Friday, March 30, 2012

Grisly Results as the Song-of-the-Earth Jinx Strikes Again

Loyal readers of this blog will recall from my last post that in the past forty-something years I have attended (or tried to) three performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) at Vienna’s Musikverein, and three times something has gone badly wrong. I feared that something untoward would also happen the fourth time I went to hear this music on Thursday. My fears were realized. The jinx lives on.

Things went so swimmingly at the beginning of the Thursday night concert that I thought my jinx had, at last, been lifted. At the last moment, I had avoided stehplatz (standing room) by scoring a ticket in the front row of the orchestra right seats. I found myself sitting on the podium directly behind the last row of violinists to the right of the conductor as he faces them. In fact, a couple of the violinists were sitting so close to me that I could reach out and dope slap them if they messed up.
My neighbors at the concert

The first part of the program was played smartly by the Munich Philharmonic with world famous Zubin  Mehta conducting. Mehta had made his Vienna conducting debut in March 1962, and he ranks among the world’s best. It was a treat to be facing the Meister, watching how he used gestures and facial expressions to lead the orchestra. 

The first piece was by Franz Schubert, likely because the Musikverein is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and Schubert was there in its early years. The second piece was the Austrian premier of a composition by German Moritz Eggert (b. 1965), who was present to hear it played. Its title is “‘Puls’ for Grosses Orchester.” The opening of the composition grabs your attention, and it is easy to get caught up in the pulsating, vigorous music that fully uses all parts of the large orchestra. Not only do violinists and brass players work up a sweat, the tuba player, the harpists, and the percussionists are fully engaged in some strenuous playing. This music is a keeper.

The break came and memories of the jinx were fading. As I waited, I read through the lyrics of the six songs that comprise Das Lied von der Erde. With two experienced and highly praised singers engaged to sing these songs, my expectations were rising.
Waiting, Waiting

Then, strange things began to happen. The intermission seemed to stretch out much too long. The audience members came back to their seats, but the orchestra did not take the stage. After five minutes or so, a buzz was rising in the hall. At that point, a sad looking man came on stage to speak to the audience. Sitting behind him, I did not fully understand what he was saying, but the gist was this:  Torsten Kerl, the tenor who was to sing in Das Lied von der Erde, had, a few minutes earlier, a "breakdown" and would be unable to sing.  Dark murmurs arose from the audience.

This man, who I would guess is the manager of the Musikverein, continued to explain what was going to happen. They had contacted a substitute singer who had agreed to take on the role, and he was on his way to the Musikverein.  They had decided to proceed with the playing of Das Lied von der Erde in the following way:  Thomas Hampson, the baritone, would sing the first two songs for baritone, No. 2 Der Einsame in Herbst (The Solitary One in Autumn) and No. 4 Von der Schoenheit (Of Beauty). Then, there would likely be a break until the second singer was ready. He would then sing the songs for tenor, No. 1 Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song to the Misery of the Earth), No. 3 Von der Jugend (Of Youth) and No. 5. Der Trunkene im Fruehling (The Drunkard in Spring). After that, Hampson would return for the final song, Der Abschied (The Farewell).

The man asked the audience for its patience and understanding. He said that nothing like this had happened before in his twenty-four years at the Musikverein.
The man with bad news speaks

The concert followed the announced plan. Hampson sang The Solitary One in Autumn, including the words:

I weep much in my solitude.
The autumn in my heart has lasted too long.
Sun of love, will you never shine again,
gently to dry my bitter tears?

Then he sang Of Beauty.  

I had been pleased to read in Hampson’s bio that he was born and raised in Washington State and had gone on to have a spectacular career as a concert singer. He had successfully sung Mahler’s work many times, and he was in good form this evening, even amid the turmoil surrounding the performance.
Waiting, waiting

When Hampson finished his first two songs, the sad man came out again to address the audience, saying that it would be at least ten minutes before the concert could resume. In fact, it was more than twenty minutes. Some of the musicians left the stage; others hung around talking, fiddling with their instruments, and reading magazines. A few members of the audience got their umbrellas and left.

After the long delay, the orchestra returned to their chairs and the audience to its seats. The sad man appeared for a third time and introduced the substitute singer, whose name met with the approval of much of the audience. He was Johan Botha, who often sings in Vienna State Operas’ Wagner productions. The sad man said that Botha had not sung the songs of Das Lied von der Erde for many years and had no practice singing them with the Munich Philharmonic. Then he again asked for patience and understanding as he walked, head down, from the stage.
Botha receives thunderous applause
Botha entered. He is a short, rather fat man with long sculptured hair and beard. I would describe him grisly (hint, see the title of this blog entry). He has a powerful, penetrating voice, which came nicely through the outstanding music in Drinking Song to the Misery of the Earth and The Drunkard in Spring. The Drinking Song includes this vivid ending:

Look down there!
In the moonlight, on the graves
crouches a wild, ghostly figure - It is an ape!
Hear how its howls resound piercingly
in the sweet fragrance of life!
Now take the wine! Now is the time - enjoy!
Empty the golden goblet to the bottom!
Dark is life, dark is death!

The drunkard starts:

If life is only a dream,
why then the misery and torment?
I drink until I can drink no more,
the whole, dear day!

And when I can drink no more,
because my stomach and soul are full,
I stagger to my door
and sleep very well!

It was engrossing to watch the old pro Mehta working with Botha to help him enter the music on the right note and at the right time. Mehta’s head was inches from Botha’s as he swung his baton, flicked glances at his musicians, and animatedly mouthed the words to the songs, especially emphasizing the words that followed seconds or minutes of music without words.
Conductor Zubin Mehta smiles at singer Botha

Botha easily won over the crowd with his efforts and the audience, breaking tradition, applauded after each song. Botha’s wonderful voice rewarded those who remained despite their dismay at the changes in the program and the long delays.

The concert ended successfully with the moving music and contemplative lyrics of Der Abschied.  The dark, stirring words of the song were sung well by baritone Hampson, including these:

Weary men go home,
to learn in sleep
forgotten happiness and youth.

He spoke, his voice was choked: My friend,
on this earth, fortune has not been kind to me!
Where do I go? I will go, wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to find my homeland, my home.
I will never stray to foreign lands.
Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!

At the end, Hampson led us down the lonely road of eternity:  ewig…ewig…ewig.
Hampson receives the applause of Mehta after The Farewell

The audience rewarded Mehta (who was visibly relieved that disaster had been averted), the two fine signers, and the marvelous Philharmonic orchestra with long and enthusiastic applause. There is no word about how the victim of my jinx, Torsten Kerl, is doing. All I can do is echo the manager of the Musikverein asking for his patience and understanding.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The "Song of the Earth" Jinx

In the past half century, I have gone three times to hear Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) played at Vienna’s Musikverein. Each time I have gone, something bad has happened. Tonight, with some trepidation, I am planning to go a fourth time to hear this music performed.  I keep wondering what will go wrong this time.

The first time I went to the Musikverein to hear Das Lied von der Erde (DLvdE) was in 1968 when I was an undergraduate student in Vienna and was able to get tickets to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play the music, conducted by no less than Leonard Bernstein. My seat was on the podium, sitting in a folding chair behind the musicians, facing the conductor.  To maximize seating for the concert, about five rows of such chairs had been placed on the left and right edges of the back of the podium.

The concert was a thrilling event, as you would expect with a world class orchestra, two talented singers, and a world-famous conductor playing some brilliant, though sometimes dark, music. The last movement – quite long – is entitled “Der Abschied,” the farewell. It ends with some very subdued, foreboding music, accompanying one of the singers who repeats the word “ewig” (forever or endless) many times; each time the word sounds more forlorn than the previous time it was sung.

The conclusion is engrossing, as one contemplates eternity with each tortured syllable. Or at least it was at this concert until a guy sitting in front of me on the podium, fell out of his chair, breaking the stillness with a huge clatter.  Initially I was afraid the guy had just gone to eternity; after he hopped up and resumed his seat – hundreds of pairs of eye following his every move, a part of me wished he had.

The second time I went to hear DLvdE performed was in late fall, 1971. I was back in Vienna as a graduate student and felt fortunate that a woman I had known – and dated a few times at the University of Arkansas -- had come to the city to visit for a few months. A blond, free spirited beauty (she was one of the “Razorback beauties” in the university’s 1970 yearbook), she accompanied me to hear a concert featuring DLvdE. This time, the concert went smoothly, featuring a strong team playing and singing the beautiful music. The problem came afterwards, when I and my date, along with a couple friends, went to the Café Hawelka, a hangout for students and intellectuals.

As usual, the café was crowded, and we shared a cramped table with a few other people. At the request of my date, I started translating the words to “Der Abshied,” the conclusion of DLvdE. When it was clear that my translation was not going well, an aristocratic-looking Austrian student sitting nearby offered to help. It didn’t help that he resembled your typical European male model. Soon he was staring into deeply her eyes, translating from German into English these words:

“Fortune was not kind to me in this world! Where do I go? I am departing, I wander in the mountains. I am seeking rest for my lonely heart. I am making my way to my home, my abode. I shall never stray far away. My heart is still and awaits its moment.

The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon!”

She was lost before he got to the next words: “ewige….ewige…..ewige…….….” I didn’t see too much of her after that. She and the kind translator had a good time together during her remaining weeks in the city.

 It should be understandable why I did not rush back to hear DLvdE again after my 1971 experience. However, last year, forty years after the unfortunate events at Café Hawelka, I decided to give it a try. During my stay in Vienna, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Youth Orchestra) was scheduled to play both Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and DLvdE. I bought standing room tickets for the concert and went with a former college roommate, recently retired, who I was helping to see Vienna for the first time. 

Unfortunately, the concert was on a warm April night and the standing room area was packed. The first part of the program was the Eighth Symphony, which I don’t find particularly interesting. As the long symphony was coming to an end, I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye: my friend had fallen backwards, fortunately caught by the people behind him, and was lying unconscious. I immediately thought, “How in the heck do you send a body from Austria to the U.S. It must be complicated.” Then I thought, “Xxx (his wife) is going to be mad at me.”

Fortunately, some nearby folks helped my friend regain consciousness, loosening his tie, fanning him, giving him some water. I was preparing to drag him out to the hallway when he was able to get to his feet. A doctor came and insisted that he get fresh air, so we parked ourselves near a window. After observing him a few minutes, she decided he was fine, just overcome by the heat. When he was sufficiently recovered, and just before the orchestra started playing DLvdE, I went with him to make sure he got back to the apartment without difficulty. I read later that the Mahler Jugendorchester was particularly good that night when they performed DLvdE.

Tonight, my fourth occasion to attend a concert that includes DLvdE in its program, is ripe for disaster. It will be performed by a world class orchestra (the Munich Philharmonic) and conducted by Zubin Mehta, one of the best known conductors in the world.  I will be back in the standing room section where last year’s collapse occurred. It will be crowded on this warm day. I’m not sure what will go wrong, but if you read about some strange disturbance in Vienna’s Musikverein on March 29th, you should see my name in the story somewhere.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mrs. Wittenberg's Postcard Album

When Mrs. Rose Marie Eichhorn Wittenberg of Little Rock died in 1961, she left her belongings to her son Walter Wittenberg Jr. Among the things he inherited was an album of postcards from the 1890s through the 1930s. Not long after Walter Jr. died in 1976, Mrs. Wittenberg's postcard album was sold at a garage sale held in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock. I purchased it.

I bought the Wittenberg album mainly because the messages on the postcards were in German, and at the time, I was doing some research on German immigration into Arkansas. As expected, this album, like others that are kept together, helps tell the story of the life of the person who collected the postcards. In this case, the story is about a woman who moved from Dresden, Germany to Little Rock in 1911 to marry Walter Wittenberg, one of the city's leading citizens. I have written a paper about Walter and Marie Wittenberg that is posted on Scribd at this link:

The short version of their story is this: Walter Wittenberg arrived in Little Rock in 1865 as a soldier in the Union Army's quartermaster service. Born in 1834, he had come to the United States from Germany with his parents in 1849. They had settled in St. Louis, and he had married in Annie Libby in 1856.  After the Civil War, his wife and son (Frank) had joined him in Little Rock, where he made a successful career as an accountant, book keeper, and banker. In 1869, he had helped created the first building and loan association in Arkansas.

Wittenberg, who had a big house at 518 Broadway, lost his wife to illness in 1883. They had six children together, two of whom died at very young ages and one who died as a teenager. His oldest son, Frank, was a successful accountant in Little Rock, and Frank's son, George, started an architectural firm that still exists.

Marie Eichhorn was born in Saxony in 1877 and spent most of her first thirty years in Dresden. She made two trips to the United States (in 1892 and 1908) before moving here permanently in 1911. She and Walter married sometime in 1911 and had a son, Walter Jr. The senior Walter died suddenly on October 11, 1912. Eight years later, in December 1920, Marie married James E. Hogue, a Little Rock lawyer. They divorced in June 1924, and Marie reclaimed Wittenberg as her last name.

She moved from the house on Broadway to a house in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock in the middle 1920s. After a couple more moves, she settled at 412 Palm Street, where she lived until her death in 1961.  For many years, she attended the First Lutheran Church in downtown Little Rock and was secretary of the women's auxiliary group. At the time of her death, she attended Grace Lutheran Church.

The stories of Walter and Marie are small additions to the history of German immigration into Arkansas. The basic facts of Mrs. Wittenberg's life are illuminated and made more interesting by the postcards in her album.  Below are a few of the more interesting cards:

The postcard above celebrates an arts festival held in Dresden in 1905. This postcard shows Marie's address in Dresden in 1905 and her interest in the arts.

 This postcard commemorates a political event that occurred in Dresden on January 1, 1903. Apparently that year a political figure gathered a group of politicians to support him. It was mailed to Marie Eichhorn in 1906.

This unmailed postcard shows the King and Queen of Saxony, which at one time was a kingdom. King Albert held his position from 1873 to 1902. Dresden is located in Saxony and Marie Eichhorn lived there during most of her first three-three years of life.

 This pre-World War I postcard shows the German Kaiser. The postcard is unused.

This postcard apparently was mailed by Marie to herself as a memento of her visit to Paris in 1904. On the front is written: "In remembrance of the last day I was in Paris." At the time, she was living in Leipzig.

 This postcard was sent by a young lady in the United States whom Marie had met during her travels. It is dated 1906.

This postcard is one of two that were given to Marie by Walter Wittenberg. On the back is written: "Received in Dresden from my dear Walter." This card documents the fact that Walter visited Dresden, probably in 1910.

Marie's 1911 trip to the United States is documented in this and another couple of postcards. The writing on the front says that February 1, 1911 was her 13th day on the ocean and the water has been terrible with many storms. She expected to land on February 5th.

Marie had a sister, Hedwig, who lived in Cleveland. She had married Michael Weinhauer in 1895. Hedwig died in Spring, 1912, but Marie kept in touch with her children. Several of Marie's early postcards were sent to her by Hedwig, and several of the later postcards were mailed to her by Hedwig's children. This is an unused postcard.

Several of the postcards in Marie Wittenberg's album have pictures of Arkansas in the 1910's and 1920's. This is an unused postcard in the collection.

The three postcards above are real picture post cards (RPPCs) in Marie Wittenberg's collection. Unfortunately, they are unused (thus, no address) and have no names associated with them. Perhaps the one at the bottom is Walter Wittenberg Jr. as a child.

This final picture is not a postcard, but a photograph that came with them. Perhaps it is a photo of the Wittenberg house at 518 Broadway, Little Rock. No identifying information came with the picture.