Thursday, December 30, 2010

“Twixt The Departing And The Upstarting”

Gerrit Van Battem (1636-1684)
Winter Scene Outside A Town
The Royal Collection, London

Watercolor And Bodycolor On Paper
11 1/8 Inches By 16 5/16 Inches


Goethe himself—master of the New Year poem, the New Year letter, the New Year quotation and the New Year thought—surely would have appreciated this superb Dutch landscape by minor master Gerrit Van Battem, a painter renowned for his small-scale but exquisite landscapes.

An artwork relevant to the bout of winter weather that currently grips much of the country, “Winter Scene Outside A Town” is a most suitable painting to greet 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Vanka" By Anton Chekhov (1886)

Vanka Zhukov, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, was sitting up on Christmas Eve. Waiting till his master and mistress and their workmen had gone to the midnight service, he took out of his master's cupboard a bottle of ink and a pen with a rusty nib, and, spreading out a crumpled sheet of paper in front of him, began writing. Before forming the first letter he several times looked round fearfully at the door and the windows, stole a glance at the dark ikon, on both sides of which stretched shelves full of lasts, and heaved a broken sigh. The paper lay on the bench while he knelt before it.

"Dear grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch," he wrote, "I am writing you a letter. I wish you a happy Christmas, and all blessings from God Almighty. I have neither father nor mother, you are the only one left me."

Vanka raised his eyes to the dark ikon on which the light of his candle was reflected, and vividly recalled his grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch, who was night watchman to a family called Zhivarev. He was a thin but extraordinarily nimble and lively little old man of sixty-five, with an everlastingly laughing face and drunken eyes. By day he slept in the servants' kitchen, or made jokes with the cooks; at night, wrapped in an ample sheepskin, he walked round the grounds and tapped with his little mallet. Old Kashtanka and Eel, so-called on account of his dark color and his long body like a weasel's, followed him with hanging heads. This Eel was exceptionally polite and affectionate, and looked with equal kindness on strangers and his own masters, but had not a very good reputation. Under his politeness and meekness was hidden the most Jesuitical cunning. No one knew better how to creep up on occasion and snap at one's legs, to slip into the store-room, or steal a hen from a peasant. His hind legs had been nearly pulled off more than once, twice he had been hanged, every week he was thrashed till he was half dead, but he always revived.

At this moment grandfather was, no doubt, standing at the gate, screwing up his eyes at the red windows of the church, stamping with his high felt boots, and joking with the servants. His little mallet was hanging on his belt. He was clasping his hands, shrugging with the cold, and, with an aged chuckle, pinching first the housemaid, then the cook.

"How about a pinch of snuff?" he was saying, offering the women his snuff-box.

The women would take a sniff and sneeze. Grandfather would be indescribably delighted, go off into a merry chuckle, and cry:

"Tear it off, it has frozen on!"

They give the dogs a sniff of snuff too. Kashtanka sneezes, wriggles her head, and walks away offended. Eel does not sneeze, from politeness, but wags his tail. And the weather is glorious. The air is still, fresh, and transparent. The night is dark, but one can see the whole village with its white roofs and coils of smoke coming from the chimneys, the trees silvered with hoar frost, the snowdrifts. The whole sky spangled with gay twinkling stars, and the Milky Way is as distinct as though it had been washed and rubbed with snow for a holiday . . .

Vanka sighed, dipped his pen, and went on writing:

"And yesterday I had a wigging. The master pulled me out into the yard by my hair, and whacked me with a boot-stretcher because I accidentally fell asleep while I was rocking their brat in the cradle. And a week ago the mistress told me to clean a herring, and I began from the tail end, and she took the herring and thrust its head in my face. The workmen laugh at me and send me to the tavern for vodka, and tell me to steal the master's cucumbers for them, and the master beats me with anything that comes to hand. And there is nothing to eat. In the morning they give me bread, for dinner, porridge, and in the evening, bread again; but as for tea, or soup, the master and mistress gobble it all up themselves. And I am put to sleep in the passage, and when their wretched brat cries I get no sleep at all, but have to rock the cradle. Dear grandfather, show the divine mercy, take me away from here, home to the village. It's more than I can bear. I bow down to your feet, and will pray to God for you for ever, take me away from here or I shall die."

Vanka's mouth worked, he rubbed his eyes with his black fist, and gave a sob.

"I will powder your snuff for you," he went on. "I will pray for you, and if I do anything you can thrash me like Sidor's goat. And if you think I've no job, then I will beg the steward for Christ's sake to let me clean his boots, or I'll go for a shepherd-boy instead of Fedka. Dear grandfather, it is more than I can bear, it's simply no life at all. I wanted to run away to the village, but I have no boots, and I am afraid of the frost. When I grow up big I will take care of you for this, and not let anyone annoy you, and when you die I will pray for the rest of your soul, just as for my mammy's.

Moscow is a big town. It's all gentlemen's houses, and there are lots of horses, but there are no sheep, and the dogs are not spiteful. The lads here don't go out with the star, and they don't let anyone go into the choir, and once I saw in a shop window fishing-hooks for sale, fitted ready with the line and for all sorts of fish, awfully good ones, there was even one hook that would hold a forty-pound sheat-fish. And I have seen shops where there are guns of all sorts, after the pattern of the master's guns at home, so that I shouldn't wonder if they are a hundred rubles each. . . . And in the butchers' shops there are grouse and woodcocks and fish and hares, but the shopmen don't say where they shoot them.

"Dear grandfather, when they have the Christmas tree at the big house, get me a gilt walnut, and put it away in the green trunk. Ask the young lady Olga Ignatyevna, say it's for Vanka."

Vanka gave a tremulous sigh, and again stared at the window. He remembered how his grandfather always went into the forest to get the Christmas tree for his master's family, and took his grandson with him. It was a merry time! Grandfather made a noise in his throat, the forest crackled with the frost, and looking at them Vanka chortled too. Before chopping down the Christmas tree, grandfather would smoke a pipe, slowly take a pinch of snuff, and laugh at frozen Vanka. . . . The young fir trees, covered with hoar frost, stood motionless, waiting to see which of them was to die. Wherever one looked, a hare flew like an arrow over the snowdrifts. . . . Grandfather could not refrain from shouting: "Hold him, hold him . . . hold him! Ah, the bob-tailed devil!"

When he had cut down the Christmas tree, grandfather used to drag it to the big house, and there set to work to decorate it. . . . The young lady, who was Vanka's favorite, Olga Ignatyevna, was the busiest of all. When Vanka's mother Pelageya was alive, and a servant in the big house, Olga Ignatyevna used to give him goodies, and having nothing better to do, taught him to read and write, to count up to a hundred, and even to dance a quadrille. When Pelageya died, Vanka had been transferred to the servants' kitchen to be with his grandfather, and from the kitchen to the shoemaker's in Moscow.

"Do come, dear grandfather," Vanka went on with his letter. "For Christ's sake, I beg you, take me away. Have pity on an unhappy orphan like me; here everyone knocks me about, and I am fearfully hungry; I can't tell you what misery it is, I am always crying. And the other day the master hit me on the head with a last, so that I fell down. My life is wretched, worse than any dog's. . . . I send greetings to Alyona, one-eyed Yegorka, and the coachman, and don't give my concertina to anyone. I remain, your grandson, Ivan Zhukov. Dear grandfather, do come."

Vanka folded the sheet of writing-paper twice, and put it into an envelope he had bought the day before for a kopeck. . . . After thinking a little, he dipped the pen and wrote the address:

To grandfather in the village.

Then he scratched his head, thought a little, and added: Konstantin Makaritch. Glad that he had not been prevented from writing, he put on his cap and, without putting on his little greatcoat, ran out into the street as he was in his shirt . . .

The shopmen at the butcher's, whom he had questioned the day before, told him that letters were put in post-boxes, and from the boxes were carried about all over the earth in mailcarts with drunken drivers and ringing bells. Vanka ran to the nearest post-box, and thrust the precious letter in the slit . . .

An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was sound asleep. . . . He dreamed of the stove. On the stove was sitting his grandfather, swinging his bare legs, and reading the letter to the cooks . . .

By the stove was Eel, wagging his tail.

Anton Chekhov At Age Twenty-Nine

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

“At Christmas Time” By Anton Chekhov (1900)

"What shall I write?" said Yegor, and he dipped his pen in the ink.

Vasilisa had not seen her daughter for four years. Her daughter Yefimya had gone after her wedding to Petersburg, had sent them two letters, and since then seemed to vanish out of their lives; there had been no sight nor sound of her. And whether the old woman were milking her cow at dawn, or heating her stove, or dozing at night, she was always thinking of one and the same thing—what was happening to Yefimya, whether she were alive out yonder. She ought to have sent a letter, but the old father could not write, and there was no one to write.

But now Christmas had come, and Vasilisa could not bear it any longer, and went to the tavern to Yegor, the brother of the innkeeper's wife, who had sat in the tavern doing nothing ever since he came back from the army; people said that he could write letters very well if he were properly paid. Vasilisa talked to the cook at the tavern, then to the mistress of the house, then to Yegor himself. They agreed upon fifteen kopecks.

And now—it happened on the second day of the holidays, in the tavern kitchen—Yegor was sitting at the table, holding the pen in his hand. Vasilisa was standing before him, pondering with an expression of anxiety and woe on her face. Pyotr, her husband, a very thin old man with a brownish bald patch, had come with her; he stood looking straight before him like a blind man. On the stove a piece of pork was being braised in a saucepan; it was spurting and hissing, and seemed to be actually saying: "Flu-flu-flu." It was stifling.

"What am I to write?" Yegor asked again.

"What?" asked Vasilisa, looking at him angrily and suspiciously. "Don't worry me! You are not writing for nothing; no fear, you'll be paid for it. Come, write: 'To our dear son-in-law, Andrey Hrisanfitch, and to our only beloved daughter, Yefimya Petrovna, with our love we send a low bow and our parental blessing abiding for ever.' "

"Written; fire away."

" 'And we wish them a happy Christmas; we are alive and well, and I wish you the same, please the Lord... the Heavenly King.' "

Vasilisa pondered and exchanged glances with the old man.

" 'And I wish you the same, please the Lord the Heavenly King,' " she repeated, beginning to cry.

She could say nothing more. And yet before, when she lay awake thinking at night, it had seemed to her that she could not get all she had to say into a dozen letters. Since the time when her daughter had gone away with her husband much water had flowed into the sea, the old people had lived feeling bereaved, and sighed heavily at night as though they had buried their daughter. And how many events had occurred in the village since then, how many marriages and deaths! How long the winters had been! How long the nights!

"It's hot," said Yegor, unbuttoning his waistcoat. "It must be seventy degrees. What more?" he asked.

The old people were silent.

"What does your son-in-law do in Petersburg?" asked Yegor.

"He was a soldier, my good friend," the old man answered in a weak voice. " He left the service at the same time as you did. He was a soldier, and now, to be sure, he is at Petersburg at a hydropathic establishment. The doctor treats the sick with water. So he, to be sure, is house-porter at the doctor's."

"Here it is written down," said the old woman, taking a letter out of her pocket. "We got it from Yefimya, goodness knows when. Maybe they are no longer in this world."

Yegor thought a little and began writing rapidly:

"At the present time"—he wrote—"since your destiny through your own doing allotted you to the Military Career, we counsel you to look into the Code of Disciplinary Offences and Fundamental Laws of the War Office, and you will see in that law the Civilization of the Officials of the War Office."

He wrote and kept reading aloud what was written, while Vasilisa considered what she ought to write: how great had been their want the year before, how their corn had not lasted even till Christmas, how they had to sell their cow. She ought to ask for money, ought to write that the old father was often ailing and would soon no doubt give up his soul to God... but how to express this in words? What must be said first and what afterwards?

"Take note," Yegor went on writing, "in volume five of the Army Regulations soldier is a common noun and a proper one, a soldier of the first rank is called a general, and of the last a private.... "

The old man stirred his lips and said softly:

"It would be all right to have a look at the grandchildren."

"What grandchildren?" asked the old woman, and she looked angrily at him; "perhaps there are none."

"Well, but perhaps there are. Who knows?"

"And thereby you can judge," Yegor hurried on, "what is the enemy without and what is the enemy within. The foremost of our enemies within is Bacchus." The pen squeaked, executing upon the paper flourishes like fish-hooks. Yegor hastened and read over every line several times. He sat on a stool sprawling his broad feet under the table, well-fed, bursting with health, with a coarse animal face and a red bull neck. He was vulgarity itself: coarse, conceited, invincible, proud of having been born and bred in a pot-house; and Vasilisa quite understood the vulgarity, but could not express it in words, and could only look angrily and suspiciously at Yegor. Her head was beginning to ache, and her thoughts were in confusion from the sound of his voice and his unintelligible words, from the heat and the stuffiness, and she said nothing and thought nothing, but simply waited for him to finish scribbling. But the old man looked with full confidence. He believed in his old woman who had brought him there, and in Yegor; and when he had mentioned the hydropathic establishment it could be seen that he believed in the establishment and the healing efficacy of water.

Having finished the letter, Yegor got up and read the whole of it through from the beginning. The old man did not understand, but he nodded his head trustfully.

"That's all right; it is smooth... " he said. "God give you health. That's all right.... "

They laid on the table three five-kopeck pieces and went out of the tavern; the old man looked immovably straight before him as though he were blind, and perfect trustfulness was written on his face; but as Vasilisa came out of the tavern she waved angrily at the dog, and said angrily:

"Ugh, the plague."

The old woman did not sleep all night; she was disturbed by thoughts, and at daybreak she got up, said her prayers, and went to the station to send off the letter.

It was between eight and nine miles to the station.


Dr. B. O. Mozelweiser's hydropathic establishment worked on New Year's Day exactly as on ordinary days; the only difference was that the porter, Andrey Hrisanfitch, had on a uniform with new braiding, his boots had an extra polish, and he greeted every visitor with "A Happy New Year to you!"

It was the morning; Andrey Hrisanfitch was standing at the door, reading the newspaper. Just at ten o'clock there arrived a general, one of the habitual visitors, and directly after him the postman; Andrey Hrisanfitch helped the general off with his great-coat, and said:

"A Happy New Year to your Excellency!"

"Thank you, my good fellow; the same to you."

And at the top of the stairs the general asked, nodding towards the door (he asked the same question every day and always forgot the answer):

"And what is there in that room?"

"The massage room, your Excellency."

When the general's steps had died away Andrey Hrisanfitch looked at the post that had come, and found one addressed to himself. He tore it open, read several lines, then, looking at the newspaper, he walked without haste to his own room, which was downstairs close by at the end of the passage. His wife Yefimya was sitting on the bed, feeding her baby; another child, the eldest, was standing by, laying its curly head on her knee; a third was asleep on the bed.

Going into the room, Andrey gave his wife the letter and said:

"From the country, I suppose."

Then he walked out again without taking his eyes from the paper. He could hear Yefimya with a shaking voice reading the first lines. She read them and could read no more; these lines were enough for her. She burst into tears, and hugging her eldest child, kissing him, she began saying—and it was hard to say whether she were laughing or crying:

"It's from granny, from grandfather," she said. "From the country.... The Heavenly Mother, Saints and Martyrs! The snow lies heaped up under the roofs now... the trees are as white as white. The boys slide on little sledges... and dear old bald grandfather is on the stove... and there is a little yellow dog.... My own darlings!"

Andrey Hrisanfitch, hearing this, recalled that his wife had on three or four occasions given him letters and asked him to send them to the country, but some important business had always prevented him; he had not sent them, and the letters somehow got lost.

"And little hares run about in the fields," Yefimya went on chanting, kissing her boy and shedding tears. "Grandfather is kind and gentle; granny is good, too—kind-hearted. They are warm-hearted in the country, they are God-fearing... and there is a little church in the village; the peasants sing in the choir. Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!"

Andrey Hrisanfitch returned to his room to smoke a little till there was another ring at the door, and Yefimya ceased speaking, subsided, and wiped her eyes, though her lips were still quivering. She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.

Andrey Hrisanfitch lighted a cigarette, but at that very moment there was a ring from upstairs. He put out his cigarette, and, assuming a very grave face, hastened to his front door.

The general was coming downstairs, fresh and rosy from his bath.

"And what is there in that room?" he asked, pointing to a door.

Andrey Hrisanfitch put his hands down swiftly to the seams of his trousers, and pronounced loudly:

"Charcot douche, your Excellency!"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Case Of Mustard Gas

I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on, no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case of mustard gas: the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they will choke.

Vera Brittain in “Testament Of Youth”; Brittain served as a nurse on The Western Front during The Great War.

Princess Henry Of Pless As World War I Nurse

Princess Henry Of Pless, who served Germany as a nurse first in Berlin and later at several Eastern and Western fronts from 1914 until 1918, is here photographed with wounded German soldiers under her care.

It is unknown, during her service for Germany, whether Princess Henry deprived wounded British soldiers of water, although that would have been very unlikely, as Princess Henry was herself British (she had married into the German nobility in 1901) and, further, was a relative of Winston Churchill as well as a personal friend of The Prince Of Wales, with whom she corresponded throughout the war.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Those Doggone Sadistic German Nurses!

This is probably the most acutely-embarrassing of all British World War I posters—although, in fairness, a handful of others cannot be denied the right to compete.

Created by David Wilson, “Red Cross Or Iron Cross” was, unaccountably, a great hit with the British public when it was issued in 1917.

According to war historians and according to art historians, the longer the war lasted, the more shrill became British poster art. Nothing comparable was produced in France, Germany or Russia for the duration of the war.

Further, as an example of pure graphic design, this poster is appallingly bad—and in stark contrast to the excellent poster art produced in France, Germany and Russia throughout the conflict.

Central Vienna March 1945

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gott Strafe England!

“God Punishes England!”, a popular German slogan painted on the wall of a destroyed building in France during World War I.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Gathering Storm

My middle brother, a civil engineer, received his undergraduate degree at Iowa State University in Ames. As a result, he is the only Cyclone fan in the family.

Prospective civil engineers from the Twin Cities often go to Iowa State for their degrees, and this is because Iowa State has the finest civil engineering school within a reasonable distance of the Twin Cities. My brother is one of countless civil engineers in Minneapolis/Saint Paul who received their initial engineering degrees in Ames before going on to seek advanced engineering degrees elsewhere.

My brother continues to keep up with all things Cyclone, and I was pleased for him that his alma mater defeated its arch rival, Iowa, in men’s basketball last night.

The heated in-state rivalry between Iowa and Iowa State generally results in a win for the home team. Until last night, Iowa State had not won in Iowa City since 2002, eight years ago—and, until last night, Iowa State had secured only five wins in Iowa City in the entire history of the rivalry.

Iowa State has a new men’s basketball coach this season, Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg is a native of Ames and a former Iowa State player—and, until a few months ago, Hoiberg had been a long-time resident of the Twin Cities, where he first had played for and later had worked in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

I have never met Hoiberg, but my brother has met Hoiberg several times, most recently at a charity function the summer before last. My brother speaks very highly of Hoiberg, as does virtually everyone in the Twin Cities who has known Hoiberg. In fact, I have heard no one in the Twin Cities utter anything but high praise for Hoiberg.

Iowa State is lucky to have Hoiberg. Hoiberg will represent Iowa State well, he will represent the State Of Iowa well, and he will represent college basketball well. Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard was very shrewd when he offered the Iowa State job to Hoiberg.

Hoiberg is a very classy guy: intelligent, handsome, clean-cut, well-dressed, well-spoken and with a distinct All-American appeal. He presents himself very well, and he creates a very favorable impression.

Hoiberg (the photograph is from last night’s game in Iowa City) is everything that Iowa’s new coach, Fran McCaffery, is not. Indeed, Hoiberg is the virtual anti-McCaffery—and, for once, it was refreshing to see the good guy win last night, and on enemy premises, no less.

It is becoming harder and harder for my father and me to remain Hawkeye fans.

My father, like many Hawkeye fans, pretty much threw in the towel at the time McCaffery’s hiring was announced. Such a poor appointment was inexcusable, and served as proof irrefutable that Iowa has an idiot for Athletic Director.

Since the hapless Sally Mason, President of the University Of Iowa, has proven herself incapable of obtaining a grasp over her university’s athletic department, it will now become the duty of the Iowa Board Of Regents to attempt to clean up the sewer that has become Iowa athletics. The task will not be pretty—and, rightly, will cost numerous persons their jobs, including persons at the very highest levels of the university.

Last night’s game was not a particularly interesting contest, as neither team played well.

A journeyman player from Iowa State went off for a career-high 30 points, in large part because of unbelievably poor defense by Iowa’s Matt Gatens. Such hot shooting by the journeyman Iowa State player probably was the difference in the game.

Foul-mouthed, invective-spewing McCaffery received one technical foul—routine for McCaffery—and should have been issued a second technical foul and ejected from the game after he threw a clipboard a distance of twenty feet.

Iowa player Zach McCabe should have received a technical foul, too, for his repeated on-court use of the “F” word, including at least one use of the “F” word directed at a game official. What did McCabe do when issued a warning by the official? He high-fived another Iowa player and continued to utter the “F” word. At that point, McCabe unquestionably should have been ejected from the game.

This is a starkly skanky and sleazy crew in Iowa City, and the Iowa team members richly deserve the many misfortunes that continue to befall them. I enjoy seeing the losses mount, knowing that each loss quickens the inevitable housecleaning that will come. A gathering storm approaches Iowa City.

At game’s end, a lost and bewildered Matt Gatens looked—literally—like a Martian.

At the same time, Gatens also looked—alas—like a Methadone addict.

Gatens, only a junior, is already old enough to have graduated from college—in Iowa, basic arithmetic apparently is conducted in dog years—and, if Gatens had any sense, he would already have ended his basketball playing days and begun to move on with his life.

It would behoove him to do so at once.


For the last ten days, Joshua has been studying for his exams, which begin next week.

Back home, my family has two birthdays to celebrate this weekend, a weekend also marked by the onset of winter weather in Minnesota.

My niece celebrated her second birthday last night at a grand celebration at my parents’ house (her actual birthday was Thursday, but the celebration was delayed until last night). My older brother will celebrate his thirty-sixth birthday tomorrow at a second grand celebration at my parents’ house.

I wish Josh and I were home to join in the celebrations—but at least we will be going home for Christmas on the morning of the 23rd.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

You Can Take The Cretin Out Of Philadelphia, But You Can’t Take . . .

From an Iowa sports forum on the subject of University Of Iowa Men’s Basketball Coach Fran McCaffery:

Why is it whenever I see Fran McCaffery's face, I either want to throw up or punch him in the face? This isn't just from tonight, either. I really can't stand the man. There are other coaches who I can't stand, but this guy takes the prize.

Perhaps I can be of help.

It might be McCaffery’s $2.00 eyeglasses that cause you to shudder.

Or his $2.00 haircuts.

Or his $2.00 suits.

Or his $2.00 dental work.

Then again, perhaps it is McCaffery’s grotesque gums that repulse you. The man has gums so frightening they might scare even a charging rhinoceros.

It may be that McCaffery’s toad-like facial skin is what induces your vomiting. The man, after all, is living proof that smallpox has not yet been eradicated.

Is it possible that McCaffery’s repellent language is the cause of your nausea? Toward this end, I refer you to the 71 entries in the same sports forum that discuss McCaffery’s constant use of the “F” word in public, including screaming the “F” word in the presence of children.

Of course, you may simply be evincing a generalized reaction to McCaffery’s distinct disreputable rub. McCaffery's disreputable rub reveals itself in practically everything he says and does. All normal persons pick up on McCaffery’s disreputable rub instantly, as McCaffery is—indisputably and insufferably—very, very down-market.

“Does Anyone Still Wear A Hat?”

Well …

Susana Walton, wife and widow of composer William Walton, was long known for the flamboyance of her headwear.

Lady Susana died earlier this year at the age of 83, having outlived her husband by twenty-seven years. An elegant, warm and captivating woman, she was loved by many—and now she is missed by many.

My parents visited Lady Susana at Ischia in the Gulf Of Naples in 2002. My parents still talk about Lady Susana’s fabulous gardens.


Susana Walton was the most formidable woman I ever encountered. I saw music publishers tremble and Italian civil servants blench before her assaults.

Humphrey Burton

Monday, December 06, 2010

Heinkel 162 Volksjager

The amazing and remarkable Heinkel 162 Volksjager, the world’s first fighter jet, had its first test flight on this date in 1944 near Vienna.

Happily for the Allies, the aircraft came too late in the war to make an impact.

Two important and comprehensive scholarly studies of the development of this historic aircraft have been published within the last eighteen months, one originating in the U.S. and the other in Switzerland (the book published in Zurich was simultaneously released in two languages, English and German).

Although both books were well-received in specialist quarters, neither received attention in the mainstream press. The book published in 2009 has already gone out of print and the book published earlier this year no doubt will soon suffer the same fate.

I have seen many times, most recently in 2007, the Heinkel 162 Volksjager that hangs from the ceiling of the vast entrance lobby at London’s magnificent Imperial War Museum.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Climax Of Absurdity

The climax of absurdity to which the art [of landscape painting] may be carried, when led away from nature by fashion, may be best seen in the works of [Francois] Boucher. His landscape, of which he was evidently fond, is pastoral. And such pastorality! It is the pastoral of the opera house!

John Constable, lecturing on landscape painting in 1836

The Valley Farm

John Constable (1776-1837)
The Valley Farm
Tate Britain, London

Oil On Canvas
58 7/8 Inches By 50 1/16 Inches


Constable’s last major work, “The Valley Farm”, is perhaps my favorite Constable painting. It is one of few paintings kept on near-permanent display at Tate Britain, a museum renowned for keeping top-tier masterpieces off-view in favor of exhibiting marginal artworks.

Constable’s genius was first recognized by the French. Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix were among Constable’s earliest advocates. More Constable paintings were sold in France than in Britain during the painter’s lifetime.

Constable sold “The Valley Farm” in the year of its creation for the then-remarkable sum of 300 Pounds. It was the highest price Constable ever received for a painting.

The buyer donated the masterwork to London’s National Gallery in 1847. The painting was later consigned to The Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain), where it has generally been on display ever since.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Neues Theater Leipzig

Neues Theater, Leipzig, from a postcard circa 1900.

Neues Theater opened in 1868 and was home of Leipzig’s opera until 3 December 1943, when it was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid. The ruins of the building were not to be razed until more than a decade after war’s end.

Important premieres in the theater: Krenek’s “Jonny Spielt Auf”, Weill’s “Aufstieg Und Fall Der Stadt Mahagonny” and Orff’s “Catulli Carmina”—the latter exactly six months before the building’s destruction.

Wilhelm Furtwangler and Ernest Ansermet

Elisabeth Furtwangler contends that the above photograph was taken in Paris in 1945.

I believe Mrs. Furtwangler’s information may be incorrect.

From Furtwangler’s visage alone, I would guess that this photograph was taken in 1952 or 1953—and certainly no earlier than 1950.

Further, I am very skeptical that Furtwangler visited Paris in 1945.

It is amply documented that Furtwangler did not travel from Germany to liberated France while hostilities ensued, which of necessity must eliminate the first four months of 1945. Once the war was over, Furtwangler faced de-Nazification proceedings—and it is very unlikely that the Allies would have allowed Furtwangler to travel to France during the final eight months of 1945, a period during which Furtwangler’s future was very much in doubt.

Until Furtwangler received clearance to resume public life, an event that did not occur until 1947, it is highly improbable that ANY authorities—American, British, French or Russian—allowed Furtwangler to cross into France.

Awaiting de-Nazification, Furtwangler WAS, however, permitted to travel to Switzerland, where his family maintained a home.

If Furtwangler met Ansermet in 1945, it almost certainly was in Geneva, the city in which Ansermet resided, and not in Paris.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Three Concerts In Three Days

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Joshua and I attended three concerts in three days, something very rare for us. In fact, I think it may have been the first time we have ever done so.

The cause of our concentrated bout of concert-going: there were three programs we especially wanted to hear, all involving musicians Josh had never encountered in person.


On Friday night, we went to Jordan Hall to hear the Tokyo String Quartet. The program: Mozart’s String Quartet In D Major, K. 575; Barber’s String Quartet; and Schubert’s String Quintet, in which the Tokyo String Quartet was joined by cellist Lynn Harrell.

I have always very much liked the Tokyo String Quartet, even though the ensemble has never been my favorite quartet, active or retired. Less aggressive than the Juilliard, less “American” than the Emerson, less overtly energetic than the Hagen, less refined than the Italian, not as unduly polished as the Guarneri, and not as relentlessly “penetrating” as the Alban Berg, the Tokyo String Quartet has always seemed to me to be a quartet that has achieved an ideal middle ground: it has found a successful balance between the objective and the subjective; its search for tonal beauty and perfection of execution does not come at the expense of inspiration and spontaneity; and its performances are, in general, deeply-considered yet not marred by artifice.

The Tokyo has a very pleasing sound, although its sound lacks the great individuality and special character of the Italian or the Guarneri. Indeed, if I have any quibble about the Tokyo, it is that the Tokyo’s sound is somewhat generic.

The Tokyo currently plays on a set of Stradivarius instruments named for Niccolo Paganini, who owned the set—the so-called “Paganini Quartet”—during his lifetime. The instruments, part of the collection of The Corcoran Gallery Of Art until that institution, in a very controversial move, disposed of its musical instrument collection in 1995, have for the last fifteen years been on loan to the Tokyo by the private owner that acquired the set from the Corcoran.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 In D Major, K. 575, is the first of Mozart’s “King Of Prussia” Quartets (the composer had contemplated a set of six, but only lived to complete half that number). Written in 1789, K. 575 may be the finest of the “King Of Prussia” set (the two that followed—with some difficulty—in 1790 were written while Mozart suffered from depression; after completing the 1790 efforts, the composer was to write no further for the medium).

I thought the Tokyo performance of the Mozart was almost perfection, and this is so despite the fact that my personal preference is for more melancholy in Mozart than the Tokyo was willing to display. The Tokyo offered a ripe, Romantic performance that never violated the bounds of Classicism. Any music lover would be delighted to hear such a performance, at any place, at any time. The Mozart was the highlight of the evening.

Barber’s String Quartet, composed in 1936 (the third movement was later twice revised), was the composer’s sole composition for the medium. Although Barber was later to accept a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a second string quartet, the commission went unfulfilled.

The Barber is famous because its middle movement was adapted for string orchestra and became ubiquitous as the Adagio For Strings, first heard in 1938.

I have never believed the Barber String Quartet to be successful. I understand the appeal of the middle movement, quite naturally, but the sonata-form first movement and the rondo final movement are not good movements—and, at least of equal importance, the three movements are segmented, never cohering into a satisfying whole.

Despite the fact that he used sonata form in his symphonies and concertos (as well as in his String Quartet, his Piano Sonata and other works), Barber never commanded the intricacies of the form. While he possessed a basic grasp of sonata-form requirements, Barber lacked the deep and innate and imaginative and original understanding of the form that Barber’s contemporary, William Walton, displayed—in spades—from the outset of Walton’s career. (Walton was only twenty-seven years old when he completed his first great masterpiece, his Viola Concerto.) In a long life, Barber was never to write a fully-satisfactory sonata-form movement—although I grant that the first movement of his Piano Concerto, his final completed effort in the form, came close.

The inevitable result, on painful display in most of Barber’s large-scale works: the listener is generally provided with a few moments of great beauty, very pleasant moments surrounded by far more moments in which nothing but note-spinning occurs. Had Barber been a master of sonata form—that is, had he been a genius—his large-scale works would have exhibited a natural command of development and structure and his large-scale works would have undertaken a genuine journey and reached an actual destination (as opposed to reaching a mere ending).

The exceptions among the composer’s large-scale works: those compositions in which he did not use sonata form. Medea’s Meditation And Dance Of Vengeance and the Third Essay For Orchestra, both supremely accomplished compositions and both written with different organizing principles, are probably Barber’s only two masterpieces among his longer works. (The undeniably affecting “Knoxville: Summer Of 1915” is woeful insofar as that composition’s seams show—its four sections are held together, if at all, by scotch tape.)

A related problem with Barber’s large-scale pieces is that the composer’s ideas—the very materials with which he built his compositions—are not first-rate. (The Piano Concerto provides a splendid example: the work, by and large very well-constructed, nevertheless features incomparably thin, if not non-existent, ideas). In each Barber work, there is invariably a modest yet pleasant melodic fragment or theme to be heard very early on. Upon first appearance, this fragment or theme is generally attractive on the surface—but such fragment or theme inevitably fails to sustain the listener’s interest upon repetition or upon the composer’s earnest but feeble attempts to vary or develop the fragment or theme.

Even Barber’s miniatures are prone to the insipidity of his ideas. The song, “Sure On This Shining Night”, one of the composer’s most well-known and most frequently-performed songs, goes nowhere after the first statement of its theme. The theme initially appears to have some moderate appeal—but, upon restatement, the theme is revealed to be profoundly unimaginative if not outright maudlin.

Barber’s String Quartet suffers grievously from the deficiencies of inadequate mastery of form and thinness of ideas. After two promising minutes, the first movement goes nowhere. The second movement, impossible for me to hear with fresh ears, is nowise an answer to what has come before. The brief third movement, with its wispy ideas, seems endless and does not provide a fitting or satisfying conclusion to movements one and two.

The Tokyo String Quartet apparently believes in the Barber work or else it would not have programmed it. I listened to the Tokyo performance intently, even acutely, trying to ascertain what the Tokyo found in the piece.

My conclusion: the Tokyo found nothing in the piece. The Barber, I believe, had been programmed out of the Tokyo’s sense of obligation to offer something “modern” to its audience. Myself, I would much rather have heard Tokyo explore something genuinely modern instead of Barber’s very weak attempt at string-quartet writing more than seventy years ago.

The performance of the Schubert String Quintet that concluded the program was, I believe, slightly disappointing. The reading was under-characterized, the musicians unwilling to explore the full profundity and sadness of one of Schubert’s very greatest compositions. In his String Quintet, Schubert had stared into the abyss—and the Tokyo and Harrell were, on the Friday before last, reluctant to go that far. The reading was too objective, and not entirely dissimilar to the Mozart performance that began the evening.

On November 19, the Tokyo String Quartet offered little differentiation between music of The Classical Period and music of The Early Romantic Period. Its performances of Mozart and Schubert were startlingly alike, and it was the Schubert that suffered.

I did not object to the Tokyo’s Romantic tendencies in Mozart; I found unfulfilling the Tokyo’s too-Classical Schubert.


On Saturday night (November 20), Josh and I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Symphony. It was only our second Boston Symphony concert of the season, yet it was the second consecutive week in which we had bought tickets to hear the orchestra.

We attended the concert because Josh had never heard Kurt Masur. I wanted Josh to hear Masur in repertory in which Masur excels while Josh still had the chance—and, given Masur’s advancing age and given the fact that Josh and I have no expectations that Masur will appear in Minneapolis in coming years, Josh may not have many future opportunities to hear Masur.

The concert was devoted to music of Robert Schumann, a composer whose music Masur has long since conquered.

Masur is the finest living exponent of music of The Early Romantic Period. No living conductor is superior in the music of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Masur demonstrates comparable greatness in no other area of the repertory, although he is a distinguished—but not particularly imaginative—conductor of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.

The concert began with Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”). This work has long been a Masur specialty, and he and the Boston Symphony gave what I thought to be a faultless performance. Tempi were perfect, transitions were expertly handled, balances were carefully managed. It was the finest performance of the evening.

The concert continued with Schumann’s Piano Concerto, in which the soloist was Nelson Freire. The musicians offered a perfectly acceptable performance of a work that is difficult to hold together, as all three movements are, in effect, discrete compositions. The least interesting work on the program, the Piano Concerto received the least interesting performance.

The concert concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in its final, 1851 version. Masur avoided heaviness in the passages in which the scoring is congested, but Masur’s reading lacked much of the deep emotion and outright drama—and grandeur—that conductors such as Herbert Von Karajan and George Szell found in the Fourth.

One becomes depressed when one reflects upon the inadequacy of Schumann performance today. The Schumann performances Josh and I heard eleven days ago in Boston may turn out to be the finest Schumann performances we shall ever experience in person. The Boston performances were idiomatic and carefully considered and carefully rendered—and yet they were not inspired (although the performance of the “Spring” Symphony came close).

Schumann performance is a dying art. Once Masur passes from the scene, the only remaining Schumann conductor of note will be Christian Thielemann, who no longer appears in the U.S.

Most American music-lovers will never live to hear in person a competent, let alone an inspired, performance of a Schumann symphony.


On Sunday afternoon (November 21), Josh and I returned to Symphony Hall to hear a recital by Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman. On the program were sonatas for violin (or viola) and piano by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

At age 62, Zukerman remains in full command of his technique (which cannot be said of many living violinists past their fiftieth birthdays, including Zukerman’s close friend and contemporary, Itzhak Perlman).

Zukerman has a beautiful sound—warm, dark, focused—and he is capable of offering superb, noble performances when he is of a mind to do so. In many ways, Zukerman is a throwback to earlier times: his playing is reserved but unquestionably Romantic in outlook.

It was my hope that Zukerman, playing with pianist Bronfman instead of his regular accompanist, Marc Neikrug, would be more engaged than usual for his Boston appearance. It was for this reason that Josh and I had acquired tickets for Zukerman’s Boston recital.

The recital began with Mozart’s Sonata No. 32 In B Flat Major, K. 454, For Piano And Violin.

K. 454 was written in 1784 for one of Mozart’s most skilled pupils. The sonata is perhaps Mozart’s very finest effort in the form (Anne-Sophie Mutter, for one, considers K. 454 to be Mozart’s single greatest work for violin and piano—and it was with K. 454 that Mutter concluded her 2006 all-Mozart recital in Saint Paul, a recital Josh and I attended).

Bronfman was in his element in the Mozart, which offered Bronfman’s finest playing of the afternoon. In fact, I thought Bronfman’s Mozart was finer than Zukerman’s Mozart, largely because Bronfman’s playing was unstudied and unexaggerated. In contrast, Zukerman was prone to telegraph his phrasing, a practice that struck me as slightly artificial and certainly emphatic.

The recital continued with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 In F Major, Opus 24, For Violin And Piano (“Spring”), one of Beethoven’s most popular works.

It was Zukerman who came into his element in the Beethoven. While his Mozart had been arch and not entirely convincing, his Beethoven was apt and true. This was stylish Beethoven playing, rhythms firm yet flexible, the array of colors perfect for Zukerman’s straightforward and mellow reading, forward momentum in equilibrium with expression.

Zukerman’s was a very relaxed “Spring” Sonata, the interpretation of a musician who knows the music inside out and who still loves the piece even after decades of performing it in concert halls everywhere. Musical tension never abated, yet Zukerman spun out the notes as naturally as breathing. This was the work of a very, very great artist.

After intermission, the recitalists performed Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 In E Flat Major, Opus 120, For Viola And Piano.

Zukerman must love this work, because I believe he performs it more frequently than any other single work in his repertory.

His performance of the Brahms was very much like the Beethoven: utterly natural and deeply-felt, the result of years of thought and experience, the music having become a virtual extension of Zukerman’s personality.

I wish a fourth work had been added to what was a very short program—Janacek’s sonata would have been an ideal addition to the recital—because Zukerman left me wanting to hear more.

Despite an ungenerous bill of fare, Zukerman and Bronfman offered only one encore: Number Four from Schumann’s Marchenbilder. It was appropriate music to follow the Brahms.

Zukerman and Bronfman had performed the very same program—with the very same encore—on the preceding Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Boston was the final stop of a five-city, six-day tour that began in Princeton, continued in Chicago and Kansas City, and involved a Carnegie Hall appearance the evening before the tour concluded with the Boston recital Josh and I attended.

I am very pleased Josh and I went to hear Zukerman. We caught him on very good form, as we had hoped—and, when Zukerman is on form, he has few peers.