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Apr 2003 Journal

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Unsettling scores

LIVES, WIVES AND LOVES OF THE GREAT COMPOSERS
Maryon Boyars Publishers

Though Seville may have been the setting of many famous operas – Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Carmen – Vienna holds pride of place as the habitat of nearly all the world’s greatest composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler.

As a schoolboy I couldn’t get away from Schubert. Mushy Dreimäderlhaus and Leise flehen meine Lieder posters were everywhere, and in class we sang Die Forelle. ‘Poor Franzl!’, our teacher said, ‘Unhappy in love, unrecognised, and dead at 31!’ Why Schubert died so young he didn’t tell us. It took me several years to find out that syphillis carried off half the geniuses of the nineteenth century. Thanks to this knowledge I, a teenage innocent, became sophisticated beyond my years. I now assumed that all composers who died in their thirties – e.g. Weber, Chopin, Bizet – had succumbed to VD.

This impression lingered at the back of my mind for decades – in fact, until I picked up Fritz Spiegl’s instructive and hugely diverting compendium. I had half-expected a chronique scandaleuse and was somewhat disappointed. For example, I remember reading somewhere that the much-publicised Alma Mahler-Werfel had regular assignations with her Jesuit father confessor and, expecting further ‘enlightenment’, was vouchsafed none. Instead, I found that Franz Werfel acted as go-between in an adulterous affair between his married sister and the (similarly married) Viennese composer Alban Berg of Wozzek and Lulu fame.

As an ex-flautist, Spiegl enhances his innate readability with a thorough grounding in music. Thus he is able to illustrate how Berg’s ardent infatuation with Hanna Fuchs-Robertin was encrypted in the musical notation of his Lyric Suite. Adultery leads to mendacity, which is a character defect. Weakness of character led Berg – long stigmatised by the Nazis as entartet (degenerate) - to complain in 1934: ‘Since the Reichstag fire not a single note of mine has been heard in Germany, although I am not a Jew. For, with the present tendency in Austria to glorify the Jews, I am hardly ever performed.’

This contrasts markedly with the stance of his soon-to-be-widowed wife Helene. After the Anschluss she turned down the suggestion that she petition Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach to lift the ban on her late husband’s work with the rejoinder ‘I shall wait till this hell-on-earth has worked itself out.’

How discombobulating to turn from this deceived wife to the two greatest deceivers among the composers: Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner. Liszt was duplicity incarnate – simultaneously an abbé and the greatest bedhopper among the European ‘upper crust’. In addition, he excelled at self-aggrandizement and manipulation of his image.

In all these respects – except the number of amorous conquests - Wagner outstripped Cosima’s father. Wagner was not merely a monster of selfishness – a liar, a sponger, a sexual predator – but also of self-deification. While composing Tristan he wrote to Mathilde von Wesendonck: ‘I have just played through the first half of the Act and had to say to myself what our dear God said to himself when he found that it Was Good. Like God, about 6000 years ago, I have no one to praise me.’

Despite accepting the Jewish calendar Wagner was, of course, a vicious antisemite, and I was disappointed that Spiegl had nothing to say about his indebtedness – and ingratitude – to Meyerbeer. Instead, Spiegl delivers a coup de foudre by stating that Richard and Cosima Wagner had one Jewish parent each: he the actor Ludwig Geyer, she the Countess Marie d’Agoue.

Can it really be true that the nastiest couple in the history of European culture had a Jewish genetic input? It is too horrible to contemplate – but, if proven, it would lessen our revulsion at Harold Pinter and Will Self.
Richard Grunberger

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