‘O welche Lust!’

The old Leipzig Gewandhaus, 1883-4

 Leipzig, Pevsner’s birthplace, had one of the strongest musical traditions in Germany. Bach had worked at the Thomaskirche for a quarter of a century, Mendelssohn founded Germany’s first music conservatoire in the city, Robert Schumann taught there, Mahler composed his first symphony while working in Leipzig, Wagner was born in the street where Pevsner’s father had his fur business. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra had already been in existence for over a century and, as Pevsner was growing up, it was enjoying a second heyday with Artűr Nikisch as its principal conductor. 

Nikisch in 1910

With his dash and charisma, Nikisch has been presented as one of the founders of modern conducting. He was a regular visitor at the after-concert crab suppers laid on by Pevsner’s mother in the generous family apartment on Schwägerichenstrasse in the heart of Leipzig’s Musikviertel or ‘Music Quarter’, five minutes’ walk from the Gewandhaus and the Academy of Music and Theatre. The flat had a music room appointed in Louis Quinze style, not overly appreciated by the young Nika Pevsner as he wrestled with his scales. During one family holiday he had been enthralled by the hotel’s automatic piano and was inspired to take piano lessons from Lis Knauth, a young friend of the family. To his chagrin, the inspiration faded fast. ‘I used to practise on the grand piano – fervently, for two hours on end, and in a roaring fury, because I was so totally devoid of talent… No rhythm, no singing voice, no anything.’   

Interior of the old Gewandhaus

The Pevsners had a box at the Gewandhaus, looking sideways over the orchestra, and Nika was a frequent, if reluctant, visitor. ‘When P[evsner] was eleven or twelve and went to the Gewandhaus, his whole reaction was a fake,’ he wrote sternly in his diary, some five years later. ‘He had to fight back the yawns, and counted the lamps and bulbs and the organ pipes in the hall.’ But even as he made the confession, he was beginning to develop a love of music that would endure all his life. ‘When P hears a symphony he knows very well,’ he noted, ‘it gives him more intense pleasure than anything else in the world.’   

Denis Mahon

As a young academic in Göttingen, when he wished to entertain his seminar students, it was orange juice and biscuits and an evening of music on his wind-up gramophone. Again, during his lonely years in Birmingham, music was one of his greatest comforts. One occasion he reported in detail to Lola. He was giving private lessons on the Italian baroque to the young Denis Mahon, a member of the Guinness Mahon banking family then enrolled at the Courtauld Institute, and had gone after an evening tutorial to his pupil’s home, to listen to records till midnight. ‘Lola, you can’t imagine, about 1000 records, complete operas, like Chenier. We played part of that, then a lot of Forza, and then Otello. Dear God, this is where one can really envy his money. Of course he listened to everything with piano score in hand. “Any time”, he said. All the old, true memories came back.’

Beecham, c. 1910

While he was in Birmingham, Pevsner went to concerts as often as time and money allowed, and was able to report confidently of a programme conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (Rossini, Delius and Mozart) that it was ‘marvellous – perhaps the best to be heard in England. Beecham, of course, I knew from having met him at the Munros [in Oxford] – a terrific chap. True, he dances around like nobody’s business, but he has charm, rhythm, and a marvellous piano .... His Mozart is superb .… I suppose I was ripe for this kind of pleasure.’ 

Conchita Supervia

The Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia, on the other hand, was not as easily forgiven for frivolity. Some critics felt that her vitality and sense of fun compensated for a an exceedingly fast vibrato. Pevsner disagreed. ‘A scandal,’ he wrote severely. ‘Good voice, but Spanish songs in three different costumes, and flowers all over her,  fat with red hair – impossible, pure music hall.’  

Music continued to be a consolation during Pevsner’s complicated war years. Though his internment camp, a newly finished housing estate in the Liverpool suburb of Huyton, did not have the Amadeus Quartet (who were interned at Onchan on the Isle of Man), it did have a resident composer in Viennese musician Hans Gal. In Huyton Gal composed his Huyton Suite (Op.92) for flute and two violins (the only instruments that were available in the camp).  Later, while working as a rubble-shoveller and ARP warden, alongside his job as temporary assistant editor of the Architectural Review, Pevsner enjoyed  Sunday night concerts at the Orpheum, Temple Fortune, an enormous 3000-seat cinema meant to rival the Hippodrome, Golders Green. ‘We are making up for years of musical starvation,’ he told his son in February 1942. ‘It is lovely to hear real music again after all the tinned or canned music of the wireless.’   

The surest indicator of how much music meant to him as an emotional outlet was the fact that he found himself unable to go to concerts after Lola died in 1963.   ‘I don’t cry any longer,’ he wrote in January 1963, ‘though I would, if I went to concerts.’ Two years later he gave away a large part of his record collection to the BBC for distribution to ‘musical old people, and offered a fat bundle  of piano music – Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin – to the Principal of the Guildhall School. At his own memorial service in 1983, though, the organist played familiar music: Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’, the overture to Handel’s Fireworks Music, and ‘O welche Lust!’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio.

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