Thursday, 22 October 2009

When all the notes are right: Songs, Sex and Schoeck


‘He sums up Schoenberg in twenty minutes and then spends half a bloody hour on some guy called Othmarrrr Shirk’ – I still remember the disgust with which a Scots fellow student rolled his broad Rs around Robin Holloway’s approach to music history. The occasion was Robin’s lecture course on the twentieth-century, back in 1983 in Cambridge. He had indeed dealt with Schoenberg remarkably swiftly that day (though memorably, as always – I shall never forget his summing up of the Wind Quintet as a work ‘masterly in every way except that all the notes are wrong’, which really says it all). And it was true that he had also spent a lot of time – in relative terms – on a Swiss composer called Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957), hitherto unknown to almost all of us. As it happens, I was probably the only one who had heard of him, as I’d accompanied a student’s final song recital the year before, whose programme had included ‘Herbstentschluss’ from the cycle Elegie. The song was utterly compelling. And when Robin played us the second movement of the song cycle Notturno in the recording by Fischer-Dieskau and the Juilliard Quartet, I was hooked. Being something of a Germanophile – I’d first gone to German-speaking Europe at the age of 14 with our local youth orchestra and had since spent every summer there – I was already on the lookout for a possible doctoral topic on something suitably German. Schoeck was Swiss, but German Swiss, and I reckoned that he might do as well as anything more northernly Teutonic. So I went to Robin, borrowed his Schoeck scores and records, and he put me in touch with Derrick Puffett, a friend from his own Oxford student days who had done his doctoral thesis on Schoeck’s song cycles.


I visited Derrick not long after, staying on a camp bed in his rooms in Wolfson College (being a student from the distant industrial north, I didn’t have the money for a hotel of even the flea-ridden variety). When I told him I was thinking of doing a doctorate on Schoeck’s operas, he said: ‘Don’t bother with that. What we need is a biography’. ‘Oh, OK’, I replied, and that was that.


Further visits to Derrick followed over the next months, I went to Zurich to do some research in the Schoeck archives at the Zentralbibliothek Z├╝rich – making many friends who have remained friends ever since – and I got a place at Christ Church Oxford to begin my doctorate the next year. As luck had it, Derrick at the exact same time got a job in Cambridge, so we sort of crossed, metaphorically speaking, at Tring. I was allowed to retain him as my main supervisor (thus seeing rather a lot of Tring from the window of a bus over the next couple of years), but was also assigned an Oxford man in order to have someone on the spot. This was John Warrack, who was somewhat bemused, admitting readily that he knew little about Schoeck. While most of my work was obviously with Derrick, whom I visited in St John’s Cambridge about once a term, I remember my conversations with John with no less fondness, and owe him far more than I think he ever realized.


It was clear that visiting Switzerland in the summer holidays wasn’t going to be enough to get the information I needed to write a biography, so after a year in Oxford I applied for a postgraduate scholarship from the Swiss government. I left for Helvetia in July 1986, intending to return to Oxford a year later, but in fact have never lived in England since. Once the doctorate was done, I survived for a while as a freelance translator of everything from chocolate adverts (sadly no free samples) to TV thriller scripts. Then it was off to Munich on a Humboldt Fellowship, researching into Richard Strauss. But in 1990 I found myself back in Zurich with what one’s mother always calls ‘a proper job’, running the very same music library whose avid visitor I had been during my studies.


My Schoeck biography finally came out – in German translation – in 1995. I had sworn back in the mid-80s that three or four years researching into an obscure Swiss composer would be enough for any healthy young fellow, for as such I regarded myself. But I found that the man’s music had a remarkable hold on me. It wasn’t anything exclusive or obsessive, thank god (my desert island discs remain Parsifal, the Magic Flute and Mendelssohn’s Octet), but rather like the advert for a certain beer back in England, I still find that Schoeck reaches parts that many other composers don’t. Of course he also wrote some weak music. But of his three hundred songs with piano, the majority are very fine, while his best half-dozen works (above all the instrumental song cycles Lebendig begraben and Notturno) are wonderful and can bear comparison with the greatest works of the age. His orchestration at its best has the luminescence of Berg and the delicacy of Ravel. Of how many composers could one say that?


My research also led to close ties to the Schoeck family, in particular to the composer’s nephew Georg, his wife Elisabeth and their seven children (yes, seven, and they’re not even Catholic!). Elisabeth became godmother to our first daughter, who bears her name, while our third child and only son has Elisabeth’s eldest daughter Salome as his godmother; he is also named after Salome’s three brothers: Alvaro Wolfgang Konrad Walton. (Confused? Never mind, so’s my son.) As I write this, I’m about to go off to the Schoeck family home in Brunnen, where the eldest son (called Alvaro, of course) is getting married tomorrow. Perhaps unusual for composer families, the Schoecks have always been wholly supportive of my research, helping wherever they could, and never once batting an eyelid whenever I criticized in print their ‘Denkmal-Onkel’, as they occasionally call him. As Derrick once said of another composer: it’s a poor tribute that confines itself to praise. And as a family of scholars, the Schoecks knew that any serious biography can’t discuss the good without offering a critique of the bad. Two years ago, Georg and Elisabeth died within five weeks of each other; I miss them still, much, just as I often think of Derrick, who died just before his fiftieth birthday over a decade ago.


As the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death approached in 2007, I began to think about publishing the original English version of my Schoeck biography. After all, most of his works have since been released on CD, which means that the potential Anglo-American reading public now has access to the actual music (a complete recording of his songs on eleven CDs was published back in the 1990s on the Swiss label Jecklin, featuring singers such as Ian Bostridge, Kurt Streit, Lynn Dawson and Christiane Banse). But there were two problems. First, I had in the meantime published so much more on Schoeck, and had discovered so much more about him, that I couldn’t really regard the old book as up-to-date any more. Secondly, the rights to the book lay with the original publisher. So I decided to write a whole new book.


The original doctorate had been a ‘life’, with the music discussed only in passing. But since it was unlikely that a book on Schoeck in English would prompt a rapid flood of further studies of him, any new biography would have to go the full Monty and deal with the music as well as the man. So I went ahead and wrote it in my last year as a professor in Pretoria, before we returned to Switzerland. Having already brought out a book with a Boydell imprint (my Richard Wagner’s Zurich), I was keen to repeat the experience, and so approached the University of Rochester Press. To my delight, they accepted it. The manuscript was dreadfully long, but upon re-reading it, I saw that there was much ballast that could be excised easily. I naturally hope that the result is a leaner, fitter Schoeck. It’s a pretty meaty Schoeck all the same, as the text alone is over 150,000 words, not counting the bibliography and all. But still – I hope – within the bounds of what the average public is prepared to read. And it has some very nice photos.


The second biography parallels the first in many ways, but that’s only because they are both about the same composer writing the same music, married to the same wife and with the same friends. I could no more change my ‘cast list’ than could a Beethoven biographer leave out nephew Karl, the Immortal Beloved or Beethoven himself. But my two biographies are in fact very different, especially because the new book discusses the music in some detail (offering a plethora of music examples compared to the first book’s none). I’ve also allowed rather more sex to penetrate the new book, as it were, and there’s a bit more deconstruction too (though to the reader, I hope it will smack more of common sense than of anything remotely theoretical). The more observant reader might even spot a reference to the Dead Parrot Sketch in the first chapter – as I plummet into middle age, I become ever more convinced that mainstream musicology can only benefit from a good deal more Python. As for me personally, I can never read Adorno without thinking of the Spanish Inquisition.


What’s been oddest for me, writing this new book, is that the quarter-of-a-century since I began its predecessor has seen the passing of most of the witnesses upon whose memories I depended so much. When I started my research on Schoeck, he had been dead for just twenty-six years, and many of those who had known him were still alive. I also found them remarkably candid – aged 70, 80 or more as they were, they obviously felt themselves too old to be embarrassed about anything. Thus it was that as a twenty-four-year-old student, I on one occasion sat listening to a lady in her 70s, reminiscing about her mother’s death-bed confession of how fantastic Schoeck had been between the sheets. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book for more details. You’ll also learn how the humble sandwich takes on a whole new meaning in Schoeck scholarship.


As I wrote the book – and as I write now – the faces and (above all) the voices of the men and women I interviewed, but who are now no more, were and are as fresh as when I met them. In some cases, even their exact words and their tone of voice are etched into my memory. I realize now that they in their turn had equally vivid memories of Schoeck himself, and how lucky I was to meet them. They are almost all dead, so Schoeck researchers present and future must content themselves with second- and third-hand information. I shall remain ever grateful to have been granted instead the privilege of such proximity to the source.


Othmar Schoeck is available from all good booksellers, along with Chris Walton’s previous book, Richard Wagner’s Zurich. Read a sample from Schoeck here and an earlier post by Chris here. We congratulate Chris on winning the 2009 Max Geilinger Prize.

1 comment:

Ralph Locke said...

I have admired and even loved various Schoeck pieces that I have heard through the years. (The Horn Concerto captivated me back in the late 1960s on an LP.) Chris Walton's essay here gives a vivid sense of what it must be like to work on the biography of a composer (or other figure) from recent decades, capturing reminiscences before they vanish. Thanks!