Gratitude Take II – Memories

During the last week, working like a dog, I thought it might be good to take a leaf out of the Yankediva‘s book and write some more about gratitude to keep my positive attitude up.
The plan was to say that I’m grateful for good friends who sacrifice their weekends to help me work/share their food/are an endless source of musical inspiration – until about 30 minutes ago. While being on Skype with G, I suddenly realised which day it’ll be tomorrow:
08.08.08 – this would have been the 100th birthday of my first singing teacher Clemens Kaiser-Breme who shaped my life more than anyone else.

I was 15 when I went to see him for an audition; he was 80. I was a stubborn teenager, he a famous singing teacher. I came armed with 5 full opera scores which I could have sung from back to front, impersonating every character if asked to do so. I declared I hated Lieder, they were boring: therefore I wouldn’t sing one for him. I really had nerve!

For 7 years, until the doctors forbade him to teach, I went to his house in Essen up to three times a week for lessons. He promised my parents he would take my musical education in hand and so he did.

Having been born in Dortmund in 1908 Kaiser-Breme was the second of three children. His father worked in the town administration and would only remember the birthdays of first and last child by counting it out from his second child – a source of great laughter in the family. In the 1920s Kaiser-Breme went to Berlin to study with Albert Fischer whom he lovingly called ‘der dicke Fischer’ (the chubby Fischer). He used to be invited for coffee to Max Friendlaender‘s house, where they would make music together for hours, and he saw Benjamino Gigli and Feodor Chaliapin on stage and was blown away by Chaliapin’s Mephistophele in Gounod’s Faust. He saw Richard Strauss rehearse and worked with lots of other famous musicians who are long dead now. He also could tell lots of stories about the world wars (both of them, including the occupation in-between).

After practicing on stage how to ask a women to marry him (as Mandryka in Strausses Opera Arabella) he dared to do so in real life – ‘Carölchen’ as he called her – she was eight years older then him, not usual in those times! She had already known him when he passed his A levels. I won’t say childhood sweathearts, because both of them remained adamant that they were just friends at that time. Whenever they tried to separate something made them reconnect. She moved to Berlin shortly after him, working as a librarian if I remember correctly, and could only find a flat in his building. She was very worried about what people would say ‘at home’ about this fact. A couple of years later he decided to find out if he could live without her, suddenly not speaking to her for a year (without informing her he’d do that). At the end of this year she nearly ended up marrying his brother! (This might have been the trigger for him to finally pop the question….) She was still furious about this event when I got to know her.

I remember the note from his parents in his Arabella score congratulating him (finally) to his engagement. This was one of the few things that survived WWII, almost everything else he owned, including his house, burned down in one night. When we worked on Arabella, (arias or duets) he asked his wife up to the studio at the end of the lesson for a mini concert whenever we had done a good job. He was a brilliant pianist and always played himself for all his lessons.

Struck by a mysterious illness he nearly died in his mid thirties (I think). This left him paralyzed for some time and he had to re-discover his body. He never got the full use of his legs back and walking was agony. Since opera performance was now mostly out of the question for him, he started a career as lieder and oratorio singer, he did research about singing for the Max Plank Institute and was an outstanding teacher and coach to numerous world stars. For years he was Professor for singing at the Folkwang Hochschule.

What I’m most grateful for is the discipline I learned from him, not only for learning music, but for all areas of life. Even during the hottest summer he’d wear a suit for hisf lessons, politely asking if he was allowed to take off the jacket. In contrast, he always wore slippers, I suppose real shoes were too painful to wear. He drilled discipline into my body and brain and that was the best that could have happened to me. When I fell ill, it saved me from drowning in self-pity. He wasn’t the cuddly nice person you’d like to have as a grandfather, he commanded the room. I remember that I absolutely hated having to call him, because he always appeared so very distant on the phone. He admitted it was a trick he acquired from his father to keep off the annoying callers, but I wished he would have warmed up a bit to the people he knew.

He died in 1997 shortly after his adored wife. He had always said that if she was gone he wouldn’t want to live any more. She had great heart trouble at the end of her life and there was more than one moment when we thought she’d left us already. So, his funeral was actually … happy, as far as funerals can be happy. The priest had been a guest at the Kaiser-Breme house for years and knew him very well, and we all felt Kaiser-Breme wasn’t really gone.

While writing this so many memories and stories come back to me. He always refused to write his memoires, saying that people would find it too boring. I found it fascinating. In my lessons I transformed into a sponge soaking up everything he said. I don’t own at picture of him (this one here I found on the internet). I was too shy to ask if I could take one. What I have are numerous tapes of my lessons, which I still listen to from time to time . G lately tracked down a recording of him on iTunes, but most of his recordings were destroyed in the Dresden inferno at the end of the war (he was convinced all of them were gone).

I wish I could say to him how grateful I am for everything I have learned from him, especially because some things only proved useful years later, but I hope – wherever he is – he knows it anyway.

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