Kaplan Welcome back to “Mad About Music” as we continue to explore the musical taste of leaders in the literary world with our guest today, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edmund Morris.
Kaplan He landed in New York from his native Kenya in 1968 and set out to make his mark on Madison Avenue as an advertising copywriter. But soon succumbed to the lure of biography. And for his first book of a projected massive three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, he received the coveted Pulitzer Prize. He was then appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the president’s authorized biographer and four years later produced Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan and a major controversy because the author, our guest today, inserted himself as an actual character in the book. Then he returned to Teddy Roosevelt for volume 2, garnering more awards, and selling more than 750,000 copies. But to the benefit of “Mad About Music” listeners, before starting to tackle his final volume of the Roosevelt trilogy, he took a detour into music, producing a short and eminently readable biography of Beethoven – a composer who will not surprisingly feature prominently on today’s show. Edmund Morris, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Morris Thank you. It’s a pleasure to talk about music.
Kaplan Now, your profession is principally writing political biographies. Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, but all of a sudden in the midst, this volume of Beethoven occurs. Now from a biographer’s point of view, what is the difference about writing about famous politicians versus a famous composer?
Morris Well, I’m often asked how I could go from Ronald Reagan to Beethoven and I say, the link is obvious, they were both deaf. But it’s not the fact that these men are political that draws me to them, I’m just interested in human character, and the character of Theodore Roosevelt is just as rich as the character of Ludwig van Beethoven, despite their obvious differences.
Kaplan So there was no real difference between researching a composer or a politician? Other than they’re doing different things.
Morris Not to me, except that my personal nature is that I prefer to research composers than a politician, because I’m not all that interested in dry as dust politics. It’s character I like, narrative.
Kaplan Now, before we went on the air, when we were talking about the show, you mentioned that one of the reasons you wanted to write this book about Beethoven was that he was a composer whose music could be written about in words, and his personality. Can you comment a little further about that?
Morris Well, I don’t really know that any music can be written about, in a way that completely communicates its essence. In fact, it was the challenge of writing about music, Beethoven’s music in particular, that drew me to this book. As somebody who makes a living out of language, I wanted to see if language could get at least close to the rapture of music and I hope I succeeded.
Kaplan Now you open your book on Beethoven, making a case for Beethoven as perhaps the greatest of all composers, and you cite that his music is often, maybe always, turned to on great occasions: Churchill’s funeral, the fall of the Berlin Wall, I could add that there are fifty performances of Beethoven’s Ninth every Christmas in Japan. But of all the evidence you provided, and of course it’s convincing, the one that grabbed me the most was a tale you told about a winter blizzard at Harvard University, and I wish you would recount that for us.
Morris Oh, yes, that was one of these experiences that one wants to make literary use of, and for years, many years, it had stayed with me. It was the worst blizzard in the history of Massachusetts. February of 1978, and I happened to be up at Harvard doing research into my Roosevelt book, when the entire northeast was obliterated in this blizzard. And after about two or three days of complete immobility and silence, the entire state shut down. The sun came out and I came out, and students began to emerge from their dorms, and we sludged across the Harvard Yard through this deep snow. And there was a wonderful feeling of light coming back to the world, of happiness returning, and some anonymous person put a pair of stereo speakers on the window sill of his dorm window, and blasted out into this freezing sunny air, the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And everybody in the Yard stood paralyzed with this music, until it had come to an end. And to me, it seemed to demonstrate the fact that Beethoven has this universal quality. A lot of the young people standing in the Yard with me and listening to this miraculous sound probably didn’t even know who Beethoven was. But somehow the positivity of the music, its power, the fact that it seemed to be saying, look, we have come through, the weight that has buried us has been obliterated. Something about this communicated itself directly to all these young people, and the power of that incident I have never forgotten.
Kaplan The glorious conclusion of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic with the legendary Carlos Kleiber on the podium. For many music-lovers, and certainly for my guest on “Mad About Music” today, author Edmund Morris, this is simply the finest recorded performance of the symphony. You know, we were talking earlier about your book about Ronald Reagan, and as with all presidents, classical music was of course performed at the White House for special occasions. But I have the feeling, and I would welcome your reaction to this, that his heart really wasn’t in it. I understand that after a performance where he presented singers from the Met, he quipped, referring to the famous movie A Night at the Opera, that he didn’t think you could give Il Trovatore without the Marx Brothers. Did you ever discuss music with the president?
Morris No, that’s one subject I did not discuss with him. He had absolutely no interest in it at all. His idea of a sublime musical experience was Hail To The Chief played fortissimo by the Marines Band. Reagan did, however, mainly because of professional advice, have a series of classical concerts in the White House. I remember hearing Vladimir Horowitz perform there, for example. So, his attitude towards the arts in that sense was quite enlightened.
Kaplan Now, take Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, your other president you focused on. It was very rich with music. In her book, Music At The White House, Elise Kirk concluded that “The musical life of the White House during the energetic terms of Theodore Roosevelt, was richer, more diversified and more representative of the American cultural scene than any other previous era.” What was your own impression of President Roosevelt’s musical taste?
Morris He was not much more musical than Ronald Reagan. It was his wife, in particular, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, who was behind all the White House musicales of that era. And she brought in Busoni, Paderewski, Richard Strauss, as I recall, and Casals, amongst many other musicians. My wife, who wrote a book about Edith Kermit Roosevelt, discovered that Casals played there sixty years before he played for the John F. Kennedys in the White House.
Kaplan Well, they certainly had the outstanding pianists of their time, and I see your next work involves a pianist. One I assume you would think merited an invitation to the White House.
Morris Josef Lhévinne. That’s right. He came here in 1906, so it is rather surprising that he did not play at the White House. However, it was really Josef Lhévinne more than anybody else who made me a biographer. When I first came to the United States as an immigrant in 1968, I was looking for work as an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue, and I used to hang out between appointments at the New York Library of the Performing Arts. And for some reason I can’t explain, I became interested in this obscure, largely forgotten Russian pianist, Josef Lhévinne, who was a classmate of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and who died in New York City in 1944. When I first heard some of his recordings, his very few recordings, from the mid-1930s, in the Hammerstein archive at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts, I was completely overwhelmed by this magical virtuosity. And as piano connoisseurs know Lhévinne did have one of the greatest techniques in instrumental history, but I became interested in the man himself beyond the music. I don’t know why, but I used my spare time, of which I had plenty in those days, to start putting together a sort of audio biography of Lhévinne, which I hoped I might be able to sell to the BBC, a radio portrait. I did write the program, and really, in researching the program, I began to learn how biographers work: how they go to sources and how they construct narrative out of interviews. So I guess Josef Lhévinne, apart from being a miraculous musician, started me off on my road to writing the lives of past people. The most representative piece I can think of, which illustrates his magical pianism, is the Schumann-Liszt Frühlingsnacht, Liszt’s arrangement of a song by Schumann, which lasts only about two and a half minutes, but in those brief few minutes, Lhévinne accomplishes miracles, that make pianists to this day gasp with disbelief.
Kaplan Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht in a piano arrangement by Liszt – performed by Josef Lhévinne - music selected by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edmund Morris – who it turns out is an accomplished pianist himself. Now I understand you recently made your own Carnegie Hall debut in a concert featuring amateur musicians, like you. What did you perform?
Morris I played Beethoven, natch, since I had just written a book about him. The Sonata Opus 110 in A flat major.
Kaplan How did you do?
Morris Well, I never played in public before, and I don’t think I will again, but it was, it was a buzz, I can tell you. One doesn’t know when one goes out on stage what’s going to happen. But David Dubal, who was the MC that evening, gave me some very good advice. He said, “when you play in public, always say to yourself that you’re doing it for the second time”, and he said “you’ll find you relax.” I did that, and the music came out, to my ears, pretty good.
Kaplan Good advice. Did you ever consider the possibility of a career when you were younger?
Morris Oh, I had all the fantasies that young musically inclined people have. In fact, up until my early 20s, I did constantly talk about giving everything up and going to London and studying at the Royal College of Music. And my wife, whom I met there, eventually got tired of these fantasies, and she said, “listen, if you’re going to do it, do it! But just stop talking about it. I’ll support you” – she was a teacher, “go to the Royal College and sign up.” So I said, all right, I will. I marched around to the college and found that I could not walk up the steps. Something told me I was not a musician. And when I went back home and told her that I couldn’t do it, she said, “I knew you’d come back.” I said, “How did you know?” She said, “Well, I’ve noticed that when anybody criticizes your writing, you go crazy. But when you play the piano and people criticize that, it doesn’t seem to bother you. So that means you’re a writer, not a pianist.”
Kaplan Good advice. But I assume music entered your life at a very early age.
Morris Yes. It came to me at the traditional age of epiphany, the beginning of adolescence; I think I was fourteen, living in Nairobi, Kenya, a colonial schoolboy. One night my father, who was very fond of music, put on the turntable a recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, played by the great Swiss pianist, Edwin Fischer, and he turned off the lights, as he always did, when we were listening to music, and out of the darkness, came this extraordinary performance. And it was an epiphany, because the world just suddenly seemed to become enormous. I had this feeling of moving into a new stage of awareness, and from that moment to this, I have been unable to live without music. But the moment was traumatic in another way, too, because at the end of this performance, I was so shattered I couldn’t get out of the couch that I was sitting on, as I usually did to put the light back on. So my father put it on, instead, and when he put on the light, we saw that a six-foot cobra had snuck into our sitting room from outside, and curled up on the fire. Now, I was barefoot; so, if I had gotten up as I usually did and crossed the floor in the darkness, I’d have stepped right on that cobra, and he would have reared up and bitten me, and I probably wouldn’t be here today, so I must thank Beethoven for saving my life.
Kaplan An excerpt from the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata with pianist Edwin Fischer. Music selected by my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” the author Edmund Morris. When we return, we’ll hear Edmund Morris’s “wildcard” as we continue our tradition of guests selecting one work from outside the classical or opera world.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of biographies on Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven. Let’s now turn to music in your life today. How often are you attending performances and what music do you mostly seek out?
Morris Not as often as I’d like. It’s expensive, of course, and I do play the piano for my own pleasure. But when I do go to performances these days, I try to seek out performances that have music that I’m not very familiar with. I’m getting much more interested in contemporary music now than I used to be. I don’t need to hear any more pianists playing the Beethoven Sonatas.
Kaplan And do you keep music on when you’re working, when you’re writing?
Morris Oh, absolutely not. As soon as I hear the slightest fragment of music, my concentration moves to that, and I can’t concentrate on anything else. To me, music is primary. To me, music is a language, more specific, superior, to the language of words. So, for example, when I go to a movie, and music begins to play in the background, I cannot concentrate on what I’m seeing on the screen. I’m listening to the music.
Kaplan The sound track is supposed to illuminate the story, and soundtrack leads, naturally, I think, to my next question to you, because it concerns your next selection, which, as I understand it, could be described as a sound track to a chapter of your life. And it involves Haydn.
Morris Ah, yes, you’re talking about my wedding, I guess. Well, I didn’t want my wife to come down the aisle to the usual clichéd Wagner. We got married in St. Margaret’s church which happens to be a small Victorian Gothic church, with what, in those days, was the second-best choir in London after St. Paul’s. So, throughout our wedding mass, we had the music of the Viennese classical composers, and because it’s a small church, and her trip down the aisle was going to be fairly short, I had the idea of the organist playing a passage from Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, which is called “The Rising of the Sun”. It’s just one long, beautiful crescendo in D Major, getting louder and louder, and ending in a fanfare, exactly timed to accompany my wife down the aisle. So she materialized at my side just as the music reached its climax, and I looked around and saw her. And it was a moment of epiphany. I think most of the pieces of music I am referring to on this program have presented themselves to me as epiphanies in one way or another, epiphany being a manifestation of the sublime or the divine. And that long crescendo in D from Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, still brings back to me the memory of my wife, materializing at my side.
Kaplan “The Sun Arising” from Haydn’s The Creation, the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Music performed as the processional at the wedding of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the author Edmund Morris. I’d like to turn now to the other side of your musical taste – composers who are not your favorites or who have what you regard as some shortcomings. Now in your book you characterize both Bach and Bruckner as lightweights when it comes to writing melody at least. Bruckner I might agree with but Bach?
Morris I certainly didn’t use the word “lightweights”, but I did try to communicate my belief that Bach and Bruckner were not interested in melody per se, they were much more interested in structure. I personally think that Bruckner is a very great composer, by no means a lightweight; whereas Handel, Bach’s exact contemporary, could not write a bar of music in any form that was not exquisitely melodic. Bach often was quite content to sound ugly in pursuit of his counterpoint. And even though he could, occasionally, when he felt like it, reel out a glorious melody like the Air on the G String, I think his preoccupation was elsewhere.
Kaplan Um hum. Now, Vivaldi is dismissed – maybe I’m using too strong words for you – for not being sufficiently imaginative with harmony.
Morris I do find Vivaldi very tumpty-tumpty and rather trite.
Kaplan What is tumpty-tumpty?
Morris Lots of rhythmic roulades and the basic blocky harmony beneath which never really goes anywhere. But all musical tastes are chemical, aren’t they? You have a chemical resistance to this or that composer, and a chemical affinity to another. I cannot listen to Vivaldi or to Rossini; I cannot stand Gounod who makes me sick. But I cannot live without Schumann and Beethoven and Sibelius.
Kaplan And what about Mahler? He seems to be maligned for being, as you call it, “masturbatory”. Is that just a colorful way of saying self-indulgent?
Morris I knew you’d get me on that. Yes, Mahler does not agree with me, he has too many beating veins. I find his music basically vulgar, exhibitionistic. I’m hoping you don’t mind my saying this in your august presence.
Kaplan All right then, let’s move away from Mr. Mahler, and all classical music, and we come to that part of our show called the “wildcard,” which is an opportunity for you to pick some music out of the classical music or opera genre, it can be anything you like. So, what is your choice today?
Morris Well, oddly enough, the piece that I have chosen is something I have never heard. It’s Kiri Te Kanawa, singing the Welsh folk song, “The Ash Grove”. And the reason I have chosen it, I hope this doesn’t sound too weird, but, long ago, in the late 1970s, when her voice was at its most perfect, I had no money at all, and I wanted to take a friend of mine who is musical, to hear Kiri Te Kanawa in recital at Lincoln Center. And I managed to scrape up enough money to buy us two tickets. But when the day came around, I found that I had lost these damned tickets. And I had to call my friend and tell her, “I don’t know what’s happened, but I can’t take you to this concert.” And it was very devastating for me to not to be able to hear her. The next day I was going down to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace on the subway, still in agonies over this concert we had missed. Now, I knew that Kiri Te Kanawa at that period of her life, made a feature of ending her recitals when people called for an encore, with an a cappella rendering of this song, “The Ash Grove”. And sitting in the subway train, with the wheels thundering, and all the noise of the train, I imagined what it must have been like the afternoon before to hear Kiri Te Kanawa singing this song. And out of the noise of the wheels and the rush of the train, I began to hear her voice in my head. A voice I knew intimately. And she sang the whole song, “Down yonder green valley…” so exquisitely, that in a sense I have heard it before. But never in actuality.
Kaplan So you’ve never heard it?
Morris Never heard it before. So, I’m looking forward to this.
Morris And it’s going to have to be almost as beautiful as the performance I heard in my head.
Kaplan “The Ash Grove” performed by Kiri Te Kanawa with members of the National Philharmonic Orchestra led by Douglas Gamley – the “wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the author Edmund Morris. I’d like to return to Beethoven for a moment. Because when you started to write his biography, you obviously knew much of his music. I wonder, did you discover any new music along the way?
Morris Oh, yes, the piece that knocked me out most was something I’d never even read about before, let alone heard. It was the piece known as the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Josef that Beethoven wrote at the age of nineteen, when he was still a student in Bonn. The thing about Beethoven’s adolescence, was I found, that although he was a very brilliant pianist at a young age, his music during his adolescence, the music he composed, was not the music of a first-rate genius. It didn’t compare, for example, to the music that Mendelssohn and Mozart were writing in their teens. What happened though when he got this commission to write a Cantata on the Death of Emperor Josef, was that Beethoven suddenly seemed to discover his full potential as a composer, and he wrote this miraculous cantata which, when I first heard it, absolutely knocked me out. Let me make a suggestion, maybe you could start this music, so we can hear at least some of the soprano’s solo, and then when the second stanza comes around, and the transition occurs, from the solo to the quintet soloists and then the chorus, I can perhaps describe what is happening in the score. Now this glorious melody we’re listening to, Beethoven called later on his humanitats melodie, his “melody of humanity”. It seemed to stay in his head all his life because much later on, when he was writing Fidelio, this melody came back to him at the moment in the opera when Florestan and Leonora are reunited, and they want to express the ecstasy they feel when they have come together. And Beethoven uses the same music at that point, to ravishing effect. Although, personally, I think what’s coming up later on in this performance is even more ravishing. What we’re going to hear, when that moment comes, is a horn call, the soprano solo we’re listening to now, is going to come to its natural end, there’s going to be this horn call, and then she’s going to begin to sing the humanitats melodie again. As she does so, Beethoven brings in, one by one, four more soloists. They come in unobtrusively, joining her as she sings, so one voice becomes two, two becomes three, three becomes four, four becomes five, and then that quintet of soloists is followed by the five levels of a chorus, and the effect is of light beginning to pour out in all directions. This glorious apotheosis of sound, instruments, too, in the orchestra, coming in one by one by one, with the flute coming in last of all, like a final ray of light. It’s an acoustic miracle, which makes one understand when one looks at the score, that Beethoven, at the age of nineteen, had one of the most acute and imaginative ears in the history of music.
Kaplan An excerpt from Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Josef II. Janice Watson soprano soloist, with Jean Rigby, John Mark Ainsley and José van Dam with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra conducted by Matthew Best, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the author Edmund Morris. When we return we’ll hear Edmund Morris’s final selection.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music”, Edmund Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven. Let’s return to contemporary music because you said earlier that it has more and more appeal to you. Who among today’s composers most appeals to you?
Morris Well, I’m a great fan of Paul Moravec – I hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly. He got the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago for a suite of chamber music on Shakespeare’s Tempest, which I think is marvelous music.
Kaplan He was just appointed as composer in residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.
Morris Yes, indeed. He’s a brilliant composer, and I find his music ravishing. I can’t say I’m drawn to John Adams, but I love Xenakis, for example, his electronic music. Going back a little, I’m very much drawn to Webern and to Busoni. And going back even a little further, although I think he still sounds ultra-contemporary, I’ve become extraordinarily fond of Sibelius.
Kaplan You mentioned that you had rediscovered Sibelius recently, and in your book, you mentioned that Sibelius for a time seemed on his way to a more prominent place in music than he has obtained. And you are about to play some Sibelius, as your final selection. So, why don’t you talk about Sibelius and this particular work you’ve chosen?
Morris Well, we must remember that Sibelius in his lifetime was regarded as one of the greatest composers. In the 1920s, in the early 30s, Sibelius was spoken of with the same reverence as Brahms. He kind of dropped out of fashion during the crudescence of the serialist composers in the 50s and 60s, as did another of my favorite composers, Sir Edward Elgar. But both of these men have come back astonishingly in recent years. As far as I can personally say, I’ve always found Sibelius speaks to something very deep inside me. I don’t quite know what it is, it’s I suppose the Beethoven - if there is such a word, the Beethovenian quality in him, his fascination with structure, also superimposed on top of everything else, his twentieth-century sensibility. By which I mean, in the early years of the twentieth century, Sibelius, like Elgar, like many artists and writers, was aware that things were changing beyond comprehension. The theory of relativity had broken down Newtonian truths, Picasso was breaking art up into cubes, Schoenberg and Busoni were breaking music down into twelve-tone dissonance; and Sibelius, at the same time, round about 1910, 1911, was himself going through a crisis, involving melancholy, cancer, a vague sense of unease that Finland was doomed, and alcoholic depression. And out of it came this catastrophic symphony, the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius, which to my ear is one of the most shattering pieces of music ever written. The last four or five minutes, in particular, of the finale to the Sibelius Fourth Symphony, are to my mind, quite devastating. It’s not the kind of music you want to listen to at three o’clock in the morning when you’re alone.
Kaplan The devastating conclusion to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra led by Simon Rattle, the final selection of today’s guest on “Mad About Music,” the author Edmund Morris. Now as we head toward the conclusion of this show, I often veer into fantasyland, and for you that means two questions. I understand your first book on Teddy Roosevelt is being developed into a film by Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the president. Would the music of your favorite composer, Beethoven, be a good soundtrack for that film? And yes, I do understand you don’t like soundtracks in movies.
Morris That I’ve not thought of before. No, somehow I don’t think so.
Kaplan So who could do it? If you wanted to draw on some historical composer, as a model. Wagner?
Morris For the Theodore Roosevelt movie? Good God! No, I would go for cowboy music. I’d go for the music of the period, the kind of cowboy music that TR loved when he was young, and when he was forming the Rough Riders. The marches of John Philip Sousa, the music of the period.
Kaplan Sounds right, sounds right. Finally, as we talked about earlier, you have already given your Carnegie Hall debut on the piano, so that’s no fantasy. But if you were invited by the New York Philharmonic to perform a concerto, which one would you go for?
Morris Well, in fantasyland, if I had the technique, I would like to play the Brahms D Minor, the first piano concerto of Brahms, but with the technique I’ve got, I guess I would like to play the K466 A Major Concerto of Mozart.
Kaplan Well, this is fantasyland, not reality, so we’re going to give you the Brahms and you have given us a wonderful show today, talking not only about the music you love, but putting it in such a spiritual, emotional context. You indeed are “Mad About Music.” Edmund Morris, thank you for joining us today. This is Gilbert Kaplan, for “Mad About Music.”