I remember the dinner at which the family debated the relative merits of old German music. I say old. To me at the time, anything not then being played on the radio was old. The discussion commenced with Grandmother Halfrida humming a tune written by Robert Schumann, one that came from his Poet’s Love song cycle. Hearing her as we waited while she cleared the table before dessert, Grandfather August asked, “Who was the greatest German composer?”
Now there was a question for people of German descent to argue. I have been told that, in the days of my grandfather and his father, music played an integral part in one’s German ethnic identity. If you were German, you either sang or played an instrument.
I have wondered how much of that was a legacy of Martin Luther. “Music is the art of the prophets, the only art that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us,” he said. “Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. I am strongly persuaded that, after theology, there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy….”
Aunt Karla sat next to me. She taught music in the public school system of Appleton, and she also taught lessons to children at home. Her husband, Joseph, worked as a chemist for a paper mill, and he preferred math to music. He sat on her right, so she turned to me on her left and asked, “What do you say?”
I hardly knew. My experience of such music had largely been limited to the snippets employed in a number of the better-crafted cartoons run and rerun on TV. I had three names in my head at the moment: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I doubt that I had heard the names mentioned in the cartoons. Perhaps I heard them at school. More likely I heard them mentioned by family members at one time and another. I picked one at random. “Brahms.”
“Brahms,” Aunt Karla repeated.
That would be Johannes Brahms, who was born in Hamburg and lived between 1833 and 1897.
“A fair choice, Kurt,” Aunt Karla said. “He was a virtuoso pianist and a fine conductor, as well as an influential composer.”
“Many of his big works breathe of the great outdoors,” Grandfather said.
“He could be serious,” said Grandmother. “He could also be humorous.”
“Heroic,” said Uncle M.C. “At times. Autumnal at times, too.”
I gave him a blank look.
“Autumnal?” he assumed. “That means mature to over-mature. Getting old. Going into decline.”
“But at his best,” added Aunt Karla, “Brahms was lyrically poetic and deeply emotional.”
“Though he tended to submit thought to feeling, I think,” said Grandfather. “After all, he was at the center of the Romantic movement.”
“He had a highly personal style that could often be masterful,” said Aunt Karla. “However, he was no pioneer of new trails. Instead, as a great student of old music, he explored many paths of the past: that of Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn.”
People thought so more.
My father gave a second answer, saying, “Mahler.”
“Mahler?” Aunt Karla and Grandfather responded.
That would be Gustav Mahler, who lived between 1860 and 1911.
“He was born in Bohemia,” Aunt Karla said. Kalischt, to be more exact, which is located in what is now the Czech Republic.
“He spoke German, though. He wrote in German. He composed in German. You know that,” my father said.
“Yes, of course,” Grandfather said. “He was Austrian. But he was a conductor. A fine one, yes. Especially of German opera.”
“He was a composer. He wrote nine symphonies and six song cycles,” my father said. “Well, make that ten symphonies, plus three when he was a student, plus one that he never finished.”
“So?” Grandfather asked. “That’s hardly prolific.”
“And so much of his music is so moody,” said Grandmother. “So haunted by desolation and loneliness and longing.”
“He was a humanist,” my father said. “If there is depression in some of his music, it is because he was disappointed by the so-called civilized people of Europe. And besides, there is more to his material. There is the love of the countryside, of nature.”
“That just shows he was an anti-social man. A lonely, brooding outsider of a man,” Grandfather said.
“But he wasn’t an outsider,” Aunt Karla said. “Mahler can hardly be considered inventive. He worked very much within established Austrian and German forms. He worked under the influence of such men as Beethoven and Wagner.”
“What artist does not work under the influence of at least some of those who have preceded? There is always the burden of prior achievement,” my father claimed.
“But some artists are more innovative, are more creative, than others,” said Aunt Karla.
“He worked within the Romantic movement, yes, even that late in the century, but not to the exclusion of new ideas,” my father said. “His song cycles show innovation in harmony and form. Yes, his music is full of personal feelings, some somber and some soaring. But always there is sensitive beauty. And nobody could handle an orchestra the way he could. He was a perfectionist, a craftsman attending to every detail so that he could exhibit or reveal everything in a composition. No wonder he produced a relative few works. Such workmanship is not done quickly.”
“Sprawling is the word I would use about his work,” Aunt Karla said.
“Epic,” my father insisted.
“When did he get so smart about that guy, whoever-he-was?” I whispered to my sister. When did he listen to such music? Not when we were watching TV. Not when we were in bed. I found out later that he did much of his attentive listening on days when he worked at home, when he ate lunch. Such luncheons provided food for the spirit as well as the body.
“Nobody handled an orchestra the way Wagner did,” Uncle M.C. said. “And singers.”
That would be Richard Wagner, who was born in Leipzig and lived between 1813 and 1883.
“He single-handedly changed the nature of opera,” Uncle M.C. continued. “He changed it from what had become mere shallow spectacle to powerful drama expressing ideas of the deepest significance.”
“He was an apostate,” Grandmother said. “And an adulterer.”
Apostate: someone who abandons or rebels against established religious teaching. Grandmother would have in mind the teachings of German Lutherans and Catholics and even Anabaptists: the precepts of Christianity in general, based primarily upon the teachings of the Prophets and the Apostles.
Adulterer: someone who is unfaithful to a spouse by giving sexual love to another. Grandmother would also have in mind one who breaks a holy promise of being faithful to a spouse — one’s first spouse, in particular — a promise made not only to that spouse during a wedding ceremony, but also to God.
“His was the music of the future, as disciples said at the time,” Aunt Karla declared.
“He all but invented the leitmotif,” declared Uncle M.C.
Leitmotif: a short musical sequence that represents a person, place, or thing, and even an idea. The device is common today, especially in music composed for television and motion pictures.
“He didn’t invent the leitmotif,” Grandfather said.
“I didn’t say that,” said Uncle M.C. “But he was the one who mastered its use and taught everyone after him how to use it. And nobody could tap the human psyche in all its subtleties and sophistication like Wagner.”
“He was a Romantic,” said Grandfather, “perhaps of the worst sort. His music wallows in passionate emotionalism.”
“Well,” answered Uncle M.C. “If you want prolific, then I suppose you want Mozart.”
That would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Born in Salzburg, he lived between 1756 and 1791. Within that short life, was he prolific? Yes, indeed. Eighteen operas. Forty-one symphonies. Twenty-six string quartets. Twenty-five piano concertos. Nineteen piano sonatas. Forty-two violin sonatas. Six violin concertos. Concertos for flute, for bassoon, for horn, for clarinet, for flute and harp. Ten quintets. One ballet and twenty-three sets of dances. Thirty-four songs. Twenty canons. Nineteen masses and litanies. The list can go on.
“Mozart was a complete genius, yes.” Grandfather said.
“And he was a Romantic,” Uncle M.C. said.
“No,” Aunt Karla wanted to correct, but she was interrupted.
“A pre-Romantic,” Uncle M.C. clarified. “By fifty years.”
“Quite right,” Grandfather said. “That’s why Haydn is better.”
That would be Franz Joseph Haydn. Born in Rohrau, Austria, he lived between 1732 and 1809.
“Yes, Haydn,” Grandfather repeated. “If you want to talk about doing things single-handedly, he did it …. though I’m sure he put to good use both his hands. Ah, but his work is the center and the substance of the Classical period. He can well be considered the father of the symphony and of the string quartet.”
“Or at least the man who explored and established the sonata-allegro form,” said Aunt Karla.
“Classical,” Uncle M.C. snarled. “Too formal. Too symmetrical. Too simple.”
“Ah, you,” Grandfather growled. “I thought I reared you better than that. Listen, my son: there is a difference between opulent and elegant.”
Opulent: wealthy, rich, splendid, lavish. As Grandfather used the term, abundantly supplied to the point of excess. Overdone. Overwrought. Ostentatious. Pretentious. Even profligate. “Too much is too much,” he would say.
Elegant: tastefully fine and gracefully refined while also being exact, precise, and beautifully simple. Stately. Noble. Grandfather would perhaps even say, “August.”
“There’s no denying Haydn’s place in music,” Uncle M.C. said. “But I find it too simple, too quaint, too boring.”
Grandfather shook his head.
Uncle M.C. added, “It’s sterile.”
Grandfather put his head in his hands. “Oh, the shame of having such a son as this one.” He joked, of course. He declared, “The man was a genius for musical construction. And the fertility of his musical ideas….”
“Well, yes. I’ll grant that the man certainly was prolific,” Uncle M.C. said.
True. Haydn composed one-hundred-four symphonies. Eighty-three string quartets. Fifty-two piano sonatas. Fifteen piano concertos, plus others for violin, horn, trumpet, flute, and cello. Thirty-five piano trios. Nineteen operas. Fourteen masses. Two oratorios. His list can go on.
“Your man Mozart both admired and respected Haydn. Mozart loved him,” Grandfather sad.
“Haydn was the champion of Mozart. He said that Mozart was the greatest composer he had ever heard,” Uncle M.C. retorted.
“They were good friends,” Aunt Karla said. “But Mozart, for all his quick-witted genius and simply stupendous memory, was not a great innovator. He was fast. He was prolific. He was dazzling. But he worked with the musical ideas of his time to compose things to his personal liking.”
“Well, now,” said Grandmother. “This means we must consider Bach.”
That would be Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach and lived between 1685 and 1750.
Grandmother Halfrida was herself a musician. She played both piano and organ, and often performed as a substitute at the big Lutheran church she and her husband attended in Waupaca. If it hadn’t been for her talents, skills, and interests throughout her adult life, the discussion being recalled here would not have been possible.
Halfrida’s children grew up at a time prior to the availability of high fidelity playback equipment to common householders. They grew up during the Great Depression, so there would not have been much money to buy such equipment if it had been available. Indeed, that included the relatively simple phonographs then on the market, the ones that played 78 rpm records. All they had was radio and the music available via radio during the 1920s and 30s. What Manfred and Georg and Karla knew about “old” music came largely as a result of what Halfrida played for them at home and at church.
The remainder of their knowledge came after the war. Within years, the technology improved dramatically. Records, for example, became available in 45 rpm and 33 rpm formats. Stereophonic sound became available. As soon as they could afford to buy their own records and playback equipment, Halfrida’s children continued their listening, this largely as a result of her earlier inspiration.
“Yes, of course,” said Grandfather August. “Bach. The master of Baroque polyphonic music.”
“Now there was a man who was steeped in two German styles, plus French, then Italian. Yet he could improvise his own music better than anyone,” Grandmother said.
Aunt Karla said, “Inventive, yet intellectual. Logical, yet expressive. Individual, even deeply personal, yet meaningful to a large audience.”
“And who else could write the lyrics and compose the music for a new cantata or oratorio, and conduct both the choir and the chamber orchestra in how to perform it, and do that monthly, even weekly?” Grandfather asked.
“Who could put so much depth and breadth of musical and devotional experience into a cantata?” Grandmother asked. “ ‘To the glory of God’ he did say of his music. There is a great deal of that glory in his music.”
People nodded. The adults, that is. We kids waited patiently for dessert. But I had something in mind yet. To satisfy my shallow curiosity, and to show off a little, I asked, “What about Beethoven?”
“What about Beethoven, Kurt?” Aunt Karla asked.
I should have anticipated that. I had no idea how to answer with any knowledge or wisdom. I just replied, “Nobody has said anything about him.”
“Quite right, Kurt,” said my father. “Quite right.”
Ludwig van Beethoven. Born in Bonn. Lived from 1770 to 1827.
“Now there was a man who supplanted your elegance, Father,” Uncle M.C. said. “He didn’t just provide pretty background music to ease the idleness of the rich. He was bold, robust, even brazen.”
“Wild, you mean,” said Grandfather.
“Free,” said my father. “It was a time of revolution: the French Revolution, such as it was, and the American Revolution before that. Freedom was in the wind. Beethoven heard it and put it to music, perhaps better than anyone. In certain ways, his music was like the wind. It could be soft, and it could be loud. It could be gentle, and it could be blasting. It could be as balmy as a spring breeze, and it could be as violent as a summer thunderstorm.”
Aunt Karla said, “He was a virtuoso pianist. A phenomenal improviser. A master of timing and of proportion. He made the symphony truly symphonic by uniting what had been four separate movements into a family procreated from one unifying, melodic seed.”
“And he was an overcomer,” said Grandmother. “Kurt, did you know that, among other challenges, Beethoven was deaf for the last half of his career? Yet he was able to write some of the greatest music of any human being ever. Nobody worked harder than he did.”
“In the last third of his career,” my father said, “he composed music that still sets standards of excellence today.”
“Extraordinary,” said Aunt Karla. “Exquisite. Sublime.”
“It exposes the very spirit of the human being,” my father said.
My mother was setting the dishes filled with dessert. “Mom,” I said. “Who do you like?”
She answered, “I like….”
Sorry, I can’t report what came as a well-timed punch line for fear of infringing on the man’s right to celebrity … or more accurately, that of the man’s estate. To an extent, he’s still in business, so I’ll make this a riddle instead.
The mystery man is the bandleader who had a popular TV show at the time of our dinner discussion. He hailed from Strasburg, North Dakota, but he was of German descent and did speak with a noticeable accent. He and his band played some pretty good polkas, and my mother liked polkas. He and his band also played waltzes. Otherwise, he was known for what he called champagne music. Actually, in my later hearing, it was more like soda pop.
Upon hearing her response, all members of the family just looked at my mother. They didn’t know whether to laugh with open-mouthed gusto or to sit silent with jaws hanging down.
My mother winked at me when she gave me my dessert.
Remember, what I knew of “old” music at the time was largely confined to what I heard in cartoons. Those cartoon snippets, by the way, went a long way in encouraging me to pay more and more attention as I aged. However, there is no way I could have reported this dinner discussion based on my own recollection. I didn’t have the memory of Mozart, and I didn’t have the understanding of Mozart at that age, either.
My mother recited the facts to me.