Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Chris Walton's Zurich

Chris Walton, author of the acclaimed Richard Wagner's Zurich, published under our German Studies imprint, Camden House, writes about his own years in that beautiful city:

I’ve been asked to write something for From Beyond the Stave. But being doggedly lowtech in most things (I never use Powerpoint, for example, but stick with transparencies whenever I lecture), I’ve been humming and hah-ing about it for several months. But I’ve promised I’ll write something, and since the Boydell Blog seems to favour the anecdotal (those are the bits of the Blog I myself enjoy the most), I’ll oblige with something anecdotal of my own.

When I was a student back in Cambridge, I’d always sworn that the two careers I’d avoid would be teaching and librarianship. Perhaps inevitably, I ended up running Switzerland’s main music library for ten years and have been teaching ever since. The decade in Zurich was in many ways the most fascinating, not least because almost everyone who was anyone in the music world has passed through the place or lived there at some point. My job thus brought me into contact with all kinds of people I’d only ever read about – the place is a name-dropper’s paradise – and I was privileged to get to know, for example, the last surviving Berlin student of Arnold Schoenberg (Erich Schmid), I had tea regularly with Furtwängler’s widow Elisabeth (a remarkable lady in her own right), and became such good friends with Lotte Klemperer (a woman possessed of a great mind and even bigger heart) that we named our second daughter after her. For a boy from a northern English comprehensive school whose family comprised mostly coalminers, Zurich was quite an experience (Billy Elliot was filmed near where my family came from, and the star of the movie, Jamie Bell, comes from my home town of Billingham).

Part of my job was to locate the archives of composers and musicians and convince them or their heirs to donate them to my library (we never paid a penny, on principle, yet we still managed to get 106 archives in ten years). There were depressing occasions – such as when I found the heirs of a man who’d been a major concert pianist before the First World War and had written some spectacular music, only to find that they’d thrown out his diaries two weeks before. But then there were wonderful occasions such as when I visited the widow of Paul Kletzki in Berne. I’d been put in touch with her by a colleague from the Swiss Rights Society, but had at the time had my fill of widows of mediocre composers, and so allocated half an hour on my way back from a meeting to pay her a courtesy call, and then get home to the wife and kids halfway across the country. But when I got there, I discovered not only that she was charming, ebullient and very clever, but one glance at the opening of a symphony by her husband left me so excited that I immediately arranged to come again as soon as possible – the music was simply wonderful, subtly scored, and full of personality (if a composer can show you that on a single page, then he’s got something). I visited her several times after that – mostly for my own pleasure, I have to confess, as chatting with her (despite my rusty French) was a pure joy. And she donated all her husband’s scores to my library. Thanks to a local foundation and a lot of help from Tim Jackson of North Texas University, more and more of Kletzki’s works are being performed and recorded today (check out his Third Symphony on the BIS label).

One of the other real discoveries, however, was a Wagnerian one. I was visiting the daughter of a little-known late-Romantic Swiss composer and her husband with a view to our library acquiring her father’s archives. We had discussed everything, it was all decided, then just as we were leaving for lunch, she said “I’ve got a score that my mother picked up at auction fifty years ago, perhaps it might interest you as well”, and at that put before me a full score of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The score was in a script unknown to me, but the title page was unmistakeably in Wagner’s own hand. Another hand had scrawled a number at the bottom of the title page that I realized had to be the plate number of the full score as first printed by Schott in Mainz. I only had a minute or so to look at it before we went to lunch. I was probably too distracted to be polite over the meal, and couldn’t wait to get back to the office to check up on the score I’d just seen.

A quick look through the books and a phone call to the Wagner Edition in Munich that afternoon clarified the matter. It was the Stichvorlage, the manuscript copy made under Wagner’s supervision that had served as the basis for the first edition of the full score. It had been considered lost for half a century, since it was sold at auction and never seen again. Until now. And since Wagner’s original manuscript is deemed to have burnt to a cinder in Hitler’s bunker, the newly discovered score in question was more or less the most important source one could find for the opera. I explained to the family what it was they possessed, and they still agreed to donate it to my library. In return, we promised to have some of the father’s music recorded (and very fine it is too, well deserving of attention – check out Hermann von Glenck on the MGB and Guild Music labels). As it happened, the Wagner Edition was just busy with that opera, so the discovery came in time for them to consult it properly. Our fabulous bookbinding department (thank you, Armin Müller) was able to detach the many pasted-over sections (mostly Wagner tuba parts) so that the music underneath could be filmed for the Wagner Edition; it was all then put back the way it was.

Zurich has not seen any wars for two centuries, not since Napoleon invaded, and so many treasures have survived there that would have surely been destroyed anywhere else. I have no doubt that there are still Wagner treasures to be found there; but I consider myself lucky to have found one of the big ones.

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