Articles by Cesare Civetta

Where Israelis, Palestinians and Iranians Must Listen to One Another

When conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim joined philosopher Edward Said to establish the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, combining Israeli and Arab musicians, they knew it would be no magical bringer of peace. Instead, it was intended as a project against ignorance, giving space for opposing sides to understand one another and to disagree without “resort to knives”. For 24 years its achievement has been to show that mutual cooperation and respect can produce grace and beauty in a world too often defined by bloodshed and cruelty. Students from the Middle East come to Berlin to study music with the star conductor Daniel Barenboim. Now the Israel-Hamas war is testing their ideals. Mr. Barenboim, who has been scaling back his appearances, made time to rehearse and perform with the academy’s students this fall. It was a recent afternoon at the Barenboim-Said Academy, a sleekly modern music conservatory in Berlin founded by the renowned Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim with the intention of bringing together students from across the Middle East, and the musicians were wrestling with the Israel-Hamas conflict and their raw emotions. An Israeli music student described the trauma of the Hamas attacks. A Palestinian spoke of feeling voiceless and vulnerable. An Iranian described fears that violence could spread across the entire region. “It takes courage for you to be here,” Mr. Barenboim, 80, who has worked almost 25 years in pursuit of the elusive goal of Middle East peace, said from the podium. “We have to listen to each other,” he declared, giving voice to what might be the academy’s unofficial credo, both for music-making and politics. The academy, like other peace projects, has long had to deal with the volatility of the Middle East, navigating bursts of violence, unrest and shifting politics. But the Israel-Hamas war has tested these efforts in new ways, as became clear during a visit to the academy earlier this month when Mr. Barenboim and the students were preparing for their first concert together since the fighting began. The scale of the conflict, the rapid spread of images of death and destruction on social media and the ubiquity of misinformation have made it harder to promote civil debate and to find common ground. In an environment where Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese and others study and live together, the war has prompted a reckoning. Some students, after heated debates with classmates over who is to blame for the carnage, have questioned whether they should even play music together in a time of war. Others say that music has brought them closer. “We will not bring peace, and we will not solve the world’s problems, as much as we might want to,” said Katia Abdel Kader, 23, a Palestinian violinist from Ramallah who is in her fourth year at the academy, which offers music degrees and courses in the humanities. “But we create a space, and that’s what is missing in the world, not only in the Middle East. Places for people to be accepted by the other.” Itamar Carmeli, 22, a pianist from Tel Aviv who is in his third year, said it was impossible to escape the conflict because “our families are there and our childhood is there.” He said he had learned to accept his classmates’ views even if he disagreed with them, partly because music had taught him to listen more deeply. “There is no harmony,” he said, “without dissonance.” The current conflict has even tested the idealism of the school’s founder, Mr. Barenboim, who founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 to bring Israeli and Arab musicians together. The academy, which is rooted in the same principles as the Divan, now has 78 students — about 70 percent from the Middle East and North Africa — who study in a well-appointed building in the heart of Berlin that opened in 2016; its concert hall was designed by Frank Gehry. Mr. Barenboim, a titan of classical music who led the Berlin State Opera for three decades before stepping down this year, has drastically reduced his commitments because of a serious neurological condition. But he has made a special effort to be with the students in recent weeks for rehearsals and discussions. The academy, which opened in 2016, has quotes about peace by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza on its glass doors; practice rooms; and a vibrant humanities program. In an interview after a recent rehearsal, Mr. Barenboim said he worried the latest war could morph into a “world catastrophe” in the absence of more efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. “There’s no use saying, ‘We the Jews have suffered more than anybody else,’ or the Palestinians’ saying, ‘We suffered more than all of you,’” he said. “This has been a very difficult century with little rest. I think we have to keep going, and forget our own positions, and get along with a sense of equality.” The school year at the Barenboim-Said Academy began this month with the usual orientation sessions on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, how to respect differences and ways to see beyond stereotypes. Then came the deadly Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israeli strikes on Gaza. Many students, their phones buzzing with frantic messages from friends and relatives and displaying images of devastation, were too disturbed to practice their instruments. The school’s leaders, including Regula Rapp, the rector, and Mr. Barenboim’s son, Michael, who serves as dean, brought in counselors fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. The students made a point of checking in with each other, and they organized meetings to try to work through some of their differences. Unsure of what to say, they sometimes offered only hugs. At one point, they gathered for a start-of-the-semester dinner, sharing homemade dishes: hummus, baba ghanouj, labneh and bulgur salad. Their conversations were sometimes tense, as musicians from Israel spoke of losing a sense of security and the Palestinians described life under the suffocating blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza for 16 years. The conversations were also deeply personal, with some students sharing stories of losing loved ones during decades of violence in the Middle East. The students tried to support each other as they faced new difficulties in German society; the authorities banned many pro- Palestinian gatherings, and a synagogue in Berlin was attacked with firebombs. They met at their dorms or went out for beer and cigarettes and talked about how they felt guilty being away from their families. Roshanak Rafani, 29, a percussionist from Tehran who is a member of the student government, said the tumult in the region could be shattering; she has at times contemplated abandoning her studies. “Imagine that people are dying, and now I’m just practicing to see which hand I should put here or there,” she said. “We all feel this inner conflict.” She added that the young musicians had gotten beyond their differences by embracing the idea that “we’re all students, and there is no side now for us here.” “We’ve all accepted the fact that we cannot really convince each other about many things,” she said. “People talk and raise their voices and yell and cry, but two hours later, they are hugging each other.” The war has hung over classroom discussions as well. In a recent philosophy class, the topic was Plato’s allegory of the cave, a metaphor for contemplating the divide between ignorance and enlightenment. Mr. Barenboim’s efforts have not been without controversy. His projects have been denounced by Israelis and Arabs alike, and musicians in the Divan sometimes face displeasure from their families. But Mr. Barenboim, who has described his work as not political but as a “project against ignorance,” said he was confident that the Divan orchestra and the other programs would endure, even if he was no longer at the helm. “No question,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. But it’s not easy.” Mr. Barenboim is visibly weaker now. But there are still flashes of his spirited self at the podium, as when he chastised the students the other day for fumbling a bit of Beethoven: “Do you want me to buy a metronome for everybody?” Or his rejoinder to a horn player who complained that he was tired: “At your age, you’re tired? I’m 80 years old, and I would never say in company like this, ‘I’m tired.’” In the days leading up to the academy concert last week, the strains of the war were evident. Some Palestinian students were having doubts about performing, concerned that they would project an aura of harmony at a time of deep division and suffering. But after prolonged debate, they decided it was important to embrace the spirit of the institution, announcing their decision to Mr. Barenboim at rehearsal. At the concert, the student body released a statement making clear that they all had felt the impact of the war. “Our hearts are heavy; our minds are elsewhere with every single person affected by the devastating situation in Palestine and Israel,” the students said in the statement. “May our music bring us together, may it heal a little piece of our hearts.” When Mr. Barenboim took the stage to lead works by Prokofiev, Wagner and Beethoven, he praised how “wonderfully and generously” the musicians played together before asking for a minute of silence. “The situation is inexplicable, and my words cannot change it,” he said. “But we are happy to perform for all of you today.” After their performance, and a standing ovation, the students embraced onstage. (A few days later the war would enter a new phase, with Israel beginning its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.) Mr. Carmeli, the Israeli pianist, recalled before the concert that he had not spoken to Ms. Abdel Kader, the Palestinian violinist, for 18 months after joining the academy. But when he heard her play, he approached her and discovered that they had once lived only about 20 minutes apart. “The landscapes and the smells and the tastes and the flavors that we grew up on is all shared,” he said. Ms. Abdel Kader said the experience of getting support in a difficult time from “the other side — the side you learned to hate” had moved her. “Now is the time to remove the walls and look at each other,” she said. “The moment you just look in someone’s eyes and you understand we’re just the same — that’s what matters for me.” Based on articles by Stephen Pritchard (the Guardian) and Javier C. Hernández (New York Times)  

Luciano Pavarotti “King of the High Cs”

Pavarotti: “I believe women generally have keener sensitivities than men. For an artist that is important. Women are quick to understand. They know what is on your mind without you having to tell them. Women also protect you. When they see that you need protection, they protect you like crazy. Women won’t let anyone get at you or hurt you.” Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy in 1935. His father was a baker and amateur tenor, his mother, a cigar factory worker. His father had a fine tenor voice but rejected the possibility of a singing career because of nervousness. 
Pavarotti began the serious study of music in 1954 at age 19. The first six years of study resulted in only a few recitals, all in small towns and without pay. When a nodule developed on his vocal cords, causing a “disastrous” concert in Ferrara, he decided to give up singing. “In those early years of struggle, I often thought of giving up, and going into teaching or selling insurance.” Pavarotti worked first as an elementary school teacher for 2 years and then as an insurance salesman. He was a member of the Corale Rossini: an all male amateur choir from Modena. He made his debut as Rodolfo in La Bohème in Reggio Emilia in April 1961 and made his first international appearance in La Traviata in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In 1963, he debuted at the Vienna State Opera in the same role. That same year was his Royal Opera House debut in London, where he replaced an indisposed Giuseppe Di Stefano in La Bohème. Giuseppe De Stefano was his favorite tenor. In 
1963 he was invited to tour Australia with Joan Sutherland. They gave 40 performances in 2 months. Pavarotti credited Sutherland for the breathing technique that sustained him throughout his career. Two years later when Joan Sutherland was singing Lucia at the Miami Opera, the tenor that was scheduled to sing canceled at the last minute. Despite Joan Sutherland and her husband conductor, Richard Boynge’s best efforts at recommending Pavarotti, the opera company wouldn’t engage him, because no one had ever heard of him. It was only because every other tenor they asked turned them down, that he was given the opportunity and made his American debut in Miami in 1965. 
Also that year Pavarotti made his La Scala debut in the famous Franco Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, with his childhood friend Mirella Freni and Herbert von Karajan conducting. Karajan had requested the singer’s engagement. His major breakthrough in the United States came in 1972, in a production of The Daughter of the Regiment at the Met. He drove the crowd into a frenzy in his aria with nine effortless high Cs. He achieved a record seventeen curtain calls. Pavarotti sang La Bohème in the first Live from the Met telecast in 1977, which attracted one of the largest audiences ever for a televised opera. There were more than 20 live opera performances taped for television between 1978 and 1994, most of them with the Metropolitan Opera. About the mammoth outdoor concert he sang in Atlantic City Pavarotti wrote: “After my performances I always try to greet anyone who wants to come backstage to see me. That night I signed programs in my dressing room for over three hours. His manager, Herbert Breslin wrote: “Luciano, come on” I’d say, shifting from foot to foot. “This is ridiculous. It’s twelve-thirty in the morning! Let’s go home! “Calmati, P would reply. “Calm down. We are not going to leave until I have seen the last person.” His manager recalled: “Some big name singers tried to get out of singing the Metropolitan Opera’s annual national tour, when the company used to go on the road to present opera in smaller cities around the country. It was a big hassle and it wasn’t as prestigious as appearing at the Met itself. Luciano, however, was willing to go on those tours. He understood the importance of reaching out to his public. And they loved him for it.” He won many Grammy awards and platinum and gold discs. In 1979, he was profiled in a cover story in Time magazine. In 1990 he sang the hugely successful Three Tenors concert, held on the eve of the World Cup final in Rome with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and conductor Zubin Mehta. The recording of this concert became the biggest selling classical record of all time selling over 11 million copies. His televised concert in London’s Hyde Park, drew a record attendance of 150,000. In June 1993, more than 500,000 listeners gathered for his free performance in New York’s Central Park, while millions more around the world watched on TV. That year in Paris, he sang for a crowd of 300,000. Additional Three Tenors concerts were held during the World Cups: in Los Angeles in 1994, in Paris in 1998, and in Yokohama in 2002. Over a billion people watched the 1994 3 tenors concert live. His manager wrote: “In his prime he approached every performance with one determination. It was ‘I will bring them to their feet.’ And he knew how to do it. He knew how to reach people and get them so excited they would jump up and scream when he was done. That was one of the big, big secrets of his success.” Here he is at the Metropolitan Opera singing his favorite encore, the aria Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. Pavarotti wrote: “As a singer’s reputation gets bigger and bigger, it becomes more and more difficult to meet those expectations. It is not enough to sing well. You must somehow give the audience the thrill that justifies the big reputation. You must not disappoint them. I am always afraid. In fact, I think the only way to be continuously successful is to be a little scared all the time. If you are not scared it means you think something is easy. If you think something is easy, you won’t work as hard and you will not be as good as you can be. I concentrated on doing better than I had done the day before and stopped worrying about what other singers were doing.” He performed at benefit concerts to raise money for victims of tragedies such as the earthquake that killed 25,000 people in northern Armenia in 1988. He was a close friend of Diana, Princess of Wales. Together they raised money for the elimination of land mines worldwide. In 1998, he was appointed the United Nations Messenger of Peace, using his fame to raise awareness of UN issues, including the Millennium Development Goals, HIV/AIDS, child rights, urban slums and poverty. In 1999, Pavarotti performed a charity benefit concert in Beirut, to mark Lebanon’s reemergence on the world stage after a brutal 15 year civil war. It was attended by 20,000 people. In 2000 Pavarotti agreed to pay the Italian government more than $7.6 million in back taxes and penalties as a result of tax evasion charges that dated from 1989 to 1995. In 2003, at age 68, he married his former personal assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani (born 1969), 34 years younger with whom he already had a daughter. He had three other daughters by his first wife Adua, to whom he was married for 34 years. Pavarotti annually hosted the Pavarotti & Friends charity concerts in his home town of Modena, to raise money for several UN causes joining with singers including Andrea Bocelli, Jon Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Bono, James Brown, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Céline Dion, Elton John, Sting, the Spice Girls Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen. Concerts were held for War Child, and victims of war and civil unrest in Bosnia, Guatemala, Kosovo and Iraq. After the war in Bosnia, he financed and established the Pavarotti Music Center to offer Bosnia’s artists the opportunity to develop their skills. For these contributions, the city of Sarajevo named him an honorary citizen in 2006. In 2001, Pavarotti received the Nansen Medal from the UN High Commission for Refugees for his efforts raising money on behalf of refugees worldwide. Other honors he received include the “Freedom of London Award” and The Red Cross “Award for Services to Humanity”, and the 1998 “MusiCares Person of the Year”, given to humanitarian heroes by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He set two Guiness book of world records, one for receiving the most curtain calls, 165 of them. Through benefit concerts and volunteer work, he has raised more money than any other individual. Here he is with Charlie Rose explaining why he expanded his repertoire to include pop music and the advantages of performing in large stadium concerts. He wrote: “One of my biggest goals as a performer and a vocal artist is to make people happy. I frequently get letters from people telling me how depressed, miserable, and even suicidal they were. Then they heard me sing on television and felt better. For maybe a few minutes they felt good about life. After my Central Park concert in 1993 the NY Times wrote that all of the 500,000 people who saw the concert had forgotten their problems by the time they left the park. Maybe for only a short time they were happy. No one can imagine how happy this makes me.” He recorded over 30 complete operas and appeared in 37 roles. His final performance was singing “Nessun Dorma” at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2006. He died the following year at age 71 at his home in Modena. His estate was valued at $474.2 million dollars.  

La Bohème Part 2

Puccini often suffered from depression and never tried to hide it. He said he was born carrying a heavy burden of melancholy. Puccini biographer, Mosco Carner wrote: “Far from considering himself an outstanding artist who enjoyed his world fame and material fortune, Puccini was a self-divided, neurotic personality, fundamentally unhappy, and lonely.” One of his librettists and friends, Giuseppe Adami, who Puccini said knew him better than anyone else wrote: “His natural shyness often isolated him during long periods of contemplative solitude. This free and contemplative life was always necessary to his inspiration. It was discontent with little things, which, to the sensitive temperament of an artist can be a source of more misery than great troubles. As he grew older he saw life rushing on, which his eternally young spirit could not accept.” He was worshipped in Vienna and wrote from Berlin: “They treat me here is if I were the Kaiser or the Crown Prince.” Yet, he preferred to be at his home at Torre del Lago, a tiny village in Tuscany on the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli. “I am longing to creep into my lair again, among my pines.” From Paris, where Puccini was overseeing the rehearsals of La Boheme, he wrote: “I am not very happy here. I should like to be away now for the sake of my work. I cannot work here. I am suffering too much nervous excitement, and don’t have peace of mind, which to me is necessary. An invitation to dinner makes me ill for a week. I wasn’t born for a life of drawing rooms and parties.” And after he became loved and honored in Paris he wrote: “I am sick of Paris! I am panting for the fragrant woods, for the free movement of my belly in wide trousers and no waistcoat; I pant after the wind that blows free and fragrant from the sea. I hate pavements! I hate capitals! I hate columns! I love the beautiful column of the poplar and the fir; I love the blackbird, the blackcap, the woodpecker! I hate the steamer, the top-hat, and the dress coat! I love the green expanse of cool shelter in forests old or young.” There were months and years of attempts at finding stories to create operas about, which frequently resulted in nothing. His misery increased as time passed while he composed nothing. There were projects which sprang up, matured, and were suddenly destroyed. “If I touch the piano my hands get covered with dust. Music? Useless, if I have no libretto. I want a libretto which can move the world!” Once a story was chosen, he became fanatically concerned with the words, and made life difficult for his librettists. Before he could set words to music, it was essential that the words would fire his spirit as if they were his own creation. Puccini was very close to his mother. He was 26 when she died. 6 years later his younger brother Michele died from yellow fever. After the death of his mother Puccini began an affair with Elvira Manfredi. She was married with a daughter, but because she had fallen in love with Puccini, she abandoned her husband and had a son with Puccini. She was given a very hard time by the residents of Torre del Lago, the little village where she lived with Puccini. They knew her as an adulteress, who they believed had the evil eye and who had laid a curse on them. Eventually they married, but it was a marriage filled with difficulty. Elvira was intensely jealous and suspicious of Puccini, who was not faithful to her. She regularly opened his mail, went through his pockets, and convinced her self that Puccini was cheating on her even when he wasn’t! After Puccini was seriously injured in a car crash, he spent months at home recuperating and he and Elvira hired a 15-year-old young woman to help with the household chores. She remained employed by them for six years. Elvira was absolutely convinced that the young woman and Puccini were having an affair and spread this rumor throughout the village incessantly. Eventually the girl moved back in with her parents but Puccini’s wife continued spreading this lie until the girl could no longer leave her home. Eventually the pressure became intolerable and she committed suicide. An autopsy then revealed that she had been a virgin. Puccini was so enraged with his wife that he left her for several years. When the popularity of his operas made him a wealthy man he spent freely: 6 homes, 14 cars, and 5 motor boats including an expensive yacht. Puccini was self-centered, and his principal interests outside his music appear to have been sex, fast cars, and the shooting of birds. Puccini liked to cook. He sent a letter to Ricordi that included his recipe for beans which he was sending as a gift to the publisher. “I am sending you a small quantity of beans and two boxes of grapes. These beans are very special ones and must be cooked in this way: Put them on the fire in cold water, which should be a moderate amount—neither too much nor too little. Boil for two hours on a slow fire and when they are cooked there should be no more than three or four spoonfuls of liquid. Ergo, be careful of the quantity of water. When you put them on to cook add four or five leaves of sage, two or three heads of garlic, salt and pepper, and when the beans are half cooked, add a little oil to boil with them.” Adami wrote: “Terrifying doubts would plunge him into desolate periods of inertia. It was distrust of his own work which returned continually to torment him.” And in writing about his last opera, Turandot, “I have finished the orchestration. The result is beautiful. Or is it possible that I am mistaken in thinking so?” Adami continues: “These doubts sometimes assumed agonizing proportions, when he thought that he had not given enough, had not given everything. ‘I am going to sleep so as not to torture myself with thinking. I am sad and find no consolation. Here there is sunshine and fresh greenery, but in my heart blackness. I am a poor, unhappy man, discouraged, old, abject, nothing! I live in torment. If the fever abates it ends by disappearing altogether. And without fever there is no creation. For emotional art is a kind of malady, an abnormal mental state, accompanied by over-excitation of every fiber and every adam of one’s being. I live in torment because I do not feel the throbbing life that is essential to the creation of a theatrical work which is to endure and hold.’” His letters are filled with this endless searching and craving, this continual fight against the dull and the lifeless. A poem he wrote about 18 months before his death states. ‘I have no friends. I feel alone. Even music makes me sad. When death comes to find me I shall be happy to rest. Oh how hard my life is, though to many I seem happy, but my successes? They pass, and leave so little. They are ephemeral things. Life runs on toward the abyss. He who lives and is young finds the world enjoyable but who is aware of all this? Youth passes so quickly, and the eye contemplates eternity. I am truly stranded. I cannot get clear. Work! Work! There is no better medicine than work for making one’s existence less miserable’ Carter wrote: “He was by nature shy and almost timid, hypersensitive, and highly vulnerable.” He wrote of Puccini’s “unpredictable and constantly changing moods, his sudden enthusiasm for a subject one day and its complete rejection the next. In his own words, he had more heart than intellect. Carner also wrote of Puccini’s “strange conviction that there was no one in the whole world who really loved him. This was, in fact, a projection of what Puccini felt about the world: it was he was never capable of loving.” A life-long smoker, Puccini had diabetes, and how ironic it is that the man who composed some eternally gorgeous melodies developed cancer of the esophagus. Before he could complete his final opera, Turandot, he died in 1924 in Brussels, soon after a surgery to plant radiation needles in his throat. He was only 65. After he finished composing the death scene at the end of the opera, Puccini wept uncontrollably. He said: “It was as though I had seen my own child die.”

Puccini’s La Bohème Part 1

Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy in 1858. He came from a long line of composers dating back to the 18th century. Scenes de la vie de Bohème (Scenes from Bohemian life) was written by French writer Henry Murger when he was 25, and was published as a series of short stories in installments between 1845-1848. It depicts the world of young artists in Paris around 1830. Much of La Bohème was composed when Puccini was 37, and is based on incidents in his own life. Puccini was almost exclusively a composer of operas. He wrote: “If only I could be a purely symphonic writer! Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said: ‘Write for the theatre, and only for the theatre.‘ And I have obeyed the supreme command.” Puccini had to have the librettos (texts) to his operas finalized before he would compose the music. He was fanatically concerned with the words. Before he could set words to music, it was essential that the words would fire his spirit as if they were his own creation. There were months and years of attempts to find a story that he wanted to make into an opera which frequently resulted in nothing. His misery increased as time passed while he composed nothing. There were projects which sprang up, matured, and were suddenly abandoned. “If I touch the piano my hands get covered with dust. Music? Useless, if I have no libretto. I want a libretto which can move the world!” Puccini worked with two librettists to transform Murger’s novel into the opera’s libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. It took 2 years of arguing, disagreements, pleading, controlling, and wrangling with his two librettists before he began setting the libretto to music. Puccini was incredibly demanding. Throughout his career Puccini was obsessed with the dramatic pacing of each scene and each act. He repeatedly sent scenes of the opera back to the librettists to revise and shorten. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who was also a composer, assisted in the process, coordinated the communication between the 3 and sometimes refereed their arguments. It was very stressful working with Puccini, who often changed his mind. And after 6 months of working on the libretto, Giacosa resigned from the project though Ricordi was able to persuade him to continue. But 21 months later Giacosa had had enough of the constant pressure and dissatisfaction from Puccini and wrote to Ricordi: “I swear to you that I can’t go on revising everything 20 times. I’m tired to death of this constant remaking, retouching, adding, correcting, cutting, piecing together, extending on the one hand and reducing on the other. I have written this damn libretto from beginning to end three times and certain sections 4 and 5 times. I am sick to death. Curse the libretto! How am I supposed to finish at that rate? I swear to you they’ll never trap me into doing librettos again! Tomorrow I’m installing myself all alone in some quiet hotel. And there, I will have finished in a few days. But will it be finished then? Or will we have to start all over from the beginning?” Once Puccini had finally approved the libretto, it took him less than a year to write the music for La Bohème. Most of it was composed at his home in Torre del Lago, where Puccini had befriended a small group of painters with whom he formed the Bohème Club, who met in an old hut to eat, drink and play cards. The audience at the world premiere included royalty, noble families, and several important composers including Mascagni. One local critic wrote: “Bohème failure. It won’t make the rounds.” Others wrote that they didn’t think the opera would become a popular favorite. Another wrote “La Bohème will leave no large imprint on the history of our lyric stage, and it will be well if the composer will persuade himself that this has been a brief detour in the road of art.” Or this review: “You have today conceived the whim of forcing the public to applaud you where and when you will. For the future, turn back to the great and difficult battles of art.” Another critic wrote: “We ask ourselves what has pushed Puccini along this deplorable road of Bohème.” And another: “Let us await better things from the strong endowment of this composer.” Another could not forgive Puccini “for composing his music hurriedly. It is music which can delight but rarely move. Even the finale of the opera seems to me deficient in musical form and color. God forgive him!” Then there was this one: “The music of La Bohème is real music, made for immediate pleasure, intuitive music. And that is precisely for this reason that we must praise and condemn it.” And finally: “On the whole, melodic invention is extremely scanty.” Toscanini himself wrote: “Puccini took it very badly; and left him like a rag.” In the end it is always the judgment of the public that counts. At its conclusion the audience jumped to its feet with great enthusiasm. Throughout the evening they called Puccini out on stage a total of 15 times. In fact, in the weeks following the world premiere in Turin, La Bohème was so popular that it was performed there 24 times, and each performance sold-out! It was then performed in Rome, Trent, Brescia, Bologna, Naples, and Milan’s La Scala. In Florence, Puccini was called on to take some 40 curtain calls! Queen Margarita attended the second performance in Rome and Puccini was nominated Commander of the Italian Kingdom. The Sicilians loved it so much at its first performance in Palermo that at its conclusion they continued applauding, bringing Puccini onstage for 45 curtain calls, prolonging the performance until one in the morning. And when the audience refused to leave, the last scene had to be repeated, even though some of the orchestra had already left and the singers had changed into their street clothes! It quickly began to be performed internationally: in Alexandria, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Algiers, Lisbon, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico, The Hague, Prague, Barcelona, Athens, Chile, Malta, Warsaw, Zagreb, Helsinki, Budapest, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Brussels, Los Angeles, New York, Vienna, where it was conducted by Gustav Mahler, and in Buenos Aires where it was conducted by Toscanini. It has become one of the most popular and often performed operas. Debussy said: “If one did not keep a grip on oneself one would be swept away by the sheer verve of the music. I know of no one who has described the Paris of that time as well as Puccini in La Bohème.”

The Artistry and Tragedy of Maria Callas

Maria Callas was born in NYC in 1923. Her parents were Greek immigrants and they lived in Washington Heights. Her mother returned to Greece with Maria and her sister when Callas was 13, and there she studied at the Athens Conservatory with Elvira de Hidalgo, a Spanish coloratura soprano who sang with Caruso and Chaliapin. Hidalgo: “When I started teaching her she was the laughing stock of the whole conservatory…she was frightfully clumsy, fat, and ungainly…She was a glutton for advice and suggestions, and made every effort to take it all in and act on it as far as she could. The results were pitiful at first, but little by little she did begin to improve.” To release her nervous tension, Callas worked harder than ever, spending most of each day at the conservatory or at Hidalgo’s apartment. She went to her teacher at 10 am for her lesson and stayed, listening to all the other voice students until eight pm. “I loved to listen to all those different voices: light soprano, lyric soprano, and the men too because I always believed that even the poorest voice can teach you something.” Hidalgo remembered: “Always silent, almost scowling, she would sit in a corner and stay there until I had finished, in other words until the evening. She was there watching and listening while I took all my other lessons, and she learned all there was to be learned.” Callas was happy to do exercises to train the agility of her voice to sing coloratura music. The soprano, Renata Tebaldi said that it was an incredible experience to hear Callas scale down her great big, huge voice to sing coloratura repertoire. Hidalgo: “She put such force, such sentiment, such wonderful interpretation into all she sang. She would want to sing all the most difficult coloraturas, scales, and trills. Even as a child her willpower was terrific. She had a phenomenal memory and could learn the most difficult opera in eight days.” Callas sang Norma more times than any other opera. She said: “Bellini’s opera Norma was used by Hidalgo as an exercise. So I remember I started learning Norma at the very early years of my schooling in music, many, many years before I sang it on stage.” Hidalgo spoke about how near sighted Callas was, and that she couldn’t wear her eyeglasses on stage: “Maria Callas performed over 40 operas on stage without being able to see the conductor. In order not to miss her entries she memorized each of the entire operas, the parts of the tenor, the baritone, the bass, the chorus, everything. When she came to me at the conservatory she was already in the habit of learning the entire opera by heart.” In fact Callas trained her memory so well that she was able to practice without the music. “I learned for instance Norma and La Gioconda, so I could rehearse them in my mind, on top of a bus or walking in the street. There is a great deal to be done in the mind: you don’t always require a piano, nor to open your mouth. The poets talk of the mind’s eye: there is also the mind’s ear.” She was an exceptionally quick learner. She considered solfeggio, the skill of being able to perform music at first sight, to be a singer’s most important training asset. She would pick up her part and devour it, and almost immediately sing it note for note. But the greatest of all her qualities, even then, was the expressive power she put into her singing. Callas said: “It is so much hard work, so much love and so much devotion, but other people around you don’t see that, they think everything around you is just given to you. “In Greece during the war it took six months of rehearsal to get an opera ready for the stage…how many sacrifices…at least you were well prepared. Whereas nowadays young singers are thrown out onto the stage just as they are without preparation, without knowing the opera well. After a few engagements they don’t take time to reflect: they immediately think they are great and famous, and that’s the beginning of the end.” “I continued studying voice and piano with a kind of fury.” 
A friend remarked: “She practiced so hard and so intensively…that she would often spend more than ten hours a day practicing, which left her dead tired.” Her mother recalled: “She practiced day and night and sometimes forgot to eat. Maria would refuse to leave her piano for meals, and I would bring them to her in her room. She would put the plate in her lap and go on working,” Particularly impressive was her uncompromising self-critical approach to her work, remarkable in one so young. The conductor Yorgos Vokos stated that she was stricter with herself than her teacher was. “As a young girl she worked on her voice interminably, taking care over every detail. “She had a brilliant ear. Whatever exercise her first teacher, Maria Trivella, played for her on the piano, she sang it almost right at the first go. We would hear Maria doing her vocal acrobatics—trills, runs, phrases, legati, staccato, scales—and every so often Trivella’s voice exclaiming, ‘Well done, Maria, well done!’ ‘But my passagework was terrible, my trills were only half there, my legati were awful. ‘But Maria…’ ‘No, no, I must do it again from the beginning! I’ve got to satisfy myself too. I’m sorry.’ So once more from the beginning, until Maria gave it her OK.” At age 24 Callas said: “Everything I do, I am convinced I am doing it badly, and then I start feeling nervous and discouraged. Sometimes I get to the point of wanting death to release me from the torments and the anguish that constantly afflict me. I would like to give much more to everything I do.” Callas first sang Tosca when she was only 18. She attended all of the orchestra rehearsals, and in this way studied the orchestration. She also requested private rehearsals with the conductor, who recalled: “You have no idea what a nitpicker she is! She drives you up the wall, always pestering you about the most trivial details. ‘Shall we go through it once more, Maestro?’ Whether you like it or not she makes you do it all over again! Whereas with the others you only have to mention the word “rehearsal” and they start looking at their watches!” At age 20, having been cast in the role of Marta in the opera Tiefland, Maria shut herself in her room to study the role, and refused to open the door to anyone. From time to time her mother had gone in to bring her a drink or something to eat, and often found her asleep on the floor with the pages of the opera scattered around her. She showed up at the production’s first rehearsal with the entire opera memorized. She worked frantically to prepare herself, asked for extra rehearsals and begged the conductor to go through her part with her privately. When asked what the word luxury meant to her, Maria said: “To me it means having a conductor who undertakes any number of rehearsals to produce a performance of high quality, and having musicians who work hard, without fixed hours. That’s the way people used to work once upon a time.” Maria’s total dedication to her ambition of becoming a great singer was the one thing to which she clung desperately. “My life was my work and my work was my life.” A friend remembered: “When we chatted on the way home, practically the only subjects we talked about were music and our future careers. She didn’t join in personal conversations. She was eternally absorbed in singing: nothing else interested her.” Another friend said: “As if she could see a vision of her future, she paced nervously to and fro, saying over and over again with deep conviction, ‘Some day I’m going to make the big time! I’m going to get to the top.’” She once said to her mother: “I’m going to be the greatest opera singer of them all. The whole world will be talking about me.” A friend recalled “One day we were waiting for her in the living room while she got dressed in her room, and was singing something that reverberated throughout the apartment. Her mother shouted: ‘For heaven sake’s, stop! We’ve had enough, our heads are spinning; we can’t hear ourselves think!’ Defiantly, Maria answered from her room, ‘Mother, I’m going to be the greatest prima donna in the world!’ ‘Oh get lost!’ her mother retorted. When she began singing with the National Theatre in Greece at age 17, some of her colleagues were jealous and felt threatened by her talent. They began trying to find ways to prevent her from appearing. “That American bitch that’s come in, what right has she got to be here, the fat cow, taking our performances away from us? Kick the American out! A foreigner’s got no business in our opera company. She’ll ruin the performances with her accent.” They stood in the wings while she was singing, laughing and pointing their fingers at her, keeping up a flow of loud whispers, including remarks about her fat legs, until she couldn’t go on singing. Callas would sob and cry in her dressing room. An older colleague advised her friends; “Tell her to give up the theatre! After all, the poor girl’s never going to get anywhere.” Remembering what it was like in 1944 at the Greek National Opera, Maria said: “I got on my colleagues’ nerves. They were older people. I was young, they couldn’t understand why I was chosen for certain roles. I was always ready. I just studied and was ready, which is always my weapon, always being prepared. It’s a conscientiousness and love of my work.” Hidalgo: “The attacks of her colleagues not only made her work harder, but taught her to be a warrior. She learned to be a fighter and survivor, not a victim.” “I won’t let anyone stand in my way. If anyone tries, I’ll smash them, and I don’t care who they are!” The jealousy of her classmates only confirmed her belief in her ability and made her feel strong and optimistic. She worked harder and more consistently than any of her fellow singers, with a fierce dedication and persistence. Through her faith in herself and her indomitable persistence, she survived the various trials and tribulations of those early years in Greece. During an eight year period in Greece she sang 56 performances of seven leading roles “Everything I have achieved, I achieved by hard work.” During her early years in Greece one conductor didn’t think Callas sang the opera Fidelio well. She said to him: “One day you’ll be groveling to conduct me!” Callas said to a conductor of the Athens Radio orchestra: “In a few years you will be begging me!” She also said this to the general manager of the Greek National Opera, to the general manager of the San Francisco Opera, and to the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. At 22 Callas returned to New York. She intended to sing at the Met. One of her colleagues asked: “What if they don’t give you an audition?” “Oh, then I’ll go there every day and sit on the doorstep. One day they will get fed up with me and give me an audition.” “In 1946 in America I went from one movie house to another, not to see the films, but so as not to go out of my mind from torturous thoughts about my uncertain future.” Finally she was invited to make her Italian debut in La Gioconda at the ancient amphitheatre in Verona. Even though her performances there were successful, she couldn’t get a job afterwards!!! No one in Italy would hire her, despite the most intensive efforts at promotion, including a recording she made of her best arias. Callas was frustrated. Finally Tulio Serafin, who had conducted her at the arena in Verona, hired her in Venice to sing first Tristan und Isolde, and then a year later, Die Walküre. In the midst of the series of performances of Die Walkure, the soprano who was to sing Bellini’s bel canto opera, I Puritani became ill and Serafin decided that Callas would replace her, despite the completely different kind of voice required for the role. Amazingly, Callas learned Puritani in just one week while she continued performing Die Walkure! This feat earned her a ton of publicity and people have been marveling at her accomplishment ever since. Her colleague, the soprano, Renata Tebaldi said that the most fascinating thing was to hear how Callas was able to scale down her enormous voice to sing bel canto repertoire. In fact, when she auditioned for Toscanini, he wanted very much to cast her as Lady Macbeth, because of the size and particular quality of her voice. Unfortunately, he retired soon thereafter and they never collaborated. Callas said: “Conductors for us, once upon a time especially, were gods. We went to the theatre on tiptoes—it’s like going to church, really. That’s how we were brought up.” Tulio Serafin had played viola in the La Scala orchestra under Toscanini in the early part of the 20th century and went on to conduct all over the world. He was an early mentor of Callas. She spoke about what she learned from Serafin: “I drank all I could from this man. He was the first maestro for me, and I am afraid he is the last man of his kind. Today they don’t take the trouble, they don’t have that much experience, they start too young and don’t have enough humility towards music. What I learned from Serafin is that you must serve music; it is our first and main duty.” Callas observed how awkwardly many singers moved on stage, and swore that that would never happen to her. She bought a big mirror in which she would watch herself practicing, scrutinizing her every movement from head to toe and making sure she did not overact. Callas married a successful Italian businessman, Giovanni Battista Meneghini in 1949. He was 28 yrs older than her. Meneghini gave up his interests in his family’s business to invest in and manage her budding career full time. Callas wanted to do dramatic justice to the roles she played, so she decided to lose weight. When Callas saw Audrey Hepurn in Roman Holiday, she decided that that was her standard. She lost eighty pounds in less than a year. Suddenly she became glamorous! As her career became that of a super star, she attracted the attention of the billionaire, Aristotle Onasis. They fell in love she left her husband of ten years, and began a widely publicized affair with Onassis, who was also married. He was 23 years her senior. The Law of cause and effect is very strict, because nine years later, Onassis left her and married Jackie Kennedy. 8 years before her death Callas said to a close friend: “I started dying when I met this man and gave up music.” The last role she sang onstage was Tosca. Not long after this Callas’s voice deteriorated to the point where she had to stop singing in public. She tried acting in a movie. She tried stage directing. She gave the master classes at Juilliard. After several years, she tried to get her voice back and in 1973 and ’74 Callas sang a world concert tour with her long time friend and colleague, tenor, Giuseppe DiStefano, but her voice was only a shadow of what it once had been. Having stopped singing in public, and with no one to share her love, Callas became incredibly depressed. She became addicted to sleeping pills, and during her last years, isolated herself, living with two servants in her Paris apartment. She could no longer sustain her interest in living. The last time she saw DiStefano she said to him “Everyday is one day less”. Her last public performance was in Tokyo, on the world tour with DiStefano. Three years later she died of a heart attack at the young age of 53.      

Tribute to Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania. His mother and father, Sara and Shlomo had 4 children of which Elie was the 3rd, and the only boy. His mother encouraged him to study the Torah. His father ran a small grocery store and was frequently sought out by many of the town’s inhabitants for advice. His father influenced Elie through his humanistic behavior. And as Elie put it, his father “forced” him to learn modern Hebrew. The family spoke mostly Yiddish, and also German, Hungarian, and Romanian. Since his childhood Elie was a voracious reader. Rather than playing outside as a boy, he spent most of his time in the schoolroom or in the synagogue. “When I travel, I am always afraid of running out of books. If I had to describe hell, it would be as a place without books.” As a boy he also studied the violin and played chess. In May of 1944, the entire Jewish community in his hometown of Sighet was deported to Auschwitz where 90% of them were exterminated upon arrival, including Elie’s younger sister, Tzipora, his mother, and his grandmother. Elie was 15. His father was 50. Upon arrival at Auschwitz a prisoner advised them to lie about their ages and state that they were 18 and 40, so they would be put to work. Eventually, Elie and his father were brought to Buchenwald concentration camp. His father died 10 weeks before the liberation by the U.S. 3rd army. Germany surrendered 3 1/2 weeks later on May 7, 1945. Elie was 16. This photo of Elie in the barracks at Buchenwald was taken just after the liberation. Elie is circled in yellow. After the war Elie lived in an orphanage in France run by the Children’s Aid Agency. He quickly learned French and in 1947 entered Sorbonne Univ. in Paris, where he studied literature, philosophy, and psychology. Elie attended lectures by the philosophers Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre and studied the writings of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Thomas Mann. At age 19 he began working for French and Israeli newspapers as a journalist. He also taught Hebrew, and assembled and conducted a choir. Elie decided not to speak or write about his experiences in the concentration camps for 10 years. An S.S. officer had said to a young Jew: “Even if you survive, even if you tell, no one will believe you.” In 1954 Elie interviewed Francois Mauriac, a Nobel Prize recipient in literature, who convinced Elie to begin writing about his experiences. In 1955 he began writing his account of the Holocaust. It was a 900-page manuscript in Yiddish entitled Un di Velt hot geshveegin And The World Remained Silent. This origignal 900-page version was never published. An abridged version was published in Buenos Aires. He re-wrote it as a shorter version in French entitled La Nuit, published in 1958. And in 1960 the English translation, Night, was published. Eventually it was translated into 30 languages and has sold more than 7 million copies. Wiesel turned down an offer from Orson Welles to make Night into a feature film. He wrote: “The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future. To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” In 1956 he moved to New York and worked as a foreign correspondent for an Israeli daily newspaper. His salary was only $175 per month, and there were days when he couldn’t afford food. He soon got a job in the U.N. pressroom. In 1965 he began traveling to the former Soviet Union to report on the conditions of the 3 million Soviet Jews. They were discriminated against, persecuted and prohibited from practicing their religion. The series of articles he wrote were compiled and published in 1966 in the book The Jews of Silence, about the Soviet Jews and the massacre at Babi Yar in Ukraine. Wiesel called on the American Jewish community to provide support and aid to Russian Jews. This helped to change what had been only a small number of Jews being allowed to leave Russia, to a huge mass exodus. Since the 1970’s over 1.1 million Jews have emigrated out of Russia. Wiesel called his efforts for this cause “a turning point” in his life. In 1969 he married his Austrian wife, Marion. They had one child in 1972, Shlomo Eleesha, named after Wiesel’s father. In 1975 Wiesel and the Jewish activist, Leonard Fein, founded the independent magazine, Moment, to provide a voice for American Jews. Wiesel taught at the City Univ. of New York from 1972-1976 and then at Boston Univ., which created the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies in his honor. He also taught at Yale Univ. and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fl. in 1982. From 1997-1999 he taught at Barnard College of Columbia Univ. And he began a 5-year appointment teaching at Chapman Univ. in Orange, CA. in 2010. In 1979 he wrote the book and play The Trial of God based on his experience of witnessing three Jews in Auschwitz who, close to death, conduct a trial against god, under the accusation that god has been oppressive of the Jewish people. Wiesel was asked by Pres. Carter to spearhead the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. He was the Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. 
At Wiesel’s suggestion, the first Day of Remembrance was held on April 24, 1979 in Washington. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. In his acceptance speech he explained that silence only encourages the tormentor, stating: “I have tried to keep memory alive, I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. The world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation…Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours.” When he traveled to Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize, he encountered groups of Holocaust deniers, who had gathered in Norway to protest. With the money from the Nobel award, Elie and his wife Marion immediately founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Its mission is to fight against indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs. He wrote more than 60 books including 2 volumes of memoirs, the 1st: All Rivers Run to the Sea, recounts his life up to 1969, and the 2nd is entitled And The Sea is Never Full, and is about his life between 1969-1999. Wiesel adhered to the same daily work schedule for his entire career. He wrote from 6-10 each morning, working on 2 projects simultaneously, one fiction, and one non-fiction. After writing for 4 hours he then conducted research on the topics he was writing about. He wrote with a photo of his hometown of Sighet in full view. He often wrote 3 drafts of each book, and then cut and edited to achieve a concise result. He said: Why do I write? To help the dead vanquish death. To forget would be the enemy’s final triumph. Wiesel is the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grand Officer and Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor, an honorary knighthood from the United Kingdom, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was the recipient of more than 100 honorary degrees. Wiesel advocated for the victims of apartheid in South Africa, the plight of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, Argentina’s Desapare-cidos, the Kurds, Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and he protested against human rights violations in Iran, the Balkans, Rwanda, and Ireland. 
In the mid-1990’s soon after thousands of Ethiopian Jews were rescued from violence and persecution in Africa, Elie and his wife, Marion, created two educational centers in Israel to provide academic and vocational training to Ethiopian-Jewish children. The centers are a model for other schools. He has championed the causes of Cambodian refugees in Vietnam, and indigenous peoples in Latin and South America including Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians. In his speeches and writings he repeatedly pointed out the existence of so many victims of terror and bloodshed in places such as Rwanda and Chechnya. And he urged Pres. Clinton to intervene in the genocide in Bosnia. In 2003 he discovered and publicized that over 280,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews and other groups were massacred in Romanian-run death camps. In 2006 he appeared with actor George Clooney at the U.N. Security Council to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. That year he accompanied Oprah Winfrey on a televised visit to Auschwitz. In 2007 his foundation issued a letter condemning the denial of the Armenian genocide. The letter was signed by 53 Nobel winners. 2009 he accompanied Barack Obama and German chancellor, Angela Merkel on a tour of the Buchenwald concentration camp. That year he announced his support of the persecuted Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Wiesel was active in trying to prevent Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons. He said: “The words and actions of the leadership of Iran leave no doubt as to their intentions.” He also ran ads in several large newspapers, in which he condemned Hamas for the use of children as human shields in 2014. Wiesel criticized Pres. Obama for pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu to halt Israeli settlement construction in east Jerusalem. He stated: “Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than 600 times in Scripture–and not a single time in the Koran. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city.” 
In 2012 Wiesel protested against the whitewashing of Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust and returned the Great Cross Award he had received from the Hungarian government. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986 he said: “I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” In 2012 he spoke out against the unauthorized Mormon practice of performing posthumous baptisms of Jews by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This was after such a baptism was performed for Simon Wiesenthal’s parents and upon learning that Wiesel himself was being considered for a proxy baptism. Wiesel suffered from heart disease, and died on July 2, 2016 in his home in Manhattan. He was 87. In June of 2017 the southwest corner of West 84th St. and Central Park West was named Elie Wiesel Way. It was on that block where he had his first home and family since losing both to the Holocaust. He explained: “What is the Sabbath? Everything is different. When the poor don’t feel their poverty. Even the sick forget their sickness because of the Sabbath. Sabbath is not only a change of behavior; it’s a change of time. The time of Sabbath. And therefore actually at the end of any meal in the Sabbath what we sing is a song that we love to sing with our friends when we are sharing a meal for the Shabbat, and it’s the Harachaman. He wrote: “None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims.”    

Verdi’s Nabucco

Giuseppe Verdi was born in Roncole in northern Italy in 1813. He composed 28 operas. While in his 20s Verdi experienced the death of his 1st wife and the deaths of his 2 infant children. This threw him into a terrible depression. And he refused to continue composing, until he read the libretto of Nabucco. He was twenty-eight when he composed Nabucco. Its world premiere was at Milan’s La Scala opera house. In Verdi’s day, the country of Italy didn’t yet exist. The Italian peninsula was divided into 10 political units consisting of 2 kingdoms, 3 republics, 4 duchies and a theocracy known as the Vatican. Most of these were dominated by the Austrian Empire. Nabucco broke all box office records at La Scala up until that time. And it was not long before Verdi became a symbol of the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy. The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “The cries for liberty it inspired in the Italian people spread from heart to heart like wildfire… Filled with pride, they all began singing Verdi’s melodies. After Nabucco Verdi produced a succession of operas to inspire and encourage the people. He composed always and solely for the people. That is where his greatness lies.” Nabucco takes place in 586 B.C. and is based on the biblical story of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nabucco, the king of Babylon, who ordered the Jews to be taken from Judea as prisoners, and led by chains to the foreign land of Babylon. Act I is set in Jerusalem, at the temple of Solomon Each of the 4 acts is preceded by a quote from the book of Jeremiah. Act I: “Thus saith the Lord: behold I shall deliver this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire.” Jeremiah 21:10 Its overture is one of the most exciting in all of opera. The Babylonian army has defeated the Israelite army and is advancing towards the city of Jerusalem. At the temple of Solomon everyone is lamenting their defeat and praying to God to spare the temple. The Hebrew prophet and high priest Zaccaria enters with Nabucco’s daughter, Fenena, as a hostage. Zaccaria sings: “Have faith in God…As our hostage she can secure peace for us.” Ismaele enters with a group of Hebrew soldiers. He is the king of Jerusalem’s nephew. Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismael. Zaccaria sings: “Come down and fight with us, mighty God of Abraham. Fenena and Ismaele sing of their love for each other. Abagaille is has been raised as Nabucco’s other daughter, but is actually the daughter of a slave. She enters with Babylonian soldiers disguised as Israelites. She announces the capture of the temple and threatens Ismaele and Fenena with death AND declares her love for Ismaele. She curses them vowing revenge. She sings: “My love is a raging fury. It can give you life or death. Ah, if you love me, I could still save your people! Ismaele. sings that he can not return her love. Fenena feels the power of the true God of Israel. Hebrew men and women, Zaccaria’s sister, Anna, old men, and Levites all enter singing that Nabucco is approaching. Hebrew soldiers enter who also sing that Nabucco is coming. Nabucco enters with Babylonian soldiers. Zaccaria stops him at the entrance to the temple singing: “How dare you! This is the house of God.” Zaccaria threatens to kill Nabucco’s daughter, Fenena if Nabucco attacks the temple. Nabucco replies: “Wicked Zion must flow in a sea of blood amid tears and groans. Zaccaria holds a knife to Fenena’s throat but Ismaele seizes the knife and Fenena runs to Nabucco, who sings: “Your God fears me, you fools. He didn’t even appear on the battle field.” He orders his soldiers to plunder and burn the temple. Abagaille sings: “This accursed people will be be wiped from the face of the earth. If my heart’s affection can not be satisfied, then at least my hate will be!” The Israelites curse Ismaele for being a traitor. ACT II The Wicked Man “Behold…! The whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth and will fall upon the head of the wicked man.” Jeremiah 30:23 Scene 1 takes place in Abagaille’s residence in Nabucco’s royal palace in Babylon The Jews have been led captive into Babylon. Nabucco is away at war, and while he continues his battle against the Israelites, he has appointed Fenena as ruler and as guardian of the Israelite prisoners. Abagaille enters hastily and triumphant holding a parchment scroll and venting her bitterness and desire for revenge. Jealous of her sister and dying to know whether or not she is Nabucco’s daughter or as rumor has it only a slave, she finds a document that proves she is the daughter of slaves. She is bitter that Nabucco has refused to allow her to participate in the war against the Israelites. The role of Abagaille requires a soprano that has a hefty sized voice, who has the agility to singing rapid notes, high Cs, and powerful low notes as well. The soprano who sang the world premiere of Nabucco, Giuseppina Strepponi later become Verdi’s 2nd wife. When Nabucco premiered she was already experiencing difficulties with her voice, and singing the role of Abagaille seems to have killed what remained of her singing voice. Verdi wrote music for the part of Abagaille that is incredibly aggressive and fiendishly strenuous on the voice. When she sings about her own anger, her music climbs to a high C and then abruptly drops down to a low C, something singers are never asked to do. She rages in fury but then remembers her love for Ismaele. The high priest of Baal, who is the Babylonian God enters with soothsayers informing Abagaille that Fen is setting the Jewish prisoners free. They urge her to seize the power of the throne and inform her that they have already spread the rumor that Nabucco has been killed in battle. Abagaille sings: “I’m already ascending the bloodstained seat of that golden throne. I know very well how to unleash my revenge from that seat.” They sing: “Yes, Baal’s revenge will thunder forth with your vengeance.” Scene 2 takes place at nighttime in a hall in N’s palace Zaccaria enters the royal apartment with a Levite carrying the tablets of the Law. The Hebrews are gathered together. To the accompaniment of a cello sextet Zaccaria prays to God for guidance. He then goes with the Levite to summon Fenena. Ismaele enters with the Levites, who accuse Ismaele of treachery. Zaccaria’s sister Anna enters with Zaccaria, Fenena and the Levite announcing that Ismaele has saved Fenena, who has converted to Judaism and urges them to forgive Ismaele. One of Nabucco’s long time officers enters out of breath with the news of Nabucco’s death. He urges Fenena to flee and warns of the rebellion that Abagaille has started and conveys that the people now call for Abagaille as their queen. The high priest of Baal, an enemy of the Hebrew God, enters with Abagaille, the soothsayers and their assistants. Abagaille orders Fenena to give her the crown. Fenena refuses. Nabucco enters, grabs the crown and places it on his own head! He defies Abagaille to take it from him. He orders everyone to bow their faces to the ground and worship him as their God. Fenena sings that she has converted to Judaism. Nabucco declares that he is no longer king and that he is God. Suddenly there is a crash of lightning and thunder over his head. Terrified, Nabucco feels the crown being lifted from his head by a supernatural force and he loses his mind. What follows is a wonderful 5 part canon where everyone sings about the approaching moments of a fatal rage with thunderbolts preparing to open their wings. Nabucco then sings a magnificent mad scene. Zaccaria sings that heaven has punished the boaster. Abagaille picks up the crown and sings: “But may the splendor of Baal’s people not be extinguished.” Act III The Prophecy “The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell in Babylon and the owls and hoopoe birds shall dwell therein.” Jeremiah 50:39 Scene 1 takes place at he hanging gardens of Babylon Abagaille is now the Queen of Babylon. The high priest of Baal hands her a document to sign. It is the death warrant for the execution of the Hebrews, including her sister, Fenena. Nabucco wanders in still insane. What follows is an incredible duet between father and daughter in which Abagaille commands Nabucco to sign the death warrant, which he does. He then suddenly remembers his daughter Fenena and angrily tells Abagaille that she is actually a slave, whereupon Abagaille shows Nabucco her birth certificate and tears it up before his eyes. Soldiers take Nabucco into custody and lead him away. Scene 2 takes place on the banks of the Euphrates river We then hear the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves where the Jews are in captivity in Babylon resting after a long day of forced labor. They lament their unhappy fate as prisoners, singing: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate… Go, thought, on golden wings… The thought is of their beloved homeland. They sing: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!” They yearn for their homeland. To Verdi, the suffering of the biblical Jews was similar to the anguish of the Italians under foreign domination. It is the struggle of an oppressed people for freedom. Dr. Ikeda wrote: “It was as if the Italian people’s own subjugation by another country was mirrored back to them. The opera provided ‘wings of hope’ upon which the hearts of those who aspired for Italy’s freedom could majestically soar.” Zaccaria prophesies God’s destruction of Babylon. Act IV The broken Idol “Baal is confounded; his statue is broken into pieces.” Jeremiah 50:2 Scene 1 takes place in an apartment in Nabucco’s palace Nabucco wakes up from a nap and realizes that he is now a prisoner. His mind is still confused and raving. He prays to the Hebrew God for forgiveness and to spare Fenena. And he promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Nabucco’s sanity instantly returns. Nabucco and his soldiers depart to rescue Fenena. Scene 2 is at the hanging gardens: the place of execution A funeral march is played as Fenena and the Israelites enter. They pray as they prepare for death. Nabucco and his soldiers enter. He raises his sword and the statue of Baal shatters into pieces. He tells the Jews that they are free and everyone sings praises to mighty Jehovah. This incredible scene is one of the most solemn and majestic compositions for vocal soloists and chorus only, with no instruments. Abagaille enters after she has drunk poison and begs for forgiveness from Fenena, prays for God’s mercy, and dies. Zaccaria sings to Nabucco: “As Jehovah’s servant you shall be a king of kings.”                                      

Toscanini and Wagner

Toscanini was born in Parma in 1867. His career spanned an incredible 69 years. Beginning in 1898 he was the artistic director of La Scala for several years, from 1908-1915 the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, the artistic director of La Scala during the 1920s, music director of the New York Philharmonic in the ’20s and ’30s, and for 17 years the principal conductor of the NBC Symphony. He conducted the world premieres of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I Pagliacci, La Boheme, The Girl of the Golden West, Turandot, the American premieres of Boris Godunov, and Ravel’s Bolero, and the Italian premieres of Salome and Pelleas et Melisande. Toscanini had a photographic memory. He performed and rehearsed over 600 compositions from memory. He died in 1957 in New York at the age of almost 90. When I was a teenager I interviewed 50 of the artists who knew and worked with Toscanini, and broadcast these interviews on a radio show I produced called The Toscanini Legacy. That’s me at the radio station, and yes, that is all my own hair! The musicians were in their 70s and 80s when I interviewed them, and were quite young when they worked with Toscanini, who in those years was in HIS 70’s and 80’s. These interviews with the musicians are a direct link to the 19th century. I was struck by the vividness of their recollections and the enthusiasm with which they recalled events they had participated in thirty to forty years before. Toscanini recalled: “The first impression I received of Wagner’s music goes back to 1878 when I was 11 and heard the Tannhäuser Overture at a concert in Parma and I was bewildered.” In 1884, while a student at Parma’s Royal Conservatory of Music, the 17 year-old Toscanini played cello in a production of Lohengrin at Parma’s Teatro Regio, and was so moved that he wept. He wrote: “It was then that I first acquired a great, marvelous awareness of Wagner’s genius. From the first rehearsal, or rather from the first bars of the Prelude, I was overwhelmed by magical, supernatural feelings; the celestial harmonies revealed a new world to me, a world whose existence no one had even the slightest intuition until Wagner’s transcendent spirit discovered it.” The conservatory’s director, Giusto Dacci believed that Mendelssohn had reached the limits of harmonic expression, and the students were discouraged from studying Wagner. Therefore the young Toscanini secretly studied whatever music of Wagner he was able to find. He wrote about the Prelude to Lohengrin: “…When Wagner set down this simple A major chord for the Violins and Woodwinds, I’ve always imagined that at a moment of great, sublime inspiration he disappeared from the earth, went up to heaven for a time, and came back down bringing that magical chord, of whose existence no one before him had dreamt…” In 1888, at age 21, Toscanini was in Bologna listening to the first performance in Italy of Tristan und Isolde. By the end of the second act he decided to abandon his ambition to be a composer, even though several of his compositions had already been published. In 1895 Toscanini began his first artistic directorship: in Turin. He opened the season with Götterdämmerung, sung in Italian, as all operas were at that time in Italy. Amazingly it had a run of 22 performances! Toscanini’s first rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1908 with Götterdämmerung, which he led from memory. Amazingly, he heard and corrected mistakes in the orchestra parts, which for decades, none of the well-known German conductors had noticed. In 1926 Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time, and he included Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung. For his last appearance with the New York Philharmonic Toscanini included Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music. 1932 he wrote: “Among operas, I value those of Wagner and Verdi above all. It is difficult to state a preference for one of Wagner’s operas. I have noticed that if I am conducting one or another of Wagner’s operas, or playing it at the piano, whichever one it happens to be takes possession of my heart. And yet, every time I glance at the score of Parsifal, I say to myself: This is the sublime one.” The timing of Parsifal conducted by Toscanini is by far the slowest ever recorded in Bayreuth’s archives going all the way back to its first production in 1882! Alan Shulman remembered: “At a dress rehearsal of an all Wagner program. We did the prelude to Parsifal. When we finished he said, ‘Thank you, see you at the concert tonight.’ And my stand partner and I sat there three or four minutes. We were so moved by the magnificence of the man’s concept, that we just couldn’t pack our instruments away, and head for home, and rest before the concert. It was an incredible experience.” The Viennese photographer Robert Hupka took over 1,500 photographs of Toscanini at rehearsals and recording sessions. Hupka was very excited about the publication of my
book, The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro, because it is based on 50 interviews I recorded with musicians who knew and worked with the maestro. Fred Zimmermann, who played bass with Toscanini said: “Wagner with him was deeply stirring, deeply spiritual; and being part of it was a transcendent experience. After the concert I just couldn’t bear to go into the subway; and so I walked for blocks and blocks to my home with the sounds of the performance ringing in my mind. Toscanini conducted the first ever symphony concert on TV in 1948. For this historic occasion he chose an all-Wagner program and he conducted a second televised all-Wagner concert in 1951. Toscanini conducted the Forest Murmers from Siegfried on both of his televised all-Wagner concerts. He conducted more performances of Die Meistersinger than any other Wagner opera. And the three works he conducted the most frequently in symphonic concerts were Debussy’s La Mer, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. Hugo Burghauser, the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic in the 30s recalled Toscanini conducting Die Meistersinger at the Salzburg Festivals in 1936 and ’37. “I had heard Die Meistersinger for 25 years; but this second act was an entirely new experience for me. In sound and dynamics, in clarity, in expression–this was the ultimate. And afterwards, when we ran up to Toscanini’s dressing room, I never saw him as he was then. He said: ‘Com’un sogno. Like a dream.’ 20 years later, somebody played for him a recording made from the broadcast of one of his Meistersinger performances in Salzburg. When he heard the second act he was touched…and said: ‘It’s a heavenly dream.’ He was moved to tears– such was the power of his own conducting. And of course for all of us also.” Marcia Davenport, a writer and friend of Toscanini recalled: “We who heard that rehearsal and saw it…were overwhelmed with emotion. But when the curtain fell on the finale, and then went up again as curtains do at rehearsals…there stood the entire company on stage, every one of them in tears. The Maestro himself stood motionless in his place with his right hand covering his eyes.” Lotte Lehmann who sang Eva in 1936 recalled the effect Toscanini had on the baritone singing Hans Sachs: Hermann Nissen. According to Lehmann, Nissen had a calm personality and was not easily carried away by emotion. “Even this man was stirred to his very depths by the great Maestro. I can still see him, his eyes overflowing with tears, as he turned around after the ‘Wach auf’ chorus in the general rehearsal saying, ‘My God, how shall I be able to sing now? This damned demon down there has absolutely devastated me with his fire.’” After the first performance Toscanini wrote: ” I was in a daze for two days! I was dead tired. It was a moving performance. I don’t think I’ve ever obtained a better performance of Meistersinger. Can you imagine that the singers were crying at the end of the opera? Bruno Walter came back after the 2nd act; he told me that we had brought off a miracle! I’m so happy to tell you this…But I was quite frightened…” And after the second performance he wrote: “Yesterday evening, after Die Meistersinger…I was exhausted…as if I’d done battle against forces greater than my own…When I’m working I don’t have time to feel joy; on the contrary, I suffer without interruption, and I feel that I’m going through all the pain and suffering of a woman giving birth…” Toscanini conducted Die Meistersinger again at Salzburg the following summer with Maria Reining as Eva. Late at night, after the first performance he wrote: “After the first act, Eva Chamberlain (Wagner’s second daughter) came with tears in her eyes and said to me, “‘My dear friend, I feel as if I were hearing Die Meistersinger for the first time. Never, not even in Bayreuth’s early days, has it made so great an impression as this evening.’ And she kissed my hands, bathing them with her tears, which seemed unending… I foresee and predict a sleepless night. My nerves are still tense; as I write, I have to stop every once in a while, because my hand jerks, as if from epilepsy…” In 1898 Toscanini chose Die Meistersinger to begin his tenure as artistic director of La Scala. The last performance Toscanini conducted at La Scala was an all-Wagner concert. And his last performance ever was in Carnegie Hall with an all-Wagner program. In 1899 Toscanini visited Bayreuth. He sent his brother-in-law, a postcard of Wagner’s grave, and 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 and wanted to invite him to conduct at Bayreuth but was met with strong opposition to engaging a non-German-school conductor. Siegfried told Toscanini that the production excelled even those of Munich and Berlin, and reported to his mother, Cosima Wagner, about the excellence of the production. She wrote the maestro a letter of gratitude. Toscanini had presided over the installation of what was then the most modern stage lighting system in Europe, and German theatre managers all sent representatives to observe it. In 1930 Siegfried Wagner finally succeeded in bringing Toscanini to Bayreuth where he conducted five performances of Tannhäuser and three performances of Tristan und Isolde both staged by Siegfried. Toscanini returned to Bayreuth in 1931 and conducted five performances of Tannhäuser and five performances of Parsifal. He was the first non-German-school conductor to perform at Bayreuth, which the maestro considered to be a great shrine of art and therefore refused any compensation. The violist, Nicholas Moldavan, remembered that the musicians had resented the intrusion of an Italian in this shrine of German art until Toscanini’s first rehearsal of the orchestra, when he reduced them to stunned silence. Conducting as always, from memory, he detected in their playing mistake after mistake in the orchestral parts that had gone undetected for half a century by the German conductors. At a rehearsal of Tristan, Toscanini asked why no one was playing the cymbal part at the end of Act I. He was told that there were no cymbal notes in the parts. The maestro insisted that the manuscript be consulted, where, to the Germans’ surprise the cymbal notes were found, clearly notated! Lauritz Melchior who sang Tristan and Tannhauser that summer, recalled Toscanini saying: “What Wagner meant is very clear. Just examine the score. You will find everything there.” Alexander Kipnis, who sang the role of King Marke recalled: “He objected to the fact that the singers gave more importance and emphasis to pronouncing the word than to singing the music… The chief characteristic of Toscanini’s Tristan was its lyricism, which the typical German conductor doesn’t bring to the work…I always loved the lyrical approach to Tristan, which I heard many times from other conductors, but never in such a degree as from Toscanini. I would say his Tristan was like an Italian opera; and curiously enough, some time before Toscanini came to Bayreuth, Siegfried Wagner said Tristan should be sung like an Italian opera…That’s the way Tristan should be sung, because it was not a Teutonic opera.” Ernest Newman, born in 1868, was the leading British music critic of his generation and the author of more than ten books on Wagner. Hearing Toscanini conduct Tristan at Bayreuth he wrote: “I thought I knew that work from end to end and from outside to inside; but I was amazed to find, here and there, a passage coming on me as a new revelation and going through me like a dagger stroke…The total effect was indescribable: I shall remember it and thrill to it to my dying day…” In 1930, Toscanini’s first summer at Bayreuth, he also conducted a new production of Tannhauser. Melchior remembered that the first rehearsal had taken place while Siegfried was hospitalized, and that Toscanini wept through it. Siegfried suffered a heart attack and died during the 1930 festival. Kipnis recalled the concert in the Festspielhaus a few days after the burial. “On the program was the Siegfried-Idyll conducted by Toscanini: it was the most beautiful I have ever heard in my life; and everyone in the audience had tears in his eyes from the sound of this music. Toscanini’s Tannhäuser was different. His approach to every phrase was very soft…It was lyrical.” Daniela Thode was Cosima Wagner’s daughter with Hans von Bülow. She and her half brother, Siegfried planned a gradual light change from the Venusberg to the Wartburg In Tannhäuser. Toscanini insisted that the composer’s instructions for a sudden light change be followed. And in a letter to her he quoted Wagner’s words: “The great transformation scene takes place all at once…the valley bathed in midday sunlight at its brightest.” The cellist and conductor Alfred Wallenstein remembered: “During a rehearsal of Tannhäuser, when Elizabeth entered for Dich, teure Halle, the stage was darkened. Maestro stopped and asked: ‘Why is the stage so dark?’ And Siegfried Wagner said: ‘That’s what Father wanted.’ And Maestro said: ‘Father wanted?! You have the writings of Father?’ They had, of course at Villa Wahnfried…so they went straight into the library, and he took down the particular volume he wanted, turned to the exact page and said: ‘Here! Read!’ And Wagner [wrote] that for Elizabeth’s entrance there should be the brightest lights possible.” Toscanini returned to conduct the following year at the 1931 Bayreuth Festival. He was the favorite of the Wagner family. There was no Bayreuth festival in 1932. In 1933, Toscanini agreed to conduct five performances of Parsifal and eight of Die Meistersinger. However at the end of January 1933, Hitler 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 a month later he informed the Wagner family that he would not be returning to Bayreuth. Several years later he referred to giving up Bayreuth as the deepest sorrow of his life. Siegfried’s daughter, Friedelind Wagner, was strongly influenced by Toscanini’s anti-Fascist and antiracist attitudes and soon became an anti-Nazi renegade in her family. During World War II, Toscanini helped her immigrate to the United States and supported her for a long time. She considered herself to be an honorary stepdaughter of Toscanini and said: “I have yet to meet a great artist whose character is as wonderful as his artistry–except when his name is Toscanini.” In 1936 and ’37 the maestro traveled to Tel-Aviv and trained and conducted the first concerts of a special orchestra comprised of Jewish refugee musicians escaping Nazi persecution. When he returned in 1938, he insisted on conducting the 2 Lohengrin Preludes. This orchestra is now known as the Israel Philharmonic. My mentor, 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.”

Tony Bennett: What an Inspiration!

Anthony Dominic Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926 in Queens New York. His mother was a seamstress and his father was an Italian immigrant who worked as a grocer and instilled in his son a love of art, literature and compassion for human suffering. He died when Tony was just 10 years old. That year Tony sang at the opening of the Triborough bridge. He began singing professionally at age 13 performing as a singing waiter at several Italian restaurants in Queens. He attended New York school of industrial art studying painting and music but dropped out at the age of 16 to help support his family working several low skilled low paying jobs. He fought in World War II in the US Army as an infantry rifle man. In March 1945 he joined the front line in what he later described as a front row seat in hell. He experienced bitter fighting in cold winter conditions often hunkering down in foxholes as the Germans fired on them. Bennett and his company entered Germany engaging in dangerous house to house fighting in town after town to clean out German soldiers. Bennett narrowly escaped death several times. The experience made him a pacifist. He wrote “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one, and later said it was a nightmare that’s permanent. “I just said this is not life this is not life.” At the wars conclusion he was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp near Landsberg. His first number one song was because of you in 1951. rags to riches and stranger in paradise followed in 1953. And in 1962 Bennett recorded his signature song I left my heart in San Francisco, which won Grammy awards for record of the year and best male solo vocal performance. Frank Sinatra said “For my money Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what a composer has in mind, and probably a little more.” A firm believer in the civil rights movement Bennett participated in the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery AL in 1965. He also refused to perform in apartheid South Africa. His career and personal life experienced an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era. By the end of the 1970s Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was performing few concerts outside of Las Vegas. He had developed a drug addiction, was living beyond his means, and the IRS was intending to seize his Los Angeles home. In 1979 after a near fatal cocaine overdose Bennett called his two sons for help saying: look I’m lost here. it seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make.” His son Danny then became his father’s manager and succeeded in getting his fathers expenses under control, moved him back to New York and began booking him in colleges and small theaters. He also began a successful plan to pay back the IRS, and began to regularly book his father on late night with David Letterman, on late night with Conan O’Brien, the Simpsons, Muppets Tonight, and various MTV programs. Bennett staged a come back in the late 1980s and 90s. Bennett has so frequently donated his time to charitable causes that he is sometimes nicknamed Tony benefit. In 2010 Bennett sang on the we are the World 25 for Haiti to raise aid after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He has received the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees humanitarian award. He wrote: “there is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences ranging from the battle of the bulge to marching with Martin Luther King made me a lifelong humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior. In 2011 Columbia records released a 73 CD set which is not even complete! In 2012 Bennett performed I left my heart in San Francisco in front of more than 100,000 fans commemorating the 2012 World Series victory by the San Francisco Giants. That year he published another memoir, life is a gift: the Zen of Bennett and a documentary was produced by his son Danny also entitled the Zen of Bennett. In 2016 at the age of 90 Bennett was honored by the unveiling of a statue of his likeness in front of the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco where he first sang I left my heart in San Francisco in 1961. In 2018 after almost 69 years, he re-recorded Gershwin’s song fascinating rhythm which according to Guinness world records earned him the title of longest time between the release of an original recording and a re-recording of the same single by the same artist. Bennett was commissioned by the United Nations to do two paintings including one for its 50th anniversary. His painting Central Park is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. Each of his paintings and drawings sell for as much as $80,000! Many of his works were published in the art books Tony Bennett: what my heart has seen and Tony Bennett in the studio: a life of art and music. Regarding his choices of repertoire he stated I’m not staying contemporary for the big record companies I don’t follow the latest fashions I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and 30s there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic renaissance. Cole Porter Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. these are classics and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. this is classical music.” He is a recipient of New York City’s bronze medallion, the national endowment for the arts jazz masters award, a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and has been honored by the art institute of Boston, Roosevelt University’s musical college George Washington University, the Cleveland Institute of music, the Juilliard school, Fordham University, and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Berkeley College of music. He has received 19 Grammy awards including a lifetime achievement award and 2 PrimeTime family awards. He was named a national endowment of the arts jazz master and a Kennedy Center honoree. Bennett has sold over 50 million records worldwide, several of them have gone gold and platinum. As the New York Times put it “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.” His duet with the Jewish pop singer, Amy Winehouse on body and Soul was the last recording she made before her death. He has attracted acclaim for his collaborations with Lady Gaga starting with the album cheek to cheek in 2014 and the release of their second album love for sale in 2021. The cheek to cheek album earned him the Guinness world record for the oldest person to reach number one on the US album chart with a newly recorded album at the age of 88 years and 69 days. In 2014 Bennett performed for the first time in Israel in Tel Aviv and with Lady Gaga at Hayarkon Park. Bennett broke the individual record for the longest span of top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart for any living artist. He also broke the Guinness world record for the oldest person to release an album of new material at the age of 95 and 60 days. Bennett’s final televised performance was with Lady Gaga on December 16, 2021 on MTV unplugged. The special had been filmed five months before. He had no intention of retiring saying about Pablo Casals, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire: “right up to the day they died they were performing. if you are creative you get busier as you get older.” Bennett continued to record and tour steadily doing 100 shows a year by the end of the 90s. The good life: the autobiography of Tony Bennett was published in 1998 and he has sold over 50 million record worldwide. In February of 2021 his family revealed that Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Due to the slow progression of his illness he continued to record, tour, and perform. In August of 2021 at the age of 95 he performed at radio city music hall in New York City with Lady Gaga. A week later his son announced his retirement stating that though his father remained a capable singer he was becoming physically frail and risked a major fall if he were to continue touring. Bennett died in New York in 2023. He was 96 years young.  

The Genius of George Gershwin

George Gershwin was born on Sept. 26, 1898 in Brooklyn. He was named after his grandfather Jacob Gershovitz. His father was from St. Petersburg, Russia, and his mother was from Vilnius, Lithuania. His brother Ira, originally named Israel, was born 2 years earlier. They had a younger brother, Arthur, and a younger sister, Frances, and grew up on the Lower East Side in the Yiddish theatre district. George’s favorite past time was roller skating. He always had poor grades, and dropped out of high school his freshman year. At age 12, his mother had a used upright piano brought into their home, and he immediately demonstrated a great passion for the instrument. He studied with several piano teachers, each time requiring more advanced instruction because his pianistic skills developed quite rapidly. He also took private lessons in music theory, harmony, orchestration and composition. As a young teen, Gershwin began attending concerts of the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra, and when he returned home he would recall the music he heard, both in his mind, and as best as he could at the piano. At 15 he got his first job, working as a pianist for a music publisher. His task was to advertise popular songs of the day with the intent to sell the sheet music to these songs. There was no radio in those days, no movies with sound, and the machines with the large horns upon which records were played were not yet commonly owned, so the way people experienced music was either by attending vaudeville shows in a theatre or by purchasing sheet music to play and sing at home. Gershwin played and sang these songs in music stores, dept. stores, cafes, bars, at silent movie theatres, and between events in sports arenas. Because he was such a piano virtuoso, he was quite successful at making any song sound very attractive to the prospective buyers of the sheet music. His rhythms had a striking impact, and his use of harmony was way ahead of his time. He wanted very much to compose his own songs, and became disinterested in plugging other people’s songs. After a few years he abruptly quit his job and then worked as a freelance pianist in vaudeville theatres, as an accompanist to singers, and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows. He loved Irving Berlin and called him America’s Schubert. Irving Berlin thought about hiring him as an assistant and secretary, but then instead, encouraged George to continue on his own path. When he was 18, one of the most popular vaudeville stars of the time, Sophie Tucker, heard his song “When you want ‘em you can’t get ‘em; when you get ‘em, you don’t want ‘em. Based on her recommendation it became his first song that was ever published. Then Jerome Kern’s publisher, Max Drefus, who believed in the young man’s talent and potential, offered Gershwin $35 a week, basically subsidizing him, with the expectation that his hunch would pay off. Gradually more of Gershwin’s songs were published. In 1919 he composed Swanee with lyrics by Irving Caesar and Al Jolson requested to sing it. Within a year a million copies of the sheet music, and 2,250,000 recordings of it were sold. It was Gershwin’s all time biggest commercial success. One of his jobs was recording songs on piano rolls. He actually recorded 140 piano rolls including Swanee In 1922 Gershwin composed a one act jazz opera performed at the Globe Theatre, called Blue Monday, set in Harlem, with an all black cast. It’s about a jealous woman who has been led to believe her lover is cheating on her. When a telegram for him arrives, she assumes it’s from the other woman and demands to see it. Her lover refuses and she shoots him. Then he reads it and discovers that it’s actually a telegram informing him about his mother’s death. His lover asks to be forgiven, which he does, and the curtain comes down as he sings about going to heaven to be united with his mother. I’m struck by its great lyrical beauty. One critic wrote: “The most dismal, stupid and incredible black-face sketch that has probably ever been perpetrated.” The conductor of the opera was none other than Paul Whiteman, known then as the “King of Jazz”. He loved it and asked Gershwin to compose a jazz piano concerto. The result, in 1924, was Rhapsody in Blue! In the audience for the world premiere played by Gershwin with Whiteman conducting were Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, the conductors Walter Damrosch and Leopold Stokowski, the composers Victor Herbert, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff! Gershwin recorded it in the 20s! Gershwin played the famous melody much faster than we always hear it played by others. It was an enormous success at its world premiere inspiring an instantaneous standing ovation at its conclusion. It has become the most frequently played concert work by an American composer, and at age 26 made George Gershwin a rich man and the most famous composer in the U.S. Among excerpts from the reviews we find these statements: “How sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment.” Another critic: “It runs off into empty passage work and meaningless repetition.” Another called it “crude.” And another wrote: “weeping over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so static, so inexpressive.” Gershwin wanted to write truly great music. He wanted to continue to develop and go deeper. He had obstacles though: It was very easy for him to write a new pop song, which would earn him a lot of money in royalties. He had a need to be the center of attention. And the roaring 20s were a time of superficiality. Gershwin kept in good shape by doing calisthenics, and was a good dancer and athlete. In his home he had a punching bag, a rowing machine, and he loved ping pong. Those who knew him best said that the smiling, handsome young man surrounded by friends and acquaintances at parties was really a very lonely young man and that he may have used music to fill an emptiness in his life. In 1925 Walter Damrosch invited George to compose a piano concerto, which had its world premiere in Carnegie Hall with the NY Philharmonic and then was repeated in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It was an enormous success; the audience gave it a standing ovation. Arturo Toscanini conducted it with Gershwin’s close friend, Oscar Levant. The 1st movement, passages of great lyricism. Toscanini liked Gershwin very much as a composer and as a person. And one area of common ground was their love of music that sang. Toscanini really got the musicians to sing on their instruments. After the world premiere one critic called the concerto conventional, trite, at its worst a little dull. Another wrote that it was “fragmentary, uncertain in form” and another wrote “much less interesting than the Rhapsody in Blue.” Walter Damrocsh commissioned Gershwin to compose another work for the NY Philharmonic. While visiting Paris, Gershwin soaked up the sights and sounds of the bubbling city and while there, asked to study with the Queen of composition teachers, Nadia Boulanger. He also wanted to study with Ravel. Both declined to teach him, advising him to continue on his own individual path. In fact both of Ravel’s piano concertos may very well have been influenced by Gershwin. The composition he wrote for Damrosch was An American in Paris, and it was another instant success at its world premiere in 1928. It’s interesting that many critics wrote that Toscanini didn’t have an affinity for this music. Yet, when compared to the recording made with Gershwin’s participation, the tempi are identical. The beginning of the piece includes real taxi horns that Gershwin brought back from Paris with him. Again, Toscanini got a beautiful singing quality out of the NBC Symphony. The music fully captures the rhythms and spirit of Paris in 1928. Among the critic’s reviews after the world premiere were “Nauseous claptrap…patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane’ Blunt brutality—ballyhoo vulgarity.” Gershwin thrived on being worshipped. A friend said: “George needed praise and admiration.” In 1930 Gershwin auditioned Ethel Merman for the show Girl Crazy. She was then unknown. He was so impressed that he asked her if she wanted him to make any changes in the songs for the new show. In 1932 Gershwin vacationed in Cuba, and was immediately taken by the rhythms and many percussion instruments he was encountering for the first time. When he retuned home he composed his Cuban Overture. Unlike his brother Ira, George was very extroverted, and frequently went to parties, where he often played the piano for hours. People just couldn’t get enough of his dynamic playing! I’ve got another surprise for you! In 1934 Gershwin was even given his own radio show. He was very wealthy, and very popular with audiences here and in Europe. He constantly attracted and was attracted to beautiful women. Yet, he still wasn’t artistically fulfilled. He felt there was more music he wanted to compose, of a more serious nature. He had frequent stomach problems, and would become depressed. He complained to his friends; “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t fall in love.” Actually the one woman he did fall in love with was Paulette Goddard, but she was married to Charlie Chaplin. No matter. George asked her to leave Chaplin and marry him, which she refused to do. In 1930 Otto Kahn, a philanthropist and arts patron, commissioned Gershwin to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Gershwin decided to base his opera, Porgy and Bess, on the best selling novel of Dubose Heyward. It is set in Charleston, South Carolina, and calls for an all black cast. Gershwin said it was going to be “a labor of love.” He spent the summer of 1934 living on Folly Island, near Charleston, where he soaked up the local music and did a lot of composing and painting. Dubose worked on the libretto, and Ira joined them on the project. George called it a folk opera. When it was completed the following summer the piano vocal score was 560 pages long. The orchestra score was 700 pages. It was more than 4 hours of music! Being a practical man of the theatre, Gershwin made many cuts to shorten the enormous length. The Met decided not to produce it, since they didn’t have any black singers on their roster and Gershwin insisted it be sung by a black cast. The world premiere was given on Sept. 30th 1935 in Boston, and opened on Broadway 10 days later. One critic wrote: “It does not utilize all the resources of the operatic composer.” Another wrote: “The song hits which he has scattered through the score mar it. They are cardinal weaknesses.” A third wrote: “Porgy is falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed.” And another wrote: “The score sustains no mood. There is neither a progressive nor an enduring tension to it.” It was a commercial failure and Gershwin lost the money he had invested in it. Next Ira and George were asked to create the music for 2 movies: A Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance? With Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. George was becoming an increasingly lonely man. He was frustrated with writing music for Hollywood. He told his friends that he had a compete string quartet in his head, which he never got the time to write down. His third and unfinished movie was The Goldwyn Follies. At a concert during which he was playing his Piano Concerto, he thought at one point the lights had completely gone out, and he suddenly smelled the stench of burning rubber. He soon lost his usual energy, and began experiencing violent headaches. Then he lost his coordination. While eating, a knife would fall from his grasp, he would spill water on himself when drinking from a glass, bright lights hurt his eyes, and the smell of burning rubber continued. He became depressed, and when he consulted doctors, he was told that it was because of nerves. On July 9, 1937 he collapsed in the bathroom and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He died 2 days later from a brain tumor that had gone undiagnosed until his coma. By then it was too late. He was 38. About all those negative reviews: Gershwin said: “I am one of those people who honestly believe that the majority has much better taste and understanding, not only of music, but of any of the arts than it is credited with having.”                        

Tribute to Charlie Chaplin

“Humor preserves our sanity. Because of humor we are less overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life.” Charlie Chaplin was born in England in 1889. His parents were music hall entertainers. When Charlie was 2 his parents separated, and his father did not give any financial support. Chaplin’s mother was unable to support herself and her two sons and at 7 Chaplin and his brother were placed in an institution for destitute children. At age 9 his mother was committed to a mental asylum. His father, an alcoholic, died 2 years later from cirrhosis of the liver. 
Chaplin began performing on stage at age 5 and left school at 13, supporting himself with odd jobs. His great ambition was to be an actor. The young comedian was successful touring England and the U.S. in vaudeville shows. At that time he was said to be unsociable, shy and moody. At 24 he was invited by Keystone Studios to make his first movies. He soon created the character of the little tramp and began directing his own films. He went on to create 81 movies! The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda has written about Chaplin’s appreciation for his mother, who taught her son the art of pantomime. Ikeda wrote: “She played a major role in his becoming an actor and comedian. No matter how famous he became, Charlie always had a sense of appreciation toward his mother.” “If I have amounted to anything, or ever do amount to anything, it will be due to my mother.” He soon hired 20 year-old Edna Purviance as his leading lady with whom he had an affair. They made 35 films together. At the end of that first year his movies were so popular that he was offered the equivalent in 2016 of 30K a week and a bonus of 240K! In Dec. of 1915 he was offered 10K a week the equivalent of 240K per week today. At age 26 Chaplin was making the 2016 equivalent of 16 million dollars. Chaplin had literally become the most famous man in the world! He was given his own studio and later referred to his years there as the happiest period of his career. Chaplin personally edited all his films and composed the music that accompanies them. The song Smile is his best known composition. Chaplin played the violin, cello and piano, as a teenager, practiced 4-6 hours a day and had great ambitions to be a concert artist, but gave up when he realized he couldn’t achieve excellence as an instrumentalist. Chaplin was also a conductor. In 1917 Chaplin purchased 5 acres in L.A. on which he built his own studio, and gained complete control over every aspect of filmmaking. He soon created United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and quietly married his first wife, Mildred Harris, a 17 year-old actress he believed he had impregnated. It turns out she wasn’t pregnant at that time, but a year later a son was born deformed, and died after 3 days. They divorced the following year. A month after the death of his son, Chaplin began filming The Kid, co-starring 4 yr old Jackie Coogan who Chaplin discovered. It’s a serious film about an abandoned baby the tramp finds and raises on his own. The film is a reflection of Chaplin’s childhood. Chaplin was the most incredibly versatile actor. In the film A Woman, It’s hard to believe that it’s actually him. Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. Stan Laurel said “He just absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know.” In The Adventurer the chase scene is one of Chaplin’s masterful achievements. Chaplin was a perfectionist and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a movie. He took longer to shoot a movie than any other filmmaker at that time. 
It was common for him to film 50 or more takes for every finished take he used in a film. Chaplin said that he would shoot 20 hours of film for a movie that lasted only 40 min. Nijinsky told Chaplin that his comedy was balletic, and that he was a dancer. For most of his movies there was no written script. He improvised as he went along, filming all the rehearsals of a scene. When he ran out of ideas, he would stop filming, sometimes for days, keeping the studio and his employees standing by until the inspiration returned. When asked how he got ideas, he responded: “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness. One must have the capacity to suffer anguish, and sustain enthusiasm over a long period of time. “At the completion of a picture I would be left depressed and exhausted, so that I would have to rest in bed for a day.” This relentless pursuit of perfection caused severe mental anguish, was extremely costly, and Chaplin would become very agitated, lashing out at the actors and crew. Chaplin was not only an athlete, a dancer, an acrobat and a mime; he was also a virtuoso skater. In The Rink the meticulous, perfectly timed choreography is amazing! In 1924 and 25 Chaplin spent a million dollars filming the movie he said he wanted to be remembered by: The Gold Rush. In one scene Charlie and his friend are stranded in a cabin high up on a mountain during a blizzard. They’ve run out of food and Chaplin prepares a gourmet meal consisting of his shoe. He savors the shoe laces as if he were eating spaghetti!
During the production of the Goldrush he began an affair with his 2nd wife, Lita Grey, a 15 year-old who became pregnant with their son Charles. They were secretly married in Mexico and their 2nd son, Sydney was born a year later. A bitter divorce settlement that year and a claim by the IRS that he owed a million dollars in back taxes resulted in c experiencing a nervous breakdown and he attempted to jump out of a window of his attorney’s apartment. The courts ordered him to pay a divorce settlement of 825K including support for his 2 sons. Chaplin was worried that his creative powers might become damaged. “My ability as an actor is very frail–you don’t know whether the spark will die.” His next great film, City Lights, took over 2 years to make. Chaplin said that he had “worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection.” In fact he made 342 takes just of the opening scene before he was satisfied! City Lights became his personal favorite. The tramp falls in love with a blind girl. He manages to raise the money to pay for an operation which cures her of her blindness. She thinks it is a millionaire that has helped her. In the film’s final scene, c meets the girl again, and when she holds his hand, she recognizes his touch. It is only then that she realizes it was the tramp that paid for her surgery. The girl was played by 20 year-old Virginia Cherrill. Chaplin experienced great highs and devastating lows. At times he had tremendous pride in his achievements, at other times he had terrible doubts: No one will laugh. I’ll be ruined.” In 1932 he met his 3rd wife, the 21 year-old actress, Paulette Goddard whose original name was Marion Levy, and in 1936 cast her in his next film, Modern Times, which he described as “a satire on our industrial life”. He feared that machinery in the workplace would increase the dire unemployment levels of the Great Depression. Modern Times has an unbelievable skating scene which Chaplin performs blindfolded!
Goddard also starred in his next movie, The Great Dictator and divorced him in 1942. Chaplin’s affair with Joan Barry in 1941 and 42 and her fraudulent paternity suit became the source of a sensational smear campaign against him by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and gossip columnists. Hoover’s surveillance of c dates as far back as 1922. During this scandalous controversy Chaplin, then 54, married playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, resulting in Eugene O’Neill disowning his daughter. They had become a couple when she was 17, they had 8 children together, and remained married for 34 years until Chaplin’s death. In 1952 the Chaplin family traveled to England for the world premiere of his film Limelight. The day after leaving the US his re-entry permit was revoked based on his political views and moral behavior.
Even though Chaplin had lived and worked in the US for 40 years he never became an Am citizen. Accused of being a communist, Chaplin said: “My sin was and still is, being a nonconformist. Although I am not a comm, I refused to fall in line by hating them. I am what u call a peace monger.” He considered himself a citizen of the world. Chaplin sold his home and film studio in California and purchased a 16 room mansion on a 37 acre estate in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva, where he lived until his death. Chaplin died in his sleep on Christmas day, 1977. He was 88. Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator is an incredible tour de force. Chaplin made Hitler an object of ridicule and showed how comedy could be a potent weapon and an excellent morale builder. “For me the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule imposters and conceited people in high places and it would be harder to find a bigger imposter than Hitler. He was the best target in the world for satire and mockery.” Costa-gravas, film director and producer said: “After doing research on the period, I realized how deeply historical and deeply intelligent the film is.” The Globe scene has been called the greatest scene in all of cinema. Chaplin’s films were banned by the Nazis because they considered Chaplin to be the very embodiment of the jew. When asked in 1915 if it was true that he was Jewish, he responded, “I have not that good fortune.” The Nazis published a pamphlet of photos of Jews including one of Chaplin with a caption that read “The little Jewish tumbler, as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin responded by playing a Jew in The Great Dictator and announced, “I did this film for the Jews of the world.” The European profits from the film went to a fund created by c to support the tens of thousands of German Jews trying to escape Nazi persecution. c was dubbed the 20th century Moses and he never tried to dispel the misunderstanding concerning his roots. He told one journalist “I never protested when someone said I was a Jew because I would have been proud to be one.” Costa–Gravas said: “What’s incredible is that he wrote the script in ’37 & ’38. What’s surprising today is the silence around h at that time. h&m were then at the peak of their glory and were regarded with great admiration. Hitler had saved Germany from communism and had totally revived the economy. All the big companies saw Germany as a country with which they could do a lot of business, so h. wasn’t to be meddled with. Whereas Chaplin looked into history and saw the future, the great spiritual and political leaders of the world couldn’t see it and remained on Hitler’s side. But Chaplin was a visionary. He saw what was going to happen later. In The Great Dictator the actor who plays Goering says ‘I’ve just discovered a poison gas that will kill everybody.’ So in the film there’s indirect talk of zyclon as early as 1938. Knowing now what they didn’t know then you realize Chaplin had been right. He was a visionary.” He also mocked Mussolini. It took remarkable insight and courage to make a strongly anti Nazi film. The Hollywood bosses didn’t want to adversely affect the distribution of their films in Germany and Italy. The reactions in Hollywood were hostile and malicious. Chaplin received death threats and was warned that there was a good chance that the film would be banned in certain countries resulting in a major financial loss. Despite additional pressure from the diplomatic sphere, Chaplin made up his mind to go ahead with the picture, and during the Great Depression spent 2 million dollars of his own money to make the film. In fact he said he would rent his own halls to show the movie if he couldn’t get it into theatres. He wanted to warn people about the terrible danger of Hitler and persuade America to take the right stand, and his only weapon, his absolute weapon would be laughter. Chaplin later stated “Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps I could not have made The Great Dictator.” Chaplin began shooting the film on 9/9/39 six days after Hitler began WW II by invading Poland. Chaplin also played the role of the dictator’s double, a Jewish barber. The legendary shaving scene is brilliantly choreographed to Brahms’s 5th Hungarian Dance. During production Chaplin had 2nd thoughts about finishing The Great Dictator, but Pres. Roosevelt indicated that HE wanted to see the film completed. It opened in New York City in Oct. 1940. It opened 2 mos. later in London where it lifted people’s spirits during Hitler’s aerial bombings of England. The ending of the movie is a 6 min. speech given by the barber who is mistaken for the dictator. It was filmed 1 week after the fall of France. Chaplin shot this scene last, rewriting, and reshooting for a full three months. And it’s the first film in which Chaplin’s voice was heard speaking! In 1972 Chaplin returned to the U.S. for the 1st time in 20 years to be honored by the film industry. “I’ve been through a hell of a lot.”

Victorious Tina Turner

Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock on Nov. 26, 1939 in a village in Tennessee called Nutbush. Her family lived in a 2-room sharecroppers’ shack. When she was 10, Tina’s mother left the family, and her father left two years later. She was shuffled around from relative to relative and felt she didn’t belong anywhere. As a pre-teen she was employed as a domestic worker for a white family. At 16 she went to live with her sister and mother in St. Louis, Missouri. After high school Tina worked as a nurse’s aid at a hospital. She soon met Ike Turner, who was a popular musician in St. Louis, the leader of the Kings of Rhythm Band. She began singing with his band, and soon became its featured performer. What started out as a platonic relationship changed into something else through Ike’s force. When Tina rejected him he beat her. She thought: “You have really gotten yourself into something.” Many of he words that I quote from Tina Turner are from her autobiography: I, Tina. “After I gave birth to our son he insisted that I sing two days later for an engagement in Oakland. I bled a lot when I hit the high notes that night. “It was constant hard work: if we weren’t on stage we were on the road to the next show. If we weren’t on the road we were in the studio; in every city no matter where we were, he’d find a studio to work at. If we weren’t recording we were rehearsing, running down songs, and working out steps. It was nothing to drive 700 miles from one show to the next, Ike sitting in the backseat with his guitar and us singing and practicing new tunes all the way; it never stopped. “Out of nowhere he would leap up from a couch and walk right up to you and pow! and you’d go: what did I do? What’s wrong? And he’d hit me again. It was insane. It got to be that I always had a black eye and a busted lip. He would beat me with shoes and shoe trees. Then he would have sex with me; it was torture. I always had a cut on my head somewhere, always had bruises, and later I’d be on stage trying to sing through these cuts and swollen lips. “One night Ike said do you want to marry me? I said yeah because if you said no to Ike you were just going to get beat up. I knew that I didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to be another one of the five hundred women he had around him, but I was scared. Sometimes I’d see him fooling around with one of the Ikettes or picking up women from the audience, sending me home early. He started renting party rooms at the hotels we stayed at just for him and the band and the women they’d bring back from the show. I was never allowed in there. Later on, the party rooms became party suites. I was jealous, but I couldn’t say anything to Ike because you never knew what he’d do.” Ike’s business manager, Ann Cain said: “One time in Dallas I saw him stick a lit cigarette up her nose and he would beat her with clothes hangers for no reason. One night I could hear him beating her up in their dressing room and I went in the room just as the fight ended. Tina was covered in blood and Ike had fractured her ribs but Tina stayed because of the children.” Rhonda Graham was the group’s manager and later managed Tina when she started out on her own. She said “You lived in fear; you wanted to get out but you were afraid to, just like Tina, and if somebody did leave, Ike would always track them down.” Tina wrote “I knew I needed something to help me deal with what my life had become, to help me find the way out but I knew that drugs weren’t it.” One of the Ikettes said “She taught me how to be a woman and how to carry myself as a lady, always told me you can’t work and party too, and she lived by that, never drank never smoked always went to bed after every show. She was so strong.” Tina wrote: “When Ann Cain became his mistress Ike set her up in a separate room at our house. I was trapped in the sadistic little cult, totally ashamed and totally without hope. Ike never let me have money; once I asked him for $5 a week just as an allowance and he had said no. The first time I left him I borrowed some money from the Ikettes and my sister and I got on a bus to St Louis to go back to my mother. Well Ike tracked down the bus. I had to get off the bus and go back with him and boy I remember that was the first time I got it with the wire hangers. It was like a horror movie. “After he began abusing cocaine that made him worse. Everything came quicker: getting mad, the fighting, the impatience; it got so you were so scared to say a word to him never knowing how he would react. If I thought it was bad before, the cocaine started making him evil. “One night he threw boiling hot coffee in my face; he said I wasn’t singing the way he wanted. When the coffee hit me it felt like ice and then it started burning and I started screaming. I grabbed my neck where most of it had hit and the skin just peeled right off. I had 3rd degree burns on my face. That scared Ike and you know what he did? He started beating me. My left eye pretty much stayed black and my nose was always swollen. It got so if I happened to roll away from him in bed at night– because he always had to lie in the crook of my arm– and he woke up and noticed, he would start punching me in my sleep. It was like living in hell’s domain.” “I tried leaving him a few more times but he always found me brought me back and beat me. When we were on the road he would always have his mistress, Ann Thomas, in a room right next to ours. One time he got out of our bed, walked through the doors connecting the two rooms, didn’t even bother to close them and got in bed with her, had sex and then came back to bed with me. When I found out that she was pregnant by Ike, I lost all feeling for him as my husband.” 

Tina was becoming a familiar battered face at the local hospital. Nathan Schulsinger, an emergency room nurse at a nearby hospital remembers Tina well. “She would come in pretty bad shape all beat up and bruised face, swollen bloody noses, hematoma on the eyes all puffed out and black.” 

Tina wrote: “It got to the point where I was ready to die. Ike was beating me with phones, with shoes, with the hangers, choking me, punching me. One time right before a show he punched me in the face and broke my jaw and I had to go on and sing anyway with the blood just gushing in my mouth. I felt like I could not take anymore.” Tina went to her doctor and got a prescription for 50 valium pills; she took all 50 of them. She was rushed to the hospital and her life was saved. “As soon as I got out of the hospital Ike made me go right back to work; he forced me; I went on stage trying to sing and hurting so bad. And when I came off I was coughing and throwing up; I didn’t even make it back to the dressing room. I was standing in the hallway all sick and choking and he came up and said ‘It serves you right. You want to die? Then die.’” In Tina’s words: “I was really seeking a change and I knew that it had to come from the inside out, that I had to understand myself and accept myself before anything else could be accomplished.” After years of abuse she desperately needed an change escape from her misery. Then in 1971 she found solace when she was introduced her to Buddhism and chanting. “I found a way to deal without without being so frustrated.” While chanting gave Tina a feeling of inner peace and tranquility it frightened Ike. 

This is the chant she does: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, the Law of the universe, the Law of cause and effect. Tina continues: “After I was introduced to the chanting by a new secretary Ike had hired, I set up an altar in an empty room we had, and when Ike was out I would do the chant and read  the prayer book book. I could feel myself becoming stronger becoming less and less afraid. Then Ike discovered the altar and he blew up and forced me to get rid of it because it scared him a lot. It really scared him for some reason. I thought he was going to faint so I had to get rid of it but that didn’t stop me from chanting whenever I could. Now I could feel the power deep inside me stirring up after all these years. And I would think about Ike’s face and how funny it was to finally see him scared, to know at last that he wasn’t all powerful, and that I could be set free. That’s when I really started chanting.” Tina was chanting more than ever, growing stronger and coming into her own. On the verge of age 36 she felt that a massive transition was at hand, an end to all the old things and the beginning of the new. All the years of fear had left her finally fearless. “I knew I was going somewhere. By now my determination was outweighing my fear of this man. What did I have to lose anymore? By 1976 we had our last fight. I fought back I didn’t care what he did because I was flying. I knew I was gone; that’s when I left him for good. I’m gone and I’m not going back was the attitude.” When Tina left Ike, she only had 36 cents and a gas station credit card with her. In her words: “I moved from place to place for 2 months working my way at each one housekeeping and cleaning. I moved junk stored stuff away, put out the trash, cleaned the cupboards, washed dishes and scrubbed stoves, because that was the only way I could repay these people. I didn’t have any money so I paid my rent by cleaning for them and organizing their closets. I finally had my freedom; god how I dreamed about it for 16 years. My women friends were into the rhythm of chanting. I was chanting up to four hours every day. The chant brings you into harmony with the hum of the universe, that kind of subtle buzz at the center of all being. My friend Anna Maria had a Buddhist altar, so I stayed indoors all day and just chanted and chanted building up my spirit for the trials I knew still lay ahead.” Ike Next Ike sent all four of the children to live with Tina. She continues: “One night all the windows of Rhonda’s house had been blown out with a shotgun. Another night all the windows on my car had been blown out and the car belonging to my son’s girlfriend was set on fire.” To haggle with him over the terms of the divorce, she knew would be to remain tied to the man for as long as he could manage to stall and stymie her. Thus her only ultimate non-negotiable demand, she informed her lawyer, was her freedom. She told him that she wanted to walk away from everything because her life was more important. “What was it like when I walked out and left Ike? Yeah, I was afraid but sometimes you’ve got to let everything go–purge yourself. I did that. I had nothing, but I had my freedom.” Because Tina walked out of the marriage during a concert tour, she was legally responsible for the $500,000 in debts incurred to the concert promoters of the canceled tour and a heavy IRS lien. The Ike and Tina Turner name was now mud with promoters and as a solo act Tina was an unknown commodity. At the age of nearly 37 she found herself starting over at the bottom of the business. “I knew I had talent but what I didn’t have was the backing to get me back into work. I said I don’t have this yet but I’m going to get it. Buddhism changed my old patterns of thought; it taught me to be a positive thinker and helped me stop saying what I can’t do and what I don’t have and start saying what I am going to do. “I never gave in to alcohol, never gave into drugs not even to smoking. I am very proud of how I came up. The whole thing is about earning your way and you don’t really get there until you earn it; that’s the real truth.” In 1988 Tina made the Guinness World Record when she performed in front of the largest paying audience to see a solo performer. 184,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro. And in 2000 Guinness World Records announced that she had sold more concert tickets than any other solo performer in music history. Well into her 50s, Tina was paid 10 million dollars to wear and endorse Hanes pantyhose. Her amazing youthful appearance has been the envy of many. Tina Turner lived in Europe for almost three decades. In 2013, Tina married the German music executive, Erwin Bach, after a 27 year romantic partnership. He was 16 years her junior. That same year she gave up her American citizenship and was issued a Swiss passport. She divided her time between her homes in the mountains of Switzerland and her villa on the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France. It has breathtaking views of the French Riviera, a spectacular pool and all the comforts one could imagine. Mike Wallace: “You feel like you deserve all this?” Tina: “I deserve more! HAHAHA!” 
And on the 2nd floor, a Buddhist altar. Tina Turner credits Buddhism for giving her the strength she needed to get through her rough times and she continues to chant every day. 

Tina wrote: “The real power behind whatever success I have now was something I found within myself—something that’s in all of us, just waiting to be discovered.” At age 73 she became the oldest person in the world to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. “If I look in the mirror in the morning and don’t like what I see I don’t accept it’s because I’m an old woman. I do whatever I can at the moment to bring myself back to life: perhaps a facial mask, a massage, sauna, whatever I can do naturally to return the glow to my face. As long as you’re alive why not keep living as beautifully as you can.” And these words of Tina’s are particularly revealing:
“If I want something I go for it and really push until I get it, and I don’t give up.” In 2013 she had a stroke. Then in 2016 she had intestinal cancer and kidney failure. She received a kidney transplant from her husband. However, her body rejected the new kidney. “‘And I said yes, but darling you’re young and I am already old. I don’t mind.’ In Buddhism you’re taught that you live when you die. It’s something that’s accepted. And so after Irwin said that, I said ‘OK darling if you’re willing to give up a kidney, then fine.’” In 2018 her son Craig took his own life. “I think Craig was lonely. That’s what I think really got him more than anything else. I have pictures al all around of him smiling and I think I’m sensing that he’s in a good place. I really do.” In December of 2022 her son, Ronnie died of colon cancer. In her book, Happiness Becomes You, Tina wrote “I was never shaken, at least not for long. I mustered all my resilience and I know that my ability to smoothly navigate the healing process came from my spiritual training. Throughout many hospital visits and many surgeries I kept this empowering message in mind from Nichiren, the 13th century religious reformer and philosopher. ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is like the roar of a lion. What illness can therefore be an obstacle?’ Remembering this call to courage I summoned my inner lion and roared. I roared and roared and kept roaring until I overcame every health challenge just like I’d overcome every challenge that came before.” In 2019 the very successful musical, Tina, about her life opened in England, Germany and on Broadway. When she turned 80 in 2019 she had this to say: “Yes, I am 80. What did I think, how did I think I would be at 80? How is this? Oh! Well, I look great. Ha Ha Ha Ha! I feel good. I’ve gone through very serious sicknesses that I am overcoming. So it’s like having a second chance of life. I am happy to be an 80 year old woman. I have everything. When I sit at the lake Zürich in the house that I have, I am so serene, no problems. I had a very hard life but I didn’t put blame on anything or anyone. I got through it. I lived through it with no blame and I’m a happy person.” Gayle King: “Here’s to you! You earned it.” Turner: “Cheers!” After a long illness, Tina Turner died in 2023 at her home in Switzerland at 83.  

Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime

Scott Joplin was born in Northeast Texas in 1868 and grew up in Texarkana. His father an ex-slave worked as a laborer for the railroad and played violin. His mother was a maid, played the banjo and sang. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, African Americans were blamed for what their former slave owners lost economically. Therefore there was tremendous opposition to schools for African Americans. The few that existed were frequently attacked and burned. Teachers were whipped and beaten. It was considered the lowest position for a white person to be a teacher of Blacks. However, the Joplin children received private tutoring, paid for with food. By age 7 Scott Joplin became proficient on the banjo and began accompanying his mother to the home of a white family, where she did domestic work, and where he was allowed to play their piano. Scott was a child prodigy. He had perfect pitch and his talent was noticed by some of the local music teachers, who gave him lessons for little or no pay. His parents didn’t get along, and his father left the family when Scott was 12. As a boy, he spent the money he earned doing errands and odd jobs on popular sheet music. Joplin kept to himself and practiced. A family friend recalled: “Scott was earnest. When a bunch of boys got together one night and asked Scott to go with them, he said ‘No sir. I won’t have anything to do with such foolishness. I’m going to make a man out of myself.’” He soon attracted the attention of Julius Weiss, a German Jewish immigrant who had been hired to tutor the children of a wealthy landowner. Weiss taught Joplin for free from age 11 to age 16. He tutored him in folk music, sight-reading, harmony, composition and the music of classical composers. He also helped Joplin’s mother buy a used piano for the boy to practice on at home. Joplin never forgot him, and later in life, sent Prof. Weiss money when he became old and sick until his teacher’s death. Joplin played at church gatherings, taught guitar and mandolin, and at 16 formed a vocal quartet. He was a quiet, introverted person, yet he had a magnetic personality that attracted people to him. One of his friends recalled “Scott worked on his music all the time. He was a musical genius. He did not have to play anyone else’s music. He made up his own, and it was beautiful. He just got his music out of the air.” Around age 20 he quit his job with the railroad, where he had been working as a laborer and became a traveling musician. He found steady employment in the brothels of the red light districts throughout the mid-south. In 1890 he moved to St. Louis, then known as “The Gateway to the West”. It was filled with saloons, gambling houses and bordellos, where musicians were in constant demand. In 1893 he visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a huge world’s fair, where he formed his 1st band, playing cornet, and piano, and made orchestrations for the band. Ragtime music originally derived from spirituals and minstrel songs. By 1893 people wanted to break free from the restraints of traditional, Victorian culture. It was a racy alternative to the stuffy, respectable Victorian parlor music. Instead of Victorian genteel self control, ragtime’s rhythmic exuberance created an irresistible urge to dance. Its syncopated rhythm was an exciting departure from the usual order and regularity of waltzes, marches, hymns and dreamy ballads. But its popularity was controversial. At first Ragtime was not considered suitable for polite society. It was associated with lowlifes, saloons and bordellos. It was called “a disease, an epidemic, a rapidly increasing mania, and the source of physical and mental disturbances such as a frenzied mind, and abnormal heart action!” The criticisms were due to the vulgar lyrics of the songs, which Joplin deplored. Most of his rags are purely instrumental, without words. In order to promote Joplin’s music to respectable middle class families, his publisher advertised Joplin’s music as “classic rags…that have lifted Ragtime from its low estate and lined it up with Beethoven and Bach.” In the 1890s piano manufacturers began making inexpensive pianos. By the end of the century there were 400 companies in the U.S. manufacturing 150,000 pianos a year, and many middle class families purchased pianos for their homes, which created the demand for ragtime sheet music. In 1894 Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he played 2nd cornet in the Queen City Concert Band, taught piano, sang in choirs, and worked as a piano accompanist. He composed Victorian songs, piano pieces, marches and waltzes. He performed at Black clubs and sang and conducted a male vocal octet called the Texas Medley Quartet with which he toured for 3 years. He also enrolled at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in the mid 1880s where he studied advanced harmony, theory and composition. Joplin’s colleagues recalled that he was always ready to help a fellow composer and never uttered a word of jealousy or condemnation. It was in Sedalia that Joplin’s dramatic rise to fame occurred and he became known as the King of Ragtime. In 1899 he met John Stark, a local music storeowner and publisher. After hearing Joplin play his Maple Leaf Rag at the Maple Leaf Club, Stark decided to publish it and sold it for 50 cents per copy. He paid Joplin no money up front and only a royalty of 1 cent per copy sold. Thus began one of the legendary relationships in the history of American music based on mutual respect between a white businessman and a black composer. The Maple Leaf Rag only sold 400 copies the 1st year. Commenting on the fact that his music was not appreciated, Joplin said: “Maybe 50 years after I am dead it will be.” Not long after the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin composed The Ragtime Dance, a dramatic Ragtime folk ballet of 10 pieces with a vocal introduction and narration. He established the Scott Joplin Drama Company, and rented the Woods Opera House to put on 1 performance. Scott played the piano and conducted the orchestra. His publisher, John Stark was there, but the sales of the Maple Leaf Rag hadn’t begun to take off yet and Stark wouldn’t publish the ballet. Joplin was disappointed and it became a source of tension in their relationship. Three years later Joplin again produced a private performance of the Ragtime Dance, and this time Stark published it, but it didn’t sell well. Also in 1899 Scott began a common law marriage with Belle Jones and they soon moved to a house in St. Louis where he composed and was a respected teacher. To supplement their income, Belle rented out several of the rooms transforming it into a boarding house. Their relationship was difficult, one reason being that Belle had no interest in music. They had a baby daughter, who died only a few months after birth. They soon separated, and a few years later Belle died. In the fall of 1903 Joplin established the Scott Joplin Ragtime Opera Company with which produced his first opera: A Guest of Honor, and took it on tour. During the tour, the box office proceeds were stolen and the company was forced to abandon the remainder of the tour. The opera was never published and the music was lost. It has never been found. He returned to St. Louis after the tour, and then moved back to Sedalia in 1904. That year Scott married Freddie Alexander. She caught a cold that progressed into pneumonia and died at the age of 20, just 10 weeks after their wedding. Following her funeral, Scott left Sedalia and never returned. 1905 was a very non-productive period for Joplin. Though Joplin’s ballet and opera didn’t spark any interest, his shorter compositions did. The Ragtime waltzes, 2 steps, and Slow Drags were very popular. By 1900 Ragtime was becoming a national craze. Sales of the music of the Maple Leaf Rag exploded! It has been played and recorded more than any other Ragtime piece. His rags are very difficult to play. Therefore the public demanded a simpler form of ragtime music. In response, composers came up with a less complicated and more commercial style. Talented pianists began to play the rags faster and faster, showing off their virtuoso techniques and delighting and exciting the listeners. New York was a large, busy city, where faster and more nervous speeds of musical performance became the norm. The resulting tinny sound is where the name Tin Pan Alley came from. It was the genre of these New York City ragtime musicians. Tin Pan Alley was characterized by an underground, bohemian lifestyle: fast paced and lots of alcohol and drugs. Deaths from drug overdose and syphilis were common. Joplin’s music was meant as a serious genre, not the music of a carnival atmosphere. Therefore his performances were less flashy than those of the virtuoso pianists and he often included these instructions on page 1 of his compositions: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.” In 1908 he wrote and published an instructional manual consisting of exercises in the correct way to play Ragtime. It’s called School of Ragtime–6 Exercises for Piano. In 1909 Joplin met and married Lottie Stokes. They moved into a house in New York City on W. 47th St., which Lottie ran as a theatrical boarding house, and where Scott gave violin and piano lessons. After a few years they moved to W.138th St. in Harlem. They later moved to W. 131st St. where Lottie rented out rooms to boarders and prostitutes. He gradually performed less frequently, and devoted his time to composing and teaching. Sadly, some of Scott’s friends began deserting him and he was unable to penetrate the circle of black entertainers in Harlem. Amazingly, as Ragtime became the nations favorite music, The King of Ragtime got lost in the shuffle. This period also marked the development of the mechanical player piano—the pianola. These pianos used a paper roll, on which pianists made recordings, which then reproduced their performances on player pianos in homes. This resulted in fewer people purchasing the difficult sheet music of Joplin’s compositions. His 2nd opera, Treemonisha, is a folk opera that takes place on a plantation in Arkansas in 1884. A married couple desires to have a child who they would educate to grow up and teach their people to discard their beliefs in superstition. Their desire comes to fruition and they name her daughter Treemonisha. The opera deals with the birth and rise of a female black leader who leads her people out of ignorance and superstition, teaching the concepts of self-determination and self-government. Joplin worked on Treemonisha for 15 years, creating a thoroughly American opera. He was an optimist with a mission. In 1911 Joplin tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for Treemonisha. He therefore published it himself and then orchestrated it. It consists of 27 musical numbers. After searching for two years for a backer to produce the opera, the manager of the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem decided to stage it. However, the theatre then changed management, and the new manager decided not to produce it. For 2 more years Scott tried to interest backers. Finally, in 1915 he rented the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem and put on a concert version performance for an invited audience with himself at the piano, with the aim of attracting financial backers. The performance was a failure. No one was interested. The finale: Marching Onward implies that education, hard work, and morality will translate into progress for Americans. Its fundamental message was that education was essential for freedom. However, NewYork’s African American cultural leaders couldn’t identify with its message because they had had excellent formal education; they were not from the South, and knew very little about the oppressive plantation life. Scott was heart broken, and plunged into despair, suffering a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged and worn out. For several weeks he was inconsolable. His wife stated after his death: “He was a great man, a great man! He wanted to be a real leader. He wanted to free his people from poverty and ignorance, and superstition, just like the heroine of his opera Treemonisha. That’s why he was so ambitious; that’s why he tackled major projects. In fact, that’s why he was so far ahead of his time…” At the end of his life Joplin was working on his 1st Symphony. But he began suffering from the effects of syphilis. Sometimes, when he tried to compose, his mind went blank. He would sit at the piano and not be able to remember his own music. A few months before his death he burned most of the manuscripts of his unfinished compositions. He experienced deep depressions, lost his physical coordination, and eventually lost his sanity. In 1917 he was taken to the Manhattan State Hospital for mental illness on Ward’s Island where he died two months later at the young age of 49. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Queens, New York that remained unmarked for 57 years. Then in 1970 Knocky Parker recorded a 2 record set of Joplin’s music for Audiophile Records. That same year Joshua Rifkin recorded an album of Joplin’s piano rags for the Nonesuch classical label. It sold 100,000 copies in its 1st year and became Nonesuch’s 1st million-selling record. Scott Joplin was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1971 the New York Public Library published 2 volumes of Joplin’s music and excerpts from Treemonisha were performed at the Lincoln Center Library with piano accompaniment. In 1972 Robert Shaw conducted the world premiere of Treemonisha with the Atlanta Symphony and singers from Morehouse College. It was 61 years since Joplin had published it. In 1973 Gunther Schuller arranged and conducted an album of Joplin’s rags with the New England Ragtime Ensemble, which won a Grammy award and became Billboard Magazine’s Top Classical Album of 1974. That year London’s Royal Ballet produced a ballet of Joplin’s music called Elite Syncopations and the Los Angeles Ballet produced a ballet of Joplin’s rags entitled Red Back Book. ‘The Sting’ starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1974. Marvin Hamlisch adopted Joplin’s music for its sound track, for which he won an academy award. In 1975 Treemonisha was staged by the Houston Grand Opera, and after going on tour, ran for 8 weeks at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Soprano Kathleen Battle sang the title role and an original Broadway cast recording was produced. In 1976 Joplin was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. In 1983 Joplin received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and his St. Louis home, is now a National Historic Landmark. That year the U.S. Postal Service issued its Scott Joplin stamp.            

Viva Verdi!

Giuseppe Verdi was born in Roncole in northern Italy in 1813. He composed 28 operas. While in his 20s Verdi experienced the death of his 1st wife and the deaths of his infant children. This threw him into a terrible depression. And he refused to continue composing, until he read the libretto of Nabucco. He was twenty-eight when he composed Nabucco.  Its world premiere was at Milan’s La Scala opera house. In Verdi’s day, the country of Italy didn’t yet exist. The Italian peninsula was divided into 10 political units consisting of 2 kingdoms, 3 republics, 4 duchies and a theocracy known as the Vatican. Most of these were dominated by the Austrian Empire. Nabucco broke all box office records at La Scala up until that time. And it was not long before Verdi became a symbol of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian unification. The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “The cries for liberty it inspired in the Italian people spread from heart to heart like wildfire… Filled with pride, they all began singing Verdi’s melodies. After Nabucco Verdi produced a succession of operas to inspire and encourage the people. He composed always and solely for the people. That is where his greatness lies.” Nabucco is based on a story from the bible. The Jews were taken as prisoners, and led by chains to the foreign land of Babylon. In the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco this scene shows the Jews in captivity in Babylon resting after a long day of forced labor. They lament their unhappy fate as prisoners, singing: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate… Go, thought, on golden wings… The thought is of their beloved homeland. They sing: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!” They yearn for their homeland. To Verdi, the suffering of the biblical Jews was similar to the anguish of the Italians under foreign domination. It is the struggle of an oppressed people for freedom. Dr. Ikeda wrote: “It was as if the Italian people’s own subjugation by another country was mirrored back to them. The opera provided ‘wings of hope’ upon which the hearts of those who aspired for Italy’s freedom could majestically soar.” Verdi’s next opera, I Lombardi created a frenzy. It’s about the Lombards on a crusade to the Holy Land. The tenor sings: ‘The Holy Land today will be ours’, to which the chorus and the audience replied, ‘Yes! War! War!’ Pandemonium broke out in the theatres. The choruses from I Lombardi and Nabucco became popular hymns of the revolt in Lombardy and are still taught as patriotic anthems in the elementary schools of northern Italy. Even today Va Pensiero is thought of as Italy’s second national anthem. At most performances, the audiences demanded that it be repeated, despite police prohibitions against encores! In his opera Attila, which is about Attila the Hun, the audiences were electrified by the line ‘You may have the universe, but leave Italy to me’ This quickly became an anti Austrian slogan. His opera La Battaglia di Legnano is about the battle of Legnano, when Italian cities united to defeat the German invader, Frederick Barbarossa in 1176. It was the first Italian victory over a German emperor. Its world premiere took place in Rome. When Verdi was in Rome for the rehearsals, crowds gathered around him whenever he was spotted on the street. At the dress rehearsal a crowd of people broke into the theatre, packing it full, and called Verdi to the stage 20 times. It was illegal for people to gather publically, but going to the opera offered them a way to defy the authorities. Opera was the main form of entertainment. The house lights were kept on, because during performances, the audience would leave their boxes to socialize with each other. These patriotic operas were a weapon against the occupying forces. At the world premiere of La Battaglia di Legnano, pandemonium broke out when the audience heard the opening chorus: “Long live Italy! A sacred pact unites all its children!” The audience became delirious and came close to starting a riot. La Battaglia di Legnano became so popular that at every performance the entire 4th act had to be repeated. The pope had fled the city and 10 days later the Roman republic was established. However this didn’t last very long, and Verdi expressed his frustration to a close friend: “Let us not talk about Rome!! What good would it do? Force still rules the world! And Justice? What can Justice accomplish against bayonets? We can only weep over our misfortunes and curse those who are responsible for so many disasters…I have an inferno in my heart.” Verdi himself stage directed his operas, demonstrating to the singers how to stand, fall, embrace and address each other throughout a 4-6 week period. He rehearsed the singers and the orchestra and conducted the first three performances of almost all of his 28 operas. He was described at rehearsals: “shouting like a mad man, stamping his feet so much that he looked like he was playing the organ, while sweating profusely. He is music from head to foot, fighting for his own ideals, pouring his artistic genius into those men, those women, searing them with his own flame, which burns him, too; running upstage, and stopping the choristers to correct something.” During these early years, Verdi composed an average of 2 operas per year composing from early morning until midnight, usually with one break! His favorite drink was very strong coffee. Verdi referred to this period in his life as his “years of slavery.” As early as age 31 he announced his decision to retire. And when he was 46, he announced that he was definitely retired. In fact this is how he signed one letter “A deputy of central Italy who was stupid enough to write music for many years. G. Verdi” He also wrote: “I cannot wait for these next three years to pass. I have to write six operas, then addio to everything.” But within 2 ½ years the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia commissioned him to write a new opera and he began composing La Forza del Destino, The Force of Destiny. Verdi was a great symphonist. The Preludes and overtures to his operas are phenomenal. Italians began to use Verdi’s name as a political slogan, which expressed their secret support for a new potential king: Vittorio Emanuele. Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy (in Italian): Vittorio Emanuele Re D’ Italia  (abbreviated): V. E. R. D. I. “VIVA VERDI!” (literally): Long Live Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy! “Viva Verdi!” was scratched on walls and shouted in the streets. Verdi became a member of Italy’s first Parliament. Back to Nabucco! The soprano who sang the world premiere of Nabucco was Giuseppina Strepponi. Before meeting Verdi she had had 3 or 4 illegitimate children from different men. They were given to foster homes, and her “reputation” in the opera world was well known. She and Verdi soon became lovers and lived together for 16 years before marrying. She was 2 years younger than him. They both suffered on and off from depression, and the relationship had its ups and downs. From her diaries, we learn that at times Verdi became very angry with her and with their servants, and was unable to control his bad temper. When he was 59 Verdi began an affair with Teresa Stolz, who was the soprano in many of his operas. She was 21 years younger than Verdi. His wife insisted that he end the affair, but Verdi threatened to kill himself. His wife actually befriended the younger woman, and suffered through the affair for years. Nevertheless, Verdi and his wife spent 54 years together and he outlived her by 3 years. Verdi living with Giuseppina Strepponi in the small town of Busetto, caused quite a scandal, and they were terribly mistreated. To get away from everyone, Verdi purchased a home in the country outside the village of St. Agata. When he was 38, Verdi legally separated himself from his parents. His mother died six months later. That same year, Verdi and Giuseppina moved into their new home, and he gradually built it into a grand country estate surrounded by acres of plants and trees. Verdi employed up to 10 house servants and 18 gardeners, even in the winter! As a landlord he sometimes greatly reduced the rent payments, or did not collect them. He also purchased and operated several farms and employed 200 farm laborers whom he personally supervised! He even supervised the construction of a complex irrigation system for his gardens and fields. Verdi’s wife wrote that “His love for the country has become a mania, madness, rage, fury, everything exaggerated. He gets up almost at dawn, to go look at the wheat, the corn, the grapevines, etc. He comes back dropping with fatigue.” He soon had an abundance of farm animals, and loved the physical labor of gardening, and tramping about in the fields. He marked his career by planting selected trees: a sycamore tree for Rigoletto, an oak for Il Trovatore, and a weeping willow for La Traviata! Verdi sold his operas to his publisher, who then leased the operas to various theatres for each performance, and paid Verdi a percentage of these rental fees. For 25 years Verdi prohibited the performances of his operas at La Scala because he found the standard of performances there to be unacceptable. In fact, he had a clause in his contracts that gave him the right to decide which theatres would be allowed to present his operas. In this letter to a close friend, he complains about the theatre in Naples during rehearsals for Aida. “I knew how disorganized this theatre was, but neither I nor anyone else could have imagined it to be like this. The ignorance, the inertia, the apathy, the disorder, the indifference of everyone to everything, is indescribable, and unbelievable. If I hadn’t been such an imbecile as to give my word…I would have gone off even in the middle of the night, to dig my fields and completely forget about music and theatres.” 
He also frequently complained about the Paris Opera Theatre. He wrote to his French publisher that a performance must have “fire, spirit, muscle, enthusiasm; all these are lacking at the Operà.” And he hated when singers or conductors changed his music. His contracts included a clause that called for the publisher to pay him a huge penalty fee if theatres performed his music with cuts, transpositions, or other changes. In another letter he wrote: “I never succeed in producing those sweet words, those phrases that send everybody into raptures. No, I shall never, for instance, know how to say to a singer, ‘What talent! What expression! It couldn’t have been sung better! What a divine voice! What a baritone, there never has been anything like it for fifty years…What a chorus! What an orchestra!…Time and time again I have heard them say in Milan… ‘La Scala is the world’s leading theatre’. In Naples, ‘The San Carlo is the world’s leading theatre’. In St. Petersburg, ‘the world’s leading theatre’. In Vienna, ‘the world’s leading theatre’ (but in their case, it’s true). In Paris they think the Opéra is the leading theatre of two or three worlds. And I end by saying that one second-leading theatre would be better than all these ‘leading’ ones.” To the father of a young playwright he wrote: “…He should imitate no one…Let him put his hand on his heart, and listen to it. He shouldn’t become conceited by praise nor depressed by criticism. He should not fear the darkness that surrounds him. Let him go straight on, and if sometimes, he stumbles and falls, he must get up, and go straight on.” Once a libretto was completed, Verdi memorized it, and then developed his musical ideas slowly, walking around his farm brooding on it until the concept of the whole fell into place. Then he would quickly write it all down in the heat of inspiration. It didn’t take Verdi long to orchestrate his operas. The music came to him in a complete package, both the vocal and orchestral parts. He said: “The thought presents itself whole…The difficulty is always in writing it down fast enough to express the musical thought in its entirety, precisely as it came into my mind.” As a child Verdi had been an altar boy. One day at church when he was 7, he became distracted by the music and wasn’t paying attention to the priest’s instructions. The priest pushed Verdi, and he fell. Humiliated, the young boy cursed the priest, saying: “May god strike you with lightning!” Eight years later, the priest was struck by lightning and killed. In his old age, Verdi’s advice to a young relative was: “Sta lontan dai pret!” Stay far away from priests! In a letter to his friend, Countess Maffei he wrote: “I don’t raise my hat to counts, marquesses, or to anyone.” Verdi was opposed to the catholic church’s financial and political power, and the priesthood’s abuse of its power. In 1864 the pope issued a document called the Syllabus of Errors in which he listed what he called the 80 “errors of our time”. These included freedom of conscience, religious toleration, freedom of discussion, and freedom of the press. It was a reactionary attack on everything that was progressive in the 19th century. And three years later the pope proclaimed the dogma of the “infallibility of the pope”. This quickly led to the final step in the independence and unification of Italy. It was around this time that Verdi, greatly disturbed by the church’s opposition to Italian unification, composed a 5 hour long opera about the conflict between church and state. Verdi’s Don Carlos is based on Schiller’s play Don Carlos, which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. Verdi depicts on stage, the tragic burning at the stake of so-called heretics by the church. These unfortunate people were often innocent. We’re going to see the beginning of the scene between King Philip II of Spain and the Grand Inquisitor, who was given power by the pope to decide the fate of these unfortunate people: who would be burned and murdered? Verdi describes this man as being 90 years old and blind. He’s a symbol of the forceful negativity of the church. The Grand Inquisitor is someone who just plows through, unseeing, and uncaring for the idealism of youth, insisting on tradition. Verdi’s musical characterization of him is incredible. You feel the tremendous weight of the church. After the king’s son, Don Carlos, threatened to stab his father, the king has him arrested, and asks the GI what he thinks about having his own son murdered. This is so shocking. Yet, the Grand Inquisitor gives him justification saying: “god sacrificed his only son.” Verdi’s wife commented on his anticlergy attitude and refusal to believe in god or any higher power. “I won’t say he is an ‘atheist’, but certainly a very doubtful believer.” When Countess Maffei’s lover died, he wrote her a month later: “There are no words that can bring comfort during this kind of misfortune…Something else is needed. You will find comfort only in the strength of your soul and in the firmness of your mind.” Verdi’s gods were Dante and Shakespeare, and his saint was Manzoni, whose novel I promessi sposi was a milestone in unifying the Italian language and a symbol of the Risorgimento. His enemies were hypocrisy, mediocrity, pretentiousness, and the priests. He wrote to his protégé, Emanuele Muzio: “Respect yourself and make others respect you: never a moment of weakness: treat men of the highest rank just as you treat those of the lowest: don’t favor anyone; don’t have likes and dislikes; and don’t be afraid to swear occasionally.” During the wars of Italian independence, Verdi launched an appeal for contributions “to help the wounded and the poor families of those who died for our country.” And in the spring of 1879, when the Po river flooded the provinces of Piacenza, Parma, Mantua and Ferrara, Verdi wrote: “This winter there will be famine and people dying of hunger…At the same time the government is thinking of raising taxes…It really is a slap in the face.” Verdi organized a relief concert for the flood victims at La Scala where he conducted his Requiem. Because there was no hospital near Verdi’s estate, he decided to buy a parcel of land, and personally financed the construction of a hospital for his 200 farm laborers and their families. The mayor wanted to name it after Verdi, but he refused, and insisted that the only word inscribed on the façade should be “Hospital” Ospedale. After his death his name was added to the building’s facade. Verdi personally supervised the construction and paid the workers himself every Saturday. Verdi kept two copies of Shakespeare’s works next to his bed, and created 3 operas from Shakespeare’s plays: Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, which is based on the Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. He also wanted to write operas based on Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear, but never did. When he was 74, Verdi decided to compose Otello with Arrigo Boito as librettist. After Boito completed the libretto, Verdi began composing Otello, but then stopped. His wife, his publisher, and the director of La Scala, all tried to get him to continue. But Verdi was completely engrossed in farming and wrote that he was “surrounded by cows, oxen, horses, working like a peasant, bricklayer, carpenter…master stonemason, and blacksmith” repairing many of the tenant houses and building new ones. He wrote that he had “said goodbye to books and music” And he completely forgot about composing Otello! His protégé, Muzio, told him that he ought to finish the opera, and that it was a great way to cover the expense of the hospital he wanted to build, and even of providing it with an endowment. That’s what got him to continue composing Otello! Verdi wrote: “When I am alone and am wrestling with my notes, then my heart pounds, tears stream from my eyes, and the emotions and joys are beyond description.” One of his conditions for the world premiere of Otello at La Scala was that the poster advertising Otello would not indicate the date of the first performance! He had the right to cancel it even after the dress rehearsal, if he was not pleased with the rehearsals. And if anyone attempted to produce the opera, his publisher would have to pay him a fine of 100,000 lire! When rehearsing with one of his singers he said: “I’ll never stop urging you to study closely the dramatic situation and the words; the music will come by itself. In a word, I would be happier if you served the poet rather than the composer…Keep the dramatic situation well in mind.” During his lifetime, it was said that Verdi had begun imitating Wagner, a remark that he hated, and denied. He did admire Wagner’s music, however, and had this to say about Tristan und Isolde: “I still cannot quite comprehend that that it was conceived and written by a human being. I consider the second act to be one of the finest creations that ever issued from a human mind. This second act is wonderful, wonderful…quite wonderful!” Verdi’s opera, Aida, was written for a commission from Egypt and had its premiere in Cairo. It was the first opera Toscanini ever conducted, in 1886. He knew Verdi personally, and received the composer’s praise for his interpretation of his music. At the end of his life Verdi bought a piece of land in Milan and financed the construction of a Rest Home for Old Musicians. Its capacity is for 100 residents. He wanted to provide a place where professional instrumentalists and singers would be able to live out their sunset years with great dignity. After composing 28 operas and other compositions, he said that his most beautiful work was the Rest Home. Verdi died in 1901, at the age of 87. One month before his death, he arranged for all of his compositions from his youth to be burned! At his death Verdi’s net worth was approximately 35 million dollars. In his will, he left money to day care centers, the childrens’ rickets hospitals, and the hospitals for the deaf, mute, and blind of Genoa. He left money to each of his servants. He left 9 farms to his hospital, and stipulated that part of the income from these farms was to go to the nursery school in Cortemaggiore. The hospital was also to give money to 100 poor people in Villanova each year, and each year give money to 50 poor people in Roncole, the town of his birth. To the Rest Home he left money, stocks, bonds, and his author’s rights and global royalties from all his operas. As a result, I am delighted to say that over 100 years later, these two institutions are still functioning. The will also included his strong wish to be buried with his wife in the chapel of the Rest Home. Several weeks after his death, a quarter of a million people lined the black-draped streets of Milan as his coffin was transferred from the cemetery to the Verdi Rest Home. Daisaku Ikeda wrote: “In later years, he is said to have remarked, ‘I am nothing but a peasant.’ And it was with this recognition of being from humble origins that, as a friend of the people, Verdi devoted his life to composing operas out of his love for music and his love for Italy.”                        

PAUL ROBESON, singer, activist, lawyer, scholar, actor, athlete

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I have no alternative.”   Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J. in 1898, the son of a slave. He attended Rutgers University on scholarship, where he was the only black student enrolled. He won the debate team contests every year and was awarded fifteen varsity letters in four sports. He was the star of the football team and valedictorian of his class. While at Columbia University’s Law School he played professional football and basketball to help pay for his expenses. After earning his law degree he began working at a law firm, immediately experienced racism, and quickly realized that there were limitations on how far he would be able to advance in the field of law. He therefore decided not to practice law and became enormously successful internationally as a concert singer and as an actor on stage and in films. His portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in the U.S. and Great Britain was legendary. After starring in fifteen movies he renounced further film acting in 1942 because of the movie studios’ stereotyped portrayal of black characters common in that era. He was especially popular in Great Britain where he lived in the 1930s and befriended the future leaders of Nigeria, (Nnamdi Azikiwe), Kenya (Jomo Kenyatta), Ghana (Kwame Nkrumah), and India (Jawaharlal Nehru). He was a very outspoken advocate for Indian independence and for the freedom of the African nations then under colonial rule. Robeson also fought for equal rights for the Māori people of New Zealand and the Aborigines of Australia. Robeson was fluent in 14 languages and recorded approximately 300 songs. Although he sang in many languages he decided against singing opera and European classical art songs because they weren’t connected to his heritage. He was the first artist to perform entire concerts comprised of Negro Spirituals. Robeson lived in solidarity with the working peoples of the world, and consistently visited, sang, and spoke to factory workers, miners, construction workers, and members of many other blue-collar labor industries. Robeson greatly encouraged the formation and strengthening of trade unions across the U.S. He fought for justice in solidarity with African Americans and with the people of Africa and its diaspora. At a meeting with President Truman at the White House in 1946 he implored Truman to urge Congress to immediately enact an anti-lynching bill. Truman refused. As of June 2, 2020 lynching is still NOT a federal crime.* Widely speaking out for independence, freedom, and equality for all people he believed that artists should use their talents, exposure, and celebrity to aid causes for justice throughout the world. In 1938 to assist victims of the Spanish Civil War he sang for the Spanish Loyalists including for wounded hospitalized soldiers and even at the battlefront to boost their morale. He often wrote and spoke about the inhumane treatment of blacks in the South calling out the U.S. government’s actions as fascist. In 1950 the State Department canceled Robeson’s passport for eight years because he consistently criticized the U.S. government for its racial policies and spoke out for the end of colonial rule in Africa. The distribution of his recordings and films ceased. He was kept off the radio and had great difficulty finding venues for his concerts. In 1958 his passport was re-issued after eight years, when the Supreme Court ruled that the State Department could not deny citizens the right to travel because of their political beliefs or affiliations. In 1956 he was called to appear before Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions about his political affiliations. This is a fascinating audio recording from that hearing. His son was convinced that in 1961 three weeks before The Bay of Pigs Invasion, as Robeson was preparing to meet with Fidel Castro in Cuba the C.I.A. in cooperation with Britain’s M15 poisoned his father to “neutralize” him through the secret C.I.A. mind control program, MKUltra. Subsequently, Robeson experienced hallucinations, and extreme depression and paranoia. He attempted suicide more than once. For the next two years, he was in and out of hospitals and sanitariums in Russia, East Berlin, London, and New York during which time he was simultaneously given an incredible quantity of drugs and fifty-four electro-shock treatments. The result was that he never fully recovered and spent the next fourteen years withdrawn from public life until his death in 1976. His numerous honors include four streets being named after him in New York City, Princeton, Somerville, and New Brunswick, New Jersey. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Paul Robeson stamp. A mountain in Kazakstan bears his name. He is largely ignored in American textbooks. This is a recording Robeson made of the song, “Joe Hill” about a union organizer and songwriter. In 1914 he was accused of murder, and executed in 1915, even though many people believed he was innocent. His songs are still an inspiration for all kinds of workers. Joe Hill *The law making lynching a federal crime finally came into being in 2022.