Editor’s Note: Our senior editor Jay Nordlinger spent the better part of August in Salzburg, doing a job or two at the Salzburg Festival. His music criticism has appeared in NR and on The New Criterion’s website; further criticism will appear in the October issue of TNC. The present journal, composed of odds and ends, is supplementary to all that. For Parts I and II of the journal, go here and here.
So, I’m at a party — a beautiful garden party, a luncheon, at the home of friends of mine. Learning that I am a political journalist, a very cultivated man (Austrian) confronts me about American politics: Isn’t it true that our politics is controlled by a few moneymen? A few monied interests?
No, not at all, I say. The thing is, America is a very big country, from sea to shining sea, with more than 300 million people in it. It is also a wealthy country, though stagnating, unfortunately. There is financial backing for virtually every point of view.
For example, the Left has Soros. And the libertarian Right has the Koch brothers. And so on. Every view competes in our politics, though of course some views are more popular than others. It is a functioning democracy.
And this fellow looks at me like I’m the most naive, pathetic creature in the world. Because he knows better, you see. I may be the American political journalist, and a lifelong student of American politics. But he knows …
‐At a table, the people start talking about politics — American politics. The Republican party wears the black hat, of course. And the Democratic party wears the white hat.
“I’m worried about Hillary. Could Biden run for president?” “Maybe, but he may be too old.” “How about Kerry? Oh, I love the Iran deal. Such an achievement.” Etc.
One woman says, “Carly Fiorina is dangerous. Because she’s smart. She’s dangerous.”
A man then holds forth about American society. He is German, and like the Austrian I’ve mentioned, very cultivated. Even more so. He is also a lovely man, in my experience. A model of geniality.
Americans, he says, have a stubborn attachment to freedom — their concept of freedom, which is peculiar. “Here in Europe, we believe that you have to take care of everybody. But Americans don’t. There, it’s dog-eat-dog. The poorest man will put a Republican sign outside his home. It’s just a trailer, just a shack, but by golly, he thinks he’s supporting freedom.”
Then there is the matter of crime and punishment. “In America, there is no attempt to rehabilitate. They just knock you over the head and throw you in jail. They lock the door and throw away the key. In Europe, we try to integrate people back into society.”
I’m thinking, How many pieces on this general subject have I written? How many times more do I know about this matter than the dear man who is holding forth? Here, for example, is a piece I wrote about the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, outside Houston.
Behold a mystery: People talk with such cocksureness about things they know relatively little about. There is never any hedge, any qualification. They are so sure. And I have often found that, the more a person knows, the less sure he is. (Not always.)
Also, why do so few people have an appreciation of capitalism, and its clear record of lifting multitudes out of poverty? The socialist myth is very strong, tenacious. I’m afraid it is invincible, no matter what happens.
Anyway . . .
‐One of the pleasantest routes on earth is the Hellbrunner Allee, between Salzburg and Anif. And I now see the strangest sight along it: A young woman is jogging — running, at a pretty good pace. That’s not the strange sight. She has a horse along with her. She’s not on it. She has it on a leash, running alongside her.
I’ve seen people do this with dogs. That sight is routine. But a horse?
‐Speaking of dogs: I like how they’re integrated into life, here in Austria. More than at home in America, I think, they are around. They are out and about, with their owners. It’s natural.
‐The weather is the most boring subject in the world — except when it isn’t. The heat has finally broken in Salzburg. In fact, some nights are in the 50s. A man remarks to me, “It becomes fall overnight here. It takes no time at all. Even when the sun is shining brightly — it’s a fall brightness, not a summer brightness.”
‐Salzburg is famous for its Schnürlregen — a steady rain, that comes straight down. A determined, even drizzle. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just … Schnürlregen.
‐In the garden of the Mozarteum, they have a little hut — more like an artist’s shack — that purports to be a place in which Mozart wrote The Magic Flute. Do I believe it? Yes. Do I choose to believe it? Well, I think scholars have blessed this hut, so to speak …
‐The third guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Gianandrea Noseda, the conductor from Milan. At the festival this year, he is leading Il trovatore, the Verdi opera.
In our conversation, we talk a bit about Verdi operas. I say that I respect the composer’s last opera, Falstaff, highly. People say that it is a masterpiece, and there is no question of it. And yet: I have never been able to love the piece. Is that damnable?
No, says Noseda. He goes on to talk about Falstaff in the most informed and sensitive way. I’m really grateful to him.
Emboldened, I bring up another opera I have problems with — an undoubted masterpiece that I have never been able to warm to: Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Again, Noseda is understanding, candid, and eloquent.
Incidentally, another conductor, Riccardo Muti, has declared those two operas — Così and Falstaff — his favorites.
Noseda tells us that, if he has a desert-island piece, it’s Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. That says a lot about him.
He is very personable, along with knowledgeable and articulate. You can see why he has a conducting career. And he is a fantastic interviewee. He tells story after story of great interest, and makes point after point of like interest.
I wish I had a transcript for you, or, better yet, a tape or video.
Toward the end of our hour, I ask him to give me a couple of living composers — just two or three — who are worth hearing. Not great, not destined for immortality, simply worth hearing. After reflecting a moment, he says, “May I name some from the recent past, whether they’re still living or not?” That’s cheating a bit, but I say sure.
Noseda names Ligeti (1923-2006). And Messiaen (1908-92). “There,” he says, “that’s two. You said I could do two.”
Noseda is, among other things, an exceptionally honest man.
I ask him to name me an underrated composer — and he says Schumann. He defends that composer’s “mad” pieces, which is to say, the pieces he wrote when under psychiatric distress. I will have to rethink those pieces, in light of Noseda’s view.
In the course of talking about conducting — and what a conductor must do with ultra-familiar pieces — he spends some time on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He conducts a little of it. Sings a little of it. And it is tremendously exciting.
Afterward, I am approached by an Indian woman and her small son — four or five years old, I would wager. They live in London. “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is his favorite piece,” the mother says of her son. The boy gives me a wonderful grin.
Tell you one more thing, before leaving the subject of this session with Noseda. Among his several posts is guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Privately, I thank him for going there, when so many others boycott or defame, or both. Israel is a great country. And it needs the support and affirmation of civilized people.
He strikes me as stand-up, Gianandrea Noseda.
‐Speaking of civilized and stand-up people — and from Italy, too: I have the honor of dining with Franco Debenedetti and Alberto Mingardi. The former is president of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Turin; the latter is its general director. The institute is a libertarian outfit.
Debenedetti is one of the grand men of Italian politics and business. He is a prolific author, too. Born in 1933, he had to high-tail it out of Italy during the war. (The family is Jewish.) Mingardi is an economics and poli-sci whiz in his thirties.
Let me tell you something that Franco says: Silvio Berlusconi was good for two things, at least. He broke up the television monopoly. And he existed.
What does that mean, that last part? It means that Silvio proved that there could be a different kind of politics, a different kind of party in power.
Very well said, on Debenedetti’s part. (Everything he says, he says well, in several languages.)
‐Give you one more little item, before breaking off for today. Did you see The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie that came out last year? Well, it has a lobby boy, who wears an outfit redolent of the period: the period between the world wars. In Salzburg’s Sacher Hotel, the lobby boys — they don’t call them that — wear a similar outfit.
I smile, on seeing it. And I’ll see you tomorrow for the final installment of this journal. Thanks for joining me.