Sunday, September 28, 2008

Battle For The Ruhr

Last night, I finished reading Derek Zumbro’s “Battle For The Ruhr: The German Army’s Final Defeat In The West”.

As far as I can ascertain, Zumbro’s book is the only book written in English devoted exclusively to this brief but seminal battle, a battle that effectively ended Germany’s fortunes in the Western Theater within days after it began. Perhaps the battle’s sheer brevity, as well as its lack of overt drama, has kept previous writers away from the subject.

“Battle For The Ruhr” was published in 2006. My father and my brother read “Battle For The Ruhr” last year, but I never got around to reading the book until the last couple of weeks, when I started reading it in conjunction with the much longer “The Arms Of Krupp” by William Manchester.

Zumbro has had a varied career, once serving as a Navy SEAL officer, among many other things. He is currently Military History Coordinator at the University Of West Florida. Because of its Pensacola location, the University Of West Florida has many connections with various branches of the U.S. military. The school is renowned for its marine archeology program (shipwrecks). Zumbro is perhaps best known as a translator from the German of World War II-era documents and books.

The Ruhr, bordered by The Rhine and Ruhr Rivers, is the former industrial heartland of Germany. The Ruhr was developed into a manufacturing center in the 19th Century, transformed into the Kaiser’s most important center of arms production during World War I, occupied by French soldiers in 1923 because of Germany’s failure to fulfill its reparations obligations under The Treaty Of Versailles, and modernized into Germany’s arms-production powerhouse during the period of National Socialism. For over a century, The Ruhr was Germany’s Detroit-Cleveland-Pittsburgh all rolled into one, although today the cities of The Ruhr look no different than old textile towns in New England, heavy manufacturing having long since declined in what was once Europe’s most concentrated industrialized zone.

Zumbro begins his tale by setting the stage as it existed at the beginning of 1945, immediately before The Battle For The Ruhr began. He recounts the Allied Army’s race across France and portions of Belgium and The Netherlands in the latter half of 1944 as it made its way to the German border. He offers a capsulation of The Battle Of The Bulge, the last-ditch attempt by Hitler to halt the advance of the Allied Army into Germany itself.

Zumbro also describes the Allied bombing campaign against The Ruhr, a campaign that began in 1942 and peaked in 1943 and 1944. That campaign turned most of The Ruhr into rubble long before Allied soldiers first stepped onto German soil.

The first major bombing of The Ruhr and nearby industry centers occurred in 1942, when the first 1000-bomber raid against Germany was launched, with Cologne as its target. Cologne was so severely damaged by that raid that its civilian population was relocated for the remainder of the war.

Although the city of Essen (with its Krupp Werks) was always the most well-known Ruhr manufacturing center, it was the city of Dortmund, The Ruhr’s largest city, that was the primary target of Allied bombers. A city with well over half a million persons during the war years, Dortmund was the most-heavily-bombed city in all of Germany. Only seven per cent of the city center was left standing at war’s end, and only 35 per cent of the giant Dortmund metropolitan area survived Allied bombs. After the conclusion of the war, when it came time to discuss rebuilding the city, Dortmund city fathers seriously considered reestablishing the city elsewhere.

Another notable victim of Allied bombing of Ruhr environs was Wuppertal, the first city in Germany to suffer a firestorm through bombing. Although the Wuppertal firestorm is not as well-known as the firestorms that were to destroy Hamburg and Dresden, the Wuppertal firestorm was the model for the Hamburg firestorm that was to follow two months later. The techniques for creating the Hamburg firestorm were tried out and perfected at Wuppertal. It was at Wuppertal that Allied war planners learned to combine incendiary and conventional explosive devices in order to maximize the destructive effect of air raids. The city of Wuppertal practically disappeared in the firestorm, with 6,000 persons losing their lives in a virtual dress rehearsal for Hamburg, where destruction and death were to be inflicted from the skies on an even more unimaginable scale.

The first engagement in The Battle For The Ruhr was in March 1945. The engagement was accidental, and purely fortuitous for the Allies. Small in scale though it was, it is the most famous incident of The Ruhr campaign, and got The Battle For The Ruhr under way earlier than the Allies expected (or even necessarily wanted).

While the bulk of Allied soldiers was resting, recovering from the effects of The Battle Of The Bulge, small reconnaissance parties explored the western bank of The Rhine, probing for weaknesses in German defenses. One party on expedition found, to its amazement, that a rail bridge over The Rhine at Remagen had not been destroyed but remained in place, providing a direct crossing into Germany. The bridge at issue was The Ludendorff Bridge, named after World War I General Erich Ludendorff. Although it had been constructed during The Great War to facilitate movement of men and arms directly to The Western Front, The Ludendorff Bridge had not been completed until after World War I had already ended—and, in any case, rail tracks leading to and from the bridge had not even been laid while the earlier conflagration was under way, and were not to be laid until well into the 1920’s.

Military history, going back thousands of years, has proven that armies that wish to prevent an enemy from crossing a river must defend such a crossing by remaining on the same side of the river as the enemy. Only in this way may a river crossing be prevented.

While this may seem counter-intuitive, an army that tries to defend against a river crossing from the opposite side of the river is destined to be ineffective against a determined opponent. This is because the army whose goal is to make a crossing can always identify weakly-defended areas, while the defender is obliged to stretch its defenses along the entire length of the opposite riverbank. Further, an army can always find a way to cross a river quickly and easily (boats, barges, hastily-erected pontoon bridges) and overcome local defensive positions with relative ease.

Hitler’s generals understood this, but Hitler did not, and Hitler ordered his generals to withdraw across The Rhine and to offer defense against the Allies upon German soil.

This was a disastrous decision, and it was instantly disastrous. The Allies had no plan even to cross The Rhine at Remagen, but as soon as Eisenhower learned that one of The Rhine’s bridges remained intact, he immediately altered his original plan and his original timetable for invading Germany and adjusted to circumstances he could not possibly have anticipated. One of Eisenhower’s greatest strengths was his flexibility, a quality that served him well time after time throughout the war (and in his later career, too).

Although the nearest Allied tank group was over twenty miles away from Remagen, and although no major army group was closer than one day’s march from Remagen, Eisenhower ordered one tank group and one small brigade to proceed to Remagen immediately and to secure the bridge. Further, Eisenhower promptly issued General Orders, and within an hour the rest of the army was in maneuvers, close behind the advance brigade, marching toward Remagen.

After a brief skirmish, the Allies seized The Ludendorff Bridge against a small German unit. German forces attempted to blow up the bridge as the battle progressed, but their explosives were of the wrong type—they were industrial explosives, not military explosives—and of insufficient quantity to do anything other than damage the bridge.

Within days, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were on German soil, as were thousands of tanks and an assortment of heavy artillery. Not only was the Remagen rail bridge used to transport men and weapons onto German soil, but two temporary pontoon bridges were constructed alongside it, too. All three bridges were used to hasten the march of men and material into Germany.

Hitler ordered the bridge destroyed by any means necessary, even ordering that V-2 rockets be used to destroy the bridge. Hitler’s generals, afraid to remind him that V-2 rockets were too inaccurate to strike a target as small as a bridge, caused eleven V-2 rockets to be launched toward Remagen. Several of these V-2 rockets killed German civilians living in the town, absolutely terrifying the local population. One V-2 rocket actually came within 300 yards of one of the bridge’s pylons. In addition to launching V-2 rockets, the Germans attempted to destroy the bridge through artillery, dive-bombers and underwater divers equipped with mines.

The structure finally failed ten days after the Allies began crossing the bridge, a victim of structural collapse. The bridge had not been engineered to withstand a nonstop traffic flow of heavy Sherman and Pershing tanks and other heavy vehicles. Twenty-eight Allied soldiers lost their lives when the causeway finally fell into The Rhine.

An enraged Hitler ordered an inquiry into those responsible for not destroying the bridge at Remagen, demanding that all culprits be shot. Hitler’s generals, fearing their own necks, complied, convening a kangaroo court that found five lower-level officers guilty of treason. Four of the five officers were summarily executed. The fifth, convicted in absentia, was already an Allied prisoner of war, and survived the war.

Ironically, the five officers found responsible for failing to destroy the bridge at Remagen had not even been assigned to its defense. Victims of bad luck and bad timing, they were merely passing through the area at the moment the Allies began operations at Remagen. The five German officers attempted to assist first in defending and later in blowing up the bridge. Four of them lost their lives simply because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The highest-ranking general who approved their executions was Field Marshall Walter Model, in charge of Army Group B, the only remaining German Army in the West and the Army assigned to defend The Ruhr. Model failed to use his authority or his personal connections with Hitler to protect these innocent men, allowing them to be sent to undeserved deaths. His reward was a congratulatory telegram from The Fuhrer.

Model was a defensive genius, assigned command of Army Group B based upon his many successes on The Eastern Front (he had inflicted upon General Zhukov that general’s greatest defeat of the war). Hitler believed that Model was the only German general with the skills and tenacity necessary to keep the Allies out of The Ruhr and, by extension, the rest of Germany. Model may have been one of the greatest defensive generals who ever lived, but Model is little-remembered today, largely because only generals demonstrating genius in offensive maneuvers are rewarded by history with immortality. An authoritative, comprehensive biography of Model is long overdue.

Despite his vaunted defensive capabilities, Model was outmatched. Model’s Army Group B was quickly, almost instantly, overrun by the Allies. Literally within days of The Rhine crossing by the Allies at Remagen, Model’s entire army was completely encircled and entrapped within The Ruhr Pocket. The war in the West was effectively over.

A German force of roughly 450,000 men, helpless and trapped, was shelled and bombed by the Allies for three weeks. During the onslaught, its number was reduced to roughly 325,000. Ignoring Hitler’s orders to fight to the last man, Model discharged from service the oldest and youngest soldiers of Army Group B, telling them to go home. Shortly after this gesture, Model dissolved Army Group B entirely, instructing the remaining men to protect themselves by whatever means they could until cessation of hostilities. Model shot himself not long after issuing these orders (months earlier, Model had learned that the Soviets intended to hold him accountable for war crimes on The Eastern Front).

Why did Army Group B collapse so quickly? Much of the collapse had to do with General Omar Bradley and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, whose encirclement plan, flawlessly executed, worked to perfection. In addition, much of the success was due to superior quantities of armor, fuel and ammunition on the side of the Allies. Finally, overwhelming superiority in the air at this late stage of the war meant that Allied fighters and bombers could roam the skies over Germany virtually at will, no longer fearing anti-aircraft flak or enemy fighters.

Military historians have long questioned whether Field Marshal Model even tried to prevail in The Battle For The Ruhr. A master of extricating his armies from similar situations on the Eastern Front, Model appeared not even to try to extricate Army Group B from its encirclement by the Allies. No doubt he was aware that the war was already lost, but why did Model not attempt to evacuate his army to the East? No one will ever know the answer to that question, given Model’s suicide. Some speculate that he was simply exhausted, some speculate that he saw no point in extending the hostilities by an attempted breakout, and some speculate that his personal loyalty to Hitler required him to remain in The Ruhr Pocket, as he had promised (although his forces were no longer fighting).

Much of Zumbro’s book discusses what was happening on the ground immediately prior to and during the period in which Army Group B was entrapped in The Ruhr Pocket. Zumbro conducted numerous and extensive interviews with surviving German soldiers and surviving German civilians who lived through this horrible (but, mercifully, very brief) period.

Zumbro’s interview subjects revealed that, by this stage of the war, German civilians were hoping for nothing more than survival and a quick end to the war. Civilians were no longer supportive of local officials, ignoring their orders and blandishments whenever possible, and actively encouraging German soldiers to abandon the Army and to return to their homes and families. Aside from a few high Nazi functionaries who continued zealously to believe in their cause to the bitter end, the populace was more or less in passive if not active resistance mode, and perhaps even in outright revolt. Citizens were no longer listening to Reich radio—instead, they were getting their news from German-language broadcasts of the BBC (at least when they had electricity)—and they were no longer obeying local Party directives. Parents were hiding their sons from conscription, knowing that youths as young as twelve were being commandeered into service of The Reich. Civilians were sabotaging the work of Party officials, destroying Party-issued public notices and orders, and stealing Party property, especially vehicles and precious fuel. Average citizens were offering civilian clothing to soldiers so that they might escape Army service and find a hiding place in which to wait out the war.

At the same time, the populace was also infuriated with the Allies, having endured indescribable suffering since bombs began falling on The Ruhr in 1942. In late March 1945, a British bomber crew, parachuting from a doomed aircraft, was brutally murdered by enraged civilians of The Ruhr shortly after crew members landed safely on the ground.

The end to The Battle For The Ruhr came quickly, much more quickly than Eisenhower and his generals had ever expected. Within a month of The Rhine crossing at Remagen, fighting in The Ruhr had ceased, the Allies had more than 300,000 new prisoners of war on their hands, and the Allies had advanced to the banks of The Elbe, where they waited for the Russians to end The Battle Of Berlin.

For some, the end of The Battle For The Ruhr came brutally and tragically. Gestapo officials engaged in a murderous rampage in the final days of the battle, executing forced foreign laborers, Russian prisoners of war, domestic political opponents, and even captured Allied soldiers and airmen (Army Group B had turned its few Allied prisoners over to the Gestapo, not knowing what to do with them at this late stage of the war). No one will ever know the precise number of innocents murdered by the Gestapo during those few days, but one group execution of 300 persons has been documented, another group execution of 250 persons has been documented, and yet another group execution of 50 persons has been documented. All were murdered within hours of their potential liberations. There were, no doubt, vast numbers of additional individuals executed singly and in small groups. In the early days of the occupation of Germany, Allied soldiers frequently came upon mass graves throughout The Ruhr. In most cases, the Allies were never to learn the identities of those who had been killed, or the perpetrators of the crimes.

Zumbro’s book ends with The Ruhr moving into the occupation phase at war’s end. He paints a very gloomy picture of The Ruhr’s future as it looked in late 1945, a resolution of the book I found odd. Everyone knows that The Ruhr was the first part of Germany to recover economically in the post-war period and that The Ruhr has gone from economic triumph to economic triumph over the last sixty-three years. Why pretend, in 2006, that readers are unaware of the ultimate outcome of The Ruhr’s fortunes?

The outlook for The Ruhr may have looked bleak in 1945, but by 1950 The Ruhr was on the rebound, the centerpiece of a joint German/French reindustrialization effort that soon was to lead to the creation of the Common Market. Indeed, The Ruhr of the 1950’s WAS the Common Market, the multi-national trading pact that, decades later, was to evolve into today’s European Union.

It is strange for Zumbro to end a book published in 2006 in such a fashion.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The "No-Longer-Tenable" Donald Rosenberg

It has been announced that Donald Rosenberg, writer for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, will no longer be permitted to review concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra. Rosenberg will continue his other work for the newspaper, writing about other music and dance events in the Cleveland area, but he will no longer cover the Cleveland Orchestra beat.

This move is six years overdue, as Rosenberg had long ago lost all objectivity in his coverage of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Music Director, Franz Welser-Most, whom for some reason Rosenberg has always detested on a deeply personal level.

Rosenberg’s personal grudge against Welser-Most has been one of the two or three major stories in the American music world for the last half-decade, constantly talked about everywhere, even (and especially) in Europe, although no American publication has been willing to write about this matter on a single occasion.

I have read Rosenberg every week for years, with amazement, as he hacks away at the world’s finest orchestra and the finest conductor now working regularly in the U.S.

I am pleased that the Plain Dealer has at last addressed this situation, even if belatedly.

Last week, I read the reviews in the European press of the Cleveland Orchestra’s appearances at this year’s Salzburg Festival. Once again, I could not help but notice that only European critics seem to appreciate this miraculous ensemble.

When the most knowledgeable (and jaded) European music critics proclaim the Cleveland Orchestra vastly superior to the most exalted European ensembles, one cannot help but compare the depth and breadth of their knowledge with the idiocy that passes for music criticism in American newspapers and magazines.

My father, one of the world’s most brilliant men, and who is never wrong about anything, remarked to me three days ago that something significant had happened in recent days. He told me, on Wednesday night, that the most recent round of European reviews for the Cleveland Orchestra made Rosenberg’s position at the Plain Dealer “no longer tenable”. My father said that Rosenberg would be gone “by Christmas”.

Christmas has come early this year.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Furtwangler Play

In August, we attended a performance of “Taking Sides”, Ronald Harwood’s contentious and controversial play about Wilhelm Furtwangler, at Chichester Festival Theatre.

“Taking Sides” received its premiere at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1995, and the play was revived this season and presented in tandem with “Collaboration”, a new Harwood play about Richard Strauss, another great musician who elected to remain in Germany during the period of National Socialism.

We did not attend a performance of “Collaboration” while we were in Chichester. Instead, we attended a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” on the other night we were in that city.

Ronald Harwood (born Ronald Horwitz—despite his Jewish heritage and faith, he changed his name shortly after arriving in Britain in 1951 from his native South Africa, choosing no longer to be known by a “Jewish” name) is conspicuous, above all, for being prolific. Harwood is the author of innumerable novels and works of non-fiction (the latter, nonetheless, often accused of being fiction), none of which are ever read. Harwood is also the author of innumerable plays (according to his literary agent, the current tally is 25, a figure that does not include adaptations), only two of which are ever produced.

Harwood is a very peculiar playwright, even assuming that “playwright” is an accurate designation to assign to him. Harwood is a commercial playwright whose plays are not commercial. He is a serious playwright whose plays are not serious. He is a literary playwright whose plays are not literary. He is a playwright of entertainment whose plays are not entertaining.

Harwood’s plays demonstrate the erudition of Neil Simon, the restraint of Tennessee Williams, the subtlety of Arthur Miller, the wit of William Inge, the warmth of Edward Albee, the compactness of Eugene O’Neill, and the moral authority of Lillian Hellman. Has there ever been a more loathsome or less talented writer for the stage?

Despite his work’s absence of merit, Harwood has seized upon a formula that works, at least for him, and this formula may be summarized in a few words: Nazis in the theater liven things up no end.

When things become tedious in a Harwood play—and they inevitably do—Harwood has a wealth of devices to recapture the audience’s attention. Whether it be Nazi officials, Nazi rallies, Nazi storm troopers, Nazi extermination camps or Nazi bombs raining down on a civilian populace, the Nazis are invariably introduced to inject a dosage of stimulation and shock into Harwood’s various projects. However did William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov manage to have successful careers as playwrights without being able to invoke the Nazis to give their own plays a boost?

Of course, such things quickly become tiresome, if not offensive, and it is no wonder that Harwood’s work is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Harwood’s books are never read here and his plays, except for the odd revival of “The Dresser”, are never staged here.

The genuinely remarkable aspect of Harwood’s career is that he is treated as a serious figure in Britain, a situation Americans find to be incomprehensible. Harwood is not a learned man. He is not wise. He is not sophisticated. His mind is not penetrating. He is not even an educated man. His views and opinions are little more than boilerplate, constituting a catalog of the various dogmas of the day. He lacks originality, and style, and gravitas. His level of skill in writing does not rise to the pedestrian.

So why did we even bother to attend a performance of “Taking Sides”? We attended “Taking Sides” because my father and I worship at the shrine of Wilhelm Furtwangler, and “Taking Sides” is a play whose subject is Furtwangler. It was inevitable that my father and I would jump at the chance to attend a performance of “The Furtwangler Play”, as he and I call it, in the very theater in which the play had premiered thirteen years earlier.

One need not be an expert on the subject of Wilhelm Furtwangler to endure the play, happily. My mother and my brother have never been particularly interested in the life and career of Furtwangler, and Josh and Josh’s sister had no interest in Furtwangler at all before seeing the play. Nevertheless, they were all able to follow the argument of the play fully, and they were not particularly bored—but this was so mostly because the play itself is so familiar, constructed like a creaky courtroom drama, a corrupt genre of the stage that I thought had died out, mercifully, in the late 1950’s.

The play itself is not good. “Taking Sides” is vastly inferior to “The Dresser”, Harwood’s only competent play. “The Dresser” is nowise a masterpiece—it suffers from poor construction as well as from its very middlebrow treatment of a very middlebrow subject—but “The Dresser” is immeasurably superior to “Taking Sides”.

During my undergraduate years, I attended a performance of “Taking Sides” in the Philadelphia area. That 2001 production, presented by a small theater company in Ambler, Pennsylvania, was not distinguished, and I was unable to decide at the time whether it was the production or the play itself that was responsible for a very unsatisfactory evening in the theater.

Having now seen a better production of the play in Chichester, I can now declare with some confidence that it is the play itself that is the problem.

“Taking Sides” presents the story of Furtwangler’s 1946 de-Nazification proceedings via a series of improbable and unconvincing confrontations between Furtwangler and his American interrogator. One of many central problems with the play is that it is unduly schematic, written to formula. Further, Harwood has stacked the deck, assigning all the good lines to Furtwangler and turning the American interrogator into a virtual buffoon. Such a scenario does not create a very stimulating or very satisfying or very thoughtful evening in the theater.

The American interrogator is an entirely fictional character, a figment of Harwood’s imagination, a fact that needs to be pointed out since so many persons who have seen the play or who have seen the film or who have read about the play have somehow assumed the entirely inaccurate notion that there really WAS a Major Steve Arnold who interrogated Furtwangler. I cannot count the number of articles I have read about “Taking Sides” in which various writers have assumed, mistakenly, that the character of Major Steve Arnold was a real person. Amazingly, not long ago a writer for London’s Independent continued to advance this nonsense, actually writing an article about “Major Steve Arnold” and accusing Arnold of being an uncultured bully, unfit to shine Furtwangler’s shoes. That particular writer, blithely ignorant of her facts, was not even called to account for her astonishing stupidity in publishing an article criticizing the behavior of a person no more real than Donald Duck.

(Let everyone beware any article written about music in London’s Independent! It is guaranteed to be hogwash.)

Lest there be any mistake, let me reiterate: the figure of Major Steve Arnold was a fictitious creation of the author. There was no such person in real life. Harwood created an exceptionally-detailed background for his fictional character—he made him a native of South Africa, and a Jew, and an insurance adjuster in private life—and it must have been this detailed fictional background that somehow made uninformed and incurious persons believe that “Major Steve Arnold” was a real person.

The truth about “Major Steve Arnold” should have been evident to anyone who bothered to read a little background information about the play’s subject matter. Moreover, the truth about “Major Steve Arnold” should have been evident to anyone sitting through a performance of the play itself.

Harwood has created a character that is little more than a “varmint”: ignorant, unsophisticated, boorish, brutal, a bumpkin. The play loses all credibility within minutes, as the viewer is asked to believe that General Dwight David Eisenhower assigned the interrogation of one of the seminal figures of German culture to an absolute moron. The play never recovers from this very central and very fatal flaw, and it limps along for two hours in a haze halfway between the unintentionally comic and the stridently foolish.

Harwood (and apparently many others) are vastly ignorant of the fact that there was a large and distinguished intellectual wing of the U.S. Army in Europe, during and immediately after the war, hand-picked from America’s finest universities and cultural institutions, specifically assigned the task of protecting Europe’s cultural heritage during the war and cleansing Germany of its most pernicious cultural influences at war’s end. Harwood is either inexcusably unaware of these facts or he has a personal ax to grind in creating the cartoonish “Major Steve Arnold”.

It is unforgivable for anyone, no matter how ignorant, to portray the American Army in Europe as little more than a group of barbarians. For British writers to make such assertions borders on the criminal. Has Harwood read so little about the armies of World War II that he has not come across countless books describing the educational levels of British soldiers, in comparison to their American counterparts, as severely wanting? Is Harwood unaware that, according to the British Army’s own studies, well over fifty per cent of personnel serving in Britain’s Armed Forces in World War II had never been adequately fed, at any time in their lives, before being drafted into the British Army, and that they had not enjoyed the benefits of even a minimally-adequate universal education?

“Taking Sides” has never flourished in America, and the reason for its lack of success in the U.S. surely is its grating anti-Americanism.

Harwood addressed this issue in a 2004 speech at the Institute For Jewish Policy Research in London, a speech in which he attempted to de-certify the play’s alleged anti-Americanism, but a speech in which he merely added fuel to the fire.

Describing his play as the story of “a battle between the culture of Beethoven and the culture of Glenn Miller”, Harwood stated:

The fact that there were no records allowed me to invent the investigative group, especially Furtwängler’s chief protagonist, an American Major who would brutally, some would say too brutally, hound the conductor for what were believed to be his Nazi sympathies.

Now, you may well ask: how could I be true to truth by inventing characters who may or may not have existed? There were, of course, clues here and there. One was a notion that the Americans were determined to make examples of men and women prominent in public life, the law, medicine, the arts. They wanted to establish the concept of collective German guilt and this was very much the policy pursued by General John McClure who was in charge of the Allied Information Control Service. It was said that the policy in fact originated with General Eisenhower.

And so I created Major Steve Arnold who had been an insurance claims investigator before the war. He came to me harsh, foul-mouthed, fierce and disrespectful. American critics took great exception to him when the play reached New York. They thought the American should have been more of an intellectual and less of a philistine. But I wanted to show the great divide that was emerging culturally between the old world and the new. And even when I pointed out in interviews that while all the other characters in the play talk of music, art and culture, the American major was the only one who talks of the dead because he had smelled the burning flesh of the crematoria and witnessed the bulldozing of the corpses into mass graves, the memory of which has haunted him ever since. The point, I said, is that the major is human though not cultured, anti-Nazi without being left wing or, in their terms, liberal. The argument fell on deaf ears. Americans are sensitive souls and sometimes imagine criticism where none is intended. I’m not sure that today they would be quite so sensitive or take a similar view. And anyway now I would be able to refute their criticism more easily.

The reason being not only because of recent events but also because I have since discovered, from letters written to me by former American intelligence officers, [that] the actual interrogators of Furtwängler were much more savage and primitive than my major. They were mostly farm boys from Milwaukee and chosen because they spoke German, or a sort of German, and had little or no interest in European culture—or any other culture, for that matter. So, one could say, again arrogantly, that life imitates art.

What an outrageous pile of rubbish! Only an extremely ignorant person could offer such nonsense (Harwood attended high school in South Africa, at which point his formal education ended), and only in today’s Britain could anyone get away, unchallenged, with offering such fact-free inanities.

None of what Harwood said that day in London is true. One hardly knows where to begin in offering corrections to the record he attempted to create.

Aside from the fact that there are precisely as many farms in Milwaukee as there are in central London, “farm boys from Milwaukee” were not assigned to de-Nazification efforts, even at the lowest levels. Instead, distinguished lawyers and jurists, hand-picked from this nation’s elite, were assigned such tasks. Further, these distinguished lawyers and jurists were part of a multi-national commission with members from America, Britain, France and Russia, a commission that conducted very lengthy, very thorough, and very sophisticated investigations and, when the evidence warranted, conducted lengthy Anglo-style trials, with Anglo-style rights accorded the defendants. Indeed, these proceedings accorded the subjects more rights than were then customary in French, German or Russian courts. Mountains of records were kept of these proceedings, widely available in the U.S., Britain and Germany to this day—including extensive records about Furtwangler, contrary to Harwood’s bizarre and untruthful claim that records addressing Furtwangler’s interrogation do not exist—and these records may be studied by anyone with an interest in the field. There have been so many books written about these matters, by acknowledged experts in the field, that it is literally astounding that Harwood would spout such appalling inaccuracies. Does this damn fool not have access to a research library?

Harwood is either unforgivably uninformed or, more bluntly, he is an outright liar—and the final paragraph of his speech quoted above shows on which side of that particular line Harwood rightfully belongs.

After Harwood’s broadside quoted above—and, for the record, there was no Allied Information Control Service, Harwood surely meaning the Information Control Division, known as ICD; and the American General in question was not John McClure, but General Robert Alexis McClure, himself an intellectual, although one would hardly expect the uneducated and uninformed Harwood to be able to recognize an intellectual if one landed in his lap—Harwood ended his discussion of the play by stating that not only does his play address the battle between Beethoven and Glenn Miller, but it also addresses the battle of the world of spirituality versus the world of physicality.

This last bit of blather was evidenced in one of the most ridiculous lines in Harwood’s play, a line so grating that it sent all six of us into snorts of laughter when we were in Chichester. The line was assigned to Furtwangler, and I have looked it up so as to be able to repeat it accurately:

If you honestly believe the only reality is the physical world, you will have nothing left but feculence more foul-smelling than that which pervades your nights.

Can anyone in his right mind imagine Furtwangler actually making such an absurd utterance? Not anyone who knows anything about Wilhelm Furtwangler.

And this, I believe, raises another central problem with the play: Harwood understands nothing about the character or ethos of Furtwangler, just he understands nothing about the character or ethos of Germany or the character or ethos of the United States (or the character or ethos of the 1940’s, for that matter). Harwood’s play is nothing more than a series of jarring wrong notes, failing to capture Furtwangler the man, failing to capture Furtwangler the artist, and failing to capture the time and place and circumstances in which Furtwangler’s drama is set.

In Harwood’s hands, Furtwangler is little more than a nervous twit and somewhat of an oddball, incapable of normal and healthy social intercourse, cheesy and glib, fatally lacking in substance, at all times and in all circumstances displaying a slight but unmistakable disreputable rub. My mother, tellingly, remarked that Harwood appeared to have modeled his portrait of Furtwangler, not upon an intellectual/philosopher schooled in the rarefied world of pre-World War I Central Europe, but upon Tony Blair.

And my mother, intentionally or not, hit upon one of the most disturbing qualities of the play: “Taking Sides” presents, not a portrait of a great but broken German artist suffering amidst the collapse of 1940’s Central Europe, but a portrait of a fallen media figure in sour, sordid 1990’s Britain, surrounded by all the attitudes and all the ridiculous rituals that characterized that unseemly time and place.

Every word of the text and every attitude of the play positively reek with the odor of Tony Blair’s Britain. “Taking Sides” is nothing so much as an uncanny snapshot of the moment and place in which it was written. This play was irredeemably dated before the play’s final draft was even completed and sent to the printer. Mired in the muck of 1990’s Britain, Harwood would have been much better off actually writing a play about Tony Blair rather than attempting to write one about Furtwangler.

However, as Harwood well knows, this play would never have been produced except for the fact that it attaches itself to Wilhelm Furtwangler’s great celebrity. Outside Germany, Furtwangler is much more of a celebrity today than he ever was during his lifetime, and Harwood trades on the public’s fascination with Furtwangler to gain an audience for a play that otherwise would have been rejected by every amateur dramatics society in Britain.

Had Harwood written the same play about the de-Nazification proceedings of an unknown artist or an unknown author or an unknown composer, this feeble and offensive play would never have seen the light of day—but by making Furtwangler his subject, an audience is guaranteed. Using Furtwangler as the hook is a cheap if not outright slimy endeavor, but at least this maneuver got the play before the public, and therefore—at least in Harwood’s eyes—it must have been justified.

As if it were not enough that “Taking Sides” is an outdated, formulaic courtroom drama with a stacked deck about a profoundly German artist born in 1886 who has inexplicably acquired a 1990’s English sensibility, there are smaller problems with the play, too.

Most serious of these smaller problems is that Harwood knows literally nothing about music, and yet he has chosen, unwisely, to write a play about one of the art’s very greatest interpreters.

Harwood, like all persons working outside their fields of expertise, has trouble keeping his elementary facts straight.

First and foremost, contrary to the play’s text, Furtwangler never conducted the Bruckner Requiem. The Bruckner Requiem is a curiosity from Bruckner’s youth, a piece of juvenilia never performed, and its score was not even available in Germany until long after Furtwangler’s death.

Second, contrary to Harwood’s bizarre claim, the Nazis never ordered the libretto for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to be rewritten "because its author, Lorenzo Da Ponte, was Jewish". What incredible balderdash!

If Harwood knew anything about his chosen subject, he would know that the Nazis did not alter the libretto of “The Magic Flute”, whose author in any case was the gentile Emanuel Schikenader, and not the Jewish Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte created the librettos for “The Marriage Of Figaro”, “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni”, librettos that were not rewritten during the period of National Socialism, either.

Where does this idiot come up with such nonsense? Does Harwood not have any musician friends who can point out to him such obvious and embarrassing errors? The man is a veritable cornucopia of ignorance and misinformation.

The play also does Furtwangler’s legacy no favors. A playgoer not already familiar with Furtwangler’s life and work leaves any performance of the play completely clueless why Furtwangler was an important figure, let alone one worthy of an evening-length play. The average playgoer, completely flummoxed, departs the play with the vague notion that Furtwangler was arrogant, and somewhat self-obsessed, but the average playgoer has nothing else to grasp—and can certainly gain no understanding from the play itself why Furtwangler was one of the leading musicians of the last century.

The text presents Furtwangler as little more than a vacant and petty man, quick to take offense at any perceived slight, but otherwise uninteresting—and, further, a man uninterested in anyone and anything, including himself. Furtwangler was anything but a vacant and petty man, as those who met the man can attest. If Furtwangler was such a vacant and petty man, why write a play about him in the first place?

“Taking Sides” was a loathsome play, and I hope never to see another Ronald Harwood play as long as I live. My brother and I attended a performance of “The Dresser” in London in 2005, and Joshua and I attended a performance of “The Dresser” in Minneapolis exactly a year ago, so I believe I can stand by my high-minded statement, especially since Harwood has not written any other plays that are ever produced.

The Chichester production of “Taking Sides” was not particularly good, but I doubt that a better production would have revealed the text in a better light. The performances were of a very low standard for British theater. I never for a moment believed that the actor playing Furtwangler was even German, let alone a great artist, and I never for a moment believed that the actor playing his interrogator was American. Both actors were British provincials, through and through, and both were insufferably lower class to the core, no matter how hard they tried to mask it. They were precisely the type of actor parodied in Harwood’s own “The Dresser”, a play that knows a thing or two about provincial acting (“The Dresser” was based upon Harwood’s own experiences, serving for years as the dresser for Donald Wolfit).

To the Chichester audience’s credit, the performance was not well-received. There was a lot of program-shuffling during the performance, and a lot of whispering in the audience whenever an inaccurate or particularly outrageous statement emanated from Furtwangler or from “Major Steve Arnold”. This suggested to me that audience members were discreetly noting (and quietly discussing with their companions) the various inaccuracies and absurdities in the script as the play unfolded onstage. The applause at the conclusion of the performance was polite but perfunctory.

Myself, I was hoping that Harwood would make an appearance at the final curtain so that I could boo him to the rafters. Alas, he did not.

If Harwood had appeared, I would have had difficulty out-booing my father.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"Coppelia" And "Romeo And Juliet"

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to two full-length ballet scores.

Josh and I like to listen to ballet scores. Over the last couple of years, we have listened to two of Tchaikovsky’s complete ballet scores, “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker”, as well as Reinhold Gliere’s complete score for “The Red Poppy” and Sergei Prokofiev’s complete score for “Cinderella”.

Our recent round of listening involved one French ballet, Leo Delibes’s score for “Coppelia”, and one Russian ballet, Prokofiev’s score for “Romeo And Juliet”.

The discs we have been listening to are not among the very finest recorded versions of these scores. In fact, the discs we have been listening to were borrowed from my father’s music library and were deliberately chosen and brought with us to Boston based upon their total lack of distinction—my father will not necessarily mind if these discs are somehow lost, stolen or misplaced.

The “Coppelia” discs Josh and I have been listening to are the discs issued on the Erato label in 1994, performed by the Orchestre De L’Opera De Lyon under Kent Nagano.

This recording is nowhere near as fine as the great EMI recording of “Coppelia” made by Jean-Baptiste Mari, and it does not even measure up to either of the recordings of “Coppelia” on the Decca label made by Richard Bonynge. Nevertheless, the Erato discs allowed Josh to get to know this superb music, and in this respect the Erato recording has served its purpose.

“Coppelia” is a magnificent ballet score. It is easy to understand why Tchaikovsky admired this score enormously, believing, incorrectly, that his own first effort, “Swan Lake”, did not measure up to what Delibes had written just a few years earlier. Delibes’s gift of melody was endless, his command of musical characterization sure, his orchestration imaginative and beguiling. More importantly, Delibes knew how to construct a work for the stage, shaping it with the sure hand of a born dramatist. It is this particular quality that sets the score of “Coppelia” apart from every full-length ballet score that preceded it.

Even persons who are not familiar with the complete “Coppelia” score already know the two most famous tunes, the Mazurka and the Waltz, because these two tunes have somehow been implanted into the consciousness of every person in the Western World. Josh had never heard “Coppelia” before, but his eyes lighted up with recognition and delight the first time he heard these two great tunes emerge from the speakers during their first appearances in the ballet’s Overture. Where had Josh heard these tunes before? He had no idea—he only knew that he already knew them. My initial reaction was precisely the same the first time I heard the full score to “Coppelia” many years ago.

The Nagano recording is competent, so most of the joys of this great score may be experienced through the recording. However, the Nagano recording is nothing more than competent—the rhythms are not handled with enough lightness or with any subtly or charm, the conducting has very little characterization and no elegance whatsoever, and the orchestration comes across as much blander than in fact it is, a result of Nagano not knowing how to highlight and blend the various timbres of the orchestra. The music just churns along, with everything just a little too obvious and everything just a little too heavy-handed. These shortcomings are always the quintessential knocks against Nagano, who simply is not much of a conductor—he is not much of a technician and he is not much of an interpreter. Orchestras generally loathe working with him, and not simply because he has a reputation for being nasty and overbearing in rehearsal—orchestras also loathe him because he is so often unprepared and because he has nothing to offer the musicians, in rehearsal or in performance, other than beating time.

The quality of the Lyon orchestra does not help matters. The orchestra barely rises to a provincial standard. Intonation is always problematic, the standard of ensemble is wayward, the woodwinds have no individuality and lack distinctive timbres, the brass section strains just to hit the notes, and the quality of the string sound does not meet the standard of a proficient student orchestra in the U.S. These sectional deficiencies, alas, are on glaring display because Nagano does not know how to blend the different sections of the orchestra into a pleasing whole. Nagano’s many shortcomings result in a colorless reading of the score. It is hard to imagine a more lifeless “Coppelia”.

This recording was made for the French domestic market. It should never have been granted an international release (unless the French wanted to remind the world how shoddy their orchestras are).

The “Romeo And Juliet” recording we have been listening to is the Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Again, this recording is competent, but it has never challenged the classic Lorin Maazel recording on Decca or the classic Andre Previn recording on EMI, both recorded in the early 1970’s.

This recording was made in Boston in October 1986 and released a year later. Amazingly, it remains in print today (at full price, no less), a startling circumstance given how many superior recordings of the Prokofiev score are in the active catalog.

This recording was made during the years in which the Boston Symphony was in its greatest period of deterioration. The orchestra began the decade of the 1980’s as a great orchestra; the orchestra ended that decade as a regional ensemble. This was the only instance in the 20th Century of a great orchestra losing its greatness, a modern-day American equivalent of what had happened to the great Meiningen Orchestra in late 19th-Century Germany. However, when the Meiningen Orchestra lost its greatness, the Berlin Philharmonic rose to take its place. No American orchestra has risen to take the place formerly occupied by the Boston Symphony, leaving us now with only three great American orchestras: the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The villains of the Boston Symphony’s deterioration were Ozawa, who lacked the skills necessary to maintain a great orchestra, and the orchestra’s administration and Board, which failed to take the action necessary—Ozawa’s discharge—to halt an unbearable situation. The Boston administration and Board failed to act even though the orchestra’s decline was being followed closely by literally everyone in the music world, with mounting astonishment and disbelief.

The name of Seiji Ozawa should forever be damned in Boston, as should the names of the orchestra’s former administrators and Board members, all complicit in the fall from greatness of one of the world’s most exalted ensembles.

The deterioration in the quality of the playing evidenced on this 1986 recording is readily apparent to anyone familiar with the orchestra’s Deutsche Grammophon and Philips recordings from the late 1970’s, a period in which the orchestra still played at the highest level. The deterioration, over a relatively short period of time, is palpable. This is no longer the orchestra it had been only a few years earlier.

The beauty and transparency of the orchestra’s sound are gone. The string sound has become featureless, thick, sometimes glassy and often strident. The woodwinds no longer inspire and play off each other as they did in earlier years—they have simply lost interest in their music-making, and it shows in their impersonal and lackluster phrasing. The brass playing is abrupt, lacking sheen and brilliance (and confidence).

The orchestra has one sound when it plays softly, and another sound when it plays at full volume. Neither of those sounds is pleasing. When the orchestra plays softly, the sound is thin and unsupported. When the orchestra plays at full volume, the sound is rough, even blowsy. It is all very unpleasant.

The orchestra in 1986 no longer plays with the amazing accuracy of ensemble it commanded half a decade earlier. Attacks are tentative, phrasing is listless, phrase endings are no longer unanimous. There is no lightness and sparkle in the playing, and no rhythmic life. The musicians give absolutely nothing to the conductor.

This was all the result, according to those who were present at the time, of the orchestra’s unwillingness to continue to mask Ozawa’s shortcomings as a conductor. After five to seven years of carrying Ozawa, the members of the orchestra became tired of doing Ozawa’s job as well as their own, and they began marking time, awaiting Ozawa’s departure—which, tragically, was not to come for another fifteen years.

By 1986, the Boston Symphony no longer played as one collective player. Instead, the orchestra played as 100 individual musicians, all vastly talented, all individually admirable, but all operating on 100 different wavelengths. The result: playing no better than that of a good European radio orchestra.

Despite these disheartening deficiencies, the genius of Prokofiev’s score still comes through. The greatness of this score, surely the finest of all 20th-Century full-length ballet scores, is well-nigh indestructible. The music invariably makes its effect even in the hands of the lamest ballet orchestra.

This is so even though Ozawa’s reading of the score is more or less featureless. Tempi are often too broad, and some numbers are so slow that the thread of the story and the inherent tension of the music disappear. The great dramatic moments lack the impact they command on other recordings. There is no emotional commitment in Ozawa’s work, and a total absence of energy.

“Romeo And Juliet” can survive and thrive in a variety of treatments. Maazel brought a sharp, pointed, searing quality to the score, which emphasized the work’s drama. Previn brought an understated elegance and lift to the music, which gently emphasized the work’s emotional arcs. Ozawa, truly, brings nothing comparable to the score—and yet the score’s aching beauty still makes an impact, even in the hands of a hack.

Josh loved “Romeo And Juliet”. He thought “Romeo And Juliet” was the finest ballet score he had ever heard. It has become his personal favorite.

It is fortunate that my father has no further interest in the discs we borrowed from him. Last night, after we had finished listening to these discs and were returning them to their boxes, I broke disc two of “Coppelia”, which contains the music to Act III. The disc snapped in half as I was inserting it into its case.

This is only the third time in my life that this has happened. In the two previous occurrences, it was Erato discs that snapped in half, too. This makes me wonder whether Erato uses inferior materials in manufacturing its discs.

Our next round of listening will involve another group of discs whose absence my father will not miss (and whose possible destruction will not exactly be a tragedy, although I truly am not actively trying to break these discs). We will listen to Richard Strauss’s opera, “Salome”, which we will hear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York over Columbus Day Weekend. We will listen to “Salome” so that Josh can become familiar with the work. We have with us the Herbert Von Karajan recording on EMI, a recording my father loves, but the copy we have with us is not the only copy of the recording in the family.

We will supplement our “Salome” listening with a disc of Mozart Piano Concertos performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic on Teldec.

In the case of the Barenboim Mozart disc . . .now, THAT is a disc my father indeed is VERY happy to have out of the house!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Alone In Boston

Our first week in Boston by ourselves was OK. We have no complaints.

Joshua is already immersed in classes, and I am already hard at work in my new job. We have been keeping ourselves thoroughly occupied.

My middle brother and my parents were up at the lake from Thursday morning until early this evening. They had intended to go up to the lake over this weekend to close the house for the season, but the Republican National Convention caused them to exit the Twin Cities two days earlier than planned.

Anarchist protesters caused monstrous traffic difficulties in the Twin Cities during the Convention period. Drivers were forced to abandon the grid of interstate highways that lead into and out of Minneapolis and Saint Paul because protesters were heaving 40-pound bags of dry cement from overpasses onto the interstate highways. It was a miracle that no one was killed. The Minnesota State Police as well as the police forces of Minneapolis and Saint Paul claimed that they lacked sufficient personnel to guard the numerous overpasses on the interstate highways, a situation that forced the local populace to avoid the interstates and main thoroughfares altogether in favor of side streets. The result was a total breakdown in traffic flow.

After experiencing Tuesday morning’s rush hour himself and after learning about the overpass situation early Tuesday afternoon, my father told his staff to go home early in order to avoid the Tuesday afternoon rush hour and, further, he told them to work from home for the remainder of the week.

After witnessing Tuesday’s traffic nightmares both in the morning and afternoon rush hours, my brother’s office simply closed for the week—on Tuesday night, his firm instructed all personnel by email not to return to work until tomorrow morning.

My brother and my parents had contemplated attending one or two of the evening convention sessions in order to hear some of the speeches, but the horrific traffic situation put “paid” to that notion. Further, the fact that cars parked near the convention venue were being vandalized and burned by protesters made a trip to Saint Paul even less attractive to them (and everyone else).

Many other locals who had planned to take advantage of the fact that the 2008 convention was in town, and to attend some of the evening sessions, elected to stay home instead and to watch the proceedings on television.

The talk of the Twin Cities last week, consequently, has been traffic, protesters, and the boorishness (and drinking habits) of leading figures from the news media. I won’t list the names of the major figures from journalism that have been reported to have been drunk during much of the past week, but their daily bar tabs have been reported to be astronomical.

Prior to the convention, I had assumed that people in Edina would be hosting a series of dinner parties for various delegates and politicians and notables in town for the convention.

This did not happen. Instead, such events were conducted in restaurants in downtown Minneapolis, far, far away from Edina. In fact, every fine restaurant in downtown Minneapolis was privately-booked for private affairs for the entire week. Regular diners in Minneapolis surely had to settle for dining at lesser establishments last week or were consigned to eating at home.

This outcome was NOT the result of the fact that idyllic Edina does not allow hotels within city limits. This outcome was the result of the fact that a private dinner held in Edina in honor of President and Mrs. Bush four years ago somehow had been reported in the local newspapers, in breach of all standards of protocol. Unless the Society Editor of the Star-Tribune has been officially notified, no one expects to read about a private function in the newspapers, even if the President Of The United States has been a guest. Edina was justifiably shocked when it read about that purely private function in the pages of both the Star-Tribune and the Pioneer Press in 2004. Four years later, outrage still lingers over that inexcusable violation of the rules of propriety. Understandably, the city did not want to hazard similar invasions of privacy this year, and hospitality was extended not in Edina but in downtown Minneapolis.

There were, of course, corporate receptions all over town for the duration of the convention.

My mother’s family’s company held receptions every night last week, but my mother NEVER attends—and her brothers and her sisters never attend, either—ANY business affairs or ANY business functions involving her family’s company (except for the annual shareholder meetings, or infrequent special shareholder meetings).

My father’s employer held receptions in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday and Monday nights, but he and my mother did not attend because they were on the East Coast on Sunday night and because they were flying home to Minneapolis on Monday night. I doubt that my parents minded missing the receptions of my father’s employer in the least.

The receptions of my father’s employer were invitation-only, but several uninvited journalists, nonetheless, attempted to crash the receptions on both nights. The doormen did their jobs, happily, and did not admit anyone not on the approved lists. (Editors from The Wall Street Journal and The National Review attended the receptions, but those individuals had been invited.)

It’s probably all for the best that my brother and my parents went up to the lake a couple of days early. This enabled them to escape town during a very trying week. Moreover, the lake house has been used hardly at all this year—one previous weekend, plus the week of July 4, and that’s all—and my brother and my parents were able to enjoy a quiet, restful, relaxing, stress-free extended weekend. They deserved it.

Of course, the dog did not object to four days at the lake in the least.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Weill Addendum

One of my friends pointed out to me tonight that Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera", about which I wrote earlier today, celebrated its eightieth anniversary yesterday. The work premiered on August 31, 1928.

An interesting coincidence.

Kurt Weill

For the last week and more, Joshua and I have been listening to three discs of music by Kurt Weill.

We listened to the discs in the car while driving East ten days ago, and we listened to the discs on our new sound system the last couple of days.

We chose these discs because my brother likes the music of Kurt Weill, and we thought he would enjoy hearing the discs during our long drive from Minneapolis to Boston.

The three discs we chose were:

“Der Dreigroschenoper”, performed by Lotte Lenya, Willi Trenk-Trebitsch, other vocal soloists and a pickup chorus and orchestra under Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeberg, on the Sony label

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill”, performed by Ute Lemper and the RIAS Berlin Chamber Orchestra under John Mauceri, on the Decca label

“The Unknown Kurt Weill”, performed by Teresa Stratas and Richard Woitach, on the Nonesuch label

This recording of “The Threepenny Opera”, made exactly fifty years ago, is the classic recording of the work, probably never equaled and certainly never exceeded. The recording, amazingly, is out of print at present.

The edition we listened to was the first compact disc version of the recording, published in Germany in 1982 and originally issued with an elaborate 96-page booklet. A further, less deluxe edition was published in 1990, but neither the 1982 edition nor the 1990 edition is any longer in the active domestic catalog.

Given that this recording is one of the classics of the gramophone, the current unavailability of the recording should be a crime.

This is one in a series of recordings of Kurt Weill’s music that Lotte Lenya recorded (and supervised) in Germany in the 1950’s. Made in Berlin in January 1958, this recording features two of the original cast members from the 1928 premiere of “The Threepenny Opera”, Lenya and Willi Trenk-Trebitsch. The other cast members are German singers little-known at the time this recording was made and virtually forgotten today.

At the time this recording was issued, it was represented to be the first “complete” recording of the entire score. That claim is and was troublesome, because there is no authoritative edition of the score. Over the years, more than one version of Berthold Brecht’s libretto has circulated and more than one version of Weill’s vocal score has circulated (and the various vocal scores leave unresolved the question of orchestration). This is the result of Brecht and Weill never having considered the original Berlin production to be definitive—both writer and composer actively tinkered with the work over a period of years while the work was still being performed in Germany—as well as the result of Brecht and Weill seeing no future for their work after the Nazis banned further performances of “The Threepenny Opera” shortly after coming to power in 1933. In 1972, a so-called “complete” edition of the score was finally published, but the “completeness” of that 1972 edition has always been in dispute. A further Critical Edition was published in 2000. It is probably accurate to state that this 1958 recording is more-or-less complete insofar as Weill scholarship had progressed by the middle 1950’s, and that it contains most of the important music (and certainly a fuller account of the score than had previously been recorded). However, the only truly “complete” recording of “The Threepenny Opera” is the RCA recording conducted by H. K. Gruber, a two-disc set recorded in Frankfurt in 1999 that has never made much headway in the American market.

I love this old 1958 Sony recording. Issues of completeness aside, this is the recording by which I first got to know the work. All subsequent recordings, to me, seem wrong-headed in comparison.

The key to this recording’s success is the work, not of Lotte Lenya, but of conductor Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeberg. He understands, better than any of his successors that have recorded the score, that “The Threepenny Opera” is, above all, a dance-based work. There is a rhythmic freedom in Bruckner-Ruggeberg’s conducting, a rightness and a lightness, a throwaway quality, that later conductors have never been able to duplicate. In modern hands, Weill’s music is too often performed with a heavy “seriousness” that negates an essential attraction of the music: its very offhandedness. Further, contemporary Weill conductors perform Weill’s music with its cynicism promenaded front and center instead of allowing the cynicism slyly to seep through the cracks of an indifferent façade. Weill’s stage music from his German years must be performed with an “I don’t give a damn” quality, and this particular quality has been lost in Weill performance over the years, even (and perhaps especially) in Germany. Bruckner-Ruggeberg, however, understands the requirements of Weill, and he understands them instinctively and exquisitely. From a conducting standpoint, this may be the finest (and most essential) Weill recording ever made.

The singers are more than acceptable, although Lenya undeniably steals the show. Hers is the only truly memorable performance on the recording. Lenya’s voice is roughhewn and husky, she is far too old for the role of Jenny, her numbers are transposed down, and she assumes the “Pirate Jenny” number that rightfully should be assigned to the character of Polly. Despite all this, Lenya’s performance is a triumph, mostly because of personal magnetism and an innate mastery of her late husband’s music (of course, the role of Jenny was written for Lenya, although she almost was not cast in the original production). Lenya is indelibly associated with this music and this role, and many people simply cannot hear any other artist in the part.

I do not go this far—I prefer the music to be sung in the original keys, and with a higher and purer voice, and perhaps with a touch less world-weariness than Lenya ladles indiscriminately onto everything she sings—but Lenya offers what is undeniably an unforgettable performance. This performance will live forever. I would not want to be without it.

My brother loves “The Threepenny Opera” and he can listen to the score over and over. He is not fluent in German, but there are several numbers he knows by heart and can even join in, including the “The Cannon Song”, which has always captured his fancy. (It was “The Cannon Song” that turned the members of the opening-night audience in 1928 Berlin from stone-faced pilasters into wild partisans of the show. The song had to be immediately encored, and the success of the show was from that point assured.)

Josh had never heard “The Threepenny Opera” before we listened to this recording. He liked the music a great deal, and he especially liked the piquant instrumentation, perfect for the material (the sound of “The Threepenny Opera” was to become the signature sound of The Weimar Republic). Josh did not especially care for Lenya’s singing, but he understood that her performance had nothing to do with voice and everything to do with style.

Ute Lemper’s voice is an instrument far superior to Lenya’s, purer and more even and surer of pitch. I suppose it may be said that Lemper was the Lenya of the 1990’s, Lemper’s peak decade.

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill” was Lemper’s first disc. It made her an international star on the day of its release in 1988.

And, make no mistake, this is a superb disc, perhaps the finest Weill recital disc ever recorded. It is the best thing Lemper has ever done. Nothing she was to record subsequently, including “Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, Volume II”, even comes close to her work here.

Every one of the fourteen tracks is inspired. Lemper is a more aggressive and more edgy performer than Lenya, and she can be a bit of a vamp, but her approach to Weill here is as unique and as valid as Lenya’s, and she knows how to put across every single number.

She is helped immeasurably by conductor John Mauceri, who offers sharp, pointed, saucy accompaniments, full of character, with brilliant (and deadpan) playing from the Berlin instrumentalists. This recording is the best work Mauceri has ever done on disc, too, and somewhat of a surprise. Mauceri’s other Weill discs, also for Decca, are—without exception—dull as dust. Mauceri is responsible for the most boring “Threepenny Opera” ever recorded as well as for a deadly “Street Scene”. He also was the conductor for Lemper’s second Weill recital disc, which turned out to be flat as a pancake. Whatever accounts for his excellent work here? I wish I knew (I suspect that there was a long period of planning and rehearsal before Lemper and Mauceri and the instrumentalists moved into the recording studio).

Just about every number on the disc is from Weill’s top drawer. There are selections from “Berliner Requiem”, “Threepenny Opera”, “Mahagonny” and “Silbersee”. The disc also features a German lied and a French chanson. The disc concludes with three selections from “One Touch Of Venus”, written for Mary Martin, in which Lemper’s English is flawless and her mastery of Broadway style complete. Lemper is not the only artist on the disc who successfully delivers the American numbers—surprisingly, Mauceri’s Berlin orchestra delivers the right 1940’s American sound and style, too, replete with perfect “swing” (something normally beyond the capabilities of European musicians).

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill” was an amazing debut disc. It is a modern classic. It is as much a classic as any of Lenya’s Weill discs.

My brother and I have always loved this disc. In fact, he and I each have our own copy, which is unique, both because we generally pass discs of common interest back and forth between us and because my brother does not listen to music as often as I do.

Josh was entirely captivated by the Lemper disc. It has already become one of his very favorite recordings.

“The Unknown Kurt Weill” is also considered to be a classic recording, at least by many music-lovers. It was the result of a friendship Teresa Stratas developed with Lotte Lenya at the end of Lenya’s life, a friendship that began when Stratas appeared in the first Metropolitan Opera production of Weill’s “The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny” in 1979.

The disc is mistitled. The music on the recording is not unknown, and was not unknown in 1981, the year of the recording’s release. Most of these songs have long been familiar to Kurt Weill fans.

Many knowledgeable persons hold this disc in the highest admiration, but I am not among that number. Stratas’s Weill has never moved me as much as Lenya’s or as much as Lemper’s. I am not sure why this is so.

One of the problems surely is Richard Woitach, Stratas’s accompanist. He brings absolutely nothing to the table. Woitach, not a professional pianist, was simply the wrong artist for this assignment. He was engaged at the insistence of Miss Stratas (Stratas and Woitach had developed a friendship during the years Woitach served as a not-particularly-distinguished Chorus Master at the Metropolitan Opera). Woitach’s playing here is perfunctory, even crude. In terms of technique and musicianship, he is in way over his head (and this is so despite the fact that Weill’s piano writing is hardly challenging).

Another problem is that Stratas is not a natural Weill singer. There is an awful lot of unnatural over-emphasis of enunciation and musical phrasing on this disc, as well as some insufferable “play acting”, and it all quickly starts to grate. This disc has always struck me as a prime instance of an opera singer trying her hand at a disc of art songs, only to find out that the broad musical strokes required in the theater do not carry over into the realm of the art song. Even as she tries to scale down her approach for the microphone, Stratas remains too operatic, too reliant on tricks from the stage instead of from the recital platform. The result is an awkward, fake “intimacy” that Stratas tries to create between herself and the listener. It is nothing so much as irritating.

This disc may have been a game try on Miss Stratas’s part, but it just doesn’t work.

My brother says that the problem with this disc is that the performances are all too one-dimensional. Miss Stratas, he says, plays “the disaffected chanteuse” in every single number, whether or not it is apt to the song in question.

“Save it for a nightclub, lady!” is a remark my brother involuntarily offered, in exasperation, after several hearings of this disc. I suspect my brother’s instinctive utterance was a correct assessment of why this disc does not come off.

I feel compelled to note in her defense that Miss Stratas was never a successful recording artist. Even in her prime—and this Weill disc was recorded when Miss Stratas was well past her prime—Miss Stratas had a voice that did not “take” to the microphone.

I never heard Miss Stratas live—she retired when I was fourteen years old—but my parents heard Miss Stratas several times, and they tell me that her voice was one of those voices that could not be captured by the microphone. Miss Stratas’s voice, heard live, apparently sounded nothing like the voice that emerges through electronic amplification. In the 1960’s, her peak years, virtually every major recording label in Europe tested Miss Stratas’s voice with the thought of offering her a recording contract. After hearing the test results, all took a pass on her. Hers was simply not a voice for the recording studio.

Miss Stratas’s work lives on primarily through her Deutsche Grammophon “Lulu” and her EMI “Showboat”, as well as for this Weill recital disc, all of which were recorded long after her voice had lost its bloom. It is regrettable that such a fine artist left virtually no documentation of her work while her voice was at its very best. Further, it is regrettable that Miss Stratas will be remembered most vividly only by those lucky enough to have experienced her in person. Future generations, able to assess her qualities only through recordings she left behind, will be unable to understand why she was such an esteemed artist in her time.

While “The Unknown Kurt Weill” is largely a disappointment, there is, happily, a lot of good music on the disc, so at least the music itself offers some rewards for the listener. Many of Weill’s best lieder, chansons and songs are included on the disc, including both the French and German versions of the same song, ”Je Ne T’Aime Pas” and “Wie Lange Noch?”, the German version of which is far more gut-wrenching.

The most charming song on the disc, and the song that receives the finest performance, was written during World War II, a period in which Weill was quite literally killing himself churning out scores to Broadway musicals. A tribute to America’s wartime industrial workers, this song is among the most captivating of all American popular songs. The song represents the thoughts of a factory worker turning over his place on the assembly line to his replacement at the end of a long and wearying shift. Its lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Its title: “Buddy On The Night Shift”.

It is an enchanting song.