Friends, I’ve just had a longish stretch in Salzburg, doing some work at the festival, and I thought I’d jot you some notes. I’m not going to throw any music criticism at you — I’ll do some of that in the next National Review, and even more in the next New Criterion — or rather, the October New Criterion. (In the September issue, I have a chronicle on the Mostly Mozart Festival, held here in New York.) But Salzburg is so rich and interesting, music aside, I thought I’d dilate a bit (“dilate” being one of the many words I associate with Bill Buckley).
(By the way, once I was heading off to Salzburg, and he said, “Say hello to music for me!” Quite possibly, he loved music more than words. Which reminds me: Vikram Seth, a walking literary genius among us, once wrote, “Music to me is dearer even than speech.”)
I should probably be mouthing off about war and peace, prosperity and poverty, Republicans and Democrats . . . But I’ve spent a career mouthing off about those. I think I’ll do Salzburg for a few days, and soon enough be back atop my soapbox.
‐What’s to like about Salzburg? Nothing. Unless you like glorious views, beautiful buildings, delicious food, pretty girls, high culture, first-class hiking . . . I could go on (and will). When I first went to Salzburg, I had a heretical thought — heretical, because I was a student once in Florence, and was devoted to the place and its myth. (I do not mean “myth” in a bad sense.) My heretical thought was, “It’s as good as Florence.” I was later tempted to revise that to “better.”
‐Have a picture — just a little cellphone job: Salzburg near twilight, here.
‐For several years, I stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the house in which Mozart was born. Now I stay just around the corner from the house where he grew up (on the other side of the river). I have never set foot in either place. Mozart resides in his music, really, not in those houses. You would think that historical curiosity would impel me — but no. Don’t know why. Just down from the house in which Mozart grew up is the house in which Christian Doppler was born. Has no effect on me. (Buh-dum.)
‐Walking on the Mönchsberg one morning, I see a couple of American girls, pedaling bikes. One, giddily, is singing, “Doe, a deer . . .” I wonder how many Americans have done that since The Sound of Music came out. Hundreds? Thousands?
‐Stephen Costello, an American tenor, tells me he has taken the Sound of Music tour. “Not worth it,” is his verdict.
‐Many Austrians — many Salzburgers — I have met over the years pride themselves on their indifference to, and ignorance of, The Sound of Music. They even profess not to know the song “Edelweiss.” Maybe they’re telling the truth.
‐As the festival unfolds, I meet quite a few readers of National Review, and of The New Criterion. I meet them as I’m conducting public interviews, attending dinners — just making the rounds. Some people are closeted: are closet conservatives. Their eyes dart around as they whisper, “Actually, I read you on politics, not just on music.” But others are out and proud. One couple comes to one of the interviews. The husband says, “I just wanted to see what you looked like!” I say, “I could have sent you a picture — you didn’t have to come all the way to Salzburg.” (Again, buh-dum.)
‐Daniel Barenboim is ever political — and, naturally, Salzburg has invited him to give a speech: not just to conduct an orchestra or play the piano, but give a speech. Barenboim is the type to give a speech anyway. He says in Salzburg, “Music is anything but an ivory tower.” What he means is, “I’m going to mouth off, and you’re going to listen — just because I was born with musical talent, though I may not have a political brain in my head.” According to a paper, Barenboim tells the crowd, “If Israel honestly wants peace — a real, lasting peace and not just a superficial one which creates a platform for vague negotiations — then, in order to move towards Palestine, it will have to acknowledge all the factions that exist there.” I guess he means Hamas.
Oh, Israel acknowledges Hamas, all right: acknowledges that Hamas is dedicated to killing as many Israelis as it can, before it destroys the entire state. Sometimes clarity of thought means that you recognize when a person or group is unappeasable.
‐Would you like a definition of “safe”? I offer one: “Knocking Israel to an audience in Austria.”
‐I’m glad to see Angela Merkel attending a concert. She’s just there, another face in the crowd. No fuss, no muss. Later, a festival official tells me that the chancellor had only two bodyguards with her: two. Contrariwise, Hillary Clinton, when she was First Lady, practically shut the place down, with her security.
Well, maybe we overdo it. But when there’s a problem: It appears we underdo it. These are tricky questions.
‐I’m glad to see Alfred Brendel attending an opera — a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. Brendel, a legendary pianist, is retired now (pretty much). He is not performing in Salzburg this year, as far as I know. He’s just in attendance — which is kind of neat, for reasons I need not lay out. (Brendel does not need to be in the spotlight to attend the Salzburg Festival. He is apparently a musically curious person, and a music-loving one.) (“But aren’t they all?” you say. No.)
‐At a social function, I meet a young Turkish musician — someone new to me. There have not been many Turks in the realm of classical music. I can think of two off the top of my head: Leyla Gencer, the fabled soprano. (They called her the “Queen of the Pirates,” because she did not make many commercial recordings, but was heard on plenty of illicit, or “pirate,” recordings.) And Fazil Say, a pianist of today.
Anyway, I mention to this fellow that I have interviewed Erdogan. He makes a face. I see it’s okay to enter political waters. We are on the same beam. He says he is appalled by what Erdogan and his gang are doing to Turkey. “They are destroying the country that Ataturk built. They are forcing us into reverse.” I don’t mean to be too cutesy with language, but a veil is being drawn over Turkey — and this has serious consequences for the region, for the United States, and, most of all, for Turks (and for Turkish women in particular).
I could go on about Turkey, and about this conversation, but . . .
‐May I say something about the attractiveness of the Salzburgers — of the Austrians in general? I noticed something, when I first visited — this was some years ago. Even the policewomen were beautiful. Or at least the type to hold your gaze. And policewomen are supposed to be . . . otherwise. (Except for Angie Dickinson.)
You would not use the term “meter hag” in Salzburg. (You should not use it anywhere, of course.) For one thing, there are no meters (that I’ve noticed). For another, there are no hags — or darn few.
I once made a terrible remark — but its terribleness will not stop me from repeating it: “You can almost forgive them for considering themselves a master race.” I said almost.
I have never seen so many beautiful older women as in Salzburg and environs — and by “older,” I don’t mean “cougars.” I mean grandmothers, great-grandmothers — women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Such striking-looking women. I have seen too many of them for this to be a matter of a few, anomalous individuals. Pattern City, as the first Bush might say.
‐I mentioned the police, above — the fuzz. And I know I have said, in previous columns, that certain German words are stigmatized for me: Achtung, for example. I must say that the word Polizei still creeps me out a little, when I see it on the sides of cars. I mentally put a Volks in front of it . . .
‐One morning, I interview Emily Righter, a young American singer — at the beginning of her career. She is the daughter of a basketball coach — and was a basketball player herself. She is 5’11”, and simply looks athletic, if you can look it (and, of course, you can). I ask her, “Are you a good athlete? Don’t be modest, now — just tell us.” She says, “Yeah.” I’m grateful for her candor. She’s also a completely winning personality.
She has told us that, when she was ten, she auditioned for — and got — Annie (the part, I mean, in the musical). At the end of our interview, knowing that she’s game for most anything, I ask if she will sing for our audience “Tomorrow.” And she does, beautifully. What a sport, what a winner.
‐Two days later, she participates in a master class with Christa Ludwig, one of the great singers . . . ever. Ludwig is in her 80s now. She has a lot to impart. I miss the master class, having another engagement. But if you ever have a chance to see/hear/experience Ludwig — count yourself blessed.
‐Talking about singing “Tomorrow” reminds me of an old joke: A father is tired of hearing his daughter sing, ineptly, around the house. He says, “Can you sing long ago and far away?” (There was a song called “Long Ago (and Far Away).”)
‐Years ago, I had a golf partner who said, “I’ll meet you at 8 bells,” or, “We’re teeing it up at 8 bells — be there.” “Bells” was his expression, for time. In Salzburg, I think of this: because church bells, outside my window, chime the hour — I mean peal the hour, practically assail the hour — all day long: from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. And, for sheer punctiliousness, they ring the quarter hours: one ring for :15, two for :30, and three for :45.
It’s nice and all, but I think of a line from a hymn: “O, the clanging bells of time, / Soon their notes will all be dumb.”