An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

By · Title Image Donald Sheridan (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons · Date 3/15/2018

Daniel Mendelsohn is a writer, translator, and professor of literature at Bard College. His most recent book is An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic which, along with the memoir The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity, are personal favorites of mine. He is also deeply attuned to classical music. I met him one afternoon in New York. Curled up in a red chair by the window of his apartment, he talked about favorite recordings, opera plots, and the indefinable sense of authority in art.

VAN: There is a lot of classical music in your book An Odyssey. What is the first piece you remember loving?

Daniel Mendelsohn: I’d say the first thing I really fell for, for complicated reasons, was “Così fan tutte.” That was because of a 1971 movie called “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Peter Finch plays a middle-aged Jewish doctor, and he and Glenda Jackson are both in love with the same young guy [Murray Head]. I remember watching it on TV. As the soundtrack, they used the very beautiful Act I Trio from “Così fan tutte,” with its shimmering orchestral introduction. Because of the subject of the movie, this aura around it—I just totally fell for it.

I took the score out of the local public library and studied it, listening to the recording. I think I was 13 or 14 at the time. I had a best girlfriend who was studying voice seriously, and I would help her memorize her roles, which was a good grounding in opera. I also listened a lot when I was in college—I wasn’t terribly social. And my first job after graduating from college was working for a classical music manager.

A beautiful recording of “Soave il vento” from Act I of “Così fan tutte,” with Susan Chilcott and Susan Graham. Painfully, the final chord is missing here.

Who were the artists?

It was sort of a one-man shop; we always had this random assortment, mostly singers and a few conductors. There would always be this one big fish who would eventually leave my boss, Joe. But it was a great education, because we were literally at the Metropolitan Opera every night.

I saw some amazing performances—it was a twilight of the gods for a certain generation of opera singers. I saw Joan Sutherland’s last “Lucia,” Mirella Freni’s last performance, and the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place,” because one of our artists was in it. I saw Karajan’s final Mahler Nine at Carnegie Hall.

Joe and I used to meet on Saturdays and go to the Tower Records in the East Village and spend hours there. He’d leaf through the performances and dig up these incredible vintage pirated recordings. He’s now long dead along with everyone else from back in those days—there was a huge generation of classical music professionals who died of AIDS in the first two waves.

I haven’t heard as much about AIDS affecting classical music, compared to visual arts, pop music, and fashion.

At the time you did. It was totally decimated. Not so much performers, many of whom were closeted and still are, but within the music business: agents, managers, everyone was sick.

Mendelsohn was introduced to Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 by his Italian mathematician godfather Nino. It is “insanely wonderful,” he says. This 1946 recording is by the Zorian String Quartet.

In An Odyssey, you mention getting a music education as a teenager from a gay couple, Fred and Horst. Can you remember a specific experience of music or opera with them?

Yes, totally. Fred and his “cousin” were wonderful. They weren’t cousins, but it was the early ‘70s and Fred was a schoolteacher, so they had to be careful. They had the most amazing seats to everything. They also had a 40-foot sailboat that they used to sail out of Huntington Harbor. They’d take me and some students that they liked. They were big Wagnerians, which I wasn’t, at least at the time.

Are you now?

It’s funny, usually I have a musical project every year. The year that my dad died, I had decided I was going to fucking figure out this “Ring” cycle if it killed me. I had just never been into Wagner—and it’s nothing to do with the Jewish thing, let me hasten to add. It wasn’t a fit temperamentally. So I called a close friend of mine, the New York editor Robert Gottlieb. I asked him which recording to get, and he said, You have to get the Furtwängler recording. There’s a lot of noise, and it’s not great recording quality, but it’s the best. And then you can branch out from there.

Obviously I knew about the “Ring” cycle, I’m not an idiot. But that year I started listening and reading seriously. I got Andrew Porter’s bilingual libretto. And during the three-month period between when my dad fell ill and when he died, I was using his car—his one indulgence in life was a big fancy Lexus with an amazing sound system and a five-deck CD player, and I listened. That was my year of Wagner.

Believe it or not, “Die Walküre” is my favorite. I’m also very partial to “Das Rheingold.” I think it’s the single best evocation of water in music ever.

Furtwängler conducts the opening of “Das Rheingold” with the RAI Rome Orchestra in 1953.

What is your project at the moment?

This is my year of Verdi and Dickens, my 19th-century year. As a classicist, I’m normally more of an 18th-century person, but I’ve become much more interested in the 19th century than I used to be. I loved Verdi to begin with, but I wanted to make a systematic study of his oeuvre from A to Z.

Where are you right now?

I’m on an opera which I had never liked before—don’t laugh!—“Rigoletto.” There was something about “Rigoletto” that always bugged me, but I couldn’t figure it out. I think that happens, even with composers whom you love: you get an irrational resistance to certain things.

So I’ve been listening over and over again, and I finally figured it out. I mean, this is not brilliant, but with Verdi, the emotion is all in the soprano-baritone material. The (crypto) father-daughter scenes. He’s so much more interested in that intellectually and emotionally than the tenor-soprano love duets. There’s something alive there that activates him.

As a writer, what do you think of the stereotype that opera libretti are ridiculous?

Oh, that’s such bullshit. It’s not true. It’s a cliché. But even people I respect, like Bob Gottlieb, will say, I only go to the opera to hear the voices, who cares about the idiotic plots?

I think that idea has been discredited. They’re certainly no stupider than anything on HBO. But you have to accept that they’re the creations of a certain historical moment. They follow certain conventions that aren’t ours anymore. “La forza del destino” has [laughs] an improbable series of coincidences. But it’s a 19th-century thing; so does Dickens! So instead of saying that it’s not lifelike, as if that were in any way a useful consideration, you have to ask what they were interested in. The plots of opera are designed to arrive at moments of high emotion and anguish, which the music can unleash. In that sense they are very successful: they get you to where you need to go.

I come at opera as a specialist in Greek tragedy. The alleged excesses of opera are not strange to me. People say the same thing about late Euripides. Even if today we prefer a kind of naturalism in drama, if you’re a Greek tragedy person, you’re used to a high level of conventionality and stylization. Dramatic events in opera that would be risible in other genres are justified by the music they produce. That’s all you care about. To judge it by some criterion of verisimilitude is not a useful exercise.

Daniel Mendelsohn • Foto David Shankbone(CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Mendelsohn • Foto David Shankbone(CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

While I was reading An Odyssey, where the concept of the journey is so central, I kept thinking of Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Is that an important work for you?

Yes. I had a “Winterreise” year. It’s one of those works that help you go through life. Like Proust—I’ve been reading Proust every 10 years since my 20s, and it always looks different to me, you notice different things as you get older. “Winterreise” is like that too. There’s a sort of surface limpidity and ingenuousness, almost…it’s so sweet, so good, and then it’s not. There’s this undercurrent of very dark things.

There’s something appealing about the lied. The lyric is such a highly concentrated form, deceptively short and simple, but it contains multitudes. I’ve also been listening to “Kindertotenlieder” lately.

Isn’t that piece hard to listen to when you have children?

Well, yeah. But you gotta. That’s the aesthetic responsibility. You have to expose yourself to these possibilities.

It’s always interesting to listen to things that can be recorded by either women or men. Sopranos or tenors. It’s always fascinating how different your response can be. If it’s a man singing about the death of a child or a woman singing about the death of child…you think of maternity, and it colors your response. Maternity is different than paternity, there’s no two ways about it (not that one is stronger or better than the other). So I love that set of possibilities.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzvYtFAJ8Ew

Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” with Kathleen Ferrier, Bruno Walter, and the Vienna Philharmonic (1949).

Your book The Elusive Embrace deals with a kind of ephemeral sensuality. I feel like some classical music has this quality, too.

Like what?

The Schubert Piano Trio in Eb Major D. 929, say?

Wasn’t that used as the soundtrack of that fabulous movie “The Hunger”?

The Andante con Moto performed by the Beaux Arts Trio.

I don’t know. [Hums the theme from the Andante con Moto.]

[Joins in] Yeah, that’s the soundtrack for the movie. That’s a very sexy piece of music for me. The movie is about David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, who are these ancient vampires living in a fabulous brownstone on the Upper East Side. And when they need to go and feed, they go to East Village nightclubs and pick up boys and girls, get them drunk, and drink their blood. So I can’t tell whether it’s the music itself, or Catherine Deneuve in black leather pants and stilettos, about to sink her fangs into the neck of some hunky club boy, you know?

In An Odyssey, you almost compose the rhythms of the dialogue, emphasizing certain words and patterns of speech.

Yeah, I have a very strong sense of the rhythms of prose. Prose gets a bad rap, I think. I learned how to write largely from listening to the stories that my grandfather used to tell when I was growing up. The sound of his voice circles through my stories—there was a definite rhythm, and I’m always thinking of that.

Another of Mendelsohn’s favorite works is Elgar’s “Sea Pictures” Op. 37, here in the “legendary” recording with Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

You use italics, underlined italics, and other punctuation strategies in your writing—almost like articulation in music.

I think you process these things very much like musical notation. A colon is like a quarter-note rest, a semi-colon an eight-note rest. They punctuate the rhythm, even when you experience the text as a visual phenomenon. I take my punctuation very seriously because it’s like a score.

I don’t like quotation marks. I got rid of them in my second book. They are stoppers; I don’t want the eye to stop. Quotation marks do something to you, which I don’t want to happen. They also look cluttered and interrupt the flow of your eye across the page.

There’s a musical analogy for that as well. Contemporary scores are often filled with markings, while Mozart will be forte for eight bars, piano for eight bars, but with no less subtlety in the sound.

Right. I just had a review of An Odyssey that said it’s very trendy, but actually I’ve been doing it for 20 years.

The writer W. G. Sebald does something similar, where he only interrupts his long chapters with a single em dash in the middle of the page.

You know, Sebald is a huge influence on me. In an essay, Susan Sontag asked, referring to him, “Is literary greatness still possible?” It’s a question I think about all the time, now that I’m middle-aged. Gottlieb is a big ballet person, as am I, and we’d see Balachine’s “Serenade” or something; and the minute that thing starts, you know it’s something. Even the first Bartók String Quartet, which is his most derivative of other things, which is typical of course: you feel that there is a personality at work.

How does authority announce itself in a work of any kind? You know it when you’re reading something, that this person knows what they’re doing and it’s going to be good. Boom, it’s there, you feel it. There’s this consciousness that you’re in something.

In classical philology, there’s a play attributed to Euripides. Over my dead body. It’s so obviously not him. It just doesn’t feel right; it’s a little inept. And Euripides, even when he’s wacky, is never inept. And what is authority except your right to be the author? It’s what the word means.

Jarousky sings “Ombra mi fu” in 2016.

I think about that a lot when musicologists discover or rediscover composers from the past. Many of them are good, even great. But that sense of authority is missing.

This is the great, albeit cruel, reality of the arts, which is that some people have it and others don’t. That’s what “Amadeus” is about. We know that Salieri was a much better composer than people gave him credit for. But there’s still a difference.

One of my agents is a huge fan of Philippe Jarousky, and I happened to be on the West Coast where he lives, so we went to a concert with him, the writer Michael Chabon and his wife. He was doing arias of Händel and Nicola Porpora. And at the end we all looked at each other, and I said, Well, whatever else is true, Händel is the real deal, and Porpora is just a competent composer. He can grind it out by the page, but I’m sorry. You hear one of these arias, and then you hear “Ombra mi fu,” and you burst into laughter. There’s just no comparison.

And that is so interesting. It’s not that Porpora is incompetent or untalented. He’s just not Händel. I know today we are meant to believe that every excellence and advantage in life is just the product of social conditions, but you know what? It isn’t true. ¶