Into the Jungle of Germany
Eddie and Sabine’s own concert was given not in Berlin but in the exquisite palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam. They spent the spring afternoon like many lovers wandering in the sun through the monumental park laid out by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The ensemble is an unsurpassed marriage of landscape and architecture created by this cultured, rather private figure of the Enlightenment.
Hitler idolized Frederick and even hung a portrait of the benevolent monarch above his desk. Characteristic of the man, Frederick is now buried beside his hounds in the gardens just outside the palace in a simple grave plot without decoration. Admirers place potatoes rather than flowers upon it to indicate his lack of pretension.
The architecturally modest yet sumptuously decorated palace interior delighted them especially the Rococo Music Room where they (and formerly J.S. Bach) performed.
Eddie felt a singular sympathy with Frederick the Great†. The king had been treated cruelly by his father, the obsessively militaristic Frederick William I. His son wanted to study music and learn to play the transverse flute. Dr Charles Burney, the urbane yet critical English music historian, had a high opinion of his playing when he heard him in Berlin in 1772. He wrote ‘his embouchure was clear and even, his finger brilliant, and his taste pure and simple’. The paternal accusations directed at Frederick of betraying ‘effeminate, dissolute and unmasculine preoccupations’ had a painfully familiar ring for Eddie. Of course his father did not beat him in public with a cane or force him to watch the beheading by sword of his best friend as did Frederick’s psychotic militarist father Frederick William.
† Frederick II (1712–86) or Frederick the Great was King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786. Apart from military victories he was a great patron of the Arts and the Enlightenment in Prussia.
This recital was also Eddie’s first encounter with the harpsichord, albeit a heavily constructed modern Pleyel instrument with numerous pedals. He fell in love with it. In this concert with Sabine he performed a Bach Sonata for violin and harpsichord as well as various sonatas for flute and harpsichord by Frederick the Great himself and his teacher Joachim Quantz. Performing in this enchanting fairytale palace with its intimations of eighteenth century high European civilisation was an intensely romantic moment for both Sabine and Eddie.
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They visited the C. Bechstein showroom Haus am Zoo in a fashionable part of Berlin. The 1930s were a particularly bad time for C. Bechstein sales. Many potential buyers disappeared in the ruthless expulsion and murder of wealthy Jewish citizens by the Nazis. Having a Bechstein pianoforte in the home of any educated Jewish bourgeois was a sign of both affluence and taste. With such low production figures the company were anxious to sell Eddie an instrument and made him most welcome.
The director, Edwin Bechstein, had died in Berchtesgaden in September 1934.
On the occasion of Eddie’s visit in the spring of 1935 his widow Helene Bechstein was by chance visiting the showroom and heard him trying out various instruments. She was particularly impressed with his performance of Bach and Beethoven. She learnt with enthusiasm of their forthcoming concert tour through Southern Germany with his partner, the beautiful blonde Austrian violinist who happened to be standing nearby. She persuaded them to give an extra recital at the Villa Bechstein in Obersalzberg, a mountain resort just above the farming town of Berchtesgaden. This concert would follow their performance in Munich. Eddie accepted with some reluctance but he was curious to see Hitler’s secondary residence and the Nazi ruling echelon at close quarters. Sabine thought the idea quite brilliant and seemed flushed with excitement at the possibility of performing before ‘those splendid young Nazi officers’.
The repertoire for their German tour included Beethoven’s Kreutzer and Spring Sonatas. The concerts in Nuremberg and Weimar had been a great success. At the spa of Baden-Baden they performed in a private villa once owned by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev.
In 1865 Dostoevsky, an inveterate punter, dictated the amusing yet tragic story The Gambler here to his 19-year-old amanuensis Anna Grigoryevna whom he eventually married.
With what avidity do I look at the gaming table on which are scattered louis d’or, friedrichs d’or and thalers, at the little piles of gold as they fall from the croupier’s shovel in heaps of burning fire …*
Eddie and Sabine risked a little at the tables one evening, more for romantic excitement than in the hope of winning riches. They strolled in a lovers’ reverie along the picturesque Lichtentaler Allee beside the diminutive River Oos, admiring the thousands of glorious tulips and flowering magnolias. On a longer excursion to the resort of Lichtental, they passed the Brahms house where the composer had rented rooms to be close to his unrequited love, Clara Schumann. He had spent summers here from 1865 to 1874 where he completed large parts of the Deutsches Requiem and the First Symphony, the draft of the Second Symphony as well as many chamber works.
When they tired of walking, the lovers bathed naked (separately due to Nazi prudishness) in the many pools of the grandiose Renaissance style thermal baths known as Friedrichsbad. In his journal Eddie wrote that bathing naked in such opulent surroundings was one the most sensual experiences he had ever had, ‘an unaccustomed feeling of being one of Nature’s children.’
In Munich they gave a recital in the Schönheitengalerie (Gallery of Beauties)† situated then in the Festsaalbau der Münchner Residenz, the monumental seat of the Wittelsbachs.‡
They played surrounded by the unique collection of paintings of the most beautiful women of the epoch assembled by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Eddie was particularly attracted by the portrait of Maria Dolores Elisa Gilbert, ‘the most scandalous woman in the world’, better known as Lola Montez. ‘A feverish illness of the senses would take possession of some men at the very sight of her.’
(Henry Channon, The Ludwigs of Bavaria (London 1952), p. 46. This delightful book is almost unknown, eclipsed by the great Diaries. In 1955 the film director of genius Max Ophüls made one of the masterpieces of the cinema based on the life of Lola Montez simply entitled Lola Montez.)
She had been Liszt’s lover and they lived together in Dresden during a short and violent affair. She ended up impoverished, tragically acting out the story of her own life in a circus.
* Dostoevsky, The Gambler, Chapter 17, trans. Ronald Meyer (London 2010). There is a large bronze statue of Dostoevsky in one of the Baden-Baden parks commemorating his stay and the story.
† This extraordinary collection of portraits of outstandingly beautiful women of the day was assembled by Ludwig I without consideration of birth or background. Portraits of Archduchesses, Alexandra the King’s daughter, Lady Spencer and Lady Jane Ellenborough (better known as the notorious Jane Digby) were hung beside those of a beautiful butcher’s or cobbler’s daughter.
‡ The powerful Wittelsbach family was the ruling dynasty of Bavaria from 1180 to 1918 and of the Electorate of the Palatinate from 1214 until 1805 providing many German Kings and Holy Roman Emperors.
* * *
Unknown to Eddie but perhaps not to Sabine, Helene Bechstein had been an admirer and patron of Adolf Hitler from as early as 1921. She is quoted as saying ‘I wish he were my son’ and had found his youthful shyness and naïveté rather affecting. Through her infatuation, Hitler gained access to the highest society of wealthy German industrialists. She may even have bought him a luxury red Mercedes-Benz motor car. Helene also gave him a dinner suit and patent leather shoes so he might appear well in society.
Eddie was intrigued to learn from Helene that Hitler had a favourite pianist. As she described him, he was clearly not an artist of the calibre of the immortals, but had studied with Bernhard Stavenhagen, Liszt’s last pupil. He was the eccentric and visually arresting Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, who was a member of a family of upper-class Bavarians who were fine art publishers. His mother had American roots, his wife was American and he himself was a graduate of Harvard.
Hanfstaengl’s first impression of Hitler was not overwhelming. He later wrote: ‘Hitler looked like a suburban hairdresser on his day off’.† The young Adolf Hitler was a frequent visitor to the family home and it was through the Hanfstaengls that Hitler had first met Helene Bechstein. ‘Putzi’ helped him escape in his car after the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and later the family supported him through the difficult Weimar years.
† Ernst Hanfstaengl, Unheard Witness (Philadelphia 1957), p. 22.
At the piano ‘Putzi’ was mainly admired for his loudness and stamina, useful attributes when performing endless accounts of Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. Hitler was put into a state of high excitement by Putzi’s first performance of the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. ‘“You must play for me often,” he said. “There is nothing like that to get me into tune before I have to face the public.” […] Hitler would literally yell with delight as Putzi played “with Lisztian fioritura and fine romantic verve.”‘*
He also adored the Overture and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, demanding it be played hundreds of times. However Putzi’s playing did not impress the feisty Martha Dodd, daughter of the straight-laced and frugal American ambassador of the day, William E. Dodd. ‘He always left the piano crumpled and exhausted, not to mention himself and his listeners. The rooms of the embassy reverberated with sound for days afterward.’†
Putzi became Hitler’s foreign press secretary, but finally became disenchanted with a regime ‘run by that Gangster clique’ and fled to the United States to escape ‘the last mad throw of the political desperado’.‡ He described his own life as a ‘melancholic revue’ and summed up his career later: ‘It is a terrible thing when you think you got on a bandwagon and it turns out to be a dustcart’.§
* Quoted in Peter Conradi, Hitler’s Piano Player: The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidant of Hitler, Ally of FDR (London 2005), p. 50. A fascinating and highly entertaining biography of a largely forgotten figure of the Third Reich, packed with striking and diverting Hitlerian anecdotes of the bizarre psychological variety.
† Quoted in ibid., p. 131.
‡ Quoted in ibid., p. 276.
§ Quoted in ibid., p. 325.
A degree of elation had taken possession of Eddie and Sabine as the train pulled into the small station at Berchtesgaden in late May 1935. They almost felt a sense of privilege. The town was flooded with Nazi soldiers and officers as they booked into the Berchtesgadener Hof. Later that afternoon they were driven in a huge black Mercedes between fields dotted with spring flowers up to the mountain retreat of Obersalzberg and the Villa Bechstein. Eddie thought the snow-capped Untersberg massif of the Berchtesgaden Alps thrust in spectacularly Wagnerian fashion into the sky, a vista wrought by Nature to stimulate Hitler’s grandiose imaginings.
Helene and her husband had completed the villa in 1927. In the early thirties it was used as a guesthouse by high-ranking Nazi officials such as Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels until acquired from the Bechsteins by the Party. The nearby Haus Wachenfeld was a picturesque and quiet Bavarian guest house in which Hitler used to rent rooms. He eventually purchased it outright from the enormous royalties earned from Mein Kampf. Gazing admirers of all ages passed by on tours. At the time of Eddie’s visit the area was still an idyllic rural retreat for successful Bavarian families. These local families were to be summarily ejected, some murdered, farms hundreds of years old forcibly purchased. The superb landscape was finally commandeered by Reichsleiter Martin Bormann for the establishment of Hitler’s headquarters known as the Berghof.
Hitler and the highest-ranking Nazis were absent from the resort at the time of the concert but a few members of the German aristocracy were holidaying in the region and had been invited to the evening by Helene. The elegant social life of the élites and nobility had been hardly affected by Nazism. ‘Essentially the old aristocracy felt at ease under a regime that respected it, preserved its dignity, and drew it into an ideological adventure whose bases it shared.’* Many German aristocrats loathed the ‘lack of breeding’ of the new government though they wisely kept this opinion to themselves.
* Fabrice d’Almeida, High Society in the Third Reich (Cambridge 2008) p. 235.
The audience in the villa’s music room were a potpourri of glamorous women in evening gowns leaning on the arms of men afflicted with ram-rod posture and attired in Der klassische Smoking. They were clearly some variety of ‘the aristocratic class’. They sat together with a scattering of young Nazi officers in black SS Mess Dress jackets with the Totenkopf (Death’s head) pin, black bow tie and red Swastika armband. Eddie reflected later that he felt ‘most uncomfortable and foreign among these horrifyingly handsome uniformed types’. Helene Bechstein played the perfect hostess organizing the serving of the champagne, large diamonds glittering on her fingers. Concerts of classical music were always considered special occasions for ‘the more cultured Nazis’, almost mystical events.
Eddie noticed a curious light shining in Sabine’s eyes as he sat at the mahogany C. Bechstein grand, something he recalled never having seen before. She turned to the predominantly military audience, lifted her violin and bow, glanced towards Eddie and the gloriously lyrical opening theme of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata emerged like a flower. This performance was a great success and the listeners were particularly appreciative. There followed a break with further drinks and surprisingly civilized conversation. Eddie was restricted to English with a smattering of German, while Sabine carried on animated and surprisingly flirtatious conversations with various unattached Nazi officers.
She was clearly flushed and elated when they resumed the concert and confidently launched into the highly virtuosic and powerfully sensual violin opening of the first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata. This piece had always been a source of the deepest erotic emotions between them, a merging of like musical minds that had by now developed into a passionate personal relationship. However on this particular night Eddie felt an invisible barrier had been erected between them like a pane of frosted glass. His heart filled with premonitions and anxiety. ‘There seemed to be an emotional disconnect between us during this Kreutzer,’ he reflected later.
Encores were enthusiastically demanded and Eddie played as a solo the Alfred Grünfeld arrangement of the Johann Strauss Soirée de Vienne based on a waltz from Der Fledermaus and in addition his arrangement of the ultra charmant and fashionable Diner-Waltz from his operetta Der Lebermann (The Man About Town).
These were hugely popular and Sabine joined him in their final flourish of encores: a Sarasate arrangement for violin and piano of a Chopin waltz followed by the splendidly virtuosic Henryk Wieniawski Scherzo-tarantelle. They concluded with the Caprice viennois by the great Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler which almost reduced the Nazis to tears. The Austrian encores gave both the audience and Sabine enormous pleasure. Eddie reflected later there was clearly no recognition of Kreisler having had a Jewish father.
The successful concert concluded with a light supper. Natürlich, blonde blue-eyed Sabine shone before the officers. Her youthful elegant figure sheathed in her favourite close-fitting black chiffon gown enhanced by a single jewel was particularly appreciated. Eddie wrote how self-conscious he felt of his small stature in this company. Sabine was elated to be in the mountains. ‘I so love the wild mountains! Eddie, you love silent films. Have you ever seen Der heilige Berg, The Holy Mountain, starring Leni Riefenstahl?’ Eddie had to confess he knew nothing of it. ‘Oh! She plays the dancer Diotima who falls in love. Her lover is a tough mountain climber played by Luis Trenker, the handsome German actor. Face like a sculpture and so athletic!’* As an Austrian she felt that mountain climbing expressed everything that was heroic, mystical and an expression of physical superiority.
Back at the hotel Sabine appeared rather detached as they emerged from the big black Mercedes. She seemed curiously uninvolved in their lovemaking that night under a cheap reproduction of the Führer draped in swastikas that had been nailed above the bed head. For the first time he detected something decadent about Sabine, a curious feeling of appropriateness when he envisioned her as the mistress of a Nazi officer. ‘Is anything wrong?’ Eddie asked but received no answer apart from a tossed off remark: ‘I am so pleased you are at least half German, Eddie!’
Years before, Nellie Melba had sung for Leo Tolstoy and had recommended that Eddie read the novella The Kreutzer Sonata before studying the Beethoven work. In this story Tolstoy had observed: ‘Under the influence of music, it seems that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I do what I cannot do.’ Unpleasant thoughts and apprehensions coursed through Eddie’s mind and kept him awake much of that night. He had begun to feel his age and her comparative youth.
*Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) was a German film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress and dancer widely known for directing Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film.
Der heilige Berg: Ein Heldenlied aus ragender Höhenwelt (The Holy Mountain. An Heroic Song from a Towering World of Heights) was directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (1889–1974).This silent film with orchestral accompaniment was released in December 1926. Now overlooked, it belongs to the German Expressionist genre of the Bergfilme (mountain films). The visual power and atmosphere of the film is striking. The indestructible Riefenstahl was still scuba-diving at the age of ninety.
They travelled back to Vienna and for a period in June continued to perform together. Eddie resumed his studies with Frau Gombrich. These lessons were more intense than the first series. In helping Eddie to discover and explore his own individuality as a pianist, she introduced him to an illuminating poem written by Theodor Leschetizky that enshrined his principles (referring to him as ‘Lesche’) *
No life without art No art without life
One does not win people’s hearts Only with runs of scales and thirds But rather with a noble singing style Clear and powerful, gentle and soft
According to Paderewski, Leschetizky’s pupils ‘all had a singing tone. That was very, very important’. Hans von Bülow pedantically stated: ‘Anyone who cannot sing – with a lovely or unlovely voice – should not play the piano.’ †
This obsession with the production of a beautiful tone, a ‘noble, singing melody’, preoccupied Eddie as a direct result of the lessons with Leonie Gombrich. She was a refugee, an exceptional pianist before injury intervened, an even more remarkable teacher and formerly assistant to the great Viennese teacher Leschetitsky. She lived in Oxford.
As well as an incomparable technical and interpretative endowment, Professor Gombrich brought with her the aura of Vienna in the first decades of the twentieth century, at the pinnacle of European culture. She had studied with Bruckner as well as Leschetitsky (student of Beethoven’s student Czerny, teacher of Schnabel, Paderewski and their like), played with Schoenberg, heard Johann Strauss and turned pages for Brahms! Frequent visitors to the Gombrich home in Vienna included Mahler, Webern, Berg, Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. She was a born teacher, following Leschetitsky’s principle of framing the individuality of each student within full understanding of the work, absolute soundness of technique and, above all, beauty of tone.
His exquisite tone was often commented upon, combined with his fine cantabile, a true Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of velvet fullness, whilst retaining delicacy, velocity and evenness of touch. She compelled Eddie to project the meaning of music through poetry and sensibility. She trained him in the subtle use of the displacement of rhythm, arpeggiation and achronicity.
The base tone and the melody note need not always be taken together with rhythmic precision. […] the melody rings out more clearly and sounds softer. ‡
This affecting manner of playing was common in a subtle form among the greatest pianists before the Second World War such as Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, Moritz Rosenthal, Vladimir de Pachmann and occasionally by Eddie himself. It has now been completely abandoned. The effect Eddie created was as if ‘the audience did not know what was happening, but they knew they felt something, and were experiencing something great and profound.’ (Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music at the British Library, on great pianists of the past).
*Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915).
† Quoted in Kenneth Hamilton, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford 2008), pp. 139–40.
‡ Malwine Brée, The Leschetizky Method: A Guide to Fine and Correct Piano Playing (Original, Mainz 1902; this edition New York 1997), pp. 55–6.
* * *
Something sacred seemed to have broken between the lovers at Obersaltzberg. Did Sabine love him in the way he loved her? It seems unlikely. Eddie’s innocent and exclusive first love rather late in life appears to have shattered beneath Hitler’s huge portrait that hung on the wall of the Bechstein villa. After returning briefly to Berlin for a concert, Sabine became increasingly involved with the Nazis, their ‘handsome masculinity’, the rising might and self- confidence of Germany. Eddie was not in the slightest sympathetic to their regime after having witnessed at first hand their brutality and militarism in Nuremberg. His fear of a future war was confirmed even more strongly when on Sabine’s recommendation he went to see Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. He liked the intimate scenes of medieval Nuremberg at dawn, the half-timbered houses, brooding castle, canals and wood fires. The rest he found ‘indigestible propaganda that frightens me.’
The generally positive attitude of the Austrian population to the rise of the Nazis and a possible future Anschluss with Germany worried him. Eddie had never considered Sabine as anything other than Austrian and so quite different to the Germans.
His Germanness [of Austrians], loyal and faithful as he feels to- wards it, has, through the mixture of many bloods in his veins and though historical experiences, become less single-minded, less harsh, more conciliatory, more cosmopolitan, more European.†
He warned Sabine that her distant Semitic background would eventually be revealed ‘such is the thoroughness of the Teutonic mind’. She laughed gaily and told him not to be ‘such a fearful old woman’.
† Anton Wildgans quoted in George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna: The Destruction of a Family 1842–1942 (London 1981), p. 134.
Throughout this German concert tour Eddie had remained in contact with his English patrons. Mrs Denny had written to him of the possibility of arranging more concerts in London and was impatient for his return from ‘the heart of the enemy’. She favoured the idea of him giving a ‘Jubilee Concert’*. At all events he had reached the end of his tether with the hyperactive military enthusiasm lying like an ominous cloud over German society. Towards the end of June Sabine decided to stay in Berlin, which only served to confirm his suspicions and deepen the corrosive jealousy that had been aroused in Obersaltzberg. There were tears at the station, promised letters and telephone calls, but both recognised subconsciously that the bloom of their love, if that is what it was, had been somehow blighted, perhaps forever.