Looking back at a great classical scribing career
Interview by Kelly Ferjutz
There are many facets that comprise the usual title of 'Music Critic,' and probably as many ways to achieve that title as there are facets. But the recently retired Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, as usual, forged her own distinctive path to that lofty position. It was not necessarily the life that her family had expected from her, but it worked out just fine.
From her very earliest years, she determined to be a novelist. And now, no longer an active music critic, she has set her sights on that novel, one that has been hovering in the back of her mind for close to 25 years. On a trip to Vienna, she first heard of Nannette Streicher's very existence. While researching a story about Schubert, for the Wall Street Journal, she visited one of the Beethoven houses there. To her surprise, "the curator proudly showed me Beethoven's piano and said it was made by a woman, and I could look it up if I didn't believe it!" So, of course she did – just to be certain.
"Nannette stuck in my mind and some years later, after I'd moved back to the States, I began doing research on her in earnest, particularly in the course of a few trips to Vienna. Her descendants still have a considerable archive of her papers, although one descendant in the late 19th century burned a number of her things, including her diaries. Her father built keyboards that Mozart praised and her son took over the business and became Brahms's favorite piano builder, so her story - which is never given equal importance to those of her father and brother - is a way to put women back into the heart of the classical music tradition, from which they're so often written out."
Among her favorite memories are those years she spent in Munich Germany, from 1986 until 1998, when she began her journalism career editing a monthly magazine for English-speaking residents of Munich, called Munich Found. After a couple of years, the magazine Opera News bought one of her articles from Munich Found, then assigned her another feature; then made her their critic for performances in Germany and Austria. During visits to New York, she began contacting editors for other publications. The arts editor at the Wall Street Journal mentioned that he'd always wanted to cover the Frankfurt Book Fair, and she sent in an article on spec – THE beginning of a long and happy collaboration with that paper.
Ms. Midgette has written – or co-authored – several books up to this point, but they were non-fiction – an entirely different proposition from writing fiction. Early titles were in the travel/guide book field: the Greek Islands, Scotland, Bavaria and the US – all places with which she was quite familiar with, in addition to having a working knowledge of the languages involved (German & Greek). When she started out, she was by no means only a music critic; she has regularly written on the visual arts, theater, film and even dance.
After returning to the US, she continued freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News and other publications, and became a regular reviewer of classical music for The New York Times – the first woman to hold that position. In 2004, again, as a free-lancer for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News and The New York Times, she co-authored the book [2004 release]: The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by his Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary by Herbert Breslin. She adds, "It was a very rewarding project." Some years later came My Nine Lives: A Musical Memoir by Leon Fleisher and Ms. Midgette, published in 2010.
In spite of producing millions of words about other forms of music, opera remains her grand passion. She fell in love with the spectacle of it after watching the 1983 film of Verdi's "La Traviata" by Franco Zefferelli, who is known for never sparing any emotion within reach. The lush production starred Teresa Stratas, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil. Even now that she is no longer reviewing, she loves opera enough that she would even buy tickets to observe.
She also admits to a special fondness for some string quartets. Foremost among these are the three written by her husband Greg Sandow, with pride of place belonging to the first one: Quartet for Anne, which he composed as a birthday gift for her in 2001. As if that wasn't sufficient, he brought an actual quartet of string players to their home to perform it for her. That's pretty Special, you must admit. She says it's the best present she's ever received.
Her life began In Portland Oregon, where her father, the renowned visual artist Willard Midgette was on the faculty of Reed College. When she was 2 1/2, the family moved to New Mexico, where he had a residency; two years later, they moved east to New York, where he had several major exhibitions. His work is most often associated with the second generation of Contemporary American Realist painters. Imagine trompe l'oeil and you'll have an idea of his meticulous artistry. Sadly, he died when Anne was only 12, however, she still considers him to be the most influential person in her life. "The greatest gifts he gave me were his love of art, a thorough grounding in art history, his love of literature; and a belief in myself.
All of these achievements speak to her classical education. "I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be able to make the most of my college education by taking only classes in things I wouldn't learn on my own, so I ended up majoring in Classical Civilizations at Yale – Ancient Greek and Latin. And because I thought I would l would always love music on my own, I never took a music course – much to my later regret!" However, there are still a few items on her bucket list: most notably learning to play the piano, to speak Russian, and to indulge in downhill skiing.
Her musical tastes are very eclectic, at times wandering far from the classical field in which she's spent the last 25 or so years. "Jazz, classic rock, the Beatles, Paul Simon", she counts them off, then adds, "but any type of music, if performed well, can win me over, for at least a little while." Of course, it helps if one is more or less surrounded by various types of music from early on. "My family were all artists of some sort or other. We had a number of musicians and singers – one uncle by marriage was Alan Titus, the noted baritone, later a bass-baritone, who sang everywhere from San Francisco to Bayreuth. My Mom was a great advocate of a Capella music, engaging her 4 siblings to sing with her."
With absolutely no hesitation, she says her son, now 8, is the most incredible addition to her life. Although she and her son are allergic to cats, they are both great cat-lovers, and eventually, a web search led her to a long-haired and supposedly hypoallergenic – cat breed called Siberians. She quickly fund a pair on line --'rescues' in fact, who are now members of the Sandow/Midgette clan. She has also on occasion spun their long hair into yarn for another of her hobbies – knitting.
Ask her about her favorite movies or plays, and you'll find a wide variety there too, among them are the film Fellini's 8 1/2, TVs The Sopranos and The Wire, and on Broadway, Sweeney Todd and Hamilton. But if not out and about, she's content at home reading literature, spinning and knitting or cooking. Not surprisingly, she greatly enjoys exhibits of visual arts.
Among her artistic inspirations, in addition to Hemingway, Joyce and Verdi, she lists Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), an Englishwoman who won the Booker Prize for a novel, but was also a poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times listed her among "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945", and in 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower (from 1995) one of "the ten best historical novels."
From there, the best piece of advice she's ever received? "Don't try to write a great book. Write what's in you." Sounds good to me.
Also see our previous interview with Anne Midgette about her career and findings of #MeToo in the classical world
and see Anne Midgette's website
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