Julian Young’s new “philosophical biography” of Friedrich Nietzsche proposes solutions to mysteries about his subject’s relationship with Richard Wagner, including this one discussed in an interview with Scott Horton:

Nietzsche wrote that a “deadly insult” had come between himself and Wagner. You suggest that you’ve learned what it was.

Wagner had long disapproved of Nietzsche’s close friendships with men–love he held could only exist between the sexes–and by 1877 he was offended by the developing anti-Wagnerian tenor of Nietzsche’s thought. To Nietzsche’s doctor he wrote that the cause of the patient’s many health problems–which included near blindness–was “unnatural debauchery, with indications of pederasty.” His former disciple was, in other words, (a) incipiently gay and (b) going blind because he masturbated. Somehow Nietzsche learned not only of the existence of the letter but of its the exact wording. That was the “deadly insult.”


Soon the posts here may return to their former frequency, since I’m in the homestretch of the biography I’m writing. In a way it’s unfortunate that I’m not blogging more, since — thanks to my subject, Xavier Montsalvatge — I’m probably having more interesting thought than usual. Here is Montsalvatge at the age of 80, talking about the difficulty, when he was a young student, of overcoming the overwhelming sway of Wagner’s music in the Barcelona of the 1920s:

Morera was a great harmonist and an even better contrapuntist; but, like nearly all the Catalan musicians of his generation, he composed all his works (very estimable, especially his sardanas and even more his choral works, although it infuriated him that people cited them, since he considered that he had most excelled in the field of opera) literally submerged in the Wagnerian esthetic [literalment submergit en l’estètica wagneriana]. At every moment he proposed for us as an example —as if it was to be treated as the composer’s gospel — the overture to Der Meistersinger, and it goes without saying that, for him, the music of Debussy was a symbol of decadent and bloodless art, that Falla wrote music for refined gypsies, and that some works of his pupils surpassed those of these composers.

This obtuse attitude, though, had a positive aspect. It bespoke, mainly, a blind faith it its ideology — which faith I consider to be in any case better than the agnosticism of the composers of today, which has made us lose fidelity to artistic principles, putting them constantly in question. And he felt for his pupils (me included) an affection that would have made him fight for us if the situation had presented itself. He was a great figure and, despite my not absolutely coinciding with his ideas, I took him for a musician of integrity [un músic d’una sola peça].

Ein Brief aus Bayreuth

August 12, 2010

Having received today the following — which he had valiantly typed on a quickly-borrowed German keyboard — from the distinguished acoustical engineer Larry King, I asked his permission to share it here:

I generally dislike sending group email messages, so I now see why blogs have become so popular. Anyhow, I have an hour to kill this rainy morning (the first one of my visit), so here is a brief recap of the events to date.

So far, I’ve seen the first three Ring operas; Götterdämmerung is tomorrow. I then train to Munich for a day and a half where I plan to make an all day trip to poor King Ludwig’s two fantasy castles. Bayreuth is a small town (about 75,000 in the wider region) with small town mores, although they generally cater nicely to tourists. I had a pair of surly waiters one evening at a popular restaurant, but the good food (sauted pike-perch zander) made up for it. The best eating so far has been at Konditorei Roman– truly top notch, not expensive, but also not open for dinner. Just as well because the operas begin at 4pm and end around 10:30pm. A hearty lunch followed by a 20 minute walk up the “green hill” to the Festspielhaus takes care of the hungers. The long intermissions, almost an hour, allow snacking (if the hungers return) on bratwursts, weissewursts, movenpick icecream, champagne, wine, coke, minneralwasser, etc, etc. Plus there’re a fancy sit down restaurant and a less fancy cafeteria that offer more substantial fare.

The operas have been, how shall I say?, entertaining. Singers have been variable in vocal quality but generally excellent as actors, especially the Siegfried (last night), Wotan, Alberich, Hundig, and Mime. Brünhilde in Walküre was so-so and was replaced in Siegfried by Sabine Hogrefe. She was outstanding (but not a Nilsson or a Flagstad– their kind appear only once or twice a century). The hall acoustic is excellent: clear, balanced, warm, just the right loudness in the big parts, and dead silent (no air con). The public areas including toilets do have a.c.

I’m sitting on the fifth row, house right, so I see almost everthing with HD clarity. Only the staging at far stage left is obscured, which hasn’t been a disappointment. The seats aren’t cushioned (only thin pads like carpet on backs and bottoms), and row spacing is definitely 19th century (i.e., tight for tall persons). The hall is constructed of thick timber and plaster, which enhance resonance. The crowd loves to stamp their feet while clapping and cheering, so the floor vibrates excitingly. Concrete won’t do that! Coughing, sneezing, cellphones ringing and such common annoying distractions in North American houses are strictly frowned on. So far I’ve heard only one muffled cough. The park gounds around the theatre are lovingly landscaped– groves of old trees,spacious green lawns dappled in shade and afternoon sunlight, flower gardens, pools and fountains abound. There’s a small bookshop carrying only Wagner lore and an adjacent post office to speed off your souvenir postcards.

The scene is of a very fancy-dressed audience with obviously much moola to spend. About one third of the men wear tuxedos or some variation thereof, while the women are diked out in all sorts of coloful garb– mostly tasteful but some outrageously odd. The winner so far wore a flowing, leaf green silk dress off the shoulders and an amazing feather construction on the right side of her head. Her swain sported peroxided hair, a white dinner jacket and the almost universal black toursers, and joined this with a silver swan tipped walking stick that he certainly didn’t need to manuever around the grounds. It is truly a big deal, I guess comparable to the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals, although I expect Salzburg’s tops Bayreuth’s. I’m taking lots of images, including a few videos, that I’ll share with those interested.

So, it’s time to close. I’ve comandeered the computer in the tourist office long enough (still can’t get used to the German keyboard). Hope all is well at home. It’s nice to be away from the busy-ness of NYC. Love, Larry

A Bumper Crop

January 24, 2010

Anthony Tommasini has an article in today’s New York Times about the coincidence of the Schumann and Chopin birth-bicentenaries falling in 2010. The link between them, as he tells us, was Schumann’s earnest championing of Chopin’s music. Since Schumann was a very influential writer on music, this was significant to the success of a Polish immigrant to Western Europe who rarely played in public. (Tommasini passes over the less affirmative fact that Chopin, in return, treated Schumann and his music with something like contempt.)

While the 2010 double anniversary deserves to be celebrated, and will be, I’m equally interested in the fact that so short a period of time as four years produced such a large helping of the most influential musicians of an era. A simple and selective list is striking:

1809 Mendelssohn
1810 Chopin
1810 Schumann
1811 Liszt
1813 Wagner

(Am I alone in often carelessly thinking of Liszt as being much older than Wagner — perhaps because Liszt’s daughter married a man who turns out to be about the same age as her father?)

And this is to deal only with some who are now considered composers of the very first rank. What about Félicien César David (1810 – 1876), Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (1810 – 1849), Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810 – 1876), Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896), Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 1885), Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871), Stephen Heller (1813 – 1888), or Charles-Henri Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)? They all made real marks on a music world very unlike our own, though the esteem in which they’ve been held has been markedly variable over the years.

Speaking of someone whose reputation was very high, then sank for a time, and is now perhaps more exalted than ever: one Giuseppe Fortunino Frencesco Verdi was born down in Italy in the same year as Wagner, showing that it must have been the air of those four years, not the soil, that yielded such an unexampled bounty.