Sunday, June 17, 2007

In a country as proudly uncultured as ours, is it possible to understand what that music meant to Hans Fantel on the day he was writing about here?


A couple of days ago, after resurrecting this long-cherished Sunday New York Times piece by Hans Fantel (1922-2006), I passed it on to a bunch of friends in more or less this form. I've added some amplifying and/or explanatory notes at the end.--Ken

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

Here I've been going on for years about this astounding but now-lost piece of writing from a Sunday NYT Arts & Leisure section of many moons ago, of which my yellowed copy had long since given up the ghost. I've probably tried to talk about it to everyone I know, possibly even stopped strangers in the street and harangued them. I remembered it always as perhaps the single most beautiful and powerful piece of writing I've read.

I remember vividly how it appeared: It was Hans Fantel's weekly "Sound" column, and it appeared on the classical-music page of the closest-to-Christmas Sunday Arts & Leisure section, sandwiched between the "year end" bloviating of Don Henahan (live music) on one side and John Rockwell (recordings) on the other.

Most NYT (and Stereo Review) readers of those years thought of Hans as a polite shill for the audio industry, who never heard a piece of equipment he didn't like. That wasn't really fair, but it was understandable. I didn't know him well, but in my years as music editor of High Fidelity, where I was the only editor based in New York and therefore represented the magazine at all sorts of press gatherings in the city, I ran into him frequently, and knew him as the sweetest and courtliest person imaginable.

Only occasionally in his writing did you get a glimpse of where he had come from: arriving in New York during World War II as a solitary refugee, speaking no English, having survived as a fugitive in Europe for an extended period--with his whole family having vanished. From these occasional references it was possible to piece together an image of sorts of the Fantel family as it had been, and in particular his father, who seems to have been the very model of a cultured Viennese burger, to whom culture wasn't a frill but a necessity of life.

One detail I always remembered, which Hans worked into a column that included a mention of the Turnabout LP reissue of the pioneering 1938 recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. In those days--long before the introduction of long-playing records-- the piece, running upwards of an hour and a half, was rarely performed and must have seemed a most improbable candidate for recording. Audaciously, His Master's Voice (HMV, later part of EMI) made this recording during a live performance by Bruno Walter (seen here at about this time) and the Vienna Philharmonic, which turned out to be Walter's last performance with the orchestra until after the Third Reich had crumbled.

Hans mentioned that he had attended that concert as a teenager--taken, of course, by his father.

But enough babbling. An e-mail that set me to thinking about Hans's reference to the Mahler Ninth performance got me to thinking about that other piece, and whether it might not be recoverable after all. So I rattled the Sen. Ted Stevens Memorial InterTubes, and in a matter of minutes, there it was. In the process I also unearthed an earlier piece of Hans's I'd never read, from 1980, also a Christmas memory, this one from the time he lived in hiding on a remote farm in Slovakia, again culminating in a moment of musical transcendence.

One thing at a time, though. Here is the 1982 piece. One note: You can see in the head the meddling of some nitwit Times editor. Hans would obviously have never referred to the Meistersinger Act III recording (which filled something like 15 78s) as "a record." Makes you wonder if the editor who wrote the head bothered to read the piece.

December 26, 1982




Only lately have I become aware that crises and transitions in my life were often alleviated in some way by a phonograph. In the fractures and dislocations of my youth, recorded music - transported, much like myself, from one time and place to another - somehow supplied the link that formed continuity where otherwise there would have been chaos and incoherence.

One such period followed my arrival in America during the last World War. I was cowed by New York, the only city I had ever seen where most buildings were taller than wide and you had to look up almost vertically to the horizon. It gave me a profoundly uneasy feeling.

Still, New York had advantages. It lay beyond the range of German aircraft, and the comfort I derived from that fact made up for the curious terror inspired by all those tall buildings. But what I liked best about America was that you could buy food just for money. You didn't need a special card. You didn't have to apply for permission to exist. It was exactly that which had been denied to me in my homeland because the government there disapproved of my ancestors. Later, I thought about that often and came to the conclusion that being able to obtain food without government interference is a good, if only partial, definition of freedom.

Earlier in the war and in more dangerous places I had fiercely resolved to outlive Adolf Hitler. My main interest was survival, and New York gave me everything I needed for that. Still, I longed for music. Ever since I can remember, music had been almost as necessary to me as food, but in my circumstances as a solitary refugee it was far more difficult to come by. I earned my living by gluing picture frames in a factory, and my weekly salary of $12 didn't leave me enough money to go to concerts or buy a radio. Otherwise, the job suited me fine because I didn't have to say anything. I knew no English, and - having in happier times harbored literary ambitions in my own language - I refused to sound illiterate in another. Consequently I didn't speak at all.

This is not as strange as it would seem. Having lived in hiding during my last years in Europe, I was accustomed to isolation and it didn't bother me. My new surroundings held little meaning and I had no social contacts. So I had no wish to speak or to be spoken to. I even disliked having to order food at lunch counters and cafeterias. Having to say anything in English so upset me that I lost my appetite. This dilemma ended with my discovery of the Automat, where I could nourish myself simply by putting nickels in the slot.

I spent my free time wandering about New York in search of its center. I pictured something like the Place de la Concorde in Paris or Vienna's Ringstrasse - a heroic urban vista appropriate to a great metropolis. Instead I found a record shop.

Located on Madison Avenue near the apse of St. Patrick's, it was called the Gramophone Shop and was notable for its oak-paneled listening booths with velvet seats, where customers could sample the bulky 78-rpm albums of that era. That shop became for me the center which I had vainly sought in architectural terms. It was there that I satisfied my musical needs for a while, for though I wasn't exactly a customer, I managed to do my share of sampling.

The head clerk - a small man with a natty houndstooth jacket and a face like that of a dyspeptic cat -would peer through the window of the door to the listening booth after 15 minutes or so, as if to tell me that my time was up. I usually left the shop after that. But one day he opened the door and said something in a harsh, high voice I couldn't understand. To make the exchange equal, I answered in German, a language about which New Yorkers had mixed feelings at the time. I don't remember what I said, but the man left me alone for the entire third act of ''Die Meistersinger,'' my father's favorite opera. A splendid recording of it, made in Dresden just before the war under the direction of Karl Bohm, had found its way into the ample stock of the Gramophone Shop. [In the photo we see bass-baritone Hans Hermann Nissen as Sachs, which he sang in the 1938 Dresden recording of Act III.] I didn't know whether the clerk had gone off to denounce me as a German spy - which had happened to me elsewhere - but I was happy to remain undisturbed with those records, for the music reminded me of performances heard in the company of my father who, like the rest of my family, had been lost along the way.

All this must have happened at this time of year. It had become dark outside in midafternoon while I was listening, and I remember that, as I left the shop, the street glowed with Christmas lights. For a moment I thought that I had just stepped out of the State Opera and that the pointed tower of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company at the foot of Madison Avenue was the Gothic spire of St. Stefan's in Vienna.

Only much later did I realize why I was so confused. That hour in the listening booth etablished for me the first link between my life in Europe and my life in America. Up to then, America had seemed to me another planet and my life here a different incarnation. But on hearing the humane and paternal voice of Hans Sachs - the opera's main character, after whom I was named - I felt that a bridge had suddenly formed across the Atlantic, high above the German U-boats which poisoned the sea. America had at last been connected to my past, and soon afterward I began to teach myself English.

Now for those amplifications and explanations:


After this piece appeared, I dropped Hans a note of appreciation, referring also to that column mention of having been taken to the 1938 Mahler Ninth performance by his father; I expressed the wish that his audio columns might have more of these personal touches. Naturally I got a lovely note of thanks. In it he mentioned that the Times strongly discouraged him from doing so.

Nevertheless, he did occasionally venture into this discouraged territory. In July 1989, in fact, he wrote a piece triggered by receipt of a review copy of a CD reissue of the 1938 Mahler 9th. With his permission, New Yorker critic Alex Ross reprinted the piece, "Performance Measured in Digits," in his blog in April 2006--the month before Hans, then 84, suffered injuries in an auto accident from which he didn't recover.

In the 1989 piece, by the way, Hans mentions that as a teenager he didn't at all grasp the Mahler Ninth, which of course he'd never heard. (There was no recording of it, after all!)


Another of those details that burrowed deep in my brain is the fact mentioned here that Hans Fantel was named for the central character of Die Meistersinger, the medieval Nuremberg shoemaker-poet Hans Sachs--the most richly human and humane character, not just in opera, but perhaps in all of artistic creation. To experience the full force of the experience Hans (Fantel, that is) was trying to describe here, it helps to have a sense of the particular artistic force of Meistersinger in general, and in particular of Sachs, and the spiritual crisis he's grappling with in Act III (which uncut runs nearly two hours, longer than many whole operas).

As it happens, I wrote about Meistersinger not long ago, trying to explain the humor and deeper resonance of Wagner's wonderful little joke at the end of Act II, where the eloquent-voiced Nightwatchman making his rounds of medieval Nuremberg manages to totally miss an entire street riot. Act III finds Sachs, the next morning--after his positively brutal day--in the grip of a depression of crisis proportions.

As if it isn't bad enough that all of his cherished life values have been thrown into question by his fellow mastersingers' inability to hear the originality and beauty in the songs of the young Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing, and that he feels cut off from his community and powerless to prevent the impending forced marriage of his young neighbor Eva Pogner, who has grown up in his arms, which only reminds him that the family of his own he once had is long lost. For Sachs, this most reasonable of men, the crowning touch is that he himself inadvertently set off the previous night's riot. I wrote once, and still believe, that if Sachs can't find his way out of his crisis, there is truly no hope for us.

Now, we ususally think of Wagner as writing "big," and there's no question, no one ever did or could write "bigger." But it's equally easy to argue that nobody could write "small" more memorably. And nowhere did he demonstrate it more searingly than in the Act III preludes and opening scenes of the two operas he wrote while he had suspended work on his massive tetralogy cycle The Ring of the Nibelung: Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.

The stretch from the Meistersinger Act III Prelude to Sachs's "Wahn!" ("Madness!") monologue portrays Sachs's crisis, and then, after he has hit bottom, his initial steps back, as he begins to accept that a little midsummer craziness doesn't mean the end of the world, and as for the rest--well, you just take it one step at a time. By the time the scene changes from Sachs's workshop to the meadow where all of Nuremberg has gathered for the celebration of St. John's Day (seen above at the 1984 Bayreuth Festival), Sachs has regrouped and begun to find "the way back." It's surely no exaggeration to call the final scene of Meistersinger as stirring a tribute to the potential of the human spirit as any mortal has managed.


That January 1938 Vienna performance and recording of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the composer's last completed work, wouldn't have been possible even two months later, following the German annexation of Austria (euphemistically described by the Nazis as an "Anschluss," or union). Bruno Walter had left Austria for Paris, before fleeing to the United States, and the music of the Jewish-born Mahler wouldn't have been playable by the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra most closely associated with the composer (1860-1911).

The Ninth and the work of Mahler's which preceded it, the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), represented a turnaround in the composer's work, obviously precipitated by the diagnosis of his terminal heart disease. It would be wrong to describe these works as ruminations on death; rather they are reexaminations of the world from the vantage point of an inescapable awareness of death.

Normally the premieres of these works would have been conducted by the composer himself, almost surely the foremost conductor of his time. But time ran out on him, then well into the composition of what would have been his Tenth Symphony. (Well, it would really have been his 11th, since Das Lied would surely have been called Symphony No. 9 if he hadn't been so jumpy about the finality of a Ninth Symphony, which had meant curtains for Beethoven and Bruckner.)

The honor and burden of conducting the premieres of Das Lied and the Ninth Symphony fell to Mahler's closest disciple among the many young conductors who were drawn to his music and music-making: Walter (1876-1962). And when HMV scheduled the live recording of the 1938 Walter/Vienna Mahler Ninth, it had already recorded them in a live performance of Das Lied--in May 1936, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the composer's death.

I might add that, for all the obvious historical significance of this pair of recordings, I've never been that crazy about the performances. In fact, Walter's American performances of Mahler--and of other music as well--seem to me to have taken on a warmth and richness, a spaciousness and frequent depth that are rarely heard in his European performances. Partly, of course, it's a matter of personal evolution; the American performances are on the whole later. But even when Walter returned to Europe after the war, his performances didn't have the freedom and freshness the New World seems to have inspired in him.

And Walter lived to make glorious stereo recordings (in his mid-80s) of these seminal Mahler works, nearly a half-century after he introduced them to the world. In 1960 he made one of the great recordings of Das Lied von der Erde, with the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra with a unique Mahler tradition of its own (he was its music director for several seasons). It's a performance that looks death in the eye with uniquely good grace, and it's graced by splendid singing by mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller and tenor Ernst Haefliger. (Walter's postwar Decca remake of Das Lied with the Vienna Philharmonic is ritually cited as one of the phonograph's legendary recordings. I don't hear it at all. To me it's a tidy, adequate performance. To listen to the standard critical nattering, you would never guess that Walter indeed made a recording-for-the-ages of Das Lied--in New York.)

Then in 1961 Columbia Masterworks recorded Walter's final thoughts on the Ninth Symphony, with the so-called Columbia Symphony, an undersized but enthusiastic band of Los Angeles-based musicians assembled for Walter's late series of often glorious rerecordings of core repertory. The simplest way I can describe the performance is to say that, from start to finish, it glows.

Sony has issued both of these recordings in numerous forms on CD, and they should be readily available. Permanently, I trust.

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I've read it three times and the last paragraph still gives me chills. The universal and transcendant power of music...a much more loving way to establish peace than weaponry and fences.


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