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In Memoriam: Michael Steinberg

(1928 – 2009)

July 27, 2009

Ten years ago, when Michael Steinberg retired as the San Francisco Symphony's program annotator and music advisor, he had a farewell essay in the program, entitled "Why We Are Here." It is also part of the book For the Love of Music Steinberg cowrote with Larry Rothe, his long-time colleague at SFS.

Steinberg, who died Sunday at age 80, wrote memorably in that essay about music and talking about music, exercising his lifelong vocation and art:

Tristan und Isolde, the very symbol for all that is recklessly emotional in music, depends for its effect on presenting a dissonance 15 seconds into the piece and refusing to melt it into consonance until 15 seconds from the end — something like five hours later. All that fever from an unresolved dominant seventh!

I know that such talk can scare people and annoy them. But it's the talk that does it, the words — "dominant seventh," or even worse, "unresolved dominant seventh," "flat submediant," "Neapolitan sixth" — not the music itself.

The words are useful: precise terms make conversation efficient and agreeable. Imagine the nuisance of not being able to say "bunt" or "béchamel" or "backhand"!

The term "flat submediant" may alarm you. But I know your heart is pierced when, in Elgar's Enigma Variations, the strings sneak an E-flat under that delicate bridge of a suspended G to begin that noble paean to friendship, the Nimrod Variations ...

In all his writing — urbane, sophisticated, encyclopedic, and always clear and illuminating — Steinberg elegantly bridged the daunting gap between academic knowledge and visceral experience of music, always aware of the importance of both, and — for the vast majority of listeners — the primacy of the latter.

I regret how little time I had a chance to spend with Steinberg, my music writer idol — when running into him at Davies Symphony Hall, in Aspen, at [email protected], at Music at Kohl Mansion, dozens of other places — but I am lucky to have had some four decades of reading his works.

At concert after concert, Steinberg's program notes informed, educated, and delighted me. I am not proud of this, but in truth there have been numerous times when the music couldn't hold me, so I turned back to the program notes for entertainment, to make better use of my time. Steinberg's "performance" was invariably flawless.

Rothe, who has worked with Steinberg longer and closer than anyone else, said this on Sunday, learning of Steinberg's death:

In his writing and in his talks, Michael knocked down walls with intelligence, wit, and a broad sense of culture. He was a great storyteller. He expected much from his readers and offered much. You get a taste of all this in his books: The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks — three compilations of his program notes.

In the way he lived, Michael mirrored music at its best. He was affirmative and honest and uncompromising, elegant, and ornery. He spoke in beautifully paced full sentences and paragraphs. He wrote with the eloquence and generosity and fierceness he believed the music demanded.

He knew that what happens between music and listener is a kind of love, and that music, as he said, "like any worthwhile partner in love, is demanding, sometimes exasperatingly, exhaustingly demanding ... [but] that its capacity to give is as near to infinite as anything in this world, and that what it offers us is always and inescapably in exact proportion to what we ourselves give."

SFCV colleague Jeff Dunn speaks for many of us:

In my book, he was the greatest program notes writer ever. Thoughtful, provocative, and well-crafted sums it up. Although his death is a great loss, his pieces nevertheless remain a resource that could help some current writers in his field if they gave him some study.

Music critic and SFCV founder Robert Commanday:

Michael Steinberg was the eloquent voice of the art — an exemplar of the profession, profound in curiosity, keen in judgment, and complete in integrity. His deep knowledge and percipience were combined with his fire, transmitting his love for music to his audience, inspiring and engaging each reader and each listener as an eager participant.

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic (for the The Financial Times and Opera magazine) Martin Bernheimer also writes essays for program magazines; he says of Steinberg: "Michael was a brilliant scholar, a discerning musician and a good colleague."

Music at Kohl Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy, who has welcomed both Steinberg and his wife Jorja Fleezanis many times at concerts in the Mansion, remembers him as one who "illuminated music for all — from the uninitiated to the cognoscenti. A gentle, classy, generous colleague."

Here is just one example among literally thousands of possibilities to show Steinberg's unique work. There is relatively little known and not much to be said about Schubert's Rosamunde Overture, but when Steinberg wrote the program notes, there were no stones left unturned, no spade called anything but ("hack author," "valueless," "vapid" — this is from the days before Marketing provided polite notes and honed words of boosterism in lieu of the real stuff):

That we list this piece as the Overture to Rosamunde is a concession to custom. It has nothing to do with the romantic play by Helmine von Chezy with incidental music by Schubert that was performed twice at the Theater an der Wien in December 1823.

The play is lost, though Schubert’s delightful music survives—entr’actes, ballets, a romance for contralto, and some choruses. Those nine pieces were new, but for the overture Schubert raided his unperformed opera of 1821-22, Alfons und Estrella. The piece we hear at these concerts was written as one of fourteen musical numbers for a play called Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) by Georg von Hofmann, a theater official and hack author.

The muddle about the title is to be laid at the door of the Viennese publisher Maximilian Josef Leidesdorf, who about 1827 published this overture in arrangement for piano duet and for reasons history does not reveal chose to call it Ouvertüre zum Drama Rosamunde. Not only do we not know why he did so, we cannot imagine why he might have wanted to. Rosamunde had been a decisive failure, and its title cannot have meant much to prospective purchasers of piano duets.

Not that Die Zauberharfe had fared much better, though it had enjoyed a run of eight performances in the late summer and early fall of 1820. Critics attacked the play for its insipidity — Schubert’s first major biographer, Kreissle von Hellborn, calls it "utterly valueless, nay, utterly childish" — though Schubert got his knocks, too.

The anonymous critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung conceded "glimpses of talent here and there" but complained of the numbers being generally "too long and wearisome, the harmonic progressions too harsh, the instrumentation overladen, the choruses vapid."

Two movements came in for praise, the slow introduction to the Overture and the tenor romance "Was belebt die schöne Welt?" Of these, the critic said, "The expression is lovely, the simplicity noble, and the modulation delicate."

In part reworking material from his D major Overture In the Italian Style, D.590, composed in 1817 and probably the first work of Schubert’s to get a public performance, the composer made an impressive opening, a charming allegro, and a bright conclusion.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].


His musical essays are exceptional, cramming exhaustive detail into short pieces with a simple and elegant style. I love his writing. Thanks for the paean.

Janos has written an excellent piece about a superb intellect, and an uncommonly decent human being. A word more about his mentoring...

After I had finished grad school at Stanford, I was invited to speak at a local conference on Furtwängler. To my horror, Michael Steinberg was in the audience. I stumbled through and he came up after, offering undeservedly kind comments, other points of view, and complete respect to a young and inexperienced colleague. A few weeks later came the phone call.

He asked if I would give a talk at the San Francisco Symphony that summer. I did, he came again, and it led to a 10-year 'pre-curtain talk' relationship with that excellent orchestra, all of it in the shadow and standards (or so I hoped) of this sweet and decent man.

Numerous lunches and phone calls followed, and all were incredibly generous, challenging, and in the best way argumentative. When I wrote my first book, he was kind enough to give it a thorough read, and a dazzling critique. The book was vastly the better for his efforts.

I think there were dozens like me. From all of us, Michael, thank you.

If you weren't familiar with a piece Michael was writing about in his program notes, after reading a few lines you wished you were; and as he gently but knowledgeably led you along, you felt as if a learned friend who nevertheless wore his learning lightly were leading you by the hand into deeper appreciation. Ultimately, you felt the piece, with its mysteries and glories, was now completely yours.

He used English with the care, precision and exhilaration of those whose native language was something else, yet with a naturalness that native writers in English can only marvel at.

Another side of Michael: After the Berkeley fire of the early 90's, my husband and I were touched to receive a phone call from Michael in Minnesota, wanting to know if we were all right. He was that kind of friend. We will miss him in so many ways. A light has gone out in the world.

I got to know Michael through a few brief conversations and his magnificent presentations at Music at Menlo's Encounter series. What I will never forget is the way Michael integrated his wealth of knowledge about music with his love for it. He was able to expain why music is "the best of all possible worlds." I always left these presentations moved and glad to be a member of the human race.

I often ran into Michael Steinberg during my two decades as a stringer – and for a while a full time -- music critic in the San Francisco Bay Area. While we usually met in or around Davies Hall, our contacts ranged as far away as the Oberlin Conservatory where he lectured at a seminar on early music performance practice. His spirit was a generous one that made you feel his presence even when he moved to the other side of the country.

My encounters were much like Charles Barber’s, though less concentrated. They blended my awe at the profound breadth and depth of his knowledge, and his subtle but vibrant appreciation of music, and his unfailingly generous encouragement, even to one (like me) who was a moonlighting critic while serving primarily as an historian and archivist at Stanford University.

Just one anecdote to demonstrate Michael’s conviction that integrity was central to the musical experience, even when others occasionally forced him to compromise, and also his infinite generosity when dealing with other members of the San Francisco musical community – including music critics, a job he knew from the inside.

We had lunch one day at the Hayes Street Grill shortly after the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart had performed a semi-staged version of Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex.” Michael had been the “speaker” for the performance and given a very dramatic reading of the narration.

As soon as we sat down he said how much he had liked my review of that particular performance. I asked why, and he said because I had criticized him. Oh! I had written something like, “it isn’t at all clear to me why Steinberg gave such a dramatic reading of the role when Stravinsky asked specifically that it be recited in ‘a detached voice’.”

“Yes, he said, “exactly right! As soon as I saw the review I took it in to de Waart and said ‘you see, someone DID know the difference.” De Waart had insisted that Michael read the speaker’s part dramatically, over his strong objections, saying no one would know what Stravinsky had wanted anyway. It was my honor on at least that one occasion to have made Michael’s day.

William Ratliff
Stanford University