I recently exchanged some letters with Hans Fantel, an author and critic who has had a remarkable twentieth-century life. He was born in Vienna, the son of an engineer who built one of the first electrical phonographs. "Racially obnoxious to Hitler's government," as he puts it, Fantel survived the war by hiding in a remote village in the Tatra Mountains. In 1989 he wrote an article for the New York Times on the subject of Bruno Walter's 1938 performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. I'm reprinting it with his permission; it will be clear why. Photo: A synagogue burns in Graz on Kristallnacht, 1938.
"Poignance Measured in Digits"
by Hans Fantel
New York Times, July 16, 1989
Normally the phonograph plays a casual accompaniment to our lives. We think of it, quite rightly, as a means of entertainment. Yet there are times when the machine suddenly shows a deeper aspect of its character, and the miraculous nature of the instrument stands revealed.
So it was for me last week. The mail brought a new CD for review. I opened the parcel and suddenly found myself holding a piece of my past — as remote as a previous incarnation yet as present as my heartbeat. The recording was made at a concert I attended more than 50 years ago.
At first memory refused to fill in the details. But soon they crowded into me, in a chaos of remembrance, as the phonograph asserted its power of putting the past into the present.
The recorded concert took place at the Musikverein in Vienna. The liner notes confirmed the date: Jan. 16, 1938. Bruno Walter, the great conductor then in his prime, led the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Since this epochal work had never before been put on disks, a British record company then known as His Master's Voice (now EMI) had hauled its cumbersome recording apparatus to Austria for the occasion — a rare and complicated undertaking before the age of tape.
My father was a subscriber to the Philharmonic and had taken me along in the mistaken belief that, being a rather precocious teen-ager, I might be ready for the vigors of Mahler. Because almost none of Mahler's works were then available on records, my father probably looked on this concert as a welcome opportunity to acquaint me with a composer he deeply admired and had known personally. [He sang in the Vienna Court Opera Chorus under Mahler around 1906, Mr. Fantel added in a letter.]
The brand-new CD in my hand seemed strangely incongruous. Its curiously abstract digital concepts were unthinkable at the time the original recording was cut into soft, palpable wax. Here, in the latest technical guise, were echoes of a lost world. While I inwardly grappled with this, my recall sharpened, and I remembered the occasion of the recording with startling accuracy.
Mahler performances were rare in Vienna in those days because Mahler's city had already been contaminated by the acolytes of Adolf Hitler. By their reckoning, Mahler's music was loathsome — a product of "Jewish decadence." To put Mahler's music on the program was therefore a political act. It was to protest and deny the hateful faith that blazed across the border from Germany. That much I understood quite clearly, even as a boy.
We could not know on that winter Sunday that this would turn out to be the last performance of the Vienna Philharmonic before Hitler crushed his homeland to make it part of the German Reich. The music, captured that day by the bulky old microphones I remember strung across the stage, was the last to be heard from many of the musicians in the orchestra. They and their country vanished.
I put on the record. To hear that music again, after so long a time and in so distant a place, was a strange reprise. I now lived on another continent and even spoke another language. And I had become an adult.
I now had some musical understanding of what I had then heard uncomprehendingly. I could now recognize and appreciate the singular aura of that performance; I could sense its uncanny intensity — a strange inner turmoil quite different from the many other recordings of Mahler's Ninth I had heard since. Knowing now what nobody could have known at the time of the concert, it seemed that perhaps the playing of the music carried within it a foreboding of what was to come. Terror and anguish, not yet experienced but divined, were transformed into song. Was it by chance that Mahler's Ninth — that supreme expression of farewell — was on the program that day?
But it wasn't the music alone that cast a spell over me as I listened to the new CD. Nor was it the memory of the time when the recording was made. It took me a while to discover what so moved me. Finally, I knew what it was: This disk held fast an event I had shared with my father: 71 minutes out of the 16 years we had together. Soon after, as an "enemy of Reich and Führer," my father also disappeared into Hitler's abyss.
That's what made me realize something about the nature of phonographs: they admit no ending. They imply perpetuity.
All this seems far from our usual concerns with the hardware of sound reproduction. But then again, speculating on endlessness may be getting at the purposive essence of all this electronic gadgetry — its "telos," as the Greeks would say. In the perennial rebirth of music through recordings, something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time.
Epilogue: Hans Fantel died a month after I reprinted his article.