Marlboro Music Festival

Music at Marlboro
August 1980

You can read an account of personal entanglements at the Marlboro Music Festival at Amplitude of the Cosmos

I. Prologue

Marlboro College is a miniaturized liberal arts college dispersed over the slopes of a tree-thickened hill in the Green Mountains of Vermont. It is bitter cold in winter, and rather desolate all the rest of the year. The town of Marlboro is located a few miles down the road, its center marked by little more than a post-office and cemetery. Town ordinances have seen to it that all the shops are on Route 9, skirting the settlement on the highway's sinuous course to Brattleboro, 10 miles away.

Student enrollment fluctuates at less than the mean deviation of the population of France: this year's stood at 210, close to the mean. By every indication, (that is to say the propaganda in the student catalogue), the college has been scrupulously designed as an Ivory Tower. In the summer it closes down and most of the students and faculty go home. In July musicians show up from all over the world to play Brahms.

These musicians are at the top of their craft. Performances are dazzling unless they are brilliant. Yet the awareness, which has always been somewhat tepid here, of contemporary developments in serious music, appears to have evaporated. On the evening of Saturday, August 9th, I listened through a performance of Schubert's Bb-major trio. As someone who once memorized all three of its parts, I can state that this is indeed a worthy trio. Yet it is not the only trio worthy of performance. Continued attendance at Marlboro music festivals might however give one that impression. The Schubert trio is one of the great paradigms setting off the line of demarcation between Schoenberg and the Beatles. For the record it must be stated that the Schoenberg Trio was also performed. All the same, the ratio of performances of all trios written after Schubert, and those by Schubert alone, remains comfortably vanishing.

Most of the performances at Marlboro are given in the practice studios around the campus. This is where artists prepare the pieces they will be taking on tour through out the winter. Vagrants like myself, wandering around the Festival, driven hither and yon by the traces of beautiful melodies find that, by the end of the day, their ears are drenched in Brahms: Brahms upon Brahms, and yet more Brahms: and then Schubert, and the others: Beethoven, Dvorcak, etc...The odd leavings of Bartok, Schoenberg, Martinu, etc. which one does discover here and there have about the same relationship to the prevailing background as do the chocolate sprinkles to the ball of ice-cream on its cone.

The bath could not be warmer; nothing could be more soothing to the tired nerves of those who have withdrawn from the fray. Comfortable listening is the tonic bottled by the Marlboro Festival. Its organizers have worked hard to give its participants the soporific illusion that little has changed since Franz Liszt assembled his circle of jaded princelings in Switzerland in the 19th century.

The problems of survival were solved through crashing every concert, reception and smorgasbord I could manage. After 3 days I came away so stuffed with stolen goodies that I more than identified with the plutocrats who support this exercise in the tried and tested.

However one would be making a mistake to imagine that my purposes for being there were all summed up in the doctrine of self-indulgence. In fact I'd come with the intention of collecting interviews about the role of Pablo Casals in setting up the Marlboro Festival and the Casals Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in preparation for a novel still in the making, entitled " El Pessebre"

II.Conversations and Encounters

At 4 PM, Friday, August 8th, a young woman named Sally who lives in Brattleboro, works in Marlboro, and is too shy to go to the Festival's concerts, picked me up on Route 9 and drove me to the threshold of Marlboro College. The campus seemed deserted at first. Persons started coming into view as I made the rough climb up the grassy hill separating the performance barn from the College's complex of converted farm buildings. Approaching the building housing the cafeteria I recognized my first familiar face: Peter Serkin, leaning back against the three ranges of step and smiling, as he usually does, as if he's just played a practical joke on you, the consequences of which you were not yet aware of. As I reached the front of the building he stood up and said: "I'll be darned! Roy Lisker! When did you get back?" We hadn't met for 15 years.

Peter Serkin has normally shown more than customary enthusiasm for my projects; but when I outlined to him the contents of Casals' novel and my desire to interview the musicians at the Festival who had known him, he began to look slightly sick.

" Listen", he said, " I knew the guy! Do I have to get it from you, too?" However, after he's assimilated the plot and realized that it was not going to white-wash or hero-worship the famous cellist, and that indeed it had more to do with the way in which a frustrated musician out for revenge sets off a chain of events leading to a violent response from Puerto Rico's nationalists, he directed me to the persons who had the most to tell me about the immortal Don: Luis Battle, pianist; David Soyer, cellist; Julius Levine, bassist and Isidore Cohen, violinist.

Luis Battle was reclining on the lawn in front of the dining-room when I approached him after dinner (expropriated, as all meals were, for the cause of the people, naturally), that evening. He received my description of my project with a mixture of elation and panic - journalists do wield terrifying power which is rarely exercised responsibly - Was it my intention to adulate Casals, or to attack him? Was a co-religionist at the shrine of divine classical music, or a tone-deaf hack like most music critics? Ultimately it became clear that I was only a technically inept violinist driven mad through love for an inaccessible flautist - a member of the gypsy tribe in other words. We spoke about Casals as if we might be speaking of an old friend.

Casals, he told me, manifested a dedication to music more concentrated and undeviating than anyone else he'd ever met. Contrary to his media persona , Casals was not much interested in politics. What one might describe as his "myopia" in dealing with the political realities of Puerto Rico was due to his total indifference to the problems on the island, save to the extent that they related to his musical activities. It should not be thought, on the other hand, that he'd gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the authorities in order to make life easier for himself on the island. He was a very stubborn man, every inch an idealist. His opposition to Franco, in his opinion, stemmed from his personal revulsion towards the man. He had no opinions about Fascism and seemed indeed, throughout his life, to favor a sort of benevolent monarchism.

By way of illustrating Casals' dedication to his craft, Luis told me this story. He once went with Casals to a restaurant. He ordered wine, Casals ordered beer. Luis remarked that he never drank wine before a concert as it made his hands unsteady. Casals responded: "You're right. That's why I haven't touched a drop of wine in 60 years."

Luis Battle is from Uruguay. Among all the persons I interviewed, he was the most sympathetic to the plight of Puerto Rico. Casals never wanted to do anything other than make music. Constitutionally he was a man of the people, not at all middle class. His character was naive, almost primitive. For him to have gone through the kind of lengthy analysis that might have weighed to long-range consequences of collaboration with Luis Munoz Marin and Operation Bootstrap would have been entirely out of character.

The opinions of the cellist David Soyer were more conventional. Our interview, held over breakfast the next morning, was hardly helped by the presence of his wife sitting next to him. As we conversed, she read the outline of my projected novel with her face set in an unbroken sneer. As soon as I brought up the issue of all the controversies surrounding the San Juan and Casals Festivals, his face broke out in all the symptoms of acute anxiety:

" Their musicians were incompetent!", he croaked, " They just weren't good enough to play in the Festival ! Look, they showed no gratitude! We brought the world's greatest musicians to their island and all they wanted to do was play politics! People who didn't know the first thing about good music complained that they were being taxed for nothing! Hey, does that answer your questions?"

Soyer seems not to have really listened to any of the questions I posed him, just as he had never understood what had happened in Puerto Rico over the period of Casals' presence there.

Julius Levine was as open as Soyer had been defensive. A gifted speaker he cherished the personal anecdote:

" I remember one time when I was in an orchestra that was performing Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony. In that symphony each group of instruments finishes its part and walks off the stage. The last little bit is played by the double bass. During the rehearsal the conductor called me back and said that I'd played the part too softly. So I played the part the way he wanted me too but I felt it was wrong.

I asked Pablo Casals about this. My left hand was on the arm of his chair and he was patting it softly, like a grandfather: "Yes.... You play it the way you think best. When I was living in the Rousillon, the French part of Catalonia, I used to listen to the local bands performing our national dance, the Sardanas. They used traditional instruments: the long horns, drums, hand-made flutes, and strings.

After listening to them for awhile I would walk away, sometimes far out into the countryside, maybe a long distance up the slopes of Mt. Canigou. Gradually the music would fade, until the only sound that still resounded on the slopes of the mountain was the double-bass.

So: don't worry about playing too softly; you will still be heard."

I soon realized that I could best use Julius Levine as a primary source for "Casals, the legend". To his mind, Casals was unquestionably a genius; not a great intellect like Einstein, but a man endowed with such emotional depth that he carried nonetheless about him an aura of intellectual brilliance. He believed this because he'd applied Ernest Jones' 7 criteria for genius to Casals and found that he'd satisfied every one of them! (I don't recall what these were).

Apparently aware that he tended to exaggerate every observation he made about Casals, cautioned me that the old maestro had not been perfect! He could be miserly. Yet even that could be explained by remembering that he was a typical Catalonian. Obviously he must have had other faults as well, but Levine thought them so slight as to not be worth mentioning. Clearly he felt much happier singing the praises of the man he had obviously loved and revered.

This encouraged me to prod: So, then: what about all those Puerto Ricans? Obviously they didn't agree with his assessment. Levine had a ready explanation for their ungrateful conduct: it was all politics. Not revolutionary politics, not grass-roots politics; plain old-fashioned power politics. Any group opposed to Luis Munoz Marin and his Popular Democratic Party would use every opportunity to slander him by attacking the San Juan Music Festival.

No-one, he explained, ever made a direct attack on Casals: for who could bring himself to criticize such a lovable old man? It was all directed against Marin, Fomento, Operation Bootstrap, the PDP, and the platform of Commonwealth status for Puerto Rico. Like most mainland Americans, Julius Levine had neither read nor learned anything about the 3-way contest between statehood, commonwealth and independence that floats like driftwood through all Puerto Rican politics.

And, Julius Levine went on, look at Alexander Schneider, the man with the big heart who tried to do so much for the people of the island. Just look at how he was endlessly vilified by the opposition press! The last straw came when one of their rags published an article defaming "Alexander Schneider and his gang of New York Jews..." That's when Levine packed up his bags, left the island and severed all connection with the Festival.

Isidore Cohen, another member of this notorious Manhattan gang, violinist of the Beaux-Arts Trio, was made of tougher stuff and had not been scared off so easily. He readily accepted the fact that there had been a lack of communication between the Festival organizers and the Puerto Rican cultural milieu. He praised the efforts the Festival had made to reach out to local musicians and composers. It had performed the music of Hector-Campos Parsi and Jack Delano, a composer born in Russia and raised in Philadelphia but who had spent almost his entire professional life in Puerto Rico.

For a time the Beaux-Arts Trio had performed in shopping malls around San Juan and discovered a sympathetic audience. The Puerto Rico Orchestra, which consisted almost entirely of Puerto Rican musicians, now made regular tours of the island's major towns.

From these interviews I concluded that Puerto Rican musicians and politicians were correct: the Marlboro's musicians did not understand the situation in Puerto Rico, nor were they much interested in doing so. All the same, it is a fact that culture grows through crisis, and the presence over 16 years of a musical force like Pablo Casals did stimulate growth by arousing controversy. There is no doubt about his personal vanity. Casals was an unreconstructible musical reactionary, and an imperialist, not a revolutionary.

His legacy, the Orchestra, the Conservatory, even the much disputed Festival is a positive one. It is a question of using them wisely, which often means going against the wishes and intentions of their founder.

For a extensive study of the issues raised in this article, my 60-page article "Puerto Rico, Music, Tourism and Politics", is available for $10.
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Roy Lisker 8 Liberty Street #306 , Middletown , CT 06457

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