Kaplan Harvard law professor and life-long music lover, Alan Dershowitz, on today’s edition of “Mad About Music.”
Kaplan At age 28, he became the youngest full professor in the history of the Harvard Law School. As a teacher he soon became known for his stimulating and challenging classes. As a scholar he has written 24 books on law and public policy – always with an unflinching point of view. His latest book soon to be published, “Preemption” which tackles the thorny issues at stake when the United States – or any country – attacks another without being attacked first. Along the way he has even found time to write two novels. As a private attorney he has achieved a formidable track record often taking on seemingly impossible causes. Time magazine has called him a “legal star” and he is certainly often in the media – in fact, a regular commentator on television – so much so that he has become familiar enough to have become the subject of the New York Times crossword puzzle and two cartoons in the New Yorker magazine. But the 4,000-word bio he provides is not in fact full disclosure. Yes, we learn that he played basketball in high school, but nowhere in it is it revealed the extent to which music has played such a dominant – and enduring – role in his life. Alan Dershowitz, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Dershowitz Well, thank you so much for having me on this wonderful show.
Kaplan You know, I always find it fascinating with our guests to learn how they first developed their passion for music. I mean, often it begins in the earliest days in the home, for some people, not until they’re an adult. What is the situation with you?
Dershowitz My home had no music whatsoever. We didn’t have a phonograph; the radio only played “The Lone Ranger” and “Can You Top This?”, comedy shows. I knew no classical music as a kid, but we did have religious music. My grandfathers, both of them, sang in the synagogue; they were cantors. And so I knew how to sing, and I was a choirboy myself. But classical music played no role. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say my family, who were very religious, would regard classical music as somewhat frivolous, that it wasn’t part of my upbringing, but I just fell in love with classical music at a friend’s house and he had an older sister, and she had a phonograph, and we would sit around and listen to music. And when I became bar mitzvahed, the one gift I wanted was a Webcortape recorder, so a reel-to-reel, enormous thing, and I got it, and I used to simply turn on the radio, to the classical music station, and then turn on the tape recorder. No wires connected it, and I’d get a really, really bad taping of classical music, and then I’d play it over and over, I still have that reel to reel tape, I don’t have anything to play it on, but I still have it.
Kaplan All right, let’s turn to your first selection. Maybe a work you did hear when you were young, because it’s one of the most popular symphonies in the repertory.
Dershowitz Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The end part of it, the coda. Which I just fell in love with. It was my first piece of classical music, that I would just hum, and whistle, on the way to going to work, and it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever heard as a 13- or 14-year-old kid. Then, when I was about 15 or 16, I was in camp. Camp Maple Lake in Livingston Manor, and I was appointed to be the General of “color war” and that meant I had to write the battle song, the victory song, and the first melody that came to my mind was “bum-bu-bu-bum, bu-bu-bum-bum” and so I wrote some really silly lyrics to that song, and it’s ruined it for me. Because now whenever I hear the beautiful music, I try to remember the words that I put to it.
Kaplan Well, let’s listen to some of the words and ruin it for everybody else!
Dershowitz Oh, no… you know, it was like, “Vic-to-ry to the green team, glory”, you know, that kind of just terrible stuff! But the music was so syncopated that it lent itself to that kind of, you know, kind of rhythmic victory chant.
Kaplan The concluding moments of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic with conductor Valery Gergiev. The first selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, attorney Alan Dershowitz, one of the first works he encountered as a child. Now, you mentioned that your parents weren’t too enthusiastic about your listening to classical music. Which means, I suppose, they were even less enthusiastic about your listening to popular music.
Dershowitz Well, it’s interesting. Popular music – it depended on the nature of the popular music. Certainly, they didn’t want me to be listening to, you know, the rock singers. Johnnie Ray in my day, or Elvis Presley a little later. But there was some kind of popular music, you know, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” and stuff like that…
Kaplan Doris Day.
Dershowitz Yes, they really didn’t mind that. And there was always one exception in the home, and that was George Gershwin. That was acceptable. Why? He was Jewish. His name was originally Gershowitz. And who knows? Maybe it even – there was a relationship, G, D, in Russian, who knows? And he also had Hebraic melodies, occasionally, in his musical works. In fact, I did a paper in college on the influence of both Tin Pan Alley and cantorial and Jewish music on the music of George Gershwin. So Gershwin was an exception. And then, later in life, when I met my wife, who came from Charleston, South Carolina, we immediately formed a bond over Gershwin, because Gershwin had spent some time in Charleston, and in fact had dated one of my wife’s parents’ friends, and we had some letters back and forth that we had seen, and Porgy & Bess, of course, is set in Charleston, in Catfish Row. So one of my favorite songs of all time was the lullaby, “Summertime,” the great opening aria of Porgy & Bess, and the amazing thing is how a man from Tin Pan Alley could have written such a glorious, glorious aria.
Kaplan “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. On a 1951 historic studio recording, with soprano June McMechen, with conductor Lehman Engel. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, attorney Alan Dershowitz, who suggested a lingering suspicion that he may well be related to Gershwin, whose true name was Gershowitz. Now, “Summertime” is the first of a series of your selections today involving voice, so I assume that it would be fair to say that you prefer the voice to instrumental music.
Dershowitz Well, I love the combination of the voice and instrumental music. I love the voice as an instrument, and – I don’t love a cappella. But I do love the blending of orchestral and voice, and that’s why, early in my life, I fell in love with opera. And I was very, very lucky. For a nickel, I got right on the train, in Borough Park in Brooklyn, and I was at 40th Street and the Metropolitan Opera in no time at all, and in those days, for 50 cents, if you had a score of the opera with you, and I couldn’t read music, but I went to the library, the public library, and I borrowed scores of operas, me and a couple of friends of mine, and we would be given chairs and seats with lights over them, at the old Met, for 50 cents, and they were wonderful seats, and I must have gone to fifteen or twenty operas that way. I saw some of the great performances, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, in many, many performances together. Risë Stevens and so many of the early stars of the Met, Roberta Peters, and I just fell in love with the Met and continue to go to opera all the time.
Kaplan Now, what would you say to any of your students about this experience, where you pretended to read music – and snuck in at a lower price? What would Professor Dershowitz have to say about that?
Dershowitz Well, you know, I didn’t tell them I was, they didn’t ask me if I was a music student, they just said, “Do you have a score?” I had a score …
Kaplan Don’t ask, don’t tell!
Dershowitz But I did follow the opera. I mean, I followed the words, and, you know, it was always a little disappointing to me sometimes – it’s almost a little bit like prayer. My friends who are Catholic who say, oh my God, now that they’ve changed the Mass from Latin to English, we actually know what we’re saying, and I feel sometimes the same way about prayers, and about the opera. Sometimes, the mystery is better than the actual libretto. But I followed it, and I got to fall in love with several composers, and Verdi was one of them, and what I particularly loved about Verdi was his male-male duets, although Don Carlo, to my mind, is much too rarely performed these days. When you ask people about Verdi, it’s not the first or second or third or fourth opera that comes to mind. I have to search out Don Carlo wherever I am, where opera is performed, and only rarely do I manage to find Don Carlo being performed in a place where I am at a given time, and if I had to pick one opera that I think I probably like more than any other, it is Don Carlo. I love the male-male duets, the showing of affection. It would be interesting to wonder how it was reacted to in those days. I mean, today one might hear this kind of love song between two men and wonder about the sexual orientation of the writer. I think in those days, kind of male bonding songs would probably be more accepted without wondering about whether it had any connotations beyond that. But the male bonding songs are just fantastic and I think this one from Don Carlo is the best of them all.
Kaplan The moving duet as two men pledge eternal friendship, from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Sung by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini. The favorite opera of my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” attorney Alan Dershowitz. When we return, we’ll hear a choral masterpiece, and learn its special appeal to Alan Dershowitz.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, attorney Alan Dershowitz. Let’s talk about music in your life today. How often do you attend concerts and opera?
Dershowitz Well, I subscribe to the Boston Symphony series, up in Boston, with James Levine. I subscribe to the Celebrity Series. I subscribe to Ben Zander’s wonderful Boston Philharmonic, and my research assistants end up being the beneficiaries of a lot of unused tickets, unfortunately. But I go as often as I can. I go to a musical event at least once a week.
Kaplan I should ask you about the impact of James Levine on Boston, because one reads mixed comments in the newspaper. Not about the quality of his work, but his orientation towards composers. And as you know, the Boston Symphony has now a substantial portion of its programming involved with contemporary, atonal music. How has that gone down, and do you like that?
Dershowitz It’s wonderful for people like me, because it means that even if I don’t have tickets, there are always tickets available because the old fuddy-duds who have been going to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the last hundred years walk out when modern music is played. And for them, modern music is almost anything post-Brahms. So, there has been a lot of controversy about it. I love it! I love to hear music for the first time. I don’t always love the music I’m hearing for the first time, but it’s an adventure.
Kaplan Now you do an enormous amount of writing. Are you someone who can work with music on in the background?
Dershowitz I can’t work without music on in the background. I must have music when I work. And I have to pick my music very carefully. And I’m very, very selective. I can’t pick music that I have to think intensively about, so I can’t pick a new piece, or usually, even a modern piece. It has to be a comfortable piece. A piece that I can listen to, maybe even hum along with, but not have to think a great deal about. Now, when I’m alone in the house, that includes opera; when my wife is in the house, she loves to have symphony music in the background. Though she likes to go to opera, she doesn’t like to listen to opera in the house. So, I have to be careful about what I play and who’s in the house, but I can’t write without music in the background. And I sometimes even pick my music thematically, depending on what I’m writing. I know it sounds corny, but I like particular music on when I’m writing in a particular way.
Kaplan I understand that in your first novel, because you’re not only a scholarly writer on legal issues, you’ve actually written a few novels, that in your first novel, you proposed to your publisher that each chapter should have a sound-track suggestion for listening while reading it. Is that right?
Dershowitz Well, more than that. What I did was I actually wrote it with a description of the music that was playing in the background during several scenes. There’s a scene where the lawyer is thinking about and figuring out how to solve this case and I had some Brahms Trio on in the background, and then another point where he gets the great idea and of course there it was, the beginning of Mahler’s Second, dramatic and anticipatory. And so I tried very hard to write the novel with some kind of musical settings in the background and my publisher thought it was too elitist, and it would turn off certain readers, so we decided to do without it.
Kaplan Well then, let’s talk about some Dershowitz soundtracks. Pick two of your most famous cases. And tell what the drama was about, and then tell us what you might put in for a soundtrack for your arguing those cases.
Dershowitz Well, I guess my first case that brought me to public notoriety or infamy or fame, was Claus von Bülow. And of course Claus von Bülow, the name brings to mind of course Wagner – von Bülow was Wagner’s great conductor – and when I was doing the von Bülow case, it was almost like a joke, because I had a group of students around me, I always had Wagnerian music playing in the background, and usually it was either Die Walküre or Götterdämmerung, something very very dramatic, so that would be the perfect soundtrack for Claus von Bülow. Mike Tyson – I mean, it would be a little harder to figure out.
Dershowitz I don’t like rap music, so I don’t think I’d use that soundtrack. You know, when I represented Anatoly Sharansky, who was the great Russian dissident, I did play Russian music in the background. I remember playing music that was being played by the great cellist Rostropovitch, who was also at the time in the Soviet Union and something of a dissident aligned with the Sakharov forces. And one of the great thrills of my life was a few years ago, at an anniversary dinner for Brandeis University, Rostropovitch played and I went to the reception afterward, and I had no idea he knew who I was, and I went over and I shook his hand and I told him how much I respected him and how much I loved his music and he said, “Oh, you were very important to me and my friends. When we were in the Soviet Union, we knew that you were there, outside, defending us and helping us.” And for me, it brought it all together, because I was listening to his music and he didn’t know I was listening to his music, and I didn’t know that he knew that I existed, and we worked in tandem and here he was, playing in the United States!
Kaplan Now, you didn’t appear before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore I gather?
Dershowitz No. They made the decision based on the names of the litigants. If it had been Gore v. Bush instead of Bush v. Gore, it would have come out the other way, and I wrote a book about it called Supreme Injustice, which created quite a bit of controversy. But it was discordant, atonal, inconsistent with prior decisions that the Court rendered and music for this day and this time only, it had no precedential impact. So you’ve now succeeded in getting me really angry, as soon as I hear Bush v. Gore, it really gets me mad.
Kaplan I can’t promise you how much of your view of the case we’ll have on the show, we’re supposed to only talk about music, but just come back for a moment, and give me the soundtrack that’s going to help you make that case. You said something atonal and maybe you can put a name to a piece.
Dershowitz Well, probably, I would think that something by Shostakovich which would make the listeners feel guilty because of the way Stalin treated Shostakovich and made him, essentially, not write his great music for so many years and the aura of government oppression always comes to my mind when I think of how Shostakovich was mistreated by Stalin, and how, by dint of great courage, he overcame it.
Kaplan You mentioned earlier that when you were writing your novel, you did have in mind an excerpt from Mahler’s Second Symphony to go with one of the chapters and I see that in fact, you have picked Mahler’s Second Symphony. It’s one of the works you want to play today.
Dershowitz That’s right. Mahler’s Second Symphony is just phenomenal. It’s all of life. I was recently introduced to a great new recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony by you, and I just absolutely love it. It starts out so differently from other recordings, the slow, deliberate nature of the build-up, it really had me sitting in my seat waiting, waiting for the next beat. So, you have reintroduced me and reintroduced my love to Mahler. And the part that I picked is the last part, because there are so many different moods in Mahler’s Second; but the last part is – if there were ever to be a “Resurrection,” that would be the soundtrack for the “Resurrection”! It is so grand, and it’s almost, God is coming. And it just brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. It almost makes me religious!
Kaplan The glorious conclusion of Mahler’s Second Symphony. My own recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and soloists Latonia Moore and Nadja Michael and the chorus of the Wiener Singverein, a selection by my guest today, attorney Alan Dershowitz, who feels that if there is to be a “Resurrection,” Mahler’s Second must be its soundtrack. Well, let’s turn from “Resurrection” to another movement – this one more of a mortal nature – downloading. I don’t know if you’ve followed this development at all, but do you see a potential Supreme Court constitutional issue involved in this?
Dershowitz Oh sure, I think there is no question that the nature of the way we access music, and I think by the way, it’s going to be true with books too, but music so obviously, clearly, is going to need a legal resolution. Although I love music, I’m not one who’s in favor of free music; I think that one has to reward the artist and the composer. The Constitution, basically, gets into this and says that the reason that we have copyright and patent laws is to encourage the arts and to encourage science, and I think we have to play fair with our musicians and our artists. They’re underpaid enough in our society, not to start stealing their work product from them.
Kaplan Your next selection involves the most downloaded opera singer, probably, in the history of music, Luciano Pavarotti. And certainly the most downloaded composer, Beethoven. You know, recently BBC offered its listeners the opportunity, a short window, that if they acted, they could download all nine Beethoven symphonies. Free. And legitimately free, because BBC controlled it. One point four million people took them up on that. But I see you’ve brought us a rarely performed work from Beethoven today.
Dershowitz Well, I love Pavarotti’s rendition of this obscure song about an obscure tomb, In questa tomba oscura. I probably mispronounced it. It’s just a gorgeous, plaintive song that makes, I think, maximum use of Pavarotti’s voice, in his prime. I watched Pavarotti the first week he was at the Metropolitan Opera. I was not there for his premier performance, but I was there during the first week and I was at his last performance. And many, many, many in between. But I actually liked him singing songs that were not necessarily operatic even better than his performances in the opera, for one very good reason – he was a terrible actor! And so you have to close your eyes sometimes to really fully enjoy him on the stage. But when he’s singing just songs, it was interesting; he was a very good actor when he sang songs. He got into the emotion of the songs, both through his voice, and it doesn’t require large gestures, and so I love when his glorious voice takes us to a very dark place like it does in this music.
Kaplan Beethoven’s In questa tomba oscura sung by Luciano Pavarotti with the Philharmonia Orchestra lead by Pierino Gamba. When we return, we’ll hear Alan Dershowitz’s “Wildcard,” part of a tradition on “Mad About Music” where guests choose one work from outside the genre of classical music. We have a rich history of unusual “Wildcards” on “Mad About Music” and, as you will soon hear, Alan Dershowitz breaks new ground.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan, with my guest on “Mad About Music,” attorney Alan Dershowitz. We now come to that part of the show we call the “Wildcard,” where you have an opportunity to pick a work outside the classical music or opera genre. And as I said before the break, we’ve had so many interesting ones, so what have you brought us today?
Dershowitz When I was a kid, I sang in a choir in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn cantors were rock stars. And in the part of Brooklyn that I lived, in Borough Park, there were several giants – a man named Bereli Chagi, the two Koussevitzky brothers, Moshe Koussevitzky and Dovid Koussevitzky. In fact, you could divide Borough Park Jews by were you a Moshe Koussevitzky fan or a Dovid Koussevitzky fan, and I was fortunate to sing in the choir that both Bereli Chagi and Moshe Koussevitzky led, and of course heard them sing many times. I think that Moshe Koussevitzky was one of the great, great voices of the 20th century, and not only did I think that, but among the people who have come to listen to him often were Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill and other Jewish and non-Jewish Metropolitan Opera singers and some composers. He easily could have been at the Met, had he chosen that as a career, but he chose not to do that. And the selection that I’ve picked is also about death. It’s a statement of the faith of a great rabbi, describing what he anticipates when he dies, and it talks about the ambivalence of Judaism in some ways. Do you just return to dust? Do you face judgment? And in the end, basically, it’s a guide to life, remembering that at the end you may face judgment and you may have to justify your existence, and the song just brings tears and fear to my eyes, because it is a song in anticipation of death. I don’t think about death too often, but I have decided when I die, and if there is a memorial service for me at Harvard, where there traditionally is, this is the song I want played at my memorial service.
Kaplan An excerpt from “Akavya Ben Mahalalel,” sung by Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, the “Wildcard” of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, attorney Alan Dershowitz. You know, the composers you selected today are revealing of course, but what is also revealing are the composers you have not selected. Of course, in a show like this I realize you can only pick a certain number of composers, but I notice no Mozart, no Wagner, no Brahms. Are these composers less appealing than the ones you did pick?
Dershowitz I like Mozart very much, but I can’t focus on one particular piece of music of Mozart that really ranks among my favorites. I like his Requiem; I like many of his symphonies, but I can’t say this is the one. I am not crazy about his operas, although there are arias within the operas that I like very much. But I would say Mozart, as a genre, I like very much; but he’s, for me, hard to pick out one great particular piece of music.
Dershowitz Brahms, I don’t like particularly his symphonic works. They tend, to me, to be somewhat predictable, and somewhat repetitive. I do like his smaller musical works, and I like his violin and string works. But I would not rank him at the top of my list. And Wagner, like many Jews, I have the ambivalence towards Wagner. I really love The Ring and I go to it when I can, but somehow I think it’s inappropriate for me to pick a Wagnerian piece among my favorite pieces of music.
Kaplan All right, after Cantor Koussevitzky’s Hebrew, for your final selection, I see you have moved to a Christian view of death and eternity, and a return of Verdi.
Dershowitz Well, a view using the requiem, which is of course a Christian religious work, but Verdi himself was a very secular person, and he wrote his requiem not as a religious remembrance, but rather as a more political and cultural remembrance for a close friend who, I think, was an atheist or certainly not a religious figure. And so, although the words are very religious, I think the music transcends, certainly transcends Christianity, and perhaps transcends religion in general. It’s just absolutely beautiful music, and I love particularly the opening where he introduces the various participants through the opening Kyrie and how their voices both individuate and blend together.
Kaplan An excerpt from Verdi’s Requiem with soloists Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, Carlo Cossutta and Nicolai Ghiaurov, along with the chorus Wiener Singverein and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Now, looking back at your selections in our discussion today, one can’t help notice the very dominant role that death seems to play in your selections. We’ve just heard the Verdi Requiem; before we heard Mahler’s Resurrection; Pavarotti singing Beethoven’s reflections on death and music by Cantor Koussevitzky, which you indicated will be played at your memorial service.
Dershowitz Well, death is a very important theme of music. The great music incorporates life and death together. I mean, Mahler’s Second clearly incorporates life and death. I think Verdi’s Requiem does too. The Koussevitzky piece tells you how to live your life in anticipation of death. Even Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, people thought was written in anticipation of death. Kafka once said the meaning of life is that we die. And so human beings are constantly thinking about the meaning of their life and their death. I don’t think that I think about it more as I’m getting on in years. I think this was my favorite music even when I was a young person. Death is such a profound experience and fear, that great music surrounds it.
Kaplan You know, you said earlier you always turn to music when you write. I wonder, do you turn to music during emotional moments, for consolation, or when you need to make a decision?
Dershowitz Very much so. Sometimes I’ll just leave work because I’m frustrated and I really have to think something through, and I’ll just come home and turn on the music. And without reading, just listen. Music is just there for me at every phase of my life. I’m almost never without music, and now, with portable music, it helps me deal with flying. I don’t love to fly, and I fly too much. But I just turn on the music and I’m all surrounded by it. I’ll never forget when I was in China in 1979, 1980, and on the way back we stopped in Hong Kong, my son and I. And we saw two things that they were about to develop. One was a player piano, which played based on a tape recording that you put in. And the other was a stupid little thing called a “Walkman” that you put on your head and you walked around with music, and I remember saying to my son, “Wow, we should really invest in that player piano idea, that’s going to sell a million!” But who would want to walk around with music on their head? Which is a good reason why nobody should ever take my advice on financial matters! But the phenomenon of portable music, of walking around with music on your head, and carrying it with you, I think has changed so many people’s lives, both for the better and for the worse.
Kaplan Is there any single piece of music you can recall putting on when you had to make a big decision?
Dershowitz I think I usually turn to Mahler when I have to make big decisions, because Mahler gives me so many different moods in quick succession, the transition from optimism to pessimism, from marching music to very sad funereal music. He is a man for all moods and all seasons, so I generally do turn to Mahler when I have to make a decision.
Kaplan So with Mahler you can’t go wrong, the music will always support the decision you make?
Dershowitz It’ll always support it, and it’s also a Rorschach test in some ways. I mean, you can listen to a particular piece of Mahler music and hear in it different meanings, depending on what your own mood is and I think that’s one of the great signs of a great musician or a great artist. I mean, when I see a wonderful painting, on one day it will mean one thing to me, and on another day it will mean something else to me, depending on my mood.
Kaplan Fascinating that you should say that, because Mahler said that himself, and fascinating would be the right word for your visit today. Alan Dershowitz, thank you for appearing today and for documenting the power music can play in our lives.
Dershowitz Well thank you, it’s been so much fun.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”