Bayreuth, East St. Louis, a Boat to Ceylon, Turkey and God Bless America

Each of these topics deserves much more space, but having decided to put them all together, you will be spared the extra words:

1.  Bayreauth.  Brigitte Hamann’s recent book, Winifred Wagner: a Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreauth, was one of the most engrossing books I have read in a long time.  Published in Germany a few years ago, and translated into English and published here a little more than a year ago, it seems to have made no splash whatsoever, as judged by the few copies available on Amazon or the various internet used book sites.  I will note, however, that each Amazon reviewer gives it five stars.

After the death of Richard Wagner in 1883, is widow Cosima (who was the daughter of Franz Liszt) established an ran an annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth.  As Cosima aged, her son Siegfried took over the festival.  When in his 40s, the bi-sexual Siegfried married a young English woman (I think she was 19), Winifred, who quickly gave birth to two sons and two daughters and who, upon Siegfried’s early death, took over running the festival.

Winifred became, you could say, more German than the Germans, seeing the disaster of World War I, and experiencing the difficulties of the Versailles peace treaty and the Weimar Republic.  She became an early admirer of Adolf Hitler (even before his 1923 Munich putsch) and he, because of his love of Wagner and his belief that Wagnerian music was truly German (as opposed to the Jewish modernist music which he obviously railed against), he became a supporter of hers.

For the next twenty years, before and after Hitler became to power, he was a great supporter of the annual Bayreuth festival, providing governmental financial support, getting involved in determining what operas should be performed and who some of the performers should be, dropping in (often unexpectedly) on Winifred and her family, and in the tough days of the 1940s, even providing audiences through massive ticket purchases for military troop use.  Throughout this time, Winifred supported Hitler ceaselessly, even when she disagreed with certain Nazi policies (which she always blamed on others).

Agreeing with the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis generally, at the same time, Winifred was a supporter of rights for Jews that she knew:  she petitioned for individuals married to Aryans, for example, or for musicians and artists.  She clearly did not seem to be in support of extermination of the Jewish people.

After the war, she was brought before the war crimes tribunal, and given a very light punishment (involving in effect house arrest and inability to continue as festival director), in large part because of the many people that she saved or petitioned for who came to her support.  She turned the festival over to her oldest son to run (one daughter had left Germany for America and become vociferously anti-Nazi, one son was pro-Nazi but non-artistic, and her youngest daughter did not seem to eager for the task).  But this led to extraordinary family fighting, interesting in itself, and to the establishment, in the early 1970s of a foundation to take control.  Today the foundation runs the festival, with professional leadership, but under the co-direction of two of Winifred’s grandchildren.

The book is interesting on many fronts.  The basic story is interesting as is every character in the book.  The picture of Hitler and other prominent Nazis is interesting because it comes from a very unusual perspective and helps to round out a picture (I think this of several books I have read about Nazi Germany written by non-Jewish, but German, sources).  And finally it is a story of a music festival, with a lot of discussion about the operas themselves, Wagner’s own writings and feelings, and the musicians who appeared in (and disappeared from) Bayreauth over this period of time.

2.  East St. Louis.  A friend loaned me a “coffee table” book, in softcover, entitled East St. Louis: the Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town by Andrew J. Theising.  Like Winifred Wagner, this book will not be found on any best seller list.

For those who may be interested in the minutia of the history of East St. Louis, this book is for you, as it talks about mayoral administrations, various city councils, etc., throughout the second half of the 19th century and the 20th century.

For those who may be interested in the city, but not the minutia, this book is also for you.  For one thing, the many, many photographs are very interesting, of old industrial establishments, commercial areas and residences.  But beyond this, the text is illuminating because of its description of East St. Louis as a not uncommon “industrial suburb”, such as Camden NJ, and some of the NJ suburbs of New York City, or perhaps Hammond, Indiana.

The thesis of the author is that as American cities grew and prospered in the 19th century, there were certain types of establishments that city leaders did not want to see within the boundaries of their municipalities, or which themselves did not want to be bound by strict municipal rules.  The types of establishments are, when you think about it, obvious:  oil refineries, chemical companies, stockyards, steel mills, and so forth.

So these companies grew outside the central city, becoming the center piece of their own municipalities.  And these municipalities, although they  had residential districts (largely to house industry employees or those who provide services for industry employees), were governed not for the benefit of the residents but for the benefit of the industries themselves.

Thus, as the industries prospered, the cities did just fine.  But as soon as the industries began to fail, cities such as East St. Louis, in spite of reform attempt after reform attempt, were doomed to decline, dispair and eventual substantial abandonment.

Using East St. Louis as his example, Theising tells an interesting story applicable to much of urban America.

3.  A Boat to Ceylon.  I needed a short book to read while waiting for a couple of doctors’ appointments over the past few weeks, and I settled on Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.  I thought that Waugh’s humor would help me pass the waiting room time.  I found the book as much of an ordeal to read as Pinfold did to experience it.

Pinfold was a (fictional, of course) British novelist, who had turned 50, drank too much, took too many pills and saw himself disintegrating.  He decided he needed a trip on the sea, and booked passage on a small slow boat heading towards Ceylon.  It is not that he necessarily wanted to go to Ceylon.  He wanted the trip, so that he could quietly write on the boat.  His wife, after some discussion, did not come with him, although she was a bit nervous about letting him travel alone.

On the trip, Pinfold found himself in the ineviable position of overhearing conversations of others on the boat, through some problem in the ship itself, which let conversations waft through to his cabin.  He heard people conspiring against him, he overheard the murder of a crewman by the captain, he learned that the ship might be captured by Spanish authorities as it passed Gibraltar and held hostage because of political issues between Britain and Spain.

It all got sort of silly and, when he arrived at his destination, and called his wife to come and rescue him, it was clear that the problem was with the pills he was taking (or perhaps the combination of pills and alcohol) that gave him hallucinations.

Pretty weak, I thought.

4.  Turkey.  We spent yesterday at an all day Smithsonian seminar called “A Turkish Odyssey”, six hours of lectures and power point by Serif Yenen, Turkish author, guide and association official.  It was a fascinating day.  Yenen started with Paleolithic Anatolia and went through the capture of Istanbul by the Turks in 1453, a tour de force, covering the entirety of the land mass of the Turkish Republic, and dealing with the original nomadic and cave dwelling people, the Hatti, the Hittites, Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Christians and (last but not least) the Asiatic Turks.  Some of what he discussed we had read before in preparation for our Turkish trip last October, or had seen while there; other material was new, and gave us reasons to want to return.

I am signed up for another Smithsonian lecture on Turkey, this one on the history of Istanbul, towards the end of February.  I am looking forward to it.

5.  God Bless America.  Following the Turkish program and a nice, but light (salad with ahi tuna) dinner at Ulah Bistro, we saw Arena Stages’ tribute to the music of Irving Berlin, at the almost filled to capacity, 1250 seat Lincoln Thater.  Many of Berlin’s songs were there, sung by three men and three women, with a moderate size band backing them; the show was in the form of short skits, with no real dialogue, each piecing together five or six songs around a general theme.

I don’t know what the reviewers have thought of the program; I haven’t looked.  I thought that everyone was very talented, and it is always nice to hear the familiar tunes.  But I also think that Irving Berlin’s music, although catchy and recognizable, tends to be a bit simplistic and repetitive (simple lyrics, uncomplicated melodic and rhythmic patterns, etc).  And when you hear maybe 30 of them together, sung by the same people with the same orchestration, it becomes a little tedious.

Some songs do stand out.  “God Bless America” is one.  “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Blue Skies” are others.  And, of course, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. But some of his most famous, like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” are really just pleasant ditties.  Pleasant, yes, and therefore nice to hear.  And ditties, and therefore memorable.  But not great music.

Among our group of four, of course, mine is a minority opinion.


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