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A James Ellroy Playlist: The Wheels of History

July 2, 2021

James Ellroy’s novel This Storm begins with the epigraph ‘Blood alone moves the wheels of history’. They are the words of Benito Mussolini, whose ruthless rise to power, disastrous attempts to build a new Roman empire and wretched fate almost served to prove his point. In the novel, Ellroy examines the work, politics and personalities of three composers whose lives, as with everyone else who lived through the tumultuous years of the Second World War, were bound to the wheels of history.

Nikolai Medtner

Kay Lake is studying music under the ‘Maestro’ Otto Klemperer. One of the key pieces she studies is Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza. Her diary entries express frustration at its complexity, ‘the shifts in tempo continue to perplex me’. And yet as she slowly begins to master it, she is astounded by its beauty: ‘It is both pictorial and diffuse. The piece depicts recollection and portrays the sweet heartbreak of time lost and recalled’.

Nikolai Medtner was born in Tsarist Russia in 1879. He was a contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff who left Russia, fleeing the revolution in 1917. Medtner left Russia in 1921. Rachmaninoff, who became a major star in the west, secured Medtner a tour of the US and Canada in 1924. However, Medtner was ill-suited to the commercial realities of the music business, and he and his wife Anna settled in London, where he led a modest life composing and teaching. At the outbreak of World War Two, his regular income from German publishers suddenly disappeared and, near destitute and increasingly ill, he was given shelter by his pupil Edna Iles for much of the war. The 1942 setting of This Storm was a low point for Medtner, but he continued to compose and his reputation was revived after the war, albeit his health never recovered. He died in London in 1951.

‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein tells Kay Lake that she detests Medtner because “he hates the Bolsheviks.” Furthermore, Kay is “really not much of a comrade if you like Medtner.” To which Kay retorts “Rachmaninoff hates the Bolsheviks. Scriabin hated them, as well. I’d say that puts Medtner in good company.”

Below is Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza performed by the Russian pianist Anna Zassimova who has been described as ‘a pianist of a kind rarely still found, the sort you’d imagine in the pages of a 19th century novel.’ Listen to this beautiful rendition and think of Kay Lake, in the pages of Ellroy’s epic historical novels, learning this to perfection at the behest of the Maestro.

Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s not just music that Kay is learning from Klemperer. He is also teaching her the art of politics. Klemperer has played a role in the smuggling of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 (also known as ‘the Leningrad’) into the west from war-torn Russia. He tells Kay, “The finished score will reach me in advance. Smuggling plans now proceed. I will put together a vast assembly of film-studio musicians. Exorbitant ticket prices will assure vast sums for European war relief.”

Shostakovich made a microfilm copy of the score in Samara, and it was sent to New York via Tehran and Cairo. In the 1930’s, Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet regime became strained. He had been denounced in Pravda after Stalin disliked a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. By the time of the Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich’s position had improved considerably as his music could be employed for propaganda purposes. The symphony premiered in London and New York before it was performed in Leningrad, then still enduring a devastating German siege, on August 9, 1942. Musicians were suffering from starvation and three died during rehearsals, but the Leningrad premiere still proved a major rallying cry to the city’s, and indeed all of Russia’s, resistance to the German invasion. The intense suffering of Leningrad’s citizens bleeds into Shostakovich’s composition. Klemperer tells Kay how in the score you can hear the German tanks “descend upon Leningrad. Dimitri errs on the side of the descriptive and polemical here. He hates Hitler and Stalin equally.”

The German tanks Klemperer refers to can be heard during the ‘Invasion Theme’. Here it is performed by the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alfonso Scarano:

Otto Klemperer

Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau, Kingdom of Prussia in 1885. He held a number of positions as a conductor in Germany before fleeing the Nazis, and moving to the United States in the 1930s. In the US, Klemperer was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Klemperer had ambitions to be a great composer, but his work is largely out of print and rarely, if ever, performed today. As a conductor he was second to none, albeit at a cost to his health. He suffered from manic-depressive episodes and was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1939. Kay witnesses his physical and mental suffering, ‘Klemperer half-slurred. He pushed words and made himself understood’. Despite being a naturalised American citizen, Klemperer was unable to renew his US passport in 1952 (due to his left-wing views). He returned to Europe and died in Zurich in 1973, at the age of 88. Although the surgery to remove the brain tumour led Klemperer to suffer from paralysis, he continued to work regularly.

In the audio file below Klemperer is at the peak of his career in the US, conducting Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl in 1938, a year before he fell ill. Check out that rock star audience…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Catherine Nealy Judd permalink
    July 2, 2021 3:11 pm

    Fascinating! Thank you Steve. Don’t know if you’ve read Thomas Mann’s post-WW2 letter to a poet in Berlin regarding arts under Hitler and why Mann did not want to leave Los Angeles and return to Berlin? Will. L. Shirer reproduces the letter in his “End of a Berlin Diary.” Well worth the read. Cheers! Catherine

    • July 2, 2021 3:52 pm

      Thanks Catherine, I haven’t read the letter but I will track down a copy of the Shirer book. Funnily enough, Ellroy took the title This Storm from a poem WH Auden wrote to Christopher Isherwood.

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