Rappahannock to Krakow in pursuit of Beethoven

By Al Regnery

Special to the Rappahannock News

Krakow is the cultural and intellectual center of Poland, considered to be the most important city, historically, in Central Europe and remains an unspoiled medieval treasure.

It is home to Poland’s largest and most prestigious university, great museums, a stunning castle high on a hill above the old city, and a medieval cathedral where Bishop Karol Józef Wojtyła presided before he was named Pope John Paul II in 1978.

A page of the original manuscript by Beethoven of the quartet played by the visiting Americans Photo courtesy of Al Regnery

Ludwig van Beethoven, on the other hand, was born in Bonn, Germany, and spent most of his life in and around Vienna, and never set foot in Poland, much less Krakow. So why did I and a group of other amateur string players wind up in Krakow for a week in mid-January to learn about Beethoven and to become proficient playing one of his most challenging quartets?

The Germans seized Krakow in 1939 as they roared through Poland on their way to Russia and made it their headquarters while they occupied Poland until the end of World War II. On the drive into the city from the airport is an impressive massive hotel sitting high on a cliff above the Vistula River. The cab driver explains it was built by the Germans in 1940 to house their officers. There isn’t much other evidence of the German occupation — the Poles dislike the Germans about as much as they dislike the Russians, who of course occupied Poland from 1945 until the collapse of Communism in 1989, and whatever both left behind has been removed.

But there is some pretty good evidence of the German occupation in Krakow, and it is just why I was invited to go there. And it is evidence that the Germans would like to have back.

As the Allies started bombing Berlin in 1940, German scholars determined that it would be wise to move valuable treasures — paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, old books and so on — out of Berlin to a place where they would be far from the fires that ultimately consumed most of the city. So they crated up tons of these treasures and moved them to churches in small towns in Poland where they would be safe. At the end of the war, as Poland sunk into the Communist East Bloc and the Poles realized that the Communist leaders would likely pilfer the manuscripts if they were found, they moved over 500 wooden crates to the Jagiellonian University library in Krakow, where they remained secretly hidden for nearly fifty years.

When they were finally made public the Germans demanded that they be returned. No way, said the Poles. You brought them here and they are now ours to keep. So there they stayed.

Musicologists were astounded to find the original manuscripts of Beethoven’s Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies  and several of his quartets, Mozart’s Magic Flute, the Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutti, several symphonies and works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert and others.

There was also the manuscript for Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 74, known as the “Harp” because of the unusual pizzicato arpeggios — one of his “middle” quartets and a piece of considerable sophistication and difficulty. And the reason a group of some 48 American amateur musicians were in Krakow to do their best to master it under the supervision of the Manhattan String Quartet, one of the most accomplished professional American chamber groups, which assembles such a group each year in a European city to spend a week learning a quartet that has some relationship to that city together with inundation in the quartet’s composer. I was privileged to have been included, along with some fifty other mostly Americans, to play my viola in this challenging piece.

Over the course of the week we were coached on the quartet for 2 ½ hours each day, we examined (very closely) Beethoven’s original scribbles that originated the piece, had lectures and discussions on him and his music, and came away knowing not everything, but a good deal, about this fascinating mad man and his music.

You might think that Poland is a long way to go from Rappahannock County to play the viola. But under the circumstances I experienced for a week and learning a piece as challenging as the Harp made it all worthwhile.

Al Regnery, an accomplished musician (violin, viola), is former publisher of The American Spectator and former president and publisher of Regnery Publishing, Inc. He and his wife Audrey operate the Greenfield Inn Bed and Breakfast in Washington, Va.

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