BookRiot: Happy 200th Birthday, The Nutcracker!

The Nutcracker - E.T.A. Hoffmann,Maurice Sendak,Ralph Manheim At this time each year, thousands of little Claras across the world pull their Victorian nightgowns over their heads, lace up their toe shoes, and prepare to take their place on stage in one of the most coveted roles for an aspiring ballet dancer. But the history of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet goes beyond twirling Sugar Plum Fairies and pirouetting Rat Kings.

The character we’ve come to know as Clara originally appeared in a story written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, by the name Marie Stahlbaum. At a holiday party thirty-odd years later, the legendary Alexandre Dumas told his own version of Marie’s surreal fever dream at a party after being tied to a chair by some of his daughter’s friends who demanded they be told a story. The resulting version of Hoffman’s fairy tale was less dark and more suited to a young audience. That was the version that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky adapted nearly 50 years later for a performance at the Russian Imperial Theatre.

The original performance sold out on opening night (December 18, 1892) and a holiday season has not since passed without a curtain rising on a gorgeous Christmas tree, in the midst of being decorated by the Stahlbaum family and their friends.


Happy 200th Birthday, The Nutcracker!:


Original posts:



Halloween: Incidental Opera

The Bride of Lammermoor - Walter Scott, J.H. Alexander, Kathryn Sutherland … well, sort of.  I’m not sure whether Bonn Opera actually had Halloween in mind when they scheduled the opening night of their production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor) – it’s not overly likely, though I wouldn’t put it past them – but it of course fits the topic admirably, and thus made for a very nice post-blackout final accord to the Halloween book bingo for me …


… even more so as starring in the title role was Julia Novikova, who debuted in Bonn a few years ago and has since enjoyed a rather impressively successful career, which at a very young age has already taken her, inter alia, to Vienna and Salzburg – and who, of course, gave a phantastic performance as Lucia.

(Ms. Novikova in the “mad scene”)

No video of her as Lucia yet, but here she is with the “Moon Song” from one of my all-time favorite operas, Dvorak’s Rusalka

… and for the German speakers, here’s a brief portrait from her debut season at Bonn Opera.

And this, finally, is the famous “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay starring as Lucia (I much preferred Ms. Novikova’s version, though):


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Wakeup Call, Williams Style

1965 was the year when, as a result of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American military buildup in Vietnam began in earnest, and troop strength grew by a factor of no less than eight; from 23,000 at the beginning of the year to roughly 184,000 at the end. 1965 was also the year when a new AFN DJ arrived in Saigon, which over the course of that same year would transform itself from a sleepy French-Vietnamese colonial town into the nightmare it has since come to be in the memory of countless vets.

The new DJ in question was Adrian Cronauer; fresh from an assignment in Greece.

While the idea for a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience was Cronauer’s own, fueled by the popularity of M*A*S*H, the script for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam was ultimately penned by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz with only some input from Cronauer himself, who has since gone out of his way to underline the fictional nature of the account and stress that his true stance was not so much anti-military as “anti-stupidity.” Thus, the film has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt; both as far as the portrayal of 1960s’ armed forces radio and as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less poignant; nor does it take away one iota of Robin Williams‘s performance as Cronauer: Indeed, the role of an irreverent, unstoppable DJ seemed tailor-made for Williams, who had burst onto the scene with his inimitable brand of lightning-quick ad-libbing ten years earlier in Mork & Mindy – and of course, all of Cronauer’s hilarious broadcasts in this movie are ad-libbed, too.

The film follows Adrian Cronauer from his arrival in Saigon in the spring of 1965 to his forced departure about a half year later (although the real Cronauer in fact stayed for a year and was not forced out but left when his regular tour of duty was over). While a comedy, and although not trying to be anywhere near the “definitive” take on Vietnam, it does take a close look at the year when the conflict escalated and, in particular, at the resulting toll on human relations. Robin Williams earned his first of to date four well-deserved Academy Award nominations for this role (the others were for Dead Poets Society [1989], The Fisher King [1991] and Good Will Hunting [1997], the movie for which he finally scored on Oscar night). And in his inimitable way he provides pointed comic relief not only over the microphone but also, and always with a unique ear for the situation’s mood, whenever the script would otherwise threaten to veer off into melodrama; such as after his discovery that his Vietnamese friend Tuan is actually a Viet Cong fighter named Phan Duc To (“It’s unbelievable. Five months in Saigon, and my best friend turns out to be a V.C. This will not look good on a resume!!”); and in scenes that would otherwise be burdened with a bit too much cliché and / or deliberately funny writing, such as the conference after Cronauer’s first broadcast, where Bruno Kirby (Lieutenant Hauk) gets to deliver such gems as “Don’t say that the weather is the same all the time here, because it’s not; in fact, it’s two degrees cooler today than yesterday” and “I hate the fact that you people never salute me – I’m a lieutenant, and I would like salutes occasionally. That’s what being a higher rank is all about.” Even if Kirby himself gets to make up for these a little later in the same scene with the comment “We are not going to escalate [Vietnam into] a whole war so we can get a big name comedian” (Bob Hope who, as the men have informed him, does not “play police actions”), it takes Williams‘s/Cronauer’s final weaving of the lieutenant’s preferred abbreviations into a single sentence to truly put the finishing touch on the scene.

Although Good Morning Vietnam is clearly first and foremost a star vehicle for Robin Williams, he is joined by an outstanding supporting cast, including inter alia, besides Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker as Cronauer’s good-natured sidekick PFC Montesque Garlick, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh as his second great nemesis, Sergeant Major Dickerson (whose stock character of a straight-laced white middle class guy would probably not have come off convincingly as a villain vis-à-vis anybody but Robin Williams) and, in particular, Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan and Chintara Sukapatana as his sister Trinh: Her plea with Cronauer not (even) to seek her friendship, let alone more, because for her such an association with a man (particularly a foreigner) is culturally unacceptable, is one of the movie’s most quietly powerful scenes. Exceptional is further Peter Sova’s cinematography, which convincingly captures the daily realities of a city and a country on the brink of an all-out war, and is brilliantly complimented by the editing, which in turn also uses the soundtrack – more or less a mid-1960s “greatest hits” compilation – to maximum effect; be it in framing daily military routine, the soldiers’ enjoyment of Cronauer’s style of broadcasting or combat action: Indeed, hardly any image could make a more powerful statement on the cruel absurdity of war than seeing a village blown up to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.

Thus, Good Morning Vietnam is in its own way as poignant a wakeup call as any other movie about Vietnam – or about World War II, or any other war for that matter. It deservedly netted the Political Film Society’s 1989 Peace Award, in addition to Robin Williams‘s Oscar nomination and his Golden Globe and American Comedy awards, as well as the movie’s ASCAP soundtrack award. And it certainly bears revisiting – for its overall quality, for Robin Williams‘s performance, and also for lessons learned and deserving never to be forgotten.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1987)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Producers: Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Peter Sova
  • Robin Williams: Adrian Cronauer
  • Tung Thanh Tran: Tuan
  • Chintara Sukapatana: Trinh
  • Forest Whitaker: Edward Garlick
  • Bruno Kirby: Lieutenant Steven Hauk
  • J.T. Walsh: Sergeant Major Dickerson
  • Robert Wuhl: Marty Lee Dreiwitz
  • Noble Willingham: General Taylor
  • Richard Edson: Private Abersold
  • Juney Smith: Phil McPherson
  • Richard Portnow: Dan ‘The Man’ Levitan
  • Floyd Vivino: Eddie Kirk
  • Cu Ba Nguyen: Jimmy Wah


Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1988)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical: Robin Williams
Political Film Society (USA) ( 1989)
  • Peace Award
  • Special Award
American Comedy Awards (1988)
  • Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role): Robin Williams
Grammy Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Best Comedy Recording: Robin Williams
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1989)
  • Top Box Office Films: Alex North





A feast for the Senses … and the Everlasting Magic of Music

“Cinque carte” – five tarot cards servant Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) makes her mistress Anna Busotti (Irene Grazioli) draw in 17th century Cremona when Anna, wife of the legendary violin maker Niccolò Busotti (Carlo Cecchi), asks her servant to tell her and her unborn child’s future. And those five cards, along with an auction in 20th century Montreal, provide the framework for the tale that is about to unfold: The Moon – a long life, full and rich, and a long voyage. But there is a curse over her, Cesca tells her mistress as she turns the second card; there is danger to all who are under her thrall, and there will be many … indeed, the Hanged Man is a powerful card! Then there will be a time of lust and energy, her Lazarus soul will travel across mountains, oceans and time, and she will meet a handsome and intelligent man who will seduce her with his talents “and worse” – in short, the Devil. The fourth card Anna has drawn is Justice: There will be a big trial before a powerful magistrate, Cesca tells her; she will be found guilty … “beware the heat of the fire!” And indeed, the last card that Anna turns, much to her alarm, is Death – but the card is upside down and Cesca tells her not to worry because at this point this might be good news: She will be carried by the air and furious wind, but then her voyage will come to an end, “one way or another.” There is “trouble” in this, Cesca says, “but you are strong now, like a tree in a forest.” She will also not be alone; the servant sees a crowd of faces … friends, family, enemies, lovers and a lot of admirers fighting to win her hand (lots of money, too) – and ultimately, a rebirth.

Each card symbolizes one of the stories told about the travels through time and space made by the Red Violin, Niccolò Busotti’s last masterpiece, over the course of the centuries. And each of the violin’s owners we meet symbolizes a stage of life: birth, childhood, coming of age, political awakening and maturity. In that, it is not so much the violin’s voyage that links the five vignettes dealing with its owners’ lives, such as Glenn Gould’s life provided the links between the individual parts of writer-director Francois Girard’s first film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Rather, the humans’ stories provide snapshots of various stages of the instrument’s existence, brought to life by John Corigliano’s magnificent and Oscar-winning score and Joshua Bell’s virtuoso performance – and of course, it is also obvious throughout that a link exists between Anna Busotti and the violin created by her husband.

The Red Violin is feast for the eyes and ears – luscious and true to detail in its costume design and cinematography, it not only faithfully uses the original languages of its various locations but also actors who are native speakers; to the point of having Suisse-born actor Jean Luc Bideau portray the French teacher of Austrian wunderkind Kaspar Weiss (Christopher Koncz), thus choosing an actor who is on the one hand fluent in German but on the other hand speaks it with a “genuine” French accent … and although I don’t speak any Chinese/Mandarin, I wouldn’t be surprised if the scenes taking place in China were linguistically as faithful to their location as those set in Vienna and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the movie’s plot lines fall somewhat short of its visual and acoustic splendor. Granted, there was only limited possibility to develop meaningful stories for each of the vignettes. But given the highly symbolic nature of the movie’s five parts, too many gaping holes remain. Although we know the violin’s story doesn’t end with Kaspar, for example, we can only guess as to how it falls into the hands of gypsies. And the following sequence, involving British composer and virtuoso Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) and his mistress Victoria Byrd, has rightfully been criticized for the shallow waters it treads: Even if you don’t have a whole movie to develop the relationship between a sensual, gifted and somewhat eccentric composer and his novelist lover (such as 1991’s magnificent and in the U.S. sadly overlooked Impromptu), and even if Greta Scacchi’s Victoria is far from being another George Sand, her talent seems … well, maybe not wasted, but reduced to another “blonde bombshell” role, and not one with as many layers and shades as those of classic Hollywood, but a fairly clichéd one and, thus, unworthy of her Old Vic training. And don’t even get me started on the final scene in Montreal and the “conflict” faced by violin appraiser Charles Morritz … (although Samuel L. Jackson, at least, gives a finely tuned and sensitive performance which almost manages to smooth out the edges of the script’s sometimes scratchy composition.)

But this movie’s real star and ultimately, its saving grace, is the Red Violin itself – not the six models physically representing the instrument throughout the film of course, but the personality it gains through Corigliano’s score and its uniquely beautiful interpretation by Bell, and the idea the violin stands for; that of the everlasting magic of music. For bringing this idea to life alone, the movie is well worth seeing.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: New Line International (1998)
  • Director: François Girard
  • Producer: Niv Fichman
  • Co-Producers: Daniel Iron & Giannandrea Pecorelli
  • Screenplay: François Girard & Don McKellar
  • Music: John Corigliano (score & orchestration) / Joshua Bell (solo violin) / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) / Todd Kasow & Guy Pelletier (music editors)
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Alain Dostie
  • Editing: Gaétan Huot
  • Production Design: François Séguin
  • Costume Design: Renée April
  • Sound: Claude La Haye / Jocelyn Caron / Bernard Gariépy-Strobl / Hans Peter Strobl / Guy Pelletier
  • Carlo Cecchi: Nicolo Bussotti (Cremona)
  • Irene Grazioli: Anna Bussotti (Cremona)
  • Anita Laurenzi: Cesca (Cremona)
  • Jean-Luc Bideau: Georges Poussin (Vienna)
  • Christoph Koncz: Kaspar Weiss (Vienna)
  • Clotilde Mollet: Antoinette Pussin (Vienna)
  • Florentín Groll: Anton von Spielmann (Vienna)
  • Johannes Silberschneider: Father Richter (Vienna)
  • Rainer Egger: Brother Christophe (Vienna)
  • Paul Koeker: Brother Gustav (Vienna)
  • Wolfgang Böck: Brother Michael (Vienna)
  • Josef Mairginter: Brother Franz (Vienna)
  • Arthur Denberg: Prince Mansfeld (Vienna)
  • Geza Hosszu-Legocky: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • David Alberman: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • Andrzej Matuszewiski: Gypsy Violonist (Vienna)
  • Jason Flemyng: Frederick Pope (Oxford)
  • Greta Scacchi: Victoria Byrd (Oxford)
  • Eva Marie Bryer: Sara (Oxford)
  • Sylvia Chang: Xiang Pei (Shanghai)
  • Zifeng Liu: Chou Yuan (Shanghai)
  • Hong Tao: Comrade Chan Gong (Shanghai)
  • Xio Fei Han: Young Ming (Shanghai)
  • Rui Yang: Young Xian Pei (Shanghai)
  • Samuel L. Jackson: Charles Morritz (Montréal)
  • Colm Feore: Auctioneer (Montréal)
  • Ireneusz Bogajewicz: Mr. Ruselsky (Montréal)
  • Monique Mercure: Mme. Leroux (Montréal)
  • Don McKellar: Evan Williams (Montréal)
  • Julian Richings: Nicolas Olsberg (Montréal)
  • Paula de Vasconcelos: Suzanne (Montréal)
  • Russell Yuen: Older Ming (Montréal)
  • Sandra Oh: Madame Ming (Montréal)


Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (2000)
  • Best Music, Original Score: John Corigliano
Genie Awards (Canada) (1999)
  • Best Motion Picture: Niv Fichman
  • Best Achievement in Direction: François Girard
  • Best Screenplay: Don McKellar and François Girard
  • Best Achievement in Cinematography: Alain Dostie
  • Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design: François Séguin
  • Best Achievement in Costume Design: Renée April
  • Best Music Score: John Corigliano
  • Best Overall Sound: Claude La Haye, Jocelyn Caron, Bernard Gariépy-Strobl and Hans Peter Strobl
Jutra Awards (Canada) (1999)
  • Best Film (Meilleur Film): Niv Fichman and Daniel Iron
  • Best Director (Meilleure Réalisation): François Girard
  • Best Screenplay (Meilleur Scénario): François Girard and Don McKellar
  • Best Supporting Actor (Meilleur Acteur de Soutien) Colm Feore
  • Best Cinematography (Meilleure Photographie): Alain Dostie
  • Best Editing (Meilleur Montage Image): Gaétan Huot
  • Best Art Direction (Meilleure Direction Artistique): François Séguin and Renée April
  • Best Original Score (Meilleure Musique Originale): John Corigliano
  • Best Sound (Meilleur Son):Claude La Haye, Marcel Pothier, Hans Peter Strobl and Guy Pelletier
Golden Reel Awards (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA) (2000)
  • Best Sound Editing – Music – Musical Feature (Foreign & Domestic): Todd Kasow & Claude La Haye
Tokyo International Film Festival (Japan) (1998)
  • Best Artistic Contribution Award: François Girard
    – Tied with Smoke Signals.




 : “You must win him as a man wins a woman.”

Poor Mallefille – you really have to pity him. Not only has he become the lover of the woman who employed him to tutor her children (and whose reputation is hard to take for his pathologically jealous nature anyway); only to be dumped again in short order, when she has had enough of him and his fits of jealousy. Not only does he have to watch her exchange witticisms and confidences with a host of other men, many of them belonging to the Parisian art circles where he himself will never be taken seriously (and God knows what else they may be exchanging or have exchanged in the past). Not only is he being bossed around by a woman who has taken a male pen name, insists on dressing in men’s clothes, refuses to use a woman’s saddle when riding (and what a horsewoman she is!) and prefers an afternoon out hunting to one sipping tea in the company of other ladies of society. No: after having taken all that, and having dared to demand the satisfaction to which he feels so justly entitled from her latest object of romantic interest, one feeble Polish composer named Chopin – only to see the guy fainting before the obligatory count has even gotten to “ten” and never raise his pistol at all – what does the wretched woman do? She seizes Chopin’s weapon, fires at Mallefille, injures his arm and responds coolly, when he has finally overcome his shock and disbelief and inquires how, after all their time together, she could do such a thing: “It was easy. You’re a menace to the future of art.”

As this movie would have it, the above scene (never to be revealed to Chopin, in order not to hurt his pride) brought about the final turning point in one of history’s most famous love stories, the romance between prolific French writer George Sand (born 1804 as Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin and married, in 1822, to Baron Casimir Dudevant, whom she left in 1835) and quintessential Romantic composer and Polish musical prodigy Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin, six years her junior, who after a life-long struggle with his health succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 39 years. While taking some liberties with the real course of events, Impromptu does portray their relationship up to their departure for Majorca, as well as the story’s backdrop in 19th century Paris and rural France, with an admirably light touch and in loving detail; marvelously framed by a score consisting almost exclusively of pieces by Chopin himself. Judy Davis and a deliciously young and fragile Hugh Grant are the perfect embodiment of Sand and her “Chopinet” – she, a feisty no-nonsense woman used to fighting for her place in the world, who can nevertheless lose herself completely in Chopin’s music, which she considers divine; he, sickly, uptight and at first severely taken aback by her manner which so contradicts accepted female behavior that he almost doubts she is a woman at all: a remark actually attributed to Chopin and resounding in the movie’s interpretation of their initial encounter, after Sand has hidden in his room to hear him play and leaves her hiding place when he stops, pleading with him to continue, only to be rebuked by a seriously upset Chopin: “Rumor has it that you are a woman, so I must ask you to leave my private chambers. … This is ridiculously improper – and frightening as well!”

Although Sand and Chopin were really introduced to each other by their joint friend Franz Liszt and his companion Marie d’Agoult (here portrayed with fervor and panache by Julian Sands and Bernadette Peters), the movie ingeniously places their first meeting onto the country estate of the Duke d’Antan and his wife Claudette, self-declared patroness of the arts (played by an exuberant Emma Thompson, who milks the role for all it’s worth and then some), who has assembled the cream of the Parisian arts scene; besides Chopin, Liszt and Marie most notably Sand‘s former lover, poet Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) and painter Eugène Delacroix (Ralph Brown). Sand, who is actually not among the invitees, spontaneously proceeds to invite herself when she hears that Chopin will be among the guests, because she has wanted to meet him ever since she first heard him play in the Paris salon of Baroness Laginsky (Elizabeth Spriggs) – thus guaranteeing plenty of tumultuous scenes between herself and de Musset as well as between the latter and Mallefille (Georges Corraface), who (likewise uninvited) appears shortly after her in dogged pursuit of the woman who has recently dumped him; a fact he is patently unwilling to accept.

Although initially rejected by Chopin, Sand is not in the least willing to give up on him; and she greedily accepts Marie’s advice after their return to Paris: “He is not a man; he’s a woman. … You must win him as a man wins a woman. If anyone can do it, you can.” And while Marie’s counsel is far less disinterested and well-meaning than George thinks, in the end her new tactics do the trick; albeit only after a series of heated encounters between the two would-be lovers, Chopin and de Musset, and Chopin and Marie; and not before Sand has lost her mother (Anna Massey), her most undying champion. Chopin and Sand eventually become friends and – we are told – finally lovers after Mallefille has forever left the battlefield in shame.

Although there would be an estrangement between the star-crossed lovers shortly before Chopin’s death, he did remain, as Sand wrote in her autobiography, the greatest love of her life; and in turn, the years they spent together are considered by many the most fertile years of his musical career. They both will live forever in their works – and this movie, which unfortunately went virtually undiscovered upon its 1991 release, is a wonderful, gentle reminder of the wealth of creativity and emotion they had to share.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: C.L.G. Films / Sovereign Pictures (1991)
  • Director: James Lapine
  • Executive Producer: Jean Nachbaur
  • Screenplay: Sarah Kernochan
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Bruno de Keyzer
  • Judy Davis: George Sand
  • Hugh Grant: Frédéric Chopin
  • Mandy Patinkin: Alfred de Musset
  • Bernadette Peters: Marie d’Agoult
  • Julian Sands: Franz Liszt
  • Ralph Brown: Eugène Delacroix
  • Georges Corraface: Félicien Mallefille
  • Anton Rodgers: Duke d’Antan
  • Emma Thompson: Duchess d’Antan
  • Anna Massey: George Sand’s Mother
  • Elizabeth Spriggs: Baroness Laginsky
  • John Savident: Buloz
  • David Birkin: Maurice
  • Nimer Rashed: Didier
  • Fiona Vincente: Solange
  • Lucy Speed: Young Aurora


Major Awards and Honors

Independent Spirit Awards (1991)
  • Best Female Lead: Judy Davis







Martin Goldsmith: The Inextinguishable Symphony – A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany

The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany - Martin GoldsmithA Son’s Voyage of Discovery of His Parents’ Nightmarish Past

What do we really know about our parents’ life before we were born? That depends largely, I guess, on how much of an interest we show – and on how much they are willing to reveal. Because in the life of every person there are instances and times they rather wish to forget, and not revive time and again by discussion, even if only among their nearest and dearest.

Such, in the lives of author Martin Goldsmith’s parents, were the years from 1933 through 1941; so much so, in fact, that Goldsmith likens that time to the massive ash tree in the house of Germanic warlord Hunding, the setting of the first scene of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre:” Something looming large, yet never openly acknowledged. Because before George Gunther Goldsmith, furniture and home decorating salesman of Cleveland, Ohio, and his wife Rosemary, a violinist with the St. Louis Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, became American citizens in 1947, they had lived a whole other life – the hunted life of Jews in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. And only years after his mother’s death, on a trip to his father’s home town of Oldenburg, did Goldsmith catch the first glimpses of what was hidden behind that massive ash tree, and George Goldsmith began to talk about the events which his, the Goldschmidt family had witnessed there; as well as the early life of Rosemarie née Gumpert in Düsseldorf, the couple’s first meeting in Frankfurt, and their later life in Berlin until their lucky escape to the United States. Beginning with this visit, Martin Goldsmith retraced his family’s path to the early years of the 20th century, when his paternal grandfather Alex Goldschmidt took residence in Oldenburg, and his maternal grandfather Julian Gumpert settled in Düsseldorf.

How intensely personal this voyage into the past must have been becomes clear in the account of Goldsmith’s visit to Oldenburg prison, as a participant in a march retracing the path taken by the Jews – among them the author’s grandfather – driven through the streets of Oldenburg in 1938 by Nazi thugs, to later be shipped off (at least temporarily) to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But although he writes about his very own family, and now in full knowledge of their fate, Goldsmith’s narrative is in no way sentimental. With a journalist’s detachment he talks about Günther and Rosemarie, Alex, Julian and their wives and other children; turning a nonfiction account whose outcome is clear from the very start into a heartstopping tale few would be able to believe if presented with it under colors other than that of the plain historic truth.

Prominently featured in Goldsmith’s account is the Jewish Culture Association, or Jüdischer Kulturbund; as of 1933 the German Jews’ only permitted artistic organization, in whose orchestra Günther and Rosemarie had met and which had formed the center of their life until they finally left the country. One of the most controversial institutions of Nazi Germany, it reunited what was left of the country’s Jewish musicians, artists, writers and composers – providing a modicum of shelter in an increasingly hostile environment, but also a convenient tool in the Nazi propaganda machine. Were the members of the Kulturbund instrumentalized to deceive public opinion, at home and abroad, about the true intentions of Hitler’s government? By giving their Jewish audience a sense of comfort and “belonging,” did they also prevent some of them from rescuing themselves when there still would have been time? The surviving members of the “Kubu” and their families, interviewed by Goldsmith, come down on both sides of the issue; and the fate of the survivors is probably as symptomatic as that of the many who ultimately did perish in Nazi concentration camps – chiefly among those the Kulturbund’s charismatic founder Dr. Singer, who not only let himself deceive into returning to Germany after already having reached the safe shores of the U.S. but saw a mark of distinction even in his deportation to the “model” concentration camp of Theresienstadt.

Yet, for Günther and Rosemarie the years with the Kulturbund were dominated, above all, by the musical companionship they experienced. What does seem to have haunted them most for the rest of their lives, however, was their very escape to America, while their remaining family members were stuck in Europe and, one way or another, died in Hitler’s concentration camps – and the feeling that with a little effort they just might have saved at least some of them. The letters of Alex Goldschmidt and his younger son Helmut, written to Günther from captivity in France after their own unsuccessful attempt to flee to Cuba, are among the most chilling testimonials contained in this book; and the decision to translate and include them conceivably cannot have been an easy one for Goldsmith. Indeed, it apparently was the knowledge of his family’s fate that, all talent and love of music aside, eventually compelled George Goldsmith to forever retire the flute which, in his life as Günther Goldschmidt, had been the only item of true importance besides his beloved wife Rosemarie; thus punishing himself in a way no outsider could have done. Yet, the couple’s gift for music lives on in their son, who in his own way has brought many hours of joy to radio listeners all over the U.S.

Martin Goldsmith’s “Inextinguishable Symphony” – named for Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, which sets music, as a parable for life itself, against war, terror and destruction – is as much a personal journey of discovery as a journalist’s account of historic facts; seeking to understand rather than to judge. It deals with a time in which morality was thoroughly upset by a profoundly immoral regime, which cannot possibly have remained without effect on anybody who witnessed those events. In applying our own values to those facts, I think we would all do well in being careful to, likewise, make a thorough effort to understand before we judge. Goldsmith’s insightful account is a great place to begin such a process.

Thomas Mann: Dr. Faustus

Doktor Faustus - Thomas MannA Reckoning

This review is dedicated, in friendship and grateful memory, to the late Bob Zeidler, one of’s best and brightest customer reviewers. It is partly inspired by an exchange with Bob, whose comments hereon are sorely missed.


“Yes … we are lost. That is to say: the war is lost, but that means more than a lost military campaign, in fact it means that we are lost, lost is our substance and our soul, our faith and our history. It is over with Germany; … an unnamable collapse, economical, political, moral and spiritual, in short, all-encompassing, is becoming apparent, – I don’t want to have wished for what is looming, because it is despair, it is madness.”*

Thus, the narrator of Thomas Mann’s last completed and, I think, greatest novel sums up Germany’s fate after the barbarities of national-socialism. But this is no mere character speaking: This is Mann himself – the erstwhile self-proclaimed “Unpolitical Man,” condemned to watch the Nazi tyranny’s horrors from the distance of his Californian exile, taking up the mighty pen that had gained him his Literature Nobel Prize and, through the voice of a narrator named Dr. Serenus Zeitbloom (in itself, supremely ironic comment on Mann’s own circumstances) composing his final reckoning with the country he left when the Nazis came to power, and where he never returned to live, although he finally did leave the U.S. in 1952, driven out by McCarthyism.

According to his diaries, as early as 1904 Mann had the idea of using a composer’s temptation by the devil (and thus, updating the Faustian legend, the quintessential theme of Germany’s cultural history at least since the Middle Ages) to illustrate the corruption of art by evil. Seeing the country’s intoxication with the glorious promises of Hitler and his henchmen, seeing all of German society fall under the spell of evil, including the “Bildungsbürgertum,” the educated middle class considering itself guardians of Germany’s cultural tradition (and for whose acceptance the dark-haired merchant’s son without a university education struggled throughout his life, much as they bought his books), reviving that idea first conceived forty years earlier was a logical choice; now further inspired by the personalities of Arnold Schönberg, whom Mann met in exile and whose twelve-tone scale became that of his novel’s protagonist Adrian Leverkühn, and Friedrich Nietzsche, with whose writings and personal fate Mann had been fascinated early on. Philosophically and musically, the novel is also influenced by critical theorist Theodor Adorno, with whom Mann entertained an in-depth epistolary dialogue.

Blending together musical theory, the decline of humanist philosophy, the rise of fascism and the powers of black magic (most of which Mann had already explored in earlier works like “The Magic Mountain” and, very pointedly, in the 1930 short story “Mario and the Magician”), “Doctor Faustus” is thus simultaneously a comment on the political developments, a warning, an attempt to come to grips with Germany’s high-flying, yet so easily destructible philosophical and moral compass – and, masterfully construed though it is, a cry of despair in the face of utter madness. For while the novel is brimming with references to the better part of German (and European) cultural history, from the medieval “Faustus” tale to Goethe, Weber’s “Freischütz,” Martin Luther, Protestantism, and Thuringia and Saxony as focal points of all things German, Mann’s central point remains the parallel between his country’s fate and that of his novel’s protagonist, both ending in ruin and madness-induced stupor after their deal with the devil has run its evil course.

Unlike Goethe, who places his Faust’s temptation at his tragedy’s beginning, leaving no doubt about the event’s physical reality, Mann even narratively lifts Leverkühn’s temptation into the realm of allegory and imagination, by splitting it into two incidents, whose combined effect will only come to fruition in the novel’s final part. On neither occasion Zeitbloom, the narrator, is present; for both we thus have only Leverkühn’s own words. Yet, even the first account, a letter describing how the would-be composer is mischievously led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, already intimates the evil to come, the venereal disease that will later constitute the outward cause of his madness; and not only does Leverkühn ask his friend to destroy that letter, he also closes it imploring him to pray for his soul.

Much later in the narrative – although indicating that it was actually written earlier; thus employing yet another level of (temporal) abstraction – Mann introduces Leverkühn’s transcript of his exchange with the devil; a dream-like sequence during which shape-shifting “Sammael,” in language hearkening back to Goethe and even the Middle Ages, promises Leverkühn nothing short of “the metamorphosis of a god”: that by his name a whole generation of “receptively healthy boys”* will swear, “those who thanks to [his] madness will no longer have to be mad themselves;”* and that, indeed, his name will live forever. Still, at this point we have already witnessed Leverkuehn explaining the foundations of his twelve-tone scale, only to be challenged by Zeitbloom’s question whether the strictness of his concept doesn’t deprive the composer of all freedom (which Leverkühn denies, rather seeing the composer as “bound by a self-imposed order, hence free”).* And when in an exchange laden with symbolism Zeitbloom then presses whether the formation of harmony wouldn’t be left to chance, Leverkühn’s response is, “Rather say: to constellation”* – thus squarely introducing, as his friend will quickly note, concepts of black magic, which in addition to the dialogue’s musical and political references again drive home Leverkühn’s exposure to the irrational and evil, long before the reader actually learns about his interview with the devil.

Doubtlessly among Mann’s most intimately personal works, “Doctor Faustus” is also among his most complex ones; and while hardly any of his writings make for a leisurely read, the sardonic “Felix Krull,” the near-humoristic “Royal Highness” and even his early masterpiece “Buddenbrooks” are foils to the seasoned master craftsman’s rapier that is drawn here. Demanding, certainly – but also highly recommended!


* Translation mine.

Sharon Maas: The Speech of Angels

The Speech of Angels - Sharon MaasOn music, life, and the healing of torn souls.

“Zwei Seelen, ach, in meiner Brust” – “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,” sighs Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in one of the tragedy’s most famous scenes, torn between love and destiny, between free will and divine providence. And two souls also are tearing apart the young heroine of this enchanting novel, Sharon Maas’s third after the equally compelling “Of Marriageable Age” and “Peacocks Dancing.” For the young woman must make up her mind and find out who she truly is: Jyothi, who was swept off the streets of Bombay by a well-meaning Western couple but, foreign-looking and (on top of that) dyslexic, i.e. in the general view “handicapped,” always remained an outsider in her adoptive parents’ small-town, middle class world; or Jade, child prodigy violinist and international superstar, who overcame poverty and dyslexia to rise to fame, fortune and, it is generally assumed, happiness and bliss.

First told from a neutral perspective, the account shifts gradually to a first person narrative as Jyothi grows older, and as her outlook on music and on life in general changes. And it is music, first and foremost, which guides our heroine’s life; not just because her adoptive mother Monika – brought up with the German middle class’s view that music is a part of the Western cultural heritage and a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone – has made her practice her violin with as much discipline as ambition once Jyothi’s talent has become apparent. No: Music is one of Jyothi’s earliest conscious impressions; the realization, come to her as she was listening to a boy practicing his sitar in the village where she lived before her family went to Bombay in search of work, that there just might be something other to life than work, marriage and child-rearing. Music also was what first brought her to the attention of Jack, her soon-to-be adoptive father, amid the dirt of a street outside the fancy Bombay hotel where he was staying with his wife: Himself a gifted musician and much more of an artist than his reserved, middle-class wife, he had started to play his guitar for her one day, and had found her singing along in perfect pitch to a song she certainly had never heard before. Thus, without the need for words, a bond had formed between Jack and Jyothi, by virtue of music alone. And so it is only natural that Jyothi soon turns to music as her preferred means of expression; relieved, by her gift to play from memory and intuition, of the necessity to decipher little black squiggles on paper (the letters, numbers and sheet music she is unable to read or write), she can say with music what she cannot express otherwise.

Yet, she always plays for others: for Monika, who first taught her discipline; then for her fans and admirers, then for the man she loves. And then, finally facing the inevitability of having to find out, once and for all, who she really is and what music means to her, she breaks down – in front of her audience, no less. So she goes back to the place where she has first experienced music as a language transgressing physical and mental boundaries a few years earlier; not as the dazzling Western art she herself had been practicing up to then but played by a simple Indian sitar teacher, and becoming synonymous with life itself. And reduced to the shreds of her former self (or selves) by a last fight of the two identities within her soul, she is able to make a new beginning, to rediscover music in a completely new light and to finally become whole.

“The Speech of Angels” – named for a quote from Thomas Carlyle’s essay “The Opera” – is an intensely personal journey, but also a celebration of music, that universally understood language of the praise of creation and divinity; described with an artist’s intuition in a way that almost makes the sound of Jyothi/Jade’s violin, in harmony with that of the Indian sitar, glide from the pages right into the reader’s ears and mind; enclosing him (or her) in sound and emotions, and in all the things which, in the words of Victor Hugo, “cannot be put into words and which cannot remain silent.”

“Sleeping hearts waken – dead souls are resurrected – music brings new life,” reads a short poem by contemporary American lyricist Marty Hansen-Roscoe, quoted at the beginning of “Speech of Angels;” and nothing could better sum up the contents of this book, and the impression that it leaves with its readers. This is one of the great literary finds of the year 2003; and it offers a wealth of beauty and sensual experience to anybody willing to undertake its journey.

Peter Høeg: Tales of the Night

Tales of the Night - Peter Høeg, Barbara HavelandBridges built out of yearning

“The great systems that inform the world about the truth and life invariably claim to be absolutely truthful and well-balanced. In reality they are quaking bridges built out of yearning.” Thus, the protagonist of this short story collection’s last entry, Reflection of a Young Man in Balance, sums up what he has come to learn about love, and life in general. However, these could also be the words of almost any character in any of the other tales told here: Admittedly or unadmittedly, they are searching for something, for a defining point or experience in life, and all of them see their lives profoundly unbalanced by that experience.

Taking “love and its conditions on the night of March 19, 1929” as his point of reference and as a link between the otherwise unconnected eight stories, Peter Høeg takes his readers from Denmark around the world to Paris, Lisbon and Central Africa. In a language and in settings somewhere between Dinesen (the obvious comparison), Conrad, Hemingway, Wilde and Poe, the author of Smilla’s Sense of Snow (or Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, as it is called in Britain) takes a look at the human condition, society in the first decades of the 20th century, and the dichotomy of science and sentiment, experience and emotion, logic and love.

In Journey into a Dark Heart, a historic train ride in Central Africa turns into a life-changing adventure for a young, disheartened mathematician, with travel companions such as German war hero General von Lettow-Vorbeck, traveling writer Joseph Korzeniowski (a/k/a Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness provides the obvious inspiration for more than just the story’s title) and an African servant girl with her own surprise in store for the three men.

Hommage a Bournonville finds a young Danish ballet dancer on a tiny boat in Lisbon’s harbor, telling the story of his lost love to a dervish of Turkish origin cast together with him by fate.

In The Verdict on the Right Honorable Ignatio Landstad Rasker, Lord Chief Justice, a father chooses the occasion of his son’s marriage to pass on the story how his own father, a renowned jurist and civil servant, faced up to the demons he had suppressed for most of his life, and which his family thereafter promptly continued to suppress.

An Experiment on the Constancy of Love juxtaposes a young woman of means and great beauty, an aspiring scientist with a sheer endless disdain for life, and the man who becomes her suitor from their first childhood meeting on and follows her from Paris to Denmark and back to Paris, until their ambitions and sentiments collide head-on in a fatal experiment she has devised.

Portrait of the Avant-Garde takes a successful, ambitious painter with ties to the rising Nazis to a nightly boat trip into self-discovery off a remote Danish island.

Pity for the Children of Vaden Town is the story of a city’s self-elected utter isolation, and of the pied piper who has come to the town children’s rescue – with abounding reminiscences to the Grimm Brothers, Robert Browning, Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll.

In Story of a Marriage, a writer discovers that the public image of perfection is often nothing more than that: an image.

And last but not least, in Reflection of a Young Man in Balance, a young scientist discovers the destructively revealing power of a perfect mirror.

Tales of the Night was written and appeared in Denmark in 1990, as Høeg’s second book (after 1988’s The History of Danish Dreams and two years before Smilla’s Sense of Snow), but was published in the U.S. only after the success of his story about the Inuit exile from Copenhagen hell-bent on solving the mystery of the death of a little boy, her only friend. In tone and theme, the two books could not be any more different; yet, like Smilla, Høeg’s protagonists in these tales are loners; outsiders of society, and ultimately, most of them are comfortable in that role and seek solitude rather than social acclaim and popularity. “I learned that it may be necessary to stand on the outside of one is to see things clearly,” the narrator of Hommage a Bournonville tells his Muslim companion, and he could be speaking for many of them. So, while social norms and conventions are an important backdrop for the experiences made by Høeg’s characters, ultimately it is one person in particular, often a loner like themselves, who provides them with the experience that will change the course of the entire rest of their lives.

Peter Høeg tells his protagonists’ stories with as much intelligence as humility, an occasional sense of humor; and most of all, with great empathy, undying even in their most somber moments. Not all of these tales are immediately uplifting (and Høeg’s successor novels continue to explore the dark side of the human existence); but they provide ample food for thought and are not to be missed.


Favorite Quotes:

“It may be necessary to stand on the outside of one is to see things clearly.”

“The great systems that inform the world about the truth and life invariably claim to be absolutely truthful and well-balanced. In reality they are quaking bridges built out of yearning.”