On Music Appreciation
Most lovers of classical music will tell you when and where their love was kindled. The inspiration usually comes from a very good music teacher or the exposure to especially good music early in life.
I had the good fortune to have been influenced by exactly these two forces. My parents were deeply interested in good music. My father played the piano, and I remember how from my early childhood on he played piano music by Wagner. My parents, especially my mother, loved the opera. When I was 9 years old my father took our whole family to Salzburg, Austria, to attend the famous Mozart music festival. As young as I was, the impression was very deep. Of course, as most European youngsters, I was given piano lessons, but disliked the ordeal of practicing by playing unending scales in different keys, which then was the popular method of teaching piano.
But my real interest took off before my 15th birthday. Sweden, my native country, was the haven for an unusual number of the most famous conductors and performers who had escaped from Hitler’s Germany. The Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra became one of the world’s best under the baton of one outstanding conductor after the other. A friend and I had wisely figured out that it was more educational to attend rehearsals rather than the actual concerts, because during rehearsals the conductor "dissects" the music and trains the musicians in the exact interpretation that he wants to express. By the time a concert takes place, there is, in a sense, really no need for a conductor anymore. The musicians have been trained in rehearsal after rehearsal in exactly the way the conductor wants them to play. During such rehearsals the conductor has the musicians play individual sections of the score, going over it again and again, until the performance is fine-tuned and the sound of the music is according to the conductor’s musical insight and taste.
The problem for us boys was figuring out how to attend rehearsals. We had a solution typical for adventure-seeking boys, we would slip into the concert hall when the rehearsals took place and hide between rows of seats in the concert hall.
This actually worked for some weeks. The trouble was, we were so nervous about being discovered by the guards and then probably evicted, that we did not really appreciate or enjoy the music enough.
And then the inescapable happened. The guard one morning discovered us cowering on the ground between rows of seats, grabbed us by our collars and schlepped us to the conductor’s dressing room.
The conductor at the time was one of Germany’s finest maestros, Fritz Busch, who -- while not being Jewish -- had emigrated from his native Germany out of protest against the undemocratic practices of Hitler. Busch was a tall, rather ferocious Teuton, with the typical straight back of his neck. However, when Busch saw us and heard from me what had driven us to seek attendance at rehearsals, his ferocious look changed into a bright smile. He must have found our behavior charming, and promptly offered to admit us for free to any rehearsal we wanted to attend. Fearing a possible change of heart by the maestro, I quickly asked him -- of course in German -- if he would confirm this permission in writing. He gladly agreed, I tore out a page from a concert program and penned in German a few lines expressing the conductor’s permission for us to attend rehearsals, which he immediately signed. That was some victory!
In the following weeks I heard some of the most beautiful pieces of classical concert music. By loosely following the conductor’s instructions, and often criticism, for the musicians, I learned a great deal about how classical music should be played.
Fritz Busch, luckily, preferred to perform such great classical composers as Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Bruch, and once in a while he also conducted contemporary music, which the musicians evidently detested. I remember one rehearsal of a violin concerto by Alban Berg, a modern German composer. The musicians broke into laughter at the odd, disharmonious and atonal passages. They simply stopped playing and put down their instruments, laughing ... I don’t remember if they ever did play the whole piece at the full concert.
Fritz Busch was of course not the only conductor Stockholm had. The most famous maestros of the time gave guest performances. The most memorable appearance was the visit by Arturo Toscanini. It was early 1937 and Toscanini, the world’s greatest conductor ever, had arrived from Tel Aviv where he had conducted the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra founded by Bronislav Huberman. Toscanini, also a non-Jew, had left his native Italy in protest against dictator Mussolini and had gone to Palestine to demonstrate his solidarity with the many Jewish refugee musicians who had been forced to emigrate from Germany and Italy.
I managed to visit Toscanini at his hotel and asked him for his impressions of the Jewish musicians he had just left behind in Tel Aviv. His face, known for its sour and dour expression, turned radiant as he exuded praise and enthusiasm for the struggling but highly gifted musicians. He also gave me his autograph, which is to this day a very rare and coveted collector’s item, as Toscanini on principle never gave autographs.
Another guest conductor, Bruno Walter, the Austrian famous for his renditions of Brahms and Mahler, would always be totally exhausted and perspiring after a concert. I remember visiting him in his dressing room after a concert. He sat at the piano and gladly gave me his autograph. I noticed that he wrote his name "Bruno Walter S." Only later did I find out that his original name had been Schlesinger, and the "S" was an abbreviation of his original Jewish names.
The conductor Erich Kleiber made only rare appearances in Stockholm. He, too, gave me his autograph. He later emigrated to Argentina, where today his son is a famous conductor.
Among the many performers whom I learned to admire before World War II, were pianists and violinists. Fritz Kreisler, the Jewish virtuoso from Vienna, was a thoroughly charming man. He not only played some of the famous classical violin concertos -- especially that of Felix Mendelsohn, the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn -- but also his own compositions which have become among the most popular pieces of many violinists’ repertoires today. Interestingly, the autograph that he gave me shows that he wrote the "F" in "Fritz" in the form of a G key. This was either done as a deliberate homage to music, or by habit of seeing the G key all his life in his music scores. His rendition of Mendelsohn’s E Minor Violin Concerto was a simply unforgettable experience. This concerto has remained my great favorite.
Yehudi Menuhin came to Stockholm in April 1940 -- just before the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway. His concert fell on Pesach, which of course annoyed me. I took courage and wrote him a letter appealing to him to change the date of the concert so that Pesach observing Jews could attend. He replied in a very courteous postcard in which he assured me that next year he would be careful not to have any conflict with a Jewish holiday. Of course, there was no next year, or the year after or the year after that -- the war had taken over Europe and the world ...
The great Polish-Jewish pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, came to Stockholm shortly before the war. I was overwhelmed with his brilliant piano playing. He gave me an autograph, which I treasure. After the war, he steadfastly refused to step on German soil where so many of his relatives had been killed. He severely criticized Yehudi Menuhin, the Jerusalem-born former child protégé, who immediately after the war gave concerts in Germany. I saw Rubinstein again many years later in Paris, but he was then very old and pale, and almost blind.
A pianist whom I only heard a few years ago was Vladimir Horowitz, the Jewish pianist who was Toscanini’s son-in-law. He had just come out of retirement when my wife and I heard him in London; he died shortly thereafter.
In 1938 Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, came to Stockholm and played one of his famous piano concertos. It is of course not often that a composer plays his own composition, but when that happens you can be sure to hear the correct way the composer meant his piece to be played. He had left his native land right after the Russian Revolution in 1927 and had settled in the United States, where he died in 1943.
Sweden is actually a very fertile country for composers. Most of them are unknown outside Sweden, but since they often draw on well-known Swedish folk songs, their compositions are popular at home. I once met Wilhelm Petterson-Berger, Seden’s leading composer. Beyond his autograph that he gave me, I have no recollection of the encounter.
My dream had always been to be responsible for an important composition and to promote such a musical venture myself. The opportunity arose when my wife and I sought a fitting way to memorialize our late son Jamie, z"l, who had been a great lover of music.
His favorite composition was Beethoven’s Fantasy in C Major for Piano, Orchestra and Choir.
This piece was a forerunner of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in which a choir supplements the musical instruments. The piece begins with a hauntingly beautiful piano recital, which after a while flows into a full orchestra. Finally a choir chimes in repeating a most singable theme.
We therefore chose a similar form to honor Jamie; an oratorium for orchestra, tenor, children’s choir and narrator. The oratorium is called "Tserot Hachayim" ("The Cycle of Life") and describes the various phases in a Jew’s life, using verses from the Tenach and Midrashim. "Tseror Hachayim" is a most unique and moving composition, which as been performed a few times in New York and Israel. In fact, it was chosen by Israeli television as the concert piece on the 1993 Memorial Day and was watched on television by the whole nation of Israel -- a great tribute to Jamie’s memory.
Thus music, from my earliest childhood on until this very day, has played an important part in my life, and I am thrilled that my wife, my daughters and their children are unusually musical.
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