Politics & Policy

Beethoven, Verdi — and someone you don’t know

Music and politics don’t mix, usually, but let’s mix them a little — for others have. Last month, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, staged a festival in Stockholm designed to call attention to the health of the Baltic Sea. It was a kind of eco-musical festival. Said Salonen, “Culture depends on economy, economy depends on environment” . . . so the state of the water “is absolutely the musician’s business.”

That’s a little hard for some of us to swallow — but it bears consideration. A paper called me up to ask whether I’d do an op-ed piece on the subject (music and politics), which I happily did. But I’d like to expand on that column a little, for you, Impromptus-ites. Let’s take a brief trip through music and politics across the generations.

Beethoven, of course, dedicated his Symphony No. 3 — the “Eroica” — to Napoleon. And he crossed out that dedication when the little, brutal guy crowned himself Emperor.

He also wrote one of the greatest paeans to freedom ever (I’m talking of Beethoven, not Napoleon). This is “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s sole opera (repeatedly revised). There is a scene in which prisoners — political prisoners — emerge from their cells into the light. “What joy,” they say, “to breathe free air.” Last spring, an Impromptus-ite wrote in to point out that some prisoners in Iraq had emerged from their own (underground) cells to say exactly the same.

Beethoven’s love of freedom, and struggle against tyranny — political and mental — permeates much of his output.

Verdi got in his political licks as well. He was a champion of Italian unification and Italian self-rule. Many people enjoyed noting that his name formed an acronym for “Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia.” The chorus from Nabucco — “Va, pensiero” — became a national hymn. In 1875, Verdi was appointed a senator in the Italian parliament.

In 1919, the great pianist Ignace Paderewski agreed to serve as prime minister of Poland, and he attended the Paris Peace Talks in that capacity. The story is told that the French premier, Clemenceau, said to him, “Are you related to the pianist?” Paderewski replied, “I am, in fact, the pianist.” Continued Clemenceau, “And now you are prime minister?” “Yes,” answered Paderewski. Sighed the Frenchman: “What a comedown.”

This remains, for many, a classic commentary on the relationship between art and politics. But we should recall that the first president of a free Lithuania — in 1990 — was a pianist, Vytautas Landsbergis.

On this theme of pianists: Artur Rubinstein — a Pole, like Paderewski — refused to set foot in Germany after 1914. Ever. (He died in 1982.) Some people regarded him as ahead of his time; others said he was stubborn, foolish, and unfair.

I might point out here that the late violinist Isaac Stern refused, for many years, to play with German musicians — not only to play in Germany, but to play with German musicians. Eventually, however, he relented. When Stern died, the (German) conductor Kurt Masur spoke of this change of heart with great poignancy.

There were musical Nazis, of course — loads of ‘em. The conductor Herbert von Karajan was a robust party member, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf joined, too (making five feature films for Goebbels). The denazification of Austro-German music was never quite complete. In the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein would greet the Vienna Philharmonic at rehearsal with a cheery, “And how are my favorite Nazis today?”

Over in the USSR, there were musicians who persecuted; musicians who were persecuted; and musicians who occupied a kind of gray area. The composer Dmitri Kabalevsky was a terrible enforcer for the Soviet state. But his music — existing above the world of politics or criminality — may be enjoyed as music, with no political taint. (Ironically, the henchman Kabalevsky wrote most charmingly for children!)

And if you enjoy listening to the mezzo Elena Obratsova, just read what Galina Vishnevskaya (the Russian soprano, and wife of Rostropovich) says about her in her (indelibly great) memoir Galina! I have reviewed Obratsova — and, like a good boy, evaluated her with no reference whatsoever to her years as a Communist snitch (as alleged by Vishnevskaya).

In America, we had a number of composers around the Communist party. Aaron Copland was always coy about whether he was a member, but he was certainly a sympathizer — penning agitprop and prattling on about “the great masses of the proletariat.” Marc Blitzstein was very definitely a party member. You may recall that he enjoyed a brief revival a few years ago when Tim Robbins — no anti-Commie himself — turned Blitzstein’s propaganda opera The Cradle Will Rock into a movie.

Paul Robeson, of course, was a slavish devotee of Stalin, defending him and championing him to the nth degree. This, of course, has made no dent in Robeson’s reputation as a civil-rights hero. And Leonard Bernstein will always be associated with the term “radical chic” — coined by Tom Wolfe after Bernstein hosted a fundraiser for the Black Panthers at his Park Ave. duplex. Remember that a great Panther slogan was “Off the pig” (translation: Murder the policeman).

And let me quote William Norwich of the New York Times, about that party: “Bernstein asked Donald Cox, a Black Panther field marshal, about the Panthers’ goals and tactics. ‘If business won’t give us full employment,’ Cox responded, ‘then we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people.’ Bernstein said, ‘I dig absolutely.’”

No doubt he did!

One especially sad case of politics against music is the career of Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was a brilliantly promising composer, and then she met Charles Seeger — of the folk family — and fell away from serious composition, on the ideological grounds that it was “elitist.” No more string quartets for her; only dumb ditties about Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. I find it hard to forgive Seeger for that (although Crawford, the idiot, acquiesced). Seeger — a columnist for The Daily Worker — declared, “Music is propaganda — always propaganda — and of the most powerful sort.”

Bullsh**. Music dwells in its own realm, unless it is freighted with words that constitute political baggage. Wagner was an anti-Semite of the grossest sort — but whose music did Theodor Herzl use at his major Zionist conferences? Of course — he would hire an orchestra to play it, for it was transcendental.

I will close with my favorite musico-political anecdote, told to me years ago by two people who were there. Janos Starker — the great Hungarian-American cellist — was to perform the Elgar concerto with the South Carolina Philharmonic, in Columbia. The concert hall was “smoke-free,” and he was informed that he could not have a cigarette even in his private dressing room.

So he said to the orchestra — assembled for rehearsal — “I have lived through fascism, and I have lived through communism. But I cannot abide the petty tyranny into which this country is falling, and neither should you.”

With that, he left — left rehearsal, and left town. The orchestra was silent for a minute. Then a clarinetist began to play “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

Finally, I’d like to take a chunk of Impromptus to introduce you to an extraordinary man, one George Sgalitzer. I met him at the Salzburg Festival this summer. In fact, he is probably the senior patron of the festival — having attended every year since the very first performance, on August 22, 1920. That performance was of Jedermann, the play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the founders of the festival (along with Max Reinhardt).

Dr. Sgalitzer did miss the war years, however — something easily excused.

He celebrated his 90th birthday this summer — which I guess I’m allowed to say, as a beautiful party, for that stated purpose, was held. Born in Vienna, he was seven years old when his grandparents took him to Jedermann. They lived near Salzburg, and were fans of the theater (thus the trip), but not, interestingly enough, of music. (Salzburg would become principally a music festival, though there is still a theatrical component.)

Dr. Sgalitzer is an American, and it’s pleasant to know how he got that way. He had been in China before the war, as a medical missionary. He worked with Americans and liked them. In due course, he emigrated to America, becoming a citizen. He says, “America is the greatest country in the world,” so why not join it? He spent his career as a doctor in the Army, rising to the rank of colonel. He reports, “The military allowed me to practice honest medicine. You know, medicine can be a dishonest profession — the way people want pills and shots and so forth.”

A longtime resident of Seattle, Dr. Sgalitzer is every inch an American, despite his rich and marked Viennese accent. Among his many awards is the Legion of Merit. The man himself is close-lipped, but his friends are aware that he has done much secret work for the government, which will not be divulged until later.

But how about Dr. Sgalitzer and music? He is a pianist, having studied as a boy. Salzburg is particularly close to his heart, and he calls it “unique.” This summer — on August 31 — he attended his thousandth performance at the festival. It was of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde. He has also attended over 250 performances at Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine (and how his bum could take it . . .).

His favorite conductor is Toscanini — far and away — followed by Karajan. The greatest operatic performance he ever heard, he says, was a Toscanini-led Meistersinger. Lotte Lehmann was in that cast. One day — much later — Dr. Sgalitzer met Lehmann in Salzburg, and she told him that that Meistersinger was the greatest performance in which she had ever participated.

His favorite pianist — again, by far — is Sviatoslav Richter. His favorite violinist? Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). He also likes Anne Sophie-Mutter (b. 1963). Cellists? Mstislav Rostropovich and Pablo Casals. His favorite sopranos are Lehmann and Maria Callas. His favorite mezzo: Kerstin Thorborg. His favorite tenor: Alfred Piccaver (“the greatest tenor voice I ever heard. I never heard a Lohengrin like him again. Strangely enough, I met his granddaughter, in later years”). Favorite baritone or bass? Friedrich Schorr.

Dr. Sgalitzer met two American presidents — Johnson, once, in Texas, and Carter, with whom he had lunch in the White House. President Ford appointed him to the Board of Veteran Appeals. Dr. Sgalitzer was married for 61 years, to Hana, who died three years ago. They have two children and four grandchildren.

Talking to him shortly before he left Salzburg this summer, I asked whether he planned to head immediately home. Oh, no, he replied: He was going to Stratford, Ontario, to see some Shakespeare.

Such a rich, well-spent, and well-enjoyed life, happy to contemplate.


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