Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Rest Is History

Life is cyclical indeed. Hardly anything happens that hasn't taken place in some form before. We know that the sun spot activity is eleven years, during which time radiation from the center of our solar system reaches it's maximum and minimum. At the time when listening to short wave radio was the only means of keeping information flowing long distance, every ham and DX radio user knew to switch to a different frequency band, depending on the spot activity. The Chinese horoscope is also based on this same eleven years. Other cycles happen more or less frequently, as is the case with climate. Yes, Greenland was tropical at some point and during the Small Ice Age half a millennium ago the Adriatic Sea outside of Venice, Italy, froze every winter and people enjoyed sleigh rides on it. I'm sure people are responsible, at least in part, for the present global warming, mainly because there are far too many of us burning fossil fuels to keep warm, light our cities and towns and for the "need" of often senseless transportation. Still, the atmosphere has had enormous amounts of carbon dioxide in it before, mainly as a result of gigantic uncontrolled forest fires or huge volcanic eruptions. Today, sea levels are rising but there was a time when one could walk from India to Sri Lanka or when Australia was connected to Southeast Asia. The Atlantic broke through the landmass where today's Strait of Gibraltar is and the resulting higher levels of the Mediterranean eventually pushed water into the Black Sea, possibly resulting in the numerous stories of the Great Flood.

We need to know and understand history in order to learn from the distant and not-so-distant past. Humans make a lot of mistakes but we are supposed to learn from them. CNN has been showing a powerful documentary narrated by the amazing Christiane Amanpour, "Screaming Bloody Murder". The Holocaust was never supposed to happen again, yet the world has since then quietly watched other acts of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans and now in Sudan's western Darfur region. Our financial chaos seems awfully familiar when looking through the history books. Of course, never before have banks and other companies been quite so global, thus the suffering today has spread much faster than would have been possible a century ago. But the threats are the same with recession, depression, hyperinflation, you name it. There are no real winners in any war but people still manage to fight them daily on every continent other than Antarctica. Perhaps if everyone were well versed in historical facts, fewer tragic and avoidable mistakes would be made.

Even the arts world has its own cycles. My father didn't become a professional musician because at the time one couldn't really make a living playing an instrument. The few full-time musicians played in restaurants, cinemas and even on the street. Most often they were people who hadn't succeeded in anything else and lived miserable lives. Of course music was loved by people and the day's pop artists were classical stars, such as Caruso. After WW II it all of a sudden became possible to earn a livelihood in music, either teaching in a conservatory or playing in an orchestra, or a combination of both. More top musicians even succeeded as soloists. This change must have influenced my father's thinking as it certainly did my mother-in-law's. My wife and I were destined to play the violin, we were told. They both lived through our careers.

In the last ten to twenty years the musical bubble grew and now it has to burst as all bubbles eventually do. Twenty years ago it was still relatively easy to land a position in a decent orchestra. I have been in many auditions where people got jobs with relatively poor playing skills. Today the scene is different as the prestigious music schools produce far too many excellent instrumentalists. The salaries in the top orchestras and even in some regional ones are too high to maintain. In contrast, many music schools, even respectable ones such as Manhattan, pay ridiculously little to their faculty although they charge an arm and a leg from the students. So, for purely financial reasons musicians trained to be soloists end up in the few top orchestras, just to become miserable having to play every phrase differently from what their souls tell them. Today we learn almost daily about art organizations having to downsize, shorten their seasons or disappear entirely. It doesn't make the headlines because the news is so grim all over, but the fact that it is hidden makes the general audience unaware of the crisis and less likely to rush to the aid. The now popular $1 CEO salary for music directors would help; instead of stock options they could get the rest of their compensation in free tickets.

I make sure that every serious student of mine gets exposed to violin playing of the past. My teacher in Finland had an enormous collection of old 78s which he let me take home and transfer to tape. In the process I even learned early on how to filter out some of the scratchiness and other surface noise. Today much of the previously unavailable material has been reissued in digital format and it is easy to hear how music was played and interpreted a hundred, eighty or just fifty years ago. Most students are surprised or even shocked to hear how vibrato is almost absent in the very early recordings, circa 1900. But Bach played in that manner sounds almost modern, especially when compared to the style a few decades later.

The big change, of course, came with the beloved Austrian, Fritz Kreisler. He basically invented playing with constant vibrato and developed a sound and style that hasn't been matched since. His life provides an example for today's young violinists. Although he was a prodigy, Kreisler almost didn't become a musician. After failing to get into the Vienna Opera Orchestra's second violin section (those days their musicians must have been quite awful and couldn't stand the idea of someone truly remarkable joining their ranks), he studied medicine and law and even fought as an officer in the Great War, also known as the First World War. Someone must have been very persistent in managing to change Kreisler's mind. Had that not happened, we would have missed one of the musical giants of our time. It is interesting to hear the many recordings he made over the decades, playing the same little gems completely differently each time. One can easily hear that the later fingerings don't match earlier ones; neither do the phrasings or tempi. Nothing bears much resemblance to what is on the printed page: those markings were there to fool the average fiddler to think that he now knew the secret to Kreisler's sound and style. Let's hope that the cycle in great violin playing isn't too long and that we'll one day hear another Fritz.

Those Austrians are an interesting people. For every great artist the country has also had a real monster, from Hitler to the sick father who imprisoned his daughter in his cellar for decades, fathering her children. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the country still celebrates an ancient evil god Krampus at Christmastime. I can easily imagine one wielding a stick.

"Krampus " © Reuters / Der Spiegel
Fritz Kreisler album cover by Ilkka Talvi