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Remembering Walter Gieseking
(November 5, 1895-October 26, 1956)

1,017 words

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Walter Gieseking, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. Known for his extensive repertoire, nuanced playing, and powerful memory, he was a formidable musician of rare gifts. In his later years, he attracted controversy on account of his association with National Socialism and faced attempts to stymy his career.

Gieseking was born in 1895 in Lyon, France to German parents. He had an idiosyncratic education and did not attend school until the age of 16, when he entered the Hanover Conservatory. He studied with Karl Leimer, with whom he wrote two books on piano technique (The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection and Rhythmics, Dynamics, Pedal and Other Problems of Piano Playing, which have been published together in a volume entitled Piano Technique). During the First World War, he served as a regimental bandsman. His career took off in the 1920s after acclaimed debut performances in London, Paris, and New York. He toured widely throughout the world until his death in 1956.

Gieseking had a prolific recording career. His discography includes the complete solo works of Mozart, Debussy, and Ravel; Beethoven’s piano concertos and sonatas; major works by Bach, Schumann, and Brahms; and many other works.

Gieseking is best known for his recordings of the works of Debussy and Ravel. His Debussy recordings, in particular, are widely considered the definitive recordings of Debussy’s piano works, and few pianists have equaled them. Gieseking’s attention to color, fine-tuned dynamic shadings, and famously nuanced pedaling made him well suited to the French Impressionists. He recorded the complete works of Debussy and Ravel for EMI in the 1950s and Columbia in the 1930s and 40s. The former sets were reissued by Warner Classics in 2015 and 2011 respectively. The sound quality falls short of modern standards, but one could argue that it adds to the atmosphere.

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It is harder to find Gieseking’s earlier recordings of Debussy and Ravel, but they are also worth listening to. The 200-CD box set Great Pianists of the 20th Century includes performances by Gieseking of Debussy, Ravel, Mozart, and Beethoven recorded in the late 1930s. Selections from his early Debussy recordings (1927-1939) have also been released under the VAI Audio label.

Gieseking was a skilled Bach interpreter and left a large body of Bach recordings. These were collected by Deutsche Grammophon in a 7-CD box set in 2017. His Mozart, reissued in an 8-CD box set by Profil Medien, is more uneven. At times his playing verges on sounding flippant, but there are also moments of luminous clarity and beauty.

Gieseking’s recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Concertos are excellent and show that he was capable of thunderous virtuosity as well as Debussyian lightness.

There is also a great 4-CD box set released by APR that focuses on Brahms, Schubert, Schumann (with some Chopin and Scriabin). The highlight is the Brahms (opuses 76, 79, and 116–119). Gieseking’s Brahms is expressive and appropriately melancholy.

Gieseking’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos are among the best. His interpretation of the Emperor Concerto is especially powerful and moving. His 1944 recording of the concerto with the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester under Arthur Rother, one of the earliest stereo recordings, is famous for featuring the faint sound of anti-aircraft fire outside the recording studio. Listening to this recording of German musicians performing Beethoven while being bombed by the RAF almost brings tears to the eyes.

Gieseking remained in Germany for the entirety of the Second World War. Although he never joined the NSDAP, he gave concerts for the NS-Kulturgemeinde and wanted to play for Hitler. He was placed on the Gottbegnadeten-Liste and was awarded the War Merit Cross in 1944. Horowitz alleged that he was a Nazi sympathizer, which was probably true. This charge was corroborated by Arthur Rubinstein, who reported that Gieseking described himself as a Nazi, as well as a reporter who claimed that Gieseking defended Hitler in his denazification interviews. [1] Gieseking refused to respond to the accusations leveled against him by the press.

Gieseking’s attempt to resume his career after the war was met with fierce opposition. He was blacklisted in the US and was temporarily prohibited from performing. The US government subsequently cleared him and approved his US tour scheduled for January 1949, but the tour was canceled as a result of lobbying by mostly Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Veterans Committee, the Jewish War Veterans, and the American Jewish Congress, as well as Arthur Klein, a US Representative from New York, who pressured the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke Gieseking’s visa. The INS gave in and announced its intention to stage a hearing on the subject of whether he should be deported. Gieseking left the US in disgust before the hearing could take place. [2]

The Gieseking scandal is a clear-cut demonstration of the fact that, far from being an oppressed minority, Jews had a great deal of political power by the 1940s and were able to single-handedly pressure government agencies into obeying them.

Apart from the New York incident, Gieseking enjoyed a successful career after the war. He returned to the US in 1953, where he performed in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. He continued to record large quantities of music; he was in the middle of recording a cycle of the Beethoven sonatas when he died. His reputation as one of the great masters of the piano remained intact and endures today, a doubly impressive feat given the scrutiny and opposition he faced in the aftermath of the war.

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Notes

[1] Patrick Sherrier, “The Power of Music and the Music of Power: ‘Nazi’ Musicians in America,” senior thesis, Columbia University, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

 

7 Comments

  1. Jez Turner
    Posted November 5, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    In the same way that old black and white movies – because they rely on camera work, dialogue and atmosphere – outclass modern colour movies. I find that musicians and opera singers of past eras outclass their modern contemporaries. Why this should be so is probably something to do with past performers being more dedicated, better educated and more highly and broadly cultured – you only have to listen to /read interviews with them to realize this. It might also have something to do with the suffering that past generations underwent – this added a precious undefinable something to their character. I find this condemning of individuals for not being anti-fascist ridiculous, particularly when the only choice was between Communism or Fascism. The traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor was once asked why so many European aristocrats of his acquaintance supported National Socialism/Fascism? He replied, because they’d seen Communism.

  2. Argus Bacchus
    Posted November 5, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Alex.

    My favorite recordings of his include his studio versions Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux and Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which I will be returning to a lot in the near future as I prepare to record some pieces from that set that were transcribed by the very recently late and great Julian Bream for classical guitar.

    Gieseking also recorded an outstanding wartime account, both in terms of performance and sound (for its vintage), of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The piano in particular sounds surprisingly bright and clear.

    There are countless other legendary wartime performances that were thankfully recorded for posterity. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there was a superbly high level of musicianship during those years, which were directly followed by Sergiu Celibidache, another favorite of mine, being appointed principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

  3. Stronza
    Posted November 5, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    In The Great Pianists by Harold Schonberg, Gieseking’s prodigious memory is described. Apparently he could memorize a work overnight. He did not have to practice much. He told an admirer that he practiced only 3-4 hours per day. “Wer badet hat’s notig, wer ubt auch”, he said.
    Schonberg goes on at length about his incredible talent. He does, though, consider Gieseking’s Mozart “effeminate”compared to some other pianists of his time.

    But there is nothing said in the book about Gieseking’s woes (or political predilections) as described in Alex Graham’s article. Inasmuch as this book was published in 1963, these matters were not yet creating a fuss in the public’s mind as they are today. His enemies were, I guess, allowing these concerns to lapse for a bit after the flap of the 1940s. Biding their time, lying in wait.

  4. Charles
    Posted November 5, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    And if you haven’t heard Gieseking’s piano arrangement of fellow German Richard Strauss’ song Standchen, then check out the EMI recording with Norwegian virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes as pianist. Absolute bliss.

    • Argus Bacchus
      Posted November 6, 2020 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      If it’s anywhere nearly as well done as Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Standchen, or 19th Century Austro-Hungarian classical guitarist J.K. Mertz’s tremendously convincing arrangement of it and five other Schubert lieder, for that matter, then it’s absolutely worth hearing.

      • Charles
        Posted November 7, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

        It’s on YouTube. Search Andsnes Strauss Standchen. I’m familiar with the arrangements you’ve mentioned. Mertz made two arrangements of Standchen for guitar. One is hardly known. Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert songs were never played more beautifully then by Jorge Bolet, Der Muller und Der Bach, being one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.. No other came near that recording, that particular arrangement is not on You Tube…Kissin’s is …but it does not touch Bolet’s.

  5. Posted November 7, 2020 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    Dear Mister Graham,

    Thank you, truly, for your succinct yet precise remembrance of one of the greatest classical pianists of all time. I highly recommend his Claude Debussy recordings. Superb. Not much more to add to your beautiful essay, except for the following. The victory of the Jewish Lobbies, their power, is caused by the weakness of the many more persons who are non Jews, who allow these Jewish organizations to be always victorious. Apathy, cowardice and ignorance. I’ve no sympathy for them at all. If they should be Christians, do they understand what it means to accept the chalice given to them? They are beyond asking for the cup to pass away from them. They’re oblivious as to what it signifies. Such is psychological consuetude. The non Jew suffers from the ism of the individual. Where were all of the millions of German-Americans who should’ve defended Mister Walter Gieseking? They lack a firmness of purpose in life as do all other European-Americans. There’s no excuse. Ever so vainglorious of their ignorance. We are very fortunate to know of Mister Gieseking’s artistic achievements, and those composers whose works he interpreted. And this is not an overstatement for the world we presently reside in, is a most dystopic dark filth ridden existence of oblivion. Those much younger than us know not of Classical music, or for that matter Jazz, as it should be known and understood, and most likely think Elvis Presley was a man who was a king of a monarchy in Europe called Tupelo. If there is a criticism to made about Mister Gieseking, and his many great classical musician peers, whether Jewish or not, is that it was, and still is, a tragedy that they just interpreted and did not compose, or hardly did and do, as the inventors and masters of the past whose works Gieseking and others performed. God Bless, Aristo Boho

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