Monday, November 22, 2010

Stendhal's Mozart

Last week, while playing as an extra for Oregon Symphony's program "Mozart and Shakespeare," I couldn't help but wander into Powell's. The hotel where I stayed, the Mark Spencer, is just a stone's throw from the beloved book store. I was on a mission to find the works of Stendhal, having just been introduced to his "Life of Rossini." This is not only a fascinating but controversial biography of Rossini, but an honest appraisal of the mutilation of Mozart's music as performed by Italian orchestras of that period. Those Italians! To play Mozart meant to play strictly in time, a principle which the lazier musicians referred to as barbaric, for each instrument would have to enter and finish exactly where Mozart had said that it should.

At Powell's, you never know what you might discover. I walked by a placard on the first level which said: I read dead people. How true, I thought. I went upstairs to the Music and Arts section to browse. There I discovered a hardcover book about violinists, opened the pages, and delighted in finding an unsealed envelope with the obituaries of both Mischa Elman and Louis Persinger from The New York Times and The Oregonian, circa 1960's. I bought the book, of course.

Stendhal  (Marie-Henri Beyle)
Downstairs in the Blue Room, I found two magnificent hard cover and illustrated Stendhal novels, "The Red and the Black" and "The Charterhouse of Parma." It would be a cinch for me to spend all the earnings I made from subbing in the symphony in that book store. I remember one time trying to hide a rare edition of "Revolt of the Angels" by Anatole France. I thought Ilkka would be angry at me for spending money on more and more books. They are, after all, falling off my night stand and cluttering each room in the house. But when he saw the beautiful work, with pages not yet cut, Ilkka took out a knife and carefully separated each thick page. "This is how books used to be made in my youth." Indeed, I have learned more about art, music and philosophy from the great French writers, Stendhal, France, and Proust than from any classes or private lessons in conservatory.

While perusing the shelf stocked with Stendhal's works, I stumbled across another title that beckoned, and whispered to me: "Memoirs of an Egotist". I laughed for a moment because I, too, have been writing a memoir. Am I an egotist? I picked it up and read the back cover:
The only things I have passionately loved in life are:
            and Shakespeare.
In Milan, in 1820, I wanted to put these words on my gravestone. Every day I would think of this inscription, firmly believing that I would have no peace of mind except in the grave. I wanted a marble slab in the shape of a playing card.

Well, of course, I had to purchase this on the spot, and take it back to the hotel with me. It was as if Stendhal himself was reminding me how fortunate I was to have been hearing Mozart's "Prague" Symphony that week and playing Elgar's "Falstaff".  Edward Elgar was an ardent Shakespearean, and Oregon Symphony's Music Director Carlos Kalmar had recruited actors to link Elgar's composition to the Shakespeare's text that had inspired the music.

Wine was being served at the hotel. I sat down with a glass and listened to my egotist friend:
At the age of ten, my father, who had all the prejudices of religion and aristocracy, vehemently prevented me from studying music. At sixteen, I learnt successively to play the violin, to sing, and to play the clarinet. Only in this way did I manage to produce sounds which gave me pleasure. My music teacher, a kind, good-looking German by the name of Hermann, made me play tender cantilenas. Who knows? Perhaps he knew Mozart? This was in 1797, Mozart had just died.

Later, at the concert, I sneaked upstairs to the balcony of Arlene Schnitzer to hear Mozart's "Prague" Symphony as performed by Oregon Symphony under the direction of Maestro Kalmar. The hall was filled to capacity. Stendhal accompanied me in heart and soul. This was Mozart at its loveliest; each note filled with warmth, sensitivity and precision. The orchestra, demonstrating enviable refinement and good taste, was a pleasure to behold.

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