Let the Blues shake that thing!

Such a strikingly autochthonous and mysterious American Art music, allegedly risen up from unknown and lost origins, abounding in myths spouted by latter-day aficionados. For many, our earliest exposure to primal Blues came through Robert Johnson.

Until recently there were no images of Johnson, depicted here as a generic rural guitarist. One could only fantasize over his missing features, attire, and character. The stereotype pose foisted onto his sole record-jacket didn’t help clear the fog until a recently discovered photo reveals him to have been dapper, possessing endlessly long, slender fingers that drew out a distinct lonesome sound, moaning, harsh, a repressed violence behind virtuosity too big for a rural genre in which he seemed stuck. Had he lived longer, Johnson would have moved out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and plugged in but being poisoned at age 27 shifted music’s destiny. Instead he has been represented as an icon that presumably attained musical mastery overnight by having sold his soul to the devil at a cross roads, filling up on supernatural fuel and paying for it with a deadly bargain. This popular myth was the brainchild of Blues fans who failed to acknowledge or grasp how hard work, talent, and musical perception shaped his artistry. Their puerile view deforms a distinct individuality into the role of a puppet in a Faustian encounter viewed from above by gawkers at a circus side-show: although the Johnson-Devil myth mirrors their own limits, it rained gold onto tribute bands such as the Rolling Stones.

Johnson’s art developed from hanging with Son House and copying recordings by other artists. Son House takes us one step back into early Blues and the hard-core gets harder:

Son House Preaching the Blues I

I’m gonna get me a religion

I’m gonna join the Baptist church,

I’m gonna get me a religion

I’m gonna join the Baptist church,

I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher

And I sure won’t have to work.

Until these recordings were discovered by outsiders, there was a veil drawn over Afro-American society and the technology of shellac discs captured a vast window onto nascent, prevalent, and passing styles, with each protagonist projecting a staggering individuality. Son House veered between alcohol, debauched living, and serving as a preacher, mixing all into a difficult but ferociously expressive art. Johnson copied his singing and extended his playing.

Some were untraceable figures whose entire existence remains in a few minutes of surviving sound and glimpses dwelling in testimony of older Delta denizens who stayed on or turned up in the North. Each musician enters into your hearing through their rhythm, a calling card bearing their identity. One step earlier than Son House is Charley Patton, whose wondrous gaze exists in one surviving photo:


Patton’s rhythm emerged in Son House and Johnson and sounds like their source. The poetics and narrative in Mississippi Boll Weevil were transcribed with much effort. Note how the commentator weaves a flurry of asides and observations while questioning Boll Weevil & wife with a farmer and reporting their conversation as well:

It’s a little boll weevil he’s moving it-a in the [air,] Lordy,
You can plant your cotton and you won’t get a half-a cent, Lordy.

“Boll weevil, boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“A Louisiana raised in Texas is-a where I’s bred and born,” Lordy.

Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
The next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.

Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me “Fare ye well,” Lordy,
Where you going now?
“I’m going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell,” Lordy.

Boll weevil tell the (farmer?), “Think I treat you fair?” Lordy,
How is that, Boy?
“Suck all the blossom and leave your hedges square,” Lordy.
The next time I seen you, you [‘d]-a had your family there, Lordy.

Boll weevil (and his-a) wife “We’ll sit down on the hay,” Lordy,
Boll weevil told the wife “Let’s take this forty a[cres]*,” Lordy.

Boll weevil told his wife, said “I believe I may go North,” Lordy,
Lord I won’t tell nobody,
Let’s a leave-a Louisiana, raise and go to Arkansas, Lordy.

Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
Next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.

Boll weevil told his wife, “Lord I think I treat you fair,” Lordy,
Sucks all the blossom and leaves your hedges square, Lordy.

“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“Most anywhere they’re raisin’ cotton and corn,” Lordy.

“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, thought I [was] treatin’ you fair,” Lordy,
The next time I (n)eed you, you had your family there, Lordy.

*This expression, like many others, had been erroneously transcribed. A new restoration I made helped me retrieve Patton’s reference to the severance pay of forty acres and a mule allotted to ex-slaves during Reconstruction, once a well-known fact but now an obscured memory.

Johnson is confined to personal anguish and busily copies other songsters’ works while House desultorily bombinates between holiness and personal abandon. Inside Patton is a vast panorama like Mark Twain’s world, narrating floods, arrests, agricultural blight, news, estranged lovers, introspection of someone’s (his?) inner life, formal presentation of religion within an entertainer’s guise and a voice unlike anyone heard since. Since drumming was prohibited under Slavery, communicating rhythms were smuggled onto the guitar and Delta musicians embodied a style deriving from African polyrhythms which their DNA reproduced, one they possessed but never directly encountered.

Patton, House, and Johnson created art music heard only in remote socially segregated roadhouses and cafes in the pre-War Delta region. One 1966 film captures a surviving Delta master, Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White placed within a recreated juke-joint ambience singing  Baby, you’re killing me.

White knew Patton and House and he fleshes out our picture through another rhythmically distinct African pattern that gets his guitar into communicating a message of seduction, transmitted to a receptive curvaceous dancer who can’t resist. Son House reappears, jumping and inebriated, falling into a glimpse of his earlier life. We find them reinhabiting a lost world that gave birth to the core of Rock music, usually simplified into tributes that led the curious further to come upon America’s earliest living and documented musical treasures.

Bach leads to Marchal

One day in 1997, I found a Bach recording by organist André Marchal (1894-1980).

Earlier French organists, such as Louis Vierne (1870-1938) and Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) played their Bach like a heavy tapestry. Here is Vierne in a Bach Choral Prelude: Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV637, recorded in 1929 at Notre-Dame, Paris, where he officiated. Vierne is in love with the space and shapes his phrasing and colors to fill it:

Vierne plays Bach Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV637

Marcel Dupré and Vierne were composers who explored the miraculous organs that Cavaille-Coll built in France during the 19th century. Even the Russians, who tried to be as French as possible then, just had to have one so the Tsar ordered one for Moscow, a unique example outside of France.

Dupré took the Gothic weight in Vierne and hung even heavier sonic drapery onto Bach’s contrapuntal shoulders. Here is an excerpt of Bach’s Kyrie: Gott Heiliger Geist 671, made late in life, from Rouen, only a few years before Dupré’s death.

Bach dupre

Marchal is often overlooked and many of his recordings had lapsed into Out of Print terrain. Once the Bach recital was playing, our son Stefan abandoned his drawing and ran into the living room to sit and listen. On first hearing he demanded that we repeat a sequence of the Fantasia in G and three Preludes and Fugues and could not get enough of it, for he sat in rapt attention throughout the half hour of music each day for at least six months. Our guest Anssi Blomstedt, an auteur from Helsinki, captured our four-year old in action:

Stefan Evans listens to André Marchal

I was as stunned by the music as by Stefan’s way of putting the breaks on our existences to enter into a new sound world. Whereas the French organ masters had built Bach as a sonic cathedral, Marchal cast light on the rose windows, exposing densities and colors, unsuspected narrative and nuances in the music that had become a congestion of counterpoint in other hands. Like Wanda Landowska, he articulated the notes so that they spoke instead of being phrased as chant.

After a few calls, I traced Marchal’s daughter in Paris. Having mastered English, she mentioned that she helped along her father’s British and American pupils. One was Lee Erwin, a theater organist, Marchal’s first American pupil. Around 1930 he moved to Paris for lessons. Erwin told me about breathless weekly Sundays: as soon as Marchal finished playing and improvising mass at St. Eustache, he would bolt to the metro to get to Trinité in time for Messiaen’s moment. Other options included Vierne at Notre Dame, and Tournemire at Ste. Clotilde. Erwin recorded Marchal at home on a neo-Baroque organ installed at rue Duroc by the builder Gutschenritter. As Marchal envisioned a Bach with more transparency, he aided in the design of the instrument to initiate a new approach to Bach. Landowska was pioneering a revival through the harpsichord and captured his spirit, although some kitsch elements in her art tire at times.

Jacqueline Marchal-Englert sent a letter with a family photo destined for Stefan, seated by her father with a guest in his lap while touring the US in 1974:

Winnetka, Illinois 1974

Erwin published two LPs of Marchal at home on his Zodiac label, a tax write-off that had the astonishing Irén Marik on its roster. Jacqueline had the master tapes and we prepared an edition. In Paris, I visited her frequently during a stay and interviewed her. She remarked that her father knew only two words in English and used them with his pupils:


“Not good!”

The dry acoustics of Marchal’s living room inspired a sparse but acutely focused combination of stops to shape distinct color, especially in Bach’s Adagio from the Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C which I published through Arbiter.

Bach Adagio

The Italian accompanied melody is transformed by a sudden shift of stops ending with a suspension of pulse and time. Marchal fearlessly prolongs the harsh dissonance, dragging the piece into a new dimension. He was touched with the ability to receive and transmit a force of energy in sound that to call it “divine” would be far too inadequate for the gift he and others possessed as individuals who acted as intermediaries between the mundane reality and a heightened existence. Jacqueline compared Dupré to her father, finding the older master to be an architect whereas Marchal was the poet.

Marchal had instruction from three pupils of César Franck and mentioned that they all gave varying advice on organ registration, so he combined it and added his own way into the mix. Let’s compare how both Dupré and Marchal play the beginning of Franck’s Prelude Fugue and Variation with Dupré in 1927 at Queens Hall, London:

franck dupre

and by Marchal in 1958 at St Eustache, Paris:

Franck Marchal

Just as Jacqueline tirelessly led her father around, she continued to see that his art remained within grasp. We once retrieved and published André Marchal’s first recordings.

On the CD is Questa fanciulla by the early organ Italian composer Landini (1325 or 1335-1397). Two voices appear: One appears to be engaged in prayer while the other indulges in a colorful narrative.

Questa fanciulla

The French composer Poulenc, a few years younger than Marchal, said that he had the best ear in Paris. Marchal was born blind and said that it did not trouble him too much, as he had no idea of what was missing and everyone was so kind to him and loved his art.

I write these lines this morning on learning of Jacqueline’s death this past Saturday, April 21, 2012.

– ©Allan Evans/Arbiter of Cultural Traditions

Reactions to the Record III

Stanford University’s music department became an oasis in academia when it hosted a third symposium on historic recordings (April 12-14, 2012), covering what obsesses many of us and playfully dominates our lives and actions: reacting to discs that lure one by their staggering expressivity and culture, draped in the flirtatious  je ne sais quoi of an authenticity, either a miracle or mirage. So we all landed and began to play and discuss traces of this elusive element.

George Barth with a sonic accomplice

I always begin a new music class by dragging them inside the sound world. Imagine taking an Art History course where your professor hands out black and white photocopies of great artworks bearing numbers on their visual components. You are advised to look at an inset that defines the numbers as colors and told that it’s all here, no need to schlep to a museum and bother with the original. Music too often gets taught this way, as many seek to  avoid studying and listening to recordings, especially from long ago, as forgotten masters are deemed to be out of style, even by people who never heard their playing. Better restoration has changed the torture of bacon frying into a living sound.

So in the face of this challenge to music, it’s a sizzling soothing scene to find international like-minded profs assembled by George Barth and Kumaran Arul who both contributed to and provided a forum for ideas and approaches. One case surrounded an attempt to rescue Scriabin’s music.

A visionary, he imagined that global transformation would be realized through a performance of his final but incomplete Mysterium, meant to be simultaneously unfolded throughout the world, including Tibet. When I met Kyriena Siloti, Rachmaninoff’s cousin, she recalled visiting Tibetan lamas in St. Petersburg before the Revolution and how their breathing exercises helped her tackle the rough climate while fleeing the Bolsheviks, stuck in Yekaterinberg where the Romanoff’s were murdered, heading to Harbin, China. Scriabin also tapped into what we now consider our newly found alternative life styles, getting inside this wildness over a century ago.

As much as Scriabin gazed ahead, he avoided crucial contact with the recording horn. We will never hear how his piano sounded. Kyriena and two other ladies from her time all concurred that Scriabin’s playing was inimitable in its nuances, sfumature as the Italian-speaking Maria Safonoff would say. Maria had lived in Varese, Italy for nearly a year after fleeing the Revolution yet sixty years in New York didn’t help her master English. All singled out Vladimir Sofronitsky as one closest to the composer’s own playing, albeit having more strength in his dynamics.

Scriabin allowed himself to play on an instrument punching holes in a paper roll to capture the exact notes and their spaces, playable on a mechanical piano. He left many works in this state, lacking contrasts in touch, balance, degrees of soft/loud, but one can isolate details and step a little closer to how he may have played in a way that departs from his own notation. One remarkable investigator, Anatole Leikin, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, sat down to play Scriabin’s Désir, using the piano roll as a base for recreating parts of the composer’s lost art. Leikin recorded a generous and intriguing CD of reconstructed Scriabin. Hear the Etude, op. 42, no. 5, one usually projected as a wild virtuosic foray. Leikin summons it forth as internal sonic magma:

Scriabin Etude op. 42, no.5 by Anatole Leikin

A thorny Scriabin assessment came later via a grad student who appropriated Scriabin’s own piano roll of an early Prelude into software that logged rhythmic irregularities, creating printed data of all his shifts, coloring notes to show speeding up or being slowed, and how the composer altered them from straight-forward into swing rhythms.

But what is one to do with data? I asked if analyzing the music would better explain the motives behind internal and structural  changes. One needs to use ear and eye to fathom underlying reasons, and they emerge without troubling oneself over taking, let’s say, the following three notes 2% faster. Why is more important than How and When. I mentioned this approach of graphing music to Miriam Kartch, a pianist at Mannes College who first arrived there in 1941 and studied with pupils of Schenker. Waking her with an early morning phone call, she huffed in alarm: “That’s not music. It’s autism!”

I was asked at the symposium if Vladimir Sofronitsky had ever heard Scriabin play.

Somewhere in print you find that he did not experience this rare encounter. Many pore over his work in writing, like viewing a house from outside. I like to walk in before anything else starts up. Over the years I had been in touch with Sofronitsky’s daughter Roxanne, seen here with her son Alexei, who resembles his great-grandfather, snapped in their California home during a symposium break:

Sofronitsky held a ticket to Scriabin’s 1915 solo piano recital in Moscow. They mentioned that the fourteen-year-old had a high fever that evening and was forcibly kept home by his parents amidst his incessant protests. Days later, Scriabin developed a pimple on his lip which led to septicemia and sudden death. A photo of the composer hung over Sofronitsky’s piano, and he married the composer’s daughter Elena, whom I met in 1987 (at home in Moscow) and 1988 (in California, her first and only USA trip):

Elena Scriabina Sofronitskaya at home, 1989. Photo by David Krakauer.

Scriabin’s death was shocking, leaving a void in music and depriving us of a striking dimension that he was eagerly exploring. Elena hardly new her father as her parents divorced early on. Rachmaninoff gave a memorial concert in Moscow.

Several attendees told me that while they appreciated Rachmaninoff’s gesture, he lacked a grasp of Scriabin’s style. This is evident on his one surviving example, playing Scriabin’s Prelude, op. 11, no. 8 in a way that shapes the music into a Chopinesque melody with a focus on the right hand. The left hand has an equally important part and Rachmaninoff coolly doesn’t grasp its proportioning and role, a rare lapse of judgment:


Sofronitsky creates a fuller perspective by having both hands intertwining their parts, probing its essence, summoning elements of the composer’s unknown playing:

Scriabin by Sofronitsky

It’s delightful to hear scholars agree and expound on your preferences but you learn absolutely nothing from this pleasure. However those who assault you with unexpected successes and glaring misjudgments end up providing a greater favor as catalysts to thought. This symposium veered into a Trimalcionian banquet (here in Fellini’s interpretation of Petronius) spanning the enlightened and the bizarre.

cena di Trimacione

I leave you a way to lose yourself in the subtleties and suggestiveness of Scriabin’s Fragilité

as played by Samuil Feinberg, who knew its composer and received his approval.

Scriabin by Feinberg

How Asia lives in Debussy

What on earth does the Frenchman Debussy have to do with Asian music? It sure effected his music and once you hear what lies there, it will change your own listening! The barrier begins when most pianists struggle to drag their familiar Debussy into his late works, where he reinvented himself in a Modernism leaning towards Mondrian rather than remaining shut into the sonic Monet he was made to represent. Debussy’s old clothes no longer fit and their efforts fall flat.

Let’s sample a bona-fide critically-acclaimed Debussy expert, Walter Gieseking,

playing an excerpt from Etude no.7. The studio mike is usually placed at a distance to reduce the snorting from his adenoids, giving the sound more Impressionism as his producers sought to shape and sell it while lessening his nose tones:

Debussy a la Gieseking

It’s played like an Etude, a gymnastic feat deftly tamed. But Debussy’s underground use of harmony and motivic narrative was left lying unsuspected and ignored. Yvonne Loriod, a couple of decades younger, married Messiaen

Messiaen and Loriod

and knew damn well where the late Debussy led and could look back and demonstrate his innovations that the limited Gieseking didn’t grasp.

Debussy by Loriod

One outside culture that unexpectedly hit Debussy was his encounter with Indonesian music at a Paris Exposition. We can only guess which gamelan genre he heard but I offer this alluring private gamelan playing Babar Layar, owned by a Chinese merchant in Java who allowed them to be recorded around 1928 by visiting Germans. The European engineers left out its deep bass gongs so use your imagination to fill them in:

babar layar

Debussy spent time with Stravinsky who came to Paris for his new works presented by the Ballets Russes with Nijinsky and Diaghilev. At Debussy’s they played through the Rite of Spring on two pianos and became well acquainted musically and socially. One striking detail in this shot of the emergent Stravinsky with a moribund Debussy is the artwork in Debussy’s apartment: Japanese prints.

Debussy & Stravinsky

Just as Debussy’s idea of Asian music is presented as if emanating from a Renoir parlor, we hear Pagodes given in the way a Parisian would browse postcards. Gieseking was born in Lyon, France and grew up bi-lingual. He loved collecting butterflies more than playing the piano but here in 1938 he is sensitive to its expressive shapes:

Debussy Pagodes 1938

Unlike Gieseking, the German-trained Percy Grainger collected folk music, trekking to Nordic villages, covering the Celtic cultures of the British Isles.

He and Béla Bartók owned copies of Music of the Orient, a pioneering set of discs spanning from Japan to Persia.

Grainger gave an evening in Austin, Texas’s university, playing solo, with wind ensemble and addressing listeners. Obsessed with Pagodes, he once arranged the piece for multiple pianos and percussion. Here are some remarks by Grainger in a thick Australian accent:

Grainger lectures on Pagodes

Now hear Grainger keeping his word by pedaling heavily to keep the gong tones ringing. What you’ll experience is a boundary between Western and Asian music being shattered as a new form emerges. Grainger was twenty-two years younger than Debussy and thirteen years older than Gieseking:

Debussy Pagodes by Grainger, Texas 1948

While Debussy was dying from cancer and hardly able to compose, he received visits from an Indian guest:

Inayat Khan, musician and Sufi

Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher, brought a veena along for his European lecture tour. He met often with Debussy, playing the instrument and singing. Debussy asked to borrow the veena while Khan covered the continent. Khan may have given Debussy some lessons and perhaps he picked it up on occasion but died before Khan’s return and the instrument was lost. A greater loss was the style it could have influenced, but traces of Asia in Debussy still emerge, one as recently as 2011.

On a visit to violinist Roman Totenberg, who at age 101 still teaches and can recall plenty from ninety-four years of music-making, I played for him a recording of his early idol and mentor, Bronislaw Huberman. It was Brahms’s violin concerto and I snapped a photo of his enrapt listening, putting aside body and environs to enter deeply into the sounds, which amazed him now as they did then:

On an earlier visit, I searched through his archives at his request and found many hours of concert recordings he had gathered throughout some sixty years. One tape from 1960 had Debussy’s violin and piano sonata. It was a difficult piece even for most renowned players to capture as violinists high and mighty lapsed into scales and occasional maudlin phrasing but seemed incomplete. Totenberg’s had a grasp that eluded the others. I had to ask him what was behind it all:

“When I came to Paris in 1933 I studied with Enesco and was eager to learn the Debussy sonata. After a year there I noticed that no one had ever programmed it in concert.”

Was it too difficult musically, or ignored for being passé?

“So I found two pupils of Debussy, one was Marcel Ciampi, and they coached me in it. Ciampi mentioned its being influenced by Asian music.”

And so it was, and I published it shortly after its discovery.

Keeping Grainger and the gamelan in mind, hear Roman Totenberg in an excerpt. A deep listening occurs as he plays:

Debussy, from The Art of Roman Totenberg Arbiter CD 159

I apologize (not really) for this lengthy post but this is what flashes through my mind when these people are mentioned and thus wished to spell it out for you in real time. . .

–©Allan Evans

Stinky proclaims himself Chopin’s heir!

One of the wondrous mythical beings in childhood was the infrequently appearing Stinky of vintage Abbott & Costello films. In no way was he dated: his dress and manner were as contemporary and vivid as the avatars we bombinated with in school hallways.


Just as Stinky is obsessed and possessive of his cards, Raoul von Koczalski, a look-alike, acted this way with Chopin.

From the very first sight of him, another personality came to mind at once: King Farouk of Egypt, an indolent, corrupt, but colorful defrocked monarch.

Child prodigies rarely had time for any formal education, and Koczalski, pardon me, von Koczalski was pushed into a career at a tender age. One period found him having lessons with Karol Mikuli, Chopin’s assistant.

It must have been remarkable to have had access to such a contact, Chopin’s star pupil and the first to edit his mentor’s notes with descriptions of how the composer himself used strategic fingerings and subtle pedaling to project his avant-garde creations. But Milkuli was quite old when Koczalski came to him.

Koczalski made a lifelong fetish of his contact with Mikuli, including secrets allegedly gleaned from him on how Chopin embellished his music, causing scholars to wonder and marvel over the recordings Koczalski left behind, several hours of Chopin.

One recently discovered program came from 1948, the year of the pianist’s death. He sits at Chopin’s own piano (an instrument he played when living in Poland, tuned to a lower pitch) and offers us a mazurka:

Chopin mazurka (op. 7, no.1) by Koczalski

Wait  a moment!! In one passage, Chopin composed a hemiola: a rhythmic creature that exhibits a boisterous math game: instead of the rocking one-two-three, one-two-three (a total of six beats), the clever composer made it into left hand groupings of one-two-one-two-one-two (three times two) against the feeling of three in the right hand. Chopin doesn’t often resort to this game. As Koczalski self-proclaimed himself to be Mikuli’s heir and Chopin’s musical grandson, enjoy the way he counts this rhythm:

Raoul’s beat

Let’s step aside for a moment and check some dates. Koczalski was born in 1884, Mikuli died in 1897, so our prize-winner was thirteen when his mentor left the planet.

Another boy, some two years older, never met Mikuli and never claimed to be Chopin’s one and only heir, but many listeners found Ignaz Friedman to have understood Chopin better than anyone in their time.

Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.
Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.

Here is Friedman playing Chopin’s rhythmic jest as written :

Ignaz rhythm

Once when I was about to lecture on Friedman at a symposium, the presenter ahead happened to select Koczalski as a significant historic link to Chopin, singling out Friedman as a musician whose Chopin should be reviled. Readings from Koczalski’s effusive paeans to his master and how the tradition flowed in his veins were supplemented by a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, offered as an exemplary correction to Friedman’s excesses (which weren’t heard during her spot). Here is one telling moment in the dance. Usually a martial rhythm dominates but in one unique episode, Chopin sets aside its rhythms and lazes into a rhapsodic improv:


There immediately follows a cloying melodic shape. Koczalski seems put off by its or his tedium of having something repeat, in expectation of its Big Bang theme to return on its heels:

Polonaise rvk 2

I sat stunned, as if Friedman had come to me in a dream days earlier, guiding me to isolate the exact same example and illustrate how overblown egotistic automatons like Koczalski overlooked Chopin’s subtleties written into the music, like Stinky coveting his cards on stage. I included Friedman’s disc to show the music coming to life when an interpreter provides a sonic close-up (note the left hand’s prominent bass tones and then the attention to chords,) sweeping into a momentous arrival of the main theme:

Friedman polonaise

If I haven’t caused every reader to experience discomfort by listening to Koczalski, then I sincerely hope this example will bring about a full-bodied revulsion. As Stinky hoarded his cards, Koczalski made public some hidden ornaments that Chopin dusted into a Nocturne. This was permitted as the music derived from Italian bel canto singing and he was obsessed with Bellini’s operas and their embellished arias. Moriz Rosenthal, born well before Koczalski in 1862, also studied with Mikuli and was mature when the master died.

He once stated that Mikuli understood Chopin in the way a talent understands a genius: Mikuli was practical in teaching how to create a singing legato line, a genuine link to the composer’s touch. Rosenthal provides an example:


Now it’s Koczalski’s turn:

9.2. Koczalski

Chopin wrote a friend of hearing the opera that night with vocalists who seemed to be digesting their dinner on stage. Koczalski’s kitschy inclusions, a la Liberace, add extra padding to phrases that bloat its rhythm, reminding one of an Italian adage:

To be accepted, lies and meatballs have to be large.

The aftershock of this alleged authentic and unchallenged playing leads to a photo of his doppelgänger, King Farouk, doing his best to stay awake during a serenade, similar to Koczalski’s struggle with what he perceived and projected as boredom in Chopin.

My sincerest apologies to the dethroned king:

his cousin Prince Hassan Aziz Hassan sat by Ignace Tiegerman’s bedside as he lay dying in Cairo and helped save his legacy, keeping Chopin’s spirit alive more than anyone else had, and on the Nile.

Tiegerman’s Chopin

Hassan’s Cairo


Scratching beneath surfaces

From the first sounds, this  pianist’s playing proved irresistible. As a low bass note materializes you are no longer in the zone beyond your nose; inner time intrudes.

Liszt Consolation no. 3

This playing of Liszt’s Consolation no. 3 is no pro-forma melody supported by an accompaniment. Every part gets charged with reflections, surrogate meanings tag along its main lines.

You could devour the nourishment in this feast emanating from a wooden box with metal strings, percussed with felt hammers. What kind of hands are responsible?

How did they get out from a renaissance sculpture and end up in the 19th century? What’s his hair like?

Pianists aren’t like this anymore. Clean-cut is the way to go. His expression is suggestive:

He liked to play Chopin. So did someone else. Here’s another pianist, a younger Swiss-Frenchman enjoying a delightful drink in the company of a cackling dame in her silly hat at the exclusive Hotel Ritz in Paris, early 1940s. Her hubby Albert snapped the photo.

photo by Albert Speer

Never saw him laugh in a photo. He was adored by the photographer, who wrote in his prison diaries of glorious evenings spent together while on assignment there, relaxing at the pianist’s apartment over some Chopin and Debussy decanted from his hands. The pianist got quite busy recording in occupied France, 1942, and churned out all 24 of Chopin’s Etudes. The last one of them resembles a roller coaster map, everything repeated, just harmonies shifted for variety’s sake:

 How will he play it?

Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 12 (1942)

Images come to mind. He singles out the bottom and top tones, the rest gelling like a blur, shining through a foggy uncertainty like this atmosphere:

Backing  up a mere two years we catch our renaissance man with the renaissance hands having a go at it in occupied Vienna:

Chopin Etude in C minor, op. 25, no. 12 (1940)

The Swiss-Frenchman’s blurry musical muddle is nothing like the oldster’s excited mesh of interlocking inner rhythms that vie with attention given to its extremities, not to mention secondary melodies darting between alto voices down into a low baritone, as Chopin wrote it, smeared over by the younger Modernist who over-pedals them into a froth. This complex hive of activity has a different spirit altogether, given a contemplation amidst frenzy buy a wise elder:

All the nature and emotion heard have been sublimated by the first player, who sacrifices it for something greater, a defining sign of Fascism.

Back in 1884, the older player had a colleague of Chopin as his musical guide who caught him at an impressionable age:

There he sits by Liszt’s left knee aside an allegoric play of hands as the pianist by Liszt’s right leg, Arhtur Friedheim, touches his master’s knee, placing his right hand on cross-legged Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninoff’s cousin, who has the standing Moriz Rosenthal’s hand resting on his shoulder, a chain transmitting osmosis and telepathy.

Too bad Emil Sauer (1862-1942) isn’t better known, whereas Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), who informed on his Jewish students to the Gestapo, is highly admired as a pianist, even though his heights are a streamlined reduction of the music’s glorious details and spirit dwelling in the older master’s language.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Devour Sauer


Tidbits from Hardboiled Old New York

Knowing Teresa Sterne during her last years was an astonishing experience. Her actions as the head of Nonesuch Records created their Explorer series, one that took world music out of the International entertainment bin and captured authenticity.

Her example led us to seek the earliest recordings from Bali. One scheduled for repatriation in a new terrestrial form is by Gamelan of the Love God in Banjar Titih, from 1928:

15624 aa

Tracey worked with many avant garde composers, such as John Cage, Xenakis, developed projects with William Bolcolm, launched the recordings of Jan De Gaetani, Gilbert Kalish, and Paul Jacobs.

One box on her shelf contained concert performances by Jacobs, including this Stravinsky Etude, played at Brooklyn College where Jacobs taught:

8 Audio Track

Her archive had more by Jacobs and we eventually brought it to light:

She was a pioneer and her level of culture nourished us.

She brought to life over five hundred recordings as a producer and “coordinator” with the creators and players, all offered on an affordable label that went far beyond the scope of so-called majors. In her home, she prized a set of Mark Twain gathered as a child, an economic edition of an author who became a lifelong companion. Knowing of my ignorance, she repeatedly urged me to read The Mysterious Stranger and once opening its first page, I understood the urgency. After her tragic passing in 2000, I realized how having such significant literature, especially by a writer who shaped her vision, was a model for her actions in capturing high culture and making it as accessible as possible.

An indefatigable talker, to put it mildly, she considered writing memoirs but didn’t have time to grapple with a vast archive. She once mentioned how aunt Rose, with whom she and her mother lived with in a Borough Park, Brooklyn house in what she described as “genteel poverty”, once took a writing course. Tracey handed me one of her aunt Rose’s essays, capturing an accent and world view that has passed, for better and worse, into a regimented transformation replacing layered bubbling neighborhoods with dormitories of cosmopolitan consumers lacking in character.

From the papers of Rose Sterne

A squat fat man in work clothes ambles toward the steam table, sawing his way through the labyrinth of winter noon-day patrons in a cafeteria in the heart of the garment district.

The tall, wiry, hard-eyed blonde behind the counter, the glow on her cheeks heightened by the waves of heat from steaming meats and soups, balancing a plate in the palm of her left hand, the long aluminum ladle in her right alerted to plunge into a mess of peas, or scoop up a blob of potato at the go sign, rasps:

“Wodd’ll yu have?”

“Gimme some o’ dat der hamboiger.”

“That ain’ hamburger, that’s chopped sirloin.”

“Gib it ter me, woddever it is,”

Dipping into the shallow pan of sirloin patties, she slides one on to the plate, and . . .

“Wot kinda vegedables?

“Some o’ dat der macroni.”

“That’s spigeddy.”

“Make it spigeddy.”

She sinks the ladle into the slithery spaghetti, and draining off excess hot tomato sauce, glides it close to the sirloin, where it spreads out into a little pool of sauce. Eyeing her customer, pertly:


“An I’ll have o’ dat der spinich,” inhaling the mixed aroma of spice and juice.

“Spinich! That’s kale,” glaring at him.


Letting the ladle fall with precision she chops off a bit of green steaming kale and stacks it on the plate.

“That’s all yu git with sirloin – two vegedables.”

Cocking his round head to one side, and narrowing his small vacant eyes:

“Listen sister, who’s payin’ for all dis here chow?”

“I’m only sayin, mister,” receding, “you kin read the sign – ‘Sirloin with two vegedables’ – seventy cents.'”

“So vot! You’se keeps dishin’ till I tells yer ter stop, see!” Raising his chin like a turtle out of a fat doughy neck:

“An I’ll have some o’ dat der sparagas.”

“That ain sparagas, that’s broccoli,” tapping the floor with her heel.

“Awright,” snorting.

She scrapes up a soft lump of limp mossy broccoli, and nestles it next to the kale.

Stroking his fat pale cheek:

“Er, how’s about’ some o’ dat mashed sweet perdaders?”

“Listen, brother, that there is squash.”

“Squash?” – drooling.

“Yes, squash.”

“Make it squash.”

The loaded plate now dripping with juice and bits of overlapping vegetables, she drops the ladle into a vessel of hot water. Drawing a deep breath, she plops the plate upon his uplifted tray, and. . .

“Who’s nex’?”

“Hey, wade a minit, wotta yer rush. Gimme some o’ dat vegeble soup.”

“Chicken gumbo, get me? Chicken gumbo!”

She ladles out a portion of soup into a small white bowl and tucks a tiny cellophane pack of crackers between the bowl and the plate beneath it, and, inaudibly:

“I hope yu bust!”

Guiding his short arms to balance the tray out over his fat belly, he cuts through the long cue of hungry restless patrons, waddling out toward the tables and fades into the crowd.

April 4 1951

Awakening a defunct conductor: Oskar Fried (part 1)

Cross paths with some sounds and you might risk being abducted. How did it come about and just who’s the force behind this business? Brushing away the dust clinging to Oskar Fried, a dead conductor, exposes his sounds through technology and drags him right back here from sleeping in the shellac grooves.

Every glimpse of him brought unexpected associations, one reaction after another, either extreme loathing or profound admiration, nothing half-way. Fried rascally covered all traces, leaving only a sound trail behind, shrouding his outside activities in mystery, one we shall attempt to untangle, on the installment plan, starting now.

We open the scene onto a suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird:

l. to r.: Oskar Fried (monocle and cigar), Eva Gauthier (singer, hostess), Tedesco (conductor),George Gershwin (meeting Ravel for the first time); seated: birthday boy Maurice Ravel

Beyond belief how he began conducting with the Berlin Philharmonic around 1905, for he never led an orchestra before them. He confessed to a Berlin critic that the only work after desultory years as a dissipated Berliner playing the role of a Paris bohemian was some horn parts here and there, then training dogs and circus animals, probably the best steps towards becoming a conductor.

Landing into an avant-garde Berlin, some powers controlling recordings had Fried bring the whole Philharmonic into a hall and capture the Firebird in 1928.

Karsavina: the first Firebird. Ballets Russes, 1910.

A malevolent dance sears with sulphuric stench and heat, shifting our sensibilities onto a daemonic plane. Old records are noisy so any Sissies out there should cover their ears or leave. Time makes noise but these sounds will nourish your soul:

firebird 1

The ballet was a recent arrival, still jolting to most pampered 19th century ears at large, something that could amuse Fried, who later teased audiences by juxtaposing works that never belong together, breaking the rules and succeeding.

His life started in 1871, a good ten years before Stravinsky’s. While saying that he had to quit school at a very early age to work, I spotted references to him by the poet Rilke, who became the older boy’s friend and confidante at their exclusive boarding school.

Fried summons cosmic visions of vast boundaries veering into a dream state, a transcendent mind leaping from the frenetic into the slow breathing of a new outer and inner space:

firebird 2

Fried transports us into a soft stasis of clashing lines going against each other in opposite directions that transform the spectacle into the reawakening sounds of nature:

firebird 3

This same Fried also wielded an iron grip on profound Germanic masterpieces. Soon after the Firebird was cut, he was asked to take on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is still to be found (but not vivid like this new restoration for the blog). He crawls into Beethoven’s skin and out it comes in his knowing perspective, tempered by a Berliner’s sarcastic wit heard in the articulation, this crucial moment in Beethoven with Fried guiding tension through a restrained intensity leading into grandeur:


A first step into documenting his life resulted in this cd and article:

Arbiter cd 153

Mahler’s disciple

I couldn’t keep my hands off these studio recordings and discovered that some performances captured on stage survived, so they had to be published. A new work is in progress and we’ll follow its destiny as the music he personally identified with more than any other work. Our next blog will observe his interactions with Mahler, man and music, and probe his character and exploits. Here Fried is seen with his one and only confidant:

Confusion untangled by Affinity

part two

Before planning to meet Rezzori, I contacted Beatrice Muzi, an artist living in Le Marche whom I had encountered two years previously and once visited at home a year later, coughing and wheezing from the cats abounding in her family’s farmhouse. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite had been translated into Italian and I surprised her with a copy, asking if, perhaps time permitting, she could join me and meet this enigmatic writer. Looking on the map, there was a direct road from Fano to Pontassieve, not far from his home outside of Firenze. Nothing could be shorter and would avoid schlepping up to Bologna and then facing grim tunnels burrowing into Toscana.

The road past Fano soon had an upward incline and our arrival at 4 p.m. might be delayed. Night fell and the road became a serpentine slew of hairpins. Every hour or so  we would happen upon a lone dimly lit bar or cafe, calling Rezzori to tell him we’re almost there. By ten in the evening, we struck Pontassieve and followed the local routes he prescribed. From hours of vertiginous turning we now faced an unlit track road hidden in woods with steep inclines and unexpected wrecks of tiny farmers’ sheds and an abandoned house. After a period of doubt and sensing that we had stumbled onto topography that influenced Dante ‘s Inferno, a rural facade appeared in the darkness with a shadowy figure.

We stopped to ask directions. At an open door we saw a tall slender man  leaning against the archway in a slihouette caused by the yellow light from inside. FInally we can ask someone for information, we thought, so we stopped the car. The man was surrounded by the infernal asthmatic yapping from what we later learned were a half-dozen pugs and like a master devil, he turned on the side and looked down to tell them “Quiet!”

Smiling to us, he announced that we had arrived. “Come, come, so there you are! You shouldn’t have taken that road!”

When Rezzori heard that my companion was named Beatrice, he complained, “No, you’re not the real Beatrice.” “Yes I am!” she said. “The real one is in Istanbul [his wife].” Beatrice insisted that she was real, that maybe there is more than one. “Well, there is more than one then.” We didn’t meet her on this visit but Rezzori said she had previously returned from there and bought spices from the market. “Have you eaten? No? Then I’ll prepare for you Sultan’s pilaf.”

His serenity in the kitchen and the profound wine of his land opened a conversation and my first burning question for him was about a specific word appearing in his book:

He mentioned that it was a term used at that time and happened upon it while looking into Lombroso, who studied criminal physiognomies, when he was young. A part of that time during his growth and discovery led on into conversation ending that night five hours later, one we continued over the next thirteen years.

“Have you a hotel reservation?” Well. . .is there a pensione or hotel nearby? “No, absolutely nothing, nor anywhere near. Look, why don’t you stay here tonight?” We climbed the stairs of the old farmhouse, passing huge canvases by Castellani, Ottoman furnishings coming from his wife’s family that hailed from Constantinople, the pugs snoring stopped at they scampered between our footsteps, grunting like piglets, as Grisha, as he insisted we call him, pointed out an array of rooms in their restored farmhouse. His bedroom had sunken bathtubs in the middle. One room was a replica of an English country hunter’s cottage. “You may sleep here, You may sleep there, you both may sleep here, or there. . .”.

We headed into the cottage, and our visit lasted three days. Grisha knew little of music, aside from being acquainted with Herbert von Karajan before the war and having known Mitja Nikisch, the pianist son of the great conductor Artur, who committed suicide in Venezia. Grisha had planned a memoir of this eccentric and tormented musician who swung between jazz and classical, spending his last days in depression being coddled in a gondola by a Russian admirer who abandoned his life to care for Mitja. In time, the story had faded and he regretted losing the thread.

Grisha’s personality strikingly resembled an account of Franz Liszt written by a Hungarian pupil of his, Robert Freund. When we saw Grisha a short while later in New York, a surprise that such an inaccessible writer frequently turned up in the middle of our city, we could experience a similar distinction noted by Freund:

 photo of Liszt with his pupil Alexander Siloti, Weimar, c.1884

From then on [1870] I had permission to visit him every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. He had two other students at the time: the composer François Servais from Brussels and the later notorious Olga Janina (“Souvenirs d*une Cosaque”); I, however, always had the good fortune to see him alone. Liszt gave the impression of a sophisticated, perhaps even somewhat affected man of the world in the salons; in small company or when alone with him however, you felt the total impact of the greatness of his imposing, venerable, incredibly ingenious personality. The gentle calm and the sublime clarity of his judgment, the universality of his mind, the simplicity and innate nobility of his comportment were incomparable.

Working on a piece for the New Yorker on replicating Nabokov’s car trips described in Lolita, Grisha asked me to review his manuscript. His latest novel, The Death of My Brother Abel, had been translated into English and he was briefly interviewed by a college radio station, reading from the text:

Grisha reading

Much of his writing focused on the lost worlds of his youth, being born in Bukovina, as he termed it, an “astronomically remote” region of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which then became Romania, later held by the Soviet Union and now belonging to the Ukraine.


It was a delight to share views on favored writers. Once he ogled an upcoming facsimile reprint of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which I urged him to avoid as it would rob time from his writing, knowing how obsessed he would become with such an edition within grasp. In a narrow room he had a long table with separated stacks of ongoing writing projects, and managed to be extremely fertile, and naturally he ordered the Diderot at once. Reading Bruno Schulz for the first time, I ventured the impression that he might be on Kafka’s level: “Yes, absolutely. Possibly even greater than Kafka.” He asked if I had read Susan Sontag’s new novel The Volcano Lover: “It was one of the worst books I have ever read!” He felt very drawn to Gombrowicz and when Rita Gombrowicz once came to New York for an evening at the Koscziusko Foundation, word got out that a flippant critic was ready to attack and expose details of Gombrowicz’s allegedly lurid past in Argentina. Grisha was riled: “Let’s go there, both of us, and defend her like lions!” Rita was taken aback by Grisha, whose manner reminded her of Gombrowicz’s: “He’s so noble, just like Witold acted.”

Midway through Canetti’s Auto-da-fe, I asked what meaning he found in it, especially this work, so unlike and numbingly duller than Crowds and Power or his autobiographies. He answered cryptically and clearly, as was his way: “Canetti had the need to fill a page. This is something I learned from Musil.” Grisha referred to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as a fundamental text. At a party in their Manhattan apartment he motioned me over to an elderly gentleman with a classically beautiful Japanese wife in kimono and obi: “that’s Pitz, come meet him.” Pitz was Hermann Broch’s son, who began telling outrageous stories about his one-time piano teacher Oswald Kabasta, a conductor who later committed suicide together with his wife on Hitler’s defeat. These denizens at Grisha’s soirées breathed the core of a lost and exiled culture.

Once Grisha called and I invited him and his wife Beatrice to try out Capsa restaurant, which made him laugh as they had usurped the name of the foremost Bucharest eatery.


Grisha was planning a return to his native Czernowitz after the fall of the Iron Curtain and pondered his status as an exile:

not living in iron curtain

So we piled into a cab and headed over. The president was at his nearby roost, supervising a rather quiet atmosphere, when a middle-aged hefty lady came in, a scarf covering her head, dressed in a drab raincoat, rushing downstairs. We ordered snitel (schnitzel) and sarma cu mamaliguta (stuffed cabbage with polenta) and the cloying moscato white wine. Suddenly an accordionist emerged to play and the lady who quietly slipped by arose in traditional costume and eyed the room. She espied Grisha and knew at once his origins and focused on him, singing a welcoming song, gesturing, mixing honorifics with insults, deriding him in every way possible in dialect. Grisha sat stunned, his eyes tearing. Afterwards he managed to say that it would not have been possible to witness this ceremonial pleasantry even in the Bucharest of his time, that one had to venture deep into the country for such an experience.

I received much insight from his remarks and felt that whatever sharpened my historian’s instincts came from an osmosis passing through his presence. Here are a few of his speculations on a Europe soon to unite.

East West Unified Europe

Once Alex Melamid and Katya Arnold came along to meet him and his Beatrice in Toscana. My Beatrice was with family and expecting a child in the Marche, for the morning after our meeting, I crept into Grisha’s room while Beatrice slept in the English lodge, awakening him to proclaim that I would marry Beatrice. He inscribed my copy of the Memoirs: “from one worshipper of a Beatrice to another.”

l. to r.: Rezzori, Alex Melamid, Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori, Allan Evans. 1992 Donnini, Italia

Best interview so far:

Interview in Bomb Magazine

Confusion untangled by Affinity

part one:

While apprenticing to a diminutive giant of piano rebuilding in the early 1980s, my master ordered me to rush over and see “an elderly ledy on ze Fist Avenue (his Polish accent never mastered ‘th’) and see abaht her instrooment.’ Eyeing me afterwards, the retired Italian opera vocal coach asked if I ever read books and handed over a heavy bag, sending me on my way. Peeking inside, they were rather irrelevant but one title stopped me cold:

Never contented by the routine task of premeditated book selection, serendipity often played an influential role in developing me along with my reading. Dressed in scientific analyses was a police blotter text on how physical types tended to be criminal, supported by lurid case histories and shocking photos undertaken during the author’s research in his native South Africa, soon before their Boers sided with Hitler and later established apartheid. Several record collectors at large resembled this Leptosome genus

An even more pungent image came in the Pyknic category (seen below). Variations of a combined “Leptosome with Pyknic tendencies having a neurasthenic strain” led to visions of creating a ballet, projecting their photos on a screen as certain sounds, recited case-histories, and appropriate postures and motions would unite in line with their melange of subcategories, a Firebird cast of Pyknic-Athletic Arsonists.

The Pyknic on the right typically exhibits Dr. Willemse’s diagrams and head measurements defining a “gang-leader physique”. The ballet’s staging matured in my mind but no music that could properly represent them in sound was forthcoming. And at the same time, an urgency to grasp the history surrounding the forgotten and enigmatic pianist Ignaz Friedman seized me and put composing to rest.

A friend had just returned from an unexpected stopover in Romania, due to a severe scheduling problem with Tarom, their shaky national airline. Bucharest was being savaged to demolish architectural glories, resurrected into Balkanized pseudo-Pyongyang structures. Repression was at a high under their dictator, who instituted a cult of personality. My composer friend remarked on a specific brand of cigarettes that had become a fetish and status symbol, substituting for valuta (foreign currency), an open-sesame leading to contraband and palm baksheesh.

Soon after learning about this unreported chaos and despair, I stumbled upon a remote bakery in Sunnyside, Queens.  Nita’s oddly boasted of their status as a European bakery rather than lording over any French or Italian accomplishments. Inside hung a list of cardboard strips offering claitite and carpati. These Romanian delicacies brought forth a gasp and lit a flame: “Is there an authentic Romanian restaurant nearby?” “Yes, around the corner: Capsa.”

Days later I dragged two Americans and a visiting French pianiste along to investigate this rarity. No one spoke English inside, but my Italian was immediately intercepted by a doting waiter. As he led us into their mythic canopied back garden, we noted a pack of Kent 100s garishly placed on the corner edges of every table as diners suspiciously eyed us in passing. Wine had been especially brought over for their restaurant, only for them, insisted our waiter. Everything was overtly delicious and ridiculously underpriced on the menu. “Try out mitiei, garlic sausages, on the house!” A few arrived and we were smitten, ordering one portion: a platter with twenty arrived. The ciorba de perisoare meatball soup was laced with lovage and shreds of sour cabbage, another “on the house” offering, also arriving in exponential amounts by the eager waiter. A second bottle of Muscat Ottonel from Murfatlar transported us with a Biblically intense fruit-of-the-vine experience into voluptuous pastries imported from Nita’s. Smoke choked the room as an accordionist belted out crooked Balkan rhythms amidst song and whistling.

The bill arrived and we were over $60 short. After leaving to bail us out, I was told the waiter came by every five minutes, urging the trio to “have a bite while you’re waiting for him.” Once back, our server begged me, in confidence, to approach a grim, angry fellow vigorously engaged in chatting with a seated couple: “Tell him that I am the BEST WAITER IN AMERICA!” I obliged in a formal manner and derisive laughter and snickering erupted throughout the room. The waiter, ushering us out, advised all, “Come back soon!” while whispering to me “next time, bring more money.”

I had to unlock the secrets of Capsa, as it was among the finest food I had ever encountered and a kaleidoscope of reality and illusion.  A week later, alone, I returned right before dinnertime. The owner handed me Capsa’s business card which listed him in a byline as “Constantin Udroica, president.” (a.k.a ‘President-for-Life’.) A fistfight suddenly broke out in their basement kitchen and as the only customer, the Prez warned between the screaming and shattering plates, “You look too much.”

A few weeks later a book’s title stopped me in my tracks.

From the first word, ‘Skushno” (Russian, for ‘boredom’), I was drawn into an Austro-Hungarian and Romanian world that overshadowed any writer’s block or need to be a composer, unexpectedly dissipating the fog of Ignaz Friedman’s lost origins.

I soon headed to Denmark in 1984, where Friedman sat out World War I, finding a violinist colleague of his from 1912 and documentation. Amidst this trove, I reached the final page of Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs and put it down feeling utterly enlightened, and crestfallen, nearing a precipice. Rezzori had decoded a Europe vaguely hinted at by relatives, acquaintances, musicians who had fled, and moreover, the most vivid depiction of Jewish life in Eastern and Central European cities, pellucidly recited in prose by a non-Jewish writer who lived through the inter-war decades.

Gregor von Rezzori (photo: Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori)


I had to find him.

A clue came on the blurb: the author lived in Toscana. Off at once to the Copenhagen central phone building where I retrieved a foot-high stack of Tuscan phone directories. After an hour of searching town by town, his name appeared. I rang him at once:

“I just finsihed reading your Memoirs, loved them. I’m a Jew. Can we talk about Ignaz Friedman, a pianist I’m researching, who came from your old empire? I’ll be in Italy soon.”

“Come on over my boy! Would be glad to meet you.”

(to be continued)


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