Fancy a whiff of juicy scandal in your Christmas reading? Look no further than Leonard Bernstein’s encounter with Alma Mahler, widow of the great composer, as remembered in a lengthy, increasingly convivial interview (Dinner with Lenny by Jonathan Cott, published by Oxford University Press).
Bernstein had invited Cott to dinner at his Connecticut home, and the interview turned into a 12-hour conversation, the genius constantly with a glass of vodka in his hand and getting through countless cigarettes (I witnessed that in microcosm nearly 50 years ago, talking to Bernstein immediately after he had conducted Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Venice).
The talk veers into psychology, and eventually Mahler’s consultation with Sigmund Freud.
Bernstein recounted: “You know, Mahler made four appointments with Freud, and three times he broke them because he was scared to find out why he was impotent. His wife Alma, who was f***ing everybody who was coming by – Gropius, Kokoschka, Werfel, and Bruno Walter, among others - sent him to see Freud. He was 20 years older than she, and she was the prettiest girl in Vienna – rich, cultured, seductive...”
“Didn’t you yourself once meet her?” asks Cott.
“Certainly. She tried to get me to bed. Many years ago she attended some of my New York Philharmonic rehearsals, and then suggested we go to look for some ‘memorabilia’ of her composer husband in her bedroom.
“She was generations older than I. And she had her hair frizzed up and was flirting like mad. She was really like a wonderful Viennese operetta.”
As the conversation continues, Bernstein understandably becomes increasingly inaccurate in his facts. More reliable are the opinions expressed with force and often with elegance in his correspondence with performers, composers, publishers, promoters and many others else, as revealed in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by the eminent Bernstein scholar Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press).
The valuable index of these 600-plus pages tumbles over with the recipients of Bernstein’s opinions about the arts in general, politics, his wishes as regards to the production of his own works, his travels around the world, and, most touchingly, his communications to his family, especially his “beloved Felicia”, his wife.
Yes, other commentators have relished commenting upon his bisexuality, but what emerges here is his strong feeling for the family he has raised (as it does in Cott’s book), and I witnessed at first hand in 1968 his pride in his very young son.
We move into staider climes with two recent books by Elgar enthusiast-supreme Kevin Allen, who has already given us a mildly interesting account of Elgar the Cyclist, and a far more relevant one of Elgar in Love, in which he recounts in great detail the end-of-life flowering of love the composer felt for the much younger Vera Hockmann, a subject which until very recently was swept under the carpet of the self-appointed Elgar establishment.
Now Allen moves into less turbulent waters, with two lengthy, both impressively-researched tomes (and inches fatter than his previous publications) which should prove indispensable on any Elgarian’s bookshelves – and on those of any others who are interested in exploring the context lying behind one of this country’s greatest composers.
Allen always delves indefatigably into the deepest reaches of research, and his biography of A.J.Jaeger (the first-ever on this important subject) is a gem of devotion.
Jaeger, a political refugee from Bismarck’s Germany, worked for the great music-publishing house of Novello in London, one of whose contracted composers was Elgar.
Consequently Jaeger was in at the birth of many of Elgar’s works, and became such a source of support and encouragement that the composer drew him into his own circle of closest friends and indeed dedicated an Enigma variation to him – none other than Nimrod, so closely associated with events of national reflection, not least on Remembrance Day, when those who perished in conflict are honoured. Both the English Elgar and the German Jaeger would have appreciated the irony of using such an expression of friendship in such commemoration of hostilities.
Why Nimrod? We are told in the Book of Genesis that Nimrod was a mighty hunter, and Jaeger is the German word for “hunter”. Elgar loved word-play.
So Allen’s affectionate and valuable book is entitled August Jaeger, Portrait of Nimrod: a Life in Letters and Other Writings (Ashgate Publishing). And it’s not just about Jaeger’s involvement with Elgar and his crucial input into the composition of The Dream of Gerontius, for example, but deals also with this pleasant, discreet, perhaps shy man’s position as a mover and shaker of musical matters at the turn of the 20th century.
Another of the Enigma variations was Winifred Norbury. Her music breathes the graciousness of Sherridge, her 18th-century family home near Leigh Sinton, just north of Malvern, and in acknowledging her, Elgar was also paying tribute to her contribution to the formation of the Worcester Philharmonic Society, of which he was, of course, conductor.
Kevin Allen’s Gracious Ladies: The Norbury Family and Edward Elgar is an amazing achievement. It is not only an insight into such a cultured and charitable family, it also recalls a vanished world of the Victorian golden afternoon in the Malverns: garden-parties, flower-shows, tennis, cycling; winter balls and hunting; and always an immersion in the arts and self-improvement.
It is a huge book of nearly 1,000 pages, and I am so glad to have it on my shelves (and Allen styles it as “Volume One”, no less). My only cavil is that, despite its copious references to sources, it lacks an index, but given the fact that Allen has published it himself, that’s understandable. At £25 it’s a steal, and is available from the author on 023 9252 5633 (Allenkevcar@aol.com) or at the Elgar Birthplace Museum in Lower Broadheath.
And finally to Elgar himself. An exciting ongoing series publishing his Collected Correspondence has recently been launched, with its initial volume entitled Provincial Musician: Diaries 1857-1896 (published by Elgar Works). The 1857 is obviously just to indicate the year of the composer’s birth, but it’s not long before editor Martin Bird dazzles us with so many insights and references, not least to Elgar’s early loves.
Like Kevin Allen’s Norbury book, this is a wonderful glimpse of life in late-Victorian Worcestershire, and I look forward to the promised sequence of subsequent volumes.