Monday, June 30, 2003

[6/30/2011] Perelman Tonight: "Move over, Asia" -- Part 5 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


The S.S. President Cleveland: the largest single object
our children had ever been called upon to take apart
"Throughout the next few weeks, until it deposited us on an alien shore to become targets for malaria, dysentery, Singapore foot, bilharzia, frambesia, sprue, Delhi boils, tropical ulcers, monkey pox, dengue fever, predatory shopkeepers, and Heimweh, this gleaming gray leviathan would be home."
-- from the conclusion of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"

The Swiss Family Perelman

Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 3 of 3

Reports had latterly been seeping across the snows of the Great Continental Divide that as a result of extensive legislative snooping, the film colony was racked by fear and espionage and that nobody dared express his political convictions. In the MGM commissary at least, one saw no hint of it. True, the chair I sat in had a dictaphone concealed under it and a man at the next table took down everything we said in shorthand, but all about us people spoke their minds in forthright fashion, seemingly oblivious of consequences. The names of Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, and Samuel Gompers were bandied about on every lip, and one hothead, a partisan of Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider, even undertook to applaud the latter's dictum of "Bust the Trusts." Midway in his panegyric, he suddenly became aware of Adam listening to him with open-mouthed interest.

"Who -- who's that?" he quavered, springing to his feet and upsetting his yoghurt. I assured him it was only my son, but he was clearly unmanned. "He looks like an FBI agent to me," he muttered, sponging his forehead with a Q-tip. "Jeez, don't let this get any further. If Darryl or L.B. ever heard it, I'm out on my can."

The social life of the industry, into which we threw ourselves with the abandon of a couple of juniors home for the holidays from Miss Walker's School, had changed little in two years. It still consisted of an endless round of buffets full of people one had met the previous evening, all of them exactly one day older. Dinner-party conversation in a manufacturing center like Lowell, Nashua, or Wilmington usually deals with shoes, blankets, or smokeless powder, relieved with gossip about the foreman of the bleaching room niggling up to the stockroom babes. In Beverly Hills it dealt with previews, credits, and the boudoir escapades of any couple who had failed to attend that evening. Necks were engorged with blood and passions fanned to white heat as our screenwriter friends wrangled over their precise mathematical contributions to various current movies. "I did seventeen and one-fifth per cent of the original story idea of Wizened!" they shouted, "and thirty-two and five-sixteenths per cent of the additional dialogue of He Shot Her Bolt! Come on outside, you bastard!" Our impending voyage to the East was regarded with overwhelming envy. By turns each of the guests confessed to us that he would love to travel but the premiums on his annuities kept him in want. At the end of the meal, the ladies retired to their hostess's bedroom to compare handbags and hysterectomies, and the gentlemen, lighting cheroots, drank bumpers of Madeira to the Wunderkind of the week, typified at that point by Dore Schary. It was a piquant mixture of the Main Line, the Mermaid Tavern, and any lesser French penal colony like New Caledonia; and when, on the ninth day, we awoke with the characteristic roar in the antrums which betokens a surfeit of unreality, I knew it was time to load the felt yurts on the shaggy ponies and graze on.

Excitement was rife in the waiting room of the Los Angeles municipal airport as we straggled in. A mechanism similar to a jukebox, called the Insurograph and vending life insurance policies up to $25,000 at a quarter a throw, had recently been installed. Around it milled a dozen prospective air passengers, faces fever-flushed and chattering like ticket-holders at the Irish Sweepstakes. My attempt to curl up in a quiet corner with Peekaboo, a journal of the haute poitrine filled with angle shots of Dusty Anderson, came to naught; dragging me by the coattails, the children besought me to try my luck. Judging from the legend on the face of the Insurograph, "If good coin has been rejected, reinsert," parties unknown had already attempted to beat the machine. I fished a slug out of my change-purse and followed suit, but without success. After protracted bickering as to which portion of whom needed coverage most, I compromised by insuring my wallet, naming the Stuyvesant Cat Hospital beneficiary. Unfortunately for the grimalkins, who might today be rolling in salmon, our plane arrived in San Francisco in apple-pie order -- a demonstration at once of the folly of gambling and of removing one's eyes for even an instant from Dusty Anderson.

In the monstrous clangor of the embarkation shed, jostled by porters trundling baggage trucks and deafened by the crash of cargo slings, we stared mutely at the President Cleveland towering above us. Throughout the next few weeks, until it deposited us on an alien shore to become targets for malaria, dysentery, Singapore foot, bilharzia, frambesia, sprue, Delhi boils, tropical ulcers, monkey pox, dengue fever, predatory shopkeepers, and Heimweh, this gleaming gray leviathan would be home. For the children it was a challenge, the largest single object they had ever been called upon to take apart. To my wife, it was the opportunity she had been thirsting for, a chance to unpack her effects and scramble them so they could never be repacked. To me it was a peaceful haven between worlds, beyond the jangle of the telephone, where I could tot up the bills I owed and worry myself into neurasthenia.

"Well, folks," I said in what began as a portentous baritone and ended as a falsetto trill. "Les jeux sont faits. Cast off."

"What's the matter?" my wife queried, with that devilish intuition her sex betrays on the most infelicitous occasions. "Getting cold feet?"

"Listen, you," I said, my eyes as pitiless as flint. "Once I set my hand to the plow ----" Exactly what dread events transpired when I did so, she never found out, for the rest of the sentence was blasted into eternity by the bellow of the ship's siren. My wife sighed deeply, shook her head, and trudged after me up the gangplank.

"Move over, Asia," she said compassionately. "Poor old continent. You don't know what's coming at you."

* * *



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Sunday, June 29, 2003

[6/29/2011] Perelman Tonight: Hooray for Hollywood -- Part 4 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


"Winging over the Tehachapi Range, I prepared myself for the psychological climate of Los Angeles with a cursory inspection of its newspapers. It was reassuring to discover that the inmates assayed as high a percentage of helium as ever."
-- from tonight's installment of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"

The Swiss Family Perelman

Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 2 of 3

With the Western Pacific, at Salt Lake, the picture altered for the better. Personnel and equipment were no longer medieval, and it was agreeable again to be treated as a traveler instead of a deportee. The Vista Dome car used on this system, incidentally, was a fairly unique experience. As one lolled in its rooftop observation blister, vacuously listening to Muzak recordings of Amy Woodford Finden in the intense sunlight, the effect was indistinguishable from a California cultist funeral. On the occasion I did so, I was privileged to overhear an elderly couple, who obviously had just met, absorbedly discussing their internal functions. "I always keep regular with psyllium seed," she was saying. "It gives you the bland bulk without any of the harsh abrasives." "Ye-e-es, that's so," the old gentleman conceded magnanimously, "but for day-in, day-out performance, for real dependability, I like syrup of figs, with a good alophen tablet in case of blockage." How fundamental, so to speak, and how real, I reflected, as we whizzed along the glorious Feather River Route at a mile a minute. Here were two kinsprits, all passion spent, meeting at last on a plane of perfect understanding. Overcome with emotion, I swayed blindly downstairs to the club car for a fast aperient.

No band of Polish immigrants setting foot in the New World could have displayed quite so creamy a mélange of sullenness, martyrdom, and disillusion as my little troupe that winter morning aboard the Oakland ferry. Shivering in an icy rain amid our myriad traps, the ranee and the lambkins glowered at San Francisco and filed a long, sorrowful beef. "He said there were gonna be coconuts," ran the chant. "I wanna ride in a rickshaw. I feel like a frump in these clothes. I wanna ride in a pagoda. I wanna see a fight between a cobra. You deliberately made me buy all the wrong clothes so I'd look ridiculous. I wanna mango -- he said there were gonna be mangoes. I wanna coke. I wanna hamburger. I wanna see Alcatraz."

"You'll see it soon enough," I promised, grinding my teeth to keep them warm. "Now look, where did you put those baggage checks they gave me in New York?"

"Why, in your trunk," my wife replied loftily. "You said to put them in a safe place."

"I know, angel," I said, opening a flange in my skull to allow the steam to escape, "but don't you see, if the checks are inside, the treeple won't give us the punk -- I mean, the trunkle won't give us the peep ----"

"Loosen his collar," I heard a faraway voice saying. "Stand back there -- give him room!" The buzzing subsided and I found myself looking up into a circle of anxious faces. Within a half hour, thanks to my unusual restorative powers, I was coherent enough to intimate to my wife that since the trunks had been shipped directly to the S. S. President Cleveland, it would be difficult to gain access to them before leaving for Hollywood.

"Hollywood?" she demanded. "What do we have to go to Hollywood for? Is the ship sailing from there?" I slowly counted up to seventy-five to forestall a syncope and explained that inasmuch as the steamer was not scheduled to depart for Hong Kong for ten days, I thought the sprouts ought to get a hinge at the dream factory. Mollified by my assurances that she could spend money there as freely as in San Francisco, she grumbled assent and we made for the airport.

Winging over the Tehachapi Range, I prepared myself for the psychological climate of Los Angeles with a cursory inspection of its newspapers. It was reassuring to discover that the inmates assayed as high a percentage of helium as ever. The current suspect in the Black Dahlia case, a peccadillo which involved a lady of the evening being sawed into stove lengths, was described as studying to be a midget auto racer. An inventor in Palos Verdes had constructed a machine duplicating all the functions of the human brain. When not compounding interest or daydreaming about Billie Dove's shape, the mechanism lay by his fireside and purred like a cat. A group of taxpayers domiciled near a small training field in Burbank were up in arms. It appeared that the runway was adjacent to a disused cemetery and that when student pilots failed to become airborne fast enough, their planes plowed through the sepulchers, sending up a shower of knee-caps and femurs. Spurred on, no doubt, by the Southland's continual preoccupation with mortality, a local travel agency was advertising its facilities under the terse admonition, "See the World Before You Leave It."

Our entry into Los Angeles was fortuitously timed; the choking layer of smog which has earned the community the sobriquet of "The Pittsburgh of the West" was nowhere in evidence. However, the city was digging itself out of a snowfall that had attained a depth of three-quarters of an inch at some points, and emergency crews equipped with hot Sanka and soy-bean poultices were being rushed to the stricken area. Moving with its customary energy, the Chamber of Commerce issued a statement declaring the outrage to be Communist-inspired and posted a reward of ten thousand figs for the apprehension of the ringleaders. Nevertheless, it was not until Major Jack Warner had consulted a geomancer on Pico Boulevard and sacrificed three scenario writers to appease the elements that public confidence was finally restored.

As the parents of two passionate admirers of Lassie, the wonder collie, it was naturally our obligation to arrange a rendezvous with all possible speed. The meeting took place several days later on a sound stage at MGM, where the dog (who, parenthetically, is not a dog at all but a cunning simulacrum animated by two dwarf actors) was making a film about sheep-stealing in Scotland. Aquiver with anticipation, the children waited outside their idol's dressing room until he concluded a conference with his agent, business manager, and lawyer. At length the animal appeared, clad in smoking jacket and yellow Ascot muffler and puffing an imported shell briar. His manner, though cordial, was a whit abstracted; it was plain to see that he was dissatisfied with the script and felt that the writers had let him down. At a command from his handler, Lassie extended a languid, manicured paw to us all, wiped it fastidiously with a Kleenex, and strolled off. I inquired of the handler whether it was true as reported that his charge possessed almost human intelligence.

"He's the equal of any producer on this lot," he replied ambiguously. "Excuse me, but I have to go and see a dog about a man." On a near-by stage, a company was engaged in shooting Madame Bovary, Flaubert's classic, and we were permitted to watch Jennifer Jones acting the title role, an experience American moviegoers would be denied for many months to come. Appetites sharpened to the vanishing point, we now betook ourselves to the commissary, passing en route the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Building, which houses most of the studio's executives and creative sparkplugs. It was in this noble structure, familiarly known as "The Iron Lung," that the memsahib and I had languished throughout a good part of the Thirties, and as our step quickened, we caught again the infallible fetor of balderdash, fatuity, and self-abasement that rises when the mountain labors to bring forth a scenario.

TOMORROW NIGHT IN THE CONCLUSION OF "LOW BRIDGE -- EVERYBODY DOWN": "Move over, Asia" -- the flight back to San Francisco and, finally!, embarkation on the S.S. President Cleveland


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Saturday, June 28, 2003

[6/28/2011] Perelman Tonight: California or bust -- Part 3 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


Illustration by Al Hirschfeld
My movements, to be candid, were not aided
materially by a torrent of salted nuts and fruits.

"By Cedar Rapids, our quarters, while far from ideal, were in fairly adequate confusion. The seats were heaped with torn comic books, crossword puzzles, rubbers, playing cards, toothbrushes, and underclothes bulging from half-open satchels, and there was a mulch of luggage and food on the floor, pullulating with flies, that promised complete bedlam before Denver."
-- from tonight's installment of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"

The Swiss Family Perelman

Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 1 of 3

The engineer of the Admiral, crack flier of the Pennsylvania's New York-Chicago run, leaned out of the window of his cab, cast a practiced eye at the moonlit, rolling Indiana farmland speeding past, and withdrawing his head, addressed the conductor in a brogue that was an almost equal blend of John Jamieson and County Clare.

"Faix, and 'tis the exthraordinary request yiz is afther makin'," he observed, wiping his honest Hibernian countenance with a capacious red bandanna and abandoning his accent to make his dialogue less nerve-racking to the reader. "Am I to understand that you wish me to slow down abruptly so as to jolt the everlasting daylights out of the occupant of the upper berth in Room A, Car 138, a sorely tried paterfamilias tropic-bound as the result of a woman's relentless nagging, an aching desire to escape from the treadmill, and a callow romanticism pardonable in a stripling but preposterous in a short-winded neurotic of forty-five?"

"Precisely," the conductor nodded, consulting his, turnip. "If my calculations are correct, he has just finished his eleventh cigarette since retiring, verified his bank balance for the hundredth time, and is lapsing into a tortured doze. Give him the business." The engineer nodded. Three seconds later, the person they were discussing -- and now I make bold to drop the domino: it was indeed myself -- was catapulted violently upward in his bed. As my head caromed off the bed-lamp and struck the bridge of my daughter's 'cello, with which I was sharing the berth, the compartment was flooded with light and my wife's strained, anxious face came into view below.

"The Angostura!" she squealed. "Quick! It just fell into the sink!" No cardiac patient bereft of his digitalis could have packed quite as much anguish into so few syllables. Swinging from the berth with the grace of a kinkajou who has temporarily mislaid his eyeglasses, I seized a huck towel and neatly sopped up the precious lifegiving fluid, not forgetting to include several shards of glass. My movements, to be candid, were not aided materially by a torrent of salted nuts and fruit which chose this moment to cascade from a bon voyage basket overhead, nor by the presence underfoot of five suitcases, a foot-locker, two flight bags, a portable apparatus for condensing drinking water, and an incomplete file of the minutes of the Royal Geographical Society.

"There now," I said cheerfully, rubbing a few bacilli into my lacerated palms to insure gangrene and shrewdly scanning the graying horizon. "We ought to be in Chicago before long. What do you say to a steaming dish of farina and some grilled kidneys?" My companion told me without hesitation what she would say, and lulled by the staccato rhythm of the square wheel directly beneath our heads, we sank into a refreshing slumber. Our eyelids had scarcely granulated before the unmistakable sound of children belaboring each other filtered through the door of the adjoining compartment. Four or five strokes of the cat, administered so as to stimulate circulation without actually breaching the skin, put the young into a more docile humor, and soon our foursome was seated in the diner. While waiting for coffee, the preparation of which consumed no more time than the reconstruction of the Portland Vase, I familiarized the fledglings with the locale outside, explaining the operation of the stockyards, the grain elevators, and the complex railways that make Chicago a hub. Luckily both youngsters were at that impressionable age -- twelve and ten respectively -- when childish curiosity knows no bounds. Eyes round as saucers, they gave vent to repeated exclamations of wonder.

"Jiminy crickets!" breathed Adam in an awestruck voice. "Listen to the old gephompheter behind me work his false choppers!" The old gephompheter, a dropsical burgess patently on his way to Battle Creek for the waters, turned and favored him with a glance that was pure corrosive sublimate, but the lad refused to quail. "Hiya, fat stuff," he said easily. At that juncture, I realized with a start that I had neglected to wear my trousers into the diner, an oversight which afforded a good excuse to retire and take the boy with me. It is interesting to note that to this day, a full year and a half later, one of his earlobes is still over a centimeter longer than the other.

The Chicago stopover was brief, merely sufficient to heat the drinking water and sprinkle grit on the towels, but it enabled me to dash out and procure some Danish pastry, bananas, and popcorn. Frankly, I had become a trifle disturbed at the paucity of flies in our compartment; the careless shrug I received from the Pullman conductor when I complained convinced me I would have to remedy the situation myself. Although the cheese buns were not as sticky as I would have liked and the bananas were hardly overripe, we managed to make do. By Cedar Rapids, our quarters, while far from ideal, were in fairly adequate confusion. The seats were heaped with torn comic books, crossword puzzles, rubbers, playing cards, toothbrushes, and underclothes bulging from half-open satchels, and there was a mulch of luggage and food on the floor, pullulating with flies, that promised complete bedlam before Denver.

Of the dozen-odd transcontinental trips I have made in the past decade, the present was unquestionably the most circuitous. As nearly as I could ascertain, we reached San Francisco less by steering a westerly course than by closing in on it in decreasing circles. Every few hundred miles, our car was shunted onto a siding and attached to a railroad whose dining cars were even more unspeakable than the last. High in the list were the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Denver, Rio Grande & Western; by exercising constant vigilance, their maîtres d'hôtel and waiters achieved a degree of insolence and incompetence unmatched outside Egypt. If no railroad was available at the moment, our sleeper was hooked to trolley cars, stagecoaches, wagon trains, pantechnicons, manure spreaders -- anything that happened to be rolling in the general direction of the Bay City.

TOMORROW NIGHT IN PART 2 OF "LOW BRIDGE -- EVERYBODY DOWN": The arrival in Oakland, and then the arrival in Los Angeles


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Friday, June 27, 2003

[6/27/2011] Perelman Tonight: San Francisco-bound -- Part 2 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


They promptly contrived effigies of their parents.

[The illlustrations, of course, are by the great Al Hirschfeld,
and you can click on them to enlarge them.]

"Abby, whose geography at ten was still fairly embryonic, remained tractable until she discovered that Siam was not an annex of Macy's. She thereupon spread-eagled herself on the parquet and howled like a muezzin, her face tinted a terrifying blue."
-- from tonight's installment of "Rancors Aweigh"

The Swiss Family Perelman

1. Rancors Aweigh
Part 2 of 2

Had the ex-Vicereine of India attended the Durbar in a G-string, it would have occasioned less tittle-tattle than the casual revelation to our circle that we were breaking camp to migrate to the Land of the White Elephant. "She dassen't show her face at the Colony," the tongues clacked. "They say he smokes two catties of yen shee gow before breakfast. In Reno Veritas.' Rumors flew thick and fast. They ranged from sniggered allusions to the bar sinister to reports that we were actually bound for the leper colony at Molokai, the majority opinion holding that we were lammisters from the FBI. The more charitable among our friends took it upon themselves to scotch these old wives' tales. "He's merely had a nervous breakdown," they said loyally. "You can tell by the way he drums his fingers when she's talking." Our children, they added, were not real albinos, nor was it true I had been made contact man for a white slave ring in Saigon. I was much too yellow.

The reaction of the bairns was equally heart-warming. When the flash came that they were shortly transplanting to the Orient, they received it impassively. Adam, a sturdy lad of twelve, retired to his den, barricaded the door with a bureau, and hid under the bed with Flents in his ears in readiness for head-hunters. His sister Abby, whose geography at ten was still fairly embryonic, remained tractable until she discovered that Siam was not an annex of Macy's. She thereupon spread-eagled herself on the parquet and howled like a muezzin, her face tinted a terrifying blue. Toward evening the keening subsided and both were cajoled into taking a little nourishment through a tube. On discussing the matter tranquilly, I was gratified to find they had been laboring under a misapprehension. They had supposed we were going to discontinue their arithmetic and spelling, a situation they regarded as worse than death. When I convinced them that, on the contrary, they might do five hours of homework daily even en route, their jubilation was unbounded. They promptly contrived wax effigies of their parents and, puncturing them with pins, intoned a rubric in which the phrase "hole in the head" recurred from time to time.

Ignoring the tradesmen who, under the curious delusion that we were about to shoot the moon, crowded in to collect their accounts, we fell to work assembling the gear necessary for an extended stay out East. Perhaps my most difficult task was to dissuade the mem-sahib from taking along her eighty-six-piece Royal Doulton dinner service. I tried to explain that we would probably crouch on our hams in the dust and gnaw dried fish wrapped in a pandanus leaf, but you can sooner tame the typhoon than sway the bourgeois mentality. Within a week, our flat was waist-high in potato graters, pressure cookers, pop-up toasters, and poultry shears; to the whine of saws and clang of hammers, crews of carpenters boxed everything in sight, including the toilet, for shipment overseas. My wife's cronies, lured by the excitement like bears to wild honey, clustered about loading her with dress patterns, recipes for chowchow, and commissions for Shantung and rubies, while children scrambled about underfoot flourishing marlinspikes and igniting shipwreck flares. Through the press circulated my insurance broker, who had taken the bit in his teeth and was excitedly underwriting everyone against barratry and heartburn. Doctors bearing Martinis in one hand and hypodermics in the other immunized people at will; a cauldron of noodles steamed in a corner and an enterprising Chinese barber worked apace shaving heads. The confusion was unnerving. You would have sworn some nomad tribe like the Torguts was on the move.

A lifelong gift of retaining my aplomb under stress, nevertheless, aided me to function smoothly and efficiently. Cucumber-cool and rocket-swift, canny as Sir Basil Zaharoff, I set about leasing our farm in the Delaware Valley and our New York apartment. The problem of securing responsible tenants was a thorny one, but I met it brilliantly. The farm, naturally, was the easier to dispose of, there being a perennial demand for dank stone houses, well screened by poison sumac, moldering on an outcropping of red shale. Various inducements were forthcoming; ultimately, by paying a friend six hundred dollars and threatening to expose his extramarital capers, I gained his grudging consent to visit it occasionally. Disposing of our scatter in town, though, was rather more complex. The renting agents I consulted were blunt. The rooms were too large and sunny, they warned me; sublessees were not minded to run the risk of snow blindness. Washington Square, moreover, was deficient in traffic noise and monoxide, and in any event, the housing shortage had evaporated twelve minutes before. Of course, they would try, but it was a pity our place wasn't a warehouse. Everybody wanted warehouses.

The first prospects to appear were two rigidly corseted and excessively genteel beldames in caracul who tiptoed through the stash as gingerly as though it were a Raines Law hotel. It developed that they were scouts for a celebrated Hungarian pianist named Larczny, and their annoyance on learning that we owned no concert grand was marked. I observed amiably that inasmuch as Larczny had begun his career playing for throw money at Madame Rosebud's on Bienville Street, he might feel at home with the beer rings on our Minipiano. The door had hardly slammed shut before it was reopened by a quartet of behemoths from Georgia Tech. Wiping the residue of pot-likker from his chin with his sleeve, their spokesman offered to engage the premises as a bachelor apartment. The deal bogged down when I refused to furnish iron spiders for their fatback and worm gears for their still.

Interest the next couple of days was sporadic. A furtive gentleman, who kept the collar of his Chesterfield turned up during the interview, was definitely beguiled, but did not feel our floor would sustain the weight of a flat-bed press. He evidently ran some sort of small engraving business, cigar-store coupons as I understood it. Our hopes rose when Sir Hamish Sphincter, chief of the British delegation to United Nations, cabled from the Queen Elizabeth earmarking the rooms for his stay. Unfortunately, on arriving to inspect our digs, the baronet and his lady found them in a somewhat disordered state. Our janitor, in a hailstorm of plaster, was just demolishing the bathroom wall to get at a plumbing stoppage. By the time he dredged up the multiplication tables the children had cached there, Sir Hamish was bowling toward the Waldorf. We never actually met the person who rented the flat after our departure, but his manners were described as exquisite and his faro bank, until the law knocked it over, was said to be unrivaled in downtown Manhattan. I still wear on my watch-chain a .38 slug which creased the mantelpiece and one of his patrons, though not in the order named.

* * *

I marshaled our brave little band for the take-off.

Dusk was settling down on Washington Square that early January afternoon and a chill wind soughed through the leafless trees as I marshaled our brave little band for the take-off. Trench-coated and Burberryed, festooned with binoculars, Rolleiflexes, sextants, hygrometers, and instruments for sounding the ocean floor, we were a formidable sight. The adults, their nerves honed to razor sharpness by weeks of barbital and bourbon, were as volatile as nitroglycerine; the slightest opposition flung them into apocalyptic rages followed by floods of tears. Without having covered a single parasang, the children had already accumulated more verdigris and grime than if they had traversed Cambodia on foot. The bandage on Adam's hand acquired in a last-minute chemistry experiment had unwound, but he was dexterously managing to engorge popcorn, read a comic, and maneuver an eel-spear at the same time. Abby, bent double under her three-quarter-size 'cello, snuffled as her current beau, a hatchet-faced sneak of eleven, pledged eternal fealty. Heaped by the curb were fourteen pieces of baggage exclusive of trunks; in the background, like figures in an antique frieze, stood the janitor, the handyman, and the elevator operators, their palms mutely extended. I could see that they were too choked with emotion to speak, these men who I know not at what cost to themselves had labored to withhold steam from us and jam our dumbwaiters with refuse. Finally one grizzled veteran, bolder than his fellows, stepped forward with an obsequious tug at his forelock.

"We won't forget this day, sir," the honest chap said, twisting his cap in his gnarled hands. "Will we, mates?" A low growl of assent ran round the circle. "Many's the time we've carried you through that lobby and a reek of juniper off you a man could smell five miles down wind. We've seen some strange sights in this house and we've handled some spectacular creeps; it's a kind of a microcosm like, you might say. But we want you to know that never, not even in the nitrate fields of Chile, the smelters of Nevada, or the sweat shops of the teeming East Side, has there been a man ----" His voice broke and I stopped him gently.

"Friends," I said huskily, "I'm not rich in worldly goods, but let me say this -- what little I have is mine. If you ever need anything, whether jewels, money, or negotiable securities, remember these words: you're barking up the wrong tree. Geronimo."

Their cheers were still ringing in my ears twenty minutes later as our cab swerved down the ramp into Pennsylvania Station. Against the hushed cacophony of the Map Room, I began to hear another and more exotic theme, the tinkle of gamelans and the mounting whine of the anopheles mosquito. The overture was ending. The first movement, molto con citronella, had begun.

TOMORROW IN PART 3 OF THE SWISS FAMILY PERELMAN: As we begin Chapter 2, "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down," the family makes it out of New York


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Thursday, June 26, 2003

[6/26/2011] Perelman Tonight: Launching yet another journey, "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


"Huddled in a blanket, a solitary passenger sprawled in his deck-chair, pondering between spasmodic intakes of breath the tangled web of circumstance that had enmeshed him."
-- aboard the S. S. President Cleveland,
westbound out of San Francisco

I gave way to racking sobs. And then, when my defenses were down and I was at my most vulnerable, the woman threw off the veneer of civilization and struck like a puff adder.

"O.K.," she said briskly. "Let's go."

"Go?" I repeated stupidly. "Go where?"

-- from tonight's installment of "Rancors Aweigh"

The Swiss Family Perelman

1. Rancors Aweigh
Part 1

Seven hundred tons of icy green water curled off the crest of the California ground swell and struck with malignant fury at the starboard plates of the S. S. President Cleveland, westbound out of San Francisco for Honolulu, Manila, and Hong Kong. Midway along its deserted promenade, huddled in a blanket, a solitary passenger sprawled in his deck-chair, pondering between spasmodic intakes of breath the tangled web of circumstance that had enmeshed him. To even the most cursory eye -- and there was no shortage of cursory eyes among the stewards hurrying past -- it was instantly apparent that the man was exceptional, a rara avis. Under a brow purer than that of Michelangelo's David, capped by a handful of sparse and greasy hairs, brooded a pair of fiery orbs, glittering like zircons behind ten-cent-store spectacles. His superbly chiseled lips, ordinarily compressed in a grim line that bespoke indomitable will, at the moment hung open flaccidly, revealing row on row of pearly white teeth and a slim, patrician tongue. In the angle of the obdurate outthrust jaw, buckwheat-flecked from the morning meal, one read quenchless resolve, a nature scornful of compromise and dedicated to squeezing the last nickel out of any enterprise. The body of a Greek god, each powerful muscle the servant of his veriest whim, rippled beneath the blanket, stubbornly disputing every roll of the ship. And yet this man, who by sheer poise and magnetism had surmounted the handicap of almost ethereal beauty and whose name, whispered in any chancellery in Europe, was a talisman from Thread-needle Street to the Shanghai Bund, was prey to acute misery. What grotesque tale lurked behind that penetrable mask? What dark forces had moved to speed him on his desperate journey, what scarlet thread in Destiny's twisted skein?

It was a story of betrayal, of a woman's perfidy beside which the recidivism of Guy Fawkes, Major André, and the infamous Murrel paled to child's play. That the woman should have been my own wife was harrowing enough. More bitter than aloes, however, was the knowledge that as I lay supine in my deck-chair, gasping out my life, the traitress herself sat complacently fifty feet below in the dining saloon, bolting the table d'hôte luncheon and lampooning me to my own children. Her brazen effrontery, her heartless rejection of one who for twenty years had worshiped her this side of idolatry and consecrated himself to indulging her merest caprice, sent a shudder through my frame. Coarse peasant whom I had rescued from a Ukrainian wheat-field, equipped with shoes, and ennobled with my name, she had rewarded me with the Judas kiss. Reviewing for the hundredth time the horrid events leading up to my imbroglio, I scourged myself with her duplicity and groaned aloud.

The actual sell-out had taken place one autumn evening three months before in New York. Weary of pub-crawling and eager to recapture the zest of courtship, we had stayed home to leaf over our library of bills, many of them first editions. As always, it was chock-full of delicious surprises: overdrafts, modistes' and milliners' statements my cosset had concealed from me, charge accounts unpaid since the Crusades. If I felt any vexation, however, I was far too cunning to admit it. Instead, I turned my pockets inside out to feign insolvency, smote my forehead distractedly in the tradition of the Yiddish theater, and quoted terse abstracts from the bankruptcy laws. But fiendish feminine intuition was not slow to divine my true feelings. Just as I had uncovered a bill from Hattie Carnegie for a brocaded bungalow apron and was brandishing it under her nose, my wife suddenly turned pettish.

"Sixteen dollars!" I was screaming. "Gold lamé you need yet! Who do you think you are, Catherine of Aragon? Why don't you rip up the foyer and pave it in malachite?" With a single dramatic gesture, I rent open my shirt. "Go ahead!" I shouted. "Milk me -- drain me dry! Marshalsea prison! A pauper's grave!"

"Ease off before you perforate your ulcer," she enjoined. "You're waking up the children."

"You think sixteen dollars grows on trees?" I pleaded, seeking to arouse in her some elementary sense of shame. "Corpo di Bacco, for sixteen dollars a family like ours could live in Siam a whole year! With nine servants to boot!"

"And you're the boy who could boot 'em," my wife agreed. "Listen, ever since you and that other pool room loafer Hirschfeld got back from your trip around the world last year, all I've heard is Siam, morning, noon, and night. Lover, let us not dissemble longer. Je m'en fiche de Siam."

"Oh, is that so?" I roared. "Well, I wish I were back there this minute! Those gentle, courteous people, those age-old temples, those placid winding canals overhung with acacia ----" Overhung with nostalgia and a little cordial I had taken to ward off a chill, I gave way to racking sobs. And then, when my defenses were down and I was at my most vulnerable, the woman threw off the veneer of civilization and struck like a puff adder.

"O.K.," she said briskly. "Let's go."

"Go?" I repeated stupidly. "Go where?"

"To Siam, of course," she returned. "Where'd you think I meant -- Norumbega Park?" For a full fifteen seconds I stared at her, unable to encompass such treachery.

"Are you crazy?" I demanded, trembling. "How would I make a living there? What would we eat?"

"Those mangosteens and papayas you're always prating about," she replied. "If the breadfruit gives out, you're still spry enough to chop cotton."

"B-but the kiddies!" I whimpered, seeking to arouse her maternal sense. "What about their schooling -- their clay and rhythms? Who'll teach them to blow glass and stain those repugnant tie-racks, all the basic techniques they need to grow up into decent, useful citizens?"

"I'll buy a book on it," she said carelessly.

"Yes, do," I urged, "and while you're at it, buy one on the snakes and lizards of Southeast Asia. Geckos under your pillow, cobras in the bathtub -- not that there are any bathtubs -- termites, ants, scorpions."

"You'll cope with them," she asserted. "You did all right with that viper on Martha's Vineyard last summer. The one in the electric-blue swim-suit and the pancake make-up."

"I see no reason to drag personalities into this," I thundered. Deftly changing the subject, I explained as patiently as I could that Siam was a vast malarial marsh, oppressively hot and crowded with underprivileged folk scratching out a submarginal existence.

"You and I would stifle there, darling," I went on. "It's a cultural Sahara. No theaters, no art shows, no symphony concerts ----"

"By the way," she observed irrelevantly (women can never absorb generalities), "how was that symphony you attended Tuesday at the Copa? You were seen with another music-lover, a lynx-eyed mannequin in black sequins featuring a Lillian Russell balcony."

"I brand that as a lie," I said quietly, turning my back to remove a baseball constricting my larynx. "A dastardly, barefaced lie."

"Possibly," she shrugged. "We'll know better when the Wideawake Agency develops the negative. In any case, Buster, your next mail address is Bangkok." In vain to instance the strife and rebellion sweeping Asia, the plagues and political upheaval; with the literal-mindedness of her sex, the stubborn creature kept casting up some overwrought declaration I had made to the effect that there was not a subway or a psychoanalyst north of Singapore.

"No," I said savagely, "nor a pediatrician, an orthodontist, or a can of puréed spinach in a thousand miles."

"That's what I've been dreaming of," she murmured. "Keep talking. The more you say, the lovelier it sounds." At last, spars shot away and my guns silenced, I prepared to dip my ensign, but not without one final rapier thrust.

"Well, you've made your bed," I said cruelly. "I wash my hands. Bye-bye Martinis." The blow told; I saw her blanch and lunged home. "There's not a drop of French vermouth between San Francisco and Saint Tropez." For an instant, as she strove with the animal in her, my fate hung in the balance. Then, squaring her shoulders, her magnificent eyes blazing defiance, she flung the shaker into the grate, smashing it to smithereens.

"Anything you can do, I can do better," she said in a voice that rang like metal. "Fetch up the seven-league boots. Thailand, here I come."

TOMORROW NIGHT IN PART 2 OF "RANCORS AWEIGH": Reaction to the family's startling decision, and the travelers prepare for departure


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[6/26/2011] Schubert's Octet may stretch our endurance but also stretches our delights (continued)


If you're listening in stereo, you'll hear the Music Group of London strings (including violin soloist Hugh Bean) on the left and the winds (Keith Puddy, clarinet; Alan Civil, horn; Roger Birnstingl, bassoon) on the right, creating a lovely antiphonal effect in this deliciously affectionate performance of the Menuetto of Schubert's Octet from their 1980 ASV recording, from which we hear a bit more below.

SCHUBERT: Octet for Winds and Strings in F, D. 803

i. Adagio; Allegro

Schubert starts this great big shaggy dog of a piece with what I assume is some beautiful misdirection: a brooding, harmonically wandering introduction that sets expectations for something different from the lovely, friendly movement it segues into. Already we're clearly beyond the scale of any serenade or divertimento I know of (with the possible exception of Mozart's wind serenades, notably the Gran Partita, K. 361), and certainly beyond the emotional range of the Beethoven Septet.

I thought we'd start our journey through the Octet by returning to our friends the Melos Ensemble, whom we've been hearing in the previews.

Melos Ensemble: Gervase de Peyer, clarinet; Neill Sanders, horn; William Waterhouse, bassoon; Emanuel Hurwitz and Ivor McMahon, violins; Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Terence Weil, cello; Adrian Beers, double bass. EMI, recorded December 1967

ii. Adagio

If Schubert was trying to keep some control over the expressive range of the Octet, an Adagio like this would surely have proved too great a temptation. And he didn't resist very hard.

Michael Collins, clarinet; Richard Watkins, horn; Robin O'Neill, bassoon; Isabelle van Keulen and Peter Brunt, violins; Diemut Poppen, viola; Frans Helmerson, cello; Mary Scully, double bass. BBC Music, recorded live in Wigmore Hall, London, Nov. 16, 1998

iii. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
iv. Theme and Variations: Andante
v. Menuetto: Allegro

I'm not attempting to pass the third through fifth movements off as some kind of "supermovement," but I thought we might group them for two reasons: first, we've already heard them (the Scherzo and Minuet that bracket the Andante in Friday's preview, the Andante itself in Saturday's preview), and second, it's in this group that the Octet goes kind of nuts formally. If we listen to just the first three movements, they feel pretty famliiar in terms of the four-movement form we encounter regularly in classical symphonies and string quartets and the like: an allegro in sonata form (complete with soulful slow introduction), a beautiful, poetic slow movement, and a bubbly scherzo.

But at movement four things start to go nuts -- what do we have but another slow movement? It's also of a very familiar kind, a theme and variations, but in a work where we've already had a lovely Adagio? And then, if we're not confused enough, we get a Menuetto, having already had a Scherzo. Hey, Franz, isn't it supposed to be one or the other?

Since we've already heard this music played pretty spiffily on modern instruments by the Melos Ensemble, I thought today for this movement-bloc we would go "original instruments." I have wearyingly little interest in the fetish for accuracy-ish-ness as a substitute for music, but here I think the Aston Magna players do a pretty irresistible job, with an especially joyful Scherzo and Minuet.

Music from Aston Magna: Erich Oeprich, clarinet; Lowell Greer, horn; Dennis Godburn, bassoon; Daniel Stepner and Linda Quan, violns; David Miller, viola; Myron Lutzke, cello; Michael Willens, double bass. Harmonia Mundi, recorded 1991

vi. Andante molto; Allegro

By now I think we know Schubert is playing with us when he announces the finale with a 2½-minute introduction that's all trembling and dramatic foreboding. Sure enough it gives way finally to one of the composer's most confidently buoyant and untroubled creations. (And again, the clear left-right stereo separation of the strings and winds in ASV's recording seems to me to create a wonderful antiphonal effect as well as spotlighting how Schubert uses his instrumental groups.)

Music Group of London: Keith Puddy, clarinet; Alan Civil, horn; Roger Birnstingl, bassoon; Hugh Bean and Perry Hart, violins; Christopher Wellington, viola; Eileen Croxford, cello; Keith Marjoram, double bass. ASV, recorded 1980



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Wednesday, June 25, 2003

[6/25/2011] Preview: More of the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet -- two Andantes (continued)


Gervase de Peyer, the Melos Ensemble clarinetist, in London, 2005. While googling the Melos Ensemble players, I kept finding obituaries (from the 1970s through the 2000s) until I came to the great clarinetist, born in 1926 and still with us! In addition, I found a lovely two-part interview with him done in 2005 by John Robert Brown (part 1, part 2).

BEETHOVEN: Septet for Winds and Strings in E-flat, Op. 20:
iv. Tema con variazioni: Andante

Melos Ensemble: Gervase de Peyer, clarinet; Neill Sanders, horn; William Waterhouse, bassoon; Emanuel Hurwitz, violin; Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Terence Weil, cello; Adrian Beers, double bass. EMI, recorded March and Oct. 1969

SCHUBERT: Octet for Winds and Strings in F, D. 803:
iv. Andante with variations

Melos Ensemble: Gervase de Peyer, clarinet; Neill Sanders, horn; William Waterhouse, bassoon; Emanuel Hurwitz and Ivor McMahon, violins; Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Terence Weil, cello; Adrian Beers, double bass. EMI, recorded December 1967


The theme Beethoven used for his Septet variations movement is generally identified as "a Rhenish folksong," "Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer." However, this information is invariably credited to Beethoven's friend Carl Czerny, being presumably what the composer told him -- nobody seems to have independent knowledge of such a folksong. Hmm.

Schubert's theme, however, is easily verifiable as his own.
SCHUBERT: Die Freunde von Salamanka
(The Friends from Salamanca), D. 326:
Act II, Duet, "Gelagert unterm hellen Dach"

DIEGO: Sheltered under the transparent roof
of the trees, by the silver brook,
the shepherd yearns for his fair one
and laments in wild tones.
LAURA: The shepherdess in the bushes listens
to the strain that rises so melodiously;
to her it is as if his songs
reechoed more sweetly her own wishes.
DIEGO: However gloomy and black life is,
does not true life brighten it?
LAURA: One who has found love is safe
from all grief, from every care.
LAURA and DIEGO: Then let the golden sun of love
shine on our hearts' new bliss
and look with unclouded gaze
upon our joy and happiness.
[translation by Lionel Salter]
Carol Wyatt (s), Laura; Eberhard Büchner (t), Diego; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Vienna), Theodor Guschlbauer, cond. DG, recorded c1980


The ensemble was a pool of players who could collectively encompass most any piece of chamber music written. (It seems to me that we've already encountered Cecil Aronowitz, one of the group's prime movers, as the only person the Amadeus Quartet invited to play with them when they needed a second violist.) As I noted above, it was depressing to find that except for Gervase de Peyer the fine musicians we hear in these performances are all gone.

Gervase de Peyer, clarinet (born 1926)
Neill Sanders, horn (1923-1992)
William Waterhouse, bassoon (1931-2007)
Emanuel Hurwitz, violin (1919-2006)
Ivor McMahon, violin (1924-1972)
Cecil Aronowitz, viola (1916-1978)
Terence Weil, cello (1912-1995)
Adrian Beers, double bass (1916-2004)

Their recordings are still very much with us, though. Last night I noted the EMI twofer set that includes both the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet along with Mendelssohn's glorious Octet for Strings and an early Beethoven Octet. Just this year EMI released a nine-CD anthology of Melos Ensemble recordings.


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Tuesday, June 24, 2003

[6/24/2011] Preview: Beethoven and Schubert try to play it simple(r) (continued)


This inexpensive EMI "twofer" set includes the Melos Ensemble recordings of the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet we've been hearing plus the great Mendelssohn Octet for Strings and Beethoven's Octet for Winds, Op. 103.

Both the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet have rhythmically compelling versions of both a minuet and a scherzo, and in both cases they bracket a theme-and-variations Andante -- Schubert did, however, flipflop his minuet and scherzo. Tonight we're going to hear the minuets and scherzos, and tomorrow night the Andantes.

BEETHOVEN: Septet for Winds and Strings in E-flat, Op. 20:

iii. Tempo di menuetto

v. Scherzo: Allgegro molto e scherzo

Melos Ensemble: Gervase de Peyer, clarinet; Neill Sanders, horn; William Waterhouse, bassoon; Emanuel Hurwitz, violin; Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Terence Weil, cello; Adrian Beers, double bass. EMI, recorded March and Oct. 1969

SCHUBERT: Octet for Winds and Strings in F, D. 803:

iii. Scherzo: Allegro vivace

v. Menuetto: Allegretto

Melos Ensemble: Gervase de Peyer, clarinet; Neill Sanders, horn; William Waterhouse, bassoon; Emanuel Hurwitz and Ivor McMahon, violins; Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Terence Weil, cello; Adrian Beers, double bass. EMI, recorded December 1967


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Thursday, June 19, 2003

[6/19/2011] Sunday Classics: "Wretches like us" -- class warfare and the tragic depths of Berg's "Wozzeck" (continued)


As if this poor little fellow's prospects weren't bleak enough when he still had a father and mother (Alan Held as Wozzeck and Waltraud Meier as Marie at the Met, 2011) . . .

It's funny to be thinking about this poor doomed child so soon after writing about how Congressman and Mrs. Paul Ryan have socked away $150K for their three little ones' college education (a good part of their wealth coming, it seems from her family's mining interests) -- excellent parenting unless you consider it in the light of the congressman's uncomprehending Ayn Randian economic "philosophy," based on his assumption that everything he has, he earned for himself, whereas in reality most everything he has, without his realizing it, was handed to him on an at least pewter platter.

We've already met this poor child's mother, Marie, in Friday night's preview, and his father, Wozzeck, in last night's preview. What's remarkable in Berg's setting of the material is the depth of his empathy, his understanding from the inside of what it feels like to see the world through their eyes, as a place of almost no opportunity, and with even less opportunity for their helpless little boy. (In the Act II Bible-reading we're going to hear shortly, Marie will either coincidentally or comprehendingly read about a child left with no one to care for him.)


BERG: Wozzeck, Op. 7: Act I, Scene 4,
Wozzeck and the Doctor

English singing translation by Richard Stokes

Scene 4. The Doctor's study. Sunny afternoon.
[Passacaglia: Theme]
DOCTOR [rushes to meet WOZZECK as he comes in the door]: This is monstrous, Wozzeck! You gave your word.
Dear, dear, dear!
WOZZECK: What is it, Herr Doktor?
DOCTOR: I saw it all, Wozzeck, again I saw you pissing.
Pissing there on the pavement, just like a dog!
Is it for th is that I pay you three groschen?
This is bad! The world is bad, so bad!
[Groaning] Oh!
WOZZECK: Surely, Herr Doktor, when forced to it by
Nature . . .
[Variation I]
DOCTOR [flaring up]: By nature! By nature! Superstition -- deplorable superstition! Have I not demonstrated that the bladder is subject to the human will? [Flares up again] Call of nature, Wozzeck?! Humans are free! In man, individuality is sublimated into freedom!
[Shaking his head to himself] Urinating!
[Variation II]
[To WOZZECK again] Now then, I hope you've eaten your beans up, Wozzeck? [WOZZECK nods.] Only beans, now, nothing else but beans, don't forget! And during next week, we'll introduce a . . .
[Variation III]
. . . little mutton. There'll soon be a new revolution in medicine: [counting off on his fingers] protein, lipids, carbohydrates. [Broad gesture] And next: Oxyaldehydanhydride . . . [gesture]
[With sudden anger] And yet, you insisted on pissing . . .
[Goes up to WOZZECK, then checks himself]
[Variation IV]
No! . . . I must not get so angry, anger is ad for you and unscientific! I am quite calm, my pulse is beating its regular sixty Good God! Why lose sleep over a mere human being? If a salamander died, that would be far more serious.
{Again agitated.] This is monstrous. Wozzeck, you really shouldn't have urinated!
[Variation V]
WOZZECK {tries to pacify the DOCTOR, who is making furious gestures]: You see, Herr Doktor, sometimes people have a structure, it's how we're made, and yet, and yet with Nature it's different. [Snaps his fingers] You see, with Nature it's . . . it is like . . . how shall I describe it . . . I mean . . .
DOCTOR: Wozzeck, you're philosophizing!
[Variation VI]
WOZZECK: When Nature has . . .
DOCTOR [imitating WOZZECK]: What? When nature has . . . ?
WOZZECK]: When Nature has died, and the world has darkened so, so you have to fumble around for it with your hands, and you feel that it crumbles like spiders' webs . . . Ah! When it's there but is not . . .
[Variation VII]
. . . there!
Ah! Ah!
[Variation VIII]
Marie! When everything is dark, [takes a few steps across the room with outstretched arms] and the western sky just glows like fire, flaming from a furnace . . . Oh what, what is there to . . .
DOCTOR: Christ, you're lurlching, as though your body was standing on . . .
[Variation IX]
WOZZECK: . . . cling to?
DOCTOR: . . . spider legs.
WOZZECK [stays near the DOCTOR; confidentially]: Herr Doktor, when at midday the sun is high, and it seems the world is bursting into flames . . .
[Variation X]
. . . then I hear them, terrifying voices start talking to me.
DOCTOR: Wozzeck, you have got an . . .
[Variation XI]
. . . aberatio!
WOZZECK [interrupting]: The toadstools! Have you observed the circles of the toadstools out there on the ground?
[Variation XII]
Figurations and circles . . . oh, to understand them!
[Variation XIII]
[track 2]
DOCTOR: Wozzeck -- just like a lunatic! you're presenting with an idée fixe, a most wonderful . . .
[Variation XIV]
. . . aberatio mentalis partialis, second species.
Nicely cultivated!
[Variation XV]
Wozzeck, you shall get another rise!
[Variation XVI]
You're doing all your duties? Shaving your Captain? Catching my lizards?
[Variation VII]
Eating our beans up?
WOZZECK: I do everything, Herr Doktor; the money I earn is for Marie. It's for . . .
[Variation XVIII]
. . . her I work!
DOCTOR: You are a fascinating case. Just behave yourself, Wozzeck, and there'll be yet another groschen [penny] payment. But what d'you have to do?
WOZZECK [paying no attention to the DOCTOR]: Ah, Marie!
DOCTOR: What must you do?
[Variation XIX]
DOCTOR: Eat those beans up, then move on to mutton; no pissing, keep on shaving your Captain, and cultivate your idée fixe, my boy!
[Variation XX]
Oh! [Increasingly ecstatic] My hypothesis! Oh my fame! I shall be immortal! Immortal! Immortal!
[Variation XXI]
[At the height of ecstasy] Immortal! [Suddenly quite calm, walking up to WOZZECK] Wozzeck, let me look at your tongue now. [WOZZECK obeys.]

CURTAIN [at first very fast, then suddenly
slow, and closing very gradually
[in English] Clive Bayley (bs), the Doctor; Andrew Shore (b), Wozzeck; Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Daniel, cond. Chandos, recorded July 1-18, 2002
[in German] Karl Christian Kohn (bs), the Doctor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Wozzeck; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded March-Apr. 1965


And with it we're going to have the excellent commentary provided for RCA's booklet notes by the late Neville Cardus (1889-1975), onetime music critic of The Guardian. To make matters more confusing, we are going to hear the extraordinary recording of the suite Cardus's notes were written to accompany -- but only at the end, all together. It's a different performance we'll be hearing movement by movement.

NEVILLE CARDUS: The recorded excerpts being toward the end of the second scene of Act I. Wozzeck and another soldier are in a field in the late afternoon. Already Wozzeck has premonitions of the tragedy to come. "The place is accursed," he says. "Still, all is still, and the world is dead." Our first excerpt begins orchestrally and in twenty bars takes us to Marie's room. We hear a military band passing beneath the window. Marie, with her child, is watching. She burst into song at sight of the Drum Major:
Soldiers, soldiers
are handsome fellows!
She closes the window and begins to rock the child to sleep. Her music is a German nursery cradlesong done into semi-atonalism:
Come, my boy,
what do people expect?
You are only a harlot's child,
yet you give your mother joy
with your unhallowed face.

Girl, what now can be done?
You have got a child and no husband.
What's the good of asking?
If I should sing the livelong night:
"Hush, my baby sweet,"
not a soul would come to my aid.
Hansel, harness your six white chargers,
give them your fodder, give them to drink.
No fodder they'll eat,
no water they'll drink!
Only cool wine must it be!
Hanne-Lore Kuhse (s), Marie; Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Kegel, cond. Deutsche Schallplatten/Vanguard, recorded c1966
NEVILLE CARDUS: The recording moves from this scene to the opening of Act III. Marie is again in her room, alone with her child. By candlelight she reads from the Bible the story of the woman taken in adultery:
"And there is no guile found in His mouth . . ."
Lord, Lord, look not upon me!

Variation [Marie continues reading]
But the Pharisees brought unto Him
a woman that lived in adultery.
Jesus said:

Variation II:
""I condemn thee not; go now
and sin no more!"

Variation III [Looking at her child]
Lord God, the boy stabs me to the heart!
Go! You're nothing to brag about!

Variation IV [Marie cries suddenly]
No, no! Come here!
Come to me!

Variation V [She begins to tell the child a story]:
"Once there was a poor child that had neither father no mother --
Both were dead, and there was no one else in the world --
And it was hungry and wept day and night.

Variation VI [Continuing the narration]:
"And since he had no one left in the world . . ."
Franz has not come, not yesterday, not today . . .

Variation VII [Turning quickly to the Bible]:
What is written here about the Magdalen?

Fugue [Solo viola take s over the subject at the second bar, a solo violin at the third, and a solo double bass at the fourth. Marie reads, then beats her breast]:
"And she knelt and kissed His feet and wept, mostening them with her tears, and anointed them with ointment . . . "
Holy one, I would anoint Thy feet also. Lord, Thou hadst pity on her; have pity on me too!
Hanne-Lore Kuhse (s), Marie; Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Kegel, cond. Deutsche Schallplatten/Vanguard, recorded c1966
NEVILLE CARDUS: Now we go to the opera's shattering climax. Wozzeck has murdered Marie, and himself has drowned, searching for the knife. The music marvelously evokes the haunted night,, the sinister forest and pool, and the blood-red moon. In the orchestra there are ghostly croakings and gurglings. Somehow these instrumental tones make silence audible. The Captain and Doctor pass by. They hear Wozzeck's death gasp. Then they hurry away in dread. Berg moves to the opera's end by means of an orchestral interlude. It is an adagio and a lamentation, sadly reviewing the main motifs associated with Wozzeck. This interlude is essentially Mahlerian in tone-flavors and the melodic shapings. It reveals Berg as a born romantic, and a man of as much heart as brain. A flash of celesta tone reveals the last scene and the bright sunshine. Wozzeck's little boy is rocking on the hobbyhorse. The other children sing Ring-a-roses. Now comes the messenger of doom, in the guise of another innocent child, who points to Marie's boy, telling the dread news. Marie's baby rides on, as the rest of the children run away; he is left alone on the stage, singing "Hop, hop!" -- left alone in the world, no father, no mother, alone in the mercilessly ironic world of Büchner and Berg. But Berg's music, at the end, somehow purges terror with pity.
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Kegel, cond. Deutsche Schallplatten/Vanguard, recorded c1966


Phyllis Curtin (s), Marie; Sacred Heart Boychoir of Roslndale, Massachusetts, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA, recorded c1963


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