An acclaimed biographer, Hannah Pakula's just-released book, The Last Empress, recounts the saga of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the leader of China and often described at the time as the most powerful woman in the world. Already acclaimed as a triumph, The Last Empress is praised by Henry Kissinger as "a rare combination of brilliant writing and insightful scholarship."
In this wide-ranging interview with host Gilbert Kaplan, Pakula confesses that the only reason she’s a writer is because her piano technique – after 20 years of studies – just wasn’t good enough. But music still dominates her life (she can’t sleep without music on). Her favorite pianists today include Murray Perahia and Leif Ove Andsnes and composers selected for the show include Arensky, Bizet, Dvorak, Gilbert & Sullivan, Mendelssohn, Schubert, von Weber.
Felix Mendelssohn Song without Words, Op. 30, No. 1. Martin Jones. Nimbus N1 1772.
Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz. Overture [excerpt]. Staatskapelle Dresden. Carlos Kleiber. Deutsche Grammophon 289 457 736-2.
Anton Arensky Trio No. 1, Op. 32. First movement [excerpt]. Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Pennario, Gregor Piatigorsky. BMG Classics 09026-61758-2.
Georges Bizet The Pearl Fishers “Au fond du temple saint.” Duet. RCA Victor Symphony. Renato Cellini. Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill. BMG Classics 7799-2-RG.
Franz Schubert Divertissement à la Hongroise in G minor, D.818. Piano duet. March [excerpt]. Christoph Eschenbach, Justus Frantz. EMI 7243 5 69770 2 0.
Gilbert & Sullivan The Pirates of Penzance “I am the very model of a modern major-general.” Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. James Walker. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. John Reed. London 455 160-2.
Antonin Dvorak Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” Largo [excerpt]. Vienna Philharmonic. Herbert von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon 439 009-2.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” with my guest today, the acclaimed biographer, Hannah Pakula.
As an author she has specialized in historical biographies of powerful royal women including Empress Frederick of Prussia and Queen Maria of Romania —whom she called “the last romantic.” Her just released new book, The Last Empress, recounts the saga of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the leader of China and often described at the time as the most powerful woman in the world. Already acclaimed as a triumph, The Last Empress is praised by Henry Kissinger as “a rare combination of brilliant writing and insightful scholarship.” Hannah Pakula, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
HANNAH PAKULA: I’m very happy to be here.
KAPLAN: So to begin with we ought to talk about music in connection with your new book, The Last Empress. And the obvious one is, was Madame Chiang Kai-shek a music lover?
PAKULA: Yes, she actually was. She came from a fairly musical family. Her mother, unlike most aristocratic Chinese ladies of the day did learn to play the piano. And her father loved to sing. So like many upper class girls, she took piano lessons when she returned from school in America in 1917 I believe. And she doesn’t mention trying to learn to play as a young child, but then she was educated in the States and probably didn’t have much of a chance. I don’t think her enthusiasm for playing or for getting a lovely new piano lasted too long. But during her married years when she was married to Chiang Kai-shek, she listened to classical music while Chiang read his papers and practiced his brush work.
KAPLAN: It’s good to know music was in her life at least in that way.
PAKULA: It lasted in her life.
KAPLAN: Let’s talk about music in your life as a child. Did you start to play an instrument when you were very young?
PAKULA: I started the piano very young, yes.
KAPLAN: And how did that develop after that?
PAKULA: I loved it more than anything but I had absolutely - I never could develop a technique. So when I went back to my Wellesley reunion, they said why did you become a writer? And I said I became a writer because I didn’t have enough of a technique to become a pianist.
KAPLAN: But how long did it take you to conclude that? Did you play for a long time?
PAKULA: Oh, it took me many years. I played well into my 30’s and 40’s.
KAPLAN: Well maybe we’ll come back to that. But let’s turn to your music list which is a fascinating list and stay with the piano because that’s your first selection and it’s Mendelssohn.
PAKULA: Right. It’s the Song without Words, Opus 30. Of course I had to look up the Opus 30, No. 1. When we moved from California to New York, which was 30 years ago, a friend gave me the Barenboim recording of the Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words which is an absolutely superb recording. And I went out, of course, naturally, and bought the sheet music and never stopped playing it. I think it drove poor Alan crazy.
KAPLAN: Alan Pakula, your -
PAKULA: Alan Pakula my husband. Alan had perfect pitch and I always threatened to stand with a tape recorder at the piano. And when he would sort of play and improvise and record him. I never, of course, had the chance to do it. But he was, somebody once said isn’t it wonderful, you got together; you both love music. And we looked at them and said, “Do we?” We really hadn’t discussed music at that point. That’s one of my very first choices and if I were going to try to go back to play again, I think this would be the first thing I’d go back to.
KAPLAN: Felix Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op. 30, No. 1, with Martin Jones at the piano, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Hannah Pakula, author of the just released and acclaimed biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, The Last Empress. Let’s return to this idea you mentioned about technique, the reason why you felt you couldn’t go further with your own music. Now, all pianists have their own technique and Vladimir Horowitz, for example, had a flat finger technique—which is supposed to limit your playing. Horowitz of course didn’t know that.
PAKULA: I had what they thought was a very nice touch. But I could not play the fast passages, particularly in my left hand. My left hand was just not good enough. Also I have very small hands.
KAPLAN: Well, some players have small hands. They play a lot of Mozart. They don’t get to Rachmaninoff.
PAKULA: I know they do. They don’t have any problem at all but I did.
KAPLAN: I see. So it was a matter with speed. When you were playing, which composers were you particularly drawn to?
PAKULA: Oh, I think like most young pianists, I love Chopin, I loved Schubert and Beethoven. When I got into high school I remember, I realized that I had not done any Bach at all. I’d gone to one of these sort of chic teachers and she did not get me to do Bach. And so I started to practice Bach. And my mother used to tell the story of my coming home one day I brought Eva Rubinstein, Artur’s eldest child with me. And she said what are you guys doing, and I said, “Oh, well I’m showing Eva how to play Bach.” And my poor mother almost passed out.
KAPLAN: Well, Bach of course is the cornerstone of so much music.
PAKULA: Well, of course. And what, I mean, I used to I think go to every concert Glenn Gould ever played. He used to play at a particular auditorium in Los Angeles. You often had to shut your eyes, but boy, what came out of that piano was extraordinary.
KAPLAN: Well he was unique when it came to Bach. Not everyone’s taste.
KAPLAN: But very, very special. Now do you still play at all?
KAPLAN: Is that because you feel you have to be very good in order to play? You couldn’t just play -
PAKULA: I think I’ve been working so hard at my writing that I haven’t had time to play. I may at some point go back to it.
KAPLAN: You know, we had as a guest on the show Philippe de Montebello. He was then the Director of the Metropolitan Museum.
KAPLAN: He had studied for a while and stopped as you did. But he wanted to continue so he said he would go home at night and always play a slow movement from Schubert and just the right hand melody. He said it gave him enormous satisfaction.
PAKULA: How smart.
KAPLAN: All right, well let’s come back to your own music you’ve picked today and I see an opera overture is next.
PAKULA: The Overture to Der Freischütz by von Weber. The reason I love this is it reminds me of how I first developed a passion for classical music. My sister, who was seven years older than I, played the French horn in a youth orchestra conducted by Peter Meremblum. He was a student of Auer; he was a Russian student of Auer’s as was Heifetz. It was a really good orchestra. People like Andre Previn played with them. And my mother used to take me to a place in Hollywood called Plummer Park every Saturday morning where I would sit and listen to them rehearse. They were very good. And they played on the radio and were even used, as I remember, for a movie or two. I particularly remember the concert that opened with the Overture to Der Freischütz which starts with a few introductory measures in the strings and then features a beautiful French horn solo. It’s a solo by the French horns; it’s not just one French horn. The French horns usually four. My sister was all excited about this but unfortunately Myra had water in her horn. It wasn’t a pretty sound that came out. But every time I hear that Overture, I think fondly of her and those mornings in the park. And that’s why I love that Overture.
KAPLAN: An excerpt of the overture of Weber’s Der Freischütz, the Staatskapelle Dresden with Carlos Kleiber on the podium. A musical choice of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” author Hannah Pakula. Now I want to come back to an aspect of your new book, The Last Empress, because you worked on that I understand for a period of about seven years and that, of course, included traveling to China. Did you ever get to experience and come to appreciate Chinese music?
PAKULA: I have put this down as one of the things I really want to explore. I did not have time during the work because I was madly running around in archives where there is no music really. But it’s something I am planning to spend some time exploring.
KAPLAN: All right. Now, all of your books focus on fascinating and powerful women, some behind the scenes, shall we say. Have you ever considered writing a book about a powerful woman in music, such as Cosima Wagner or Alma Mahler?
PAKULA: Yes, I have and I’m thinking about that right now. I don’t know yet whom it will be, but I may do that at this point.
KAPLAN: Because there’s a case where you would bring so much to it beyond your writing and research, your knowledge of music and it would be wonderful if you did. All right, well, we continue on with your list of music and we come to actually a contemporary of Mahler: Arensky.
PAKULA: Right. The Russian Anton Arensky. It’s the trio, Opus 32 for piano, violin and cello and mine is played by Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Lenny Pennario. When I was living in California, I was a young married woman; I became an ingénue in the group of Russian immigrant musicians who’d fled Europe during World War II. I used to be invited to their Sunday afternoon musicales which always started at 5:00 o’clock and they took place at Heifetz or the Piatigorsky house or at the home of two Russian brothers who had gotten out of Russia with their wives and lived in the same large house together in Beverly Hills. One of their sons was my very first boyfriend when I was about 13. This is where I developed a passion for chamber music. Who wouldn’t? Jascha and Grisha always played and would often invite whatever famous pianist was in town. But the regular pianist was Lenny Pennario. It had been early on Artur Rubinstein but he and Jascha had a falling out and stopped playing together. One year they were giving a series of concerts in New York and they asked if my husband and I would like to come along. This was my first husband. I being the original chamber music groupie said of course. I’d never been in Carnegie Hall. But as I was sitting down in front listening to them rehearse, Jascha asked me to go up to the first tier of boxes to listen to the sound. How did it sound up there? And then to the second tier. And eventually all over the auditorium and the balconies to check the sound. I was, to put it mildly, outrageously flattered that he trusted my ear that much.
KAPLAN: Did you find anything to tell him to change?
PAKULA: Not a darn thing. The sound in that place is glorious.
KAPLAN: All right then let’s listen to a bit of that Trio.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of Arensky’s Trio No. 1, with three legendary performers: violinist Jascha Heifetz, pianist Leonard Pennario, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, three artists personally well known to my guest today on “Mad About Music,” author Hannah Pakula. When we return we’ll explore who Hannah Pakula’s favorite pianists are today.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Hannah Pakula, author of the just released and fascinating biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the leader of China. Title of the book: The Last Empress. Well, you were lucky enough to have had such a remarkable opportunity not only to hear, but to get to know musicians such as Heifetz and Rubinstein. Everybody would agree - the foremost in their field. What were they like though as people?
PAKULA: They were wonderful to me. They treated me like this crazy kid who loved music. And, they allowed me to turn pages occasionally – Lenny Pennario particularly – it fascinated me because Lenny would read like sixteen bars ahead and he’d nod and I’d have to turn the page and it fascinated me what a really fine musician can do.
KAPLAN: Do you think outside the setting of making music Heifetz was a nice guy?
PAKULA: There are many theories about that. I’m not going to comment on it.
KAPLAN: OK. I didn’t know there were theories.
PAKULA: Grisha was a wonderful man. Grisha - when I lost my first husband, Byron Janis was a very good friend of ours and he was out of the country and Grisha said “can I come and play at the little service in the house” and I said “yes, I would love it.” And as I remember he played Bloch but I was in such a state I don’t totally remember everything. But the thing I remember about that was one of the sort of Hollywood people coming up and saying “Oh that’s such a good cellist I wonder where Hannah got him.” I said well “local so and so…”
KAPLAN: That’s wonderful. It reminds me of the story about Mahler when they took his music for the movie - Visconti took it for Death in Venice – and some Hollywood producer heard it he said “My goodness who wrote that score?” He was told: Gustav Mahler. “Do you think we could sign him?” he asked – you know - the same sort of thing. You mentioned that Heifetz and Rubinstein had a falling out. Is it known what that was about? Was it musical? Was it personal?
PAKULA: I was never told.
KAPLAN: I see. All right -
PAKULA: Or if I was told I was told to forget.
KAPLAN: Now in an interview you gave you indicated that your favorite classical music or opera was the men’s duet in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, and any song from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or songs from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Youth’s Magic Horn. Now, what is special about these? Let’s take Mahler first, what touches you with these songs?
PAKULA: I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. I just know that they move me extraordinarily. I think they’re the sometimes unexpected harmonies and the connection to the earth that fascinate me. I could listen to them forever.
KAPLAN: And the Bizet duet?
PAKULA: Well, I have told my friends that what I want on my tombstone is: “Shame on her she loved melody.” And the Bizet, The Pearl Fishers duet is an example of wonderful, wonderful melody and wonderful counterpoint.
KAPLAN: One of the best known duets in opera, from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, sung by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill, with RCA Victor Symphony conducted by Renato Cellini, a favorite of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” author Hannah Pakula. All right then, let’s now turn to music in your life today. For example, do you have music on when you write?
PAKULA: No. I would write in time to the music. I can’t possibly keep it on.
KAPLAN: It is fascinating because I’ve had a number of writers on the show or lawyers who have to write briefs and they divide into those two groups, those who can’t write without music on and those who say – you say you’d write in time to the music – others have said they couldn’t write because - I like to listen music and not just have it on as background, so you’re -
PAKULA: Well, even if it’s background I’m listening. That’s why I can’t.
KAPLAN: Now we’ve talked allot about pianists. Who are your favorites today?
PAKULA: Perahia, and Andsnes of the younger pianists, Brendel who isn’t playing anymore, Serkin who’s gone, Horowitz when he was playing years ago. All the expected people. Well, Perahia and Andsnes I think are remarkable and they don’t sort of fall into the - what I find in many of the young Russian pianists the accent on speed and show off. They take their time to play - to listen and play with a beautiful tone.
KAPLAN: Well, you know you would need two of those to play the next selection you’ve picked and it’s Schubert.
PAKULA: Right. It’s the Divertissement à la Hongroise. Schubert for four hands. I always loved this and I was playing the bass part with Jascha’s brother-in-law, Samuel Chotzinoff, playing the treble at one point. Chotzi, who my old friend Byron Janis tells me brought Toscanini to the United States (there seems to be some question about that) was married to Jascha’s sister, Pauline, and he was a wonderful pianist and I clearly was not. And nevertheless, all was going well until we got to the march and in the march the bass has to keep its own time and that doesn’t match the melody in the treble. Well, Jascha had walked into the room - this was at his house. He got so frustrated listening to me struggling that he came over and stood behind me and he kept time by hitting me on the back at the appropriate moments. I finally got it.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Schubert’s piano duet, Divertissement à la Hongroise played by Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz, a work also performed by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” biographer Hannah Pakula – performed with a little help on the rhythm from legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, who would tap her on her back if she slowed down. You know, before you were talking about your years living in Los Angeles and as a result of your late husband, the acclaimed film director Alan Pakula, you certainly met many Hollywood types. Were any passionate about classical music?
PAKULA: Very few except Alan and me.
KAPLAN: We’ve had a few on this show –
KAPLAN: Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin -
PAKULA: Oh, well Alan Alda, of course – yes -
KAPLAN: Alec Baldwin –
KAPLAN: And even Billy Friedkin who directed The Exorcist and The French Connection, but I have a feeling that Hollywood’s kind of, sort of lean on classical music lovers.
PAKULA: I – probably is. It probably is.
KAPLAN: Now a key thing in any movie of course is the musical soundtrack and I wonder whether your husband ever asked your advice on music for a soundtrack.
PAKULA: Well, he used to let me come to the recording sessions and that was great fun.
I always stayed away from the set except when they were shooting outside. I might visit the set once or twice. The director in a film is the father and if the real family shows up it can cause problems so as a proper wife I kept away. During my passion for the Mendelssohn Song without Words that I chose first here, Alan, I think, got so used to it that he used it for music in his film Sophie’s Choice which kind of amused me.
KAPLAN: But did you ever discuss with him what music might go into – did he use classical music very much?
PAKULA: He used it some but he usually had a composer.
KAPLAN: All right, well now we come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard” where you have a chance to pick something other than opera or classical music. It can be anything you like. We’ve had some wonderful selections here of rock, jazz. What did you bring us today?
PAKULA: Well my odd ball is almost anything from Gilbert & Sullivan. When I was a kid I think I memorized every song to most of the operettas. I love it. And I guess, well, maybe “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” has always amused me. I can’t sing it but I can say it. I have a terrible voice:
I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theory I am teeming with a lot of news, a lot of news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse, etc. etc.
KAPLAN: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. The Royal Philharmonic conducted by James Walker, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and John Reed - the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” biographer Hannah Pakula. When we return, we’ll hear Hannah Pakula’s final selection.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” author of the just released and fascinating biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the leader of China who was once regarded as the most powerful women in the world. You know I read in an interview where you were asked if you could describe your life in just a few words and you said: love, luck, and punctuated by tragedies. I’m wondering whether at such tragic moments if you ever turn to music for consolation.
PAKULA: Always. Always.
KAPLAN: And what might you play?
PAKULA: Whatever was available, easy. I always have a music station on the radio. I’d listen to it all night actually when I’m alone. As a widow I leave it on all night and I’ll wake up if I hear something that I really like and try to find out - figure out who’s playing it.
KAPLAN: Fascinating, it’s on all night while you’re sleeping.
PAKULA: Yes, all night and I used to do that when I was a teenager.
KAPLAN: Could you sleep without it on today do you think?
PAKULA: No, probably not.
KAPLAN: Fascinating. All right well your next piece we should come to and it features an instrument sometimes used to express lament. So, that’s the English horn and we come to Dvorak.
PAKULA: Well this is the second movement, the Largo from the New World Symphony, the symphony number nine. My fondness for this dates back to the time when my twin sons were very young and very small. One of them, Louie, started playing the violin and he turned out to be quite a little fiddler. Actually, Jascha, I think gave him his first lesson which was pretty funny. At five he tried out for the school orchestra. And dumbfounded the poor orchestra leader by sight reading the violin part to the Dvorak or at least as it was written for young musicians - it was probably simplified of course. The leader stopped me in the hall a few days later saying “I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was going to play ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ and he comes up with this.” Needless to say Louie got into the orchestra. We had to control ourselves when he played in concerts and once actually on television because he sat in the front row and his feet didn’t touch the ground and of course the audience’s eyes and the cameras went right to those two skinny little legs barely dangling over the seat but keeping perfect time to the music.
KAPLAN: An excerpt of the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan on the podium, the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” biographer Hannah Pakula. All right, as we now head toward the conclusion of the show I want to ask you a question, one I ask every guest and it’s about fantasies – and it’s always musical fantasies. Now, I would normally leave the door open on this, but in your case I have to close it a bit because playing the piano is something at which you are already so accomplished. If you could be a star therefore in music and do anything, other than playing the piano, would you like to be a composer, a conductor, violinist? What would it be?
PAKULA: Well I think composers are so gifted that I wouldn’t even dream of that. But I wouldn’t mind being a conductor.
KAPLAN: And do you ever regret that you didn’t continue to pursue the piano? Or do you accept the judgment of that one teacher saying your technique wouldn’t ever develop?
PAKULA: No. The only reason she taught me was she said I knew music. And I said “Why do you teach me?” This was the lady who taught at USC when Jascha was teaching the fiddle and Grish was teaching the cello. And I said “Why are you bothering with me?” And she said “Because you know music and I have all these kids who come in here and they have brilliant techniques but they don’t understand the music.” So, I thought, well, OK.
KAPLAN: All right. Hannah Pakula you’ve been a wonderful guest telling us fascinating stories which is a real window into your own life and the power of music in it. Thank you for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer