I'm the only person in my family who can't play an instrument. We didn't have a drawing room or many guests over, but we did have a baby grand (guaranteed--one of my father's great bargain buys) at one point in our zigzag fortunes. I felt sort of idiotic. My mother saved me with this insight when I was in my early twenties. Sarah listens to music so carefully it's as if listening were her art form. (A paraphrase but pretty close.)
She was right. I was consumed with listening to music, all of it, though she was referencing classical, especially art songs, the singing of which was her pleasure.
I have been topped and easily, however, in listening, by poet and essayist Wayne Koestenbaum. In Cleavage (Ballantine Books), a collection of essays on clothing fads, icons gay and otherwise, celebrities and celebrity interviews, books, reading, more, more, he sweeps me off my feet already ill-balanced on the musical staff.
I write of only one beautiful and reflective essay, "Listening to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf." I first heard recordings of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing lieder at my German friend Alois' in San Francisco. Alois loved Bach especially, but no lover of music classical can bypass art songs. They are the Chekhov short stories, the Indian miniatures, the small perfect gems of music. Alois grew up gay (Catholic) in Nazi Germany, and was on his own from age 13 in wartime Europe. He scoffed at Schwarzkopf, calling her Shriek-koff, though he owned many of her records.
At age 18, I was a sponge. If Alois said, it was true. And compared to Anna Moffo or Elly Ameling or Maria Callas there is something not entirely pleasant about her singing, and, as Koestenbaum points out, she has a covered voice--too controlled.
What I didn't know about was her German childhood. Her young talent was nurtured by the Nazis. She wasn't necessarily a "hater," but she was a favorite of Goebbels--something she had to contend with ever after, in the public eye. The darkness is in her singing.
This essay becomes quickly a chronicle--how Koestenbaum, a German Jew born in the U.S., integrated the totality of Schwartzkopf into, into what--his affection and dislike; his soul and Satan's bum. Like that. Here is his description of the voice and phenomenon of Schwarzkopf.
I am preoccupied with the Schwarzkopf question only because her voice has presented me with an ambiguity ever since I first heard her sing the Verdi Requiem in the 1964 Giuliani recording. Her voice, with its sublimely projected vowels, and its air of a world that will never be marred or crimped or diminished, asks me whether I live fully and honestly enough, and whether I have too quickly shut the door on lost experience. Her voice asks whether I have paid attention, whether I have been sloppy, whether I have obeyed the score, and whether I have served the music, even if I can't guess what the music means. Her voice demands that I make a stricter reckoning of my own life and see if it measures up. Her voice shames me into wishing I were cleaner, sweeter, and more concise.
That's good listening.