Friday, May 30, 2008

Putzi, Putzi - So Ein Kerl! (What a Guy!)

Ernst (lovingly called Putzi) Hanfstaengle was a Harvard grad, and the only guy I know of from Harvard to work for both President Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.
You don't believe that? Well, if you 'google' Putzi's last name, the above statement may show up.
At any rate, Hanfstaengle was a member of a powerful and aristocratic German family; came to America, went to Harvard, and at least minored in music. He actually wrote tunes for the Harvard band when it came to football time.
Upon returning to Germany, he became swept up by the tide of Nazism, joined the party, and eventually entered the hallowed Hitler inner circle, becoming essentially Hitler's aide, and has been photographed many times at the tyrant's side.
The story that tantalizes me the most is the one that deals with Hitler's asking Putzi to compose a new march for one of the Nuremberg rallies, only about three days hence.
Hanfstaengle was in a state of panic, as he had other duties always at hand, and knew that there would simply be no time to construct a melody and orchestrate it for the Nazi bands who were to play at the rally, only hours away, AND - one does not say "no" to Hitler.
And so Putzi, knowing full well how insular Hitler was as regards cultures outside his own, felt the dictator could not possibly be familiar with ANY Harvard march; the result being that Hanfstaengle took a healthy portion of one of the Harvard marches, orchestrated it, and offered it to the Nuremberg rally.
A truly unique tale; however, I have come across it more than once from different sources. One source claimed that this story was related by Putzi's son Egon, about whom I know veritably nothing - I do believe that Egon had something to do with Harvard after the war. What the role was, I do not know.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

War and Bitter Irony - Natural Partners

Those who read my blog know that I periodically digress from the arts to project some thoughts germane to the history/mystery of human nature; so, do read on:
In 1942, the Americans initiated its first large - scale encounter with the Nazi; the location, North Africa.
Operation Torch, commanded by a then relatively lesser known Dwight David Eisenhower, was an operation designed to squeeze the Afrika Korps, directed by the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, out of North Africa, which would eliminate the threat to the Suez Canal.
And so, the Americans, heading towards Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, were not sure as to the status of the Vichy French (that portion of the French nation which collaborated with the Germans upon France's occupation); that is, would these French allow us to land in North Africa, or would they fight? The French fleet was berthed in this area, and the Allies simply did not know whether it would open fire or allow the invading forces to land on the beaches.
Sadly, the French let loose with its not insignificant firepower, and the Americans were forced to destroy the Vichy French - imagine; just two years hence, D-Day would be the day that the Allies would begin the liberation of France.
After the fighting ceased, and the Vichy French capitulated, the French and American dead would be buried side by side. The madness of and in War is indeed a constant component.
One reality on the brighter side - 1942 was witness to the tide turning against the Barbarian; namely, this particular campaign thwarted Hitler's aim to own the oil of the Middle East; also, the massive defeat of the Nazi at Stalingrad, by which about a half million Germans were taken prisoner as a result of both Operation Torch and Stalingrad; and finally, the destruction of the Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway, which forever ended the offensive operations of the Japanese Empire.
The burial of the Americans and French in the same cemetery is, however, for me. the most vivid aspect of all having been written here, as it demonstrably epitomizes the ultimate and undeniable madness of War and its inherent enormity.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Beethoven - Revealing Excerpts From His Diaries

Beethoven quite regularly was in the habit of writing notes down about himself on blank pages of daily calendars; not only about issues concerning music, but also about aspects of daily experiences outside of music.
For instance, he wrote quite a bit about the problems of housekeeping, especially during the years 1819, 1820 and 1823.
And what a terror he must have been!
(1819) January 31 - Gave the housekeeper notice.
February 15 - The kitchen - maid entered upon her duties.
March 8 - The kitchen - maid gave her notice.
May 12 - Entered a new apartment. "Miser et pauper sum." (I am poor and wretched).
May 14 - The housekeeper entered service at 6 gulden monthly.
July 20 - Gave the housekeeper notice.
(1820) May 16 - Gave notice to the kitchen - maid.
May 10 - The kitchen maid left.
July 1 - The kitchen - maid entered upon her duties.
July 28 - The kitchen - maid ran away in the evening.
August 10 - 13 - Four evil days - I ate in Lerchenfeld (a suburb outside of the city limits).
These notes, and these are but a few written down by Beethoven, were in the Beethoven biography of Anton Schindler, the composer's official biographer, who followed him around, sometimes from a rather discreet distance.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

"La Plus que Lente" by Debussy - a Social Comment??

The other day I was discussing Debussy and his "La Plus que Lente", a piano piece he had written, I believe, in 1910, and certain speculation about the genesis of this composition abounded; primarily, centering around the possibility that the title implied the "decadence" of the waltz form, especially if it was a slow waltz. As Debussy could be rather derisive at times, this kind of speculation really did swirl around Parisian circles after the composition appeared.
Another story also took form. I cannot tell you as to whether it is apocryphal , but it did make its rounds during this period, and goes as follows:
A pop tune, named "Valse Lente" (slow waltz) achieved a measure of success, which bothered Debussy, as he felt his poverty was undeserved; and so, in a derisive spate of activity, he wrote "La Plus que Lente" (slower than slow), demonstrating his irritation toward mediocrity in taste.
True or not, it WAS a tale bandied about , and I thought that you might like to know of its existence after the composition first emerged, and, ironically, became one of Debussy's more popular piano pieces.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

George Gershwin - America's Mozart?

Mentioning the names of Wolfgang Mozart and George Gershwin in the same sentence does not connote a comparison between Mozart and Gershwin in their development; for example, the veritably unbelievable attainments actuated by Mozart as a child are like no other creative artist. Gershwin, as a child, most assuredly did not put his stamp on history, as did the wonder child Mozart.
However, there were some parallels:
Both died in their thirties, at the height of their considerable powers. Both would undoubtedly have altered the face of artistic history had they lived on, say, another twenty years.
Gershwin, we know, created a new way of projecting music, as a very young man. His song "Swanee" was written at age nineteen, was embraced by the most famous pop singer of the day, Al Jolson, who inserted this tune into his musical revue "Sinbad"; the result was that a 20 year-old composer became powerful and famous in an incredibly short time. While still in his mid-twenties, his "Rhapsody in Blue" was performed before such musical giants as Rachmaninoff and Walter Damrosch, and this occasion altered the course of musical history.
One should be reminded that Mozart was not only that incredible young composer from Austria, but also, like Gershwin, tried new approaches, which tend to be overlooked because of the sensationalism connected with one so young; for instance, how about an opera with a brothel as centerpiece? Mozart positively horrified the royal entourage. And how about his writing opera in Italian? In Vienna?? At that time??
So there are parallels during these composers' life experiences.
Can we consider Gershwin, therefore, as America's Mozart?

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Department Store Salesman and His Gift to History

America has thus far produced two great pianists; namely, Murray Perahia and William Kapell.
Perahia has emerged as one of the world's premier artists, with defining performances of Mozart, Bach and Chopin, to mention but a few of the composers he represents. He is now in his middle age, and has produced many recordings which, of course, are readily available.
The other pianist (and they both grew up in New York), is William Kapell.
If his name is less familiar to you, it is simply because he lived only 31 years, and has been gone for over a half century.
Kapell left only a handful of recordings in a tragically brief career.
Recently, some recordings he made just weeks before his death, have emerged, and tell us of a talent with gigantic power and even greater promise.
The story of these recordings will fascinate you:
Kapell journeyed to Australia in the spring of 1953, and gave almost forty concerts in just a few weeks, with most performances in Melbourne and Sidney and others in little hamlets sprinkled along the way. Some of these recitals took place in large rooms, rather than the usual large hall.
A department store salesman, Roy Preston, decided to record a number of these concerts from his radio, as a small number of Kapell's performances were broadcast throughout Australia. Obviously, not being an audio engineer, Preston produced recordings of poor quality; however, these recordings are documents that represent the immense gift that this young pianist possessed.
These recordings are noisy and scratchy , and the listener must find ways to "cut through" this detriment in order to allow the fantastic reality of Kapell to emerge.
The most provocative aspect of Kapell's playing is the nature of intensity which ultimately turns out to be his trademark, outside of the unequaled pianism already in place.
There is no question in my mind that, had he lived on, Kapell would today be considered one of the two or three greats of his generation.
The cruel irony:
After some 8,000 miles of flying, and only about three miles short of the San Francisco airport, a wing on Kapell's plane brushed a mountain top and crashed, snuffing out a promise which can be given us only a handful of times in any century.

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