for the President
My father told me the following story when I was young; I hope my retelling is reasonably accurate.
In May 2016, I receved a copy of the concert program,
shown here, from Jan. 16, 1936.
He had been engaged
by renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to perform at the white House
during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency (year and program yet to be
determined). They played to an assembled audience including the President,
but comprising a great majority who were evidently not necessarily great
enthusiasts of the repertoire. Hence, when they finished playing the first
piece, there was gentle, polite applause. They played another piece; the
same response came again. At the end of their program, the applause was no
Now, Piatigorsky, my
father told me, was a vain man, and was incensed at this reception. After
taking their final bows, they had a walk down a long corridor to their
dressing room, with the cellist stalking fast and indignantly. A
young man called after them, "Mr. Piatigorsky! Mr. Piatigorsky!" The
cellist stopped and whirled around. A young aide had run up to them.
"What do you
want?" snapped Piatigorsky.
like an encore," replied the trembling messenger.
back the cellist, frightening the aide still further.
Piatigorsky," stammered the poor aide. "It's the P-P-President's personal
And that is how
Piatigorsky and Ulanowsky played an encore at the White House.
following begins with an anecdote related to me by accompanist Alex Farkas.
the summer he studied with my father, he and a singer at one point
chose to prepare Im Frühling. When they were to perform it for the
class, my father said he would demonstrate it
first. He sat down to play, and, just before putting his hands to the
keyboard, he looked up at Alex and said, "This song is a sacred trust."
song became a favorite of mine many years ago, and I finally learned the
accompaniment myself. As in so many cases, I wished I could hear how Dad
had played it. Alas, for some unfathomable reason, there appeared to be no
extant recording. Therefore, in 2006, I was elated to find that it had
been on the program for tenor James Schwabacher's NY Town Hall debut, from
which recital several other songs had been recorded to his CD, If Music
Be the Food of Love (Cambria). Given the tenor's light and high voice,
I thought it might be a supreme performance.
took about a year before I was able to obtain a CD from the original
tapes. Unfortunately, the performance was not the best for either
musician, some tightness in the tenor's voice evidently leading to a
rather quick tempo and too little of the rubato and relaxed
phrasing for which this song is made. Nonetheless, one hears the shades of
the kind of voicing and phrasing expected from my father's playing,
"all the more amazing, " commented Farkas after hearing the
recording, "in that the l.h. jumps at that speed are quite
My wife and I had the wonderful privilege in 1987 to dine
with the great Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger so that I could ask him about his
work with my father. Unfortunately, I was all too ignorant at the time to
ask many intelligent questions. I asked about reports that the recording
engineers had changed the levels in the recording of Brahms's Magelone Songs
(LP, Epic BC 1371); he confirmed but did not elaborate. (As one of his sons
who was there with him explained, he was "a man of few words.") I also asked
about how he and my father had rehearsed together, to which he replied, "Just enough so that
we understood each other."
year, I had the opportunity to interview at length a former singing student
and very close friend of Dad's. She had several anecdotes about Haefliger
and Dad's concerts in the New York area when they were performing Schubert's
Schöne Müllerin (which she said was
glorious—but never recorded), and had turned pages for rehearsals as well.
She told me that after one such rehearsal, as she and Dad had parted with
Haefliger for the day, she had expressed shock at Dad's firm demands of the
"You spoke to him like a student," she exclaimed.
"That's all right," replied Dad. "He knows he needs it."
Dad was certainly the senior musician of the two, eleven
years older with significantly more years of professional life and acclaim.
In any case, the following excerpt from Studs Terkel's interview (full
recording on the Audio page) took place about the same time and shows
Ulanowsky's gentlemanly professional response, even in response to what had
been apparently Haefliger's own admission:
Ernst Haefliger, the
very excellent tenor, whom you accompanied Friday night…said something about
you as he was rehearsing, that you were advising him in some of the pieces,
[that] the composition was so great in themselves [sic], he did not have to impose too much. Would you mind expanding
on that a bit—too much of his own—his artistry was there, but the piece
Well, I think that— First
of all, I would like to correct it: I'm not advising;
that would be presumptuous; but when it comes to the close collaboration on
Lieder, then you feel you have to unburden your own conscience, and you want
to reach the greatest possible agreement between the two performers.
Every piece of music, of vocal music
or any other field, has its own gravitational
field, where the emotions and other aesthetic elements are defined and
limited. It is our interest, first, to establish the limits of this field
and then try to reach the utmost in expression and delivery within these
limits. When somebody has more to give than this field suggests, then there
is always the temptation to give more than the score demands; you want
lavish all that you have on your audience or on this particular piece of
music, and every now and then it so happens that a piece is not elastic
enough to carry all this extra weight of expression or whatever it happens
to be; and then I feel that I should tell the singer that, from my
listener's point of view, this might be too much of a good thing. And a
singer, who is both the instrument and the performer on this instrument, sometimes doesn’t have that
kind of distance to gauge the effect that he creates with his singing. And
therefore I feel it's up to the accompanist to raise his voice every now and
then when he sees this.
to Biography page
Program courtesy of FDR Libray Archives