Posted on

Tully Potter, Reviewing Great Conductors of the Third Reich in Classic Record Collector

Great Conductors of the Third Reich

“It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry over the first of this superb batch of videos, a devastating critique of the time-beaters and time-servers who entertained the Nazi regime and its lackeys so well. There they are, pinned down for ever by the film-makers, often with Nazi insignia prominently displayed in the background and major officials of the Third Reich such as Joseph Goebbels prominent in the audience. Max von Schillings, soon to die but looking for all the world like a Prussian general, directs the William Tell Overture; a sequence of excerpts from Die Meistersinger features Leo Blech (who should have known better, being Jewish), Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler; two snippets of Beethoven’s Ninth bring us Furtwängler again—with some good shots of Gerhard Taschner—and Hans Knappertsbusch; and finally, Clemens Krauss is seen in Schubert’s Unfinished. An eloquent, incontrovertible indictment by Frederic Spotts in the booklet is worth almost as much as the video itself. Compulsive watching.


Caruso: A Documentary

“Two tenors are well served by documentaries. The greatest of all, Caruso, is treated to such a well sourced and researched programme—made by A&E Television—that you wish it were twice as long. The wish comes true, in a way, because Bel Canto Society has appended My Cousin, the enjoyable silent movie in which the tenor plays two roles. The documentary involves both Caruso’s son Enrico Jnr and Andrew Farkas, who collaborated on the biggest and best biography so far. We learn of the tenor’s complicated love life but his career and its significance are fully covered. I had not realised how much archive footage of him existed.


If I Were a Rich Man

“A key figure in the Caruso programme, Peter Rosen, was also involved in the enjoyable film about Jan Peerce, another singer from a humble background. An interview Isaac Stern did with the tenor forms the backbone of the piece; and Stern returns to act as host and narrator—his words scripted by Martin Bookspan, no less. Failing sight (not mentioned here) caused Peerce to retire from opera but he had a second career as a touring recitalist and was still singing magnificently in his late 70s. Musical highlights include a stylish ‘Il mio tesoro’, the least wimpish version since Tauber, and an early music hall sketch in which Peerce appears as a singing frankfurter seller! We learn of his courage in bringing religious solace to Jews in the Soviet Union, and of the problems of eating kosher when on tour in Japan. Splendid stuff.”

Posted on

Richard Fawkes, Reviewing in Opera Now, “Screen Gems”

“Bel Canto Society produces a huge amount of often rare footage of singers. Richard Fawkes focuses on their collection of Franco Corelli.

“Those who saw him on stage will tell you that Franco Corelli was not simply the best tenor of his generation but, Caruso notwithstanding, the best of all time. Why, then, isn’t he a name on everyone’s lips in the way that Caruso is, known to those who have never been to an opera or bought an operatic recording? Largely because he had a comparatively limited career due to a stage fright he could never overcome.

“One way for those who never saw Corelli to find out why he was so highly regarded is to burrow through the offerings in the Bel Canto Society catalogue. This is the organisation founded by the indefatigable Stefan Zucker (who features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest tenor) to make available on video performances of singers, from concerts to feature films, from opera productions to TV appearances. Much of the material predates video recording, so the visual quality is not always all one might wish. But generally speaking Bel Canto’s cleaning up of the sound is exemplary and makes all these tapes worth watching.

“First port of call has to be Corelli’s 1956 appearance in the film Tosca. Corelli was 30 before he made his operatic debut in 1951. It had taken him six years to get a top to his voice. In 1956, the director Carmine Gallone, who has the distinction of having directed more opera films than anyone else, decided to film Tosca on the actual locations in Rome, using actors miming to a prerecorded track. He planned to use Ferruccio Tagliavini to sing Cavaradossi but was having difficulty finding an actor. It was Aldo Relli, who had been cast as Sciarrone, who suggested he consider his younger brother who looked good and could also sing (Relli was the stage name of Ubaldo Corelli). Gallone duly auditioned Corelli and promptly offered him the role both as singer and actor, making him the only singer in the film to be seen on screen. Maria Caniglia sings Tosca (acted by Franca Duval), Giangiacomo Guelfi, Scarpia (played by Afro Poli).

Tosca made Corelli a star. He not only looks the part, his singing picks you up and transports you. His cries of ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, and this is perhaps the key to Corelli’s popularity: he is a very visceral singer with the power to seize the listener’s emotions and not let go. This power can be heard to great effect on a CD of Tosca (also available as a download or Webcast) recorded in Parma in 1967. He really lets fly, holding on to his notes (it may be self-indulgent but it is exciting) and demonstrating quite phenomenal breath control. But he also sings when necessary with subtlety and shading. It is a virtuoso performance well worth acquiring, even though the poor soprano singing Tosca manages to go off-key in ‘Vissi d’Arte’.

“Also on CD is a thrilling account of La Gioconda (also available as a download or Webcast), recorded live in Philadelphia in 1964 with Mary Curtis-Verna in the title role and Mignon Dunn as Laura. As a bonus, the set contains 70 minutes of his second Philadelphia appearance in the role, opposite Tebaldi. The remastering captures all the excitement and brilliance of the live performance, although being recorded at the beginning of winter, the Tebaldi version has more than its share of audience coughs.

“Other Corelli CDs in the catalogue include a strongly cast Rome Opera production of Il trovatore, now also available as a download, recorded live off air in Berlin in 1961 when Corelli was at the peak of his form, a Carmen (available as a download or Webcast) with Freni and Simionato, and an Ernani (available as a download or Webcast).

“On tape again is a 1958 made-for-television film of Turandot (#544) with Lucille Udovick impressive in the title role and Corelli singing with animal excitement, and Corelli in Concert, a 1971 video of arias and Neapolitan songs which is an object lesson in vocal artistry. The audience goes appropriately wild. And yet this tape, perhaps more than any other, goes a long way towards explaining the Corelli enigma. Between arias, between phrases even, he looks decidedly uncomfortable. He licks his lips, his eyes do not communicate warmth or enjoyment, he rarely smiles. It is clear he does not want to be there. It does seem amazing that a man with such enormous talent, who gave so much pleasure to so many people and received such adulation, could not overcome his fear of stepping onto a stage. We can only be thankful we have the evidence of these recordings to remind us of what a truly great artist Franco Corelli was.

“Other Bel Canto titles include:

The Glass Mountain, the 1950 feature film starring Michael Denison as a composer who returns to Italy after the war to find inspiration. The film made an international star of Tito Gobbi who appears as an opera singing partisan. A wonderful, moving film.

Del Monaco at His Most Thrilling! Del Monaco was the tenor for whom the phrase can belto was coined. This 1969 German TV appearance has him dressed casually in a sweater alongside a penguin-suited orchestra in a repertoire that mixes arias from Norma, Macbeth and Die Walküre (what a heldentenor he would have made) with the baritone aria ‘Largo al Factotum’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Ridi, pagliaccio, an absorbing 1942 film about the creation of the Leoncavallo opera which stars Paul Hörbiger as the real-life Canio and Gigli as the singer who created the role.”

Posted on

Greg Sandow, Reviewing in The Wall Street Journal, “Opera Recordings Join the Digital Revolution”

From The Wall Street Journal

by Greg Sandow

With enormous delight, I’ve been watching a very old opera video. My excuse—as if I needed one—was that the video was recently released on DVD, by the invaluable Bel Canto Society, but I would happily have watched it on an old-fashioned videotape, or maybe even cranked it up on a movie projector, if I had one.

It’s a 1954 performance of Donizetti’s silly, tender comedy “L’elisir d’amore” (or, in plain English, “The Elixir of Love”), made as a movie for Italian TV. Opera, of course, was far more central to Italian life half a century ago than it is now, and some people think they know what that means: Performances were easygoing, homemade and maybe a little slapdash. But Bel Canto Society—a nonprofit organization run by Stefan Zucker, who bills himself as “the world’s highest tenor”—proves that all this is a myth. “L’elisir” is meticulous, beautifully directed, full of lovely detail. The tenor lead, a shy little innocent, can’t decide whether to join the army. He looks up at the hulking, pompous sergeant and, almost like a child, plays for a moment with the buttons on the sergeant’s uniform.

The singers—the little tenor, the pert soprano, the pompous baritone, and the fatter baritone who descends on a 19th-century Italian town like a whirlwind, selling quack remedies—are all accomplished comics. Though the tenor, Cesare Valletti, goes beyond accomplished. Fumbling with his hat, he’s like a classic circus clown, the kind who’s sad as well as funny. He finds money for the quack’s elixir. He’s radiant! The elixir doesn’t work. He’s crushed!

His acting is especially a revelation, because he’s so well known, even today, as a singer—elegant, ravishing, full of light and shade, impassioned. But then all the singers have a kind of confidence, verve and, above all, a colloquial ease that you’ll never hear today. And why not? They’re performing in their own language, in a tradition their whole nation understood, and in an age when unamplified singing was mostly still the norm. Just listen to Giuseppe Taddei, who plays the quack, and has a huge and sumptuous sound but doesn’t bother using it when he clowns around. Then suddenly he’ll pour it out, and it hits you like a force of nature.

But here’s a question. Bel Canto Society has been releasing videos like this for 18 years, on VHS tape (along with CDs of old opera performances). Why are they only just beginning to appear on DVD? The answer is that Mr. Zucker is a manic perfectionist, and that he follows his perfectionism even at untold cost to his business. “We’ve been hemorrhaging financially since 1999,” he says, in his inimitably urgent and high voice. “Our distributors abandoned us, because their customers didn’t want to buy VHS tapes.”

But he couldn’t find a way to convert the analogue video and sound on those tapes to digital (as DVDs require) with the quality that he demanded. “People in my field tell me, ‘Stefan, you’re nuts. Put out the best you can, do what you can.’ But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Finally he found an analogue-to-digital converter that he could live with. As he describes the choices that he made, he might almost be Valletti, deciding how he’s going to sing a crucial high note. So if this all seems way beyond obsessive, Mr. Zucker at least is obsessing like an artist. Audio professionals, in any case, will understand the distinctions that he makes, and his DVDs have a sonic and visual clarity we don’t always see in transfers from old material.

He has more than 900 VHS releases; it’ll be a while before we see them all on DVD. I’m especially salivating for Verdi’s “Otello,” burningly sung by Mario Del Monaco, a tenor from the ’50s with a giant voice and temperament, who just about defines what this opera is about.

But among the DVDs already available, two stand out for me, besides “L’elisir.” These aren’t filmed operas, but instead are films about opera, starring famous opera singers, and they might sound unpromising. What would we expect from 1936’s “The Charm of La Bohème,” in which two opera singers live out in real life the pathos of Puccini’s opera? Or from 1942’s “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” in which the wrenching story of the opera “Pagliacci” is presumed to be true, and the composer writes the piece after meeting the main character? Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

But both films—filled with that unstoppable old-time singing—are anything but awful. “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” especially, unfolds with touching dignity, never trivializing either life or art. We see Beniamino Gigli, a devotedly honest tenor of the era between the two world wars, play the singer who created the leading role in “Pagliacci,” first trying out his big aria as the opera is being written, then nailing it with searing passion at the world premiere. Hokey, you might think. But like “L’elisir,” and so many of those old performances, it all seems real.

Mr. Sandow, who writes for the Journal about music, is a composer, critic and consultant.

Posted on

Press Coverage of Corelli Interviews

Encore (the magazine of BMG classical music service) reported:

Franco Corelli, known as “golden thighs” to opera audiences, was one of the world’s leading tenors from his La Scala debut in 1954 until his unofficial retirement from the stage in 1976. His matinee-idol looks coupled with his thrilling high notes earned him cult status during his singing career. A recent survey by the magazine Opera Fanatic [the radio program, really] named Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, out-polling even Björling (second), Caruso (third), and Domingo (nineteenth, tied with Jacques Urlus).

Jeannie Williams wrote in USA Today:

Look out Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti: Italian tenor Franco “Golden Thighs” Corelli, the Mel Gibson of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s, may be back. Corelli, who left opera in 1976, made a rare weekend appearance on a New York radio show, “Opera Fanatic.” He said he quit too soon, he wants to sing Verdi’s Otello and do recitals. His reappearance would sell out Carnegie Hall in hours….” (“Starwatch”)

Michael Redmond treated the same story in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Last week’s big buzz had to do with a live radio interview given by Franco Corelli to the irrepressible Stefan Zucker, host of “Opera Fanatic.” During the interview, Corelli indicated a clear interest in returning to the stage to perform and record the title role of Verdi’s Otello, the brightest jewel in the Italian tenorial crown.

Corelli never sang this role during the years that he was the most brilliant and exciting tenor alive…. Well, this was news,…It is also a matter of public record (i.e., listeners heard Corelli say it), as well as a matter of on-tape record. By early this week, Corelli was waffling about the whole thing, saying that he had been mistranslated. The interview had been conducted both in Italian, which Zucker then translated, and in English. A difficulty with Corelli’s explanation is that he had said it in English. Hmmm. So why all the fuss? Simply because a return by Franco Corelli to sing Otello, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for that matter, would surely become a candidate for “hottest operatic ticket of the 90s”…. I had had the privilege of overhearing Corelli sing while he was teaching in Newark. The tenor sounded fantastico, high notes and all….(“Corelli Comeback: Yes or No?”)

Audrey Farolino wrote in Page Six of the New York Post:

Will he or won’t he? That’s what opera fans are wondering about Franco Corelli, considered the world’s best and sexiest tenor during his heyday from the 1950s through the 70s. Corelli worked music lovers into a fever pitch earlier this month when he suggested on WKCR’s “Opera Fanatic” program that he would still like to perform in Verdi’s Otello, something he never did during his career. Since then, “the phone here has been going wild,” says Stefan Zucker, the show’s host….(“Corelli: Coming Back?”)

On one of the programs Corelli described his diet, which Jeannie Williams then reported in USA Today:

Sixties superstar tenor Franco Corelli says he’s eating nothing but bananas and yogurt daily, plus water and coffee—and it works.

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News also made mention of the Corelli shows and the prospect of a comeback.

Listeners having voted Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, Stefan Zucker booked a date at a concert hall for him to be interviewed by the audience and me and be presented with an award. Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News, Bill Zakariasen in the New York Daily News, Iris Bass in Sightlines, Jeannie Williams in USA Today and Tim Page in Newsday all noted the event in advance, while Albert Cohen in the Asbury Park Press described the audience’s reaction:

Zucker arranged for a fascinating evening when he brought Corelli to the stage of Merkin Hall in New York City for an evening of talk. Part of the fun was the capacity audience. Talk about fanatics! Whenever someone recognizable entered, the applause would erupt. Jerome Hines, the Scotch Plains basso, was greeted warmly.

Pandemonium took over when Corelli appeared. Everyone was standing, whistling and shouting “Bravo.” The fans really went crazy when he was given his “Tenor of the Century” plaque during this unusual evening. (“Fans Go Wild over ‘Tenor of Century'”)

The Honorable David N. Dinkins, Mayor of the City of New York, proclaimed January 7, 1992 “Franco Corelli Day.” On that occasion Stefan Zucker interviewed Corelli in Gould Hall, taking a microphone into the auditorium à la Phil Donahue so that the public could speak with him as well. After intermission mayoral representative Dr. George Seuffert presented Corelli with the proclamation, which among many things cited his “thoughtful expertise and delightful sense of humor” in interviews.

Joseph Li Vecchi wrote about the event in Gramophone:

When Corelli walked out on stage at Florence Gould Hall the audience reacted as if Caesar had just returned from the conquests in Gaul….Corelli was interviewed by Stefan Zucker and he answered questions from the audience. We were also treated to a number of his recordings….Corelli fans are devoted to the great tenor and one lady even drove in from Cleveland for a chance to meet him. [Another came from Raleigh, another from Miami.] After the interview there was a reception….

Li Vecchi then described Corelli’s vocalism, citing high notes and diminuendos, and maintained:

There is no voice before the public today with Corelli’s combination of power, range and color….

Posted on

The Fluctuating Fortunes of Vibrato
 & Pertile on Vowels

During the March 30, 1991 broadcast I refer to my article on vibrato, reprinted here.

The Fluctuating Fortunes of Vibrato

Once Thought to Convey Emotion, 
Fast Vibrato Is Again Out of Fashion

For most of the 20th century singers used less vibrato than in the 19th, when it became so popular as to provoke British critic Henry F. Chorley in 1862 to call it “that vice of young Italy, bad schooling, and false notions of effect.”

The use of fast vibrato as a prominent aspect of each sung tone was pioneered by tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, beginning around 1814. Before him singers reserved vibrato for special effects and moments of heightened emotion. At first, because of vibrato, Rubini was derided as a goat. He could not find employment as a recitalist or opera singer–not even as a chorister. Eventually by virtue of a masterful singing technique, unsurpassed musical sensitivity and a most magnetic vocal personality he became his age’s preeminent singer, despite an objectionably small voice. Even Chorley had to concede that, with vibrato, Rubini produced “an effect of emotion not obtainable by any other means.” His tones even came to be widely admired for their beauty.

By the mid-1820s other singers with pervasive vibratos had begun to make careers, Henriette Méric-Lalande becoming the first such star soprano. By the middle of the century Rubini vibrato was commonplace–in spite of critics’ fulminations. Rossini, among many, deplored it. Still, Italian tenors, in particular, sported it: Enrico Tamberlick, Roberto Stagno, Fernando De Lucia and Italo Campanini, for example. George Bernard Shaw’s epithet for Italian tenors was “Goatbleaters!” (Curiously, Campanini, in an unpublished letter, wrote of his rival Ernesto Nicolini, “His voice shakes as if with palsy.”)

In this country as well as Britain critics and public have tended to think of this quiver as disfiguring. When De Lucia and soprano Celestina Boninsegna appeared here, in 1893-94 and 1906-07, respectively, critics called each a goat. Baritone Riccardo Stracciari was excoriated here for the same reason, in 1907. Virtually all Italian tenors who appeared here from the 80s to the First World War vibrated and in consequence didn’t become really popular, even those with illustrious careers in Europe, such as Campanini and Stagno. When the adulated Jean de Reszke on occasion lapsed into such a vibrato at the Met, even he was scourged.

Enrico Caruso was found refreshing when he made his Met debut, in 1903, because, so critic W.J. Henderson noted, his voice was “without the typical Italian bleat.” (Henderson once wrote, “To make the voice quiver with imminent tears all the time is ridiculous.”) Although Caruso’s vibrato on his early records does seem moderate when compared to other Italian tenors then, it is faster, narrower and more flutterlike than on records he made 15 or so years later, where it is comparatively slow and wide.

The fortunes of Aureliano Pertile and Giovanni Martinelli exemplify a difference between Italian and American taste of the past. Both tenors were born in Montagnana, Italy, in 1885, both were impassioned. Pertile was received coolly here, in 1921-22, perhaps because of his “bleaty” vibrato-laden tone. Martinelli, a Met stalwart for decades, had almost no audible vibrato. When he returned to Italy in 1929 he was crucified for having la voce fissa, a tight or constricted tone with insufficient vibrato.

Since W. W. II few Latin singers have had prominent vibratos, with the exception of throwbacks such as tenor Salvatore Fisichella, indifferently received at his Met debut, in 1986, and tenor Bruno Beccaria, whose vibrato is reminiscent of Pertile’s. In the late 50s Franco Corelli, who had begun his career with a prominent vibrato, eliminated it, regarding it as a flaw–a sign of the times. Magda Olivero, a heavy vibratoer in the 30s, used comparatively straight tones after 1950.

With some exceptions Afro-American singers have a different kind of vibrato, slower and wider. Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price are examples. To study vibrato, it’s helpful to play tapes at half speed.

To serve music vibrato’s width and rapidity must be capable of variation. For me the main objection to omnipresent vibrato is that pitch fluctuations interfere with resolutions of dissonances and other moments of harmonic repose. In florid music vibrato, moreover, creates ambiguities of pitch. Still, the allure of Conchita Supervia does seem to stem in part from vibrato.

Although the British dislike vibrato in singing, old-time Oxford philosophy dons were given to talking with voices aquiver with emotion. As a graduate student I heard one such deliver a highly abstract and rigorous lecture on truth theory in a manner worthy of Pertile. On early records and sound films a number of orators, politicians and actors also speak with vibrato, as did Evans and Gielgud in Shakespeare.

Pertile on Vowels

It always has been thought that Italian has five “pure” vowels: “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” “oo,” but in actuality this has not been true in singing for generations. In 1932 Pertile dictated a singing method, Metodo di canto, that codified what by then had become standard practice for men: “ah” should be blended with “oh,” “oh” should sound like “oh,” “ee” should sound like “ih” (as in “it”), “eh” should be blended with “oo,” “oo” should be blended with “oh.” He said that, in singing with this approach, the five vowels, which in speaking are dissimilar, come to resemble one another. Possibly because of Pertile, possibly because of a trend, this treatment of vowels rapidly was taken up by women. It is the way in which rounded or darkened singing is achieved. (Pertile, incidentally, opposed “exaggerated” pronunciation on the grounds that it makes singing proceed with syllable-by-syllable choppiness, induces muscular contractions and rigidity and causes the voice to lose its placement. He advocated masque placement–and placement still deeper in the masque when singing in the passaggio, the area of the voice where head resonance begins to predominate over chest resonance. His Metodo di canto is reprinted in Bruno Tosi’s Pertile, una voce, un mito.)

A special case: before W. W. II most women had a good “ah” vowel but did not sing a true “oo.” Instead they were apt to sing “ü.” Had Claudia Muzio attempted to sing her name the result would have been Müzio. Some singers from the generation before Muzio also turned “oo” into “ü,” Gemma Bellincioni being one example. Today “oo” is the one vowel often heard in its pure form–at least when singers don’t go above their middle ranges. On higher pitches they are apt to blend “oo” with “oh.”

Like Pertile, Del Monaco and Corelli darkened “ah,” “oh,” “ee” and “eh.” But unlike Pertile they sang “oo” as “oo.”

According to former Milanov student Linda Kundell, of New York City, Milanov taught that one should sing each vowel with the mouth position for “oh,” with the lips formed into a spout. (Conversation, November 16, 2008) This is another way to round or darken.

–Stefan Zucker

Posted on

The Darkened Age of Soprano Singing

by Stefan Zucker

Soprano singing has changed in various ways during the last 70 years. Here’s one aspect, illustrated by Mirella Freni and Katia Ricciarelli from the 1970s onward. Their sounds were very different from those of most Italian sopranos prior to W.W. II. Those women for the most part didn’t sound mellow or creamy. (Claudia Muzio began to cover her tones as she aged, and Rosa Ponselle covered from the start, but they were exceptions, as were Iva Pacetti and Mafalda Favero, who rounded or darkened, along with such Germans as Tiana Lemnitz and Maria Ivogün.) Most pre-war Italian women didn’t round or darken their tones, as did Freni and Ricciarelli.

Freni-and-Ricciarelli-like sounds may fall kindly on the ear but the price is monotony. Unrelieved rounding or darkening limits expression and irons out tonal nuance.

Rounded or darkened sound is less youthful. To convey girlishness Freni herself sang Micaëla with an unrounded or undarkened sound, heard on a Carmen (available as a download or CD). But that was in 1959. Iris Adami Corradetti taught her pupil Ricciarelli to round or darken. But in recordings made in 1940 Adami Corradetti herself did little or no rounding or darkening. In her recordings from the 50s, however, she did. These singers presumably were trying to accommodate modern taste: rounding or darkening and to some extent covering are now expected worldwide. But undarkened, unrounded, uncovered sounds sustain interest better. Listen to Bianca Scacciati, Adelaide Saraceni, Maria Carena or Augusta Oltrabella, none of whom rounded, darkened or covered. If you’re not accustomed to them, you may find their top notes acerbic and even piercing. But the result is more characterful.

At the opposite pole from rounded or darkened singing is the voce infantile, a “white,” childlike sound, useful for expressing innocence and fragility. Toti Dal Monte, Lina Pagliughi and Maria Zamboni are three who always sang with the voce infantile, sometimes with a charming and playful result otherwise unobtainable. Tones sung with the voce infantile are open, and open tones sustain interest (whereas covered sounds in and of themselves do not). Even so, the use of the voce infantile for everything can limit expression. Consider the second and third acts of Dal Monte’s Butterfly, where the voce infantile becomes less appropriate as the tragedy deepens. Whether or not Dal Monte continued to sing with it out of interpretive choice is unclear.

Notwithstanding the expression-limiting effect of pervasive rounding or darkening, not to mention that of pervasive covering, and the expression-limiting effect of using only the voce infantile, singers still can be expressive through musicanship, vocal acting and fuoco sacro.

Posted on

Music in the Third Reich

by Frederic Spotts

The story of music in the Third Reich is a sad one, showing on the one hand how a totalitarian dictatorship maneuvered artists into painfully difficult moral situations and revealing on the other how badly most of them behaved in those dark times. Yet music lovers today often are unable to make a distinction between these artists and their art; they perceive in the arts the highest achievement of humanity and unconsciously slide into the notion that the practitioners of those arts were themselves a special type of person. Talent is mistaken for character. Nothing has muddled the discussion of musicians in the Third Reich more than this confusion. Moral accountability–not just artistry–is the issue in the context of the time; and by their deeds–political as well as artistic–these artists must be judged.

Artists were on the forefront of the Nazis’ ambush on power in 1933. To this day most people remain unaware of how tightly the Nazis harnessed the arts to their political system. Culture was of the utmost personal importance to the Nazi leaders, many of whom themselves were failed artists–Hitler a painter and architect manqué as well as a passionate Wagnerian, Goebbels a would-be novelist and playwright, Göring a gluttonous art collector, Rosenberg a trained architect, von Schirach an aspiring poet. They raised culture to a central position in their so-called “New Order” and used the arts as a means of gaining legitimacy, respectability and acceptability. Culture was the painted veil behind which democracy was suppressed, concentration camps were opened, books and paintings were burned, racial persecution was carried out and wars were launched.

The face of the Nazi system clearly was evident already in the summer of 1933. By then many prominent artists had fled. Those who could have practiced their profession outside Germany but decided to stay must have found the New Order at the very least acceptable.

An artist’s relationship to the Third Reich was not necessarily linked to party membership as such. Hitler himself considered artists naïve fools when it came to political matters and did not care whether or not they joined his movement. Many who did so were motivated by professional opportunism more than political conviction; many who declined to join performed exemplary service to the Nazi state.

The Nazis sought not just to use music to support their political objectives, they also endeavored to alter the very character of the music performed in Germany to suit their ideology. They attempted to achieve this in three ways: to ban performers and composers who were of Jewish or partly Jewish origin; to forbid all “modernist” music; and to foster German compositions and composers while discouraging (and eventually banning) foreign works. By 1935 official lists were promulgated with the names of unacceptable composers and forbidden compositions.

The centerpiece of Nazi policy in the field of music was brute anti-semitism, and this was implemented immediately and ruthlessly. Germans of Jewish background accounted for an exiguous two percent of the music profession in 1933, though their number included many of the country’s leading conductors and composers: Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leo Blech, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Jascha Horenstein, Joseph Rosenstock, Hermann Scherchen, Wilhelm Steinberg, Eugen Szenkar, Fritz Zweig and Gustav Brecher. Within weeks of the Nazi takeover they–and many non-Jews–were discharged along with singers, teachers, administrators and soloists, such as Arthur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin. Anyone who was considered liberal, socialist, communist or critical of National Socialism was subject to expulsion from his position. Despite the damaging emigration, however, the quality of musical performances generally remained high.

Compositions and sometimes even texts by persons of Jewish or part-Jewish background were banned. Exceptionally, Rosenkavalier and other Strauss–von Hoffmansthal operas survived, and there was no alternative but to tolerate lieder with words by Heine. But Mozart–Da Ponte works were not so fortunate. The texts of these operas were unacceptable doubly since both Da Ponte and the person who had provided the standard German translation of his librettos, the conductor Hermann Levi, were objectionable racially. Several new translations–one of them commissioned by the Propaganda Ministry–were produced and widely performed. Those of Handel’s works based on the Old Testament in some cases were replaced by Nazified versions. At the time of the German invasion of Russia, for example, Israel in Egypt was recast as The Mongol Storm.

As part of this racial revisionism scholars completely rewrote music history and produced Aryanized musicology. At the same time music organizations, schools, conservatories and publications all were taken over by Nazi loyalists who promoted the party’s ideological views. A Reich Music Chamber was established–with Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler as president and vice president–to forge links between the music world and Nazi authorities. All this was accepted widely and even approved by both the public and the musicians themselves. To be sure, some Gentile artists such as Fritz and Adolf Busch, Erich Kleiber and Carl Ebert left the country in disgust. But most remained, and all of them–from the lowly to Richard Strauss, Karl Böhm, Clemens Krauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan–were only too happy to profit from the situation. Yet opportunists though they were, many remained devoted to their art above all.

Anyone who played an instrument, composed, conducted or sang was contributing, however innocently, to the Nazis’ objectives. Even acts of omission–not conducting Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Berg or Bartok–amounted to active participation in the corruption of music. Worse were those who actively supported the aims of the party. Most unforgivable of all were those who celebrated German military triumphs and the suppression of foreign culture by carrying their art into occupied countries. These were Hitler’s willing cultural executioners.

Nazi authorities used musicians to attain propaganda objectives. At home they manipulated artists in such a way as to create the impression that Nazi Germany was the world’s great culture-state. Outside Germany they deployed many musicians as cultural combat troops, to establish German cultural supremacy and to supplant or suppress foreign cultures. Opera companies and orchestras–conducted by Furtwängler, von Karajan, Böhm, Krauss, Knappertsbusch and Pfitzner–frequently were sent on such missions throughout Sweden and occupied Europe. In Czechoslovakia and Poland, after 1939 indigenous musical life was crushed and replaced exclusively by German music and institutions. The Prague Symphony Orchestra, for instance, was disbanded and replaced by the so-called German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague, under Joseph Keilberth’s direction. Once the war began musicians were given the additional mission of boosting popular and military morale by performing in factories and military units. Even after August 1944, when Goebbels declared “total war” and closed all theaters and concert halls, some musical events still were authorized.

After the war almost all prominent artists were compromised politically–and morally. They themselves loudly insisted they always had been apolitical, devoted solely to their art. But in a totalitarian state no one is apolitical, and the practice of art cannot be divorced from the political circumstances in which it takes place.


The above essay was excerpted from the booklet to Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.

Posted on

Spotts on Furtwängler

by Frederic Spotts

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), following an apprenticeship in Breslau, Zurich, Munich and Strassburg, was appointed conductor of the Lübeck Opera at the age of 25, and then went on to Mannheim, Vienna and Berlin. By 1922 he was the most promising young conductor in Central Europe and in that year succeeded Arthur Nikisch, in both Leipzig and Berlin. In the early days of the Third Reich Furtwängler resisted Nazi encroachments, refusing to purge either the Berlin Philharmonic of its Jewish players or the concert repertory of some compositions unacceptable to the Nazis. He fought to perform Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, tried to help Schoenberg and in 1934 audaciously conducted Jewish-born Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. These actions were to resist interference in his autonomy as a conductor, not to contest Nazi cultural policy as such–he never fought for performances of
Mahler, Schoenberg or Berg.

[In August 1933 Furtwängler accepted a contract that stipulated he would not engage Jewish soloists to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic “without the agreement of the Reich government.” In January 1936 Furtwängler, in Budapest with the Vienna Philharmonic, scheduled a symphony by Mendelssohn. At the Nazis’ request he removed it from the program, substituting one by the Aryan Robert Schumann.–Stefan Zucker, ed.]

Although not a Nazi or a man to put anyone in a concentration camp, Furtwängler was anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-semitic, an enemy of the Weimar Republic and an arch-conservative both in music and politics. In a diary entry for 1929 he characterized political parties, democracy, progress and technology as dangerous threats, while in an entry for 1933 he applauded the Nazis’ advent to power. “Why will Germany win this war?” he asked rhetorically in his diary in September 1939. “Why will the authoritarian system necessarily win through with time? Because it is a feature of human nature that individuals cannot cope with limitless or even with just
a lot of freedom. This is equally clear in art.”

Furtwängler criticized “Jewish-Bolshevist” influence in the Weimar Republic. He called for the sacking of “tendentious Jewish penpushers” in the “Jewish press.” And he claimed that Jewish musicians were bereft of “a genuine inner affinity for German music.”

He accepted high office in the Nazi system (such as, Vice President of the Reich Music Chamber), signed statements affirming loyalty to Hitler, conducted twice at the Nuremberg Nazi party rallies and once in celebration of Hitler’s birthday. He willingly cooperated with Goebbels in promoting German cultural propaganda abroad–in Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm and Upsalla. Most disgracefully, he performed in Prague in 1940, at a performance arranged by Goebbels to celebrate the German takeover of Czechoslovakia and returned to conduct there in 1944. That such performances were not the high-minded cultural acts of a naïve artist is evident from Goebbels’ comment in his diary in February 1942:

Furtwängler practically is bursting with nationalist enthusiasm. This man has undergone a profound transformation, which it gives me a great pleasure to witness. I fought for years to win him over and can now see success. He…is very willing to put himself at my disposal for any work I may require of him.

No one has ever summed up the Furtwängler case better than Bruno Walter, who wrote to his fellow conductor in January 1949:

Please bear in mind that your art was used over the years as an extremely effective means of foreign propaganda for the regime of the devil; that you, thanks to your personal fame and great talent, performed valuable service for this regime and that in Germany itself the presence and activities of an artist of your rank helped to provide cultural and moral credit to those terrible criminals or at least gave considerable help to them….In contrast to that, of what significance was your helpful behavior in individual cases of Jewish distress?

Although initially forbidden by Allied authorities to conduct after the war, Furtwängler eventually resumed his position with the Berlin Philharmonic and performed widely outside Germany.

The above essay was excerpted from the booklet to Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.

Frederic Spotts’ books include The Churches and Politics in Germany (Western Germany After WW II) (1973), Italy: A Difficult Democracy: A Survey of Italian Politics (1986), with Theodor Wieser, Letters of Leonard Wolf (1989), Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (1994), Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002) and The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (2009).


Furtwängler through the eyes of his contemporaries

Furtwängler was seen as compromised by many of his contemporaries. When Toscanini resigned from the New York Philharmonic in 1936, he recommended it engage Furtwängler for the 1936–37 season, which the orchestra accordingly did. The subscribers protested on account of his Nazi associations, to the point that he canceled. To cite only one more among a number of possible examples, on February 22, 1945, in an article about him the Swiss publication Volksrecht wrote:

Just by his participation in dozens of concerts and other events, Furtwängler has allowed the immortal works of the great German masters to be used for National Socialist propaganda purposes. For years he has allowed himself to be misused (witness that the cries of victims in the concentration camps were masked by solemn music). His activity was supposed to insure that the horrific crimes against countless individuals would not be heard and would not be considered possible.

On April 10, 1933, Furtwängler had summarized his position on Jews to Goebbels:

If the fight against Jewry is directed chiefly against those who are themselves rootless and destructive, who seek to impress through trash and sterile virtuosity, this is only correct. The struggle against them and the spirit they personify–and this spirit also has its German devotees–cannot be waged vigorously and thoroughly enough. But when this attack is directed against real artists as well, it is not in the best interest of our cultural life. Real artists are very rare, and no country can afford to renounce their services without great damage to its culture.

The following was written by a Berlin Philharmonic first violinist, Richard Wolff:

In the Nazi era, what lengths [Furtwängler] went to in trying to save our Jewish members, half-Jewish members and the partners of mixed marriages! In spite of all his desperate efforts, he did not succeed in keeping the Jewish members, but he did succeed in making it possible for the others to remain. My wife was Jewish. When my son wanted to marry, Furtwängler ran from pillar to post to obtain the official consent necessary. ‘Dear Wolff,’ he said to me, ‘your son belongs to us too!'”

–Stefan Zucker

Posted on

In Defense of Furtwängler

Sidebar to reviews of Great Conductors of the Third Reich

The following was written by a Berlin Philharmonic first violinist, Richard Wolff:

“In the Nazi era, what lengths [Furtwängler] went to in trying to save our Jewish members, half-Jewish members, and the partners of mixed marriages! In spite of all his desperate efforts, he did not succeed in keeping the Jewish members, but he did succeed in making it possible for the others to remain. My wife was Jewish. When my son wanted to marry, Furtwängler ran from pillar to post to obtain the official consent necessary. ‘Dear Wolff,’ he said to me, ‘your son belongs to us too!’”—from the very stimulating The Furtwängler Record by John Ardoin

Furtwängler in His Own Words

From a letter Furtwängler wrote to Goebbels:

“If the fight against Jewry is directed chiefly against those who are themselves rootless and destructive, who seek to impress through trash and sterile virtuosity, this is only correct.

“The struggle against them and the spirit they personify—and this spirit also has its German devotees—cannot be waged vigorously and thoroughly enough. But when this attack is directed against real artists as well, it is not in the best interest of our cultural life. Real artists are very rare, and no country can afford to renounce their services without great damage to its culture.”

From Furtwängler’s article “The Hindemith Case”:

“It is certain that no composer of the younger generation has done more for the recognition of German music in the world than Paul Hindemith. Besides, it is impossible to predict what importance Hindemith’s work may one day have for the future. But then, that is not the question which is up for debate. Far more than the specific case of Hindemith, it is a general principle with which we are dealing….And about that we must be utterly clear: in view of the terrible and universal dearth of truly productive musicians, we simply cannot afford to do without a man such as Hindemith.”

From Furtwängler’s closing remarks in his deNazification trial:

“I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.

“Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize, that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.”

The above quotations are from The Furtwängler Record by John Ardoin.

Posted on

The Nazi’s Seizure of A Star Fell From Heaven

The Lux Film Gesellschaft was established by Josef Koppelmann in the late 1920s. Initially Lux brought German films to Austria but later Josef decided to produce Austrian films. After securing the talent of Leo Slezak (who mentions Josef in one of his books), Koppelmann recruited Austrian opera stars, famous actors and cabaret chanteuses who began appearing in his productions and became regular visitors at his home. Among them were Franciska Gaal, Paul Hörbiger, Kurt Weill, Artur Schnabel and Joseph Schmidt. Lux also was the first company to bring talking films to Austria.

On the morning of March 12, 1938, troops of the Wehrmacht and the SS crossed the German-Austrian border. On the following day, in Linz, Hitler announced the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria into the German Reich. There were big celebrations all over Austria. Jews, however, were deprived of their civil rights and many were arrested. Jewish shops and businesses were broken into, destroyed or taken over by non-Jews. This seizure was called “aryanization” and was the fate of Lux. Continue reading The Nazi’s Seizure of A Star Fell From Heaven