My Grandfather's Last Tale

The mission? To carry forward the musical legacy of a once-celebrated composer, as part of the duties of a musically ungifted oldest grandson. The stops along the way? The modernist frenzy of 1920s Vienna and Berlin and the artistic lassitude of 1940s and 1950s expatriate Hollywood. The culmination? The stage of an adventurous opera company in a little town in eastern Germany that was by turns an SS and a Stasi stronghold.

Toch at Work

Toch in 1960

SCHEHERAZADE had had enough -- or so the story goes. She'd told a thousand tales and had no more to tell. Her sister tried to rally the poor girl: didn't she realize that unless she took up the skein once again that night, not only would the Sultan order her killed on the spot but he'd resume the homicidal binge her tales had so tenuously forestalled, killing yet another maiden each and every night thereafter? Scheherazade, utterly drained, couldn't bring herself to care. For a thousand nights she'd been unspooling her improvisational yarns, anxiously awaiting the promised return of her young lover, Alcazar, who a thousand days earlier had retreated into the backcountry to organize a revolution and her liberation. But by now it was surely clear that he wasn't coming -- and, hopeless, she was all told out.

At that very moment Alcazar came bounding over the balcony ledge and rushed to enfold his lover in a passionate embrace. Just one more night, he urged her: if she could keep the Sultan distracted for just one more night, he and his men would launch their insurrection that very eve. But couldn't he see? Couldn't he understand? she pleaded in reply. She simply had no more tales to tell. Think of something! he called as he vaulted back over the balcony ledge. And he was gone.

 


Toch Unbound
 


Disconsolate, Scheherazade lapsed into a deep late-afternoon drowse. All her tales seemed to rise up about her, as if in a pell-mell debauch: Aladdin and Sinbad, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, greedy caliphs and crafty viziers, flying carpets and slicing daggers, soaring falcons and chess-playing apes . . .

And already it was nightfall. With a boisterous fanfare the Sultan and his courtiers came barging into Scheherazade's quarters, avid for tales, and yanked the maiden from her storm-tossed dreams. Why, the Sultan boasted, his girl's stories were so enthralling that time and again he'd imagined himself right there -- in the very thick of the action, shoulder to shoulder with her myriad protagonists. So, Scheherazade, what was it going to be tonight?

For the longest time it seemed that the answer would be nothing. Shaking, silent, Scheherazade strained for inspiration. None came. The Sultan's concern gave way to anger and presently to scalding rage. Still nothing.

Finally, at the end of her tether, Scheherazade burst forth into narrative -- her own: the tale of a young girl, hopelessly ensnared, desperately longing for deliverance by a long-lost love. In the distance explosions could be heard, and flames licked the horizon, but seamlessly Scheherazade wove even these into her tale. Messengers came charging into the palace, urgent with bulletins. The Sultan, transfixed, brushed them away: nothing short of miraculous, the way this girl could spin such lifelike tales!

On and on Scheherazade unfurled the story of her own liberation. So rapt had the Sultan become that even as Alcazar and his troops stormed into the royal chambers, even as they clamped the despot in heavy iron coils and dragged him away, delirious, he still seemed to half-believe that he was in the midst of an indescribably marvelous tale.

Alcazar rushed forward to embrace his consort once again, in triumph but in calamity as well. Scheherazade, having given her all, had indeed told one tale too many: utterly spent, she collapsed, pale and depleted, into his arms, and -- opera being opera -- proceeded to die.

 

Stoking and Stumbling

 

FOR years I'd been trying to arrange a premiere for my late grandfather's final opera, The Last Tale, and I'd pretty much given up hope.

My grandfather was Ernst Toch (pronounced Talk, with a husky-breathy bit of Middle European business tucked away at the very end), and though his is hardly a name to conjure with nowadays, there was a time -- oh, there was a time. In Santa Monica, where he spent much of the latter half of his creative life, the émigrés used to regale one another with a story about two dachshunds who meet one evening out on the Palisade. "Here it's true," one assures the other, "I'm a dachshund. But in the old country I was a Saint Bernard."

 

Back in the old country my grandfather was a Saint Bernard -- in Weimar Berlin, that is, during the mid and late twenties and on into the early thirties. Born in 1887, and thus wedged, generationally speaking, between, say, Arnold Schoenberg (b. 1874) and Paul Hindemith (b. 1895), Toch was at the forefront of the modernist Neue Musik revolution that swept Middle Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. His chamber opera The Princess and the Pea received its first performance at the Baden Baden Festival in 1927, right alongside Hindemith's Hin und Zurück, Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, and Darius Milhaud's L'Enlèvement d'Europe. His First Piano Concerto was given its premiere by Walter Gieseking, his Cello Concerto by Emanuel Feuermann. His orchestral works were regularly featured under the batons of such eminent conductors as Erich Kleiber, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. He collaborated with the theatrical luminaries Max Reinhardt and Berthold Viertel, and with the novelist Alfred Döblin (of Berlin Alexanderplatz fame) and the satiric poet Christian Morgenstern. In short, he was at the very center of a vast, energized, and energizing echo chamber -- one that was soon to come crashing all about him, and so many countless others, with Adolf Hitler's rise to power, in January of 1933. It was Toch's most recent opera, The Fan, that William Steinberg was rehearsing in Cologne when Nazi brownshirts came storming into the hall and literally lifted the baton out of his hand. Not long after that the once-respected German musical monthly Die Musik came out with a special anti-Semitic issue featuring portraits and photos of my grandfather alongside the likes of Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Weill -- their features retouched so as to make their faces appear vaguely sinister, their noses exaggerated, the pupils of their eyes dilated, the entire cavalcade of images framed by dire quotations, in bold Gothic type, from the long-dead German composer Felix Draeseke ("Our sole salvation lies in anti-Semitism") and from the Führer himself ("The Jew possesses no culture-building power whatsoever").

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