Monday, 29 November 2010

‘A locked door of which she had thrown away the key’

In 2007, we published the highly acclaimed Imogen Holst: a Life in Music, the first full-length treatment of the life and music of one of the most fascinating and influential English musicians of the twentieth century. The book was intended as a celebration both of its subject’s centenary, and of the eightieth birthday of Rosamund Strode, Imo’s great friend and her successor as Benjamin Britten’s music assistant in Aldeburgh. Three years later the discovery of much new material has prompted the issue of a new revised edition that is able to explore more fully the creative and emotional development of this much-loved character, who for all her friendliness and charm, would in her later years dismiss talk of her past in a manner that reminded Rosamund of ‘a locked door of which she had thrown away the key’. What we now know is that the key was never thrown away, only hidden, and that, moreover, its owner was far from clear in her own mind about whether or not she really wanted somebody to find it and unlock the door. Christopher Grogan explains:

The newly discovered materials came to light in the aftermath of the decision by the Holst Foundation in 2008 to gift Imo’s remaining archive to its sister organisation in Aldeburgh, the Britten-Pears Foundation. What followed was a thorough sorting through wardrobes, boxes under beds, cupboards and filing cabinets to reveal a goldmine of documentation – unsorted and uncatalogued – relating to Imo’s life and covering all periods of her career. The discoveries included correspondence, travel journals and diaries and a wide range of ephemera; more intimately there were also examples of Imo’s early enthusiasm as an artist, two books of poetry written during her teens, and a wallet of nude photographs of herself, taken in 1931.

In her own treatment of these papers, Imo reveals herself as profoundly ambivalent about the possibility of any future interest in her life and career. Although to friends such as Rosamund (who knew her better than anybody) she repelled questions about her past, she kept all the materials that would one day provide a biographer with the route into her intimate thoughts and feelings. Towards the end of her life she went a step further and wrote out entries from her old engagement diaries into a series of exercise books, thereby mapping the days of her life in a way that suggests that she was thinking about either writing her own autobiography, or preparing the ground for a later biography. Most illuminatingly she wrote on the cover of one travel journal that it should be thrown away as being too old to be of any use. Significantly, however, she didn’t perform the act herself (which would have taken less time than writing the note on the cover), thereby dangling the journal in front of posterity and inviting those who were to come after to make the final decision about its worth. It is not surprising that this particular journal – covering the winter of 1928-9 – should record one of the happiest times of her life, when she enjoyed an Alpine holiday with the man she was then profoundly in love with, Miles Tomalin, a holiday that prompted her to write ‘Return’, one of a sequence of heartfelt love poems that light up Imo’s inner emotional journey through her late teens and early twenties:

After those days and nights of restless joy & agony,
Of vague desires, & uncertain hopes,
It is like drifting into a dreamless sleep,
A calm & deep peace, a long quietness,
To have your arms about me once again,
To feel your dear, familiar limbs pressed close
To mine: - your head lying on my breast.
To stroke your hair, & look into your eyes.
To laugh – so safe, & so secure at last.

The Imo that emerged from these newly discovered materials, and whose story is explored in the revised text, is a more complex, troubled and ultimately sympathetic figure than it was possible to present in the first edition. Raised by a loving but emotionally stilted (and frequently absent) father and a disinterested mother, she found the forging of close emotional connections painfully difficult, often falling hopelessly in love during her early years but never letting on, pouring out her desires and frustrations into her poetry instead. In Miles Tomalin she found a partner who allowed her to recreate her relationship with her father; the closer the two became the less able they were to express their feelings (both resorting once again to poetry to do this) and the relationship eventually foundered on their mutual inability to commit themselves emotionally. In the years that followed, Imo gave herself into relationships that were more physically intense but left her emotionally untouched, before the death of her father sent her spiralling into feelings of guilt and shame, ostensibly because she hadn’t offered to help him more in his professional life, but in reality because she had never been able to express or share the depth of her love for him.

Thus it was that she chose to dedicate her life to his memory and began to shut herself off from her own emotional fulfilment. On a visit to Santa Barbara in 1936, recorded in a diary not available when the first edition came out, she tearfully weighed up her options before coming to a final decision:

I decided that this was obviously the place to live, and that the sensible thing to do would be to earn a lot of money writing music for the films and then retire to Santa Barbara with a small house, a large garden, a select library and a lover. (The last being essential in such a climate.) After ten minutes reflection, however, came to the conclusion that Primrose Hill and celibacy would be more satisfying for any length of time … I was in the depths of gloom by the time E. [her uncle Ernest Cossart] rescued me with the mention of food.

This decision was to inform Imo’s creative journey over the next half-century, laying the foundations on which she was to build her achievements, but also affecting profoundly her approach to relationships, appearance and lifestyle. Moreover it puts into context the shattering emotional impact of her falling in love with Britten, fifteen years after her Santa Barbara decision and at a time when she believed she had put such things behind her. With Imo’s early life and emotional journey now so much better understood, her infatuation with the composer no longer comes out of the blue, but can be understood as a complex reliving of her teenage crushes, repeating the dynamic of her relationships with both her father and Miles Tomalin. In the wake of all this turbulence, it now seems much less surprising that this most self-effacing of creative musicians should finally decide to dedicate her whole existence to opening out the genius of Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, whilst locking away her own past and hiding the key.

The revised and updated edition of Imogen Holst: A Life in Music by Christopher Grogan is available now in paperback.

Friday, 19 November 2010

When Leon Met James

Harvard Square — a loosely defined ten- to twelve-block area in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, articulated by a maze of streets and characterized by the interpenetration of university and commercial interests—is full of life, crowded, stimulating, and noisy. Cars, taxis, buses, and a subway station service a constant and remarkably diverse flow of humanity. Students and professors represent only a small fraction of this international, polyglot urban population. Musicians, jugglers, glass harmonica players, and political activists vie for prime sidewalk locations, while youth in punk attire add color. And yet, immediately adjacent to the square, there are a few quiet, narrow, one-way streets lined with buildings from the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries. For four decades Leon Kirchner made his home in one of these idyllic havens, at 8 Hilliard Street.

On August 12, 2003, I visited him there to continue the series of interviews that I had been conducting over the previous two years. Even at eighty-four, Kirchner’s erect and imposing six-foot-one inch frame had lost very little altitude to the ravages of time. Admittedly, his movements were slow, and he carefully settled into the low sofa across from me, his lanky legs stretched out, almost bridging the distance between us. He had just returned two days earlier from a trip to New York City, and—totally without preamble—he launched immediately into a report.

“We were at a cocktail party and met scientists from Cold Spring Harbor where McClintock, the Nobel Prize winner, had worked. They invited us out to their laboratory. But I was nervous about going, because Watson was going to be there. After what had happened years ago, I didn’t want to encounter him.”

Assuming that I knew something about Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock, and Watson (which I did not) he apparently was not going to offer further explanation. The mysterious Watson intrigued me most, so naturally I probed: “Who was Watson, and what had happened?” It turned out that he was James Watson, a distinguished molecular biologist and former Harvard professor. Kirchner had first met him under unusual circumstances almost forty years earlier.

At that time, because of Kirchner’s reputation for “being from Hollywood,” he was invited by Paul Doty of the Harvard Chemistry Department to attend a reception, ten days hence, for the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. In addition to appearing in Never on Sunday and many other films, she later served, from 1981 to 1989, as the flamboyant and controversial Greek minister of culture.

Although Kirchner had only recently assumed his Harvard post, the University of Chicago was courting him, and just prior to this reception he made a trip there to explore their offer of a university professorship. In Chicago he stayed with Saul Bellow and was wined and dined by university officials. One of the conditions that Kirchner imposed on his acceptance of the position was the guarantee that he could bring in whomever he wished to study composition, even if his choice fell on a candidate whose résumé did not fit the usual standards.

Kirchner discussed this topic at length with George Beadle, the president of the university, emphasizing his conviction that sometimes the most talented and brilliant individuals simply do not conform to traditional expectations in regard to degree acquisition as well as other professional credentials and social skills. Beadle, a distinguished geneticist and Nobel Prize winner, readily agreed with him and related his own experience with just such a case, a highly gifted but problematic scientist named James Watson whom he had supported, against strong opposition from his colleagues, years earlier at the California Institute of Technology. (At this point Kirchner digressed into an explanation of why he eventually turned down the Chicago offer: because of “its location in the middle of the country, the harsh climate, and the distasteful experience of seeing thousands of white fish dying in Lake Michigan during his visit.”)

A few days later, back in Cambridge, Kirchner went to the reception for Mercouri. While most of the guests were hovering around the fascinating actress/ politician, he fell into a pleasant conversation with a faculty member with whom he was not acquainted. Their discussion focused on the topic of extraordinarily talented individuals who sometimes just do not fit in. This of course led to Kirchner’s recent trip to Chicago, and he began to recount his meeting with George Beadle and their conversation about a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, who, in spite his of great intellectual gifts, had experienced some personal and even academic difficulties. Before Kirchner got very far, the unknown man interrupted him: “I think I should tell you that my name is James Watson.” Kirchner had been so embarrassed that he avoided Watson for years on the Harvard campus.

Returning finally to his trip to New York City the previous week, Kirchner said that his friends had made a call to Cold Spring Harbor, which I learned was a research facility on Long Island, and had determined that Watson remembered Kirchner well and would be delighted to have him visit. The trip was a wonderful experience. The physical beauty of the location was beyond compare, and Kirchner had been fascinated by the laboratory’s biochemical research on brain functions, which he described in vivid detail. At one point Watson had expressed doubt that concert pianists, who by necessity have to practice so many hours a day in order to master the technical demands of their instrument, could be broadly educated intellectuals. Naturally, Kirchner took umbrage and suggested that this misconception would be cleared up if he could meet two outstanding pianists, with multifaceted academic credentials, who had recently been championing Kirchner’s music: Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss. It turned out that the laboratory ran its own small concert series each year, and Kirchner recommended that these young artists be engaged.

I have related this encounter in such detail because it provides a rich and characteristic entry into several aspects of Kirchner’s persona: his love of storytelling, his interest in science, his wonderful sense of humor, and his outgoing sociability. He delighted in relating personal anecdotes, and his colorful career provided a rich reservoir of material. Moreover, he was a brilliant raconteur, with an astounding memory for details of past conversations and events, and, when needed, the talent to mimic the accents and mannerisms of his protagonists.

With him, however, one anecdote rarely came alone. His conversation was governed by an active stream of consciousness in which associations constantly triggered new ideas and memories. An encounter with Kirchner was always an adventure— stimulating, challenging, and surprising. Sometimes, as in the story described above, the episodes fit neatly inside each other like a Russian nested doll, but one often had to ask for clarification or additional information in order to follow his fleet and fertile chain of thought. It was always worth the effort.

Kirchner’s keen sense of humor always served him especially well in his roles as teacher and conductor. He could be very entertaining and was not above laughter at his own expense. One of his favorite stories concerned an experience at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont where he had performed as pianist in his Sonata Concertante with violinist Alexander Schneider at the beginning of a concert. During the intermission, the violinist Jaime Laredo, who was in the audience, overheard a conversation between two elderly women seated next to him. One asked if the pianist, Kirchner, had indeed composed “that work.” Her friend assured her that he had. “Then,” she pursued, “did all of those notes come out of his head?” “Well, yes, they did,” the friend replied, to which the other retorted, “it must have felt awfully good to get rid of them!”

This extract comes from the opening chapter of Robert Riggs’ new biography, Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher. Readers of this blog may buy this book at 40% discount until the end of November (shipping extra: US $5.95 UK £3.00 Europe £6.50). Simply visit the book’s page on our website and follow the order instructions, quoting reference number $10358 in the US and Canada and =10307 elsewhere. Do hurry, this offer can only run until 30 November 2010.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Once upon a time in Vienna

Marc Moskovitz’s superbly readable biography, Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony, has already attracted some enthusiastic reviews. Zemlinsky’s Zelig-like progress through the fin-de-siècle Viennese musical world has obscured his own achievement. In this excerpt, we witness the composer working with another figure who had to wait for the fame he so richly deserved, Gustav Mahler:

At the start of the twentieth century Zemlinsky experienced one of the greatest triumphs he would ever receive at the hands of his fellow Viennese. When Gustav Mahler led the premiere of Zemlinsky’s newest opera, Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) on January 22, 1900, Zemlinsky was forced to acknowledge the ovation — including the war-whoops from the younger members of the audience — at the conclusion of each act. Both thrilled and embarrassed, Zemlinsky bowed awkwardly from the Hofoper stage. Such accolades had been commonly accorded to composers like Johann Strauss jr. or Franz Lehár, darlings of Vienna’s operetta world, or even occasionally to Johannes Brahms, particularly toward the end of his life, but ovations of this nature were something Zemlinsky had only experienced once before, at the premiere of Sarema. Coming off that opera’s success, it appeared Zemlinsky had found his calling.

Brahms’s death three years earlier had left Zemlinsky without vital support in the musical establishment, but Mahler quickly moved to fill the vacuum. Following the successful Munich debut of Sarema, Mahler, who was looking at a Hofoper diet comprising Mozart and Wagner, along with occasional productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Thomas’s Mignon and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, approached Zemlinsky about bringing Sarema back to Vienna. While doubtless flattered at the prospects of having a work premiered under such auspicious circumstances, it appears that Zemlinsky sought to convince Mahler that he was capable of much better. Keenly aware of the success Engelbert Humperdink, Karl Goldmark and Hans Pfitzner had had with fairy tale operas, Zemlinsky too wished to try his hand at the genre and indeed had already sketched out some ideas. Mahler gave his consent, and in August of 1897 Zemlinsky set to work in earnest.

Zemlinsky turned to Holger Drachmann’s Der var engang, a grand five-act national drama that had been played in Vienna in 1894. Drachmann’s fairy tale pivots around a Princess for whom no courtier is good enough and a Prince who is determined to win her love. Tricked into marrying a gypsy (the Prince in disguise), the once haughty Princess is reduced to living in a forest hut and selling pots in the marketplace. Though initially contemptuousness of her new life, she gradually re-evaluates her world and her desires and develops a genuine affection for her husband and their simple life together. The fidelity of the former Princess is soon put to the test, but her love for the gypsy remains steadfast, even in the most tempting of circumstances. By the story’s close, the Princess confesses to having found a love greater than even a Prince could provide. Her transformation complete, the gypsy-prince finally unveils his true, aristocratic identity.

At the end of June of 1898, Zemlinsky submitted an early draft of Es war einmal’s piano score to Mahler, but Mahler’s initial impression was far from encouraging. There was no question that the younger man possessed a formidable talent and technique. Zemlinsky’s characters possessed distinct musical profiles, and his language was efficient and refined, with rhythmic and melodic vitality that never overpowered the voice. It was the work’s overly derivative nature that troubled Mahler. Some degree of outside influence could be expected, since building on the ideas of others was a natural part of the learning process and Zemlinsky had not yet turned thirty. Nevertheless, the manuscript Zemlinsky presented to Mahler was “so full of resemblances and plagiarisms” that its composer “must have a very bad memory to have failed to avoid them”.

Mahler had put his finger on a critical issue : Zemlinsky had learned all that can be taught and had a complete grasp of the elements associated with orchestral and vocal writing. What he had yet to find was the one thing nobody could give him : a distinctive sound, a sonic fingerprint, the unexpected turn of a phrase that says “Schubert”, or the unique orchestration that renders Mendelssohn or Shostakovich or Copland immediately recognizable. Zemlinsky would, of course, find his personal idiom, a voice distinctly his own, but that ownership was still years away. In the meantime he continued to rely heavily — far too heavily, Mahler thought — on the music of others to help lead the way. The critics would concur.

To his credit, Mahler was willing to have his misgivings allayed. Zemlinsky took Mahler up on his offer and played the opera through for him at the piano. Whether because of the conviction of Zemlinsky’s own interpretation, the realization that the work did indeed have potential, or the reaffirmation of Zemlinsky’s undeniable talent, the music director agreed to accept Es war einmal for performance. But the offer came with a caveat : the score would have to undergo significant modifications. For Zemlinsky, Mahler’s proposal held two benefits : first, Mahler’s experience with the demands of the theater would help transform Zemlinsky’s efforts into an opera worthy of being offered up to Hofoper audiences and critics who had come to expect productions of the highest caliber ; second, the project would again place Zemlinsky directly under the wing of one of Vienna’s most influential and powerful musicians. Zemlinsky didn’t have to think twice about the offer.

Mahler’s own knowledge of the theater stemmed more from his dedication to the operas of others than to his own stage works. his only personal operatic attempts had occurred much earlier, and he had long since given up on the idea of composing opera. Years in the theater had taught him what was needed to bring a story — even a fairy tale — to life, and this was precisely the information and experience for which Zemlinsky thirsted. Under Mahler’s direction, the entire opera — music and text — was overhauled, resulting in significant cuts, modifications and rewrites. Mahler’s understanding of stagecraft — the complexities of which Zemlinsky was only beginning to learn — also resulted in a number of practical suggestions and revisions, such as lengthening the Interlude to Act I, which allowed greater time for a costume and scene change. In December of 1899, the full score was complete and the following month the curtain rose on Es war einmal for the first time.

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony by Marc Moskovitz is available from your favourite bookseller or, in case of difficulty, direct from Boydell and Brewer in the US or the UK.