Friday, August 26, 2005

Summer reading

In addition to a rather large number of books on music in our bookcases, my wife brings other ones home from the Seattle Library system. Recently I have read ‘Music and the line of most resistance’, by Artur Schnabel, and ‘Virtuoso’, by Harvey Sachs. They were written 40 years apart, in 1942 and -82, respectively.

Old books often open a window to a different era and offer the reader an opportunity to see life from a very different perspective from today. In music, some problems have remained the same: Schnabel writes about music critics and art journalism at length and states:
‘Great men are as rare among the critics as they are among the musicians or any other group, but the consequences of not being great are not the same for critics as they are for musicians who appear in public. Only the musicians are publicly criticized.’ The writer laments the disappearance of amateurs which he, to a point, blames on the radio and the phonograph. ‘It follows that the amateur, as I define the term, always dwells on a plane higher than that of a professional who never produces, and is never keen to produce, what may be classified as art. Not every musician is an artist.’ Schnabel has other refreshing opinions as well: ‘To correct the misconception concerning “virtuosity,” which (I must emphasize once more) must also be completely mastered for the performance of inwardly originated music, although it is generally related to the external (which is about all there is to the other species), Walter J. Turner, the English poet, has suggested giving to the the so-called “virtuoso” a new name. The name is “trashoso”—which would precisely express what is nowadays expected from the virtuoso.’

The other book has short biographies with comments of nine famous instrumentalists, from Niccolò Paganini to Glenn Gould. Right now I’ll stick to ‘The life and art of Fritz Kreisler’. In 13 pages (plus a few for pictures) Sachs manages to spin a fascinating tale of probably the greatest artist violin playing has ever seen. Father Kreisler was the family physician of Sigmund Freud, who couldn’t quite understand why young Fritz was taken by his mother, at the age of 10, to Paris to study. Massart, himself a pupil of Kreutzer, wrote that although he had been ‘the teacher of Wieniawski and many others…little Fritz will be the greatest of them all.’ Another interesting detail is that Kreisler auditioned for a position in the Vienna Hofoper Orchestra (also known as the Vienna Philharmonic) but was not accepted. That tells you something about the fairness of auditions even back then! The author correctly points out that Kreisler’s name should not be used to symbolize sentimentality or schmalz. ‘The recordings he made are evidence enough that such notions are largely groundless.’

A well-known fact is that Fritz never liked to practice; he considered it a bad habit. A violinist friend of my father’s occupied a room next to the master’s during a mid-1930 tour to Finland. For three days the poor man had his ear glued to the wall, as he was determined to find out the secret of Kreisler’s artistry, from the way he practiced. Only on the third day, just before the concert, did the maestro take out his violin: he tuned it and put it back in the case. My dad used to tell me how upset this friend was; on a tight student budget and during the depression years, that certainly wasn’t money well spent.