Politics & Policy

Salzburg Journal, Part II

Welcome to the second installment of these notes from, and on, Salzburg, and in particular the Salzburg Festival. For the first installment, go here. Just wade back in, without ceremony?

Every now and then, I’m reminded why I left the Left, long ago. Working for a conservative magazine, I run with a lot of righties, and I have my share of beefs with the Right. But then I’m around lefties, and I think, “Oh, yeah: That’s why I left in the first place. That’s what repelled me in the first place. That’s what pushed me into the arms of conservatives.”

I’m at a dinner in Salzburg, listening to a man from America discourse on our country to two Continental ladies. He says all the usual things: how stupid and vulgar and pigheaded we are. Then he says that the Tea Party is “racist,” flat-out. He makes no mention of limited government, adherence to the Constitution, grave concern over debt and America’s place in the world. No, the Tea Party is racist, plain and simple.

The ladies nod solemnly. I think it’s what they want to hear anyway. And now they have it confirmed.

Our guy then laments the fact that Americans know so little, and care so little, about the Salzburg Festival. I would think we had enough to know and care about! In music festivals alone, we have Tanglewood, Aspen, Ravinia, Brevard, Ojai, etc., etc. Does any country have more festivals than we? And then there is the rest of life — the rest of life to know and care about.

I say, “Well, at least there’s The Sound of Music, to keep Americans coming to Salzburg.” Americans, and others, have long loved to take the Sound of Music tour. Our guy sneers at this musical — than which neither he nor I will ever do anything as good, in all our paltry lives.

I feel like I repeat myself too much in Impromptus, and here I go again (as a presidential candidate said in 1980): Being a student abroad had a great impact on me — because of the anti-Americanism of the Americans around me. It wasn’t “self-hating Americanism,” as people often say. These people did not hate themselves, trust me. Quite the opposite. What they hated was you, so to speak. Man, were they ashamed of their country — especially when governed by that yahoo Reagan.

For my piece on this — how many times have I linked to “Love on the Arno,” a thousand? — go here.

‐A German tells a joke, which the Americans soak up — because it plays to the image they have of their compatriots as contemptible, ignorant boobs. An American tourist passes a statue of Schiller. He says, “Look, Goethe! Mozart! Eine kleine Nachtmusik!” Then he sings the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

My question: Why does the tourist have to be an American, as opposed to a tourist from any other country in the world? You and I know why: sheer envy and resentment — and, possibly, lurking somewhere, shame.

Since at least the 1930s, America has been, arguably, the music capital of the world: the leader in orchestras, opera companies, choruses, chamber ensembles, conservatories, and so on. Musicians from all over the world have sought to study in America, have their careers in America, pursue their destinies.

How did this start? You know why: because Germans and other Europeans pushed the best among them out, across the sea — when they couldn’t kill them first.

Not many people mention that, do they? Instead they joke about Americans’ alleged lack of culture — a stereotype that has not been true in eons, if it ever was.

‐As I’ve mentioned before, the Salzburg Festival Society has a series of talks — Q&A’s — and our first guest is Trevor Pinnock, the English conductor and harpsichordist. I feel like calling him “Sir Trevor” — he has that air. But he is not that yet. So, he is “Mr. Pinnock” to me.

He is a cultivated, gentle, refined man — but not dull, not in the least. He has that elegant spark about him, typically English. And he is, of course, smart as a whip.

After our talk, a friend of mine will remark, “There is a priestly aura about him. He is something like a musical priest.” I can buy that entirely. A good insight.

One of the pieces he is conducting here is Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. He says how delightful it is. I say, “Well, it’s one of Mozart’s weaker pieces, isn’t it?” And he does not demur in the least: “Yes, it is. But it would be hard not to love that slow movement, wouldn’t it?” Yes, it would. “Mozart could conjure a melody like that whenever he wanted.” (I am paraphrasing here.)

Pinnock is also conducting Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat. That is thought of as “late Mozart,” one of the concluding Big Three symphonies. But it’s absurd to think of anything as “late Mozart,” isn’t it, seeing as the composer died so young?

I ask Pinnock what he thinks would have happened, if Mozart had had more time. What would have developed? He says, quite rightly, that we have no way of knowing. Then he says, “I’m not even sure that Mozart was ever here” — that he ever tabernacled with us, here on earth. He was like some angel-musician, just visiting for a spell.

Pinnock’s grandfather was the leader of a Salvation Army band — and Pinnock has some fond things to say about brass bands. He attended a choir school (Canterbury), which, as he says, set his course: It “made him” as a musician. He says that the only thing in the world he was good at was music — which I kind of doubt.

Could he sing? No, he says. No voice at all. But he could sure read music, so they had him stand next to boys who were not so great at reading music, but had good voices. It all balanced out.

Pinnock is a harpsichordist — one of our most renowned — but he occasionally plays the piano and organ. “Is a keyboard a keyboard a keyboard?” I ask. No way, he answers. You have to draw the soul out of an instrument. Some people “commune” with one instrument better than another.

It seems a long time ago now — and it was — but Pinnock was a leader, a pioneer, in the “period” movement: the movement for “period instruments” and “period practice.” There was a time when this movement had a whiff of Leninism about it (as a musician once put it to me): It was their way or the highway; anyone who disagreed with them was a heretic.

I ask Pinnock, “Did some of the period practitioners go too far in dictating correct musical practice to others?” He does not answer me directly — but he gives a beautiful answer about the various ways of expressing music. He strikes me as a “moderate” in his movement: a man too sensible to be an ideologue or dictator.

I wish I had a transcript — I wish I could tell you all he said: about some fellow musicians; about “national and temporal boundaries,” and how they disappear in music; about opera productions, and how they can “squeeze the life” out of the works they ought to be serving.

Toward the end of our hour, I hazard something: Handel operas, much as we love them, are really, really long, aren’t they? Is there anything wrong with abridging them? No, says Pinnock — nothing wrong at all. I told you he wasn’t an ideologue.

And he says this: Some years ago, he made many, many recordings, both as a harpsichordist and as a conductor. He recorded just about everything he studied and performed. He is, indeed, one of the most recorded musicians in the world.

That was the golden age of recording, and he came to feel that he had a right to make records: a right to record everything under the sun, at healthy and robust fees. But, you know? No one has a right to record anything, he says. “I was very lucky.”

A sensible, very likable man, and one of the most talented around. Also, a representative of British artistry, which is marked by tastefulness, I think, above all.

See you for Part III, and a different cocktail of observations and such?




The Latest