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Book Review

Out of Time

Out of Time

The Vexed Life of Georg Tintner

Tanya Buchdahl Tintner
Wilfred Laurier University Press. 2013. 430 pp.
ISBN-10: 155458938X
ISBN-13: 978-1554589388
Outside North America:
University of Western Australia Press. 2011. 448 pp.
ISBN-10: 1742582567
ISBN-13: 978-1742582566
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC
Also available Outside North America: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Stranger in strange lands.

I first heard of Georg Tintner with the appearance of the Naxos Bruckner recordings. I have reported on my tepid reaction to Anton Bruckner before – essentially great moments surrounded by aimless noodling in one of my least-favorite musical idioms, post-Wagnerian chromaticism. In part, I had inherited the attitude from my teachers. One of my professors told me of an evening he spent at the Vienna Philharmonic with a Bruckner symphony on the program. When it came to the slow movement, a pink old couple that looked like models of clean living from the Austrian tourist board, leaned against one another and sighed, "So schön." "I knew I was in for a long evening," my teacher said. Of course, this says more about Brucknerians than about Bruckner himself.

I had heard fine accounts of the composer before, but, although I recognized his historical importance in the development of the symphony, overall I preferred a shot of a different booze. There were Bruckner works I liked very much, however: the String Quintet in F, the cantata Helgoland, and the Symphony #4 (probably the favorite symphony of non-Brucknerians like me). At any rate, I didn't rush out and buy Tintner CDs.

I knew even less about Tintner. Confusing various bits I'd picked up here and there, I thought of him as hailing from Australia, a colonial "Britocrat," all tweed and pipe and tea in the library – certainly not the Viennese Socialist Jew that he was. Worse, I got the idea that he was a specialist who performed only the music of Bruckner, mainly because this was the only part of his music-making I heard people talk about.

When this book came my way, I tried my best to beg off, given my laughable ignorance of both Bruckner and Tintner. But I decided to learn something and picked up Tintner's Bruckner recordings as well as those of him conducting other music, as well as a CD of his original compositions. My first was of a symphony I hardly knew, the Bruckner Seventh. I've heard this from Böhm, Wand, and von Karajan, none of whom made me any more well-disposed. Dohnányi and the Cleveland featured (predictably) gorgeous playing and a coherent narrative, but again the piece itself didn't really excite me.

From the opening measures, Tintner showed me the error of my ways. My mental image of Bruckner changed almost instantaneously into someone far more hard-headed and intellectual than the dreamy, sentimentalist noodler I had conjured up. The usual mawkish picture of the musical naïf dissolved into one of a mind struggling consciously with some very difficult musical problems and expressing complex psychological states. I immediately wanted to hear Tintner's accounts of other composers: profound readings of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, some of the best Delius that has ever come my way, and a bunch of music from Australasian composers. None of this features superstar orchestras, one of the many incomprehensibilities of Tintner's career, given the size of his talent. "Vexation" or "vexed" is the subtitle's apt summation.

Tintner was the first Jewish member of the Vienna Boys Choir. Music was his life. He played piano, composed, conducted, trained others, and spoke. He didn't charge for private lessons. He fled Austria at the Anschluß before he had time to establish a European reputation and from then on scrambled for jobs most of his life. At the same time, he had the regard of fine, even great, musicians but came into frequent conflict with administrators and third-rate talents, almost always over quality of repertoire or performances or available jobs. He refused to soften his opinions, precisely because music was so important to him. He tended to think of such situations as problems that any well-intentioned person would want to correct, rather than as the ego wars or political power plays they so often were. It's not that he was a poor politician; politics simply wasn't part of his thinking until after the current disaster had fallen. He also hadn't the inclination to market himself. He felt that the right people would recognize his merit sooner or later, so recognition came very late indeed, and never in the measure he deserved.

I don't care for Tintner the composer (at least what I've heard, confined to the Naxos release of his original works). Again, he writes in post-Wagnerian chromaticism. It takes somebody at the level of Gustav Mahler or early Arnold Schoenberg to bring off that idiom for me, and not even Tintner would have claimed that for himself. He didn't write much and received even less recognition for his writing than for his conducting. However, his composing I regard as necessary to his conducting. Tintner understood how a composer – even a composer he didn't particularly care for, like Percy Grainger – put together a score. He had the gift of conveying structure and narrative. He was a master of the structural use of crescendo and (just as important) diminuendo. His accounts of symphonic movements generally had one real climax, unlike those of conductors who never met a climax they didn't want to slam and consequently ran out of dynamic room when they finally encountered the true highpoint. Furthermore, he had a well-stocked, complex mind. You don't usually get psychological complexity in your interpretations, unless you have a complex psyche (and the musical ability to express it) yourself. To such a person, the possibilities of interpretation open up.

I don't envy biographer Tanya Tintner, the composer's third wife and widow. Genius is not only mysterious to non-geniuses, but also to itself. Beyond his more apparent eccentricities – his love of bicycling, hiking long distances, farming, veganism, odd theories of diet and health – there remain the persistent questions of his contradictory views of women, where "advanced" ideas conflicted with the simultaneous muse/madonna attitudes of the interwar Viennese artistic circles in which Tintner grew up. Tanya Tintner admits that she didn't understand close to everything about her husband and spent at least ten years mining for information and perceptions from his oldest friends and the family he had left. She gives us something considerably more than an honest effort – a detailed coastline to Tintner's psychic continent, like those Spanish maps of the New World with frilly edges and vast, blank terra incognita interiors. Such a job requires not only perception but a prose supple and clear enough to convey it. I found very little hand-waving here, no attempts to hide "don't know" behind obfuscation and "mystical" hot air. The biographer has put down her best reckoning of one of the most important people in her life.

Most artists don't make good biographical subjects. Their art so consumes them that they don't have time for extraordinary action that one can render interesting to an outsider, one reason why biopics of composers are usually so boring. All you'd see is somebody putting notes down on a sheet of paper, between bouts of plunking a piano for a bit. Georg Tintner constitutes an exception, even though music did own him. He belonged to one of the liveliest cultures of early Modernism – Vienna between the world wars, particularly Jewish culture. When the Austrian government exiled and murdered its Jews, it really ceased to matter culturally in the world. I doubt if most could name a great Austrian writer, philosopher, or composer born since World War II to mention in the same breath as Stefan Zweig, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Arnold Schoenberg. The Vienna of today is a pretty museum, not a cultural center. Tintner's adventures trying to find a place for himself took him to at least four continents, and some very interesting people wanted to hang with him. His eccentricities gave rise to a host of wonderful anecdotes, and his career shows that high art doesn't belong exclusively to the Big Deals the art & hype industry shoves in front of us. A very great musician spent most of his life creating and fostering art in out-of-the-way places. This legacy is as powerful as the recordings and ultimately more influential. The recordings merely let the world at large know what a force Tintner was.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Schwartz.