Short story: ‘The conductor’ – San Diego Jewish World
By Sam Ben Meir
NEW YORK – I am always surprised and rather dismayed whenever I hear my comrades denigrate the vocal production of our avian cousins. Don’t you know, I mean, that many birds – from nightingales to song sparrows – are accomplished musicians? The Lyrebird, which clears a patch of forest soil, prepares its stage for singing and dancing. Isn’t he an artist, in the fullest sense? Birdsong is indeed music, a spontaneous expression of how a particular bird experiences and feels the world. So much so that some birds are known to sing with such intensity and passion that their little hearts burst into the very ecstasy of transport – as if their poor frames couldn’t contain the overwhelming spiritual force of the music.
The great Austrian conductor Otto Hübek recalled this phenomenon while recovering from a sudden collapse during his 97th performance of Tristan and Isolde. Earlier in the day, Hübek received a visit from Dr Tausig, his personal physician, and a bird watcher. In the professional opinion of the good doctor, Hübek could not return to the podium under any circumstances: “You escaped this time with only a stern warning, my friend. Next time you may not be so lucky. It was then that Tausig drew the maestro’s attention to a certain nightingale who had died while singing, while giving what was undoubtedly the most illustrious and extraordinary concert of his too brief career: undoubtedly, Hübek could demonstrate more wisdom and restraint than a bird. , yet ingenious. A skeptical expression must have crossed the patient’s face, as the doctor immediately added that he would not have believed this had he not witnessed, or rather heard, the event itself – indeed , he had been seen by thousands of people. because it happened on national radio live.
The story apparently was that renowned violist Sophia Honig had started practicing in the lush green woods surrounding her country estate just south of Salzburg; and in doing so, she found that a particular nightingale would join her, and together they would play duets of pure magical delight. This happened continuously for days, and their musical dialogue only grew in variety and depth. The bird, according to Honig, was definitely learning from her, but not as much as she was learning from the nightingale. Their improvisations flew and undulated, expressing the most nuanced nuances of emotion, desire and loneliness. (Honig made it clear in her autobiography years later that she considered these spontaneous collaborations to be the greatest musical experience of her life.)
After some initial reluctance, Sophia eventually arranged for a radio crew to come to her house and broadcast a live concert with her and the bird, the only performers, for three consecutive nights. “The first two nights produced some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard,” Tausig observed. “It is no more than the truth when I tell you that there were many times that I have felt close to tears. But the third night: the third night was quite another thing. ‘flew and carried the music to such exhilarating heights and depths so dark that no one could believe what they were hearing. Then came the moment that I will never forget – I thanked God that I had lived to see and listen this day. No sooner had I finished the thought (for I said it to myself in silence) but the nightingale, in such a degree of feverish ecstasy, suddenly became silent, and there and there it fell from its perch, on the ground as dead as if it had been struck by lightning. Well, as you can imagine, the event affected Mrs. Honig terribly: she blamed herself, you see, for overworking the poor creature. No, she wasn’t quite the same after that. Of course, she tried to find another nightingale to duet with, but none she met ever showed the same interest. Some accompanied him, of course, but none had anything of the musical imagination of the first.
Hübek looked at Tausig for a long time in complete silence, before finally thanking the doctor for letting him know about this incident. “Sadly, I’m afraid he’s unlikely to have the influence over me that you would seem to hope for.” Dr Tausig grimaced and muttered something under his breath saying he wasn’t the least bit surprised, then turned to leave. “One more question, doctor. You will agree, won’t you, that how we die matters as much as how we live? So tell me, do you really believe that this bird, this nightingale Mozart, would have preferred to go otherwise? Can you imagine a more beautiful moment than for the little creature to let go, to be carried away and carried away by the pure power of music? Can’t you see the bird was blessed – yes, blessed – die at this supreme moment of joyous ecstasy? The doctor opened his mouth as if to say something but found to his surprise that he was speechless – or rather, that there was just nothing to say. He simply nodded silently and solemnly, gave Hübek a shadow of a smile and quietly left the room.
Maestro Hübek recovered gradually, and soon after, he began to prepare – and, more importantly, his wife – for his return to the podium. She was, of course, against his directing the State Opera again; but reserved his most vehement opposition to conducting one of Richard Wagner’s operas, and more particularly Tristan and Isolde, the opera that started the crisis. She accused her husband of loving Wagner more than she did – and that was certainly not far from the truth. Wagner was for all practical purposes a religion for Hübek; the master’s operas were nothing more or less than living beings, complex organisms, each with an essence of its own. The master himself was quite simply the most extraordinary artistic genius the world had ever produced (and at times seemed to take on some sort of semi-divine status for Hübek). Worse yet, the woman accused Hübek of actually having want to die at the helm, hope to find death by directing the amorous duo in the second act of Tristan and Isolde. Apparently, Hübek’s words to the doctor about the hapless nightingale had come back to her – but that didn’t matter: she had always suspected it. There were also times when she thought to herself that if this was really how her husband wanted his life to end, then what right did she have to deny him?
In a concession to his wife, Hübek did not immediately return to Tristan and Isolde, but incandescent Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera. When Hübek spoke, the sizable score lay unopened in front of him. He then conducted the entire opera – for over six hours, mind you – and never put his finger on the score. He knew every note, every nuance of this massive work as if the whole had been his own spontaneous creation. But as was inevitable, the Munich Opera invited him to conduct three performances of Tristan and Isolde, and Hübek accepted, or perhaps more precisely, he refused to refuse. The first two performances went off without incident. During the notoriously demanding moments of the second act, he could feel his heart rate rising rapidly, but spoke little to his wife, more to her than to him. On the third night, the orchestra found something, magic, that was missing the previous evenings – a phenomenon that is known to happen. Hübek sensed it immediately and the excitement began to grow inside him. It was as if the orchestra had suddenly discovered the melody in every bar; and he began to sing, the orchestra began to sing this melody, together, as with one voice. This was Hübek’s hundredth performance of this opera, and he began to realize that it was also becoming the greatest performance of his long and illustrious career.
At the start of Act II, the Maestro’s eyes shone with a fire like none of the musicians in the pit had ever seen before. He seemed strangely to be both ecstatic and yet perfectly at peace. As the music began to soar, a kind of organic unity emerged between the singers, the orchestra and the Maestro, as if they realized with one mind the meaning and the true melodic significance of each note and silence. . As the love duo approached, Hübek could feel the ecstatic power of the music rising within him, springing from a hidden corner of his innermost being. The thought actually occurred to him at that point that his life could potentially end in a few moments, but he knew nothing of the slightest fear. Because at that time, Maestro Hübek was too much, much too much in love.
Do I need to tell you what happened next, my friends? The next morning, newspapers across Europe and America published an obituary of Otto Hübek, Wagner’s best Austrian conductor.
Sam Ben-Meir, PhD is Assistant Professor at Mercy College. His current research focuses on environmental ethics and animal studies. [email protected]