Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sir William-Peer Williams Of The 16th Light Dragoons

Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)
Portrait Of Captain Sir William-Peer Williams Of The 16th Light Dragoons
The Courtauld Institute Of Art, London

Oil On Canvas
50 15/16 Inches By 40 7/16 Inches

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Couple Of Plays

Yesterday Joshua and I went out to attend a couple of plays: we attended an afternoon performance of the musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Lyric Stage Company Of Boston and we attended an evening performance of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” at Huntington Theatre Company.

We had never seen either work performed—and neither of us had seen the film version of “Bus Stop”.

I did not understand the appeal of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. It is not a strong show: the score is weak, the book is weak, the premise unpromising.

The show presents a group of school children, all of whom are very odd in one way or another, participating in a spelling bee supervised by a group of adults, all of whom are also very odd in one way or another. The material, which sports a very nasty edge, cannot settle upon whether to extol these individuals, whether to parody them, or whether to skewer them—so it does a combination of all three, ineptly. It is all fundamentally very unpleasant.

Often the show became positively irritating. My irritation largely arose whenever the authors attempted to display what they believed to pass for sophistication. The authors’ notions of sophistication were not sophisticated in the least, and much of the show fell flat as a pancake.

The songs of the score all sounded alike, and the script seemed borrowed from a bad 1970’s situation comedy. Is there a more untalented composer for the theater than William Finn? And a more untalented writer than Rachel Sheinkin? Both should seek to find more rewarding lines of work.

There’s nothing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to sustain an audience’s interest other than the energy and enthusiasm of the performers. Energy and enthusiasm were in abundant supply yesterday afternoon—although I cannot say I observed any genuine talent on the stage—and watching the cast members enjoy themselves was the only pleasure Josh and I were able to find in the performance.

The show was short: one hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission. Nonetheless, we were enormously relieved when we were released from the proceedings. It is very tiring to have to sit through synthetic, manufactured, “forced” entertainment. If a show such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” can be a commercial success, which it has proven to be, then the American musical is, indeed, most assuredly dead.

We had a much better time at “Bus Stop”, even though the play was weak and the performance undistinguished.

First, “Bus Stop” had a great stage set, and the stage set was ideal for the audience as well as for the actors: it was great to look at, and provided a great playing space for the cast. In fact, the stage design of Huntington Theatre’s “Bus Stop” was the best stage design Josh and I have encountered in Boston. It was fully worthy of The Guthrie Theater—and I cannot say that of anything else we have encountered in Boston.

Second, the performances in “Bus Stop” were interesting. The performances were not good and the performances were certainly not unified, but the performances were interesting enough for us to enjoy watching the actors go through their maneuvers. Some players overplayed and some players underplayed and some players attempted stylization and some players did not, all of which needed to be overlooked—yet the cast members worked hard trying to bring their characters to life, and we enjoyed watching them trying to bring the material to life.

Their task cannot have been easy. “Bus Stop” is not a good play, and probably does not warrant revival.

Unduly schematic—the plot involves a group of persons trapped overnight at a bus stop in rural Kansas during a snowstorm—and filled with tired, formulaic writing and one-dimensional characters, “Bus Stop” is a pure 1940’s vehicle, out-of-date by a decade before it was even written (the play was created and first produced in the mid-1950’s). One part Tennessee Williams (without the poetry and eloquence of Williams), one part Clifford Odets, and one part pulp-novelist James M. Cain, “Bus Stop” does not genuinely work on any level. It is not particularly entertaining, it is not at all thought-provoking, and it lacks a single spark of originality or flair.

Of perhaps greater significance, Inge’s use of language is exceedingly plain. His characters utter their dishwater-mundane thoughts in dishwater-mundane prose—which has always subjected Inge, with some justification, to the charge that he was the perfect playwright for amateur theater.

“Bus Stop” is a less strong play than “Picnic”, another Inge play that Josh and I attended almost eighteen months ago.

Josh and I were surprised that “Picnic” had been deemed worthy of revival, and out of curiosity we had driven up to Stoneham in April 2009 to attend Stoneham Theatre’s production. “Picnic” is anything but a masterpiece, but “Picnic” is far superior to “Bus Stop”, probably because the female characters in “Picnic” have some degree of individuality (in “Picnic”, Inge had recreated female characters known to him from his childhood).

The characters in “Bus Stop” lack that same small degree of individuality. Moreover, the sense of community that holds “Picnic” together is absent in “Bus Stop”.

I doubt that I shall ever want to see “Bus Stop” again—but I am pleased that I have now seen the play. It is certainly more durable than the God-awful musical we sat through yesterday afternoon.

After the late-afternoon theater performance and prior to the evening theater performance, Josh and I visited a French bistro for a light dinner. One purpose of our visit was to find an interesting restaurant for my parents’ visit in November.

The menu was disappointingly small, and not very imaginative. We settled for mussels, followed by Eggplant Napoleon. We skipped dessert.

The food was barely satisfactory, the prices unduly high, the décor and atmosphere somewhat gloomy.

Unlike General MacArthur, we shall not return.

En Route To Meteora

Early on the morning of March 17, en route to Meteora, we stopped in Lamia, a town of 60,000 persons in Central Greece. The origins of Lamia date back 2500 years.

We spent an hour exploring the center of town, which was mostly unremarkable but very pleasant.

Lamia has four town squares, around one of which is the town’s Cathedral.

Lamia is home to an important archeological museum, but we did not attempt to locate or visit the museum.

On a hilltop at the edge of town is a fortress dating back to the Frankish occupation of Greece. The Frankish fortress was built atop the ruins of an ancient citadel constructed by the Spartans, who once ruled Lamia.

We did not attempt to visit the fortress.

Several important ancient military battles occurred in and around Lamia, making the area a vital destination for historians of ancient Greece.

Friday, September 24, 2010

“Was It So Alleviating As You Supposed?”

“Can I have never seen you?”

That is the opening line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem, “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth”.

Written on November 4 and 5, 1908, “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth” is a provocative—even disturbing—piece of writing, containing, as it does, one of the most brutally frank examinations of suicide ever created.

“Can I have never seen you?” is quickly followed by “Was it so alleviating as you supposed?”, the point at which Rilke establishes that he is throwing down the gauntlet: his poem will serve not only as eulogy and tribute to the young poet who ended his own life at the age of nineteen, but also as chastisement and vehicle for the assignment of blame—and guilt.

Rilke was unmistakably angry at the time he composed the poem, because tenderness and abrasiveness exist side-by-side. Further, the poem comes uncomfortably close to taunting the deceased.

“Who can deny on oath that in the earth a crack goes springing through the healthy seeds?”


Sometimes Rilke entirely goes too far.

“Don't be ashamed, when the dead brush against you, those other dead, who held out to the end.”

Such are exceedingly cruel words. Rilke, not a religious man, assumes the long-held notion—a superstitious notion as well as a religious notion—that those who die by their own hands are not to be accorded the same honor and respect as those who die natural deaths. Kalckreuth’s family must have been appalled when first encountering Rilke’s poem.

The harshest words of the poem hint at eternal damnation.

“The fact that you destroyed. That this must be related of you till the end of time.”

Is this even the work of a civilized man? The poem is shockingly inhumane, at least in part.

My reading of the poem is that no comfort is provided—and that no comfort is intended—by its famous closing lines:

“Who talks of victory? To endure is all.”

I have been re-reading and reflecting upon this famous work for the last several days, always unable to decide whether it is a work of genius or simply a petulant tantrum thrown by a wounded man.

To read the poem is torture itself, since the work is as maddening as it is beautiful (which may have been Rilke’s intent).

The poem is too long for me to reproduce here; otherwise I would do so.

“Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth” remains in print in monograph form and is widely available at finer bookshops.

The J. B. Leishman translation, from which I have quoted, is a very bad one—but all published translations of Rilke into English have been poor.

Rilke is, simply put, untranslatable. His sly twists and turns of the German language cannot be rendered adequately in English, his highly-unique internal rhyming schemes cannot be reproduced in other languages, and the subtle thoughts and emotions he evokes are too-tightly-bound to the German tongue to register in translation, no matter how fine the work of the translator.

Loosened within that rush of melancholy,
ecstatically and only half-aware,
may you, in motion round the distant stars,
have found the happiness that you transposed
from here into that being-dead you dreamt of.

Every time I read those words, I think of the painting of Wolf as a boy, painted by his father. Wolf’s father, perhaps with the instinct of an artist or perhaps with the instinct of a parent, unknowingly captured what was to come.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Can I Have Never Seen You?"

Another important 19th-Century German realist painter virtually unknown in the United States is Leopold Karl Walter Von Kalckreuth (1855-1928), who by inheritance was entitled to use the title “Graf” (“Count”).

Kalckreuth’s works, known for their deep melancholy and the artist’s exquisite capturing of North Germany’s subtle and somber light, unique in all the world, have been attracting attention in Europe in recent years.

This is because several Kalckreuth canvases have been the subjects of highly-publicized ownership disputes, such disputes arising from The Third Reich’s practice of forcing Jewish owners of art to sell their holdings at artificially-low prices (when such artworks were not outright confiscated by the state).

I have never been disappointed in a Kalckreuth painting. Every Kalckreuth canvas I have had the pleasure to view has been a work of the finest quality.

When we visited the Hamburg Kunsthalle in November 2006, four Kalckreuth paintings were on display. Alas, the near-legendary “The Twilight Hour”, owned by the Kunsthalle, was not among the four—and this disappointed us greatly, as “The Twilight Hour” was on our list of essential Kunsthalle German paintings we had most wanted to study in person.

The four Kalckreuth paintings that were on display were all well-known, as Hamburg possesses the world’s most important cache of Kalckreuth artworks.

Prominent among the four was the famous portrait, “Wolf, The Son Of The Artist”.

“Wolf, The Son Of The Artist” was painted in 1900, when Wolf was thirteen years old.

The painting is charming and disturbing in equal measure, a gripping portrayal of a child on the cusp of abandoning the cocoon of childhood and embracing the responsibilities and realities of adulthood. The boy is revealed as intelligent and civilized—and introverted and melancholy. The painting serves as a frightening precursor of the son’s suicide six years later.

Wolf Kalckreuth was a precocious poet, whose works had already been published at the time of his death at the age of nineteen. He was a close personal friend of Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote his celebrated poem, “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth”, shortly after the young man’s death. During his short life, Wolf made a profound impression on everyone who knew him.

Anton Webern was studying “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth” on the afternoon of his death.

Might the text have provided inspiration for a “Cantata No. 3” from the pen of the great composer?

The world shall never know.


Leopold Kalckreuth (1855-1928)
Wolf, The Son Of The Artist
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Canvas
46 Inches By 36 Inches


A preparatory drawing for the above painting is part of a temporary exhibition of German works on paper, all from a private collection, currently on display at The National Gallery Of Art in Washington.

I note that the drawing was even mentioned in a recent article in The Washington Post. It is gratifying to see 19th-Century German art, which was supremely accomplished, at last receiving some attention in North America.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Marek Janowski On Current Opera Production

Marek Janowski: I increasingly leave opera aside. The development of stage directing during the last 15 years is such that I was not able to follow the philosophy, especially in Germany, which, as you know, is rather terrible. In the United States, it is much less like this. In the early 1990’s, I decided to finish with opera in the pit. From time to time, I do an opera in concert. I have to say that, from time to time, I miss a little bit this repertoire, but not the opera world.

Interviewer: Would you consider doing a stage production if you had a stage director that . . .

Marek Janowski: My choice? Yes.

Interviewer: Do you have any stage directors you would like to work with?

Marek Janowski: They're all dead.

Homeless In Berlin

Homeless persons living amid rubble in the streets of Berlin on 1 May 1945.

The Battle Of Berlin was not officially to end until the following day, and Germany was not to sign its official surrender until 7 May 1945. Nonetheless, the war, for all practical purposes, was over by May 1, and the persons in the photograph faced the unsettling prospects of attempting to rebuild their lives.

Their despair, no doubt, was profound.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ecological Panic, Revisited (1984 Edition)

It is a curious fact about human nature that many people actually seem to want to believe in an approaching catastrophe.

In the Dark and Middle Ages—indeed right up to the Seventeenth Century—religious seers would always collect a substantial following if they predicted the end of the world, especially if they gave a specific date for it. When the date came and went, and nothing happened, human credulity did not disappear. It re-emerged promptly when the next persuasive prophet mounted his soapbox.

The ecological panic of our times is driven by exactly the same emotional needs. Indeed it is yet another example of how, during the Twentieth Century, the declining religious impulse has been replaced by secular substitutes, which are often far more irrational and destructive. The religious impulse—with all the excesses of zealotry and intolerance it can produce—remains powerful, but now expresses itself in secular substitutes.

Paul Johnson, “The Perils Of Risk Avoidance” (1984)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Women In Church

American museums’ holdings of German art are woeful.

American museums are hospitable venues for works by Hans Holbein The Younger and a small number of German Expressionist artists from the early 20th Century—but American public art collections are otherwise largely bereft of German art. It would be impossible to recreate the history of German art through American holdings, although a handful of institutions—most conspicuously, The Kimbell Museum and The National Gallery Of Art—are, belatedly, trying to make amends.

The reason for this shortcoming is simple: the finest American private collections (which went on to form the core collections of our finest museums) were acquired between the American Civil War and the Depression of the 1930’s, a period during which German art was virtually unknown among British and French art dealers—and it was through British and French art dealers that American robber barons made the bulk of their art purchases.

A prime example of an important German artist virtually unknown in the United States is Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), a German realist painter who spent his best years living among and painting the peasants of rural Bavaria. Leibl was a German Gustave Courbet, and Leibl’s work rivals the quality of his more famous French counterpart.

The importance of Leibl’s work was recognized in Germany during his lifetime: much of his oeuvre made its way into German public collections while the artist was still active. And yet Leibl paintings have made no headway in the English or French-speaking worlds (although Leibl artworks are much-admired in Russia).

Art scholars, as well as the artist himself, believed his greatest work to be “Three Women In Church”. A representation of three generations of women at worship, the deeply-moving “Three Women In Church” made Leibl famous overnight throughout Central Europe. The painting became instantly iconic—and it remains so today in German-speaking lands. The painting is as famous in Central Europe as “American Gothic” is in the United States. Postcards of “Three Women In Church” have been available since the year the masterwork was unveiled, and they remain bestsellers to this day.

Leibl worked on the painting for three years and six months. Meticulous attention was paid to the women’s devotional attire as well as to their individual expressions of piety. The attention to detail is reminiscent of Dutch Old Masters—and, fittingly, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the painting’s most ardent admirers.

“Three Women In Church” sneaks up on the viewer. A single quick glance at the painting reveals nothing, but the viewer is slyly drawn in by the remarkable detail of the women’s clothing and the church pews, after which attention shifts to the solemnity and sincerity of the facial expressions.

I first witnessed “Three Women In Church” at the Hamburg Kunsthalle during our trip to North Germany in November 2006. It was hung among other Leibl paintings, all of which were very fine, yet “Three Women In Church” was certainly the most riveting of the group.

We were pleased that this particular masterpiece was on display. During our time in Hamburg, many celebrated 19th-Century German paintings owned by the Kunsthalle were not on display—and this was because fourteen rooms of the Kunsthalle normally devoted to 19th-Century painting had been turned over to the once-in-a-lifetime Caspar David Friedrich exhibition, an epochal exhibition if ever there were one.

The richness and subtlety of “Three Women In Church” cannot be captured by photographic reproduction—yet a photograph at least can suggest the power and fascination of the painting.


Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900)
Die Drei Frauen In Der Kirche
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Wood
45 1/4 Inches By 30 3/4 Inches

Sunday, September 12, 2010


We spent the afternoon of March 16 in Delphi, where we took a guided tour of the excavations.

Delphi flowered most brilliantly in the 6th Century B.C., when its civilization—and influence—peaked.

Located at the base of Mount Parnassus, Delphi is situated both upon the lower portion of the mountain as well as in a large and beautiful valley surrounded by mountains of the Parnassus Range. The topography of Delphi is inherently much more beautiful and much more dramatic than the topography of Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus and Olympia.

However, there are only so many ruins (“piles of rocks”, in the terminology my brother had adopted by the third day of our tour) that one may explore before fatigue sets in—and we were already suffering ruins fatigue by the time we reached Delphi.

“I think we should have gone to Paris” was a refrain one or the other of us had been muttering since the previous afternoon, and this sentiment reached a near-boiling point shortly after we began our guided tour of Delphi, when “I think we should have gone to Paris” became a veritable nonstop chant on our part.

We were, simply put, visiting too many ancient ruined cities in too short a time—we had by this point already visited the ruins of Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus and Olympia—and we were no longer enjoying it.

We were duly escorted through the extensive excavations at Delphi, and we genuinely tried to pay attention to the guide’s chatter while demonstrating a modicum of enthusiasm. This became more difficult when Joshua announced, “I think I’m going to take up smoking”—and my brother responded, “And I think I’m going to take up drinking.”

I believe we successfully maintained the illusion that we were paying attention to the guide, but I doubt that more than twenty per cent of his words registered with us after half an hour. The guided tour lasted almost two hours—and, for us, it seemed an eternity.

Delphi is, perhaps, most famous for its Temple Of Apollo.

Other prominent remnants at Delphi include the Treasury Of The Athenians

And the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.

Delphi, like Olympia, also sported a stadium, a gymnasium, a theater and a palestra. It also featured a series of extensive and massive stone walls that carried religious and political significance and at which votive offerings were made.

I wish Delphi were an hour’s drive from Boston. If so, Josh and I would be happy to return any Saturday to enjoy a day’s explorations. However, given that our appetite for ancient Greek ruins had become satiated prior to the afternoon of March 16, our enjoyment of Delphi was, regrettably, limited.

At the conclusion of our escorted tour of the ruins, we visited Delphi’s archeological museum. Delphi’s archeological museum was very much like Olympia’s archeological museum, which we had visited the previous afternoon.

No doubt the museum is of vast importance, but we were not captivated by the artifacts on display—and wished we had been visiting the Louvre, which has a far finer collection of antiquities from Greece than those on display in Delphi.

After walking through Delphi’s archeological museum, we located and checked into our hotel, which was very close to the excavations site.

Our hotel was situated at the base of one of the mountains and afforded a view of the entire valley—and our rooms offered views of the valley all the way to the port city of Itea and the Corinthian Gulf.

The views were remarkable.

We were almost too crabby to enjoy them.

But not quite.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Total War

On 18 February 1943, the same day members of The White Rose were arrested in Munich, Joseph Goebbels gave the most infamous speech of his career, the legendary “Total War” speech.

Presented to an audience of regime admirers at Berlin’s Sportpalast, Goebbels’s “Total War” speech remains one of the most remarkable public addresses of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Undeniably well-written, the “Total War” speech is compelling and repulsive in equal measure.

The invited audience erupted into thunderous applause throughout Goebbels’s address.

The banner reads: "Total War = Shortest War".

The White Rose

A 1942 photograph of, from left, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst.

Hans Scholl (born 22 September 1918; died 22 February 1943)

Sophie Scholl (born 9 May 1921; died 22 February 1943)

Christoph Probst (born 6 November 1919; died 22 February 1943)

Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were medical students in Munich during their membership in The White Rose. Sophie Scholl was a university student in Munich studying biology and philosophy during her membership in The White Rose.

In the photograph, Hans Scholl wears a military uniform because he had been involuntarily assigned to the German Army Medical Corps in 1942.

Hans and Sophie Scholl were observed dropping leaflets at the University Of Munich on 18 February 1943. They and Probst (and others) were arrested the same day.

All three were tried for treason four days after their arrests. They were tried on the morning of 22 February 1943 and immediately found guilty—and guillotined that same afternoon.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Labor Day Weekend

Our Labor Day Weekend at home was too short—Joshua and I were in the Twin Cities for only 72 hours—but we had a wonderful visit.

Other than attending Sunday morning service, Josh and I never left my parents’ house from early Friday evening until late Monday afternoon. My middle brother and my older brother and his family spent all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday at my parents’ house, too, so that we might visit with them the entire weekend (and play with the kids).

Josh and I had last seen my parents and my middle brother in March, when they had traveled with us to Greece, but we had not seen my older brother and his family since Christmas.

My niece, who will be two years old in another three months, has grown enormously since Christmas. Eight months ago, she was beginning to walk, tentatively, and she was able to emit a few sounds and utter a few syllables. Today she can walk like a pro, and she has several words in her vocabulary. She’s now a miniature person, and no longer a baby. She watches what goes on around her, she expresses curiosity about everything, and she likes it when people talk to her and engage her. She can even make it through a picture-book story without her attention waning.

She smiles all the time, and she looks at people around her to see whether they are smiling, too. Invariably they are, because she is always watched most closely and always the very center of attention—and people cannot help but smile when they look at her.

Her fussiness about foods has passed, and she has become a much better eater. She gets a more varied diet now, although she is still restricted to bland, easy-to-digest foods. Her favorite dinner at present remains boiled chicken, mashed potatoes, butter beans, mashed carrots with maple flavoring, and fried apples. She adores angel food cake for dessert and, consequently, my mother now makes angel food cake once or twice a week, just for my niece’s benefit.

She remembered Josh and me from Christmas—of course, Josh and I had not changed as much over the last few months as she had—and this was probably because her mother and my mother talks about us to her frequently. Further, she knew we were coming, so she was not surprised to see us on Saturday morning. In fact, I think she was happy to see us—and she allowed us to hold her and play with her freely.

My nephew certainly was happy to see us, because our presence meant that he had two more playmates to join him in his games. He smiled and smiled Saturday morning when he saw that we had arrived safely.

My nephew attended Sunday School for the first time on Sunday. He will not be five years old for another two months, but my brother and sister-in-law decided that it was time for him to begin Sunday School—because they wanted him to have a year of Sunday School mastered before he enrolls in Kindergarten a year from now.

Preschoolers do little more than play games when attending Sunday School—the kids are not quite ready for Saint Augustine—and my nephew reported that he and the other kids played with “boxes” and sang. The “boxes” in question, I believe, are large red plastic building blocks the Sunday School crew uses to create play spaces for the children in their charge.

My nephew must have behaved himself, because his parents have not yet been requested to withdraw him!

The entire weekend, Josh and I played with the kids—and so did everyone else. We went through the complete array of toys and games the kids most enjoy, and we did so from morning till night.

The dog has slowed noticeably since Christmas. He is often content simply to lie on the floor and rest. He is less energetic than he was eight months ago, and more prone to nap throughout the day. He still likes to go to the park early each morning, but his trip to the park is now more of a stroll than a romp.

My parents believe that his hearing is beginning to fail. He apparently does not react to sounds in quite the same sharp way he did even one year ago.

At the rate he’s been deteriorating the last year or two, I’d say we will be lucky to have him for another two years.

My parents are looking forward to the end of the current school term, when Josh and I will return to Minneapolis. They’ve missed us, very much, just as we have missed them. I think this three-year period has been and continues to be harder on them than it is on us, especially since they thought I was home for good in the early Summer of 2006.

Over the weekend, we did a little preliminary planning for the Fall.

Over Columbus Day Weekend, my parents and Josh and I may travel to Houston to see the two German Impressionism exhibitions—one exhibition is paintings, the second exhibition is works on paper—at Houston’s Museum Of Fine Arts. The painting exhibition is probably the most important American exhibition of the season, and we would very much like to see it.

The fly in the ointment is that there will be nothing else going on in Houston that weekend. The Houston Symphony will be touring in Europe, Houston Grand Opera’s season will not yet be under way, and Houston Ballet will have already concluded its Fall season. Even Houston’s Alley Theater is offering nothing but “Peter Pan” that weekend, and “Peter Pan” holds no allure for us.

We will make a decision about making a trip to Houston in the next week or two.

Over Veterans’ Day Weekend, my parents will visit Josh and me in Boston, and this decision is firm. There are several performances from which to choose that weekend—“La Bayadere” performed by Boston Ballet, “Tosca” performed by Boston Lyric Opera, a Boston Symphony concert with Christian Zacharias, a Murray Perahia recital, and a concert by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica—and the performances will definitely make a trip to Boston worthwhile for my parents. It will probably be their final trip to Boston to visit us, excepting Josh’s law school graduation next Spring, which they will be sure to attend.

As of tonight, it looks like Josh and I will spend Thanksgiving in Oklahoma or Dallas, and Christmas in the Twin Cities.

I’m already counting the days.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Dreadnought Tegetthoff

A pre-World War I postcard of the SMS Tegetthoff, one of four dreadnoughts of The Austro-Hungarian Navy briefly mentioned in “Thunder At Twilight”.

The SMS Tegetthoff, launched on March 21, 1912, was named after 19th-Century Austrian Admiral Wilhelm Von Tegetthoff.

The SMS Tegetthoff survived World War I, but was turned over to Italy after the war as part of Austria’s war reparations.

Italy scrapped the Tegetthoff in 1924.


Later this afternoon, Joshua and I will be off to the Twin Cities, where we will spend a long Labor Day Weekend.

Thunder At Twilight

I recently completed reading Frederic Morton’s “Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914”, a loosely-styled examination of the city of Vienna and its inhabitants—famous or otherwise—during the eighteen-month period prior to the great conflagration that was to begin in the late summer of 1914.

I lived and studied in Vienna for a year in 2001 and 2002, and I very much enjoyed my time there.

Vienna is a beautiful city, filled with historic buildings, imposing churches, stately palaces and excellent museums. It is a very clean city, with more overt charm than any other Central European city except Munich. Restaurants are excellent, culture is abundant, the eye is filled with beauty and interest in all directions at all times of year. Vienna is a tourist’s delight.

The Viennese are, on the whole, a very civilized people. Upper-class persons are unrelentingly civilized and gracious, although middle-class and lower-class persons often demonstrate a distinct roughness.

Austrians are among the best-educated persons in Europe.

The standard of living in Austria is among the highest in Europe.

And yet I was happy when my year in Vienna had come to its conclusion.

Outsiders often note something uncomfortable beneath the surface of Vienna, and the cause of this discomfort is difficult to identify and difficult to define.

Some ascribe the inherent pettiness of the Viennese themselves as the source of discomfort. Others claim that the city has not yet learned to adapt to loss of empire and that it continues, incongruously, to adopt imperial attitudes (although the loss of empire occurred almost a century ago). Yet others identify the vastly different bloodlines that run through the Viennese—a mixture of Nordic, Germanic and Magyar—and point out that the Viennese typically and genuinely see themselves as one part minor nobility, one part gypsy, and one part country yokel, a very irritating mixture.

Myself, I believe it was the innate Viennese preference for the importance of façade over substance that made me happy to leave the city. I have returned to Vienna only once over the last eight years, and that only for a very, very short visit (I had explored the city so exhaustively while I lived there, missing nothing of note, that return visits are not a priority for me).

The subtext of Morton’s “Thunder At Twilight”, too, was that the Vienna of 1913 and 1914 was a city bearing a glamorous surface beneath which was to be found rot and decay—and corruption.

Morton begins his tale of the great city by describing a typical Viennese social event held on the evening of January 13, 1913: a great Bankruptcy Ball, sponsored by the city’s bank employees. The Bankruptcy Ball paid tribute to the dire economic pressures then facing The Austro-Hungarian Empire—as well as provided the Viennese with an excuse for ignoring those pressures for at least one evening.

Using The Bankruptcy Ball as his embarkation point, Morton proceeds to describe how Vienna’s glittering façade was belied by foundations that were visibly crumbling. The latter stages of The Austro-Hungarian Empire saw massive numbers of immigrants move into the capital city, and those immigrants remained largely unassimilated (and a source of significant social and political disruption). The middle class was having trouble making ends meet. Government spending had grown to the point at which the private economy could no longer sustain itself—and could no longer sustain the heavy tax burden. A worried and disenfranchised merchant class watched with alarm as the economies of Germany, Russia and Italy, each in turn, began to surpass the stagnant if not dwindling economy of Austria and its client states.

The decay in Vienna was most prominently on display in the city’s buildings: new construction featured cheap materials and workmanship of haphazard if not shoddy quality—but street facades were invariably heavily decorated, and bore an undue portion of a building’s total cost. This phenomenon may be viewed today in the city’s office buildings, apartment buildings and townhouses that were built shortly before World War I and managed to survive World War II. In Vienna, one often encounters a turn-of-the-century building featuring an attractive, even elegant, exterior and entranceway, only to step across a threshold and enter an interior literally falling apart.

Governmental presence was everywhere in Vienna. The Habsburgs had always employed a giant state bureaucracy, but in the latter stages of The Austro-Hungarian Empire the scale of this bureaucracy became unthinkable. The state employed a vast network of secret police agents to spy on its citizens (and this secret police maintained detailed records on each inhabitant). A significant portion of the populace was directly employed—or pensioned—by the government, a maneuver seen as necessary to guarantee the loyalty of the citizens to the Habsburg monarchy.

The empire maintained one of the largest standing armies on the globe. Ill-equipped and ill-trained, the army devoted an extraordinary portion of its resources to elaborate (and preposterous) uniforms—as well as to equipage. It was the most out-of-date army among the great powers, no match for the armies of France or Germany (or even Russia, whose own army was also conspicuously out-of-date).

A land power, The Austro-Hungarian Empire nevertheless maintained a significant navy—and even built four dreadnoughts in order to attempt to keep up with Germany and Britain in the naval arms race of the early 20th Century.

Astride this decaying empire stood an aging Emperor, Franz Josef, sovereign since 1848. As a young monarch, Franc Josef had—unwisely—waged war against Italy and Prussia. Abandoning foreign adventures of necessity once the German states united in 1870, Franz Josef spent the final 46 years of his life affixing his signature to imperial decrees, a duty that—quite literally—occupied his entire workday.

An external event was sure to cause this house of cards to collapse, and that external event proved to be World War I.

Sitting upon the precipice of war, Austria was not prepared once the disastrous military conflict actually arrived in 1914. Its army proved no match for the army of Russia, which quickly routed the Austrians in the East (and the German Army had to be called in to bail out the troops of Franz Josef). For the remainder of the war, Austria and its armed forces served merely as a tool of The German High Command, which called all shots during the final four years of the conflict.

The twilight months of the great imperial city on the banks of The Danube are recalled as a golden period by many, but Morton, rightly, will have none of such nonsense. He portrays Vienna as an aging, decaying city in an empire in decline, with social tensions on the rise, political leadership lacking, and economic forces beginning to render the city irrelevant on the European stage. On the verge of anarchy, Vienna was nearing an implosion point—albeit it remained a city populated with some very interesting people.

Morton catalogs the many artists, musicians and writers practicing their skills in the Vienna of the immediate pre-war period, but his focus is on those persons who embodied—or came to embody—the political ideologies and political movements of the post-war decades. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky were only a few of such persons living in or passing through the Vienna of 1913 and 1914. Many were to assume political prominence after World War I, and Morton discusses them all, and in great detail. Indeed, Morton traces their time in Vienna with perhaps too much emphasis, in the process almost suggesting that it was the city of Vienna itself that was the cause of their revolutionary fervor.

The burden of the fall of The Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the descent of Vienna from imperial capital to charming but provincial backwater, rests largely on the shoulders of two men: Franz Josef; and General Conrad Von Hotzendorff, Chief Of Staff of The Austrian Army. Morton correctly identifies these two most powerful of Austrians—one the head of state and the other the head of the armed forces—as the figures most responsible for the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty.

The reign of Franz Josef has always puzzled scholars. The first two decades of his monarchy were characterized by a series of disastrous foreign policy blunders; the last five decades of his monarchy were characterized by Austria continually ceding power and influence to a rising Germany, and to such an extent that Austria had become little more than a vassal state by the time war broke out in 1914.

And yet, unaccountably, Franz Josef was enormously popular within The Austro-Hungarian Empire throughout the latter half of his reign. The populace developed and tenaciously held a unique affection for him, which in part was probably due to his longevity (his rule was longer than that of Queen Victoria). Some historians assert that Franz Josef’s personal popularity was the only thread that held together the many nationalities of The Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final years, a claim equally hard to confirm or refute. And yet his reign was coincident with the steepest decline in power and prestige of the Habsburg dynasty in its 800-year history. The centuries-long dynasty, long a bulwark of European power and statesmanship, survived his 1916 death by only two years.

Hotzendorff is another figure difficult to peg. Considered by many (including his enemies) to be a military genius, Hotzendorff was a master at devising ingenious battle plans—and utterly incompetent when it came to executing those very same plans in the field. As a military leader, Hotzendorff was perhaps the biggest loser of World War I—he lost more battles, and was responsible for the deaths of more of his own soldiers, than any other World War I general.

Hotzendorff, of course, blamed his losses in the East on Alfred Redl, the former Austrian Chief Of Counter-Intelligence. While head of counter-intelligence, Redl had sold to Russia most of Austria’s state secrets, including its detailed battle plans in the event of military action in The Balkans. The treachery of Redl, a homosexual blackmailed into espionage by the Russians in 1901, was discovered in 1913—but Austria nevertheless failed to draft new battle plans, an incomprehensible blunder that was to have grave repercussions the following year, when Austria was thwarted again and again by a Russian army familiar with every detail of Austria’s campaign strategy.

Franz Josef, Hotzendorff, Redl: Morton hits them all, and hard—and all three are fully deserving of his dismissive treatment. It is especially welcome to see Franz Josef take some hard knocks, as Central European historians are too misty-eyed to write coldly and candidly about the shortcomings of this most misunderstood and most over-estimated of monarchs. To this very day, the Viennese retain an inexplicable affection for Franz Josef, an affection completely at odds with the reality of his record and legacy.

Morton is a native Viennese, born in the city in 1924. His family emigrated from Austria to the United States after the Anschluss. Morton has been an American citizen for almost 70 years, working first as a journalist and later as an author of books on various topics from Central European history.

Native Viennese tend to view their city through romantic, rose-colored glasses, but Morton does not share that common tendency. He sees the Vienna of the early 20th Century as a cauldron ready to boil over and scorch everyone in sight.

The cauldron of Vienna did not boil at the outbreak of war. Instead, the cauldron simmered during the war years. The populations of German-speaking lands were remarkably well-behaved from 1914 through 1918, suffering deprivations with stoicism and offering their governments broad-based loyalty and support.

That changed as soon as the war was over. Revolutions broke out immediately throughout Germany and Austria. The Houses Of Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Wittelsbach: all fell at war’s end. Germany lunged from crisis to crisis from 1918 until 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor and restored order by imposing totalitarianism. Austria remained in a state of virtual civil war from 1918 until 1938’s Anschluss, when Hitler did for Austria what he already had done for Germany.

Morton spent the first decade-and-a-half of his life living in a Vienna torn by civil strife and dissent. He and his family were forced to leave Austria once an anti-Semitic government was officially installed. It is no wonder that he takes such a dispassionate, arm’s-length view of his native city.

And yet Morton is not clear-eyed about everything in “Thunder At Twilight”.

One of the central characters in Morton’s book is The Archduke Ferdinand. Morton bears the same inexplicable fondness for The Archduke Ferdinand as most Viennese reserve for Franz Josef. Indeed, Morton sees The Archduke Ferdinand as the potential savior of the Habsburg dynasty, a savior that Franz Josef drove to ruin.

It is undisputed that Ferdinand agitated for modernization and reform throughout The Austro-Hungarian Empire—and it is undisputed that Franz Josef knocked him down at every turn.

Ferdinand wanted to modernize the army, and to reform Parliament, and to loosen ties with Serbia (where he met his end). Ferdinand’s recommendations, on the whole, were quite sensible—yet they hardly represented a fundamental change in the way the empire was ruled or administered. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest that The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have met a different fate had Ferdinand’s lobbying for incremental change met with approval from Franz Josef.

The magnitude of attempted change represented by Ferdinand was a small one, and unlikely to alter the sweeping forces of history already set into motion by previous decades of neglect and ineptitude within the empire.

In any case, Austria may have been fortunate to have been relieved of the possibility of Ferdinand succeeding Franz Josef.

During his lifetime, Ferdinand was known, within royal circles throughout the continent, as the most bloodthirsty hunter of animals in Europe. Ferdinand was known to kill up to a thousand animals a day in the forests of Central and Eastern Europe, calling upon the efforts of dozens of gamekeepers to assist him in his blood sport. Even by the standards of the day, people were appalled and sickened by his lust to kill animals on such a vast scale. On one level, Ferdinand was pure brute.

Morton concludes his volume with Ferdinand’s assassination at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Morton provides an undeniably dramatic, gripping, and even moving telling of the event that was shortly to cause an entire continent to lurch toward war.

However, more than one bullet may have been bitten that day.