The return of Kurt Oppens
August 6, 2009
Kurt Oppens, principal program annotator for the Aspen Music Festival from 1957 to 1995, introduced physical clutter into the homes of concertgoers even as he electrified their minds. His notes on the music are full of aphorisms like “Identity through change is the essence of music,” and “While Beethoven sculpts time, Schubert paints it.” There are such observations of paradox as “In the dialectics of freedom, ‘being free’ can easily turn into dominion, and Beethoven is totalitarian in the interest of all that is ideally good. Beethoven’s organizational procedures can be compared to military planning.” He was capable of ending a note with a sentence like this on Debussy’s La Mer: “And as with all great art, the tangible meanings stretch and extend; the setting sun in his tone poem prefigures what will happen 20 years later, when the lights went out all over Europe.”
The problem was that concertgoers realized that these were not just program notes; they were literature on the highest level, and people tore them out of the programs and took them home. Then, what to do with them? Until the final years, Oppens’ career coincided with the vinyl LP rather than the CD, and when I had the record, I Scotch-taped the note to the sleeve. When I didn’t have a recording, I filed the note into a collection of Oppens’ writings published by Festival violist Art Lewis in 1975, a selection that preceded most of Oppens’ best work and which Oppens himself found increasingly unrepresentative.
When I gave away my vinyl in a switch to CDs, I inadvertently lost treasured notes and was left with an unwieldy paperback of loose papers, a dilemma typical of Oppens’ admirers. The Festival continued to run Oppens’ notes for a number of years after his death in 1998, then two years ago they were dropped. Great writing composed for Aspen’s own music became unavailable to the public, and many feared that a singular accomplishment would be lost. It is therefore a thrill to announce that 500 pages of Oppens’ notes and essays – with photographs by Robert Chamberlain, Charles Abbott and Ferenc Berko, and illustrations by Roger Davis – will be released on Aug. 13, returning a unique voice to musical culture.
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To understand the significance of his achievement, it is worthwhile to know something of Kurt Oppens the man. Born in Hamburg in 1910, Oppens first studied law, intending to become a judge like his father, then followed an inner impulse to move to Vienna and study music. It was there that he met his Transylvanian wife, Edith, who was also pursuing a degree in music en route to becoming an acclaimed piano teacher. They moved to Prague, earned doctorates in musicology and married – but they could see history bearing down on them. Oppens’ father had turned Christian and there was no mention of his being Jewish on his papers, but that didn’t prevent him and various family members from being deported to Auschwitz and terminated.
The Oppenses took refuge for a time with Edith’s family in Romania, where Kurt learned the trade of piano tuning, and in 1938 they fled to New York. Kurt tuned pianos in venues like the New York City Ballet, Edith taught piano at the Mannes School of Music, and in 1951 at Sarah Lawrence College Kurt saw a brochure for the Aspen Music Festival. Anxious to escape the city with their daughter Ursula – now a renowned pianist – Kurt offered his tuning services and was hired, Edith joined the faculty as piano teacher the following year, and they bought a Victorian across from the Tent and spent 40 summers in Aspen.
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Kurt had begun to write about music for German publications when he was in Prague, continued to do so in New York, and in 1957 he was invited to write notes for the Aspen Festival. Thus was born a writing career in another language, and it is curious to observe how German word order gradually disappeared as his English became more idiomatic. A copious reader in German, English and French, Oppens was able to bring a vast knowledge of history, literature and the unfolding of culture to bear on a genre that usually stuck to musical basics.
The subjects of Oppens’ notes reflect Festival programming and are therefore heavy on Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Brahms, what might be called the core repertoire. He probes these pieces with insight and originality – but is sometimes at his most colorful when he delves into such obscure musical corners as Asie, from Ravel’s song cycle Sheherazade. All notes must cover such basics as when a piece was written, for whom and in what circumstances, and Oppens works them professionally into the text. The actual Sheherazade note, however, is a meditation on Decadence, that fin-de-siecle phenomenon that wallowed in sensuality and the exoticism that Western culture projected on the East. A few quotes, extracted from different paragraphs, will suggest the tone. “Concerning decadence: all such once-fashionable catch-names and slogans isolate one single element that, in truth, is common to all art. Every new style is ‘decadent’ in the sense that it pays the price of progress by a falling-off from a previous achievement. Ravel’s Sheherezade, however, is decadence with a capital D, a prototypical example of what Decadence as a movement was about. Asie leads out of the boundaries of the self into a world of archetypal images, a world of subconscious dreams, of eroticism and murder, a mixture that in its concrete political embodiments, led to the unspeakable tragedies of our century … The element of control is, of course, nondecadent; decadent art is in itself a contradictory or dialectical proposition … the treatment of the orchestra is typical Ravel: he breaks his “glass” (his essential substance) into shimmering splinters and displays a kaleidoscope of intoxicating colors; through this molecular iridescence we hear the long, drawn-out siren calls of the winds … he is looking at death and responding to it as if it were a stimulant, an aphrodisiac.” These quotes are out of sequence and omit additional reference to the song’s text, the role of travel that led to our tourism, and the state of the orchestra in 1900. His ability to pack all of this into two pages leaves one in awe.
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I got to know Kurt Oppens when I needed my piano tuned in the early ’70s, and spent time with him from then until his disappearance from Aspen in the mid-’90s, occasions when I would probe further what he meant by certain remarks in the notes. He explained to me the long tradition by which Jewish intellectuals learned a mechanical trade to keep food on the table, a phenomenon I have seen frequent reference to since – three centuries earlier, Spinoza had ground lenses to support the philosophy we remember him for – but the notion was new to me at the time. Once Kurt backed his car into my ditch on the way to lunch and we had to call for unexpected take-out on the part of a tow truck before we could proceed to Reuben sandwiches at Shlomo’s. I wound up studying piano for two summers with Edith, and one year Kurt stayed after the Festival and took me through a recording of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger an act a day, after which I flew to New York to attend a performance of the opera with him at the Met. By then Kurt had become a kind of mentor as well as friend, even as this man who had been Bartok’s tuner of choice, and may have been the last person to see Bartok alive, continued to keep my own instrument up to pitch.
It was, therefore, painful to see Oppens’ work disappear from its only venue – and now a cause for celebration that “Kurt Oppens on Music: An Aspen Legacy” will lavish his gift on the public in formerly unsuspected plenitude. For five years Nancy Thomas, former violist with the Festival, ex-editor of the program and full-time Aspenite, has collaborated with musicologist Jane Jaffe, Kurt’s successor as annotator, in selecting, editing and assembling the work. The job was not easy, for Oppens felt compelled to listen fresh every year to each piece he annotated and constantly revised his notes, leaving thorny questions about which version to choose and whether to mix and combine. Both editors are scrupulous to the point of obsession, leaving us a definitive version of these riches.
Kurt Oppens is proof that the Festival can produce literature as well as music, and that literature will be released to the public at the Aspen Historical Society on Friday, Aug. 14, from 4 to 6 p.m., with refreshments and suitable fanfare. Those who miss the launch will be able to acquire his book at local stores through the rest of the summer season – and future seasons. The opportunity is not to be missed, for Kurt Oppens is not just Aspen history; he is world heritage.