Friday, September 30, 2011

800 Words: Seriously Unserious Judaism

It’s Rosh Hashana. The last two days have been spent, as they have for the last twenty-eight years, in shul. It is shul for us, not synagogue or temple. It’s a fifteen minute walk from our parking place on Old Forest Drive to the main sanctuary of our shul in Pikesville, Maryland (which shall remain nameless). Upon our arrival, my father, brothers, and I descend to take our seats with my uncle Harold and his sons in the second row of the men’s side. Meanwhile, my mother and my grandmother must walk the length of our cathedral-size sanctuary to meet my aunt Robin and female cousins in the third row of the women’s side. To reach our seats, we each must pass through a cast of thousands. Some of this cast we know very well, some of them we know not at all, some of them we only know from having seen them every year at the High Holidays. I exchange friendly greetings with people whom I’ve never met outside of this building. I see faces so familiar that I can spot new wrinkles on their faces: faces that I’ve seen every year of my life, though never anywhere else but shul. Sometimes these faces, usually the older ones, disappear. Sometimes new, younger faces appear next to them.

If we were Christian, this service would seem like something right out of the Russian Orthodox Church or Pre-Vatican II. Our (nameless) cantor, brother-in-law to a famous Israeli singer and who could easily be a Verdi Baritone himself, stands at the front of the stage (or bimah) with his back to the congregants so that he may wail four hours worth of obscure Hebrew prayers in minor keys while accompanied by a scarcely less operatic sounding male choir. Occasionally, the awe and dread are interrupted by more upbeat Chasidic melodies. But this cantor - and his predecessor even moreso - sets a mood for religion that always involves awe and dread. If you ask me, if you can’t picture Dracula appearing in the middle of the service, it’s not religion.

Our shul is, so I hear, the largest Orthodox Synagogue in America. Perhaps it has been for half a century. During the High Holidays, it hosts two main services, an even more orthodox service, a service for teenagers, and services for every age-group of children. Among its congregants are real estate tycoons, construction magnates, some of Baltimore’s most prominent doctors and lawyers, the majority of the state delegates from our district in the last forty years, and a United States Senator. There are also some blue collar types - contrary to popular belief, blue-collar Jews do exist and occasionally they’re the most devout people in the Shul. It is often repeated, there are two power centers without which nothing gets done at our shul: the millionaires and the minyanaires (if you don’t know what a minyan is, ask a Jew).

How does it manage to keep up this level of success for so long? The answer is all too simple:

Nobody cares.

There are few things in life as unattractive as people who insist that others act as though they believe in what they do. Everything about our shul is a hypocrisy, but it’s a benevolent one that grows more necessary with every year. The High Holiday services at our shul are easily the longest in Baltimore. Most shuls get out on Rosh Hashana by noon, ours is lucky to get out by 1:15. The reason they can afford to keep us that long? Because everybody talks right through the service.

There are Reform Jewish services in Baltimore that are far closer to the spirit of true religious orthodoxy than at our shul. Except for a mechitza (which in our case means a six-foot transparent glass wall which technically separates the men from the women), there is barely a pretense to real orthodoxy. The men wear $500 suits to shul, you’re as likely to hear talk about the Orioles or the particulars of a business deal discussed as to hear the cantor clearly. The women are decked out with their finest pearls, the younger ones in incredibly revealing dresses. The Rabbi’s sermons are loaded with constant appeals for money and the Rabbi makes sure to pepper the service with entertaining asides. And I suppose that’s the real reason for our shul’s hold over people: the utter charisma of the Rabbi, whom it would not surprise me to learn was voted the most charismatic in America.

Our Rabbi (who shall also remain nameless) is a spiritual leader to the manner born. While he speaks with a Brooklyn accent on steroids, he is totally bereft of the sing-song Rabbiisms that turn most of us off from religion. From my earliest age, this Rabbi’s sermons have spoiled me for every other Rabbi I’ve ever heard. His secret? He never talks about religion.

Don’t get me wrong, he does. But unlike so many clergy, he realizes that religion alone cannot answer people’s spiritual needs, and theology is always of secondary importance to real human concerns. The sermons are about the World, about community, about family, about ethical values, about doubt, about what it means to be human. I can’t think of how many times I have caught a lump in my throat from his sermons, only to look down the row and find that tears are streaming from everyone else too. Short perhaps of Barack Obama, you will search in vain for a contemporary politician who speaks with such eloquence. I have learned more from his sermons about both ethics and the craft of writing than I ever did in any classroom. Yes, he’s too supportive of any Israeli policy for my taste. He’s too unforgiving of intermarriage. He’s too critical of ethical lapses in politicians. He’s clearly a tad vain. But I don’t care. He is my Rabbi, and until he retires he always will be.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that this shul is the center of Jewish life in Baltimore. It is the one place in Baltimore which observes all the traditional forms of orthodoxy and still tolerates all deviations from orthodox belief among its members. For all the orthodox traditions, the shul tells its congregants that you don’t have to observe Judaism in a traditional way to observe the values which Judaism espouses: family, community, intellectual engagement, the preservation of history, the importance of law, the necessity of ethics. And if you don’t particularly believe in those values, well...that’s ok too.

A place like our shul is more necessary now than at any point in American Jewish History. Like everything else in America, the center of Jewish life is falling apart. Today’s world grows ever more polarized, and Jews are increasingly forced to choose between orthodoxy, reformation or assimilation. In a generation or two, Secular Judaism could sound like a complete oxymoron. It’s all too apparent that the days of Secular Judaism in America are numbered.

For what it’s worth, I very much support the right of people to marry outside the Jewish faith without becoming ostracized by their communities, as still happens all too often in America. But the rate of intermarriage among Jews now stands at 1 in every 2 marriages involving Jews. And of those couples in which the spouse does not convert, only 4% choose to raise their children as Jewish. A Jewish culture without orthodoxy simply cannot sustain itself in such an environment. Even if one counts all the spouses of all intermarried Jews as part of the total American-Jewish population, the number of Jews in America can be no larger than 6.7 million.

The fertility rates speak for themselves. The birth rate in secular Jewish households is 1.29 children. In Reform Jewish households it is 1.36 children. In Conservative Jewish households it is 1.4 children. In Modern Orthodox Jewish households it is 3.39 children. In Orthodox Jewish households it is 6.72 children. As has happened in every Jewish diaspora since the Babylonian era, acceptance can only last for so long. Eventually, the Jewish presence of every liberal civilization becomes such an accepted part of the culture’s fabric that Jews can marry into non-Jewish families without stigma. When they do, the liberal faction of the Jewish community dwindles inevitably to nothing. All that is left is a community of orthodox Jews whose customs put them utterly at odds with the Gentile majority. All that prevents such a community from being ostracized, ghettoized, imprisoned or slaughtered is the presence of a government liberal enough to refuse to demonize Jews for their differences - a presence that can never be guaranteed. At the moment, the ultra-Orthodox are darlings of the Republican Party, feted as the true guarantors of Israel’s continued existence; which Evangelicals view as absolutely necessary to presage the Second Coming of Christ. But the day may come when the Tea Party or the Evangelical Right asks Orthodox Jews to turn on Reformed Jews for being so unsupportive of their agenda. It wouldn't happen for a while, but the day might come. I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that Orthodox Jews would never do anything dishonorable to other Jews. If Judaism in America ever turns to such dire straits, the final bell will toll when Orthodox Jews opt for principle over convenience, as they always have throughout history's darkest chapters.

I do not believe in Judaism, but I believe in being Jewish. For me, the only importance of religion is that the option is always there. Even if you don’t believe in religion, there is enormous comfort in knowing that your family is always there for you. Not just your nuclear family, but the religious family from whence you come - ready to receive you with open arms if you ever decide to devote yourself to it. I don’t ever want to be forced to decide between the Jewish world and the secular world, because I can’t imagine my life without either option. But I worry that one day I, or my children, will not have that choice. And that frightens me.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Leonard Nimoy on the Jewish/Vulcan Connection

800 Words: A Boring Fantasy Part 1 3/5 of 8

It was around this time that I began to get bored. Not with Warsaw, but with the story, and I decided to smash it up somewhat. As with most things in my life, my imagination seems to tire easily from the pressure of sustained concentration. Spontaneous combustion seems the only way to kickstart my imagination into gear.

So with that in mind, my editor Yankl Musernik died in a fire that destroyed Der Trakhtner and every member of its staff except for myself and Shaya, who were visiting Gizl for the first time since our respective departures. It was the day after Simchas Torah 1896 when Shaya and I learned that we were without jobs and nearly friendless - it is a new beginning for us in this enormous city which seemed so small only a month earlier.

We temporarily move into Rivke’s apartment. But she cannot support us on her salary and the first day she comes home she sees us reading on the courch she immediately screams at us to get off. In spite of some newfound Communist agitator friends, Shaya decides that it would behoove him to find a good living by becoming a kosher butcher. I, on the other hand, am teaching myself the rudiments of French so that I can make my way to Paris.

Rivke is abusing me nightly when she comes home from work. She’s correct to do so, as I’ve refused to get a new job and have no plans to do so in the near future. I nightly tell her that tomorrow shall be the day, and then I spend the days reading in Praga Park, which is nearly empty since the opening of Ujazdow. These days, she seems to be far more comfortable with Shaya than she does with me. I know what’s coming, if it hasn’t happened already. All the same, I’d be curiously fine with it. My future is not here, and if I am still in Warsaw when they tell me what’s transpired, I will have far larger problems than Rivke.

I am utterly disgusted with Warsaw; the threats of violence and coarse laughter of drunk Poles in the streets, the constant smell of sausage and dogshit, the French fashions of the upper class, the presence of the Russian police at every establishment. It feels like a city trying to deny the precariousness of its position, and failing miserably.

Shortly after my expulsion from the self-proclaimed paradise of Der Trakhtner, a letter came from me with a French stamp and a return address in Paris. I eagerly tear it open to read the following letter:

Herr Charlap,

I apologize for my poor Yiddish, a language for which my use is purely scholastic. However, I must tell you that I was utterly heartened to finally read a reviewer who understands me. I warmed greatly to all your praise and your critiques of the book mirrored my own perfectly. While I realize that inferring the moral character of writers from their output is a groundless pursuit, I still felt that the offense which writers such as Nietzsche and Ibsen give to common sense merits a sufficient rebuttal which not a single writer in Europe is yet willing to offer. In this quest, ad hominem attacks are unfortunately necessary. I hope that through my example, others will become similarly brave so that we may stop a civilization from falling into terrible morass. Criticism must always be personal, or nothing worth.

Furthermore, it is quite telling that much of the Yiddish world is so receptive to influences like Schopenhauer and Marx who personify the very egocentricity of which I warn. I fled Budapest nearly a quarter-century ago because it is a city, much like Warsaw, which wishes nothing more than to be accepted as the equal of a culture which has no greater desire than to destroy everything it has built. To be accepted by these people would mean to be destroyed with them.

Please write back and let me know some of your own projects. Surely you must have them. You have enormous potential as a thinker in your own right and I would be happy to aid your progress in any way I can.

Sincerely Yours,

Dr. Max Nordau

For nine months, Dr. Nordau and I have maintained a voluminous correspondance. Barely a day goes by without a fifteen page letter from him. I try to answer back as often as possible, but even in my current state of inertia I get at least two letters from him for every one I write back, and all of them far longer than any response.

Nordau is a keen mind possessing a hair-raising erudition in volumes both Jewish and Gentile, and contempt for nearly all of both. There is not a single book which escapes his attention, and barely a single book of which he seems fond. For a man so devoted to the life of the mind, he seems to see little value in what he does. Instead, he professes a fanatical devotion to the most time-honored notions: family, marriage, community, small pleasures, common good, common persistence, the necessity of compromise and the acceptance of what fate bequeaths. So devoted is he to tradition that I can’t help but wonder why he devotes so much energy to the new intellectual trends he loathes (though I don’t dare put that in a letter).

Every one of his letters to me includes obsessive diatribes about some element of contemporary perversion. I’ve gotten pages long denunciations of famous artists, many of whom I know less than nothing about. In these letters I count lacerations of Tolstoy, Liszt, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Lessing, Fichte, Marx, Feuerbach, Stirner, Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Mallarme, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Hugo, Gautier, Dumas, Maupassant, Whitman, Blake, Ruskin, Swinburne, Wilde and the Rosettis that go on for at least seven or eight pages each. I read long, multi-letter denunciations of how Jews have betrayed the Haskalah, how Jews want nothing more than to live as slovenly as Goyim, how the Yiddish revival is an embarrassing joke perpetrated by quacks afraid of the larger world, how contemporary Paris is a disgusting corruption of the French Revolution’s ideals, how contemporary art is an excuse for voyeurism, how the very concept of fashion is an idea grounded upon a vicious lie, how alcohol and drugs are destroying the minds of youth, how pseudo-oriental mysticism is corrupting the minds of students, how the sociopaths of society masquerade as artists and convince the world to honor them for their sins, and how mass suicide will be the end result of an epoch whose torpor remains unchecked. But then there were his derogations of Wagner, Ibsen, Zola and Nietzsche which go on for forty pages each; with not a single repeated insight or citation one can find in ‘Degeneration.’

He details his loves just as obsessively; discussing his interpretations of Goethe, Heine and Shakespeare at length and the finer points of Schlegel’s German mistranslations of Hamlet. He copies out his favorite passages from Dostoevsky and Turgenev for me by hand in the original Russian and personally translates his favorite excerpts of Voltaire, Diderot, Racine, Stendhal, Montaigne, Flaubert, Balzac, Cervantes, Dante, Tasso, Spencer, Milton, Richardson, Fielding, Thackeray, Darwin, Mill and Locke into German. He sends me postcard prints of Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Valdez, Callot, Zurbaran, and Breughel. He sent me piano reductions of some Beethoven and Mozart. One day a package arrived with a vocal score of a new Italian opera called ‘Cavalleria Rusticana.’ In my next letter I finally summoned the courage to tell him that I neither learned to read music nor played the piano. A package arrived three days afterward, inside lay a textbook of music notation.

His discourse can turn to other humane subjects as well. As a doctor he clearly has a particular interest in biology which he details all too lovingly. He writes me that he has grown particularly obsessed with neurology and occupies himself with the idea that the stimuli of the modern world is rotting our brains.

I’ve grown both fascinated and exhausted by his regular stream of opinions. Every one of them seems a masterpiece of categorical resentment. Pronouncement after pronouncement he issues in a way that is utterly predictable at the same time that one has to marvel that he has stayed so consistent in his refusal to deviate an inch from his belief system. This man is a magnificent tyrant of thought from whom there is as much to learn as fear.

Shortly before has invited me to stay with him in Paris for as long as I like and assures me that a Jew in Paris can get by perfectly well speaking German. I can’t say that I’m overwhelmed with excitement. Nordau is hardly an idiot, but the very presence of his letters feels suffocating. He is hardly a man without humor but his beliefs are so intense that it would seem impossible to think independently in his presence. Sometimes I wonder if he’s aware that other people have the capacity for thought. Clearly, he has a far greater interest in telling you what he thinks than in listening to you. Even so, much of his own thought is powerful indeed. He is only in his mid-40’s and I very much believe in the potential for him to be a thinker who can lay the foundations of twentieth-century philosophy as powerfully as Kant did for the nineteenth. I have nothing better to do than to learn at the feet of a master, and even if Nordau flatters me to gratify himself, he clearly sees enough promise to think me a potential disciple.

Nordau’s coachman picks me up at Gare D’Austerlitz train station brings me to Nordau’s house in Le Marais. This driver can’t be more than fifteen and he speaks to me in an extremely plush Viennese German. He issues me into the car, and I am far too exhausted to even look out the window.

When we stop, he wakes me up and insists upon unloading my bags as though I am a proper French gentleman. As he unloads, I get out of the coach and another adolescent opens the door to tell me that Herr Doktor Nordau is making a house call and shall return momentarily. He beckons me over to the door and tells me to have a seat in the parlour room before Herr Doktor returns

As I walk from a plusher hallway than I’ve ever seen into the parlour room, I quickly realize that there is nowhere to sit. There are four children who are dusting the floors, sofas, frames, and walls. Frankly, I can barely breathe and since I left Warsaw I’ve found myself fitfully coughing as I’d only ever seen my Uncle Herman do.

As promised, Herr Doktor breezes into the room. The children immediately stand at attention, he puts a finger over each wall, each frame, each sofa, and the floor. He whispers a comment to one of the boys and tells them all to leave the room - which they do immediately.

Nordau turns his attention to me and smiles wistfully,

“Children...They’re like small criminals unless ruled with an iron hand.”
“You never mentioned any opinions on children in your letters.”
“You’re exactly as I imagined you Herr Charlap. A ball of intellectual energy waiting to be unleashed. In these walls you shall find the liberation for which you have searched.”

It was at this moment that I felt a wave of exhaustion overcome me. Dr. Nordau must immediately perceive the water in my eyes.

“Oh no. You cannot be tired. I have a wonderful evening planned for us. We shall be dining at the Braunsteins tonight. Your attire is upstairs. Please be ready in forty-five minutes."

Monday, September 26, 2011

It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for Rick Perry

800 Words: Our Frenemy Bach

(Ol’ Man Klemp doin’ what he does. Legend has it he fell asleep while conducting the opening fugue in this recording. Further explanation unnecessary.)

I have been listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass on a nearly non-stop loop since Tuesday night. I listen to it in my room, while watching TV, while I read, while I write, while I work, occasionally while I sleep. If I’m listening to a friend, it’s usually with only one ear because the other is hearing a theme from it. To find my old Barenreiter score, I‘ve sifted through all the boxes of books, CD’s and scores I’ve stored so that I can move in a few weeks. Fifteen years after I first heard it, nine years after doing an individual tutorial on the late music of Bach with Professor Abraham, I think I’m finally beginning to understand Bach’s B-Minor Mass.

I’m just not sure I like it.

Clearly, it’s gotta be doing something good for me. I’ve either listened to or sampled about two-and-a-half dozen recordings of this piece in the last five days (online streaming is a glorious thing). I seem to be thinking about it as I eat, sleep and breathe. Somebody, please, turn it off. Make it stop. I'll do anything, even listen to Carmina Burana!

(Me with the B-Minor Mass)

I know this feeling well. This is exactly the kind of obsessive fixation I get when I’m on a Wagner binge, a Stravinsky bender, a Mingus kick, a Dylan fling. We all have music like this. You listen to certain pieces of music obsessively because it makes you feel something that is completely alien to your nature. If you stopped listening to it, you’d stop feeling it. Bach, for me at least, is the kind of extraordinary music that you become in thrall to because the experience is not quite human. To love this music is to realize that it’s not so much a love as an infatuation. To me, as I’m sure it eventually does for most music lovers, Mozart and Beethoven take on the qualities of old friends. No matter how imposing their music can be, there is a ‘way in.’ You can relate to their music as you would to an equal. More than ever I’m convinced that Bach’s music, at least the choral music, is unrelateable to humans, nor is it meant to be anything else.

(Dona Nobis Pacem. Like the dome of a Cathedral reaching toward heaven. What about us on earth?)

To be sure, there is expression aplenty in Bach. But it’s not the expression of human beings. It’s the expression of the divine: divine joy, divine sadness, divine compassion, divine anger. These emotions sound both purer than the emotions of humans and less real. There is little of the messiness of human emotions in Bach’s choral music. The expression is so artful that it seems artless; as though assembled by a divine computer who can assemble music so perfect that no one would ever feel the need for a human element. What Bach’s music expresses is perfection. Without the image of the Divine, what can Bach’s music express?

(World Champion Bachian Helmuth Rilling’s lecture on the b-minor mass that inspired my craze for it this week. Don’t let the doddering demeanor fool you, the insights here are unbelievable.)

I know, I know. It’s sacrilege to say that Bach is anything but the most human composer who ever lived. When so many millions (billions?) have drawn human strength from his music, when so many experts call Bach the greatest composer who ever lived, how can anybody but a crank compare Bach to Charles Mingus? And even as I write such boorish statements, I can think of dozens of exceptions to this rule that Bach writes ‘unhuman’ music. How can this be said about the writer of the Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Chaconne for Violin, the Violin Concertos, the Anna Magdalena Notebooks?

(Crucifixus. The dark emotional heart of this work, immediately followed by.......

Et Russurexit. If you know exactly what’s coming, doesn’t it limit the range of responses the listener can have?)

The answer is, I don’t know. I have no answers, only complaints. But if no one else has ever asked, let me ask you this: where is the sense of humor in Bach? Where is the fallibility? Where is the doubt? Where is any of the blotchy grub it takes for us to be human beings? From one point of view, Bach’s music is the ultimate standard in profundity, human expression, formal construction and musical imagination. From an ever-so-slightly different angle, Bach’s music is utter kitsch.

(Incredibly profound or religious kitsch?)

Now, there are far, far worse things in the world than kitsch. But what else is there to call a church composer who wrote over 200 extant cantatas, many of them seemingly interchangeable to any but the most die-hard fanatic. How else can you describe a composer whose every piece of music for the church is constructed around obscure theological interpretations? How else can you perceive a composer who always seems to insist that there will always be a force who has heard our suffering and reward us for having been through it? Who else (but Wagner) writes music of such unremitting ultra-profundity without throwing us a bone to change the mood for a little while. Even Beethoven will give us an intermezzo now and then.

Bach’s music is not only without blemish, it is also without vulgarity. And that’s the most vulgar quality of all. His music not only manages to suggest the entire universe in its scope, but also that a force so large can only be benevolent, orderly and loving. It’s entirely possible that through both the incredible vastness and orderliness of his music, Bach can simultaneously be inestimably great and unmistakeably tawdry. Surely there are elements of both in his makeup.

(Is this melody profound or trivial? Is it both?)

But there’s one other element. An unmistakable element so disturbing that nobody will ever willingly talk about it; yet it’s stares at us with all the lumbering discomfort of Saint-Saens’s elephant. Bach’s music can be......really boring.

You’ve experienced, I’ve experienced it, anyone who has ever listened to Otto Klemperer’s Bach has experienced it. Many of Bach’s greatest works follow the same formula: the better part of three hours are spent listening to small pieces of music that if heard on their own would be the aural equivalent of manna from heaven. But when listened to in sequence the pieces blur together to a point long past one that you no longer care what you’re hearing. It can be works that were probably meant to be heard in sequence like the Art of the Fugue or A Musical Offering. Or it can be works that were clearly meant to be experienced separately like the Well-Tempered Klavier or the Sonatas and Partitas for solo Violin. Or it can be dramatic works in which the individual numbers are not even supposed to sound like one another, as in the Passions and the B-Minor Mass. But regardless of how the piece is constructed the problem remains that all this music eventually sounds the same. I know that there are plenty of arguments that works like the St. Matthew Passion and the B-Minor Mass have overriding architectures that endow them with momentum, but I simply don’t care. The reason? I don’t hear the momentum in the music.

(A Bach Moment. Courtesy of Phillipe Herreweghe, one of Bach’s better ambassadors)

And yet, every person in the world who’s heard more than 20 minutes of Bach is guaranteed to experience a ‘Bach moment.’ He is the only composer whose music is guaranteed to console. No matter how great the tragedy, Bach will make it seem insignificant next to the rewards which his music invariably seems to promise. With Bach, bad moods are made better, good moods are made great, great moods are made perfect. His music is so perfect that it gives us an infinite space to contemplate. When one hears Bach, God, Eternity and/or Infinity seem not only possible but downright likely. His music is like a palatte cleanser for the soul; a machine that will grant you catharsis merely by stepping into it. But this is not the singeing, stark catharsis of Beethoven. This is the warm, consoling catharsis which only Bach can provide. Beethoven purifies you through fire. Bach purifies you with a washcloth. The only problem is...after you’ve experienced the purge, there’s still another two hours left in the concert.

We have no idea how or if Bach managed to make each number sound like something individual in his own day. All contemporary performers can do is go by the only authenticity that matters: good musicianship. Lest you think this is going to turn into an anti-Historically Informed Performance (HIP) rant, I can guarantee you that it won’t. Authentic performance practice has precisely the same ratio of rare greatness to general dumbassery as every other branch of classical music. For better or worse, the sins of authentic performance against Bach go in an entirely different direction.

(Too fast but still very good with Rene Jacobs.)
The very greatest HIP performers: towering musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wanda Landowska, Rene Jacobs, Cecilia Bartoli (just to name the first four who come into my mind) understand that there is a higher authenticity than being true to the style of the period, the style of the region, or even of the composer. The most important component of an artist’s makeup is to be true to him or herself. The illumination a listener derives from hearing music on original instruments lasts exactly as long as it takes to hear each piece played by them once. After that, the only value we gain in HIP is in hearing interpretations of true individuality. Just as it is in non-HIP performances.

But the value of a new interperative idea lasts for exactly one performance if it’s not a great idea. And nowhere is this more true than in Bach. Fifty years ago, Bach in the concert hall used to mean a stodgy 200-musician performance that would occasionally give us a glimpse of eternity in the middle the eternity the piece took to end. Today, it means little more than efficient, trivial Baroque dance music.

(How not to play Bach’s Mass. Too fast, choppy, underpowered. Period Practice at its worst)

There simply isn’t enough time to go in depth into the old performance practice debate. But to state it simply, the HIP crowd has decided that big pieces are played by far too many musicians at far too slow tempos with instruments that are far too plush. There’s a lot that’s attractive about this new style of Bach. It’s engaging, charming, with minimal longeurs. The only problem is that it’s not Bach by any definition I understand. It sounds like second-rate Baroque music that could have been written by half-a-dozen other composers.

(You gotta be kidding me....this should be roughly half the speed played here.)

As period practice has gradually taken over Bach performance, we’ve lost the sense of why Bach was rediscovered in the first place. When the original generation of authenticists - Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Franz Bruggen, Helmuth Rilling and Neville Marriner (yes, the last two count) - were first heard, they were a most welcome corrective to the snoozefests of 19th century-style Bach. But their successors go for just as much gaudy excess as we hear in those 1930’s 500-musician Bachfests. We now get ultra-fast, ultra-lean, ultra-dancey performances of Bach so terrified of challenging a listener’s attention span that the work is completely drained of any spiritual overtone. The possibility of a ‘Bach moment’ in these performances is virtually non-existent. In this new vision of his music, what separates Bach from the work of Telemann, Kuhnau or Pachebel? If this is the way Bach meant for his music to be interpreted, then Bach is indeed a second-rate composer. Next to Vivaldi and Handel, this Bach has all the power of a wet noodle. Perhaps this is why Bach was forgotten for 75 years in the first place. Flashy Bach makes about as much sense as Tasteful Journey.

(From the department of Period Practice Asshattery comes one-voice-Bach. Even if Bach performed his own work with only one-voice-per-part - and the evidence is specious - how can one voice be heard over an orchestra playing at this volume without electronic manipulation? Just stupid.)

Perhaps a key to the fact that Bach’s music is truly as great as people say is because it is so difficult to perform. To perform it competently is easy. To perform it as though every note matters and rings true is among the hardest things to do in all of music. Of all the recordings of this work I’ve heard, knowledgeable listeners would never guess which one came out best. The one recording that best provides the catharsis of Bach’s awesome spirituality without the dreary heaviness? It’s Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. There are probably 80 orchestral musicians and a choir of 150. To be sure, the sound can be enormous. But when required Karajan makes them sound as though they are only thirty musicians in a small church. It almost pains me to say that this recording is in a class by itself, but it really is.

(Is Karajan the only conductor in history to ever give the opening fugue some shape?)

It’s incredibly odd to ever think that glossy old HvK would have more insight into this mammoth monsterpiece than anyone else. But then again, maybe not. For all his associations with the Nazi party, Karajan hated the Teutonic heaviness which German musicians used to attach to every piece regardless of style. And the authentic performance revolution was only gathering steam on the margins of classical music when he was already the world’s most famous conductor. He was too young to be lodged under the thumb of the old Bach dogmas and too old to be lodged under the new. Few conductors can get both shape and spirituality from Bach’s music. Karajan manages it and the thought that an unprincipled man like Karajan can make such spiritually inspired music should make us all uncomfortable.

But then again, it’s just another example of an uncomfortable truth in the world of Bach which we all choose to ignore. For nearly 200 years, Bach has been synonymous with musical comfort. Why should music disturb when we have music like this that is so pleasing to the ear? If the music world wants to be comforted and have its prejudices coddled, then Bach should remain the dominant composer in classical music’s canon.

But if we want something more out of music than comfort, then we have to face an uncomfortable truth about Bach:

Music has evolved past him. He is still the de-facto standard for how university music departments teach harmony, form and counterpoint. Without Bach, we wouldn’t know what to teach music students. But today, music students are as likely to be influenced by scales and modes they hear from music all around the world as they are by common practice tonality. Bach is no longer music's lingua franca. In an age when music is better experienced by MP3 than it ever could be in a lecture hall, teaching ‘common practice’ tonality as the standard for how all music is made is no better an idea than teaching a science class for which the curriculum is Aristotle.

No matter how much we want to uphold Bach as the example of everything which music should be, we need to move past him. we can’t simply pretend that he is the greatest musician of all time anymore. He’s had his day as a soloist. It’s time to make Bach take his place in the chorus. As a great composer, Bach will never date. As the all-time greatest, Bach is long since a period piece.

(The best way I found to enjoy Bach’s B-Minor Mass on youtube. Good old reliable Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Big without being bloated. Stripped of all the boring movements. 50 of the best minutes of Bach’s B-Minor Mass).

The Best of Hans Moleman

Because I can't sleep.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

800 Words: A Boring Fantasy Part 1 1/2 of 8

It is around Pesach of 1895 that I begin to grow dis-enamored of our tiny pond of a Yid-lit scene. By the High Holidays, my disaffection can clearly be seen by everyone. Here we are, at the very center of the Haskalah. I'm breaking bread at regular intervals with the two great Yiddish writers of our time, three if you must count Shaya. At one point, Shaya only let me read select passages of Tatiana. It turned out to be a very good book, but he achieved nowhere close the success Shalom and Yitzhok led him to believe was his. For all intents, Shaya wrote a roman a clef biography of Galina's family before she came to Warsaw. There were astute observations on every page about the Russian serf system, the civil service bureaucracy, the Orthodox church and the effect of vodka on the Russian peasant. Except for some casual anti-semetism, Jews, Jewishness and the Jewish condition are nowhere to be found. It is a fact that had not escaped the eagle eyes of Yiddish critics even if it had escaped Shalom Aleichem. The critics were led by Shalom and Yitzhok to expect a volume full of insight into Russia’s relationship to its Jews. Even if their priorities are misplaced, I can't say that I blame the critics for their disappointment that the book is about something else entirely. Yet it was Shaya taken to task for ignoring the plight of his own people, not his promoters. That's just unfair.

And it's from Shaya’s shabby treatment that I begin to perceive the rot in this new attempt at civilization which we’ve mistakenly undertaken, even if Shaya doesn't. We did not leave 2000 years of Rabbinic tradition behind to be a cog in the wheel of other people’s agendas. For all we know, neither Shalom nor Yitzhok even read the book. They simply needed a new work to rally people for the Dreyfus trial. Shalom must have had Shaya’s manuscript siting on his desk in Odessa for a year. Yet it remained untouched until it served his purposes to use it.

To be sure, Shalom and Yitzhok are fine writers. But my initial enthusiasm for Shalom’s work has been replaced by utter frustration at its repetition. His work is genuinely funny, sometimes hysterically so, and sometimes even moving. Yet I feel as though the jokes and stories have become numbingly repetitive, as though I’m watching a reliable but uninspired sitcom (though I have no idea what a sitcom is). Yitzhok’s work can be quite inspired, but the candle in the wind flame of his work does not hold up next to the incandescent bonfires of our Russian competitors - not that they’re much aware of our competition. Next to the great passages of our Bible, their work gathers all the inspiration you can derive from a wet match. It's an unspoken truth of which everyone seems aware yet no one dares to mention. Even as I begin to voice a small sliver these concerns, and I can feel a dread distance growing between me and my comrades for the capital crime of uttering them at all. `

Shaya seems perfectly content to be accepted as a second-tier Yiddish writer. He is hard at work on his new novel - this one about the transition of a young man from the world of the shtetl to the world of assimilation. He tells me he has no time for women anymore. All he wants is to be known as the Yiddish Shakespeare. I don’t dare tell him how misplaced an expectation that would be for anyone.

Rivke wants to get married. In every conceivable way, I am not ready. She was always controlling, and in a previous lifetime I found that incredibly attractive. But her overbearing manner is turning me sour. I’m paid to write, I have a steady job as a journalist in Warsaw with many chances for promotion, soon I’ll be expected to write books that will be published and reviewed. And according to Rivke I should be satisfied with this. How dare she.

But our biggest fight had nothing to do with career matters. It occurred on a day I returned home to find her brandishing a letter from my mother. I knew that this is a letter I should have burned immediately. But my mother and father write me almost daily with entreaties to come back to Gizl. How could she have found this one if she didn't read them all? In this letter, my mother not only assures me that the Rabbi’s daughter is happily married to my cousin Beryl, and not only expecting her third child, but also that her first child was Beryl’s with whom she’d been carrying on simultaneous to me.

Rivke can hardly be a new hand in this sort of situation, but she swears she always knew better than to ever be put in the family way. I suppose I believe her. Even if I didn't, what choice do I have? But to describe her as livid would be akin to describing King Saul as proud. She refuses to hear any explanation that the child was not mine, and in an atypical moment tells me that we have tempted evil and God shall punish us for living as we do in such sin.

And so I long to escape from under the thumb of Rivke, Shaya, Shalom, Der Trakhtner and Warsaw altogether. But even with this piece of news, Gizl is the only place in the world whose name strikes more terror in my kishkes than Warsaw. I know all that there will be for me to know about this city for a long time yet, and surely the world is a larger place than this.

It is now Shaya who is the toast of our social circle and I who've withdrawn into our lodgings. Everything about our friends, our neighborhood, our society, our city seems not a mere sour taste but an idiotic mistake. No doubt, somebody exactly like me dreamed of exactly this day a millenium ago. But he could never have forseen what I see. A Jewish neighborhood in which Jews dare comport themselves as the goyim's equal; as my Zaydie would say, das ist nicht azai vi Got hot gehaysen.

For all the drab awfulness of the Shtetl, at least we knew who we were. We are no longer a people with a mission. Shalom, Yitzhok and their ilk try to drum up a meaning for us that simply does not exist. Without purpose, we are adrift in a world that wants nothing more than for our existence to cease. And we well may oblige them. I fear our liberation has set something terrible in motion that cannot be undone. Judaism has always been nothing more than civilization upon a razor’s edge. But our civilization was built upon the service of God through the obeyance of his commandments. Perhaps Yahweh has retribution in store for us just as he has for all who have forgotten him.

As I have in moments of crisis since I was three years old, I’ve retreated into books. I chant Ecclesiastes every evening as I relieve myself. I recite a Psalm every morning as I revive myself. The editor of Der Trakhtner, Yankl Musernik, has a fantastic library and lends me books of Hebrew Poetry from the Andalusian period. Poets like Shmuel HaNagid, Ibn Gvirol, Ibn Ezra, HaSalah, Yehuda HaLevi, Yehuda Alharizi and Todros Abulafia have become my life of late. Here, finally, is something to learn from; a poetry that rivals scripture in its magnificence. This is a poetry can only come from free minds in a liberated, protected Jewish community who lived among their coevals for half a millennium without molestation. This is the liberated civilization for which we strive in vain. Here was a community of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who participated in political life of Spain as any Christian or Muslim would. Yet they still have time left over to create great art. Here in this poetry, there is nothing of the dolorous which permeates everything we touch. These, finally, are modern Jews who write with the measure of existence’s enormity. Just read this passage - The Ruined Citadel by Shmuel HaNagid:

“I billeted a strong force overnight in a citadel laid waste in former days by other generals. There we slept upon its back and flanks, while under us its landlords slept. And I said to my heart: Where are the many people who once lived here? Where are the builders and vandals, the rulers and paupers, the slaves and masters? Where are the begetters and the bereaved, the fathers and the sons, the mourners and the bridegrooms? And where are the many people born after the others had died, in days gone by, after other days and years? Once they lodged upon the earth; now they are lodged within it. They passed from their palaces to the grave, from pleasant courts to dust.”

Or this excerpt from HaSalah, which stung me to the bone:

Let it set the sun as a crown on my head,
or make the moon my golden crescent—
Orion a bracelet around my wrist,
its glowing children about me my necklace,
I will not come to desire its power,
not for a home beyond the stars.
My longing instead is to lay my threshold
near the threshold of learned men:
all I want is to move toward them,
although my iniquity holds me back
among a people that does not know me;
with whom I have no part or ease—
for when I greet them with kisses of peace,
they say I hurt them with my teeth.

Poetry like this is solace at a time when solace is in surprisingly short supply. I can't deny, if my situation is the hell on earth of which Christianity speaks, it’s a refreshingly comfortable hell. Yet I dread every moment of it.

But just when I’m on my lowest ebb, Musernik bequeaths me a book worth its weight in zloty. One day in the office, Musernik storms in and loudly announces that Degeneration by Max Nordau has finally been translated into Yiddish. He proceeds to declare it the most abominable, lie-ridden book written by a Jew in our time. He will assign it every day to a different staff memeber, and the first member of Der Trakhtner who can make his way through this book without having to stop from taking such offense is hereby commissioned to write a 5,000 word review of it for a 50 zloty bonus.

Needless to say, Shaya is among the first allowed to take it home. He returns it the next day with a slam of the tome onto Musernik’s desk. Musernik is clearly deligthed. After two weeks of deskmates screaming about how pernicious this book is, my curiosity is ablaze. Apparently, the main crux of Nordau’s argument is that art and culture have achieved such pride of place in the society of our time that it has brought us to the brink of ruin. I can’t say that I completely disagree.

Finally, it is my turn. I open the book after I come home from work and do not stop for food until the next morning. At seven the next morning, Shaya informs me that it’s time to eat breakfast and get ready for work. I tell him to go in without me. Musernik will understand. By breakfast the next day I’ve read the whole book in both Yiddish and German, some passages as many as six times. Rivke pops in to ask if I’m ready to go to work today. I tell her not to worry. I will be at the office tomorrow with all 5,000 words in tow. I sleep through the workday and work all through the night.

According to Nordau, we are a society hidebound by ideology. We're so utterly restricted by it that we cannot see the world without its prisms. And so the power of thought possessed by anyone with curiosity is squelched in a storm of Symbolism, Tolstoyism, Wagnerism, Ibsenism, Nietzscheism, Aesthetism, Socialism, Communism, Diabolism, even Realism. Reality has become something to be explained, not experienced.

Even if I don’t agree with it, I can’t say I disagree with any of it. When Nordau says that Modern Europe has abandoned the drive to succeed at all cost for paralyzing narcissism which subjugates men to whims of whatever fashionable ideology they bound themselves, he’s absolutely right. When he says that laziness of thought and skill creates decadence in art, I at least can’t say I disagree. But when he says that the decadence of art provokes still more decadence in people, I feel the urge to stand and applaud. I've become a new kind of conservative reactionary in my youth. Embracing a new ideology that purports to be non-ideology.

It would seem that the goyishe world has lost all the same confidence in their old ways as we people of the Book have in ours. Our old institutions, however antique and restrictive, are the best we have until a better idea reveals itself. My problem remains that the old ways seem little better to me, if better at all, than what follows it.

All of this and much, much more is what I put into my review. The whole thing is written in white heat, as though all the energy of the last three years is funnelled into this one night. Finally, something to write that gives me excitement. I turn in my review the next day, knowing that if it’s printed at all, the article will cause at least as much trouble at Der Trakhtner as the book itself.

Musernik emerged from his office around ten-thirty with a red face. He announces to the office that the Shtetl never left Avraham. The progress of modern life is apparently good enough for him, so he thinks we should all go back to the cheder where Torah can give us all the answers we can’t find in reality.

One bad mood from Musernik is all it takes. I’m an outcast at Der Trakhtner who can’t take my seat without being called ‘Der Gleyber’ (the believer). People were impatient with me at Der Trakhtner long before the review. But after Musernik published it, we all knew my time was limited. Fortunately, it’s only another week before I get a letter from...who else?....Max Nordau.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thielemann Doing Beethoven, I eat crow...

I hate to admit this....

(Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic. Hugely exciting, enormous sound, dangerously fast, extreme tempo changes, more a philosophical speculation of what Beethoven 5 can sound like than a mathematical proof of what it does sound like.)

This is fantastic Beethoven from Christian Thielemann. No surprise, this is Beethoven defiantly of the Old School. But few conductors, if any, have ever successfully channeled the Furtwangler style like this. Judging by the Beethoven 9 symphonies you can currently find Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic do on youtube, this is absolutely fantastic in so many ways. Though I wouldn't quite put this in the very first rank of Beethoven recordings. Thielemann is a bit more in love with the old style of Beethoven playing than the music itself, but this is still absolutely wonderful in its way.

(A very different Beethoven 5 from Thielemann's mentor, Herbert von Karajan. Ultra-disciplined, uncomfortably martial, still more enormous sound, but extremely fiery. Thielemann is Beethoven through the ears of Hegel, Karajan is Beethoven through the ears of Napoleon.)

It's all the more painful to admit, because while back, I wrote about Christian Thielemann in rather apocalyptic terms. I don't regret what I said. Christian Thielemann really is bad news for classical music, an infusion of reverence for tradition during a period when more reverence is the last thing classical music needs. But part of the reason he's so dangerous is because his performances really can be as great as people say.


"Hey There Lonely Girl": Eddie Holman

h/t Der Gordon

Friday, September 23, 2011

Born To Be Wild on Ukulele

800 Words: A Boring Fantasy Part 1 1/3 of 8

It is now January of 1894. I’m reading lots of Polski and rendering word-for-word plagarisms for our broadsheet, Der Trakhtner. At home, Shaya and I speak nothing but Russian, which is ok because Shaya is as often as not coming home with a Russian girl who loses her temper every time Shaya has to run out for an errand orwork on the proofs for his novel. I invariably have to calm her down, and since she knows only a little Polish, it’s good practice.

Her name is Galina. She’s from a small town that sounds not unlike ours, only hers is a fishing village 50 kilometers east of Petersburg. She is blonde, with a ruddy complexion, terrible teeth and pleasantly pneumatic features. She is Christian, but assures us she never goes to church. She does, however, wear a series of byzantine ikons for each day of the week and seems particularly sensitive about any statement that sounds like a curse.

On our meager salaries, we save up and manage to move into a tenement on Market Street. I soon afterward meet a non-religious Jewish girl from across the street named Rivke. Rivke is a maid by profession, she is tall and slender, not unattractive, but has a beak of a hooked nose. She’s an excellent cook, quite funny and very licentious. Without her we would be lost in our effort to keep an orderly apartment. Galina is insanely jealous of Rivke’s abilities and pours an entire salt-shaker into Rivke’s soup a day after Shaya complemented her cooking too effusively. Later that night, Shaya orders her out in a door-slamming end to their affair.

It was just as well, since Shaya’s book was being published. As it happens, Shalom is back in town on another reading tour and one night comes calling on us with a friend who has thick black hair and an even bushier mustache. Rivke and I were just sitting down to dinner when they come into our kitchen.

‘Yitzhok, you know Shaya of course. But this here is the illui I was telling about.’
‘Ah yes. Avram the khokhom. All Warsaw knows of your great feats of Torah.’
‘But all I did was ans...’
(Rivka kicks me from under our dining room table while Shalom interjects)
‘A true melamed this one. He will make Yiddish a light unto languages.’
‘Until that day, we have Shaya.’ Yitzhok answers and immediately afterward puts Shaya into a headlock. While unsuccessfully escaping from the headlock, Shaya manages to say...
‘Avram, allow me to present Yitzhok Loyb Peretz. The Yiddish Dostoevsky.’
‘Indeed. Zol gotter pitten we don’t want you not to realize when you’re in the presence of greatness again.’ Shalom quickly intejects.
‘Oh no. I read the complete works of you both last month.’
‘Clearly you’re not being worked hard enough’ says Peretz.
‘Reading your books is work enough.’ Rivke interjects to Peretz.
‘Ah. So we have a ballebooster here.’ Shalom says.
‘I’ve known Rivke since she came up to my knee and brought us cigars while we played cards at her father’s house. But yes, she’s a complete balleboos. Just like her mother. How is that meshugoyim heuse of theirs?’
‘Tate’s doing well enough. My brother Elazar is getting married next week.’
‘Ah. Mazel tov. He’s not a chassid I hope.’ says Shalom.
‘Yes. He’s gone back.’
‘Such is the life of the wise.’ observes Peretz. ‘The Jewish world stands on three things: Torah, docility and the acts of morons.’
‘Sha!’ Rivke grows agitated. ‘You’ll tempt the ayin horah.’
‘So Shaya. You know why we’re here.’

Shalom and Shaya go back into Shaya’s room, followed by Yitzhok. They emerge with an enormous manuscript and a bottle of champagne which seems to have materialized from nowhere.

‘Rivke!’ Shalom barks. ‘Their five best glasses please!’

‘“Tatiana” will be the book to announce Yiddish to the world!’ Shalom announces as he pops open the bottle and pours the champagne. ‘Your brother is the greatest talent the Yiddish language has ever seen Avram. Rabelais, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Charlap!’

‘L’Chaim’ We all say and clink our glasses then down our champagne. Shalom and Yitzhok leave quickly thereafter with the manuscript.

We see neither Shalom nor Yitzhok for an entire year. Shaya despairs that his manuscript is completely lost. By Pesach he stops going out to see friends. By Tisha b’Av he has quit his job at Der Takhtner. Half our nights he never leaves his room. Half our nights he stays out late, yet no one we know knows where he goes. I begin to worry for his health and safety. He is no longer my impetuous, happily confrontational older brother who teaches me everything I ever knew about the world. He is a sullen, withdrawn and despairing person who has lost his exuberance for life.

It is the eve of Holy Sylvester 1895 and the sixth night of Hannukah. We are staying in to keep Shaya company, as we’ve come to do nearly every night since the High Holidays. Rivke and I are, per usual, trying to keep Shaya from thinking about the manuscript. We’ve long since stopped taking his violent moodswings personally, particularly since any shouting is inevitably followed by a tearful apology. We’re worried that Shaya will be in a particularly low state tonight. He comes into the common room, and per usual he’s complaining. But this time he seems a bit more accepting of things. He says that 1894 was the year he realized he was nothing more than a toy to those more privileged than he. Shalom and Yitzhok simply lost interest. He almost seems accepting of the fact that he was not meant for great things.

Rivke is cooking dinner while I’m setting the table. We suddenly hear a gaggle of voices coming closer to our door and then, a very insistent knock. The stove is closer to the door than the table, so Rivke answers. She opens it to a huge wave of shouts.

‘Grupe fun Schmucks! That’s not Shaya. Where is the writer of Tatiana? We demand the presence of the Yiddish Shakespeare!’

Shaya has come to the door. The moment they see Shaya, an even bigger wall of cheers erupts. I look out and see the entire staff of Der Takhtner whom Shaya curses nightly as hacks. Half the men are holding bottles of vodka in their hands. With their free hands, the men hoist Shaya onto their shoulders, walk down our tenements three flights of stairs where Shalom and Yitzhok are waiting for them.

They’ve broken out into song long before the bottom flight, but Shalom immediately asks for silence. For two minutes, the staff of Der Trakhtner shush’s each other without actually stopping the song.

‘Gentlemen. I’ve asked you to come before us today to witness the birth of a great Yiddish writer (applause and cheers). Perhaps he is the greatest of us all. In these last weeks of 1894, we have seen the dark forces of Europe gather before us. In France, a man named Dreyfus is tried for the treason of being a Jewish army officer. The world does not merely chant ‘Down with Dreyfus.’ The world chants, ‘Down with the Jews!’ We are thought of through the world as vermin who attach ourselves to other cultures and produce nothing of our own. But here is one of our own, Shaya Charlap (big cheer), who has produced one of the great works of our time! Here is a man who has nothing to fear in comparison with Tolstoy and Hamsun. Never in the history of our people has our plight been stated with such eloquence (cheer)! Such divine inspiration (cheer)! Such utter passion (big cheer). The world will read Tatiana and finally understand the senseless cruelty which Jews have endured for so many thousands of years. This is the book that shall banish anti-semitism from our world! It is in a book like Tatiana that we shall announce to the world that we are our own culture (cheer)! Our own people (cheer)! A light unto nations (big cheer)! Let us parade through Warsaw and announce the birth of a new Yiddish writer!’

And with that, Shaya is hoisted onto a chair and paraded around Warsaw’s Jewish quarter. They begin to sing nigunim. Whenever someone opens a window to ask what’s going on, someone from Der Trakhtner’s staff announces: ‘Behold, the great new Jewish writer! Behold, our Shakespeare, Shaya Charlap!’

At one point during the parade, I beckon Rivke aside and say quietly into her ear:
‘Rivke. I’m pretty sure Tatiana’s not about Jews or anti-semitism at all. It’s about a goyish fishing village in Russia.’
‘SHA Avraham!’

800 Words: A Boring Fantasy Part 1 of 8

We all have our fantasy places - not the childhood fantasies of occupations in which each of us is a great rock star or conductor or garbageman - though I’d have been a damn good garbageman. We all have a place, whether in fantasy or history, which we go to when we’re alone and tell ourselves “This is where I really belong. I should have been born here and then.” For some people that place is Rivendell, for some people it’s at Yankee Stadium in ‘27, for some it’s Haight-Ashbury in ‘68, for some it’s the Rome of Augustus, for some it’s at the top of Mount Olympus. Each of us invents a world for ourselves that probably never existed anywhere but in our mind’s eye. And we imagine how much better, more glamorous, more suitable our lives would be for us.

Personally, I imagine myself Arthur Meister - born in 1877 and given the name Avraham Charlap to a family of kindly Jewish booksellers in a shtetl 40 kilometers outside Warsaw. I’m the youngest in our family of twelve children. My father quickly discovers my amazing precocity and brings me to the local rabbi. By the age of eight I have memorized the entire Talmud and can give Rabbinical interpretations which learned scholars travel a hundred miles from every direction to hear. In my spare time I practice the fiddle and play every week after Shabbos with my father’s Klezmerspiel. In secret, my sisters and I go every Tuesday to visit a band of gypsies who live down the road and play music with them. My rebellious older brother, Shaya, teaches me German in secret and brings me books of secular learning. I learn the work of Goethe, Heine, Lichtenberg and Herder in the original. I read idealists like Hegel and Schopenhauer too, but to Shaya's disappointment I don’t like them nearly as much. By the time I’m finished Cheder and have my bar-mitzvah, my parents are ready to give me up to the Rabbi’s care so that I might become the great scholar of the age. I live in the Rabbi’s house for a time, taking up with both his daughter and their Polish cook. But my rebellious older brother has gone to seek his fortunes in Warsaw, where he has left Orthodox Judaism to become a journalist for a local Yiddish paper. He writes me every week, telling me stories of his adventures in the big city. He tells me about an exciting new movement to grant Jews a state in the Holy Land, ‘Zionism’ he calls it. He tells me he has become a disciple of Herr Herzl, whom he assures me is greater than any Rabbi of whom I've ever heard.

I’m now so bored with life in our town - named Gizl - that I can no longer concentrate on my studies, but it’s just as well because the Rebbitzn (rabbi’s wife) catches me in bed with the cook, which of course causes the daughter to blurt out in desparation that she’s pregnant. I’m told by the Rabbi that it is my obligation as a righteous man to marry his daughter as soon as possible. That night, I abscond from my hometown, never to return.

I’m now sixteen years old, and I go to my brother in Warsaw. We live together in a 100 square meter apartment and I pay the bills by working in a local delicatessen. A bit more than a week after starting work, a wiry bespectacled gentleman with wavy hair and a bushy mustache comes in followed by a giant entourage. He greets the owner warmly and the owner orders me to bring them plates of herring on the house.

When I come to the table, the man grabs my arm and says ‘Nu? You’re Shaya’s brother. Je?’
‘I am’
‘There are stars who’s light only reaches the earth long after they have fallen apart. There are people who’s remembrance gives light in this world, long after they have passed away.’
He motions for me to finish...
‘This light shines in our darkest nights on the road we must follow.’
Everybody laughs.
‘Have I done something wrong?’
‘Did he tell you or did he tell you? The boy’s an illui! Here boychik, sit down. Shaya will be here in a moment.’
‘But my job.’
‘Velvel will understand. My name is Solomon Rabinovich. But please, call me Shalom.’

So I sit at his side. Some conversations take place around the table but attention is fundamentally focused on us. He asks me about my feelings on Zionism, and I repeat a few stock phrases from Shaya’s letters. He then asks if I have read anything by Tolstoy. I reply that I haven’t. He asks if I’ve read any of the old pamphlets by Herzen, I have to reply that I’ve never heard of him. He then starts waxing eloquently on the glories a fantastic writer of our generation named Chekhov. I finally summon the courage tell him I’m unable to read or speak Russian.

‘Well, you must change that right away! Shaya’s obviously an excellent teacher.’
‘Yes he is. But he taught me German.’
‘Ach. Nothing but a bastardized form of Yiddish. (the table erupts with laughter) Do you speak Polish at least?’
‘Yaakov, give him a job in your paper reading the Polish wires. If he learns Russian as quickly as Talmud, this khokham will have a glorious career ahead of him.’

And thus ends my career as a delicatician. Finally, Shaya makes his appearance. The men at the table are on their fourth bottle of vodka and every one of them greets him as though it were they who were his long lost brothers. Somebody pulls out an accordion, there’s singing at the table and after midnight we leave the deli, stuffed and drunk.

After we get home, Shaya lies on his bed and says to me:
'You know, that was Shalom Aleichem who got you that job.'
'Shalom Aleichem. The writer.'
'Shalom Aleichem. The Yiddish Tolstoy. The greatest Jew of our age.'
'The writer?'
'Yes, Shalom Aleichem.'
'I thought the greatest Jew was Herzl.'
'Herzl doesn’t get us jobs.'
'But Herzl believes in the Holy Land.'
'So does Shalom Aleichem.'
'Have you talked about it with him?'
'And wouldn’t it make more sense for it to be Sholem Asch? Shalom Aleichem’s from Odessa.'
'Avraham you’re questioning the believability of this fantasy.'
'Have a good night.'
'But does Shalom Aleichem or Asch or whoever believe in establishing a state in the Holy Land?'
'Who cares. Go to bed Avraham.'
'But I’m watching Jimmy Fallon.'
'What do I say to that?'
'Nothing. Good night Shaya.'

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Something Viennese

ET: Almanac

And 1922, 1923, 1924--twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six. Are you still young? Are you already old? Her temples show a scribble of a few fine lines, her legs are sometimes tired, in the spring her head aches strangely. But there's progress, things are getting better. There's money in her hand, hard and round, she has a permanent position as "postal official," her brother-in-law is even sending her mother two or three banknotes at the beginning of every month. Now would be the time to try, in some small way, to be young again; even her mother is urging her to go out and enjoy herself. Her mother finally gets her to sign up for a dancing class in the next town. These thumping dance lessons aren't easy, her fatigue is too much a part of her. Sometimes she feels her joints are frozen--even the music can't thaw them out. Laboriously she practices the assigned steps, but she can't really get interested, she's not carried away, and for the first time she has a feeling: too late, toil has exhausted her youth, the war has taken it away. Something must have snapped inside her, and men seem to sense it, for she isn't really being pursued by any of them, even though her delicate blond profile has an aristocratic look among the coarse faces, round and red lik apples, of the village girls. But these postwar seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren't waiting quietly and patiently, waiting for someone to want them and take them. They're demanding pleasure as their right, demanding it as impetuously as though it's not just their own young lives that they're living but the lives of the hundred-thousand dead and buried too. With a kind of horror Christine, now twenty-six, watches how they act, these newcomers, these young ones, sees their self-assurance and covetousness, their knowing and impudent eyes, the provocation in their hips, how unmistakably they laugh no matter how boldly the boys embrace them, and hwo shamelessly they take the men off into the woods--she sees them on her way home. It disgusts her. Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete. No more struggling, no more striving, that's the main thing! Breathe calmly, daydream quietly, do your work, water the flowers in the window, ask not, want not. No more asking for anything, nthing new, nothing exciting. The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.

- The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Quote of the Night:

Le Malon: sleep is a weapon
i intend to procure it

800 Words: A Short Blogpost About Killing

(Dekalog V. An hour-long movie about murder which every member of the human race should see. Mostly because it's awesome.)

A young man may or may not have killed another person, but nobody knows since there is neither physical evidence to display his guilt nor innocence. This man is twenty years old when arrested and twenty-one when indicted. He then goes through what feels like endless delays and appeals through the thickets of his local legal system, his state legal system, his federal legal system. His lawyers disprove much of the case against him, the prosecution withdraws nearly the entirety of their testimony. But no matter how close he seems to acquittal, he never gets it. No court views this matter as important enough to dishonor lower courts by overturning their decision. Eventually, the highest court of his country denies him a hearing three times before twice hearing his case. Unlike the lower courts, the highest court is answerable only to itself, and therefore the world awakened to his plight only at the point that he no longer had a chance for survival. As the case draws closer to its inevitable conclusion, is country awakens to the fact that he has been treated unjustly. Protests, petitions and speeches from eminent people rise up across the land to denounce the entire legal system. Yet his country only awakened to the injustice of his situation when he was already in the hands of the land’s highest court, and did so only from the publicity of anti-death penalty organizers. The organizers who set about raising awareness of the death penalty’s inhumanity saw the case of this man and realized that in him they had a perfect victim. Here was a man already likely to die and be a perfect exemplar for them of why the death penalty is unjust. Perhaps by raising awareness and stirring people’s emotions, they could grant him a few more years of life. And during the new years of life which they bought, he is told to expect his imminent execution on four separate occasions. By this time, a quarter century has passed, the young man has now aged and the entire outside world he knew had disappeared without him being there to watch it. By the final year of this case, the high court wants nothing more than a speedy resolution of this matter, which it views as a humiliation which can hold the entire legal system up to ridicule. It realizes that a speedy resolution will not be obtained unless the accused is executed. They therefore strike down all his remaining appeals and the accused man is executed within a half-hour of the case’s conclusion. A whole nation cries tears as though a family member had died, and wakes up the next morning to go about its business.

Most of you will realize that I’m not (consciously) writing a bad Kafka-imitation. I’m merely stating the bare bones of how Troy Davis’s case transpired. Whether or not he did it is almost immaterial. What is germane is that there is cause to doubt his guilt, and cause for doubt is cause to believe that an innocent person was killed. In deference to both the world’s murder victims and wrongfully accused defendents, I should probably rephrase that; cause for doubt is cause to believe that yet another innocent person was killed.

In our quest to maintain the death penalty, our government has spent an average of 4 times as much on death penalty cases as non-death penalty murder cases (approximately $2 million on average versus $500,000). We have executed countless defendents who did not meet the American Bar Association standard of proper representation in a capital case. We’ve granted life imprisonment to serial killers, yet we’ve executed schizophrenics, Alzheimer's patients and the mentally challenged. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, no less than 138 men and women have had to be released from death row. Four executions have been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be carried out upon the wrongfully accused. 22,000 homicides occur in America every year. Yet only 150 people get the death penalty. It’s a lottery that heavily (dis)favors black people. But the death penalty isn’t simply a relic of Jim Crow. It’s a relic of prehistoric barbarism which instructs that retribution will prevent murder. It is a crime against history as much as humanity.

Some of you will (I hope) read the above paragraph with lots of eye rolling. Surely nobody needs to be told, yet again, that the death penalty is bad. And surely nobody will be any more convinced for or against the death penalty after reading the above paragraph than they were before they read it. But here’s the thing......

…...I think most people who read these statistics have nothing more than a dim awareness of their existence. If you oppose the death penalty, truly oppose it, why haven’t you committed them to memory? More importantly, why haven’t I? Why must it take yet another potentially innocent man on death row with a 1% chance of a commuting for us to get angry about this? Why 2011? Why not 1976? Why not 2046?

It is very difficult to take a mob mentality seriously in any environment. But a mob that takes up the cause of a death row inmate that was already lost so clearly - when there are so many other lives on death row that can still be saved - is the most cosmic sort of black comedy and an odious example of radical chic. Before another 660,000 petitioners find another Troy Davis, there will probably be another few hundred executions in America. How many of those killed will be innocent? How many of them can be stopped right now if they receive all the same manpower Troy Davis did?

As it often does, the world is crying the crocodile tears of self-congratulation tonight. We have all been seen taking our stand against the death penalty, and now we can go about our lives secure for another few days that we are moral people. But even when we go away, the issue continues. Troy Davis is dead. Some of us only heard of him this week. Some of us might have heard about him the last time he had an imminent execution date. But I would venture that nobody reading this post gave him much thought in the time between one execution date and the next. In politics, it’s the preparations people make when a cause is ignored that ultimately determines its outcome. Perhaps this will cause a ripple in the gigantic pool of apathy that inevitably engulfs us when we're needed most. But even if Troy Davis's death turns the tide, we failed Troy Davis just as we have so many others. We failed and killed Troy Davis. And most of us, myself included, will probably forget about him in a few days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Janacek Sinfonietta in a Shopping Mall

Buying toilet paper never felt quite this important before.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

800 Words: The Outer Darkness of Sibelius

(I'm sitting in the twilight in my castle (0:01). A stranger comes in (0:30). I ask him more than once who he is (0:37). Finally, He strikes up a song (0:50). Don Juan sees who it is, it is Death (2:05). Christus (4:11))

Sibelius never finished his Tone Poem about Don Juan, not even the program. Perhaps he found the subject matter too unbearable. This is something I can only surmise, since much of the material he wrote for it apparently made its way into the almost unbearably moving second movement of his Second Symphony. The fragment of program Sibelius wrote for the work fits so uncannily well into the music (both the program and the music displayed above this paragraph). One could easily construct a whole program around this music, complete with a dialogue about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, and memories of love lost and found.

In Sibelius's version, there is no statue to drag Don Juan into Hell. There may not even be a Hell. There is only death, and the inner demons of a man who has done everything he could to live to life's fullest extent, only to find himself meeting his end alone. This is a human, all too human Don Juan.

Without exception, every Don Juan seems as much a reflection of its creator as of the myth itself. As a man given to enormous excesses of women and drink - but also prone to the greatest extremes of depression, Sibelius understood the human meaning of Don Juan perhaps more than any other great creator. His Don Juan is free of illusions about consequence. The only satisfaction Sibelius derived from the excesses of his behavior were in the immediate short-term. After the party was over, Sibelius would return to his family only to find his long-suffering wife Aino and his children humiliated and frightened by his excesses. And thus would that cycle continue until his death.

(The Swan of Tuonela)

Purely as a parlor game, let’s ask how many other great musicians go all the way into the black places. Not just into the dark side, but into the kind of unremitting dark from which there is no redemption. It can’t simply be artists for whom suffering is part of their appreciation of life’s beauty or that there is redemption or enjoyment to be found in suffering. It has to be the musicians for whom there is no purpose to suffering but suffering’s own sake. To make this list, their greatest work cannot give us the sense that life is worth all the ugliness. The list is not nearly as long as you think it is.

Among composers, the list is small and very 19th-century heavy - but not necessarily the artists you expect. Beethoven was far too life affirming to stay in a dark place for too long. Mahler would immediately follow the blackest darkness with some crude joke or a manic turn to the high. And Schumann was simply unable to compose when he got too depressed. But any list of great composers who were content to stay unremittingly on the dark side would have to include Schubert, Gesualdo, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, and...are there any others? I suppose it’s arguable that the entire movement of atonality is one long howl but they’d probably argue differently, so we’ll just assume that it’s cheating to put Schoenberg and company on the list. Among non-classical composers, it’s also not the ones you’d probably expect. Bob Dylan was far too much of a mystic to believe that there isn’t some kind of transcendence in emotional pain. Tom Waits was always too in love with the macabre to take his bleakness seriously. Nirvana’s songs were far too enamored with the idea that somebody else might be happier somewhere for Cobain to focus on his own unhappiness. Other early checkout artists like Hendrix and particularly The Doors were far focused on the glamor of destruction to understand what destruction meant. Both Heavy Metal and punk derive far too much enjoyment from emotional trauma to actually be about emotional trauma. But any list of pop music’s emotional wrecks would have to include some bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Skip James, John Lee Hoooker, Blind Willie Johnson. Perhaps it would also hold a smattering of 60s-70s rockers like Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, and and a surprising number of contemporary musicians: Bjork, Radiohead, Nick Cave and no doubt some others I’m forgetting. Is it probable that there is something about a generation of self-absorbed upper-middle-class narcissistic nihlists (present company included) that lends itself well to emotional darkness?

(Sibelius's exceptionally bleak 1st symphony)

But allow me to suggest that the patron saint of music’s dark side is Sibelius. Sibelius is hardly a composer of uniformly dark music. But in his darkest moments, there has never been a composer who saw a more crippling spiritual neither-region, and no composer who flinched less from confronting it. When we talk about what catharsis means, there is no better exemplifier of it than Sibelius’s music. The sheer bleakness of his vision is overwhelming, and from it there is no relief. We emerge from the experience purged and invigorated because nothing in our own lives can compare to the utter pitch of what we’ve just heard.

Is it all a bit much perhaps? Well, yes, at least sometimes. In Sibelius’s gloomiest pieces, there is nothing to stand in relief. When critics talk about the ‘Nordic Blues’ which you find in Ibsen and Bergman and Edvard Munch, it’s as much Sibelius to whom people apply that term. No one can stand to look into the abyss for that long without the abyss pulling him in.

(The Violin Concerto)

Sibelius’s career was like a gradual process of purging until all that remained were the most distilled elements of his music-making. For all the grandiloquence, there is no excess to his middle-period music - hardly a single note that cannot be justified. In his earlier work, he was very much of the ‘more is more’ school. He was a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, influenced by the musical he heard in 1890’s Vienna where he studied. All the way to the end of his career, you can find traces of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Brahms and Liszt ad nauseum. But as his career progresses, he undergoes one of the strangest metamorphoses in music.

The young Sibelius became a symbol for Finland. This depressed alcoholic womanizer was universally hailed as the greatest artist Finland ever produced by the time he was thirty. By the time he was forty, his music was the soundtrack to a revolution in his homeland. By the time he was fifty, the revolution had succeeded and Sibelius was its cultural ambassador. For his part, Sibelius was rewarded with what nearly every artist dreams: the Finnish government granted him an enormous annual pension, and he got himself an enormous house and bigger estate in the country with a lakefront view - a place where he could work in peace. This estate, which Sibelius named Ainola after his wife Aino, was to be his home from 1904 until his death in 1957 at the age of 92.

(Has there ever been a darker opening than Sibelius 4?)

But if the Young Sibelius’s music resounds with the darkness of an extroverted, angry young man, his music turned into something far darker as he aged. Middle-period Sibelius was no longer a man about town. He was a member of the landed gentry - living on his estate with only his family and nature itself for company. Sibelius’s music was always grounded in nature, but never with the graphic detail of his middle period works. In every bar of middle-period Sibelius, we either seem to get the rustle of the wind, or the howls of thunder, or the calls of birds, or the business of insects or the utter stillness of the calm before the storm. Nature was his most reliable friend, and as he aged, his music seems more and more divorced from human emotion. By the time he turned sixty, all that is left in his music is the awe and terror of the natural world.

Every classical music lover knows the story of Mahler’s visit with Sibelius. When Mahler went on a conducting tour of Finland in 1907, he paid Sibelius a call. The two great symphonists of their generation went for a walk and discussed the meaning of the Symphony. In Sibelius’s words, what transpired was this:

“I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

What transpired was a debate about the meaning of music that began long before Mahler and Sibelius and continues long after their passing. Is music an inclusive activity or an exclusive one? Is form more important than content? Is greatness possible when errors like those in Mahler’s music (and many others) are so clear? Which of these attitudes ultimately does music a better service?

If either side really needs advocacy, both have it. But if one truly has to choose, let’s bare in mind one simple fact - Sibelius did not publish a single note of music for the last thirty years of his life. He ended his compositional career with three grand gestures.

(The Tempest. Perhaps Sibelius’s grand finale just as it was Shakespeare’s.)

The first was The Tempest. It wasn’t even an opera or a tone poem, it was music to accompany a stage play. But what music. For Shakespeare’s most outdoor play, Sibelius boiled down all those effects of nature to their pure essence. ‘Incidental music’ for old plays was a grand tradition for 19th century composers, and just as Mendelssohn inaugurated it with music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream - a light play about the folly of youth. Sibelius closed that chapter in music history with The Tempest, a heavy play about old age.

(The 7th Symphony)

In the middle of his final triptych stands The Seventh Symphony. In every one of Sibelius’s symphonies, he pulls out more elements of the symphony’s padding. In the 7th, he takes out the final element - the padding between the movements. The symphony is one movement that is not quite a half-hour long. Instead, we have the typical four movement scheme - a heavy opening movement, followed by a scherzo (literally ‘a joke’, meaning light relief), a slow movement and a grand finale. All growing with organic unity out of one another and without a pause. How can a grand symphony get any more condensed than this?


And finally, he gives us the twenty-minute tone poem Tapiola. This music is Sibelius’s depiction of Tapio, the Nordic Forest spirit. Merely by listening to it, we peer unflinchingly into music’s deepest abyss. All the sounds of nature are to be heard in this music. But no human expression is to be found in its pages. This is entirely the music of an otherworldly expression, neither human nor divine. I forget where I heard this quote, but someone once said that Tapiola is not about the experience of being in the forest, it is about the experience of being the forest itself. Sibelius has achieved such a zen-like stasis in this music that there no longer seems to be a need for human expression. There is only a feeling of a very bleak sort of transcendence. Nature was there long before us, and will continue on long after we are gone.


After Tapiola, there is no way to condense music further into its essential elements. Once you’ve wrestled the ultimate demon, there are no demons left. For fifteen years after Tapiola, Sibelius struggled to write new music. Yet the music never came to him. Always having been a depressive, Sibelius’s mood was never darker than in the early 1940’s. The world had waited so long for a new work that they’d moved on. The music world which once worshipped him now worshipped musical modernists like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Sibelius refused to use his influence to help Jewish friends, and was (wrongly) thought of by many as a Nazi collaborator.

(Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. A very different kind of condensation.)

For ten years, Sibelius had worked on an eighth symphony, but he let the world know that no one would ever see it if he did not judge better than his seventh. After more than ten years of working on an eighth symphony, he gave up on composition in spectacular fashion. His wife Aino would later recall:

"In the 1940s there was a great auto-da-fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood."

Whereas Mahler had gone to his all-too-early grave continuing his never-ending search to assimilate new music and new facets to human nature, Sibelius had distilled music down to such an essence that no music remained for Sibelius to write in his old age. For all the longeurs and errors in his music, Mahler is easily the greater composer. Late-period Sibelius is nothing but silence.

(The finale of Mahler’s Symphony no. 10 - the last thing he ever wrote. Based on his experience of watching the funeral of an American fireman in New York)

In the 1920’s and 30’s, Sibelius was considered the world’s greatest living composer. For composers, particularly in England, who still looked to 19th century models for inspiration like William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sibelius was the great musical voice of the age. But when atonality spread its wings, Sibelius was considered a relic of a decadent era which had lost its musical standards. Twelve-tone music’s Parisian guru, Rene Leibowitz, referred to Sibelius as “the worst composer in the world.” Atonal music’s philosopher in chief, Theador Adorno, pronounced “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of interconnectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the ‘multi-faceted’ in ‘the one.’ It was a statement that was dumb even by Adorno’s lofty standard - no composer since Bach had ever written more richly interconnected, unified music than Sibelius.

(William Walton’s First Symphony, which might as well be Sibelius’s 8th)

The music of Sibelius became so distended that it could only trail off into silence. Having been boxed into an isolation which only great success could provide, he was cut off from the wellspring of new ideas and was forced to create his own language. He was so successful in that regard that some musicians say he sounds like Mahler, some say that he sounds like Debussy. Some are beginning to wonder if Mahler and Debussy sound like Sibelius.

Whereas most 20th century composers thought of Sibelius as a weird 19th-century anachronism, the 21st century seems to have embraced him to a point that he might again be the most celebrated composer of his generation. His music is still played constantly around the world, and composers from Thomas Ades to John Adams to Nico Muhly hail him as a spiritual godfather. Has any composer, Mahler included, undergone such a roller-coaster of public esteem?

(Einojuhani Rautavaara. Still composing in his mid-80’s. The closest thing to a successor Sibelius ever annointed)

Perhaps the explanation for how this happened is easier than it seems. In our day, when music education is the first program to be cut from schools around the world and classical music has barely a sliver of presence on the world music scene, it is Finland which churns out the army of great classical musicians that should come from America - great composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists seem to emerge by the dozen every decade.

(L’Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho. The most critically lauded opera of the past decade.)

Whereas most other countries have dozens of great cultural figures who appear as giants in cultural history, Finland has only a few ancient epics and one great composer. Classical music is the only place where Finland has made a world-defining cultural mark. Sibelius’s music is the glory of Finnish culture and the ambassador for the country. Were Finland to disappear tomorrow, the world would still remember the unprecedented spiritual darkness of Sibelius.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sanderling in Action

The last movement of Shostakovich 6 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Masterly.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

For Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011)

(Shostakovich's 10th Symphony)

He was the last remnant of the generations of conductors for whom classical music was music itself. He was a Jew who survived Hitler and a German who survived Stalin. He was Shostakovich's closest friend among conductors and offered a warmer interpretation of Shostakovich's music than the chilly shocks of Mravinsky.

(Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Dunno why it's accompanying this video...)

From the time he was thirty years old, he was the co-conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic with Yevgeny Mravinsky. The arrangement lasted for eighteen years, until the Soviets ordered him to East Berlin to lead the Berlin Symphony - designed to be the Communist answer to the Berlin Philharmonic. Sanderling was much beloved wherever he lead orchestras and was named conductor emeritus of both the Madrid Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London.

(The Berlin Symphony led by Sanderling. Playing the opening of Sibelius's 4th Symphony)

When he was 90 years old, Sanderling shocked the world by doing something hardly any other conductor had ever done: he retired. Not that he needed to, Sanderling was still doing fabulous work. But it was particularly shocking because Kurt Sanderling was the last giant in a generation of conductors that had all too many giants. But perhaps all people needed to understand his decision was there in his music-making.

(The Final movement of Mahler's 10th - beginning. Sanderling was perhaps the most important early champion of this unfinished work.)

He did not conduct with the outsize interpretive personality of a Bernstein or Celibidache. Sanderling's music-making was every bit as personally involved as theirs, but he never seemed to impose it. If you could tell that a performance was Sanderling's, it was because of their complete faith in patience. The tempos were always relaxed, the sound was always warm, yet you still found yourself utterly absorbed by the drama.

(Slow Beethoven with Klemperer's Philharmonia...)

Like his hero, Otto Klemperer, Sanderling was in no hurry. He had an emphatically 19th century view of structure, giving huge works by Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich all the time they needed and more to unfurl and absorbing the listener totally. What might seem boring at minute 5 seems utterly mesmerizing by minute 50.

(Der Abschied from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde)

There are some musicians who simply view music in grand terms, taking the grandest, most weighty possible approach even when it's not completely warranted. Sanderling was a musician who leant himself well to music on a gigantic scale. For composers who aimed for the epic scale like Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich, it was a perfect approach (what might a Sanderling Ring Cycle have sounded like?). For composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius, whose tendencies leaned toward something slightly more intimate, Sanderling blew them up to his grand scale. It wasn't always right, but it was always interesting.

(Just in case people thought Sanderling was all darkness and ultraseverity...)