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The Glorious Ones by Harold C. Schonberg

The Glorious Ones (1985)

by Harold C. Schonberg

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Anecdotal accounts of the lives and times of thirty-nine musical superstars since the eighteenth century.



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This book, though quite compelling and full of great anecdotes, falls short of his Great Composers, Great Pianists, and Great Conductors books. Nevertheless, no one has written about music and its artists of all types with more love and insight then Schonberg, and this book will have you searching for archival recordings of Caruso, Hofmann, and lots of others. If only they existed for Liszt and Paganini! Quoting from eyewitnesses, Schonberg tries to give us a feeling for what made each performer, whether a singer or an instrumentalist special. He is diligent to seek out both strengths and weaknesses, though he has to look pretty hard for weaknesses in a few cases. Throughout, he writes in his standard compelling but opinionated mode. There is a great deal of regret that contemporary performers (i.e., 1985) lack the power, insight, or spontaneity of prior generations. He would definitely jump in a time machine to 1920 if he had the chance. Many of his readers will want to do the same. ( )
1 vote datrappert | Dec 13, 2015 |
Harold C. Schonberg

The Glorious Ones
Classical Music's Legendary Performers

Times Books, Hardback, 1985.

8vo. xviii+509 pp. First Edition. Preface by the author [x-xviii].

Also published in paperback as The Virtuosi.



1. The Castrati. Lungs of Men, Voices of Women.
2. Angelica Catalani. Pyrotechnics and Greed.
3. A Digression on Travel, the Industrial Revolution, and Related Matters.
4. Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Henrietta Sontag, and Giulia Grisi. Bel Canto.
5. Giovanni-Battista Rubini, Mario, and Luigi Lablache. Bengal Rockets, Sweetness, and Cannonades.
6. A Digression on Money.
7. Nicolo Paganini. Spawn of the Devil.
8. Franz Liszt. The Eagle of the Piano.
9. Jenny Lind. The Moral Lady.
10. Joseph Joachim. The Incorruptible.
11. Anton Rubinstein. Russian Elemental.
12. Adelina Patti. The Queen of the Song.
13. Jean and Edouard de Reszke. The Singing Brothers.
14. Ignaz Paderewski. The Aureoled Pole.
15. Pablo de Sarasate, Eugene Ysaye, Jan Kubelik, and Fritz Kreisler. A Quartet of Violinists.
16. Nellie Melba. The Singing Machine.
17. Enrico Caruso. The Tenor of Tenors.
18. A Digression on Tenors.
19. Josef Hofmann. The Polish Keyboard Master.
20. Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Russian Master.
21. John McCormack. Irish Gold.
22. Feodor Shaliapin. Bass from Mother Russia.
23. Arturo Toscanini. The Maestro.
24. Jascha Heifetz. Unruffled Perfection.
25. Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior. The Two Wagnerians.
26. Arthur Rubinstein. Joie de Vivre
27. Vladimir Horowitz. Electrical Energy.
28. Maria Callas. The Will to Succeed.
29. A Digression on Health and Ills.
30. Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, and Georg Solti. Timebeaters Three.
31. Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Mano a Mano.



Marion Bauer, one of my music teachers, once said something I never forgot: ''If you are interested in a subject and do not know as much about it as you would like to, write a book about it. By the time you have finished the research, you might even be an authority on the subject.''

Harold Schonberg simply has it and that's that. He has that all too rare ability so very few writers have: to catch my attention with his very first paragraph and compels me to read on and on and on - until I see the back cover with a smile of deep satisfaction but also of certain sadness because a wonderful adventure has come to an end. Surely that adventure will bear a great deal of re-reading but it will never be quite the same. On the other hand, it will always leave me at least a little bit more spiritually enriched than before.

The Glorious Ones is a book about the superstars in the history of classical music. Not all of them of course, but most, yes. The lovers of somewhat different type of music might be surprised that the musical super-stardom does not start with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin but that happens to be true. The classical music lovers might too be surprised that the first superstars came some one century before Liszt and Paganini. These were the castrati: the ''physical freaks'' with ''lungs of men'' and ''voices of women'' who had lost something of their manhood at the expense of probably the greatest vocal art that ever existed. Harold Schonberg makes quite a good case that since the time of castrati, who could well manage numerous trills and figurations in a single breath well over a minute long, the art of singing has been in constant decline.

Incidentally, the greatest part of the book is dedicated to opera singers: from Angelica Catalani and the bel canto superstars from the beginning of XIX century, through Luigi Lablach, Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti, all the way through Caruso, Shaliapin, until Domingo and Pavarotti. To counterbalance all that vocal brilliance there are a good many legendary masters of the keyboard - the specialty of Harold Schonberg - starting with the mythical figure of Franz Liszt and finishing with the last two great pianists of the so called Romantic tradition - Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Violin lovers will not be disappointed, either: Paganini is followed by Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Saraste and Eugene Ysaye, until we reach Jascha Heifetz.

It should be noted, for those who already have other books by the same author, that Harold Schonberg is always quite to the point and marvelously avoids any repetitions. Colossal figure in the XIX century music like Franz Liszt, for example, has a chapter of his own not only here but also in Harold Schonberg's The Great Pianists and The Great Conductors. Though certain amount of repetitions is impossible to avoid, all three chapters are well worth reading since Liszt certainly was a great composer and a fabulous pianist, as well as important conductor and one of the most legendary superstars of all time. And Harold Schonberg has something to say about any of these incarnations. But what is there to say about superstars except tons of gossip? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

As all of Harold Schonberg's books, The Glorious Ones has a glorious preface that makes me eager to devour the whole book. In just a few pages Mr Schonberg gives vivid impression of his subject and asks a number of compelling questions. What makes one a superstar? Are superstars always better musicians than the ordinary stars? Are their fees always astronomical? Did they have impresarios or agents in the bygone centuries? Were all superstars superb technicians? Were all of them musical prodigies? What is the nature of the child prodigy? Some of these questions, like the last one, still await their conclusive answer. For most, however, Harold Schonberg has if not the answers, at all events a great deal of food for thought to start with.

The superstars were almost always a very fine musicians and superb technicians. But one thing they had without any exceptions was the magic, the charisma, the charm, the mystique, call you what you like; in other words, that ability to communicate (sub)consciously with the audience. Sometimes that charisma was so strong that efficiently compensated for significant technical deficiencies, Paderewski among the pianists and Callas among the singers being perhaps the most telling examples. Sometimes that personal aura, coupled with incredible technical skill, more than make for the lack of musical taste, as in the cases of Catalani and Paganini.

Again in that fascinating preface, Harold Schonberg reflects on performance practice and how it did change since the times of the Romantic tradition when textual fidelity and sticking to the printed note were by far less important than the emotional impact of the music. Mr Schonberg is obviously a Romantic at heart and he often makes his point in a remarkably perceptive, even profound, way:

A performer is no good at all if he does not express himself as much as he expresses his concept of the composer's meaning. If ever there was a symbiotic relationship, this is it. But today, by and large, artists are literal-minded and careful, and there is dreadful unanimity of approach. Performers seem much too worried about the text and not enough about its message.

I could never say it better, but allowed myself to add emphasis to ''his''. I would never have expected to see such demolition of the so called intellectual performance practice in print, done by an eminent musical critic at that. The whole concept of expressing the ''composer's ideas'' by sticking to the notes with fanatical zeal until every performance sound exactly like any other, all that intellectual concept is a hell of a hokum. In essence, the modern performance practice is trying to compensate for the lack of personality and originality, in other words - for the lack of true artistry. Indeed, this is something like a main theme in all of Schonberg's books and, for my part at least, one of the things that makes them absolutely compelling.

Harold Schonberg has often been blamed for his writing style being a sort of journalistic hackwork. I dare disagree. It is true that in The Glorious Ones the usually informal and chatty style of Mr Schonberg is even more so; not so seldom is he with his tongue in cheek, naughty, mischievous or even a trifle malicious. All this makes him not just readable, but a huge fun to read. It is hard to believe that something so funny really can be of any great value - but it happens to be true in this case. Behind the facetious facade of Harold Schonberg's writing, there is tremendous knowledge, erudition and industry. He gathered the tons of information for his books not only from a staggering number of other books (listed in a huge bibliography) but also from numerous contemporary periodicals.

Moreover, never is Mr Schonberg afraid to delve deeper into the personality of his superstars and more often than not he demonstrates insight into human nature of unusual degree. He always searches for the human being behind the superstar, and very often gives extremely insightful and perceptive character sketches. All that is skilfully intertwined with one hilarious episode after another with a roaring climax reached in "A Digression on Tenors" where, in great detail, is launched the theory that tenors are not ordinary humans but belong to quite another race, apparently because their heads, due to acoustical considerations, contain much more empty spaces than the heads of people. No matter how much Harold Schonberg may be absorbed in such lovely nonsense, or rubbs his hands in glee relating backstage scandals, he never overdoes it. I am ready to vouch for both Mr Schonberg's style and content being quite serious, exceptionally penetrating and on the whole far from flippant.

It must be said, however, that this is perhaps the book in which Harold Schonberg is most prone to sloppiness. In his chapter on Vladimir Horowitz, for example, he mentions the first recording of Rachmaninoff's Third concerto made around 1928 and the second, made some 30 years later. Now, every admirer of Vladimir Horowitz - and Mr Schonberg certainly was one since he wrote his definitive biography a few years later - knows that the great pianist made this first recording in 1930 and the second followed not "some 30" but exactly 21 years later, in 1951. No matter. Though such careless handling of dates casts a faint shadow of doubt over Mr Schonberg lots of historical facts, it is ultimately of no importance since he provides such a wealth of compelling portraits of some of the greatest geniuses who ever trod on the concert or opera stage.

The only other, again minor, drawback is Harold Schonberg's money experiment, so to say. Since one of the few common things among all musical superstars have always been their huge fees, a good deal of the book is dedicated to money, including even one special chapter. In his preface, Mr Schonberg states that an attempt has been made to deal with this traditionally extremely complicated subject and many different currencies over several centuries are often transformed into American dollars. I have little doubt in the accuracy of Mr Schonberg's calculations, but the method does not seem to work very nicely anyway. For one thing, for some of us dollars are not the most often used Phoenician signs; for another, even if they were, whatever 100 dollars cost today they must have had a different value twenty-five years ago when The Glorious Ones was first published. So I surmise that the money conversion is of no great use even to modern American readers. But that, again, is a very minor caveat and hardly worth noting considering the rest of the book.

Moreover, sometimes Mr Schonberg gives, together with the conversions to dollars, some revealing comparisons. That's how one can learn the staggering fact that Pavarotti, who used to boast that nobody ever lost money from his concert and did indeed make pots of money, actually was all but a beggar in comparison with Adelina Patti some hundred years before him. Even if we assume that in 1983 Luciano made 100 000 dollars per concert, which was a trifle too much even for him, he got ''only'' about 5,7 times more that the annual income of an average family household in the US at the time (17 500 dollars). In 1870s Adelina used to make ''only'' 5000 dollars per one appearance on the stage. Compare that with an average annual family income of 350 dollars and you will get the stunning figure 14. In other words, for an hour or two singing Adelina Patti made 14 times more money than a whole family for one year working. Moreover, she didn't pay any taxes on all that, while Pavarotti had to pay a lot indeed. One would almost think that the world is getting better.

There are many fascinating facts and figures in The Glorious Ones by Harold Schonberg. Some of them may well be slightly inaccurate, but there is an ample compensation for that, namely numerous vivid and exciting character sketches of most of the great performing artists during the last two centuries or so, and profound analyses of their careers, musicianship, technical mastery, personality and place in history. To cut the long story short: if you are a classical music lover, this book is an obligatory reading. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Mar 2, 2010 |
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This book is dedicated to those great performers of past and present who, on the stage or through recordings, have exhilarated and inspired me through the decades.
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