Fischer-Dieskau and Me - Part Two
In June of 1970, shortly after graduation, I traveled to Europe to take part in a summer language program in Bregenz, Austria. This trip represented a lot of firsts, not least my first plane trip and my first trip to Europe. A KLM charter took a great many college students from New York City to Amsterdam. On the trip from Syracuse to New York--my first plane trip ever--I discovered that I am prey to severe motion sickness. Dramamine has been my constant traveling companion ever since. The good folks at KLM made the serious mistake of serving unlimited drinks on the transatlantic flight. My lasting impression is of an airborne New Year's Eve party of epic proportions. Dramamine kept me from being sick on the flight, but the drinkers made ample use of the barf bags at landing time.
I was traveling with about fifteen other SUNY Oswego students and a faculty member from the foreign language department. A bus met us in Amsterdam and took us on a sight-seeing tour of several days before heading south to Austria. It didn't take long to discover that this was going to be a tough trip. Most of the other students were unruly and uncooperative, and the money to finance this part of the trip was clearly limited. I have two vivid memories of this part of the trip. During our stay in Hamburg, we were invited for lunch at the home of some relatives of one of the German faculty at SUNY Oswego. "Home" proved to be an estate on the banks of the Elbe river, and the relatives were elderly, elegant, exquisite, and astonishingly hospitable toward a group of bumptious American adolescents. I felt like a pig on ice for the entire afternoon.
The second memory is of our three-day stay in West Berlin. The bus trip through East Germany, the polite but rigorous inspection of us and the bus at the borders, the police and military personnel with machine guns, made quite an impression. One feature of the trip was a visit to East Berlin. Remembering the lack of humor of the East German police and the lack of common sense of my fellow students, I elected to miss that excursion. Instead, I took myself off to have a look at the residence of one Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This pilgrimage had been preceded by a bus tour of West Berlin. The guide was a part-time employee at the Deutsche Oper who commented at the time that Westend was the home of a number of Berlin artists and musicians, including Fischer-Dieskau. I already knew that. I had already determined what subway took you there and which stop to get off at. When he heard that I was a Fischer-Dieskau fan, the guide chatted with me for a few minutes, then interrupted himself to say: "That's Fischer-Dieskau on the radio right now." "No, it isn't." I said politely. "It is," he replied. I shook my head. Sure enough, it wasn't. I tried not to look smug.
A friend and I took the subway to Westend and got off at the Theodor Heuss Platz. We only had to turn the corner and walk a block or so further to arrive at Fischer-Dieskau's home, which turned out not to look any different from any of the other houses in the quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood. I was not tempted to sing a few verses of "On the Street Where You Live." The house was on a corner and was surrounded by a wall. I cased it pretty thoroughly and headed back to the subway. Frankly, there was nothing much to see. Nevertheless, I could say I had been there.
Lest you think this excursion was too much of a disappointment, let me report that the student group's visit to East Berlin ended with a nasty exchange about a camera and some unspent currency. They all nearly ended up in the hoosegow. My trip to F-D's house, albeit uneventful, was far preferable to that.
From Berlin we traveled to Austria and ended up in Bregenz on Lake Constance. Bregenz was a pretty resort town which had just started a summer music festival. We had tickets to two events. First we heard Norma with Christine Deutekom. Having already heard Norma once, I knew that my fellow students would be restless. They were. In fact, they disgraced us repeatedly. The only thing that saved us was the fact that a Danish student group had been in Bregenz right before us and had behaved much worse. The Bregenzers were not accustomed to promenading along the lake and encountering two Danish students copulating on the boardwalk, naked except for the male's student cap. Next to that, we Americans seemed almost sedate.
After that we heard a performance of Die Fledermaus on the floating stage. The weather was miserable and I nearly froze. I began to wonder if being exposed to culture was worth losing my life to pneumonia. The Vorarlberg in the summer can be breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, it rained for most of our six-week stay. Nevertheless, I learned a lot of German and generally had a good time. Besides, I had tickets for two Fischer-Dieskau performances at the Munich Festival.
When I knew I was going to go to Bregenz, I wrote to the German National Tourist Office in New York to inquire about getting tickets to the Munich Festival. They sent a brochure and I ordered tickets to a Fischer-Dieskau Lieder recital and to a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro. The tickets arrived with no trouble at all and were remarkably inexpensive. When I think what a hassle it is to get tickets there now, I marvel at how easy it was.
The friend who went on the F-D house tour with me also accompanied me to Munich for Nozze. We traveled from Bregenz to Munich by train, which only takes a little more than an hour. We went to the Zimmernachweis at the main train station and found a hotel room for the night with no trouble at all. It was pouring rain when we went to the opera house by taxi. "Scheiss Wetter, nicht?" observed the taxi driver. We agreed. The Munich National Theater was smaller than I had expected and very pretty. We had very good seats. This was the first time I saw a live performance of Nozze. All in all, it was not an A-League cast. Leonore Kirschstein was the Countess, Raimund Grumbach was Figaro, and Ingeborg Hallstein was Susanna. In this cast, F-D was like a giant among midgets in more ways than one. The whole thing was underrehearsed, and the sets kept threatening to fall on the singers' heads. Except for Fischer-Dieskau, who sang beautifully and managed to make Almaviva nasty and charming at the same time, the only bright spot in the cast was a very young Brigitte Fassbaender as Cherubino. This was a side of Fischer-Dieskau I had not yet seen. Unlike his concert appearances, when he seemed stiff and almost awkward, he was relaxed and moved easily on the stage. He was even funny. He proved to be a bit of a klutz, however. At the time, I thought it was just bad luck that he spent the evening bumping into doors and tripping over furniture. Over the years I've discovered that he does it routinely.
I had a thoroughly good time and traveled back to Bregenz the next day feeling very satisfied. I also had two tickets for the Lieder recital, but my school friend could not come, so I invited the Austrian woman who was serving as our German teacher while we were in Bregenz. She accepted with pleasure. The recital was held in the Herkulessaal in the Residenz. Our seats were in the last row, but the theater was small enough that it didn't feel as if we were far from the stage. Fischer-Dieskau and Joerg Demus performed Brahms' Die Schöne Magelone. It was beautifully sung and played, but to this day this is my least favorite song cycle. There was no reading of the Tieck narrative, just a synopsis in the program. At the end of the performance, a very attractive young woman stood at the foot of the stage and held out two red rosebuds to Fischer-Dieskau. He did not want to take them, but she persisted and eventually he accepted them and shook her hand. I have no idea what she said to him, but when he straightened up he was blushing redder than the roses. The audience was quite diverted by this, but apparently he was so upset that he wouldn't come back on stage, so instead of his usual generous complement of encores, we had to make do with only two. I have no idea what it was all about.
When I returned to Bregenz, my Austrian landlady, Frau Bischhorn, inspected the program, viewing the photgraph of Fischer-Dieskau with obvious disapproval. The title of the last song caught her eye: "Treue Liebe dauert lange." She snorted: "Not for him." It turned out she was a fan of Ruth Leuwerik and had not forgiven F-D for divorcing her. She gave me to understand that the breakup was all his fault. I did not disagree. I know a devoted fan when I see one.
When our six weeks in Bregenz were over, we boarded another bus for a leisurely trip north to Amsterdam. We flew back to the United States, and it was time for me to get ready to go to Columbus to begin graduate school.
No sooner had I arrived back in the United States from my eight weeks in Europe then I had to collect myself and travel to Columbus, Ohio to begin graduate school. My enthusiasm for studying in Ohio had been dampened considerably by the Kent State massacre. I didn't need my mother to warn me to stay out of crowds and run the other way if anyone in a uniform appeared. In the event, things had quieted down considerably by the time I arrived.
I landed in Columbus in time for the beginning of Fall quarter 1970. One of my most enduring memories of graduate school is how hard it was to get there. I started out flying on Mohawk Airlines (also known as Slowhawk or Nohawk), which then became Allegheny Airlines. The change of name did not improve the service or the routes. I flew from Syracuse to Buffalo to Pittsburgh to Columbus. Alternatively, I flew from Syracuse to Buffalo to Cleveland to Columbus. I spent countless hours in airports due to long layovers, delays, or missed connections. There was a restaurant at Hopkins airport in Cleveland that served great strawberry pie. That's the only good thing I remember about my travels.
A large banner at the airport proclaimed Columbus the "All America City." Welcome to America, Celia. I found the Ohio State University to be an incredible shock. It was staggering to go from a small, mainly undergraduate, institution in a small city (pop. 20,000 on a good day) to a huge research university with a student population of 50,000. It was equally shocking for a New Yorker, even one from the hinterlands, to adjust to life in Middle America. (Of course, I hadn't experienced Kansas yet. Then I realized that Ohio is in the decadent East.)
For the first two years, I lived on the eleventh floor of a 14-story graduate residence hall. Jones Graduate Tower loomed above a sea of lesser residence halls populated by undergraduates who delighted in playing the Buckeye Fight Song out their windows every Saturday during football season. Another popular selection on football game days was the William Tell overture. Columbus was hard to get used to. People talked funny (I learned that Ohio was actually called "Uh-hiah"), the drinking age was 21 instead of 18, and they had some weird thing called 3.2 beer. The hardest thing to get used to, however, was the universal obsession with sports, especially football. The German Department was housed in a separate foreign languages building (called Dieter Cunz Hall, after the late chairman of the German Department) located on the edge of a huge sweep of athletic fields. The view from our T.A. bullpen was dominated by the bulk of Ohio Stadium, which seated 80,000 spectators. I never entered the stadium until commencement, 5 years later, but it was omnipresent during my entire sojourn at Ohio State.
Fischer-Dieskau traveled to Columbus in the cargo hold of a Mohawk Airlines aircraft, along with my record player and more mundane items. My LP collection had grown to the point where it was difficult to transport, but I never even considered leaving it at home, and it continued to grow during my time in Columbus. There was one good record store on High Street, right across from the University, and a couple of the bookstores also sold recordings. My munificent stipend of $2,500 actually stretched to buying more than a few LPs. It was in Columbus that I bought the Boehm Zauberflöte, a recording I still cherish, and Volume One of the DG Schubert Edition. It didn't take too long before my F-D obsession was noted. One of the faculty informed me that he was a devoted fan of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. That should have warned me about him right away, but I still had a lot to learn. Another, one Wolfgang Witkowski, had a low opinion of F-D--basically, he thought he was a sissy. One year, while visiting in Germany at Christmas time, he saw a TV special about F-D and came back to Columbus with a much higher opinion of my hero. Why? Because he had learned that F-D had served in the Wehrmacht, which made him a real man after all. I was speechless.
My preoccupation with F-D and Lieder did have its positive aspects. For one thing, there seemed to be no obscure German poet that I hadn't heard of. Of course, I had to contend with admonitions like: "Tell me about the poem 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen,' Miss Sgroi, and I'd like to hear about Heine's version, not Schumann's." On the other hand, I earned a few Brownie points with another faculty member by supplying a recording of Dichterliebe for her to use as an illustration in a class.
One of the high points of my time at Ohio State was the library. I had never in my life seen a library the size of that one. For me, it was like an amusement park. I spent countless hours in the main library, and a good many of them had nothing to do with study or research. I read all sorts of things about F-D in journals that had hitherto been unknown or unavailable to me, like Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Musica, and Die Bühne. I regularly read half a dozen German language newspapers in the huge periodical room on the first floor. Some people thought this was intended to improve my German--actually, I was just keeping track of F-D.
Even more of my time was spent in the library in the Music building. On the first floor were the current periodicals, and in the basement were the books and the listening stations for recordings. During that time, I listened to F-D singing a great deal of Bach and heard several DG recordings of Schumann and Beethoven Lieder, accompanied by Hertha Klust or Joerg Demus. The ones with Demus have not yet made it onto CD, and I find myself wondering if they can possibly be as good as I remember them being. I became quite a fixture in that listening room. One thing I recall vividly is that I never had to wait to use a listening station. In fact, the basement level of the music library was nearly always deserted. I often wondered where everyone else was.
I didn't hear all that much live music while I was at Ohio State, although the things I did exert myself to hear were memorable. I heard Vladimir Horowitz play at Ohio State, and I heard Luciano Pavarotti give a recital there, complete with his enormous handkerchief. Downtown, I heard Leontyne Price and Nathan Milstein. Once I traveled to Oberlin to hear Elisabeth Schwarzkopf during her farewell tour of the United States. I passed up the opportunity to hear Janet Baker and lived to regret it, as I never had a chance to hear her live before she retired. And twice I traveled considerable distances to hear Fischer-Dieskau.
The first time, I made plans to go with two fellow students to hear F-D and Karl Engel give a Schubert recital in Chicago. That was in 1971. At the last minute, the two friends backed out. Undaunted, I boarded a bus for an odyssey-like journey from Columbus to Chicago. This was in late January, as I recall, and I remember nearly freezing during a stopover in Indianapolis. I got to Chicago fairly early in the day with two extra tickets to sell and no idea what to do with myself until the concert began. I found Auditorium Theatre with no trouble and discovered that the concert was sold out. It was no trouble to unload my extra tickets. As each disappointed patron turned away from the box office, I held up the tickets. The first one went to an older woman who later proved to be an annoying neighbor during the concert. The other went to a music student of about my age. With extra cash in hand, I proposed to treat myself to a nice dinner before the performance. I decided to go to a restaurant in a very large, rather grand hotel across the street from the theatre. I no longer remember its name, but I do remember that the maitre d' was hesitant to seat me. It wasn't until some time later that I realized that he was worried about whether I could afford to eat there. Thanks to my recent transactions, however, that was not a problem. I sat upstairs for the recital. In that huge barn of a place F-D seemed very far away, but he still nearly pinned me to the wall with his opening "Erlkönig." When the concert was over, the music student who had bought one of my extra tickets walked me to the bus station and waited with me until my bus left at around midnight. On the way back to Columbus, memories of the concert kept me warm, which was a good thing because the heating system in the bus was not operating. When I returned to Columbus, one of my professors, the much-venerated Oskar Seidlin, inquired why I had missed the previous class. I decided that honesty was the best policy. "I went to Chicago to hear Fischer-Dieskau," I blurted. "Ahh." He considered the matter. "Well, for Fischer-Dieskau I suppose it was all right." It wasn't until a bit later that I recognized the irony. (Later, I was interested to discover that F-D refers to an article on Eichendorff by Oskar Seidlin in his book about Schumann. I think Seidlin would have been pleased.)
The next time I heard Fischer-Dieskau was in 1973 in Cleveland. By then I was teaching German for research courses as a graduate teaching assistant. I did not really enjoy being a T.A. at first. Ohio State had a language requirement, and German was a popular language in a lot of high school programs in Ohio, so we had plenty of customers. During my first year as a T.A., I banged heads with dozens of resistant freshmen and sophomores who cared less than nothing about learning German. During spring quarter I could only keep them pacified by promising to have "Springtime for Hitler Day" on April 20th, at which time they could talk about Nazis, which was their only interest in German. Of course, that was the day of the surprise observation of my class for a teaching award. I didn't get it. My only pleasant memory of that year is of bringing donuts for my students to enjoy at early morning final exams. In those days you could buy thirteen donuts for a pittance, and all the T.A.'s brought donuts to exams. The students liked it, and we didn't really mind the sticky test papers.
During my other two years as a T.A., I taught German for research, which was an advanced course. Often the students were science majors, and they were hilarious. I recall a day when a physics major was laboriously translating a passage about the properties of plants. He stopped abruptly. "That can't be right. There aren't any fats in plants." A voice from the back of the room inquired dryly: "What's the matter, never heard of peanut butter?" There were several music majors in one of the sections I taught. One of them had a car, and they decided to drive to Cleveland to hear F-D and invited me to go along. We drove up I-71 to Cleveland and found our way to Severance Hall. Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim performed Dichterliebe and the Op. 24 Liederkreis. F-D was in superb voice and Barenboim played like an angel. The audience showed its approval with thunderous applause.
After the concert, my companions proposed to go backstage and get F-D's autograph. I had never been willing to do this, but now I had little choice. The students I was with were very excited and boisterous as we found our way backstage. "Forget about the green room," one of the girls kept saying, "I want to get him in the green bedroom." Fat chance. I think I ceased breathing for a half hour or so while we waited in a long line that snaked its way up to where F-D sat, resplendent in white tie and tails, at a very small table. When I got to the head of the line, I was speechless. It didn't matter; he signed my program anyway. In fact, he seemed relieved not to have to make conversation. On the table lay a pack of cigarettes in one of those leather cases that little kids make and give to their parents as presents. It certainly made quite a contrast to his formal clothes. I still have the program with the first of the illegible signatures I was to collect.
It wasn't too long after this that I got an interesting letter from my opera-queen friend from high school. In those days we still corresponded pretty regularly. He was as enthusiastic about opera as ever, although the rest of his life wasn't going too terribly well. He had been reporting on a great new soprano he liked, Julia Varady. Then I got a letter that said, "Guess what? Your little baritone and my little soprano are in love." And so they were. As usual, I felt no jealousy, only curiosity about what living with F-D might be like. It seemed as if it might be rather stressful.
By the way, while all this was going on, I was progressing through graduate school. I had a four-year fellowship, but it had become clear that I would not finish my dissertation in the one year I had grant support for. I applied for and received an additional year as a T.A. By this time I was pretty pessimistic about whether I would be able to get a teaching job when I got my degree, and I was concerned to complete my dissertation before the money ran out. I felt I owed the taxpayers of Ohio a completed degree in exchange for the money they had invested in me. I wrote my dissertation about cosmic imagery in the poems of Georg Heym. It was called "Georg Heym's Metaphysical Landscape," and it wasn't too bad, although it would have benefitted from more time for research and polishing the text. However, that was time I feared I did not have, and I was right. I spent two awful years interviewing for jobs and being everyone's second choice. I did not want to take one year positions in state colleges in Mississippi or in Bismarck, North Dakota. I didn't want to be a gypsy scholar vainly pursuing a tenure-track job somewhere.
In June of 1975, my mother and older sister drove a rented station wagon to Columbus to attend my commencement ceremony in the Ohio Stadium. The next day we packed all my belongings, including my F-D record collection and a real stereo component system with rather large speakers that took up an inordinate amount of room in the car, and drove back to Fulton where I tried to figure out what to do next.
I left Columbus, Ohio in torrential rain, and I have to admit that my mood matched the weather. I had completed a Ph.D. and I was proud of it, but it was all too clear that I wasn't going to get a tenure-track teaching job, and I didn't want to spend an unknown period of time as a gypsy scholar, even supposing such a thing were possible.
Fischer-Dieskau and I took up residence in my parents' house in Fulton, and I was absolutely miserable. This was the first time in my life when important things hadn't turned out as expected, and I was devastated. Anyone who has ever looked for work and been unable to find it knows how that quickly reduces your self esteem to nothing. My parents were kind and supportive, but at age 26 I didn't want to go back to being someone's dependent, and I was terribly unhappy.
I spent a good deal of time and money on occupational counseling, but it didn't lead anywhere. I learned what my I.Q. was, but that was certainly no comfort, and after a barrage of testing I was told that I could do practically anything. In itself, that was not exactly helpful. What was the first step? What should I do? No one seemed to have an answer, and I was too depressed and discouraged to find one for myself.
It was in that black mood that I took myself off to New York in October 1975 to hear Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel perform Winterreise at Carnegie Hall. The concert was almost more than I could bear. Perhaps it was just coincidence that it the was darkest, most desperate Winterreise I ever heard from F-D. Certainly the critics commented that the emotions nearly burst the bounds of the cycle that evening. At the time I thought it was just the way I felt and didn't quite realize that working with Brendel let F-D rise to levels of intensity that perhaps weren't possible with other partners. The "excesses" of F-D and Brendel worked for me in a way that the "excesses" of F-D and Bernstein never did. To my ears, FiDi and Lennie sounded out of control. Brendel and FiDi did not. I don't know why this is, nor do I know if other people feel the same way, but that's how it seems to me. It was around this time that I got into the habit of waiting at the stage door at Carnegie Hall to see F-D leave after the concert and disappear promptly into a Lincoln Town Car to roar away to points unknown. I have a vivid recollection of F-D coming out, cigarette in hand, accompanied by a very young and incredibly excited Julia Varady, who was clearly enjoying matters much more than he was. As the car sped away, she craned to stare big-eyed out the rear window at us fans standing in the street. F-D didn't even turn around.
That Winterreise provided a welcome catharsis, but when I went home the problem of what to do with the rest of my life was still there. My father had not approved of the expenditure of money for occupational counseling, but he didn't rub it in when the money turned out to be wasted. Instead, he offered a proposition: Why didn't I consider studying law and coming home to work with him? I was astonished. For years, my father had struggled with his law practice and had warned anyone who might listen that the practice of law was an unrewarding occupation. But in recent times, things had come together for him. He had the kind of practice he wanted, he was making good money, and the law had found renewed favor in his eyes. At his suggestion, I spent some time with him in the office to see what his law practice was like. It didn't seem too bad, I couldn't think of anything else to do, and going to school was something I was good at. I agreed to apply to law school.
These days I watch my students struggle with the Law School Admission Test and marvel to think how lightly I took it. I registered for the exam, spent a few minutes looking at the sample questions, then forgot about the whole business until the day of the exam. My father drove me to Syracuse University to take the test. He left me outside the building where the exam was to be administered, and we arranged when and where he would pick me up. "Don't get too nervous," he told me, and I looked at him in amazement. What was to be nervous about? I took the LSAT with an enormous crowd of undergraduates. It was not an easy exam, and working under severe time pressure was a challenge, but it didn't seem all that terrible. There was a break between sessions of the exam and I went to the ladies room, only to find it full of hysterical female undergraduates. I went back to the test room shaking my head. Must be the full moon or something, I thought.
I guess not caring whether you live or die is a good frame of mind for taking the LSAT. I ended up with a score that would have gotten me into Harvard, had I cared to apply, but my father and I had already determined that SUNY Buffalo was the only sensible place to go. True, I would have to live in Buffalo for three years, but the tuition was so cheap that it was still a bargain. I was accepted, and I was on my way once again.
Everybody who goes to law school has tales to tell about their first year, in particular. I think it's fair to say that I sleepwalked through law school. For some reason, I found it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. At the time, it was something of a novelty for someone with a Ph.D. to be studying law. One of my professors asked me if I thought law school was as intellectually challenging as graduate school. I recall looking at him in amazement and struggling to find something polite and diplomatic to say. The intellectual content of law school was next to nil, as far as I could see. It was nothing but a trade school with some very nasty traditions. I lived alone in an off-campus apartment and had very few friends, all of them "non-traditional" students, as I was. I was invited to join various study groups and declined. At that time I hadn't read Duncan Kennedy's (in)famous essay Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy, but I recognized brainwashing when I saw it and opted not to play along. "Thinking like a lawyer" was not a goal I wished to pursue. There was a language to learn and research and advocacy tools to acquire, and that's all I wanted from these people. When the mind games started, I simply absented myself mentally.
It was certainly a welcome diversion during my first semester of law school to go to New York to hear F-D and Joerg Demus perform Brahms' Die Schöne Magelone. I have to confess that this has never been one of my favorite song cycles. The cycle seems to be mainly distinguished by having, as far as I am aware, the longest title of any song cycle: Die wundersame Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter aus Provence. It has some nice songs in it (we all know what they are), and a few nice parts of some not-so-good songs, but as a whole it just doesn't float my boat. The one exception to this was a performance I heard in 1994 at the Schubertiade Feldkirch with Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff, at which the narration was read by Gert Westphal. On that one day, the cycle "clicked" for me, but not before and not since. Even so, hearing FiDi and Joerg Demus was exciting and enjoyable, and the perfect antidote to the Case of the Hairy Hand, mala in se and mala prohibita, and the vexed question of why Angel Grimstad fell into the water. I returned to Buffalo spiritually refreshed to renew my battle with the law school and all its works.
It is said that in the first year of law school they scare you to death, in the second, they work you to death, and in the third, they bore you to death. It seemed to me that the boredom started in the second semester of the first year. However, I had other things to occupy me. SUNY Buffalo meant another big library to play with, even though it was not much by Ohio State standards. In those days, the music department was in Baird Hall on the Main Street campus, and there was a separate music library in Baird Hall. I renewed acquaintance with the Gramophone, Opernwelt, and other periodicals I had missed during my time in Fulton. My Lieder studies, not to mention my FiDi studies, continued unabated. Actually, I don't recall hearing much live music while I was in Buffalo. I recall watching the Ponnelle Nozze di Figaro with F-D, Prey, Freni, and Te Kanawa on PBS, as well as seeing Julia Varady in a Met Don Giovanni with Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna. One evening I had the chance to hear Heinz Rehfuss sing some Lieder in a concert sponsored by the music department. For some reason, I had thought Heinz Rehfuss was dead. He was not, but his voice had gone to glory long before. In years to come, I would hear recitals in which F-D managed to enthrall me with less voice than Rehfuss had that evening, but at the time I could not imagine that such a day would come.
When I wasn't listening to music, I was watching hockey games on television. In those pre-cable days, Buffalo was a hockey-mad city that was perfectly situated to pick up hockey games from Canada and Pittsburgh, as well as the local broadcasts of the Sabres. I was never much of a sports fan, but I had learned about hockey as a kid in Fulton. If we played with the rabbit ears long enough, we could pull in TV broadcasts from Kingston, Ontario, and so at an early age I was introduced to Hockey Night in Canada and the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yes, there was a hockey team in Toronto, too, but somehow I became a Canadiens fan. I think it was the sight of Jean Beliveau gliding up and down the ice looking rather like Charles DeGaulle that caught my fancy. I can just remember Rocket Richard; Henri Richard, the "pocket Rocket," was one of my heroes.
Of course, the reception was so bad that for a long time I wasn't sure exactly how many people were supposed to be on the ice at one time, but by the time I was living in Buffalo, all that had become clear, as had the TV reception. As a way to master boredom and nerves, I had watched Stanley Cup playoff games all during my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. Of course, Montreal won the Stanley Cup that year. When I got to Buffalo, I slid into watching Canadiens hockey as if I had never been away from it. I adored Guy LaFleur and Yvan Cournoyer and Rejean Houle and Jacques Lemaire and Serge Savard and Larry Robinson. It was a strange counterpoint to Fischer-Dieskau, but it met my needs perfectly when I was in law school.
The academic content of law school, such as it was, was a continual source of aggravation. When things got too bad, I used to go to the Buffalo Zoo and spend time watching the ducks. It was very restful. Let others rely on Prozac--FiDi and ducks got me through law school just fine. The only really bad thing about my time in law school was the fact that I was so short on money and dreaded having to ask my parents for help to get through the disasters of daily life, which in my case seemed to revolve around car repairs. (Of course, the Blizzard of 1977 was a bit taxing, too, but it was a nice conversation piece. Being poor was just hell.)
In June of 1977, I got a letter from Carnegie Hall announcing three F-D Schubert recitals in March of 1978. I bought tickets to all three, but when the time came, I just didn't have the money to travel to New York for the concerts. I was terribly disappointed, but I still went to a lot of trouble to read the reviews as they appeared, and felt even worse as I read the critical raves. This past summer, while rummaging through some papers, I discovered the three unused tickets in their little envelope. One evening I told my mother the story of the concerts I never went to and was startled by her reaction. "Why didn't you tell me?" she almost wailed. "I would have given you the money to go!" It was a shock to realize that she knew exactly how much those concerts must have meant to me and how bad I must have felt not to be able to go. It was also a shock to realize that the disappointment had not faded much in nearly twenty years. So we both cried over it for a bit and then felt better.
In June of 1979, I graduated from law school. My parents attended the graduation ceremony, at which Judge Jasen talked about new developments in the law for an unconscionably long time. After the ceremony was over, my mother asked: "What the hell are torks?" I told her not to worry about it. The Bar exam was no big deal. I took the obligatory cram course (BAR/BRI, and very good it was, too) and soldiered through two days of testing--first the Multistate bar exam, the first year New York used it, then the New York exam. The only distraction was the pile driver that thudded continuously through the entire exam. Not good planning, that, but it seemed about par for the course. I bade farewell to Buffalo and returned to Fulton to take up law practice with my father.
It takes quite a long time to get from taking the bar exam to being licensed to practice law. I took the exam in July, learned that I had passed in November, was interviewed by the character committee in December, and was sworn in in March. During that time, the lawyer-to-be is not much use to anybody, but then my father always said that new lawyers should pay someone for having to teach them the ropes rather than expecting to be paid. Fortunately, he only said that, but didn't act on it.
During all that time, I worked with my father in his office, trying to be useful and learning what the actual practice of law is about. The first day I walked in the door, I'm sure I knew a good deal more law than my father did. The problem was that he knew how to practice law and I didn't. I would have happily traded him my newly minted knowledge of the law for his experience as a practitioner. As it turned out, he tried to give me the benefit of that experience for nothing, and sometimes it even worked. In the meantime, I learned about forms and drafted pleadings and interviewed clients. My father had a very busy real estate practice in those days, and it didn't take long before I loathed making out closing statements, but after the closing was completed I very much liked the way my father would casually peel off a hundred dollar bill or two from what he had received as a fee and hand it to me. That part of the business was just fine.
The licensure process in New York was long and elaborate. You started the paperwork when you applied to take the bar exam, and after you received notification that you had passed the exam, you had to be interviewed by the character committee. In those post-Watergate days when everyone knew that legal ethics was the ultimate oxymoron, it seemed a bit bizarre that the State of New York was so interested in investigating the "character" of prospective lawyers. I was summoned to the Onondaga County Courthouse with more than a hundred other Central New York lawyers-to-be for my interview. All of us milled around in the Legislative Chamber, waiting to be called for our appearance before the Character Committee.
I somehow imagined that this would be a very solemn occasion at which I would be "examined" by some group of worthies and (I hoped!) pronounced fit to practice law. Of course, it wasn't like that at all. There were so many candidates that the Character Committee had to break up and each examine a bunch of new lawyers. My interviewer turned out to be Mr. John Mowry from Mexico, New York. I had never met him, but I knew who he was because my father had always spoken of him with respect and just a little envy over his real estate practice. Mr. Mowry turned out to be older than my father. He peered at me over his glasses and riffled through the pages of my application. Then he said, "Your Daddy is Sam Sgroi from Fulton, isn't he?" "Yes, Mr. Mowry," I replied. "And your Mommy is Nancy, right?" "Yes, sir," I said, utterly mystified. "I've played bridge with your Mommy and Daddy for years at Beck's Hotel in Mexico." "Oh, how nice," I said, completely in the dark. "Yep. Now I'm going to tell you a secret, but you mustn't tell your Daddy. Your Mommy is a much better bridge player than your Daddy, you know." "Yes, Mr. Mowry," I said dutifully. "Well, don't tell him I said that. It has been very nice meeting you, Miss Sgroi. Goodbye." And the interview was over.
Now, this was just the first of a series of anticlimaxes associated with my practice of law. Being sworn in was the next--having a piece of paper that said I was licensed to practice law didn't give me one ounce of the confidence I need so desperately, nor did my brief turn before a federal judge and the certificate (suitable for framing) that said I was qualified to engage in federal practice in the Northern District of New York. I was beginning to think that nothing would ever make me feel like a real lawyer. Had I made a terrible mistake?
However, I could forget about all that for a while in May, 1980, when I made another pilgrimage to New York City to hear F-D. This time I experienced two rather strange concerts. At least, I enjoyed them, but I had the feeling on each occasion that a considerable part of the audience was disappointed. The first was a joint recital by Fischer-Dieskau and Jean Pierre Rampal, which consisted of flute sonatas and cantatas (or cantata arias) by Bach, Telemann, and Rameau. I have to admit that I would have preferred a solo Lieder recital by F-D, but this was what God had sent me, and I was prepared to accept it. Other audience members were not so generous, however. The F-D fans felt cheated, the Rampal fans felt cheated, and the remainder seemed mystified by the whole thing. (I was hovering between categories one and three.)
In some ways, the most remarkable thing about this recital was that F-D had lost weight again and looked unbelievably slim and elegant in his double-breasted dinner jacket and black tie. When I first saw F-D live, in 1967, he was considerably overweight and looked a good deal younger than he was. Then, in the early 1970's, he lost a good deal of weight and looked very attractive indeed in white tie and tails, but not so youthful. By 1980, he was even thinner and looked even more handsome and elegant, but both face and voice were no longer those of a young man. This took some getting used to. After all, I was thirty-one years old by now. I had been listening to Fischer-Dieskau for fifteen years. Was that possible? And was it possible that, unlike the recordings, F-D wasn't going to stay young forever? This thought was the cause of some considerable mental discomfort.
The second recital was a collection of Schumann duets with Julia Varady and Joerg Demus. I enjoyed this concert immensely. Julia Varady was clearly very nervous, but she sang beautifully and it was enormous fun to hear duets that one rarely heard in live performance, if at all. There is a recording of these duets that includes Peter Schreier, and it has always been a favorite of mine. At the intermission, an elderly gentleman sitting next to me asked, "When is Fischer-Dieskau going to sing alone?" "He's not going to," I replied. "Good God!" he said. Oh well, I liked it a lot, although I do think that some of the duets work better in the recording with Janet Baker and F-D because their voices blend so much better.
When I left Carnegie Hall that night it never occurred to me that I was not going to hear Fischer-Dieskau in a live recital for another eight years. After the recital with Rampal, I had found myself wondering how much longer F-D would sing, and what was I going to do when he retired? But after the duet recital with Varady those thoughts had vanished. There would be an announcement of recitals for next year or the year after, and everything would continue as it had up until then.
But it didn't.
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