Tag Archives: World War Two

Rommel’s tailor and my father

14 Jun

Well-turned out: Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel


If ever you are trapped in a hotel or hospital room and feel too ill-disposed or lethargic to read or write or engage in profound conversation with visitors (if anyone is foolish enough to visit you), you may wish to tune into one of several channels available to TV viewers  that dish up potted histories of the twentieth century and are aimed, no doubt, at pensioners, or those of us who are infirm or bedridden or terminally idle, and who grew up in the shadow, even the distant shadow, of World War Two. Given that the Brits in general are morbidly obsessed with their performance in said war (I don’t think the Russians, for example, are so confused about their actual contribution), and given that it was the last occasion in which the citizens of these islands ‘pulled together’ as my mother was fond of reminding us, I personally have no difficulty in enduring hour upon hour of such documentary, especially those that delve deeply within the dark underworld of the Nazi party and its extraordinarily mediocre and sinister leadership. Perhaps this paradox is what most intrigues us. A favourite topic of these programmes seems to be ‘the plot to assassinate Hitler’, and the various theories about the involvement in such activities of the Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, who was ‘urged’ to commit suicide by Adolf Hitler, in order to avoid the negative publicity that would doubtless have redounded on the leadership if it were known that  a war hero of Rommel’s stature were involved in the assassination attempt.

The other day, watching a programme about German POWs in England at the end of the war, I was reminded of an anecdote of my father’s. He was, for a while, medical officer at the POW camp based in Dover Castle. One morning, during surgery, a German soldier asked, through the interpreter, whether my father thought the state of his uniform befitted an officer of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces. My father, for whom sartorial matters were never of paramount importance, was rather taken aback by the audacity of the question, and asked the soldier why he thought it appropriate to comment on his state of dress. The soldier replied that he was simply trying to be of service, that he had served as personal tailor to Field Marshal Rommel, and was willing to make the Herr Doktor the most presentable officer in the British army, for the price of only two packs of cigarettes. My father, who didn’t smoke, reckoned this was a good deal, and handed over his uniform to the man, who duly returned it, immaculately re-tailored. He was so pleased with the result that he remained, for the duration of his stay at Dover, in the care of Rommel’s tailor for all matters of couture.






Beethoven and all that jazz

7 Nov

After recent posts on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Jazz it is time for a quick note on Beethoven. For years I didn’t listen to Beethoven at all, finding too much of his orchestral music overdramatic, overstated, overblown. Then, a few years back I acquired a version of the recordings made by the Busch Quartet in the 1930s (recordings made before and after the quartet’s re-location from Germany to London, and then to New York during World War Two). Despite the audible crackling (this was before they were digitally remastered in 2008, and the interference removed) the recordings convey an astonishing degree of sensitivity and pathos. Pathos is a word that seems most apt with regard to Beethoven, a man who supposedly died while raging against the dying of the light, fist raised to the heavens – and during a thunderstorm for good measure. To which end, here is an animated bar-graph score of the Grosse Fuge op. 133.



The other night I caught the opening episode of new TV series that focuses on the history of the symphony (and is titled, helpfully, Symphony), that ultimate collision of form and content that emerged with Haydn and Mozart and was taken by the scruff of the neck and booted into the nineteenth century by Beethoven with his Eroica symphony in 1804. Beethoven was a republican (but not in the American sense) and an early supporter of Napoleon (but not once he had proclaimed himself Emperor) and reputedly told one of his patrons: “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Quite a self-believer then.

When I was a wild young thing, thumping out Beethoven and Brahms fiercely and passionately but with negligible technique, my piano teacher once played me a section of the opus 111 piano sonata and told me to listen how, with its double-dotted rhythms it pre-empted jazz (or ragtime) figures that only emerged a century later. I don’t know how accurate his analysis was,  but whenever I listen to those crazy lilting rhythms now – which break in after nearly seven minutes of the clip below – I can’t help wondering what the audiences of his day must have made of this music: they can’t ever have heard, or even imagined, anything like it. And that is something that we miss altogether, as we have the whole of intervening musical history acting as a kind of barrier, and what we hear, we hear through the filter of all the music that has been composed and played since his time.

Historically, Beethoven has been best remembered for his symphonies (as the current TV series illustrates), for the fabulous unifying Ode to Joy from the ninth and ironically (since we were at war with his fatherland) for the famous introduction to the fifth symphony, now forever linked to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill. But it is the last quartets and sonatas that I, as a listener, return to, although more and more I prefer to listen to jazz.






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