They Shall Have Music

I first made acquaintance with Vaclav Talich in 1937, and it was difficult. For one thing, he was in Prague, and I was in Interstate Park, near Blauvelt, New York, where I was serving as assistant director of a camp for Tribune Fresh Air Fund children. On my summer salary prospects, I had indulged in a tablemodel Stromberg-Carlson radio. It was a lovely instrument, baffled in thick rich mahogany, straight A.C., with a good power transformer and a very sensitive eight-inch speaker: the ideal receiver for WQXR, which I think was then the only highfidelity good-music station in American broadcasting. Luckily, my director and boss, a strong and genial schoolteacher, was as reliant as I on music as a repairer of the spirit.

I came to our cottage one evening after first-shift supper and turned on WQXR. Out of the speaker came something indescribably exciting, full of valiant rhythms and fascinating modulations into remote chords, all prefaced with a marvelous trumpet call. It was masculine yet tender, and had a nostalgic and almost historic flavor. I did not know what it was, and WQXR, for once, committed the unforgivable sin of not identifying a work after it had ended. I went to the camp office telephone and called WQXR (I suppose I still owe the Fresh Air Fund forty cents for this), got the assistant program director, and badgered him into telling me what the music was.

It was the Dvořák Symphony in G, to my mind the best of the Dvořák symphonies. This symphony is called the Fourth here and the Eighth in Europe, since Dvořák wrote, but didn’t publish, four symphonies before he released number one. The music was not only powerful, but poignantly and trenchantly played, and I found out by whom: Vaclav Talich, leading the Czech Philharmonic. On my next trip to New York I went to my friend Robert Breitman, at the New York Band Instrument Company on Sixth Avenue, who used to let me buy records one at a time out of albums, in trust that I would eventually return to acquire the rest of the album, as I always managed to do.

In this instance I did, resistlessly, since in the interval I heard, in an outdoor concert, someone else essay the Dvořák G Major, and the effect was not the same. It was, I think, Germanized, softened into the likeness of a wan Brahms. The Bohemian dance and the Slavonic clash had been rinsed out of it. But I had the last movement of the Talich (I began my purchase with the fourth and final disc), so I knew the work need not and should not go like that.

Talich died last March at seventyseven, and hardly anyone in this part of the world took notice. In a way his blooming reminds me of that of my friend Aksel Schiøtz, the Danish tenor (who is still very much alive), in that both men were sequestered by war. Just as Schiøtz began gaining fame as one of the leading art-song stylists of our times, the Germans penned him up in Denmark; we in the other half of the world could not hear him, even on records, until after 1945. For conductors, ascent is even slower than for singers. So far as I know, before Hitler absorbed Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Talich was known in America only by his Dvořák Fourth.

And after the Nazis were driven out of Czechoslovakia the Communists constrained artistry there just as the Germans had. Until about four years ago, only smuggled tapes, or those bought unheard by such organizations as Leeds, Ltd., made their way to the United States. Most were terrible, but a few were good. Among these was a Talich treasure, the Dvořák Slavonic Dances, issued by Urania on two LP discs. How they got the tapes I do not know, because no one would tell me. However, they were clean in sound, their only fault being that the Czech engineers of Supraphon, who made them originally, used an equalization (bass-treble balance) different from the kind commonly employed here. The transcription engineers (probably either at RCA or Columbia) who processed the tapes had to operate by guesswork and could not escape a little squeakiness. No matter.

That’s past history. Now there is a legitimate distributor here for Iron Curtain records, or at least those from Czechoslovakia. It is named Artia and occupies the quarters at 38 West 48th Street, Manhattan, once occupied by Angel Records, before the latter merged with Capitol.

Much of what they sell is, to my taste, junk. I simply do not care much for The Red Army Marches in Hi-Fi. However, it was pointed out to me by Peter Sutro, chief of the agency, that much good musical material has been kept away from us by international hostility. This is very true. Furthermore, the processing of records, long neglected behind the Curtain (while everybody worked on getting a man into space, presumably), seems to have made considerable advance. The tape grittiness is gone. So far we have had no stereo from behind the Curtain, but some may be forthcoming. I wish, without much hope, that some of it might be Talich performances of either Dvořák or Smetana; no one else has played their work so beautifully, with such conviction, joy, and understanding. Further, the problem of equalization seems to have been solved, by whom I do not know.

No one can listen to a Talich performance of a Dvořák work without realizing that he is in the presence of a great interpreter. Also, no one can listen to one of these performances without discovering that the care given the composer was worth while. Occasionally a performer has been able to do this for a composer; a case lately brought to us was what Beecham did for Delius.

Talich’s best-beloved composers were Dvořák and Smetana. After them came Josef Suk and Leos Janáček, and, as foundation to his musical taste, Mozart. Talich was born in Kroměříž, in Moravia. His father was an organist and choirmaster. The boy was groomed to be a violinist, but he did not satisfy himself at this, and was perhaps too big for the job anyway. However, out of some sort of instinct, he took positions as first violinist in leading orchestras, so that he might absorb the art of conducting. Among his teachers and sponsors were the fabulous Artur Nikisch and Max Reger. He crisscrossed Europe in conducting assignments, but finally found the one closest to his heart, the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. Prague has always been a line musical city; it was Prague that made a success of The Marriage of Figaro, not Vienna. In the years between the world wars, Talich made the Czech Philharmonic one of the world’s great orchestras, the avowed model for many a present-day conductor. It had then at its command, to judge from recordings, more subtlety than any other orchestra, except perhaps Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. Seemingly Talich used much the same technique as Toscanini: the performers were terrified not so much of wrath as of their own errors. This is what a great conductor can do.

Or it is part of what he can do. The other part is to arouse musical understanding among the people who work with him. I have observed Toscanini’s fiddlers, trumpeters, and drummer, and never have I seen a closer attention to a purpose, not even in the last inning of a World Series game. One can sense the same thing in any of the Talich recordings, when a horn note is lofted or the first strings sing. Spirits are being moved and devotions engaged. The true love Dvořák and Smetana had for their countryside and its gay and sturdy people has somehow permeated the orchestra, simply through notes on pieces of paper and the waving of a small stick in the hand of a man in front of them.

Talich, a man not noted for the length of his temper, could not stay in favor with either the Russians or Germans. He was relieved of his two major jobs, as musical director of the Czech National Opera and the Czech Philharmonic, during the two conquests. So he started a chamber orchestra, which did not, so far as I know, yield any recordings. He seems to have been a yoube-damned kind of man, and his playing showed it clearly. Do not take me in error. He plainly loved pure beauty and loved it well and was not at all against playfulness.

The various Talich recordings are on two labels, Artia and Parliament, the first selling at five dollars a disc and the second at two. At the higher price you can get the Dvořák Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies — I am using the American numeration — and the Serenades in E and D Minor. At the lower price you can get the Slavonic Dances and the Cello Concerto, with Rostropovich as soloist, and Smetana’s My Country (which includes the Moldau, played about as well as anyone will ever play it). I will not guarantee the quality of the lower-priced records; some of them have slightly rough surfaces.

What I will guarantee is the quality of the music. I have viewed Czechoslovakia only across the landmined, barbed-wired Austrian border. It looked green and pleasant; people tell me it is not really pleasant. However, a half century ago, Hapsburgs or not, it must have had its pleasant aspects, or it could not have given birth to this music. If you want to sense love of country — landscape, people, spirit — from a worthy setting, there is no better way than listening to these records.