. Still. An Equal Music. Wow. And it’s even accompanied by a double CD of classical music from the story. Now there’s a marketing idea. The author selected the pieces himself, several of which were specially recorded for the occasion of this CD. One piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor opus 104, had never been recorded before. It has since been recorded a half dozen times. And like the novel, the music of An Equal Music is gorgeous.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, nurse Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Born in 1809 to a family that was as prosperous as it was cultured and respected, young Felix displayed astoundingly prodigious musical talent. He gave his first piano concert when he was nine. At twelve he dazzled the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared him favorably to a young Mozart in terms of his ability to sight-read and improvise on the piano. Goethe was speaking from experience. Old as he was in 1821, he had witnessed young Mozart play in 1763!

Mendelssohn had always admired the choral music and texts of Johann Sebastian Bach. Such music was hardly fashionable in the early years of the Romantic era, when enlightened Germans looked down upon such unabashed religiosity, and when leading composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner were focusing on rebelling against classical traditions. Nonetheless, in 1829, when he was a mere twenty years old, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was a tremendous success, and the young composer was credited for almost single-handedly reviving Bach’s music in Germany. Significantly, 1829 marked not only the 100th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Passion but also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Moses Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn took new inspiration from traditional forms of music. He wrote many works for the church, such as his Elijah Oratorio, which were instantly popular and grew to be cherished in Germany and beyond. His Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture recalled the majestic sweep of Beethoven’s Leonoren Overtures. And the choral Lobgesang, his second symphony, took up where Beethoven’s Ninth left off in merging the classic symphony with the spiritual cantata.

With the symphonic poem, however, Mendelssohn was at his most Romantic and in many cases a step ahead of his contemporaries. The famous conductor Hans von Bulow once stated that Mendelssohn’s symphonic poem Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage “would live when other symphonic poems had ceased to be played.” And this came from the son in-law of Franz Liszt who coined the term “symphonic poem” and did the most to popularize the form. Around the time of his primeval and terrifying Walpurgis Night cantata in the early 1830s, he began calling himself “Richard Wagner’s elder brother.” Indeed, his elemental Hebrides Overture, a work that captures the raw violence and beauty of the sea, is considered a Wagernian work before Wagner!

What can never be forgotten about Felix Mendelssohn was how he was almost deliberately forgotten nearly a century after his death. The Nazis struggled to efface this towering and much beloved figure from the very core of the German psyche. They could not prevent Germans from singing the songs they loved, but they could suppress the name of the Jew who wrote them. They could not pull him off the small stage where he shared a place with the other great German composers of the past, but they could pull down the statue of Mendelssohn that stood in Leipzig. That these cruel and clumsy efforts came frighteningly close to success can drag one either into the depths of cynicism regarding man’s inherent selfishness and ingratitude or into euphoric heights regarding the victory of Truth over oppression.

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. But in the case of the rather stormy and contentious Romantic period of classical music, all roads seemed to stem from Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin may have disregarded Schumann. Schumann may have railed against Wagner. Wagner may have stood apart from Brahms. Brahms may have condemned Liszt. But to a man, they all revered and took inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn. His dear friend Robert Schumann was said to have begun dying the day Mendelssohn passed away tragically in 1847 at the age of thirty-eight. Upon hearing Mendelssohn himself play his gorgeous Songs Without Words, with its adroit and mesmerizing variations simple themes, Robert’s wife Clara Schumann called him “the dearest pianist of all.” And why? Throughout his charmed but short life, he was brilliant, kind, generous, honest, erudite. But most of all, he wrote beautiful music.

Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

2 Reviews of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I’m sorry then, but you’re just not qualified to appreciate this film.

The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.

Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French-Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film. The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism. Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties. I was a film critic for the Chapel Hill News in Chapel Hill, NC from 1992 to 2000, and never did any of my reviews produce hate mail except for this one. The letter came to me on paper via the post since this was before most of us had email. In it a man suggested that I show some humility and not so casually smack around names like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were geniuses who have made permanent contributions to Western Civilization and who the bleep are you and what the bleep have you done to put yourself on the same level as them? Fortunately, the missive wasn't longer than a paragraph. It seemed the writer took as much joy in writing the letter as he did in reading my review. Well, I was flattered that someone had taken me seriously enough to actually write me a letter, but I was also dismayed and fearful. The guy certainly wasn't wrong. On the other hand, in my review I was demonstrating the same kind of snooty holier-than-thou attitude that the director did when he made the film? See? Get it? You didn't like my review? Well, join the club. I felt the same way about 32 Short Films. There. See? And some people accuse me of not being subtle. Still, this didn't make the man's points any less valid.

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It took courage for me to write what I did. But courage born from arrogance and ignorance usually isn't anything much more than stupid. Hence my dismay and fear. Well, nearly twenty years later, I guess I'm a different guy. I love classical music and write about it for WCPE the Classical Station. I've also gotten into Bach quite a bit in the last few years. And no, I am not qualified to talk about Bach except for the emotional impact some of his music has on me. A lot of Bach is still beyond me, and I don't know if I will live long enough to be able to appreciate everything he's ever done. I've also purchased a few of Glenn Gould's recordings and really like them. Why? I don't know. How does Gould compare to other Bach interpreters on the piano? Couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that I like his French Suites and I really really like his Goldberg Variations. Beyond that anything I could say would just be subjective ramblings no better or worse than anyone else's. So, I've always wanted to take another crack at 32 Short Films. I'm grown up now. I've finally got the blare of punk rock out of my brain and can view this film in a more detached manner and from a more informed perspective. So here you go…my second review of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And guess what? The film is just as dull and pretentious now as it was in 1993. I had it right all along! I stand by my original review, proudly. Well, okay, maybe putting the Velvets and Coltrane on the same level as Bach was a little foolish, and maybe I'd shy away from some of the raw attitude in the original review. But I am proud that the 24 year-old version of me, penniless, uncultured cretin that I was, was able to see this film for the ill-conceived art house experiment that it is. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is essentially a smart movie for smart people who like to congratulate themselves for being so smart. Keep in mind, this is not a knock on Gould or Bach. Nor is it a knock on Colm Feore who does a convincing job of playing Gould. It's a knock on the film and the director who made it and co-wrote it. So where was I? Oh, right. Smug. Note how people in the film appear in interviews without subtitles explaining who they are or their relation to Gould. This really would have helped the audience appreciate the relevancy of the interviews, but I guess Girard couldn’t be bothered. We're supposed to know ahead of time who these people are. And if you don't know them, too bad. Notice also how one of these subjects refers to something called 318. This was Gould's beloved piano, a pretty darn important part of Gould's artistic life. But film doesn't tell you this. You have to infer it because an earlier short film called “CD318” shows the inner workings of a piano as it plays. Actually a double inference is required of the uninitiated: You have to know ahead of time that “CD318” was the, er, name of Gould's piano. And you have to know that the “318” this one interviewee keeps mentioning indeed refers to this piano. Of course, Girard could have told us this without requiring us to jump through hoops, but, then again, he wouldn't want to dumb down his precious movie for the sake of the unwashed masses, now would he? See what I mean by smug? Also, many of Girard's pieces are have a point to them. In other words, he wants to tell us things about Gould through cinema, and often cheap cinema at that. Take the piece “Truck Stop”. Gould drives up, sits down, and orders breakfast. Pop music on the radio, people chit chatting about this and that. Normally, our ears would filter most of this out or relegate it as background noise and not pay attention. But not Gould. He has super ears, you see. He hears one conversation loudly and excludes all the others. Then he hears another even louder and over the first. Then another and another and another, until the whole truck stop is a cacophony of conversation. You see what Girard is doing here, don't you? He's telling us that Glenn Gould had really sensitive ears. That was the point of the short film. I figured that out after thirty seconds, but had to put up with the babble of people who had nothing to do with Glenn Gould for the rest of the piece. See what I mean by dull? Another 'point piece' by Girad is “Pills”. All you get is close ups of certain drugs while Gould rattles off effects and side effects of these drugs in voice over. I'm sorry, this is interesting how? Well, Glenn Gould self-medicated and took a lot of needless drugs which may have led to his untimely and tragic demise, don't you see. Oh. Ohhhhh! Boy, I felt like an idiot when I learned that after the fact in 1993. Of course, Girard could have saved me the hassle (and the discomfiture) and made this clear in his film, but I just guess he didn't think people like me were worth it. Next, there is the experimental aspect of the film. And by 'experimental' I mean the kind of dreck you would find in a really bad student film festival. And 'student' I mean attempts at high art that sink directly into tedium. Take “Variation in C Minor”. It's a visualization of a sound reel as Gould's music plays. Just abstract white globs pulsating on a black background in time to piano music. Does anyone else besides me see this as a cheap gimmick? That, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Take also “Diary of One Day”. An x-ray video of a man playing piano interspersed with mathematic equations. A baffling piece if there ever was one. Then there's “Practice” in which Gould whines about being on the road and then imagines that he playing the piano. Girard tracks the camera in circles around Gould as he plays air piano in…what? his apartment? a motel? a studio? I can't tell. He does this in “Passion According to Gould” as well. And to a lesser extent in “Opus 1” in which a camera tracks circles around a string quartet as they play an early piece by composed by Glenn Gould. Who the musicians are Girard does not deign to say until the credits roll. With these pieces Girard is gambling that since the subject matter is Glenn Gould and since the music is classical these pieces will be interesting. He loses his gamble. Music, diagetic or not, loses something when heard on film, I don't care how great it is. Unless it is a concert film, the music becomes supportive to the images. It becomes secondary. Take music videos, for example. In all cases, they are heavily edited and filled with striking images. If not, they better have something real clever or serve up to the viewer. Rarely, do you see musicians just playing with only handful of edits. Great music and a famous subject will not rescue boring visuals. And as a little thought experiment, just to test my theory here, suppose in “Practice” it were my Aunt Millie prancing around her apartment caught in a sublime Bach-inspired epiphany and not Glenn Gould. Would anybody care? There are 32 films here, so Girard does get it right some of the time. I love “The Tip”. This is the only piece that contains a beginning, middle, and end and something approaching a plot. Apparently, Gould was almost as good at playing the stock market as was playing the piano. So here you have Gould getting a tip from a Middle Eastern Sheik's bodyguard about a little-known oil company known as Sotex. Gould sells all his other oil stock in the middle of boom and doubles down on Sotex. His broker thinks he's crazy, but eats his words after a disastrous week when Gould is the only one of his clients who makes money. The piece employs irony, humor, and suspense all in appropriate doses. The performances are charming as well. Other pieces do fine. “Personal Ad” has Gould, dwarfed by hulking stacks of books, composing the ultimate personal ad, an alliterative catalog of geeky character traits he looks for in a woman (“Tristanesque trip taking and permanent flame fluttering”) only to keep mum when he calls the newspaper on the phone. “Gould Meets McClaren” is a nice bit of abstract animation, if you like that kind of thing. “Gould Meets Gould” pits pianist against pianist as they debate Gould's views on art and the artist. Gould famously quit performing by the 1960s, opting to direct his creative energies thereafter in the recording studio. The piece, fittingly I guess, ends in mid-thought. “Leaving” achieves poignancy in dealing with Gould's death. I guess my major problem with 32 Short Films, aside from pieces I didn't like outnumbering the ones I did like 3 to 1, is that it provides a poor starting point from which a person can begin to appreciate Glenn Gould. Of course, if you already love Gould, you'll probably love this film. If you already have any affection towards him, then this film will likely match that affection. The film is as quirky and unpredictable as its subject matter. And that indeed is something. But what is more than just something is the millions of people who are ready to appreciate Glenn Gould, but will be put off by the unabashed elitism of this film. And that's too bad, because in the years between my first review and this one, I finally did experience and appreciate the greatness of Glenn Gould. I can only imagine how my life could have been broadened had this happened when it should have happened, the day I first sat down to review 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.