Friday, May 04, 2007

Brecht and Lebrecht

A summer before I was born my parents bought land for their summer home from a rather famous Marlebäck manor in Iitti, Finland. Today the place is an ordinary farm, but at the time it still had a large and beautiful manor house, and over 100 cows. The previous owner had been an Estonian-born communist party sympathizer and well-known writer Hella Wuolijoki. She had a lot of notable visitors during the country's long summer days, with outdoor parties lasting through the night. One of the guests who stayed a long time was the famed German author Bertolt Brecht (think the Threepenny Opera). As an anti-fascist, he had left Nazi Germany in 1933 for Denmark and after the invasion of that country moved on to Sweden and Finland before immigrating to the United States. Although he had never himself been a member of the communist party, our House Anti-American Activities Committee regarded him as a sympathizer and soon Brecht was back in Europe, living in East Germany but not fitting well into that system either. It was at Marlebäck where during 1940 he wrote his books and even co-authored one with Ms. Wuolijoki, based on the local village characters.

After the war communism was allowed and even encouraged as a result with the peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Ms. Wuolijoki had hidden a Russian spy on the farm and had been sentenced to life in prison. This situation changed overnight and she became the head of the Finnish Radio Corporation. The manor was sold to a well-to-do evacuee from Soviet-occupied Karelia who was famous for raising race horses. There was a large sauna by the lake, and it was said that on Saturdays the men went first to get clean in the hot steam, then the horses (they sweat), and after that women and children. It was from that owner that my parents bought their land. A few years later the manor was sold again, and this time the owner, being short of cash, decided to burn the beautiful mansion down to get his insurance money. People rushing to help in the wee hours were surprised to see all valuable books, paintings and other items neatly packed; all they had to do was to lift them away to safety. An investigation followed, but since there were no eye witnesses other than a young woman walking home from a Saturday night dance (she had seen the light on in the kitchen before the fire), the owner ended up receiving his money. My father was called as a character witness and he would never suspect anyone, let alone a man who had served with him on the war front. With subsequent owners the place went downhill, an ugly farmhouse was erected where the mighty mansion had once stood and the last farmer I knew supposedly went crazy, claiming that the European Union was after him. First he barricaded the road so that people couldn't get to their summer homes and a new road through the forest had to be built; later he used his hunting rifle to end his life.

I usually stay away from books that are about music. With this art form, reading is not sufficient; one has to experience music, either by listening to it or playing. At least a book with good reproductions of great paintings is almost like visiting an art museum. Most biographies of composers or musicians from the past are either products of fantasy or make the main character seem much larger than life. Even the most common form of writing on this topic, music reviews, proves how incompetent people are at it. But there have been exceptions. My father's longtime violin teacher Yrjö Suomalainen, whose son Kari was Finland's most famous political cartoonists and as such quite influential a person, wrote reviews that were masterpieces. He also was often on the radio reading his music-related essays. As a young child I was fascinated by them and never missed one. Mr. Suomalainen also wrote a book about the violin and violinists in which every sentence on this seemingly dry and boring subject was vibrant and alive. I must have read it over a thousand times and probably knew it by heart.

Just recently I read a book by Norman Lebrecht titled "The Life and Death of Classical Music" and found the writing so engaging I couldn't put it down. It's original British title is "Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness" but that probably was considered too sophisticated for American audiences, although it better describes what the book is about. Mr. Lebrecht has more knowledge than any music encyclopedia and he certainly knows how to write. The book is, as the original title says it, a history of the classical music recording industry, its zenith and present low point, or as some see it, death. The author must have heard a lot of first-hand accounts of what really happened behind the scenes, and on a number of occasions he was there in person. After the history part Mr. Lebrecht lists 100 classical recordings that he considers milestones in history and then 20 recordings that never should have been made. Naturally, I read the last section first, then the history and finally the writer's favorites. I'm not going to ruin a prospective reader's fun and tell about the details. What I will say is that most of us will be shocked by some of the entries on the "worst" list, and also that many of the one hundred also happen to be on my list of favorites.

The writing is better and more entertaining in my opinion than in Mr. Lebrecht's other popular book "The Maestro Myth" in which he seems to have a point to prove (and with which I wholeheartedly agree for the most part). Yesterday my wife picked up the author's fictional work "The Song of Names" from the library and claims it is fabulous. I have learned to take her opinion very seriously after almost 30 years, thus I'll probably find the time to read it myself.

All things in life are interconnected, even Brecht and Lebrecht via horses enjoying a sauna and burnt mansions.