Louis Armstrong was the first African American to host a national radio show in 1937. He was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1949, and the first African American to receive featured billing in a major Hollywood movie. In fact, he made more than 12 Hollywood films. The composer of over 50 songs, Armstrong was not only a musical genius; he was also a civil rights pioneer who beat all the odds, rising up from the lowest levels of poverty to become America’s ambassador of goodwill. Born in 1901 in New Orleans, his part of town was the red light district of a black ghetto. Violence was so prevalent, it was called the “Battlefield”. It was a world of pimps, hustlers, prostitutes, saloons and gambling houses. His mother gave birth to him when she was just 15. She worked as a maid by day and sometimes moonlighted as a prostitute at night. Abandoned by his father in infancy, Louis only went as far as 5th grade because he had to work. He sold newspapers, picked through garbage for food, and for junk that could be resold, and he sold coal to prostitutes to keep their rooms warm. At 12, he was arrested for firing his stepfather’s pistol into the air on New Year’s Eve, and was placed in a reform school, the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. He lived there for a year and a half in military style, learning discipline and distinguishing himself in the Waif’s Home band. Louis soon became successful singing in barbershop quartets on street corners and at playing the cornet. Near the end of his life, he wrote extensively about his relationship with the Karnovsky’s, a family of Lithuanian immigrants that treated him as a member of their family, gave him his first job, and lent him the money to buy his first cornet. He wrote: “We never forgotten each other. I got good on my cornet. Everywhere that I played and the Karnovsky’s could attend they would be there rooting for me as usual, always asking me if I needed anything. All that I needed was a little encouragement to bring it out of me and they did, thank God. The Jewish people sure did turn me out in many ways. They were so warm and made a little Negro boy such as me feel like a human being. If it wasn’t for the nice Jewish people we would have starved many times. I will love the Jewish people all of my life.” The Karnovsky’s included him in their Shabat dinners and throughout his life, he always kept matza in his kitchen. Armstrong told his manager that if he booked a tour to Israel to make sure that he’d perform there gratis. Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck for the greater part of his life. At age 21, Louis received a telegram from his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, who had moved to Chicago, inviting Louis to join his band as 2nd cornet player. Armstrong: “The word had spread around Joe Oliver got a little second cornet player, and they’re making breaks together and doing a lot of things together. You’ve got to hear them. I was interested in Joe Oliver and I knew the way he played. I practically know everything he played. So I put notes to it. Surprised him. I would make duets to whatever he played. And all the musicians thought that was great! They tried it and everything, but they didn’t concentrate the way we did. They couldn’t do it unless they wrote it down. But we didn’t write anything — never did write it down.” Armstrong’s reputation rapidly grew. In fact, his recordings from the 1920s and ’30s were so popular, that when he first appeared in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1933, there were over 10,000 fans waiting to greet him at the railroad station! His early recordings popularized scat singing, the vocalization of nonsense syllables in imitation of an instrument. Wynton Marsalis: “He invented American singing. I mean all of the singers from Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, Jon Henricks. You can go into any style, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday. They all will say, ‘Pops.’ He was a man of great majesty. I just feel honored to speak about Louis Armstrong, and I just hope as many people as possible get hip to him. And it will enrich your life to check Pops out, because boy, it certainly enriched mine. I listen to all kinds of music, from Bach, Palestrina, Wagner, I don’t care. Pops was bad.” Bing Crosby said: “I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect. He was a true genius but more.” Tony Bennett: “It’s really America’s classical music. This becomes our tradition. The bottom line of any country in the world is: what did we contribute to the world? And we contributed Louis Armstrong.” After performances, Armstrong always brought stacks of photos to give to his fans, who wanted to meet him and get his autograph. He was very happy to personally inscribe his photos to them, and he remained backstage for hours doing this until he had met with each person long after the rest of the band had gone back to the hotel. Armstrong: “The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people the best way you can. Those few moments belong to them. I’m not lookin to be on no high pedestal. They get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the minute I hit a note.” By the early ’30s, Armstrong had had run-ins with the police and was in a very difficult situation with his former managers and the mafia. He was also being hounded by his 1st ex-wife for money. In 1935 He approached Joe Glaser, a Jewish nightclub manager in Chicago that he had worked for in the past, and said to him: “I want you to be my manager. You get me the jobs. You collect the money. You hire the band members, pay them, discipline them, and if necessary, fire the band. You give my wife an allowance on schedule, you make and pay for all the travel and hotel arrangements on tour, and you pay my income tax. I want $1,000 every week free and clear and you take everything that’s left.” Armstrong and Glaser shook hands and for the next 35 years did business together without having a contract! Armstrong wrote: “I don’t know what any of the men get. I can’t concentrate, and play my heart out, and pay the musicians off. I don’t need contracts.” Eventually, they settled on a 50/50 split, and neither one of them ever complained about their financial agreement! Both men became multi-millionaires. Armstrong purchased a house in the Corona section of Queens, New York in 1943. Years later his manager proposed that Louis buy a mansion on Long Island, saying that he could even have a swimming pool built in the shape of a trumpet, but Louis refused. He loved his house and was very happy in Corona. He repeatedly said that he had watched three generations of children grow up on his block. When he returned from his tours the kids on the block would enthusiastically help him into the house carrying his luggage. Louis loved to watch westerns on TV with them while his wife served everyone ice cream. He lived in this home until his death in 1971. He died in his sleep in this house. It is now a museum, and all the furniture and paintings are there, exactly the way he and his wife left them. Fans come from around the world to take the guided tours that are given every hour. Armstrong loved to smoke marijuana on a daily basis. And as a boy, his mother instilled in him the practice of consuming herbs to clean out his intestines and colon. Years later when he discovered the herbal laxative Swiss Kris, he was overjoyed. Every night before going to bed he took a large dosage of Swiss Kriss. He loved to listen to music, a lot, and had loudspeakers built into the walls of every room, including the bathrooms! So in the morning, when the effects of the herbal laxative from the night before kicked in, he would enter the bathroom, smoking his marijuana, while listening to great music, and really enjoy himself! Tony Bennett recalled: “We went to a big royal dinner with everybody there: Princess Alexandra, the Duke of Kent, and all the royalty with rubles and emeralds and diamonds. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I was sitting next to Princess Alexandra and he was on the other side of Princess Alexandra, who was a beautiful lady. And he was talking to her and myself once in a while. But at the end of the meal when the dessert came, she turned around to me. She said: ‘Did you ever try this?’ And I looked at it and it was his commercial product that he always advertised, Swiss Kriss. And of course, it’s a laxative and a ferocious laxative. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to say. And the Duke of Kent said: ‘What is it, my dear?’ So he starts handing it out to the royalty of England. He said: ‘Get it all out! It’s good for you. Get it all out!’ Well, when they read the instructions that it was a laxative, I never saw — it was like a barrel of white monkeys. I mean everybody just fell on the floor, pounding the floor. It was the funniest thing I’ve actually ever seen. It was funnier than any Laurel and Hardy scene.” Armstrong even had a card made with a photo of himself sitting on the toilet, which he sent to his friends, and on the back, he wrote: “Leave it all behind you, yea!” One of his bathrooms is covered with floor to ceiling mirrors, white marble, and gold plated fixtures. He really appreciated his bathroom especially since as a boy in New Orleans his dirt floor residence didn’t have a bathroom. He shared an outhouse with the neighbors on his block. Louis said: “I never tried in no way to ever be real, real filthy rich like some people do and after they do, they die just the same. You got to live with that horn. I don’t want a million dollars. See what I mean? No medals. That’s my livin’ and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make ’em right. I get out of that bed every day, see? I make a good salary and my horn still sounds good and I feel good. So I don’t think nobody in the world is richer than I am.” Duke Ellington said: “If anyone was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong. He was the epitome of jazz and always will be.” Wynton Marsalis: “Louis Armstrong invented a new style of playing. Louis Armstrong created the coherent solo. Louis Armstrong fused the sound of the blues with American popular song. Louis Armstrong extended the range of the trumpet. Louis Armstrong created the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary all of the big bands wrote music out of.” Dizzy Gillespie: “Never before in the history of black music had one individual so completely dominated an art form as the master: Louis Daniel Armstrong.” Armstrong was quite prolific. He wrote thousands of letters and liked to bring his typewriter along on tours. He is the author of not only one, but two autobiographies. Armstrong purchased two tape recorders when they appeared on the market in the late 40s. He began traveling with them on tour so he could record his performances each night, and then afterward, at the hotel, listen to how he had played because he was always striving to improve. Behind his desk, in his home, he had installed into the wall state of the art sound equipment. It was here that he created tape recordings of thousands of hours of music from the radio and his extensive record collection. Part of Armstrong’s style was influenced by Italian opera. In his childhood in New Orleans, he heard recordings of the popular opera singers of the day. And his favorite was Enrico Caruso. In his 1927 recording of ‘New Orleans Stomp’, he inserted part of the Quartet from Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’! Louis believed that one should listen to all kinds of music. For example, he loved hearing Luisa Tetrazzini and John McCormack. According to Ricky Riccardi, biographer and curator of the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College in New York, Armstrong owned more recordings of opera and classical instrumental music than any other genre, including recordings of Toscanini, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner! Above his piano in the living room still hangs a drawing of Toscanini! The Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “The great task for all people is to learn how to resonate with the hearts of other people, and thus put a stop to the sanguinary scenes that blemish our world. If this is true, then I venture to say that music has been destined to attract our attention as one of the most effective ways to make us equal to this task.” Armstrong too was convinced of the very powerful influence of music. In 1959 he was performing at night in Victoria Hall in Geneva Switzerland. The same venue was being used that week in the daytime for a conference of foreign ministers from France, England, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Armstrong wrote: “Music has done a whole lot for friendships and everything. Just think if they sent this combo around to a big stadium where thousands of people could hear it — I think it would do a lot of good. If it’s left to people that’s peaceful with music, there wouldn’t be no wars. Wouldn’t be none. If I could get them cats to sit still and listen, well then, daddy, maybe I can relax them a little. Get them cats to relax and daddy, they’ll just relax this tension in the world.” Armstrong performed in 15 African countries. In Zaire, he was carried on a throne! His appearance in Zaire interrupted a civil war because both sides wanted to listen to him perform. When he arrived in Ghana he was greeted by over 10,000 fans, including 13 brass bands! He and his own band took out their instruments and joined in. Armstrong was repeatedly subjected to the humiliation of racism and segregation, especially when he performed in the south. He and his band members had to use service entrances; there were often no bathrooms for African Americans; they couldn’t get meals served nor hotel accommodations and often had to sleep on the bus. In Memphis in 1931, he and the band were jailed for sitting on their tour bus with a white person. For 10 years he boycotted his hometown of New Orleans because his band was racially integrated and was therefore not welcome there. In February of 1957 during a performance before an integrated audience in Knoxville, dynamite was thrown at the auditorium. 7 months later Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas defied the Supreme Court and called in the National Guard with rifles and bayonets to prevent black children from entering Little Rock Central High School. Armstrong became enraged when he watched on TV the fearful expressions on the children’s faces, the vicious heckling of the white crowd, and the footage of a white man spitting in the face of a black girl. The incident was an embarrassment to the United States. The cold war was escalating and Armstrong had just been asked by the U.S. State Dept. to embark on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union. He was interviewed about the upcoming tour. Q: “What are you going to tell the Russians when they ask you about the Little Rock incident?” Armstrong: “It all depends what time they send me over there. I don’t think they should send me now unless they straighten that mess down south. And for good, not just to blow over and cut it out I think because they’ve been ignoring the constitution, although they taught it in school, but when they go home their parents tell them different say you don’t have to abide by it because we’ve been getting away with it for a hundred years. So nobody tells on each other so don’t bother with it. But if they ask me what’s happening if I go now, I can’t tell a lie, that’s one thing. There’s no sense lying the way I feel about it.” Armstrong canceled the tour, and when a reporter asked for his reaction, he said: “The way they’re treating my people in the south, the government can go to hell. It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.” Armstrong called the governor a “no good motherfucker”, and called President Eisenhower “two-faced”, saying that he had “no guts” for not standing up to the governor.. No other jazz musician had the courage to speak out as strongly as Armstrong. His white road manager contradicted Armstrong’s statements. Arvell Shaw, Louis’s bass player for many years remembered the incident. “Cause he’s thinking about those big fees, you know. He said: ‘Louie Armstrong never said anything about that. He didn’t say anything like that.’ Louis said: ‘Yes I did. I meant it and I’ll stand by it till my dying day. All I ask is that they take those little kids into school. Why can’t they go to school?’” Two weeks later Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the U.S. Army to enforce federal law and escort the students into the school. Armstrong sent the president a telegram, which reads in part: “Mr. President. If and when you decide to take those little Negro children personally into central high school along with your marvelous troops please take me along.” After the incident, radio stations refused to play Armstrong’s recordings, fearing that he had become too controversial. Arvell Shaw: “What he did, what he played came from within. It came from his own heart, from his mind. It wasn’t anything contrived. It was him. It was Louis, what he was, the essence of his being. That’s the difference. He was a completely honest man musically, and in every other way that I knew about.” Ossie Davis recalled a lunch break during the shooting of ‘A Man Called Adam’ in 1966. “Louie Armstrong. He was a dangerous man too. But it took me a long time to find it out. Most of the fellas I grew up with, myself included, we used to laugh at Louie Armstrong. We knew he could play the horn, but that didn’t save him from our malice and our ridicule. Everywhere we looked there had to be ole Louie. Sweat poppin, eyes buggin, mouth wide open, grinnin, oh my lord, from ear to ear. Oofta we called it. Moppin his brow, duckin his head, doin his thing to please the white folk, to make them happy. It made us look like fools. It wasn’t until 1966 when we were working together on a picture in New York with Sammy Davis Jr. and Cisely Tyson that I began to understand something about Louie. One day, we’d broken for lunch. And I decided to stay inside. It was quiet, so I thought that everybody had gone, and I went back on the set to lie down on the bed. And there was Louie by the door, sitting in a chair, staring up and out into space with the saddest, most heartbreaking expression I’ve ever seen on a man’s face. I just stared at him for a moment. And then when I tried to turn and sneak away, because it seemed like such a private moment, the noise snapped Louie out of it, and all of a sudden there was that professional grin again, mouth wide open. He whipped out his handkerchief, wiped his brow. “Hey Pops! Look like you cats tryin to starve ole Louie to death. Yeah!” I put on my face and grinned right back, but it wasn’t funny, not anymore. What I saw in that look shook me. There was my father, my uncle, myself, down through the generations doing exactly what Louie had had to do for the same reason, to survive. I never forgot that look. And I never laughed at Louie after that, for beneath that gravel voice and that shuffle, under all that mouth with more teeth than a piano had keys was a horn that could kill a man. That horn was where Louie kept his manhood hid all those years enough for him, enough for all of us. Louie man, I didn’t have sense enough to tell you this when I was a kid. I guess I didn’t even know it myself, but I love you, and I’m not the only one.” Lester Bowie: “A lot of people put Louie down. They said that what he was doing was Toming. But the true revolutionary is one that’s not apparent. I mean the true revolutionary isn’t out waving a gun in the streets. It is never effective; the police just arrest him. But the police don’t ever know about the guy that smiles and drops a little poison in their coffee. Well, Louie was that sort of revolutionary, a true revolutionary. He revolutionized the aspect of music as an art form, as a musician being a cultural ambassador.” Dizzy Gillespie wrote: “I began to realize what I considered Pop’s grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile. Coming from a younger generation, I misjudged him.” Miles Davis said: “You can’t play anything on that horn that Louis hasn’t played. The great style and interpretation that Louis gave to us musically came from the heart. They call you a Tom but Louis fooled all of them and became an ambassador of goodwill.” In 1929 Armstrong recorded the song ‘What did I do to be so black and blue’ from the Broadway show ‘Hot Chocolates’ that he performed in that same year. Some of the song’s lyrics are: Even the mouse…ran from my house. They laugh at you…and all that you do. What did I do…to be so black and blue? I’m white…inside…but, that don’t help my case. That’s life…can’t hide…what is in my face. How would it end…ain’t got a friend. My only sin…is in my skin. What did I do…to be so black and blue? During the civil rights movement, he was widely criticized by the black community for not participating in the protest marches. In 1965, during the voter registration protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the police had brutally attacked and beaten many of the 600 activists participating in the march. Armstrong defended his decision not to take part in the protest marches saying: “If I’d be out somewhere marching with a sign and some cat hits me in my chops, I’m finished. A trumpet man gets hit in the chops and he’s through… If my people don’t go along with me giving my dough instead of marching, well — every cat’s entitled to his own opinion. But that way I figure I can help out and still keep on working.” A reporter asked whether he would really be attacked, considering his stature and fame. Armstrong replied: “They would even beat Jesus if he was black and marched. How is it possible that human beings can still treat each other that way? Hitler is dead a long time — or is he?” Armstrong was the first American entertainer to perform in East Berlin during the Cold War. He performed ‘Black and Blue’ there in 1965, just 2 weeks after the Selma incident. He may have been referring to his decision not to march in the streets when he changed the words from “I’m white inside” to “I’m right inside.” His biographer, Ricki Riccardi called this his protest song. Armstrong never lost his humility. For example, at one point his manager sent him a limousine to ride in during one of his tours. He refused to ride in it, preferring instead to ride with his band on the bus. And at his neighborhood barbershop in Queens, his barber recalled that Louis always insisted on waiting his turn and never accepted the barber’s offers to take him ahead of the others. Armstrong was incredibly generous. He kept two rolls of cash in his pockets. One for himself and the other, to give away. He gave away approximately $1,000 every week! And it wasn’t unusual for him to instruct his manager to buy new Cadillacs as gifts for family members and his girlfriends! Arvell Shaw remembered one song that Louis Armstrong didn’t like at all at first. “We were playing a club in Chicago and our off day was Sunday. So we got a call from Joe Glaser, Louis’s agent. He said, ‘I want you to go on to New York on your off day to make a recording.’ So we flew into New York on Sunday, got to the studio, and they gave Louie the sheet music. And Louie looked at it and heard it down. He said: ‘You mean to tell me you called me out here to do this?’ He hated it, you know. But we did it; we made the record. Then we went back to Chicago to finish the engagement. Three or four months later we were doing one-nighters in Nebraska and Iowa, way out. And every night we’d hear from the audience ‘Hello, Dolly; Hello, Dolly.’ So the first couple nights Louie ignored it. And it got louder: ‘Hello, Dolly.’ So Louie looked at me, he said: ‘What the hell is ‘Hello, Dolly?’ I said: ‘Well you remember that date we did a few months ago in New York? One of the tunes was called ‘Hello, Dolly’. It’s from a Broadway show.’ We had to call and get the music and learn it and put it in the concert. And the first time we put it in the concert pandemonium broke out.” In 1964 Armstrong’s recording of ‘Hello Dolly’ soon eclipsed the Beatles as the number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100! Armstrong had a terrible diet that included lots of fatty bacon, pork, a lot of salt, and he smoked unfiltered cigarettes. He suffered from heart disease and had several heart attacks. His last professional appearances were during a 2-week engagement at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel just 3 ½ months before his death. He was very ill, and his doctor wanted him to cancel the contract, explaining that it was quite possible he could die right on stage, to which Armstrong replied: “Doc, that’s alright. I don’t care. Doc, you don’t understand. My whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to b-l-o-w that h-o-r-n.” He played the 2-week engagement, despite being incredibly ill. Armstrong died in his sleep in his house in Queens, New York on July 6, 1971. He was 69. In 1995 the U.S. Post Office issued a Louis Armstrong commemorative stamp. The 14,000-seat U.S. Open Tennis stadium in Queens, New York, is named the Louis Armstrong Stadium. The 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans is home to a 12-foot statue of the musician. And the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was named after him in 2001. There are more of my articles here: https://Cesarecivetta.com/blog And for an amazing treasure trove of information and recordings to hear, this is the blog of Armstrong’s wonderful biographer, Ricky Riccardi: https://dippermouth.blogspot.com/?m=1
Articles by Joe Buonocore
Pau Casals was born in 1876 in Vendrell, Catalonia, near Barcelona, Spain. Pau means peace in Catalan. At 11 he first heard the cello, which he began to play and very quickly advanced in his cello studies. In his younger years Casals practiced 6–7 hours a day. His practice sessions were sometimes torturous. “It is discouraging to repeat a passage over and over and still not match the sound in your mind.” At age 12 he single-handedly revolutionized the standard technique of cello playing! As a teenager, Pablo became terribly depressed. “How much ugliness there was that I saw! How much evil! How much pain! Injustice and violence revolted me. I could not understand why there was such evil in the world…I could no longer lose myself in my music…Music must serve a purpose….A musician is also a human, and more important than his music is his attitude toward life…What brought me out of the abyss…was the hope in me that would not be destroyed. “If there is in man infinite capacity for good, there is also infinite capacity for evil. Every one of us has within himself the possibilities of both…My mother used to say ‘Every man has good and bad within him. He must make his choice. You must hear the good in you and obey it.’” Casals’s hectic international touring schedule averaged 250 concerts per year. In 1904 performed at the White House for President Teddy Roosevelt and more than a half century later, for President Kennedy. He was the highest paid instrumentalist of the day, and when Pablo’s press reviews became filled with extravagant praise, his mother taught him the importance of humility. In 1919 Casals decided to establish a first rate symphony orchestra, which he conducted, the Orchestra Pau Casals in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. He couldn’t secure funding so he hand picked 88 musicians, and paid them double the low union rate. Each year he personally made up the deficit, and it took 7 years before the venture became self-sustaining. He also created the Workingmen’s Concert Association, which offered symphony concerts, a music magazine, music library, music school, choruses and its own amateur orchestra, all for $1 per year. The membership eventually grew to more than 300,000. Casals’s efforts to bring great music to the masses made him a national hero, and the orchestra came to be thought of as a national treasure. He called this period “the most fruitful phase of my life.” The orchestra gave 370 concerts over a 17-year period and invited famous guest conductors, composers and soloists to perform with it until the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. “First and foremost I am a Catalan. Catalonia is the land of my birth, and I love her as a mother. As early as the 11th century, Catalonia summoned a convocation that called for the abolishment of war in the world.” Pablo remembered when his brother Enrique was 19 and called to serve in the Spanish army. His mother said to Enrique ‘My son, you do not have to kill anybody, and nobody has to kill you. You were not born to kill or be killed. Go away…leave the country.’ Enrique fled to Argentina. Casals wrote: “As I toured foreign cities, I would read in the newspapers about the battles ravaging my land, the burning towns, the hungry children in cities under siege. The only weapons I have ever had are my cello and my conductor’s baton. And during the civil war I used them as best as I could to support the cause of freedom and democracy. While I was playing, I knew the bombs were falling. I could not sleep at night. After concerts I would walk the streets, alone in torment… “I shut myself in a room with all the blinds drawn and sat staring into the dark. I remained in that room for days, unable to move. I was perhaps near to madness or to death. I did not really want to live.” When one of Franco’s aides declared that he would like to cut off both of Casals’s arms at the elbow, it became obvious that he had to leave the country and in 1939 he moved across the Spanish border to Prades in the south of France. It was a small town of about 4,000 people. He stopped playing in public and lived there in exile for 17 years. He vowed not to return to Spain until democracy was restored. More than half a million refugees made their way across the Pyrenees into France in the dead of winter: men, women and children. Many of the sick and aged died in that procession of sorrow. They lived in concentration camps, which Casals visited. “The scenes I visited might have been from Dante’s Inferno. Tens of thousands herded together like animals. There were no sanitation facilities, medical care, little water, and barely enough food to keep from starvation. More than 100,000 refugees had been massed in open areas along the seashore. In the winter they had been provided with no shelter whatsoever, many had burrowed holes in the wet sand. The local hospitals overflowed with the sick and dying. When I saw the frightful conditions in those camps, I knew I had but one duty.” Casals then spent years writing thousands of letters, for several hours each day asking for funds to assist the 600,000 refugees who were suffering under the Spanish dictator Franco. The world’s greatest cellist, a personal friend of kings and queens of Europe gave up his amazing career to help his compatriots. The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, in his novel, The New Human Revolution, volume 5, quoted Casals: “Politics do not belong to an artist but, to my mind, he is under an obligation to take sides, whatever sacrifice it means, if human dignity becomes involved.” Ikeda wrote: “With the outbreak of World War II, Casals continued his unbending opposition to Franco’s government and the German and Italian fascists who supported it. The Nazis alternately threatened and tried to appease him.” After World War II, Casals was surprised and saddened to learn that the allies, having deposed Hitler and Mussolini, chose to leave Franco in power. The United States government provided Franco with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid in return for permission to place its military bases in Spain. Casals refused to perform in any country that recognized Franco. When the violinist, Alexander Schneider couldn’t convince Casals to break his musical silence, he proposed that an international Bach Festival be held in Prades to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1950. Casals agreed to participate on condition that all proceeds were to go to a refugee hospital in nearby Perpignan. The annual Prades festival is sill in existence today. He made an impact on the Puerto Rican music scene, by founding the Casals Festival there in 1955, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra in 1958, and the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico in 1959. In 1957, at age 80, Casals married 20-year-old Marta Montañez y Martinez. He dismissed concerns that marriage to someone 60 years his junior might be hazardous by saying, “I look at it this way: if she dies, she dies!” Pau and Marta made their permanent residence in Puerto Rico until his death. Daisaku Ikeda wrote about the message Casals wrote in 1958 when he was invited to perform at the United Nations. In his message, a prayer for peace, he “called for the eradication of all nuclear weapons and expressed a fervent hope for peace. In it he also spoke of the role of music and made the following proposal: ‘I make a special appeal to my fellow musicians everywhere, asking each one to put the purity of his art at the service of mankind in bringing about fraternal and enlightened relationships between men the world over.’ ‘The Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has become a symbol of love. And I propose that every town which has an orchestra and chorus should perform it on the same day, and have it transmitted by radio to all corners of the world; and to perform it as another prayer through music for the Peace that we all desire and wait for.’ Through a magnificent chorus of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Casals sought to unite hearts all the world over who longed for peace.” Ikeda compared Casals to Picasso: “Both possessed an invincible spirit to resist evil and fight for peace and humanism. Both were committed to justice.” Casals wrote: “It is not the peoples of the world but artificial barriers imposed by their governments that hold them apart. “I am a man first, an artist second. As a man, my first obligation is to the welfare of my fellow men. I will endeavor to meet this obligation through music — the means god has given me — since it transcends language, politics and national boundaries. My contribution to world peace may be small. But at least I will have given all I can to an ideal I hold sacred.” “All my life, music had been my only weapon…The artist has a particular responsibility, because he has been grated special sensitivities and perceptions, and because his voice may be heard when other voices are not.” In his 90s Casals wrote: “Yes, at my age I have much to be thankful for. I have my beloved Martita, my friends and the joy of my work. Yet I cannot say my heart is tranquil. How can one be at peace when there is such turmoil and anguish in the world? Who can rest when the very existence of mankind is imperiled?” When Casals, then 93, was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, Casals replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Casals died in Puerto Rico in 1973 just weeks before what world have been his 97th birthday. Franco died one year after Casals. The Casals Festival in Puerto Rico continues to this day. Casals was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United Nations Peace Medal, and was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The International Pau Casals Cello Competition is held in Germany every four years, and is supported by the Pau Casals Foundation. Schools in Chicago and New York City bear his name, as does part of a highway in Catalonia, as do concert halls in San Juan and Tokyo. For more, see my blog: https://CesareCivetta.com/blog Here is a phenomenally beautiful Casals video!
Robert Shaw was born in Red Bluff, California in 1916. His father was an evangelical minister, and as a boy Robert became experienced conducting church choirs. At Pomona College Shaw studied comparative religion and English literature. During his junior year, Fred Waring, a popular bandleader, heard Shaw conduct the college glee club and offered him a job in New York City recruiting and conducting a male choir to sing with Waring’s band on the radio. In 1941 Shaw established a volunteer chorus, the Collegiate Chorale. He called his chorus “a melting pot that sings”. Shaw wrote: “We had every shade, shape and color of human flesh; and we had every species of human ideology, philosophy, occupation and religious custom. Getting Negro and White, Jew and Gentile, all singing together, all striving for the mighty harmony? Isn’t that the first step toward solidarity?” The money he earned from conducting on the radio for Fred Waring enabled Shaw to finance his volunteer Collegiate Chorale, from which he did not draw a salary. He paid its bills and commissions for new music out of his own pocket and conducted the world premieres of works by Copland, Hindemith, and Foss, and the American premieres of music by Bartok, Rodrigo and Poulenc. Shaw rapidly gained a reputation as a well-respected choral conductor. His results with this chorus were so dramatic that he was asked to prepare choruses for the leading conductors and composers of the time, and in his 20s was appointed director of the choral departments at Tanglewood and Juilliard. In 1944 Shaw became the first conductor to receive a Guggenheim fellowship grant. He used the money to hire a private tutor, Julius Herford, a German-Jewish refugee who specialized in harmonic and structural analysis, especially the choral music of Bach. Shaw studied with Herford, sometimes averaging 50–60 hours per week, when not touring, for approximately 10 years. Shaw considered himself an agnostic and ironically spent much of his career conducting great musical settings of liturgical texts. He was opposed to the institutionalization of Christianity. To him preparing and performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or his Mass in B minor were acts of worship and were the greatest achievements of art known to humankind. Shaw’s ideals and goals were social justice, religious tolerance, racial harmony, and world peace. He was a pacifist and during WW II and had registered as a conscientious objector. In July of 1944 Shaw’s younger brother was killed in Indonesia while serving there as a chaplain in the air force. When Robert returned home after his brother’s death, Shaw’s mother said something that haunted him for the rest of his life. She turned to Shaw and said: “It should have been you.” He forgave her, but was never able to forget it. In 1961 the English composer, Benjamin Britten set to music parts of the Requiem liturgy interspersed with his musical settings of the poetry of his fellow countryman, Wilfred Owen. Britten’s ‘anti-’ War Requiem contains many of Shaw’s own values — pacifism and disdain for religious consolation in the face of slaughter. For Shaw war was simply the butchering of the young. He wondered how could anyone consider the slaughter and absurdity of war and not plead to the Almighty: Why? It had been Shaw’s question ever since his brother was killed. Shaw wrote: “Wilfred Owen was killed in action just seven days before the end of WW I in 1918. Owen was only 25, but his poems are profoundly disturbing. They were not about what soldiers gloriously did, but what they had unforgivably been made to do to others. To Owen, war appeared as a hellish outrage on a huge scale against humanity, and a violation of Christianity. Owen is mourning young lives tormented and treated as expendable. “The whole piece is an argument against war. One forgets that at the end of WW I they were inducting into the army 16-year-olds and thinking of taking 14-year-olds into the armed services. It was a terrible, terrible war. The constant running theme throughout all of Britten’s life is of innocence outraged. And he feels this same pervasive, infinite sense even down to the age of little children — outraged because they’re the next in line; they’re the next inductees. The Wilfred Owen poetry bewails the fact that youth is being massacred. Voices of boys are heard singing Latin texts peculiarly appropriate to the innocence of children. “You’d have to have lived a few years before WW I to realize that that was the great dividing line. Up to that time science was going to save the world. Everything was going to be perfect. And from then on it’s been a century of war. I registered as a conscientious objector when the Second World War war came along. My brother went in as a chaplain. He was killed in the South Pacific as an air force chaplain. A bomb landed on his service one day — came down on the pulpit. Anyway, I do have a conviction that war is simply awful. I mean it’s just hellish and I don’t think anybody feels any different. This confrontation of Owen’s poetry means a lot to me. I just love to see man stand up against that. You know, don’t let the bastards get you down. “Substantially, the poetry of Wilfred Owen says ‘Hell’s on earth and it’s in my dug out.’ And not only that; he says ‘There is no heaven; there is no assurance. The boys are dead…No mockeries for them from prayers or bells’ and such. Don’t think that by just simple religious observance you’re going to be able to wash away the tragedy.” In 1945 and 1946 Shaw began making his first recordings. Some of the repertoire included Bach’s Magnificat, Cantata № 140 and several arias of Bach with the legendary contralto, Marion Anderson. In 1947 he conducted the first recordings in the United States of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Brahms’s German Requiem! In 1945 Arturo Toscanini engaged Shaw’s chorus to sing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Carnegie Hall. Toscanini had been conducting the 9th for 50 years. The old maestro’s humility deeply impressed Shaw when he modestly said to him: “You know, I have never had a good performance of this work. The soloists are frequently very bad, and the orchestra sometimes doesn’t play well, and frequently the chorus is not good, and I have never been able to do this piece. I’m always bad. It’s too big a piece; I don’t do it as well as I should.” At a chorus rehearsal, he listened to Shaw conduct it, and then threw his arms around him, kissed him on both cheeks, and in tears said: “This is the first time I’ve really heard this piece sung.” Toscanini soon invited Shaw to guest conduct his NBC Symphony, stating: “I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for.” In 1948, Toscanini again conducted the 9th, this time on TV. After the performance, Toscanini didn’t take a bow, but went off the stage and returned, pulling the 29-year-old Robert Shaw by the hand for a bow and patting him on the shoulder. For the remaining 9 years of Toscanini’s career, whenever he needed a chorus, he requested Shaw. When he was in his seventies, Shaw wrote: “Arturo Toscanini, for all of us then, and still, the only ‘Maestro’. And he spoke to me about what he called “Toscanini’s extraordinary kindness and modesty. There was nobody that was kinder and sweeter.” He usually refused to grant interviews to the press, and grumbled and complained about the interviews he did consent to. Shaw hated attending dinners and receptions. He once escaped from a reception given in his honor by climbing out through a window. Nick Jones, chorister and writer of the Atlanta Symphony program notes: “He was not interested in doing interviews, in socializing, in meeting big donors and that sort of thing. This all took away from his study time. He worked us hard but he worked himself so much harder.” He wanted to be alone, studying the music again and again. No matter how many times he had already conducted a piece, he thought of each performance as another opportunity to get closer to what the composer wanted to say. Shaw worked on studying music up to 14 hours a day, constantly digging deeper. Caroline Shaw: “I did in the first years we were married try to insist upon some recreational activity, and I realized it was a fruitless pursuit. He sits in his studio and works 8, 10, 12, 14 hours a day.” To work with and learn from Shaw, 175 conductors from around the country came to New York for one week each year during the 90s to intensely rehearse and perform with him and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, many hours of these rehearsals are on YouTube. Shaw nurtured countless choral conductors, many of whom went on to lead the choral departments at conservatories and universities across the country. Throughout his career Shaw wrote letters to his chorus members, often right after a rehearsal. He poured his heart into these letters, writing about the compositions currently being rehearsed, the composers, and about what the music meant to him. The letters were mailed to each singer. Dawn Willis, chorister and conductor: “He would write us every week, the ‘Dear People’ letters. He would talk about the history of the piece, the composer, the nature of the text and all those things that you can’t fit into a rehearsal, but that he would share with us afterwards in his own personal sometimes angry, sometimes happy, always meaningful comments about the music that drove all of us as we headed into performances.” Shaw commissioned Paul Hindemith to compose for the Collegiate Chorale; and moved by the horrors of WW II and the recent death of President Roosevelt, Hindemith set to music Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Shaw paid Hindemith’s commission out of his own pocket. “It’s really ludicrous to think of it now. The commission which he accepted was a commission for one thousand dollars, and he wrote this 65 minute piece which he dearly loved.” Shaw conducted the world premiere on May 14, 1946. He wrote: “It has to do with private quiet grief and a lonely broken heart. Hindemith used the death of Lincoln as a metaphor not only for the deaths of Roosevelt and his own students, but for all the heroic and wasted lives consumed in the holocaust of WW II. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, A Requiem for Those We Love. The whole of Lilacs is a hymn for those he loved.” At a chorus rehearsal of this work he said: “Singing a piece like this changes lives. Goddammit it changes lives. You don’t think the same anymore. You don’t cry over the same things. You don’t love the same way. You’re different. And it’s just too damn bad that humanity isn’t ready for it, that people aren’t ready for it. You know, it might even change a vote in Congress or something if enough… So that’s part of what I believe so much about the amateur arts. It’s great to raise singers to professional responsibility. That’s just fabulous. But our problem is to change not singers, but to change society.” In 1948 Shaw established the Robert Shaw Chorale, a professional chorus of approximately 35 singers. The group sang regularly on the radio for 17 years and made over 100 recordings. Shaw’s true passion was for the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and he was a champion of several 20th century composers, such as Stravinsky, Poulenc, Bartok, Hindemith, Ives, and Britten. However, he made many recordings of popular repertoire and recorded 7 albums of Christmas music. This popular repertoire was published in 223 arrangements by Shaw and Alice Parker that were widely used by school choirs, and featured in 17 record albums. The publication of this sheet music, the recordings, the frequent exposure on radio, appearances on TV, and his extensive concert tours resulted in Robert Shaw’s becoming a household name. His record company insisted Shaw record this lighter repertoire because the company then used the profits to finance recording the repertoire Shaw was much more interested in. And he spent a lot of his royalty income to subsidize some of his performances. When Shaw was the music director of the San Diego Symphony from 1953–1956, he donated his salary and an additional several thousand dollars to improve the artistic conditions. Shaw toured extensively with the Robert Shaw Chorale including international tours to 30 countries in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Latin America, and 20 domestic tours to hundreds of cities in 46 states. Shaw wrote: “The choir and chamber orchestra would be on the road from 10 to 20 weeks at a time; giving 13 concerts in 14 days…Sixty-five B Minor Masses in seventy days? One hundred thirty Mozart Requiems in twenty weeks?” Shaw drew detailed diagrams for the placement of the players, chorus, and soloists on various stages. And throughout his 60-year career in hundreds of concert venues he personally set up the stages, placing every chair and music stand for the players and the chorus within a fraction of an inch! When on tour, after riding through the night and most of the next day on a bus, upon arrival in the next city Shaw and the road manager would build risers out of locker room benches and lunchroom tables for the chorus to stand on for that evening’s concert. And he used pieces of scenery and scrap lumber to improvise the construction of concert shells to project the sound out to the audience. On one tour Shaw injured his back while moving scenery. In 1962 the U.S. State Dept., sent the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra on a massive tour of 6 concerts in West Berlin, 4 in Yugoslavia, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 30 performances in an 11-city tour of Russia and Ukraine, where he conducted 10 performances of the Mass in B Minor. All seats and standing room tickets sold out well in advance, and people stood on line through the night and all the next day to buy standing room tickets! After the performances audience members remained in the concert halls on their feet, for up to an hour. Militia were stationed behind iron barricades to keep the crowds from breaking into the concert halls. Yet in Lvov, Ukraine, the crowd broke open the doors and stormed into the packed hall. Shaw recorded the B minor Mass, all 2 hours of it, 3 times and said that if there was a god, the Mass in B minor would surely be god’s favorite music. He also brought Bach’s B minor Mass on tour to 8 countries in Latin America, and when he performed it on a tour of 37 American cities, he took a $20,000 personal loss because he wanted America to experience what he considered to be the pinnacle of artistic creation. “It is entirely possible that out of the whole history of the Western World, Bach is the single greatest creative genius…And it’s entirely possible that the B minor Mass is his greatest achievement. Whenever I have been involved in a performance of the B minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion I simply have not operated humanly or socially with much charm or productivity for some hours afterwards and, on occasion when the luxury of leisure was available, for two or three days thereafter. Somehow, to me, these are ‘shocking’ works.” There were many times when he stayed in bed for two days after certain performances. Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano: “One day we were in Carnegie Hall before a B Minor Mass, and he said: ‘Why do we still do the B Minor Mass? Because there’s somebody in the audience who’s hearing it for the first time, and somebody who’s hearing it for the last time. Why do we do this piece? Because there’s a boy sitting in a jail cell in Paducah, Kentucky who just shot up his class with a gun, asking for his mother to come home. That’s why we still do this piece.”’ In 1966 Shaw donated his services to conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Lima, Peru. And he took a huge personal financial loss when he conducted a performance of the Missa Solemnis in Carnegie Hall in 1952 with the Robert Shaw Chorale. Shaw wrote that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a “huge sacred symphony on a scale from gigantic to infinite.” While rehearsing Beethoven’s fiendishly difficult setting of the words: “And everlasting life. Amen”, he joked that he wanted no part of eternal life everlasting if it is going to be as frenzied as Beethoven imagined it! “It’s so extraordinarily explosive that a good Christian would say: ‘If that’s what it is, I don’t want anything to do with it, if it’s going to be that busy. I was looking to lie down a little, you know? Occasionally get a nap!”’ He loved to conclude the Robert Shaw Chorale concerts with spirituals. It was always a racially integrated chorus, and black soloists regularly sang with the group, facing harassment and physical threats when they toured the South. Shaw declared that he would refuse to perform anywhere the audiences were not integrated. Shaw also refused to patronize any hotel that wouldn’t house the entire group. By purchasing groceries and eating in their bus, picnic style, they boycotted southern restaurants that practiced racial discrimination. Shaw cried the first time he heard African-American tenor Seth McCoy sing. He featured McCoy as soloist during the 1962 tour of the Soviet Union, and in 1966 hired McCoy to sing Handel’s Messiah on a 6-week tour to 31 American cities. Shaw was the director of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell from 1956–1967. He left Cleveland against all advice to become the music director of the Atlanta Symphony from 1967–1988, after which he was music director emeritus and conductor laureate. In the 80s and 90s he conducted recordings of an enormous amount of choral repertoire with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, many of which won Grammy awards. Sylvia McNair, soprano: “He had many, many glamorous offers, but he chose to go to Atlanta in 1967 because he wanted to be part of the civil rights movement. He wanted to get involved in a place where his work and his voice could make a big difference for a lot of people. He could have gone many other places that would have paid him more and been more glamorous and drawn a higher quality of music making from the orchestra. But he wanted to get in the thick of it and fight for people who didn’t have someone like him fighting for them. He wanted to make a difference. He was a standard-bearer to be sure.” Bryan Black, conductor: “Shaw wanted to step in and bridge those gaps or speak up for the little guy out there. He was obsessed with the struggle of right and wrong and justice and speaking up for the right things. And it seemed like that was something that was just always urging him forward, that he knew there were some things in the world that were not right, and that he was going to try to do something about it if he could.” Nick Jones: “He came to Atlanta, went to the board of the Atlanta Symphony and said: ‘I don’t see any blacks on this board. You have theoretically integrated your audience but you’ve got to diversify.’ And the next year they had 3 black faces on that board. And he did many other things to try to incorporate African Americans into the Atlanta Symphony’s program.” While music director of the Atlanta Symphony, he accepted few invitations to guest conduct other orchestras. His salary in Atlanta was very low. This gave him bargaining power at contract time to hire more and better players, and to spend money on publicity campaigns, education and outreach programs, and composers in residence. Shaw personally financed scholarships to send several musicians to attend summer festivals and workshops at Marlboro and Tanglewood. He extended the concert season, he constantly pushed for an increase to the budget, and he programmed a lot of contemporary music. Shaw’s early years, building the Atlanta Symphony, were very challenging. He said he sometimes felt as if he were trying to swim through cement. Shaw: “In very few years that orchestra grew from a budget of 250,000 dollars and 20 weeks a year to 52 weeks a year and a budget of now approaching 15–20 million.” Bob Edge, Shaw’s lawyer: “He made it clear to me; he said: ‘I will not get into a dispute about money. So no one would believe how little he was really paid. It was pitiful. I mean he did have royalties coming in from all of those recordings, and he had many other opportunities. But making money was never his big thing; it was making the music that was his driving force. He never really had a manager that was aggressive on his behalf.” In Atlanta, Shaw commissioned new music by African American composers. During Shaw’s first season he brought the Atlanta Symphony to Spelman College, the historically black liberal arts college for women, where he shared the podium with conductor Paul Freeman and programmed music by Adolphous Hailstork, Frederick Tillis, Billy Taylor, John Lewis, Arthur Cunningham, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Olly Wilson, and T.J. Anderson. Marietta Simpson: “The music that he made and his contribution to music were not just in concert halls and for performance. He had a social conscience in his music, and that was important to him: to have amateur musicians*, and bringing people together from diverse communities. That was such a big part of his life and his effect in the world at large. Huge. That’s just something I’ll never forget; that was a big part of his mission as well.” *The large choruses Shaw trained throughout the U.S. were comprised of amateurs in that they were volunteers. Shaw wrote: “‘Amateur’ is not a dirty word. Its lineage is (Latin), amare, to love; amator, a lover. The amateur spirit in the arts is not necessarily limited to those who do not receive a weekly pay-check. The greatest musical amateurs in my life have been Pablo Casals and Rudolph Serkin — whose concert fees were the highest of the highest, but who lovingly poured them back into festivals and institutes for needy and gifted young artists…. Amateurism is our greatest gift to our civilization.” In 1972 Shaw brought the Atlanta Symphony to Morehouse College, the private, all male African American college and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, where he held the Afro-American Music Workshop. The orchestra played music by several black composers including John W. Work, Howard Swanson, Hale Smith, Stephen Chambers, and Wendell Logan. In Atlanta Shaw actively recruited black and other minority musicians for the orchestra and for solo appearances, and appointed 2 black composers: Alvin Singleton and T.J. Anderson as composers-in-residence. In January of 1972 Shaw conducted the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha 61 years after it was 1s published, featuring students from Spelman and Morehouse in the chorus. Joplin had never been taken seriously as a composer, and Shaw felt an injustice had been done. In 1977 Shaw conducted the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus for the inauguration of President Carter, who appointed Shaw to the National Council for the Arts. His biographer, Keith Burris wrote that Shaw was manic-depressive. Until his 50s, Shaw was a functioning alcoholic. In 1973 he married his second wife, Caroline, whom he credited with having stopped his drinking so heavily. Although she was 20 years his junior, she died of cancer 4 years before him. They had one child and raised him together with another boy from her previous marriage. (Shaw had three other children with his first wife, Maxine Farley.) Caroline devoted herself to Robert. In his dressing room she would massage his shoulders and feet during intermissions. She took care of mundane tasks so he could devote his time and energy to studying music and preparing for the next rehearsal, performance or recording session. After her death it was discovered that Shaw didn’t even know how to write a check! Mistakes haunted him after performances, especially if they were his own mistakes. Sometimes furniture got broken, or he might violently punch a wall with his fists. If a performance was flawed, Shaw would grab his street clothes from his dressing room and immediately leave the building. He would then walk the streets for hours. In Atlanta Shaw once walked all the way home in his concert attire, muttering and cursing the whole time. Conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt, recalled an incident while Shaw was on tour with the Atlanta Symphony. He had just conducted a concert in Tallahassee and was to appear next in Miami: “So I went back after the performance. He had disappeared. He had made a mistake. Well you know the self-immolation that could take place. So we couldn’t find him; we were looking for him. Then we finally found him in the street some place, just roaming around. And then he got into the car and said he wasn’t going to conduct; he wasn’t going down there. And the vocabulary could be pretty vivid. He wasn’t going to go. Well we got him to the Tallahassee airport and by that time I think he sort of calmed down. He was just so devastated that he had made a mistake. And it was the whole struggle of his insecurity. I mean a huge, huge gift the man was given that he never could quite embrace.” Bob Edge, Shaw’s lawyer: “He was unbelievably generous in helping others develop their choruses, their music programs, their summer camps. It was an extraordinary act of generosity that lasted his entire life.” Shaw’s last out-of-town engagement was 2 months before his death. His old friend and colleague, Elvera Voth, had started a prison choir in Kansas. Shaw had heart problems, and was forced to cancel some of his last conducting engagements, but not this one. Despite his declining health, Shaw traveled at his own expense to Kansas to conduct a sing-along to benefit the Arts in Prison program. Shaw believed the program could help offer a healing experience for the incarcerated. 1,275 people attended the event, which raised $25,000 and led to additional arts programs to help rehabilitate prisoners. Shaw’s mannerisms during the Sing-Along contrasted drastically from some earlier rehearsal behavior in his career. Voth: “He had to let go of things that might have tortured him or angered him in the past. It seemed a full victory of the angelic forces over the demons inside him that fought for his very soul for so much of his life.” You may view the entire event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoLzzeZik_0 And you can read more about this amazing event here: https://cesarecivetta.com/robert-shaw-conducted-a-prison-choir-two-months-before-his-death/ In January 1999 he traveled to Yale University to see his son Thomas in a play. During the performance he had a massive stroke, and remained unconscious in the hospital until his death a day later. He was 82. Shaw received 14 Grammy awards, 4 ASCAP awards for service to contemporary music, the American National Medal of Arts, France’s Officer of Arts and Letters, England’s Grammophone award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and 41 honorary doctorate degrees.
“Mother Teresa, How Can I Help You?” Two months before his death, despite his debilitating illness, 82-year old Robert Shaw traveled at his own expense from Atlanta to Newton, Kansas to conduct a Sing-Along to raise funds and awareness for the prison choir of his longtime friend Elvera Voth. It was based on their strong beliefs that choral singing could transform lives and prompt social change by healing and empowering the disenfranchised. The event launched the non-profit organization, Arts in Prison, and inspired other prison-based choral and arts programs that continue to develop long past Shaw’s death. Voth created a men’s prison choir, The East Hill Singers in the fall of 1995 to help rehabilitate inmates. At the first rehearsal approximately thirty inmates appeared in response to a poster that announced the formation of a singing group. Most of them thought they were joining a rap group. Accordingly, half of these men left during the rehearsal break. For their first concert Voth invited men from the Rainbow Mennonite Church and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to sing with the prisoners. Voth said, “In this chorus we have African-Americans, two American Indians, a Hispanic, old white guys, CEOs, doctors, opera singers, truck drivers, you name it. You can’t see another picture like that anywhere. Working in the prison has prompted me to question the meaning of loving my neighbor, of being part of a faith community whose highest calling is to minister to the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the undervalued. I don’t know how I could be so lucky. I’m now seventy-five years old, and I found the most interesting work of my life. You see the light in these guys’ eyes, and you remember what it’s all about.” A former inmate singer shared how singing in the choir helped bridge racial gaps inherent in prison life. “It’s helping me as a person. I’m singing with a bunch of different guys. When I’m singing around these fellows, I don’t look at race. We’re one.” A local Mennonite pastor commented: “Here were men singing powerfully about spiritual realities who, regardless of their failures, were undeniably human along with the rest of us.” In the 1980s in Georgia, Shaw had performed free parks concerts and free concerts for senior citizens, the handicapped, prison inmates and hospital patients. And he knew first hand the healing effects of choral singing: “I worked with choirs immediately following World War II including men who had flown fifty missions over Europe or fifty missions over Tokyo. There were scores and scores who said ‘this music has saved my life’ and found their way back to sanity and for a while they could forget their killing.” Robert Shaw served as artistic director of the Alaska Festival of Music from its beginning in 1956 through 1973. Voth moved to Alaska in 1962 and until 1973 she prepared choruses for Shaw. “Preparing many of the choral masterpieces for Mr. Shaw was the great privilege of my life. He is the hero of my life. He is a meticulous musician and certainly, to my mind both the most profound human being I have met in my lifetime and the wittiest. Robert Shaw, to my mind, is a great humanitarian first, and the world’s great choral conductor second.” After attending an East Hill Singers performance in 1997, a friend of Voth sent Shaw a copy of the program with a letter in which she described the inmate narrations and the interaction between inmates and their families. “It was quite moving. All solos were sung by inmates. After the concert the inmates’ families came up to greet them and I can’t even describe that. Then we all had potluck and the inmates had a wonderful dinner with their families — kids, grandparents, girlfriends and various kith and kin.” Shortly after receiving the letter Shaw met another friend of Voth’s and with a big grin said, “Have you heard what that dear woman is doing?” He was clearly very elated about Voth’s work with inmates. Shaw and Voth had not talked for approximately twenty-five years when Shaw telephoned Voth, who was astonished and pleased. Shaw told Elvera that he heard she was leading a prison choir. He said, “Is that true?” She replied, “Yes indeed.” There was a long pause, and then Shaw responded, “Well, Mother Theresa, how can I help you?” Shaw wanted to help because he viewed arts experiences as a key to sustaining humanity and crucial to human life: “The Arts and human creativity are not simply skills; their concern is the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual maturity of human life. The Arts are custodians of those values, which most worthily define humanity and may prove to be the only workable Program of Conservation for the human race on the planet.” Shaw thought getting people involved in arts experiences, particularly musical performances, changed lives. He believed the arts were far more important than institutionalized religion: “Art has instituted no crusades, has burned neither witches nor books or started wars — and religion has.” He believed the Arts in Prison program could help with inmate rehabilitation by offering a healing experience for the incarcerated. Prior to the Sing-Along the conductor had cancelled engagements with some of the nation’s leading orchestras due to his various terminal illnesses. But to Shaw this event was more important. Planners for the event were concerned whether Shaw’s health would allow him to travel to Newton, Kansas. They even considered purchasing cancellation insurance. Voth had written to Shaw’s assistant, Nola Frink: “If you Atlanta folks need medical assistance, my niece is the emergency room supervisor at the Newton Medical Center and will be on stand-by for your comfort.” He donated not only his time, but also his and his staff’s travel expenses. 1,275 people attended the event, which raised over $25,000. With a shared vision of how arts can help society and the belief that group singing could contribute to healing and human transformation, Voth and Shaw tapped a vast reservoir of goodwill and concern for social justice that resulted in a powerful, grass-roots movement toward arts-based rehabilitation and corrections education in Kansas. Instrumentalists from six Kansas orchestras performed in the fifty member orchestra. And singers from 15 choruses swelled the size of the Sing-Along chorus to 450. One inmate singer, Frank Dominguez developed hope, inspiration, and confidence. “Six months ago I was 34036 singing in this Lansing choir. And today I am Frank Dominguez singing with some of the finest voices around accompanied by my wife and my five children. What better way to help men reenter society rehabilitated then to allow them to participate in a program that aids in the building of high self esteem, confidence and a hope that may carry men through the rest of their lives as productive citizens in our society.” Three professors decided to begin their own arts in prison projects. John McCabe-Juhnke took a sabbatical leave begin a drama program, driving three hours from Newton, Kansas to Lansing each way to lead his class in vocal exercises, personal reflections, and dramatic analyses of performance texts. Raylene Hinz-Penner began teaching poetry and creative writing to inmates and went on to teach five courses. Marles Preheim began a prison choir in the maximum security unit of the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Within 9 years over three hundred inmates had participated in Voth’s East Hill Singers and over forty-five people had volunteered to teach arts classes. Arts in Prison, Inc. added classes in visual arts, horticulture therapy, memoir writing, photography, creative writing, public speaking, guitar, poetry, yoga, African American history, film appreciation, clay, and drama. Choirs were established in the medium and maximum units at the Lansing and Osawatomie, Kansas Correctional Facilities. Another inmate said: “Can you imagine what a standing ovation feels like after being told all your life that you are worthless?” An East Hill inmate commented: “I never thought I would miss anything about prison life, but I will miss this chorus.” A former inmate singer wrote: “I absolutely hate the behavior that resulted in my incarceration but I have stopped hating myself. It is programs like Arts in Prison that can help me in this process of believing in myself.” You may view the entire event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoLzzeZik_0 Here is my detailed article about Shaw’s life and music: https://cesarecivetta.com/the-legendary-maestro-robert-shaw/ This story was adapted from Mary L. Cohen’s article in the International Journal of Research in Choral Singing 2008.
Pete Seeger was born in 1919 and was raised in upstate New York. He was convinced that songs could improve society. He started his first singing group, the Almanacs, in 1940, who sang union songs and songs against war and racial oppression. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union they sang anti-Hitler songs. They also raised money for loyalists of the Spanish Civil War. In 1949, the singer Paul Robeson and Seeger sang a benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, NY to raise money for the legal defense of The Trenton Six, a group of African-American youth who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of William Horner. Under the Smith act, all who had been Communist Party members in 1948 were eligible for prosecution and 10 years in prison. The sentiment was “Whenever you find a commie around, do something about it because our country is in danger.” Seeger and Paul Robeson were the most picketed blacklisted entertainers in American history. After the concert, as the performers and audience members drove away, they were attacked with stones thrown at their cars. The windows in Seeger’s car were broken. The violent incident was organized by members of the Ku Klux Klan in secret collusion with local authorities. In 1948 he started another singing group: The Weavers, with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. They had great difficulty getting any work, and at one point Pete thought he’d give up and get a job in a factory. Yet he continued writing songs. In 1950, The Weavers’ recording of Leadbelly’s Good Night Irene sold a million copies. Within a year The Weavers had sold 4 million records, and almost began broadcasting their own TV show, but the Korean War erupted and communists were made into America’s mortal enemies. The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was published, listing 151 men and women whom, it insinuated, by their associations were communists. Pete Seeger and The Weavers were the only artists in American history formally investigated by the Senate for sedition and insurrection. Suddenly The Weavers couldn’t get any work. Even before 1950 the FBI had compiled 500 pages on Seeger, including stolen documents, and phone calls were recorded without warrants. Seeger was considered to be a threat to national security. Another perceived threat to national security was thought to be Charlie Chaplin, who, in 1952 was denied re-entry into the U.S. In 1953 even Harry Truman, after serving 2 terms as U.S. president, was subpoenaed by the House Committee after he called the committee more un-American than the activities it was investigating. In 1955 Seeger was subpoenaed to appear before the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee. During his testimony Seeger stated, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association my philosophical or religious beliefs, or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper and immoral questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this. I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity.” Seeger was indicted on 10 counts by a federal grand jury for contempt of Congress. He was dropped by his record company, and his songs were pulled off the radio. In 1961 he was sentenced to ten years in jail, and had to pay $17,000 for the government’s expenses in trying him. Seeger was briefly imprisoned and after almost 7 years the Court of Appeals ruled that Seeger’s indictment was faulty and dismissed his case. Seeger said: “I was acquitted and vindicated.” In his old age he said: “Was Lincoln against America when he voted against the Mexican War? Was Mark Twain against American when he made speeches against the Spanish-American War in 1898? No. If you love your country you’ll find ways somehow to speak out to do what you think is right.” Seeger was not interested in money; he refused to charge a fee when he appeared in Latin American countries. In 1957 Martin Luther King Jr. invited Seeger to sing at the Highlander School in Tennessee, and in 1965 invited the Seeger’s to join the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as part of the campaign for voting rights. Seeger introduced King to the song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, We Shall Overcome. During the Vietnam War Seeger became incredibly frustrated and depressed. He had been kept off of network TV for 17 years. He always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history. Finally, in February of 1968 Seeger appeared on The Smothers Brothers TV Show singing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ an anti Vietnam War song indirectly criticizing President Johnson. Seeger called the telecast “one of the high points of my life. I probably reached 7 million people all at once.” One month after the telecast President Johnson announced a pull back of troops and his decision not to run for reelection. But within the months Martin Luther King Jr. And Robert Kennedy were killed. Seeger was contemplating quitting music and decided to give up singing. By the early 70s he had composed over 100 songs, and had sung and arranged over 1000 songs. Seeger was incredibly effective as an activist. One of the causes he successfully championed was the cleaning up of the polluted Hudson River in New York. On his banjo he wrote, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He was influenced by his early mentor, Woodie Guthrie, who went through World War II with a sign on his guitar that said: This machine kills Fascists. After the war he refused to remove it saying: “This Fascism comes along every time the rich people get the generals to help them stay in power.” Seeger said: “My tactic was to isolate the potential fascist and see if I could turn him into a potential human being. These days my purpose is in trying to get people to realize that there may be no human race by the end of the century unless we find ways to talk to people we deeply disagree with. We must treat each other nonviolently.” Seeger loved the children’s song by Bernardo Palombo, Anna Ocarina, whose refrain is “Yes to life, no to the bomb.” “This whole world could be well fed, well housed, and well educated. But every year we spend billions upon billions upon billions on how to kill each other. It’s stupidest damn think I can think of.” As the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda wrote, “The great task for all people is to learn how to resonate with the hearts of other people. And thus put a stop to the sanguinary scenes that blemish our world. If this is true, then I venture to say that music has been destined to attract our attention as one of the most effective ways to make us equal to this task.” In 1994 Seeger was celebrated at the annual Kennedy Center Honors.At President Obama’s 1st inauguration Seeger sang This Land Is Your Land with his grandson Tao and Bruce Springsteen. Seeger died in January of 2014 at the age of 94.
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906. He was a child prodigy at the piano, had perfect pitch and a photographic memory. Among his teachers was the composer Alexander Glazunov and Shostakovich considered Mussorgsky to be one of the greatest Russian composers. Shostakovich was incredibly prolific. He composed the music for some 40 movies, several ballets and operas, 15 string quartets, 15 symphonies, 2 violin concertos, 2 cello concertos, 2 piano concertos, and a lot more! Stalin was responsible for the death of 30 million Russians. Shostakovich’s friends kept disappearing. His colleagues, patrons and members of his family were arrested and shot, including his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law and his uncle. In 1937 and 1938 1.5 million people were arrested and 668,000 were killed, averaging 880 executions a day. Stalin wanted Soviet composers to write music that was joyful and optimistic. Shostakovich often did the opposite. He expressed the terror, fear, and frustration of living in Stalinist Russia. He said to his friend Isaac Glickman: “Even if they cut off both my hands and I have to hold my pen in my teeth I shall go on writing music.” His 4th symphony was prohibited from being performed, and its world premiere took place 25 years after it was written. Stalin wanted triumphant music that would glorify himself and the Soviet Union, but Shostakovich outsmarted him. His 5th Symphony depicts the murder and horrific realities of the times. But in the finale, he composed music with trumpets and kettle drums in D major, the same key as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy! Near the end of the finale, Shostakovich indicated a metronome number that called for this music to be performed at half the normal sounding speed. He said: “The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick, saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise up, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing.’ Stalin liked it because he thought Shostakovich was glorifying him, not realizing the composer’s true intent! The government dubbed the symphony “A constructive creative answer of a Soviet artist to well deserved criticism”. Stalin accepted it and never caught on to Shostakovich’s trick. However in 1948 Stalin persecuted Shostakovich again. A formal decree was announced naming the three most prominent Russian composers of the day, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian as enemies of the people for writing music that went against Soviet ideals. Shostakovich lost his teaching positions and his music was banned. He wrote: “I have very frequent headaches and am almost constantly nauseated.” He was denounced across the country, subjected to terrible ridicule in the press, and was even forced to slander himself at a public meeting. His speech was written for him by the government. He expected to be arrested and was contemplating suicide. Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase next to his door, expecting that at anytime he might be arrested by the KGB (the secret police). As these arrests often occurred in the middle of the night, Shostakovich sometimes slept in the stairwell of his apartment building because if the KGB did come for him, he didn’t want his wife and young children to be traumatized by watching them take him away. And when he left his home he began packing soap and a toothbrush, never knowing whether he would return. Shostakovich identified with Jews as the victims of thousands of years of injustice. He said “I often test a person by his attitude toward Jews. I broke with even good friends if I saw they had any anti-Semitic tendencies.” In 1944 when Shostakovich learned about what was happening in German concentration camps he wrote klezmer-like music in the finale of his 2nd Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Shostakovich said: “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. It can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. Jews became a symbol for me. I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.” Shostakovich found a volume of Jewish Folk Poetry that was translated into Russian, and he set 11 of the poems to music for piano, soprano, mezzo soprano and tenor entitled From Jewish Folk Poetry. To write music on Jewish themes was a provocative act, a direct critique of the regime’s anti-Semitism. It was composed in 1948, the same year Stalin began his murderous campaign against the country’s leading Jewish poets, actors, and writers. Shostakovich kept it hidden in a drawer for 7 years before it was performed in public. In 1948 Stalin had thousands of Jews arrested or fired as a prelude to a massive deportation plan. Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto, written at that time for David Oistrakh, a Ukrainian Jew from Odessa and one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, was another composition that the government banned from being performed. When Shostakovich was forced to join the communist party in 1960, he almost suffered a nervous breakdown, and purchased a large quantity of sleeping pills because he was thinking of suicide. He then composed his 8th String Quartet in 3 days as a requiem for himself. He wrote: “In composing it I shed as many tears as urine flows after half a dozen mugs of beer.” In September of 1941, just outside of Kiev, Ukraine at a ravine called Babi Yar, the Nazis murdered 37,000 Jews in 48 hours, the single most horrific massacre of the Holocaust. 20 years later, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was shown the area, and he was repulsed to discover that there was not even a memorial stone at the site. He immediately wrote the poem Babi Yar, which was published and became an instant sensation across Russia. Shostakovich read it and decided to set it to music. He then set 4 additional poems by Yevtushenko that described in graphic detail the conditions of living under the terror of Stalin. The result was his 13th Symphony, subtitled Babi Yar, written in 1962 for large symphony orchestra, a chorus of basses and baritones, and a bass soloist. At a rehearsal the young bass soloist who had just graduated from the conservatory asked Shostakovich “Why are you writing about anti-Semitism when there isn’t any?” Shostakovich exploded. The rehearsal was ruined. He wouldn’t calm down. Shostakovich replied, almost shouting: “No there is, there is anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It is an outrageous thing and we must fight it. We must shout it from the rooftops.” The government tried to prevent the world premiere from taking place. The performance did take place on December 18, 1962, and the symphony was banned for the next 30 years. It took tremendous courage on Shostakovich’s part to write such a symphony; in fact when he returned home that night, he found KGB agents outside his apartment in case he tried to defect. Shostakovich died in 1975 at age 69. He had several illnesses in his final years including heart disease and lung cancer, though he continued composing right to the end.
Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini’s (1867–1957), career spanned an incredible 69 years as head of La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony. He conducted the world premieres of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I Pagliacci, La Boheme, The Girl of the Golden West, and Turandot. Toscanini had a photographic memory, conducted over 600 compositions from memory, and raised the standards of orchestral and operatic performance. Toscanini’s love for Wagner’s music began in his youth. When he was 17 he played cello in a production of Lohengrin, and was so moved that he wept. At age 21 during a performance of Tristan und Isolde Toscanini abandoned his ambition to be a composer. He opened his first season as artistic director of the opera theatre in Turin with Götterdämmerung in 1895 and included Wagner’s music on his first ever symphony concert in 1896. His first and last appearances at La Scala were with Wagner’s music. Toscanini’s first rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera was of Götterdämmerung. His first and last concerts with the New York Philharmonic included Wagner’s music. Toscanini conducted the first ever symphony concert on TV in 1948: an all-Wagner program. The Meistersinger Prelude was among the compositions Toscanini conducted most frequently in symphonic concerts; and in his home in Milan, the maestro kept a death mask of Wagner near his piano. His last performance of his career was with an all-Wagner program. Toscanini refused to appear in countries where Fascism and authoritarianism prevailed. Understanding the centrality of Wagner’s music to Toscanini is key to appreciating his boycott of Bayreuth, Germany, where Wagner designed and supervised the construction of a theatre with magnificent acoustics, built for the exclusive performance of his operas. In 1895 Toscanini attended performances there, and when he visited Bayreuth again in 1899 the maestro sent his brother-in-law a postcard of Wagner’s grave, on which he wrote: “Here is the tomb of the greatest composer of the century.” Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, was astounded when he heard Toscanini conduct Tristan und Isolde at La Scala in 1901. However, the conductor had to wait 29 years until Siegfried overcame strong opposition to inviting a non-German school conductor to perform at Bayreuth. The tenor Lauritz Melchior remembered that in 1930 when Toscanini finally made his Bayreuth debut “Arturo came as a pilgrim; Wagner was his pope,” and that “he wept the first time he stepped inside the theatre. The Wagner family considered Toscanini to be the best of all conductors. Toscanini conducted again at Bayreuth in 1931 and agreed to conduct at the 1933 festival. However at the end of January, 1933, the devil incarnate became chancellor and immediately began destroying democracy in Germany. Toscanini was greatly alarmed and on April 1st sent a telegram to Hitler protesting the boycott of Jewish musicians and the dictator’s racist policy. This was published on the front page of the NY Times. Two days later Hitler wrote to Toscanini, inviting him to Bayreuth that summer and expressing how much he was looking forward to personally greeting him. Toscanini responded indicating that this was not likely to happen, and he informed the Wagner family that he would not be returning to Bayreuth. Several years later he referred to giving up conducting in Wagner’s theatre as “the deepest sorrow” of his life. He never set foot in Germany again. Wagner’s granddaughter, Friedelind Wagner, was strongly influenced by Toscanini’s anti-Fascist and antiracist attitudes and soon became an anti-Nazi renegade in her family. At that time Toscanini was the most famous musician in the world, and his refusal to return to Bayreuth attracted international attention. He knew that by performing in non-nazi Austria, he could make a stronger protest against Hitler and therefore began conducting the Vienna Philharmonic until Hitler invaded Austria. After WW II Toscanini agreed to return to the Vienna Philharmonic on the condition that the musicians who were still Nazis be removed from the orchestra. The conductor’s demand was not met and he never conducted the Vienna Philharmonic again. In 1938 Toscanini helped launch the Lucerne Festival in neutral Switzerland, conducting an orchestra largely composed of Jewish refugees, to which he returned in 1939 and 1946. In the mid 1930s the Polish violinist Bronisław Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony, an orchestra, comprised of Jewish refugee musicians escaping Nazi persecution. Toscanini traveled at his own expense to Palestine in December of 1936, trained the orchestra, and conducted gratis, the first concerts of what is now known as the Israel Philharmonic. He said: “I had to show my solidarity.” Toscanini stayed for more than a month and included the music of Felix Mendelssohn, because the composer was Jewish and Hitler had banned the music of Jewish composers from German concert halls. While there Toscanini experienced what he called “a continuous exultation of the soul.” He called it the land of miracles, where Jews who had been doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Germany had become farmers who transformed sand dunes into olive and orange groves. Toscanini said it was difficult for him to speak because of the power of the impressions he had received, and his wife wept openly. She wrote to their daughter, “When we left we were both crying. If you stop to think of what they have achieved through sheer labor, it is nothing short of miraculous.” Three months later, he wrote in a letter: “I would like to spit poison in the face of all mankind… I think of those poor young men who are going off fooled or forced to get themselves killed, not for their country, but for delinquents named Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin.” Chaim Weizmann — who later became the first president of Israel tried to convince Toscanini to cancel his 2nd visit to Palestine, explaining that there was an increased danger of an Arab attack. Undeterred, and convinced that his visit would greatly encourage the young Jewish refugees, Toscanini returned to conduct the orchestra in April of 1938, again at his own expense. Fortunately, the maestro and his wife escaped a bomb thrown at their car. While in Palestine, the dictator, Benito Mussolini announced his anti-Semitic policy in Italy, adopting German racial laws that deprived Jews of their citizenship. Toscanini referred to the policy as “medieval stuff”. After Hitler marched into Austria, Toscanini referred to the Jews as “this marvelous people persecuted by the modern Nero.” He wrote: “My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood turn cold. Think of all the prominent part they’ve played in Vienna’s life for two centuries! And remember that when Maria Theresa tried to expel them, Great Britain and other nations protested through diplomatic interventions. Today, with all the great progress of our civilization, none of the so-called liberal nations is making a move. England, France, and the United States are silent!” (1938) Mussolini decreed that all Italian theatres were to prominently display photographs of himself, and that the Fascist anthem was to be played before each performance whenever a high government official was in attendance. In 1931 Toscanini was attacked and beaten in the face by a group of Fascists for refusing to conduct the Fascist anthem. Mussolini then ordered the confiscation of Toscanini’s passport. Toscanini wrote about the beating: “The lesson which they wanted to teach me was to no avail because I would repeat tomorrow what I did yesterday…The conduct of my life has been, is, and always will be the echo and the reflection of my conscience — reinforced by a proud and scornful character, yes, but as clear as crystal and just as cutting — always and everywhere ready to shout the truth loudly…Truth we must have at any price, and freedom of speech, even if that price should be death, I have said to our Fascists time and again: You can kill me if you wish, but as long as I am living I shall say what I think.” He often spoke out against Mussolini, calling him a tyrant and a criminal. As a result, the maestro’s house was placed under 24-hour surveillance, his telephone was tapped, and his incoming and outgoing mail was read. In 1938 his passport was again confiscated, and when it was returned, he left Italy and did not return until after World War II. Toscanini remained in exile in the United States conducting huge benefit concerts for the war effort and several charities. The Toscanini family also assisted a large number of Jewish refugees from Europe in securing American entry visas, jobs and homes. And he conducted the music of several Italian Jews. After the war Toscanini insisted that the Jewish musicians at La Scala who lost their jobs in 1938 be reinstated. The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “Toscanini was not able to separate art from daily life. For him, pretending not to see injustice was not only stifling to his humanity but fatal to his art. As he said: ‘When one’s spirit is twisted, one’s backbone is twisted as well.’ It was Toscanini’s solid conviction that his daily actions must reflect his conscience… His heroic achievement served as an example to others.” For more info my website is: https://cesarecivetta.com and a link to more about my book and how to purchase The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro, which is based on 50 interviews with musicians who worked with him is: http://therealtoscanini.com
Starting a new symphony orchestra in New York City is a crazy idea. Just a tiny percentage of New York’s 10 million residents listen to classical music. The ticket sales for even a sold-out performance cover only a small part of the costs. A very successful composer said to me: “Don’t even bother trying. Don’t set yourself up for the pain of failure, because no one is going to give you any money to start an orchestra.” My elder sister said: “Who the hell is going to give you money?” Yet, I was not deterred. In 2012 the nonprofit sector in the U.S. was almost a trillion dollars! In 1831, Abraham Lincoln failed in business; in 1832 he was defeated for state legislator; in 1833 he tried a new business, and failed; in 1835 his fiancé died; in 1836 he had a nervous breakdown. In 1843 he ran for congress and was defeated. In 1848 he ran again, and was defeated. In 1855 Lincoln ran for the Senate, and lost. In 1856 he ran for Vice President, and lost. In 1859 he ran again for the Senate and was defeated. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. More than 1,000 of Thomas Edison’s experiments to develop the light bulb failed. He explained that he persisted because he knew that since so many experiments failed, statistically, he was getting closer to the one experiment that was going to succeed. The great German soprano, Lotte Lehmann was kicked out of singing school and her teacher wrote to her “your progress is not even that of a mediocre pupil. I can only say that none of my pupils has ever been such a disappointment. I believe that you should take up a practical career.” Lehmann went on to sing over 100 roles in all the world’s major opera houses, was a favorite of Arturo Toscanini and was asked by Richard Strauss to sing the world premieres of several of his operas. The young Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Later, he was rejected over 300 times by bankers who thought his idea of Mickey Mouse was absurd. From a young age, Sylvester Stallone had wanted to star in movies because he felt that it was a way to inspire people about what they were capable of. He was rejected by agents again and again. He was thrown out of agency offices more than 1,500 times. Broke, the only thing that Stallone had left was his dog. He loved his dog for the unconditional love it provided him. Stallone sold the dog for $25, walked away crying and considered this to be the lowest point in his life. In only three days he wrote the script for Rocky. Stallone tried to sell the script and was rejected numerous times. Finally, he was offered $125,000, but Stallone stated that he would only accept it if he could star in the movie. He was told “no”. A couple of weeks later they offered him $250,000 if he would not star in the movie, and once again he refused. Then Stallone was offered $325,000, but he turned this down as well. Eventually, the producers offered him the deal he accepted: only $35,000 and a share in the profits, but he’d be allowed to star in the movie. The first thing Stallone did was to try to get his dog back. Stallone first offered $100 to the man to whom he had sold his dog, but was refused. He then offered more and more money up to $1,000. The man still refused. Finally, Stallone offered the man $15,000 and he got his dog back. The dog that is featured in Rocky is Stallone’s dog. Ultimately the movie cost $1 million to make and ended up grossing over $200 million–and winning an Oscar. Stallone said: “I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.” When George Lucas tried to have Star Wars produced, United Artists passed, Universal passed, and Disney passed. He didn’t give up. In 1973, 20th Century Fox took a chance on Lucas’ out-of-the-box idea and offered him a deal to write and direct the film for only $150,000. He told Fox he was willing to accept the fee as long as he would own the merchandising and sequel rights. Fox agreed. Star Wars became the biggest box office winner of its time. In 2012, The Walt Disney Company bought the film company that Lucas founded for $4.06 billion! Star Wars has earned $27 billion worldwide! Lucas said: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” After Elvis Presley sang his first band audition, he was told to stick to driving a truck because “you’re never going to make it as a singer.” After the Beatles recorded 15 songs as an audition for Decca Records they were rejected. Their manager was told that “guitar groups are on the way out.” When Hitler was bombing England during Word War II, its prime minister, Winston Churchill declared: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing great or small, large or petty — never give in.” From these examples I find the courage to create a wonderful orchestra: The Beethoven Festival Orchestra http://www.BeethovenFestivalOrchestra.org whose performances will be affordable, for the same price as a movie ticket, and students and seniors, half price.
Yesterday I had the immense pleasure of visiting one of my most inspiring friends, Beatrice Mosley. She turned 104 last September and is as sharp witted and wise as ever. I couldn’t resist asking her what she wanted from Santa Claus for Christmas this year. And without missing a beat she replied: “A good sleep!” On a more serious note, on her 104th birthday, a TV news crew came and interviewed her. And when they come again for her 105th birthday, she will share with the media her wish for world peace. Mrs. Mosley’s cry from the heart is that people stop fighting each other. She’s a woman of few words and much wisdom. Visit my site to see more: cesarecivetta.com
It was May, 2017 when my friend Omar noticed that Violetta had a growth on her belly. When her doctor diagnosed cancer of her mammary glands I was stunned. I was even more shocked when he told me that there was nothing he could do for her; surgery was too risky at her age. She had just had her 14th birthday May 17th. I began researching extensively and found out there were a number of things that might help. Mushrooms, for one. Not ordinary mushrooms, but reishi and turkey tail mushrooms. I was especially intrigued when I watched this 91- year-old man attribute reishi tea to saving his life. Then I hit upon a Ted Talk by the brilliant mycologist, Paul Stamets. He was given $2.1 million to conduct a clinical study on turkey tail mushroom and breast cancer. His 86-year-old mom overcame stage 4 breast cancer whereby this mushroom supported the reinforcement of her immune system to fight cancer. The story starts at 7:53 into the video. Wow! I became hopeful! And what really shocked me was when I saw videos by this guy, who has been giving his dog cannabis oil ever since her cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2015, and who is cancer free today! And I found out about other things, like turmeric, gynostemma, marine phytoplankton, and dandelion root! So…. Violetta receives two different kinds of oil orally, three times a day, AND another very strong concentrated oil that I inject into her rectally twice a day. She either is given liquid extract of dandelion root, or sometimes I boil the actual roots to make a strong tea for her. Then there’s the liquid turmeric extract, the marine phytoplankton, and when I’m particularly determined, I make her fresh vegetable juice from apples, carrots, cucumbers, beets and celery. Of course her diet includes organic baby spinach and arugula! As a conductor, she hears a lot of great music, which I’m often studying. And as a Nichiren Buddhist, she hears me chanting Nam myoho renge kyo every day as I pray for her total happiness, health and victory! It’s been 7 months. She’s not suffering, and doesn’t seem to be in pain. She isn’t able to walk with one of her legs and wears a diaper because she lost control of her bladder over a year ago. And there have been open wounds since the summer, so I clean them with peroxide every day and change her bandages. Other than that, she still loves to play football! Check out my site: cesarecivetta.com On December 21st, the night of the winter solstice, I had to ask Violetta’s doctor, Tudor Suciu, to help her end this lifetime. She had been hopping on 3 of her legs for some time because of a swollen 4th leg, but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Violetta continued to run like crazy after her football when I threw it down the hall. But she gradually became weaker and spent most of her time lying down. Her appetite was unaffected and the daily dosages of the various teas, extracts and oils must have kept her pain free. Her doctor expressed surprise that she was active much longer than his expectation. Then, in her last few days Violetta couldn’t hold down food, and when she started to cry out, I immediately called the doctor to give her the injections that would immediately end her discomfort. Of course there was no way I would accept her being in pain. She was lying on her pillow, which I placed on my lap in front of my Buddhist altar, as I chanted the mantra Nam myoho renge kyo, alternating with my uncontrollable sobbing. I let a few friends know that the doctor was on his way to “help” her. And then the most amazing thing happened. There were soon 9 of us stroking her and chanting together. The doctor came directly from work and Violetta looked up at me with a dazed look in her eyes. I had never seen such a look before and immediately knew that she was truly ready. We sang her favorite song “La Violetta” to the tune of “La Cucaracha”, and then resumed chanting while the doctor administered the injections. My friend Cleopatre brought her a magnificent burial garment, and the next day we buried her with her life-long companion, Almafuerte, attending the burial. Clearly, it was the most appropriate action to take at the most appropriate time. She joined the household when she was 9 weeks old. She lived 14 years, 7 months and 3 days. Violetta was an amazingly energetic little girl, who behaved just like a puppy throughout her life! And a mere look in her direction, or my caressing of Almafuerte would immediately set her tail joyfully wagging. And what a voice! What brilliant resonance! I miss her, and I’m glad that she didn’t suffer. She so enjoyed her years with us. And I relish the great privilege is was to be, first her parent, and more recently with her advanced age, her grandchild.
The Beethoven Festival Orchestra Only a tiny percentage of the 8.5 million residents of New York City can afford the hundreds of dollars that a ticket costs for a very good seat at Carnegie Hall, the Met Opera or the NY Philharmonic. Our mission is to present the highest caliber performances for the price of a movie ticket, and half price for students and seniors. Music transcends time and space. It is perhaps the most powerful language. It has power to heal broken hearts, to uplift us when we’re sad, and to calm us down when we’re anxious. It’s so exciting to create an orchestra that will impact countless lives, bring communities together and be a clarion call for peace. Our vision: Performing for all of New York City’s ethnicities, ages and races. I love the idea of the audience resembling the diversity of a crowded subway platform during rush hour. The orchestra’s site: http://beethovenfestivalorchestra.org/