A Tribute to Isidor Saslav (1938-2013)
by Peter Byrne
(Swans - February 11, 2013) Of Isidor Saslav's writing, the piece that touched me most was "How I Found Shaw" in Swans (March 23, 2009). I knew what he was talking about. His Detroit of 1950 was not that different from my Chicago. Isidor had a commute from his suburb to the city center. He filled it with serious reading. The people around him had their noses in the Reader's Digest and William Randolph Hearst's Detroit Times. The very ground they were passing over had seen the anti-Semite Father Coughlin's push for American fascism in the 1930s.
We can only imagine the tumult the outwardly ordinary scene engendered in a thinking boy's mind. Isidor admits he didn't escape the local contagion and at eleven was "a rabid right winger." "Rabid," however, is the key word here, and speaks for the teenager's mental energy. This would soon lead him to see through the abject Senator Joe McCarthy and begin his trek leftward. Unlike so many of his generation, he would move with the years from right to left and not vice versa. A lifetime later in 2007 on the steps of the Texas capitol in Austin, Isidor stood with the supporters of atheism.
The early-acquired discipline of a dedicated musician must have helped Isidor to keep on his path. But as we know too well from endless examples, excellent performance doesn't always guarantee a generous humanity. Isidor's sympathies were much wider than his chosen field of music as vast as that might be. He was the first to admit that his model for a broad embrace of life, personal and civic, was George Bernard Shaw. It was the post WWII Penguin edition of GBS that he poured over in his teens on his way to and from Detroit Symphony orchestra rehearsals.
Shaw's reputation as a playwright fluctuates. Critics periodically charge him with drawing-room verbosity that reduces life on stage to the single dimension of talk. The theatre has come a long way, they say, from his rejigging of Ibsen with Anglo-Irish humor and utopian socialism. But that surely wasn't a consideration of young Isidor in his commuter reading. I can imagine him coming to Shaw for the first time without thinking of the stage at all. Some of Shaw's prefaces to his plays are longer than the plays themselves. A good part of his writing isn't in dialogue form at all. What Isidor discovered in those Penguin pages was nothing less than a liberal education. I would guess that he got as much or more from them than from his sojourn at Wayne University. The very thing that theatre people had begun to criticize in Shaw made the Irishman an educator par excellence. Immigrant cities like Detroit or Chicago were not prolific of drawing rooms or verbosity, which is to say that highly articulate language didn't waft down their mean streets. Behind GBS's distrust of institutional education was his belief that he could furnish a better one.
It was Charles Marowitz, in a letter to the editor of Swans (April 23, 2007), who remarked on the influence of Shavian prose on Isidor's writing style. I would go farther and say that Isidor also found inspiration in Shaw as a musician and critic of music. Shaw's creative life was so rich it's often forgotten that his first love was music. His mother was a mezzo-soprano and her friend, Shaw's stepfather, so to speak, taught singing. In the countless quotations signed GBS that echo through the Republic of Letters there is one declaring that his greatest pleasure was not found in books, but in a good performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Shaw began his writing life as a critic of music in London periodicals and never really abandoned the subject. His book The Perfect Wagnerite changed the course of musical taste in the post-1900 world.
How Isidor's criticism compared with Shaw's isn't a question our modest friend would ever have asked. But an answer can throw light on his character, on who Isidor was. Shaw, for all his knowledge, did not make music. He didn't take up an instrument and perform. Isidor did. Like anyone completely absorbed in a skill and in perfecting it, he respected the efforts of other performers directed toward the same goal. It was an attitude that precluded sarcasm. Here is Shaw on an 1887 performance of that same Don Giovanni:
Of the concert technically, I can only say that it was practically little more than a rehearsal of the orchestral parts.
On another occasion, he wrote of the performance of the French baritone Victor Maurel as the Don:
On the entry of the statue, which Don Juan, however stable his nerve may be imagined to have been, can hardly have witnessed without at least a dash of surprise and curiosity, Maurel behaved very much as if his uncle had dropped in unexpectedly in the middle of a bachelor's supper-party... The problem of how to receive a call from a public statue does not seem to have struck him as worth solving.
Shaw summed up his attitude as a critic in 1918:
I am strongly of opinion that nothing but superlative excellence in art can excuse a man or woman for being an artist at all... I have a large charity for loose morals: they are often more virtuous than straitlaced ones. But for loose art I have no charity at all.
Isidor's stance as a critic was different. It always reminds me of what friends of Dylan Thomas said of the poet. He would often sit with them in broken-down cabarets. As the inept performers did their bits, Thomas would watch with sympathy, and, yes, a kind of "charity." He would comment on their failings and how they could improve. They were fellow artists, imperfect but not "loose," never to be ridiculed.
This difference is clear in Isidor's first article for Swans (March 12, 2007). Here was a critic pushing seventy who kept telling his readers not about his musical omniscience, but about all the things he was still learning. The boy who had his mind opened on the Detroit commute had never closed it again. His gourmandise was evident. He tells us with enthusiasm that the events at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York resembled those "monster concerts" of old that offered a bulging mixed bag from six o'clock to midnight. That afternoon he had been to a matinee performance of the New York Philharmonic. The evening before he had seen Bellini's opera I Puritani at the Met, and that was preceded in the afternoon by a dress rehearsal for the Avery Fisher Hall concert.
Unlike his mentor GBS, Isidor didn't limit his curiosity to big name composers. He was ever ready to peer into neglected corners. His last article for Swans (Jan. 14, 2013), dealt with pipe organs and their obscure adepts. He was his usual outgoing self, carried away by delight in what he was describing. That artists don't die isn't only because of the art they create. Above all, it's because of the art they loved.
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