Salzburg Journal, Part III

Markus Werba as Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger (Salzburger Festspiele/Forster)


Editor’s Note: Our senior editor Jay Nordlinger spent the middle two weeks of August at the Salzburg Festival: hosting a public-interview series, giving a lecture, and covering performances. The music coverage will appear in forthcoming issues of National Review and The New Criterion. For the first two parts of this journal, go here and here.

I have noticed something in European towns, in recent years: You go to the outskirts, and you see much Muslim garb — a lot of burqas. So it is in Salzburg. There will come a time, surely, when you won’t have to go to the outskirts to see this.

It’s one thing to read Mark Steyn articles — unnerving and entertaining at the same time — about demography. It’s another to see this issue up close and personal.

In Salzburg, there are more burqas than ever. When I first came here, ten years ago, there were none, basically. Now they are almost — not quite, but almost — commonplace.

“So what?” you may ask. “What difference could it possibly make?” Well, to use the most boring cliché ever invented, time will tell.

To a group of Americans, I’m to give a lecture on Die Meistersinger, the Wagner opera. This is the composer’s grand comedy, a masterpiece, practically unique in art. Falstaff (Verdi) is a cousin — a distant Italian cousin. But nothing is quite the same as Die Meistersinger.

Incidentally, the Salzburg Festival is staging both Die Meistersinger and Falstaff this year. Both Wagner and Verdi were born in 1813, meaning the music world is celebrating their bicentennials.

Back to this lecture: What should one say about the opera’s dark side? Die Meistersinger has a dark side, doesn’t it? Yes. And one can say this:

Beckmesser (one of the characters) is a Jewish stereotype. Not as nasty a Jewish stereotype as Mime, however. (Mime is a character in The Ring.) How about the appeal to German nationalism — to the purity of German art — at the end? Is that bearable, after World War II and the Holocaust? No, not really.

The Nazis, as you know, made significant use of Die Meistersinger — full title, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Nuremberg was an important city to the Nazis. (It was also the place where they would be tried.) Goebbels called Meistersinger “the most German music drama of all time.” Is it? I’m afraid so.

Anyway, one can say all this.

I’ll also say this: Salzburg is staging Die Meistersinger for the first time since the 1930s. The opera was presented in 1936, ’37, and ’38. The first two seasons, Toscanini conducted. That last season, Furtwängler did — it was after the Anschluss (which occurred in March).

This brings me to my old friend George Sgalitzer, who died a few years ago. Readers of Impromptus know about him: I’ve written about him once or twice, I think. He was an American doctor, Vienna-born. He was also the senior patron of the Salzburg Festival.

He attended the very first performance at the festival, on August 22, 1920: Jedermann (Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s version of Everyman, the English morality play). George was seven at the time. He was brought by his grandparents, who lived nearby. His grandparents didn’t like music very much, but they liked theater.

George liked music, a lot. (And theater, and other things.) He came to every festival from 1920 on, except for the war years.

His favorite conductor was Toscanini. His two favorite sopranos were Lotte Lehmann and Maria Callas. Lehmann was Toscanini’s Eva, in Meistersinger, at Salzburg. George told me that the performance he heard was the greatest thing he ever experienced in music.

He had a chance to tell Lehmann this, many years after that performance. (Their encounter occurred right here in Salzburg.) She replied, “Me too.” That Meistersinger was the best thing she was ever a part of.

And here is a footnote: George’s favorite mezzo, or contralto, was Kerstin Thorborg, the Swede. She was in the Toscanini Meistersinger as well.