Saturday, August 06, 2011

Everybody Lies

Over at Musical Assumptions, Elaine Fine has posted a list of memorable memoirs by an assortment of musicians, including singers, string players, and of course the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Here I must step in and quote the great physician Gregory House: Everybody lies.

And when they're not lying, they're forgetting or just plain making things up or repeating stories somebody else told them as their own. You should read memoirs not with a grain of salt but with a metric ton of salt.

Elaine's list doesn't include the memoirs of either Wagner or Berlioz. One need only glance at the footnotes to modern editions of those memoirs, or any reasonable biography of the composers, to see how much is just plain wrong. In the case of Berlioz, it seems many of the errors are inadvertent, a matter of writing about the 1820s and 30s from the vantage point of the 1860s, though some are self-serving enough that they're probably lies. In the case of Wagner, he lies about a lot, coloring events to match his later perceptions or the image he'd like to project about himself.

Then there's John Culshaw's famous, and hugely entertaining, and very, very self-serving, Ring Resounding. I'll take just one WTF example: he mentions that Decca had recorded a Ring at Bayreuth in the mid-1950s, but it just wasn't satisfactory and thus hadn't been released. Well, that Ring cycle is now available, on Testament; it is the real first stereo Ring, with Joseph Keilberth conducting, and it is in many ways more satisfactory than the Solti, because it is much better sung. Self-serving, you think?

On a smaller scale, there are any number of lies in the Eva Turner interview in Lanfranco Rasponi's The Last Prima Donnas. She didn't sing Turandot 200 times, except in a world where 75 equals 200; she was probably singing in Portugal when Turandot premiered, so any claims to have been present are just wrong (or they're deliberate misrepresentations or deliberate repetition of a famous story as if she was there); her La Scala career, on which she traded constantly in retirement, consisted of six or seven performances (a single Turandot as a cover; a few Sieglindes and Freias in the mid-20s Ring cycle).

Everybody lies. Keep that in mind any time you're reading a memoir.


Elaine Fine said...

I purposely left Berlioz and Wagner (and a whole host of others) out precisely because they are not trustworthy.

One of the biggest perks of editing Bernie Zaslav's memoir was the eagerness he had to be as honest as possible, and make sure that everything he wrote reflected the truth as he saw it and experienced it. But he's an unusual person, and what you see (and hear) is clearly what you get. It is a rare trait in a musician. Perhaps it's a viola thing.

His memoir is more about the places he's been and the things he's done (and played) than it is about self analysis.

I remember looking through my father's copy of Leinsdorf's memoir called "Cadenza" when I was a kid. My father worked under Leinsdorf for several years, so he knew what was true and what was not. His copy had annotations in pencil that showed me just how much you can believe.

On another subject, have you ever noticed how much word-for-word plagiarism there is in biographies of composers? Sometimes, when I am writing program notes, I take a stack of biographies of the same composer out of the library, and find identical paragraphs. You can't always trust biographers either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

In the case of biographers, they are certainly not uniformly reliable. One might be able to read the footnotes and bibliography in ways that give you some ideas as to how reliable they are.

In the case of memoirs, I also think that people misremember or are mistaken. My mother's memory is no longer really reliable, and there's plenty she does not recall accurately. Minor example: we had two canaries, at different times. She now thinks there was only one. We got one of them, I am reasonably sure, when we still lived in NY, the other years later after we'd moved to NJ.

Kevin said...

Morton Feldman once said that "any analysis is up for grabs, even if the composer says otherwise." We're not just dealing with honesty or dishonesty, but memory, which is fictitious at best.

Anonymous said...

Where does Culshaw say that the Keilberth Ring was unsatisfactory? All I can find (p. 41, Viking edition) is that "Again [i.e. as also when he recorded a Knappertsbusch Ring in 1951], conflicting contracts prevented the commercial release of the recordings." He says nothing about the performance either way.

It seems to me that, considering that Ring Resounding is basically a puff piece for the Solti recording, Culshaw is surprisingly honest about the vocal deficiencies of his cast. When he compares it to earlier unreleased live recordings, he acknowledges that the earlier ones could be vocally superior, but that they usually weren't consistently so, and more importantly that because of their recording conditions they had sonic deficiencies.

Today our recording mindset is to release anything, flaws and all, but 50 years ago recordings were rare, and the mindset was that you had only one shot, so gleaming perfection of sound and production were as important as performance power (which of course they wanted too, insofar as they could get it). But despite that bias, Culshaw would have liked to have issued a live recording if he could have recorded 1) a good enough performance 2) in decent enough sound and 3) gotten permission to release it.

Lastly, Ring Resounding, though autobiographical, is not Culshaw's memoirs. It is, as I said, a puff piece. His memoirs are the posthumously published Putting the Record Straight, and there you will find a lot, including some pointed criticisms of his superiors at Decca, which he left out of the earlier book.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I will have to look through the book to find the passage I was thinking of - but I believe it's generally accepted that Culshaw killed the Keilberth Ring. You are right that Ring Resounding is not a memoir, though I don't think I'd quite characterize it as a puff piece.

I do not agree that Culshaw is all that honest about the vocal deficiencies of the cast, especially Flagstad and Hotter.

Anonymous said...

I said "considering that it's a puff piece," or, if you don't like that term, a publicity brochure for the recording. Which it is, really. (Again, compare what he says about Decca with what he writes in his memoirs.)

It that context, it's remarkable how firmly Culshaw acknowledges that both Hotter and Flagstad were over the hill and his feeling that what he was capturing was the last echoes of their greatness. That's not the sort of thing you expect from a publicity brochure. Whether they were worse than that is a legitimate matter of dispute. He's critical of Windgassen also, and over many others he draws a veil of discreet silence.

Lisa Hirsch said...

As far as I remember, the criticisms of Windgassen barely register as such: a tendency to jump the beat (true; you can hear on the 1950s live Bayreuth recordings) and husbanding his resources, which anyone singing opera - and especially Wagner - does. In the end he praises Windgassen greatly.

Anonymous said...

He does, and he praises the others also, making it clear what aspects he's praising them for, chiefly their knowledge and experience. He doesn't try to make them sound perfect. In the context, it registered strongly with me. Nor does he claim that the Solti recording tried to capture what in one place he calls "the smell of the greasepaint" of a live performance: it has a different purpose.

Having been spending much time lately at two music festivals busily engaged in patting themselves on the back whether they deserve it or not, I'm all the more appreciative of someone who can acknowledge flaws in his own outfit.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Haha. M@M and Cabrillo? The latter has won far, far too many awards for innovative programming, way out of proportion with the actual innovation. I mean, Michael Daugherty?