Commonplace Book: Uncle Rudolf

Enjoying Paul Bailey’s “Uncle Rudolf,” set in the early 20th century, and focused on a celebrated Romanian tenor who aspired to Mozart and Verdi, but ended up singing operetta to international acclaim, but increasing disgust. Late in the novel, the narrator, the tenor’s nephew, relates,

“I came to understand, in the years of Uncle Rudolf’s continuing musical re-education, the nature of the distaste he felt for the culture in which operetta had flourished. He had been party to a despicable frivolousness, he said. The gypsies he’d impersonated weren’t real, because they all turned out to be kings or princes or barons, and what were the brigands he’d played but a bunch of rabid nationalists, crude beasts forever casting roguish glances at love-sick lunatic maidens? In the streets of Vienna, Bucharest, and Budapest, a black operetta was being enacted daily while he was behind the footlights singing of a liberty and freedom indistinguishable from tyranny. He had betrayed not only Jean de Reszke and Georges Enesco, but his own best instincts as well. He had sung the kind of music that was enjoyed by those who brought about Europe’s destruction. Such was his conviction in old age , which I refrained from arguing against.

Earlier, in the book, Andrei, the nephew, hears Handel for the first time. His uncle performs at a Christmas party that Andrei is present at as a child:

It is the not-so-famous pianist I remember best, simply because he was my uncle’s regular accompanist. His name was Ivan but he wasn’t Russian. Uncle Rudolph called him Ivan he Terrible whenever he hit a wrong note or was out of time. The prima donna refused to sing that first Christmas and the cabaret artist was so drunk that he forgot his words, to everyone’s amusement, and so it was that my uncle, who was not sober, beckoned Ivan Morris over to the piano.

–You must forget Danilo, and the Gypsy Baron, and the Vagabond King, and that bloody idiot of a brigand Zoltan, and all of the other halfwits in my repertoire.

My uncle cleared his throat, signalling to Ivan that he was ready to begin, and then sang the aria from Handel’s Jeptha in which the anguished father offers up his only child for sacrifice:

Waft her, angels, through the skies,
Far above yon azure plain;
Glorious there, like you, to rise,
There, like you, for ever reign.

I was unaware of Jephta’s plight and I had never heard Handel’s music before, but I did understand , at the age of seven, that I had just listened to something radiantly beautiful.

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