Editor’s Note: For the first half of August, Jay Nordlinger was at the Salzburg Festival, hosting a series of public interviews and writing criticism. The criticism will appear soon in National Review and The New Criterion. Today begins an online journal, Impromptus-style.
From Manhattan to Newark Airport, I take a taxi. The driver is Greek: and garrulous, and sharp. As we pass the Metropolitan Opera House, he says, “That is where the fat lady sings.” “Yes,” I say, “many fat ladies.” “And the skinny ones dance,” he says.
Frustrated at a traffic jam, he says, “Maybe I’ve had enough of New York. Maybe I go back to Greece and chase the goats up the hill.” “Wouldn’t you be bored?” I say. “No,” he says. “You hook up a television, you’re all set.”
Soon he avers that the United States is “the number-one terrorist nation in the world.” Uh-oh. He continues, “And George Washington was the first terrorist.” “Oh?” I say. “Yes,” he says: “He made sneak attacks on the British, instead of confronting them head to head on the battlefield.”
I remember something that U.S. diplomats in Greece told me in 2001. I was going there to give a speech. They said, “A recent poll showed that Greece is the most anti-American nation in all of Europe.” (Albania was the most pro-American — I was speaking there after Greece.)
In New Jersey, the taxi driver says to me, “You know who Alexander Hamilton is?” “Yeah,” I answer. “That’s where they fought the duel — over there.” A driver with American Founders on his mind . . .
Shortly after I get to Salzburg, I meet a member of the beautiful set — a natty, quick-tongued Euro. He says, “Who’s going to win the presidential election?” I say, “I don’t know, but I’d bet Romney.” He says that such a result would be very bad for America. Why?
Well, Romney is insular, don’t you see. And Obama has experience in the world. Moreover, Obama has accepted American decline: “He realizes that America is not a superpower anymore — or that there are other powers, like Brazil and China.” (Brazil!)
Ladies and gentlemen, I will go all McCarthyite on you: In my experience, those who want to see America weak — or wouldn’t mind seeing America weak — like Obama, a lot.
Told you it’d be McCarthyite. (Still true.)
Speaking of the beautiful set: Someday, we’ll have to have a discussion of wealth and physical attractiveness. Generations ago, some guy got rich, and scored a smokin’ babe. They had children, who in turn married “well,” physically speaking. And . . .
I’ll stop now. Starting to sound like Margaret Sanger. Are there ugly richies? Oh, sure. Anyway, a discussion for later (or not).
I’m always glad to see basketball hoops up in Greater Salzburg. Nice goin’, Dr. Naismith — what a game!
I’m glad to see putt-putt in Salzburg too. Forget Mozart: Where there is putt-putt, there is civilization.
One of my favorite places to walk in Salzburg is sort of in the “country,” along the Backhaus-Weg — Backhaus Way. Wilhelm Backhaus was a German pianist, a great musician, who lived from 1884 to 1969. That he should be remembered with a “way” — a path, really — is kind of touching to me. Of course, he is mainly remembered by his recordings. In any case, the Backhaus-Weg is a beautiful and special walk.
Fun fact: Though Backhaus was a German pianist, he was not of the German school. Nationality is not destiny, musically or otherwise. There are “Germanic” pianists from all over. And some Germans who are not so Germanic.
Know what I mean?
Salzburg is so beautiful a place, it’s hard to stop taking pictures. I say to myself, “You have taken many pictures of this very scene, for years. Do not. What’s the point?” And yet — I may go ahead and click.
I don’t know about you, but I never took pictures before cellphones. Owned very few cameras. The advent of the cellphone made me a frickin’ shutterbug.
Today, the instinct of many people on seeing something beautiful or exceptional is to snap a picture. What did we do before? Just drink it in, impressing it on the memory?
I’m going to gush for a second longer about the beauty of Salzburg: The land on which the city sits was undoubtedly beautiful, before the city came along — before man came along. There’s not much that’s unsightly in and around the Alps. But the hand of man, I believe, made the area even better.
To some, such a statement would be sacrilege. Or do I mean blasphemy? Sacrilege, blasphemy, heresy — one of these days, I’m going to get a handle on the precise meaning of those words.
Every year, the Salzburg Festival Society has a series of public interviews, i.e., Q&A’s before an audience. Our first guest this year is to be Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. But he calls in sick. What to do?
We pluck a substitute from among our own ranks: Peggy Weber-McDowell, a member of the Festival Society, and an old friend of mine. I have mentioned her in my writings before. Peggy is both a Salzburger and an Atlantan, an Austrian and an American. For years — meaning like 500 — her family had a candle business in Salzburg. And then this electric-light thing caught on . . .
I ask her to tell some of my favorite stories. “I love to hear the story” (as an old line doesn’t go). Peggy is a vivid and captivating storyteller. How about the time Wilhelm Furtwängler (the great conductor) flirted with her? He is not on the list of the “most charming,” though — Peggy has a list of the most charming men she has ever met. They include Franz Lehár and Richard Strauss.
The former, recall, composed The Merry Widow. The latter composed Der Rosenkavalier and a few other hits. Strauss was a patron of the Webers’ candle shop. Not sure about Lehár — I think so.
Peggy is very frank about the war — about the Anschluss and all that followed. Frank and instructive. As you may know, Salzburg had a little Kristallnacht, in which shops owned by Jewish citizens were smashed up. The foreman of the Webers’ factory participated in this episode. He came back with bloody hands and forearms, from the glass.
“Matthias!” they cried. “What happened to you?” He smiled with relish: “Those Jews had it coming. We’ve been waiting a long time to do this.” According to Peggy, the family was shocked at what Matthias turned out to be.
Anyway, I wish you could have been there. (For the talk, not the war.)
Over the years, I’ve met many Salzburgers who have no connection to the festival and cannot attend performances — because of ticket prices. This always makes me wince a little. I know one girl who is hoping to win a place as an usher: She says she has to apply right now, this summer, for next summer.
Angelika Kirchschlager, a famous mezzo-soprano, is from Salzburg. In an interview some years ago, she told me she sang in the children’s chorus for Carmen. (An opera being put on this year, in fact.)
Genia Kühmeier, a soprano, is also from Salzburg. She’s singing Micaëla in the current Carmen. Christian Doppler was a Salzburger too — you know, Doppler, like the effect. And then there’s Mozart . . .
For several years, I stayed in a hotel around the corner from the house where Mozart was born. For the last several years, I’ve stayed around the corner from the house in which he grew up. Both houses are museums, tourist attractions. I have never been to either one. Strange, this lack of interest.
I addressed this issue in an essay for The New Criterion last year — in the last paragraph, in particular. Go here, if you like. (The essay is on Bruckner.) The connection between place and music? Not much of a connection, in my view. In any case, thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you tomorrow.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.