The Arty Semite

Celebrating Coherent Worlds in Sound: Musicologist Michał Bristiger

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy International Academic Chopin Conference

For a musicologist born in 1921, Michał Bristiger is going great guns. With two new books out and an evening of vocal and keyboard music in his honor on October 23 at the Warsaw Opera, Bristiger enjoys unusual cultural resonance.

Born to a Polish Jewish family in the small shtetl of Jagielnica in Ukraine, Bristiger (whose father Nathan was an ardent Zionist), began medical studies in Lvov, which were interrupted when the Nazis invaded the city in 1941. He escaped to Italy, where he spent the rest of the war studying both medicine and music.

Perhaps because Bristiger pursued the two disciplines to the highest levels, his work as a musicologist has shown unusually human, even physical, reverberations. Of his abundant writings on a wide variety of musical eras, only a scant few articles seem to have been translated into English. Perhaps his most personal book is his latest, “Transcriptions. Writings and Translations” which appeared earlier this year from Word/Image /Territories Publishing in Gdańsk.

In a wide-ranging, pensive interview in this book, Bristiger defines the contemporary Argentinian-born Jewish composer Mauricio Kagel’s works as attempting “in a very systematic way to disintegrate the world that we have.” He contrasts Kagel’s destructive elements with the composer Witold Lutosławski who strove to “construct a coherent world of beauty in music, because he did not want the world to disintegrate. His work becomes an audible sign of the coherent world.”

Bristiger confides that in the case of “outstanding or brilliant art,” it is particularly difficult to separate the composer’s achievement from his intent, whether political or otherwise. He notes: “Wagner’s work is beautiful and sinister. I admire the Ring, but cannot believe in it.” Bristiger’s own life trajectory led him to such conclusions, as he further recounts in a chapter of another new book, “Death is One Minute Late,” just published in Warsaw. The book gathers interviews with Polish Jews who managed to survive the Nazi occupation. Also interviewed is the eminent literature professor Michal Glowinski, author of “The Black Seasons,” a moving Warsaw Ghetto memoir published in 2005 by Northwestern University Press. Glowinski was present at the October 23 Warsaw Opera event, which also featured a discussion with the aforementioned book’s interviewees, apart from the concert which included an aria from Russian Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Holocaust opera “Die Passagierin.”

Alongside such historical reflections, in “Transcriptions” Bristiger mulls over the spiritual value of music, and the “troubling question” of whether music is in truth a radical force for good, or can it possibly be evil. Few meditations on art, history, and morality today are more profound and experienced than Bristiger’s.

Watch Bristiger speak in 2007 about a book by Polish opera director Tomasz Cyz, “Arioso,” about the relationship of music, theater and literature in opera.


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