Bruckner Journal book review

 

OUT OF TIME - The Vexed Life of Georg Tintner

By Tanya Buchdahl Tintner

 

448 pp University of Western Australia Publishing (UWA Publishing)  ISBN 9781742582566

 

[Available on-line at £25.49. Or $32,08. Readers wishing to use Amazon (.com or .co.uk) are invited to use the Shop for Anton Bruckner at Amazon link in the Web Store at  www.abruckner.com]

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“TINTNER?  Tintner?  Who is he?  Where does he live?  What does he know?”  The rhetorical questions referred originally to Bruckner in Hugo Wolf’s castigation of the Viennese for their failure to acknowledge the genius in their midst in 1884(1). They are equally appropriate to the general ignorance of the composer (2) and conductor Georg Tintner when the first Naxos recording in the Tintner cycle of Bruckner symphonies was published in 1997.  Most Brucknerians, and indeed most of the classical music audience, knew nothing of him and faced with the outstanding performance of the Fifth Symphony by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra wondered where on earth - or what celestial other-world - he had sprung from.  And when we discovered from the CD insert notes that he was already 80 years old, had been a member of the Vienna Boys Choir, sung Bruckner under Franz Schalk, had been assistant conductor for the Vienna Volksoper - but had to flee the Nazis and pursue a career in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and Canada, the questions why we knew virtually nothing of him and had heard little or nothing of his work previously, and how come he was such a great Bruckner conductor, demanded answers.  Tanya Buchdahl Tintner’s excellent book, Out of Time - The Vexed Life of Georg Tintner provides many of the missing clues.  

 

   It is an extraordinary life story that is told here. At times it leaves you seething with anger that such a talent should be wilfully ignored by bureaucrats and mediocrities, pompous little people with prejudices, who had the power to deny opportunities to an artist of such integrity and stature as Tintner; and at times exasperated with Tintner himself whose unbending commitment to often somewhat outlandish eccentricities and principles made him an unattractive candidate for inclusion in the conservative circles of the musical establishment of the post-war antipodean British Commonwealth.  The sheer incongruities that arise from these juxtapositions lead to repeated moments of hilarious absurdity, such as when the answer to the question ‘Tintner?  What does he know?” is officially recorded in his New Zealand naturalisation certificate: ‘Composer, conductor, poultry farmer’; and moments that bring sentimental tears to the eyes at the passionate, though often ineffective, advocacy of his supporters, such as that of the New Zealand composer Alfred Hill who, a day or two after one of the rare Tintner orchestral concerts, addressed an Auckland luncheon audience as follows: “I want to tell you that my wife says the silliest thing on two legs is poultry.  I think there are some people that are sillier.  They are the people of this city that would let a man keep a poultry farm instead of conducting an orchestra.”

  

That he became such a great Bruckner conductor finds its origins in those early days in Vienna. When he was twelve, 1929, he was in a rehearsal of the Bruckner Mass in F minor conducted by  Franz Schalk, who  “was a truly nasty piece of work.  We were absolutely terrified of that man.  […] When it came to the Benedictus […] we suddenly noticed […] that his beat, which was a very good and very clear beat, got less and less clear and less and less good, and suddenly he stopped altogether and he went to the window and started to cry.  Just to cry.  He was terribly ashamed of it, of course.  I would say these tears were the most important tears in my life.  It may be that they made me into a musician. I felt… what music can do to this dreadful man, […] This sentimental, perhaps slightly ridiculous, story was terribly important to me.  But it would have meant nothing had I not loved [Bruckner’s] music as intensely as I did.”  Also from that time in Vienna he reports that the superlative art of Lotte Lehmann “and the three Bruckner masses, made me into that bit of a musician I became.”  The plan was for Naxos also to record the masses with Tintner - but in the event it was never to happen: what a terrible loss it is that we shall never receive the benediction of those performances.

 

There is much in this book that will be rewarding for lovers of Bruckner’s music to read.  Bruckner was very special for Tintner, and contrasted to Mahler “It was important for Georg to perform Mahler because he understood it so well; he could recognise himself […] He preferred what Bruckner gave him, what he called his ‘assurance’, ‘that sort of cosmic feeling that, in spite of every horrible thing, the world can be a good place’, (a sort of non-theistic parallel to Bruno Walter’s famous statement to the effect that Mahler was always searching for God; Bruckner had found God.)  Tintner’s views on versions and editions were firmly allied to the work of Robert Haas, regarding his post-war dismissal as purely political, and Nowak as an unworthy successor.  It was intended that the 8th Symphony be recorded in both the 1887 and Haas editions.  He refused to conduct the 1890 (Nowak) edition, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Haas: he hoped that if he had time he would make an edition of his own.  As it happened he had time for neither the recorded performance nor the edition, but it is indicative of the strange persistence of the ‘Bruckner problem’ that even the most devoted Brucknerians feel there is a need for editions and versions beyond those supplied by the scholarly scores of the International Bruckner Gesellschaft.  The book includes intriguing exchanges between Tintner and Prof. William Carragan about the scores of the 1st and the 8th symphonies.

 

“One of Georg’s burning ambitions was to promote Bruckner wherever he went,” writes Tanya Tintner, and the persistence with which he performed Bruckner and gave lectures on Bruckner is attested by the record of many such events in this book.  He did much work with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and other youth orchestras, many of whose players report life-changing experiences, and Paul Hawkshaw’s lifelong devotion to Bruckner stems in part from his experience of playing the Fifth Symphony under Tintner in 1974.  Some idea of Tintner’s lectures can probably be gained from the enthusiastic and characteristically opinionated insert notes he provided himself (at Tanya’s suggestion) for the Naxos recordings: they constitute clear and often evocative analyses of the works, together with enough biographical information to provide the reader with the context in which the work arose.  But one’s appreciation of those recordings is deepened immensely by becoming acquainted through this book with the circumstances of their production.  Georg was already afflicted by a cancerous growth in his mouth when the project began; it was removed, but by the time of the last recording an aggressive melanoma was diagnosed.   The first recording with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, of the Sixth Symphony, was conducted under strained circumstances and if you sense in that recording a coolness not apparent in the recordings that followed, it doesn’t surprise you to learn that the recording was made during one of the coldest winters ever to afflict Wellington, and that the recording was frequently interrupted when the musicians’ union declared it too cold to continue.  The description of how these recordings came about, and the varying circumstances under which they were made, provides an essential adjunct to the performances themselves, adding a dimension that increases their power and profundity.  And when you add to this the life-history that led up to them, the greatness of this Bruckner conductor that shines through every performance acquires a back-story that helps to account for and magnify its stature.

 

There is much in this book that is not about Bruckner. There are many valuable observations on the art of conducting - and many extraordinary stories of what following that profession can demand. Tintner’s repertoire was extensive, and he conducted a wide range of operas, often in far-out places where interruptions might include an unscripted screaming mezzo in Madame Butterfly, who had just sat on a toad in the dark lavatory back-stage.  The Australian opera tours were in every respect hair-raising, Tintner playing the piano and giving the cues for a hundred or so performances in as many days and in almost as many locations.  Besides Bruckner, Tintner also promoted the compositions of New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn, Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt, Hans Gal.  He gave stunning performances of Beethoven symphonies and Fidelio, Mozart and Schubert (3) – nearly always conducting without a score, even for the full length operas.  His efforts to forge a career in the UK, against odds unfairly stacked against him, were oh so nearly crowned with success when Peter Heyworth wrote a highly laudatory review in The Observer of Tintner’s conducting of The Magic Flute at the Coliseum, March 1970.  But by then it was too late: Tintner, after a depressing two and half years in which ‘nothing moved’, had already signed a contract to return to Australia, to Perth and the ‘semi-professional’ West Australian Opera Company.

 

And there is much in this book that is not about music, or at least not music alone.  There are trenchant observations of and on anti-semitism, on life in New Zealand and Australia from the late 40s to the mid-1980s, on veganism, on friendship, betrayals and mistresses - and on wives and music: “You can’t compare music and wives, he said, but the comparison made itself in the amount of time he allotted to each.”  There were three wives, Tanya being the third, and to say each found the role challenging is understatement.  Whilst Tanya was on the phone to Georg’s third daughter by his second marriage, Georg, faced with his own disintegration and the intolerable prospect of making a nurse of his wife, jumped from the eleventh floor balcony. He died shortly afterwards.  After his death Tanya Tintner spent several years trying to discover who it was she was married to for over 20 years, and what his life had been like before she knew him, conducting over 200 interviews and finally writing this extraordinary memoir.  The book is divided into four chronological sections, with a prologue and an epilogue – but basically it falls into two parts, before and after the author’s marriage to Georg.  ‘Before’ is a well-researched and well-told biography; after the marriage it has the added personal dimension of an emotional rollercoaster.  

 When you turn the last page you cannot think other than that this is a sad story: “What remains is regret and the torment of wasted opportunities.” But as you cast your mind back over what you have read, you can’t help but smile at the absurdities, and then be humbled by the achievements and sheer courage, against all the vexations, of the primary characters of this compelling history.

 

Brucknerians have reason to be grateful to Tanya Buchdahl Tintner not only for her role in facilitating those already legendary Naxos recordings, but also for this well-constructed, very readable book which is a testament to the power of Bruckner’s music, not only in those remarkable performances, but also in the vexed life of one of his greatest interpreters.                                                                                                                          Ken Ward

 

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1Hugo Wolf - Bruckner-Plädoyer  28 Dec. 1884 in Wiener Salonblatt.  “Bruckner?  Bruckner?  Wer ist er?  Wo lebt er?  Was kann er? Solche Fragen kann man in Wien zu hören bekommen”

2Georg Tintner was a composer, but it became increasingly difficult for him, for reasons that are discussed in the book.  What he considered to be his two finest works were the Violin Sonata, and a five-movement work for string quartet and soprano, The Ellipse.  A recording of the Violin Sonata, and some pieces for piano, is available on Naxos, Catalogue No: 8.570258

3Recordings of Tintner conducting Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, Pfitzner, Delius, Sibelius, Lilburn and others are available in the Naxos 13 volume Tintner Edition (available separately).

A review of Frederick E Harris Jnr’s biography of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski - Seeking the Infinite -

can be read HERE .  For full details see www.seekingtheinfinite.com