CONTINUO, by Robert Starer





STUDENTS at the State Academy of Music in Vienna, which I entered in the fall of 1937, at the age of thirteen, liked to trace their teachers' teachers to create a pianistic genealogy for themselves similar to that of nobility. The farther back you went, the more exalted it became. If your teacher's teacher had studied with Zemlinsky, for example, you could trace yourself through Liszt all the way to Beethoven. The Vienna of my childhood was as fond of such historic tracings as it was of the shiny little signs that still hang on so many inconspicuous-looking houses: "Here Mozart sketched his…” and “Here Schubert wrote his…”

            The German takeover of unresisting Austria must have been imminent all that winter, but we young music students paid little attention. My parents did discuss the threat to Austria's independence at the dinner table, but they seemed always to be talking of imminent catastrophes. Nevertheless, all genealogical tracings ended abruptly for me when, in March of 1938, quite soon after the German annexation, a man in a brown uniform came to the Academy and announced that all Jewish and half-Jewish students had been expelled and were to leave the building immediately.

        My parents, who saw this clearly as an omen of the future, had heard that the British High Commissioner for Palestine, a true lover of music, as I later found out, was giving certificates of immigration to talented music students, and they arranged for me to play an audition for his representative. I was accepted, and found myself, just a few months later, in Jerusalem. The administrative head of the Palestine Conservatoire of Music became my legal guardian, and my teachers were a Hungarian, a Russian, a German, and a famous performer on the oud—the Arab predecessor of the lute—who was a Jew from Baghdad.

            The Conservatoire occupied the second floor of a large old Arab house on Zion Square, where Ben Yehuda Street, coming from the new Jewish quarter, met Old Jaffa Road, which eventually led to Jaffa Gate and the Old City of Jerusalem. An Arab policeman, wearing the high black fur hat the British had kept as part of the uniform from the days of the Ottoman Empire, walked up and down near the building, as did a highly made-up middle-aged Jewish woman who occasionally strolled away on the arm of a British soldier or an Arab in European dress to a small hotel just around the corner. One of my fellow students once asked her why she walked that particular stretch of the city, and she answered, "That is my profession." The policeman was often seen chatting with her. Our British rulers were not overly concerned with the morals of the populace.

            Around the corner from the Conservatoire were a bookstore, where weekly concerts of recorded music were given (to which music students were admitted for very little money), and some quasi-international grocery stores, where British civil servants could buy non-kosher food. The square itself, a noisy, smelly place, was filled with venders of falafel and tamarindi, a date drink. Not only cars and buses but mules, horses, and even an occasional camel passed right under the Conservatoire's windows.

        A broad staircase on the outside of the building led up to the Conservatoire, and one afternoon in 1940 a well-dressed older man, tall, thin, and with a proud bearing, walked up those steps and entered the office of the school. The students who happened to be around that afternoon—I was among them—watched with great fascination and curiosity. We could not imagine what a man with his looks, attire, and manner could be doing in our school. As soon as he left, we rushed into the office to question the secretary. Who was this man and what did he want? We were told that his name was Hermann Jadlowker; that he had been a very famous tenor in the early part of the century; that he had sung under the direction of Gustav Mahler and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and had participated in the world premiere of Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos;" and that Kaiser Wilhelm had called him "my Lohengrin." He wanted to give concerts again and was looking for an accompanist—someone young, good at sight-reading, willing to work.  Previous experience was not necessary.

        This was a very exciting proposition, and several young pianists showed up at the auditions a few days later. The head of the Conservatoire was present, as were several piano teachers and, of course, Hermann Jadlowker, who sat quietly through the entire proceeding and never let on what he thought. We all waited outside, and a few minutes after the last pianist had left the room the head of the Conservatoire came out to announce that Jadlowker had chosen me.

        At that time, I was sixteen and living with three other music students, two from Germany and one from Czechoslovakia, in a two-room apartment just outside Jerusalem. Our landlord was a Jew from Kurdistan—an Oriental, as we called every non-European—who did not mind what we did as long as we paid our rent. Our constant practicing did not bother him, nor did the fact that our apartment was never cleaned. There was no refrigerator, and to keep the ants out of our food we stored it on a table each leg of which stood in a plate full of water. My elder sister, who was attending an agricultural school near Kfar Saba to learn to become a useful member of a kibbutz, once came for a visit, and when she saw the place she quickly turned around and left.

        What a contrast to the apartment where I had my first meeting with Hermann Jadlowker. It was his niece's apartment in Rehavia, one of the nicest sections of modern Jerusalem. There was a Blüthner grand piano, which he must have brought with him from Germany, and books in many languages, and much music. It was a cultured, civilized atmosphere such as I had not encountered since I left my parents' home in Vienna.

            Jadlowker told me that we would meet twice a week at first, perhaps more often later, and that he would pay me five piastres per session. (There were a hundred piastres to the English pound.) We began to work immediately. He put a volume of old Italian arias on the piano, held a second copy in his hand (he never looked over my shoulder), and we went through a number of those arias. He walked up and down the rather large room, usually just “marking” the music, but occasionally singing in full voice.

        Just to play that lovely Blüthner was a joy. My father had given me a small grand to take with me to Palestine—a dark-brown piano of undistinguished make. During my first two years there, when I changed address almost every other month, that poor piano had been dragged from one section of Jerusalem to another on a horse-drawn cart so many times that it was scratched on all sides and no longer held tuning. Melech Hasabalim—the King of Porters, as he was called—knew my piano so well that whenever I came to the place where the porters hung out he greeted me with the enthusiasm reserved for good customers. He was a Jew from Iraq, fiercely strong, and proud that he could carry a grand piano alone on his back secured only by a strap across his forehead. When we sat on his horse cart after the piano had been loaded, he would make conversation about “Hertel,” as he pronounced Hitler, always adding “may his name be erased.” He saw him as a reincarnation of the Biblical Haman, who wanted to obliterate the Jews, and he was equally sure that there would soon arise a new Esther to thwart him. I listened to his notions in silence, and never told him that I had once borrowed a swastika from an Aryan friend and gone to see Hertel from as near as one was permitted to see him. Melech Hasabalim would not have understood such pointless curiosity.

        So much for my poor piano; I sold it in 1947, before I came to America. Jadlowker's Blüthner responded to the slightest touch of the finger, to the slightest whim of the musical imagination. He and I went over much musical repertoire during the following weeks: Handel, whom he loved; a little Bach, most of whose vocal writing he considered unsuitable for himself; German lieder from Schubert to Mahler, with particular stress on Brahms; some arias from Italian and Russian opera (he was born in Riga and, as a Latvian, he knew Russian); some Hebrew folk songs; and tidbits from here and there. Although he had been the Kaiser's favorite Lohengrin, he would sing no more Wagner.

       My roommates were much interested in my work with Jadlowker, all aspects of it. When I told them that he wore a different suit at each rehearsal, that he always wore a necktie, and that he had a handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket showing only a corner and carefully matching his tie, they almost did not believe me. It was so different from what we saw around us. Even Ben Gurion, already then a man of great prominence, never wore a necktie, not even on the most formal occasions. Our interest in Jadlowker’s world went much deeper, though, than mere apparel. What did he symbolize to us, four European teenagers separated from their parents and homes, transplanted into a world of Arabs, Jews from strange countries, and Britons, and held together by our burning desire to make music our profession? His propriety, courtesy, and orderliness represented our parents' world to us. I know it did to me. We envied him his experience, musical and other—his rich, successful life. We admired him for wishing to make a new start in surroundings he must have found as tryingly different from the past as we did.

        In some ways, my friends and I were probably mature beyond our years and had learned to deal with unusual and unexpected situations; in other ways we were quite childish. Once when I came home from a rehearsal with Jadlowker, I found my friends feeding canned goose-liver pâté to our cat, whom I had named Schnurli, an Austrian term of endearment derived from the German word "schnurren" (to purr). Soon after the outbreak of the war, we had seen fit to stock up on food and had bought, of all things, ten cans of goose-liver pâté imported from France. That afternoon the three of them had decided that the war was not going to come near us and that Schnurli was not feeling well and needed cheering up. The cat whined miserably and turned up his nose at the pâté. Soon after that he got so sick that we thought the time had come for drastic measures. We had heard that people who wanted to commit suicide took overdoses of sleeping pills, so we fed Schnurli a large dose of aspirin, hop­ing to put him out of his misery. He slept for seventy-two hours and woke feeling much better.

            When Hermann Jadlowker first engaged me, he told me that it would be part of my job to correct him. I did not take that seriously. First of all, I did not believe that he would make mistakes, and, besides, how could a mere music student correct a world-famous singer?

        The first time he made a mistake, I did not have the courage to speak up. I quickly tried to change the accompaniment to fit what he was singing. He noticed, though, and stamped his foot in anger. “Why did you not stop me? You are supposed to tell me when I make a mistake. That's what I am paying you for.”

        I understood then that he meant it and that he did need me. He was going over old repertoire, music he might not have looked at in years—he had sung mostly nineteenth-century opera all his life—and when he did make mistakes he preferred to be corrected by a young person rather than by some old vocal coach, or Korrepetitor, as such people were called. From that moment on, I became more his collaborator than his accompanist. The five piastres an hour he gave me were good pay in my circumstances. With that you could buy fifty oranges or a bag of olives—the two cheapest food items—on the open fruit market. It was also considerably more than I got for giving piano lessons, most of them to unwilling children who had to be cajoled or coerced into playing and always seemed to live in the most distant corners of the city. I had at this time just lost my most promising student, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a physician, to whom I gave lessons in return for dinner, my best meal of the week. Her father had fired me, because he thought she was showing an undue interest in me. Actually, she wasn't, but the mere possibility must have seemed a threat to the doctor. In any event, it was a welcome change to be able to work with Jadlowker in his niece's elegant apartment, and to get paid for what seemed more like a privilege.

            My rehearsals with Jadlowker always began on time. He did not live at his niece's apartment, but he was always there when I arrived. Neither before the rehearsal nor after was there any small talk, any conversation not related to our work. He asked me no questions about my life and revealed little about his. I knew that he lived alone, that he was a widower, and that, though he had the reputation of having been a ladies' man, he had had only one wife and mourned her loss greatly. The niece, who let me in and out, was more inclined to chat a little, but never more than a sentence or two. It was tacitly understood between us that Jadlowker would not approve of our exchanging confidences.

        One day, he announced that he now felt ready to give a recital. From that day on, we met more frequently and discussed each song, as we went over it, in terms of its suitability for the planned program. In putting together the program, Jadlowker always chose the opening and the closing song for each group first. After these were set, he dealt with what came between. There his considerations were guided by contrast and variety of mood, tempo, and even key. While he often consulted me, the final choice was truly his.

        When the chief selections had been chosen, he said he would sing the entire German group—it was substantial—in Hebrew.

        “But why?” I asked shyly from the keyboard.

        “I want my entire audience to understand what I am singing,” he said, “and I don't like to sing in Hitler's language.”

        I wanted to say that the language itself was not our enemy, only the man, but I did not. I knew that his convictions were strong, that a different opinion from someone so young might be resented. Jadlowker had made his choice. Where no singable translation existed, he commissioned one. There were many poets, young and old, then translating the world's literature into modern Hebrew, and perhaps he also wanted to show his feelings toward his newly adopted country by singing in that language which had so recently been revived.

            We needed several additional rehearsals for him to learn the Hebrew texts and memorize them. Eventually, a date for the concert was set, and it was time for me to buy the first tuxedo of my life. I had my sister come up from her agricultural school to finger the material—good English worsted—the way you would have your older brother come with you to kick the tires of your first car. When I put that stiff detachable collar on my shirt, it reminded me of the wedding pictures of my parents. I had never thought I would ever be attired like that.

        The concert was to take place in Haifa, a city looked down upon by the more cultured Jerusalemites. Later, we were to give the same program at the Tel Aviv Museum, In Jerusalem, and in some smaller places. At that time, Haifa had no concert hall. The manager who scheduled and arranged our concert had rented a movie house—a huge, ugly place meant to be visited only in the dark. The afternoon of the concert, we went to Haifa in a taxi—Palestine was not a large country—and changed into our dress suits in a back room of the movie house. If Jadlowker found the facilities primitive compared with what he had been used to, he never showed it.

        At eight-thirty sharp, he walked out on the stage, with me a few steps behind. The name Jadlowker must have meant something to the inhabitants of Haifa: the movie house was completely filled. He acknowledged the warm greeting with a slight nod of his head and turned to me. I played the introduction to the old Italian aria he had chosen to open the program with, and he sang it quite sotto voce. He needs to warm up a little, I thought. Next came a Handel aria. I played the opening ritornello, and he did not come in when he should have. I played it again, and he came in two bars too soon. Was it possible for a singer of his experience to suffer from stage fright? If so, he overcame it quickly and then sang his German group—Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler, all in Hebrew. We walked offstage, and he thanked me for having covered up for his little mishap in the Handel.

        The next piece on the program was Lensky's aria from Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin," a rather lengthy and very beautiful piece of music, which encompasses a great variety of moods and emotions. It was only then that I began to see who Jadlowker had been and still was. In front of my eyes and the eyes of two thousand others, he became Lensky; he transformed that ugly, hall into an elegant European opera house with the sheer magic of his personality. I was so totally under the spell of his dramatic power, conviction, and intensity that I quite forgot where I was and what I was supposed to do. I was so overwhelmed, in fact, that I simply forgot to play at one point and just stared at him. He turned around and looked at me sternly, and I played again. This has never happened to me since—not on a stage, anyway.

        When he finished the aria, there was that moment of absolute silence which shows that an audience has been deeply moved, and then there came thunderous applause, shouts of “Bravo!” and of relief from the tension in which he had held them for so long. After the concert, everyone present, it seemed to me, wanted to tell Jadlowker how much it had meant to them. They also told him where they had heard him last—a great many placed were named—and what he had sung. Many spoke to him in German, some in Russian, and a few in Hebrew. Several people came to me to tell me how lucky I was to be so near great­ness at such a tender age. I did not need to be told.

        When everyone had left, the manager took us to our hotel, the old Zion Hotel, halfway up Mt. Carmel. For some reason, a single room had been reserved for us, with two large beds right next to each other. I shuddered slightly at the idea of sleeping practically in the same bed with the old man, but neither of us was thinking of sleep just then. Jadlowker put on his pajamas—the most elaborate silk-brocade pajamas I had ever seen—and walked up and down the room as he had done at all our rehearsals. He was elated—much too excited to sleep. He was the Kaiser’s Lohengrin again, not the refugee who had sung in a Haifa movie house. He remembered Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and even Brahms, for whom he had sung as a youth. He spoke of Strauss, under whose baton he had sung often, as a very thorough, accurate conductor, on whom one could absolutely rely. Perhaps a little too matter-of-fact for Jadlowker's taste. He had seen him play cards during the intermission of a concert, and I gathered from Jadlowker’s tone of voice that he did not quite approve of that. Mahler, on the other hand, was much more emotional, he said, both in his music-making and in his dealings with people. He was also somewhat superstitious and occasionally gave a penny to his singers before a performance for good luck.

        I wanted to hear more about Brahms. It seemed quite unreal to me that I should be in the same room, almost in the same bed, with a man who had sung for Brahms. Jadlowker had settled in his bed by then. “Brahms had a rather large potbelly,” he said, “and kept his foot on the pedal a lot.” I had not played much Brahms, but the thought did occur to me that night that a protruding belly might account for why the left had and the right in his piano writing often seemed so far apart. The detail about the pedal did not surprise me.

        I had never heard Jadlowker speak so much and so freely. I did not want him to stop talking ever. I felt that through listening to him I somehow knew these men myself—men who until then had been just names in books and on the title pages of music to me. I also felt that through Jadlowker, through having made music with him, I had entered into a chain of musical continuity, and that if I were someday to tell this to someone else he or she would become part of it.

        “How did you get to sing for Brahms?” I asked him. “You must have been terribly young at the time.”

        “I was indeed very young,” he said. “Not much older than you are now. And I not only sang for Brahms, I sang with him. He practically played for me.”

        “How did that happen?”

        “Well, I was studying voice in Vienna at the time. My teacher was Dr. Gänsbacher—you won't know his name—and he was a personal friend of Brahms'. One day, Brahms came to visit Gänsbacher when I was in the middle of a voice lesson. Gänsbacher told him he thought I had a future, and Brahms asked to hear me. After the first song—a Brahms song, of course—he simply sat down at the piano and played the next one himself.”

        I knew this was my first, and perhaps my only, chance to ask him anything I wanted to know. I said, "I know Kaiser Wilhelm made you a Kammersanger”—a singer of the imperial chamber—“but when did he call you 'my Lohengrin'?”

        “He came onstage after a performance at the Berlin Opera House,” Jadlowker said, “and he put his arm around my shoulders, and said to the audience, 'This is my Lohengrin.' ”

            “Was it your favorite part?”

            “Wait a moment,” he said. “There is more to this story. A year or so later, the Czar of Russia—Riga was part of Imperial Russia then—came to Berlin on a state visit. There was a performance of 'Lohengrin' at the opera house, and I had been asked to visit the two monarchs in their box during intermission. When I entered the box, the Kaiser presented me to the Czar. 'This is my Lohengrin,' he said. 'He may be your Lohengrin,' the Czar replied, 'but he is still my subject.' ”

        I wished the night would go on and on, but suddenly Hermann Jadlowker was quiet. I turned toward him and saw in the dim light that he had fallen asleep.

            So, eventually, did I.



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