Podcast 1 -Friendship, Collaboration and Travel A violinist explores the letters of the Schubert Club Music Museum St Paul Minnesota

Posted on October 27th, 2022 by

Podcast Friendship, Collaboration and Travel

A violinist explores the letters of the Schubert Club Music Museum

St Paul Minnesota

Peter Sheppard Skærved



Sir Edward Elgar, Bt,by Sir William Rothenstein


‘           ‘Now I know that I am not the only one to feel my music’

That was the young voice of the great composer Ernest Bloch. For me, as a musician, it’s a record of a moment I understand, perhaps a moment we all long for, when we realise that we are not alone in the world, that our attempt to communicate, in our wa       y, has been understood. And perhaps even more than that, it records a moment of generosity, from one artist at the end of their career to another, at the start of theirs. For me, as a violinist, as an artist, it brings a tear of gratitude and memory to my eye, remembering similar moments in my creative life, and the struggles which preceded them.

The Schubert Club Museum is housed in the historic Landmark Centre in the centre of St Paul Minnesota. It is a small museum, and perfectly formed, bringing together a globally significant collection of keyboard instruments, a renowned concert series which attracts the great living performers, and an extraordinary collection of letters, to and from musicians.

This is the first of a series of Podcasts where I am going to introduce some of these extraordinary letters, and talk a little about how and why they interest, and move me. When I first sat with the collection, and started to read, there was a shock of recognition, as a musician. The voices that spring from these pages talk of things I, we recognise. Whatever the posthumous fame of these great artists, here they write wrote about the challenges that they face, the value of their friends, lovers, and colleagues (fellow-travellers). The tenor of the letters ranges from the practicalities of their lives, on the road – facing the pressures of performing – of collaboration, through to their inspirations, which so often they find in their colleagues. These elements are things that we all face, travelling musicians or not. I find that their voices reach out from the page and offer me inspiration and solace. And alongside all of this there’s the overriding joy, that we have the music, a lasting testament, that, if you like, it’s all worth it!

So let me introduce some of these voices – beginning of course with a charming miniature from a great composer at the end of his creative life.

[Play: Richard Strauss – Daphne]

The Bavarian composer Richard Strauss is associated, quite rightly, with intensely dramatic orchestral and operatic works. His outrageously ambitious music tilted at heaven, and projected his own ‘hero’s life’ into the world of myth, literature, and nature. He succeeded against all the odds in summoning up musical counterpoints to Cervantes (Don Quixote), Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra), Byron (Don Juan), and even the Alps which are rise over his home (Ein Alpensinfonie).

But Strauss was a musician amongst other musicians, who valued and appreciated the work of his colleagues. In the summer of 1941, he wrote a letter from his home at the foot of the mountains, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He had built the house thirty-three years earlier, as a summer retreat, and it became the family home.

Strauss had just heard that the French flute player, Philippe Gaubert, had died. Gaubert was a composer himself and a ‘composer’s flautist’ (he had played the premiere of Maurice Ravel’s ‘Introduction and Allegro’. Strauss notes.

‘[ …]my profound sorrow at the untimely passing of my beloved, dear friend Gaubert, the great artist and excellent conductor, t; please extend my warm and deep sympathy to the widow of the deceased and to my friend [Rouche] at this irreparable loss for the Opera and the French art.’[i]

Strauss had little in common with Gaubert as a composer, but this simplest of personal notes shows his sadness that a great musician, fifteen years younger than he, was gone – a touching bouquet.

The music you just heard was written four years later, for his Grandson, Christian. He was studying the violin, and his grandfather wanted to give him something to play, a charming musical birthday card. So, he arranged a melody from his 1937 opera ‘Daphne’. I suspect that the reason that the melody was in his mind, was that the opera’s dedicatee, and conductor of the first performance, Karl Böhm, had just completed its first recording in Vienna.

Christian’s piece ‘Daphne Etude’ is an ‘almost nothing’ a ‘petit-rien’, the complete opposite of his Grandfather’s monster orchestral works. It never leaves G major, and ends with a simple challenge for the boy, a long held, diminuendo on the open G string. But it is beautiful and I love to play it.

Christian Strauss was Jewish – grandmother, Paula Neumann, was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she died. He became a celebrated doctor, the former head of gynaecology and obstetrics at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen hospital. He lived in his Grandfather’s house, where our letter and this piece were written, until he died, just two years ago.

[Elgar Sospiri – extract]

One composer who loved Strauss’ Alpine home was the British composer Edward Elgar. He and his wife visited Garmisch four times for holidays in the 1890s, enraptured by the folk culture and the catholic churches.

Even at the end of his life, Elgar could be star-struck as two letters here show – written to the AC Shaw, a soldier, diplomat, writer, and archaeologist (and possibly spy) stationed at Plymouth, where he worked on high-speed boats.

‘It was a very great pleasure to have you here, nearly a month ago, & to know that you were a listener to my music: I have read about you with something akin to awe & never had the smallest hope of seeing you here.  I am only writing to say what satisfaction if gives me to know that the second symphony has a friend in you.’

His correspondent was as much of a celebrity as he was. ‘A C Shaw’ was the name which T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was known. He had visited Elgar at his Worcester house ‘Marl Bank’ (see the headed paper), not far from the cathedral. And it was clear that they had discussed Elgar’s great 1911 Second Symphony. This had a revival of interest a few years earlier, resulting from the composer’s recording for HMV which was made in 1928. Elgar was delighted to find that Lawrence loved the piece.

Two months later Lawrence wrote back, from his Dorset Cottage, ‘Clouds Hill’:

‘… we have just been playing your 2nd Symphony. Three of us, a sailor, a Tank Corps soldier, and myself. So, there are all three of the Services present: and we agreed that you must be written to and told (if you are well enough to be bothered) that this Symphony gets further under our skins than anything else in the record library at Clouds Hill. We have the Violin Concerto, too; so that says quite a lot. Generally, we play the Symphony last of all, towards the middle of the night, because nothing comes off very well after it. One seems to stop there.’

Lawrence pointed out, that his home was rather less palatial than Elgar’s Worcester villa:

‘You would laugh at my cottage, which has one room upstairs (gramophone and records) and one room downstairs (books): but there is also a bath, and we sleep anywhere we feel inclined. So, it suits me. A one-man house, I think.’

But then he got to the point his letter: After the death of his wife, [name] in 1920, Elgar effectively stopped composing. However, in the last year of his life, he was working on a third symphony, an idea encouraged by his friend, George Bernard Shaw. Clearly, he had talked with Lawrence about this project. Lawrence continued his letter.

There is a selfish side to our concern: we want your Symphony III: if it is wiser and wider and deeper than II we shall very sadly dethrone our present friend, and play it last of the evening. Until it comes, we shall always stand in doubt if the best has really yet happened.

On the 28th of December 1933, Elgar replied. The letter, as you see, is not in his handwriting. By now his health had deteriorated, and he was in care – he dictated the letter. On the stationary ‘Marl Bank’ has been crossed out, and replaced with ‘Nursing Home’. Clearly, he was eager to leave, and the idea of Lawrence’s home had heightened his wanderlust, even if he was unsure of the amenities.

‘Your description of Clouds Hill makes me long to share your cottage even though you appear to sleep outside.’

By this stage, he had completed about 130 pages of the projected symphony. He wrote:

I am glad to hear that the 2nd symphony wears so well with you and your friends, but mark you, the 3rd, if ever I am well enough to finish it will make it look small.  (perhaps so, and perhaps not).

It was clear, that the new work, if and when it was finished, would, in his mind, dwarf the hour-long number two. It was not to be: in February 1934 he died in the Worcester Nursing home. One year later, Lawrence, was killed riding his Brough Superior motorbike, after he swerved trying to avoid two boys on bicycles. He was just 46 years old.

For Englishmen like me, Elgar and Lawrence were in the air from childhood. They represented ideals of artistry, of adventure, and scholarship, and their music and histories were constantly around us. But they also represented something that was lost, as the British Empire, which they had come to signify in all its evil and good, had slipped from the maps in the schoolrooms.

My parents, Susan, and Tony, live in a little cottage in the forest which reaches into East London, from Epping to Leytonstone. If you walk out of their front door, into the oak and beech woods, walking towards Chingford, where Henry VIII had a hunting lodge, you come to a rampart in the forest which looks over London, Pole Hill. This was a piece of land which Lawrence owned. He built a holiday hut there, and a swimming pool. When he died, it was left to the people of London, and became part of the public ‘Epping Forest’. There’s a plaque there, commemorating his gift. I sometimes walk there from my parent’s house, and sit and imagine him listening to his 78s of Elgar’s music, most likely reading and smoking.

Perhaps the most important thing for a musician of any age, is encouragement. Art is a lonely pursuit, and innovation particularly so. So, we all need to know that we are not alone, that the path that we have chosen is not a futile one. A treasure in the Schubert Club is a letter from the young Swiss composer Ernest Bloch. It documents an evening that he spent with his former violin-teacher, the greatest of all Belgian violinist-composers. Eugene Ysaÿe.  He had studied with him in 1897.

Ysaÿe was the most natural of violinists, and a brilliant composer. However, he always suffered terribly with performance nerves. Once, after performing Elgar’s violin concerto, soon after its 1910 premiere by Fritz Kreisler, he spotted the young fellow-violinist Carl Flesch, and whispered to him:

“Oh, if only I had the tranquillity of your bow arm!”

A letter in the collection here documents the struggles that drove eventually would stop Ysaÿe performing in the late 1920s, exacerbated by his diabetes. It was written from ?ód?, in January 1925, to his American second wife, Jeannette Dincin, who was 44 years younger than he.

‘Yesterday evening here was not good. […] I played badly, without creating, as if indifferent, with mediocre physical-technical means, and a capricious and unstable bow – having one- and one-half days of rest, I hope to find myself back to normal tomorrow in Cracow.’[ii]

Unlike his former teacher, Ernest Bloch chose to make the leap from being a violinist/composer to applying himself to that full time. The letter notes how long the decision took him, he had been ‘vacillating for five years. It’s one of the most exciting documents to have in one’s hand, for, as the young composer recounts the evening that he spends with his one-time teacher, excitement spills over, and his pen races ahead, so there a =reprogressively less words per page, and at one point he forgets to complete the sentence on the page he has just turned.

After Ysaÿe had ‘made himself comfortable and lit his pipe’ Bloch showed him scores, including his ‘Israel Symphony’. Here are his words:

‘Ysaÿe, moved, looked at me with wonder and said: “Ah! But I never would have expected this! This is beautiful, grand, forceful, [and] it has an immense power.” […] He pressed my hand, and all the signs of admiration he gave me compensated me largely for all the troubles and irritations suffered in silence!

Finally, after the last movement, Ysaÿe thanked me warmly, […] “this is a beautiful work of an artist and a poet! You are establishing yourself with it. If you are now writing so well, what will it be in 10 years!”’

Bloch was overwhelmed. His handwriting gets larger and larger, almost spooling off the page.

‘Now I know that I am not the only one to feel my music since Ysaÿe has positively vibrated with it! He does not talk to me about craft, of technique, which he finds “perfect,” but of the “poetry,” of the “colour,” of the “warmth,” of all the joys, pains, hopes, passion that I put into my work. And he was emotionally moved by them! /    I have fulfilled my purpose! I have said what I wanted to say, there is the essence, there is the compensation for my Labor!’

This wonderful letter documents a moment of supreme generosity – of a passing of the flame. The teacher, Ysaÿe, assured his timorous, exhausted, worried pupil, that the new path he had taken was the right one.

‘Music,’ he told him, ‘is inside you!’

And this letter, like the music of these extraordinary artists, can do that for us, give us the strength to carry on, to have faith in our endeavours. Bloch finishes:

‘Now to work! And if my life does not have human luck, it will have something purer, more exalted: Art.’

Friendship, Collaboration and Travel A violinist explores the letters of the Schubert Club Music Museum St Paul Minnesota

Peter Sheppard Skærved – Presenter/violin

Engineer – Maxmillian Carlson

Written by Peter Sheppard Skærved

Supported by: Research England / Knowledge Exchange Royal Academy of Music London With thanks to The Schubert Club St Paul Minnesota Barry Kempton, Artistic & Executive Director Kate Cooper, Director of Education & Museum