"There are two things that I hate: analysis and power."
— Sviatoslav Richter
Pierre Ruhe, the most famous ex-but-not-ex-classical-music critic in America, has finally spoken about the controversies that have recently swirled around him: "I am pleased to let you know that I am back in my old job, and the term 'critic' is part of the title. I’ve been assured by my editors that classical music coverage will remain materially the same. That is not to say that the status quo is fixed; the newspaper business is in tremendous flux. However, AJC management has publicly affirmed its support for classical music and for my work, and I feel that I will have a voice in the changes that will inevitably occur." You can read Pierre's reviews, articles, and blog items here. He recently covered the Atlanta Symphony's premiere of Michael Gandolfi's Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
CHAPTER 1: The Golden Age (opening)
When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the provincial Austrian city of Graz, several leading figures in European music gathered to witness the event. The première of Salome had taken place five months before, in Dresden, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale—an ultra-dissonant Biblical spectacle, based on a play by an Irish degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company; a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.
Giacomo Puccini, the creator of La Bohème and Tosca, made a trip north to hear what “terribly cacophonous thing” his German rival had concocted. Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna opera, attended, with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with his brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and no fewer than six of his pupils. One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend, who, in a memoir, described the “feverish impatience and boundless excitement” that all felt as the evening approached. The widow of Johann Strauss II, composer of On the Beautiful Blue Danube (and no relation to the composer of Salome), represented old Vienna. Ordinary music-enthusiasts filled out the crowd—“young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage,” Strauss noted. Among them may have been the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Vienna, on May 8. Hitler later told Strauss’s son and daughter-in-law that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip. There was even a fictional character present—Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a tale of a composer in league with the devil.
The Graz papers carried news from Croatia, where a Serbo-Croat movement was gathering force, and from Russia, where the Tsar was locked in conflict with the country’s first attempt at a democratic parliament. Both stories carried tremors of future chaos — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917. But, for the moment, Europe maintained the facade of civilization. The English Minister of War, Lord Haldane, was quoted as saying that he “knows Germany and loves Germany’s literature and philosophy,” and that he enjoyed reciting passages from Faust.
Strauss and Mahler, the titans of Austro-German music, spent the day in the hills above the city, as Alma recounted in her memoirs. A photographer captured them outside the opera house, apparently preparing to set out on their expedition—Strauss smiling in a boater hat, Mahler squinting in the sun. The company visited a waterfall and had lunch in an old inn, where they sat at a plain wooden table. They must have made a strange pair: Strauss, tall and lanky, with a weak chin, a bulbous, balding forehead, strong but sunken eyes; Mahler a full head shorter, a muscular hawk of a man. As the sun began to go down, Mahler became nervous about the time, and he suggested that the party should head back to the Hotel Elefant, where they were staying, in order to prepare for the performance. “They can’t start without me,” Strauss said. “Let ‘em wait.” Mahler replied: “If you won’t go, then I will—and conduct in your place.” Or so Alma claimed. She assumed that Strauss was hiding his anxiety behind a facade of nonchalance.
Mahler was forty-five, Strauss forty-one. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods—childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. As he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the opera house on the Ringstrasse, cab drivers would whisper to their passengers, “Der Mahler!” Strauss was earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical, a closed book to most observers. The soprano Gemma Bellincioni, who sat next to him at a banquet after the performance in Graz, described him as “a pure kind of German, without poses, without long-winded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, an indecipherable expression.” Strauss came from Munich, a backward place in the eyes of sophisticated Viennese such as Gustav and Alma. Alma underlined this impression in her memoirs by rendering Strauss’s dialogue in an exaggerated Bavarian dialect. Not surprisingly, the relationship between the two composers suffered from frequent misunderstandings. Mahler would recoil from unintended slights; Strauss would puzzle over the sudden silences that would ensue. He was still trying to understand Mahler some four decades later, when he read Alma’s memoir and annotated it. “All untrue,” he wrote, next to the description of his behavior in Graz.
“Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain,” Mahler said. “One day we shall meet.” Both saw music as a medium of conflict, a battlefield of extremes. They reveled in the monumental sound that a hundred-piece, late-Romantic orchestra could make, yet they undermined its spectacular sonic heroics with moments of instability, impurity, implosion, collapse. The epic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Wagner’s music dramas, invariably ended in a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. Mahler and Strauss put those narratives into question and sought out other kinds of stories. They recognized the common ground between them, and each worked to support the other’s music. Strauss’s first major act upon becoming President of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, or General German Music Association, in 1901, was to program Mahler’s Third Symphony for the festival the following year; indeed, Mahler’s works dominated the Association’s programs for several years running. So much Mahler was played under Strauss’s watch that some critics took to calling the ADMV the Allgemeiner Deutscher Mahlerverein. Others dubbed it the Annual German Carnival of Cacophony.
Mahler, for his part, was deeply impressed by his colleague’s music, and especially by Salome. Strauss had played and sung the score for him the previous year, in a piano shop in Strasbourg, and passersby pressed their faces against the windows in curiosity. Salome promised to be one of the highlights of Mahler’s Vienna tenure, but the censors balked at accepting an opera in which Biblical characters are made to perform unspeakable acts. Furious, Mahler began hinting that his days in Vienna were numbered. He wrote to Strauss in March 1906: “You would not believe how vexatious this matter has been for me, or (between ourselves) what consequences it may have for me.”
So Salome came to Graz, an elegant city of one hundred fifty thousand people, capital of the agricultural province of Styria. The State Theater staged the opera at the suggestion of the critic Ernst Decsey, an associate of Mahler, who assured the management that it would create a succès de scandale. “The city was in a state of great excitement,” Decsey wrote in his autobiography, Music Was His Life. “Parties formed and split. Pub philosophers buzzed about what was going on…. Visitors from the provinces, critics, press people, reporters, and foreigners from Vienna … Three more than sold out houses. Porters groaned, and hoteliers reached for the keys to their safes.” The critic himself fueled the anticipation with a high-flown preview article, acclaiming Strauss’s “tone-color world,” his “polyrhythms and polyphony,” his “breakup of the narrow old tonality,” his “fetish ideal of an Omni-Tonality.”
As dusk fell, Mahler and Strauss appeared at the opera house. They had rushed back to town in their chauffeur-driven car. The crowd milling around in the lobby had an air of nervous electricity. The orchestra played a fanfare when Strauss walked up to the podium, and the audience applauded stormily. Then a deathly silence descended, the clarinet played a softly slithering scale, and the curtain went up.
In my forthcoming book, I make glancing mention of the fascinating saga of Henry Wallace, who was Vice President of the United States from 1941 to 1945. In FDR's first terms Wallace served as Agriculture Secretary, launching some of the most revolutionary and controversial programs of the New Deal. As Vice President, he seized the nation's attention with his fiery speech "Century of the Common Man," which was designed as a riposte to Henry Luce's nationalist vision of an "American Century." The speech supplied Aaron Copland with the title of his Fanfare for the Common Man, as letters in the Copland Collection at the Library of Congress attest. Wallace failed to keep his place on the national Democratic ticket in 1944 — what might have happened to the country if he had become president upon FDR's death is anyone's guess — and in the following years he moved toward the radical left. He served for a while as President Truman’s Commerce Secretary, but Truman removed him from the post in 1946 after his views on the Soviets were deemed too accommodating.
Aside from the Copland angle, there's another musical connection in Wallace's story — one that I ended up leaving out of my book, with regret. It involves the even more curious figure of Nicholas Roerich, a figure without parallel in the American political pantheon. Roerich was a Russian symbolist painter who had come to America in the twenties and set himself up as a mystical guru of the Theosophist type. In the early thirties, he succeeded in ingratiating himself not only with Wallace but also with Roosevelt himself, whom he met on at least one occasion. The President took a fancy to Roerich’s proposal for a “banner of peace,” which was designed to fly over artistic monuments around the world to protect them from aerial bombardment. The idea was apparently forgotten by the time of the infernal Allied bombings of 1944 and 1945.
Wallace always had a bent for mystical speculation — it was he who persuaded Roosevelt to place the All-Seeing Eye on the dollar bill — and much of his correspondence with Roerich unfolded in a private code, according to which FDR was the Flaming One and Wallace was, believe it or not, Parsifal. As Agriculture Secretary, Wallace allowed Roerich to go on a grass-seed-collecting expedition in Manchuria, which Roerich apparently attempted to turn into an armed uprising against the Soviet Union — the details remain vague. (John Culver and John Hyde's book American Dreamer is the definitive book on Wallace; a modern biography of Roerich would be welcome.) Learning of Roerich's antics, Wallace broke off relations and had him audited by the IRS. Still, rumors of the affair got out, and helped ensure Wallace’s defeat at the Democratic convention of 1944. Parts of this correspondence were made public during Wallace's quixotic Presidential run of 1948, drawing ridicule to an already doomed campaign.
The musical punchline of the episode? Roerich co-wrote the scenario and created the original sets for The Rite of Spring.
June 11, 2007 | Permalink
OC critic Tim Mangan is blogging from the Ojai Festival, and Easterners envy him. He also helpfully points out that newspapers are paying a lot of attention these days to how many hits their writers receive on the web; those who fall short may get cut back. Classical music, whose numerous older patrons tend to read stories in the paper rather than online, is especially vulnerable. So, if you wish for classical coverage to continue appearing in your local paper, you might want to click regularly on web stories, check the little rating boxes at the end, comment on blog items, and pass links along to friends. Odd that classical music should suffer because its fans tend to read the paper the old-fashioned way, by subscribing to it, but that's how it goes in today's mad world.
June 10, 2007 | Permalink
I've received countless e-mails from readers clamoring for just one more post about classical-music criticism at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So here goes. If you haven't followed this saga since its inception, my prior posts appeared on May 25, May 30, and June 8. Hank Klibanoff, the AJC's managing editor for enterprise, responded to the affair in an interview with the Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers and in a letter that Steve Smith published on his blog. Hoping to get to the bottom of the affair, I sent a series of questions to Klibanoff, who replied profusely and with obvious eagerness to clear the air of what he considered to be misunderstandings about the AJC's internal reorganization and the impact it would have on arts writing. By the end of the dialogue, I didn't have much doubt that the AJC is indeed seriously committed to arts coverage, whether or not you agree with its stance toward criticism. There will be only minimal commentary from me; I will leave the analysis to others.
June 10, 2007 | Permalink
Hank Klibanoff, a managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has accused bloggers such as Henry Fogel and myself of spreading “falsehoods and misperceptions” about the fate of classical-music criticism at the AJC, a topic I addressed here and here. According to Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe, Klibanoff declares that Pierre Ruhe's status as classical critic was "never really in jeopardy" and wants to know why I and others didn't call to confirm the story. I, for one, was commenting on a reported article by Steve Dollar that appeared in Musical America on May 24, and on this blog I don't usually re-report stories that come from reputable sources. Dollar wrote that “a radical reorganization of staff resources has led to the elimination of most positions for arts critics and editors.” Dollar interviewed Bert Roughton Jr., another AJC editor, who was paraphrased as saying that “there will still be reviews of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra” but that “he just can't say under whose byline they will appear, or if they will appear as frequently as they do now.” On May 21, the AJC saw fit to publish a letter from Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, lamenting that "designated reviewers for classical music, visual arts and literature" were to be eliminated. If that was a falsehood, I don't understand why the AJC allowed it into print. Six days later, Julia Wallace, the editor of the paper, stated that Spano's claim "wasn't correct," although her denial was at times circuitously worded ("Will there be a reduction in the number of reviews? That's not the goal"). Those were the sources for my posts. I have checked with Musical America, and they are standing by their story. I have also sent a list of questions to Mr. Klibanoff and will add more information as it comes in. I appreciate his passion for the arts, and I apologize if my initial post, with its rude headline, offended him.
I've commented before that we in classical music tend to jump to the
worst-case scenario. In 2005, some of us feared that the Boston Globe
would fail to replace Richard Dyer when he left the paper. Then they
hired Jeremy Eichler. Similar fears are now being voiced about New York
magazine. We will see what happens in that case. Still, I'm glad Spano
spoke up as he did. What he said needed to be said: the tendency to
marginalize criticism is widespread in American newspapers.
June 08, 2007 | Permalink
— John Corigliano, Jefferson Friedman, String Quartets, Coriligano Quartet (Naxos)
— Copland, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, Gerswhin, American in Paris, Redwood Symphony, Eric Kujawsky conducting (Redwood Recordings)
— Richter the Master, Vol. 3: Scriabin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (Decca)
— Poulenc, Gloria, Stabat Mater, Notre-Dame de Rocamadour; Westminster Singers and City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox conducting (Virgin, 1993)
— The Band: A Musical History (Capitol)
For reasons of professional etiquette, I'd prefer not to comment on the news that New York magazine has let go of Peter G. Davis, who has been the classical critic there for twenty-six years. But I'd like to say that I've always admired the wise, calm force of Peter's writing, and, as a neighbor on the aisles, I cherish his vast experience and knowledge of the field. I do mean vast: when I told Peter I was going to write about Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, he started singing it to me. I can't wait to read his memoir, which, I trust, won't fail to include the famous Carnegie debut vomit anecdote.
On the same front, Henry Fogel has a piece of good news: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided to retain the services of Pierre Ruhe, after earlier threatening to abolish his position as classical critic of the paper. Congratulations to the editors on making the wise choice. And enough about critics.
I went out of town for the weekend and missed the undoubted excitement of the Bang on a Can marathon. Fortunately, the event can be experienced vicariously through Steve Smith's Times review and Darcy James Argue's comprehensive live-blogging coverage, which includes two sets of pictures. Feast of Music was also there for the long haul. Notice a choice detail in Steve's piece: no fewer than four hundred people were present for a 5 A.M. performance of Music for 18 Musicians by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (for more on that gifted group, go here and here). See also Pitchfork, The Ultravisitor, Anastasia Tsioulcas, and Bruce Hodges. Ultravisitor stopped by for the Reich after making the rounds of the bars, which gives me an idea for a new concert series: After-Hours Classics, with free bottled water.
June 05, 2007 | Permalink