Politics & Policy

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.

‐Let me go back to the demography question for a second: When I was growing up, there were lots of big families around — I mean, four kids, six kids, eight kids. It was not at all unusual. I haven’t seen such families in a while. But I see them here, and elsewhere in Europe: They are Muslim families.

I will say again, reading articles and books is one thing; seeing with your own eyes is another. Big families are a glory of life. They sweeten life, and cushion it, in myriad ways. I hope it all works out here.

‐The third guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Hans Graf, almost a local: a conductor from Upper Austria. He worked here in Salzburg for ten years. He has worked in many places: Calgary, Bordeaux, Houston, Baghdad.

Yes, Baghdad. In the 1975-76 season, he was the music director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. He enjoyed the experience very much. The people were hungry for music, he tells us. The orchestra did two concerts for each program. The concerts sold out. Graf and the orchestra could have done two more.

He studied with some notable people, including Sergiu Celibidache, the legendary Romanian conductor. How was that? Celi was nice to him, says Graf. To others — not so much.

Graf also studied in the Soviet Union: in Leningrad, with Arvids Jansons. The legend in that city was Evgeny Mravinsky, boss of the Leningrad Phil. for 50 years. “The orchestra feared him,” says Graf, “and loved him.”

The son of Arvids Jansons, Mariss, is one of the best conductors in the world today. Are he and Graf friends? Yes. If I have heard correctly, Mariss was best man in Graf’s wedding.

A teacher whom Graf highly esteems is someone not so well known: Franco Ferrara, an Italian who lived from 1911 to 1985. What Ferrara could do with a baton, says Graf, was almost miraculous. And he could teach you how to do it, too.

He did not do much conducting himself: He had some strange ailment that prevented it. But he helped a whole roster of conductors who became important.

Here’s something funny for you: In our discussion of orchestras, I bring up the Vienna Philharmonic, which does not have a music director, but an endless string of guest conductors. The VPO is unique in this way, I believe.

Yes, says Graf. “And do you know what ‘VPO’ stands for? ‘Very Powerful Orchestra.’”

Like Antonio Pappano, our first guest in this series, Hans Graf is a marvelous talker about music — as well as a doer. I learn from him, in this hour. Oh, I wish you could have heard it!

And I wish I had a tape.

‐Let me mention something, just FYI: I have interviewed many conductors over the years, particularly in Salzburg. As a rule, I ask them about conductors they especially admire. They name various names. But almost all of them name one name in particular: that of Carlos Kleiber.

Interesting. Says Graf, “He could communicate music to this table” (sitting before us).

‐A cultural note: Little old ladies in Salzburg are apt to have German shepherds. Back at home, it seems to me, tough guys have German shepherds. (Maybe these little old ladies are tough guys too.)

‐True story — can’t believe I’m telling it. Am dressing for a concert. Have worn a particular shirt on a different night. I give it a quick sniff. Then I shrug and say — out loud, though I’m alone at the time — “Good enough for Europe.”

See you tomorrow.


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