Classic Mornings

Some Off “The Wall” Thoughts


It was a fascinating city during that time. It was a strange city during that time. Years before, it had been one magnificent city and a capital city – as it is again today.

The wall that divided it for nearly 30 years seemed to create two different worlds. Stories about the events of those years continue to be told by those who lived on both sides of the wall.  I listened to a number of those stories, as they were told on various news programs on AM 580 in the days surrounding the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th.

I’m guessing that classical music did its part to unite Berlin - in spirit - until East and West were reunited. After all, there had been a common musical heritage, not only for the divided city, but for the divided country. During those years, there was much to enjoy from ensembles in Dresden and Leipzig as well as in Hamburg and Munich, not to mention both parts of the divided Berlin.

It’s interesting that another Berlin “wall” remains, though it’s more like a fence than a wall.  I’m referring to  the way Berlin is pronounced in English. Just listening to various reporters and commentators, most say Bur LIN, while some say BUR lin – possibly because the latter has come to be the preferred pronunciation for a number of U.S. cities with the same name as the German capital. The Germans say it more like Bear LEEN. In fact, a bear is featured on Berlin’s coat of arms and serves as a sort of mascot for the city.  That, however, has nothing to do with the word Berlin or its pronunciation.

Recently, there were two related 25th anniversaries in the classical music world. Conductor Herbert von Karajan died on July 16, 1989 – a few months after he had resigned as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and several months before the wall came down. Karajan held that post from 1955 to 1989, including the years of the divided Berlin. The construction of the orchestra’s concert hall, the Philharmonie, began in 1960. That was one year before “construction” began on the Berlin Wall. Most people outside of Germany aren’t aware that the concert hall acquired the nickname “Zirkus Karajani.” That was a play on the name Circus Maximus, which was the huge stadium built by the Romans for chariot races. In October,1989 Claudio Abbado was named Karajan’s successor. He held that post until 2002. Abbado died back on January 20th, many months before the 25th anniversary of his taking over the reins of the Berlin Philharmonic and the fall of the wall. The Philharmonie is still standing.  In fact, it stands out architecturally like a sculpted torch of sorts.

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz passed away on November 5, 1989. We paid tribute to him on the Classic Morning Prelude that day. In an article by Burt Folkart of the Los Angeles Times back in 1982, the legendary pianist seemed to suggest that if there had been any wall between performers and audiences, those too had come down over the years. Horowitz said that audiences had come to know so much more about music. He no longer had to exaggerate in his playing. He could play with greater simplicity and “simplicity is wisdom,” he added.  Horowitz’s performance of Robert Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen, which I shared with listeners that morning, conveyed that simplicity. I also discovered a quote by Emmanuel Ax in a New York Times article by Bernard Holland, published the day after Horowitz died.  Ax said that Horowitz brought excitement to the stage like no other pianist. He could play with complete control but at the same time with the feeling that everything was on the verge of going haywire.  Horowitz’s version of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever seemed to be an appropriate musical illustration of Ax’s comment.

It wasn’t all 25th anniversaries during the past month. November 15th marked the centennial of the birth of the Cuban-American pianist Jorge Bolet. It seems that an earlier generation came to know him from his playing on the soundtrack of the 1960 film about Franz Liszt called Song Without End. Dirk Bogarde portrayed Liszt on screen. It’s said that Bolet came to be associated with that film more than anything else he had done. From what I have read, it sounds as if Bolet hoped for the crumbling of that image as many had hoped for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Bolet had a sort of comeback in his 70s, recording volumes of piano music by Liszt. You hear a number of those recordings regularly on Classic Mornings.

On November 6th, we celebrated the bicentinnial of the birth of Adolph Sax – the inventor and namesake of the saxophone. Sax, who was born in Belgium, had learned to play the flute and clarinet at the Brussels Conservatory.  His father was an instrument maker. Adolphe Sax learned the trade as well. He was about 26 years old when he invented the saxophone in 1840. He had already made a variety of instruments – mostly involving modifications of existing instruments. Nobody is really sure what he was working on when he came up with the idea of a saxophone. It was soon after the invention that he headed off to Paris to seek his fortune. There his company made a wide variety of instruments and was quite successful. Sax supplied military and civil bands with instruments. He even conducted bands and served as the first instructor of saxophone when the Paris Conservatory added saxophone to the curriculum.  But Adolphe Sax also incurred the hostility of established French instrument makers who continued to challenge his instrument patents. According to musicologist Philip Bate and Sax biographer Wally Horwood, lawsuits took their toll on Sax’s company. Though the instrument is more closely associated with jazz and pop music, composers including Georges Bizet, Claude Debussy, Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Rachmaninov and Sergei Prokofiev are among those who wrote for the instrument. Over the years, chamber and orchestral works have been written for the saxophone and for saxophone quartet (4 saxophones).

If that wasn’t enough celebrating, on November 3rd, it was the 275th anniversary of the birth of Haydn contemporary Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Dittersorf was a violinist and composer. Among his compositions are 120 symphonies. Dittersdorf was actually born Carl Ditters. He was knighted during his lifetime, acquiring the name “von Dittersdorf.” It’s one of the great alliterative names in classical music. Go ahead, say it out loud a couple of times: “Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf! Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf!” The name almost sounds like the opening line of a children’s rhyme. He probably wouldn’t have been amused with that suggestion. In fact, he might have dismissed it as something “off the wall.”

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