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When Richard Wagner Came to Camp On A Scow

When Richard Wagner Came to Camp On A Scow
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Welcome to the August 2011 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine,
published since 1935 in Dublin, N.H.

When Richard Wagner Came to Camp on a Scow

It was a summer of music
I’ll never forget

What with all the band concerts, chamber music recitals and so forth, the hills of New England are always very much alive with the sound of music throughout July and August. And it so happens that one of my favorite of all summer memories involves music. It was the day an old scow delivered a grand piano across ten miles of Spednic Lake to my parents’ rustic island retreat just north of Vanceboro, Maine. The year was 1942 and I was nine.

My mother being a Wagnerian opera singer (albeit not overly successful), she always had her opera-singing friends from New York there on our island as guests. Visiting during that particular wartime summer were Friedrich Schorr, still considered by some to be the greatest baritone ever to sing at the Metropolitan in New York; his jolly, blonde, chunky wife, Upie, a fine soprano herself; world-famous (at that time) pianist Eddie McArthur; and three of Friedrich Schorr’s young voice students.

In those days it was a big deal for us to see anyone on Spednic Lake so when the scow with the piano aboard was being maneuvered to the large float connected to our dock, it had an enthusiastic reception committee made up of our entire family along with all our guests.

Before the ropes were even secured, pianist Eddie McArthur hopped aboard, sat down at the piano and, with great gusto, began to play Brunhilde’s triumphant music from the second act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Upie, the three students, and my mother happily joined in, singing at the top of their considerable voices. They stopped, however, when Eddie abruptly switched to the music of the final scene of the third act, the one in which the god, Wotan, bids farewell to his beloved daughter, Brunhilde, sealing her eyes in sleep and then calling upon the fire god, Loge, to protect her forever by a wall of flame.

The emotional aria Wotan sings in this scene is one of the greatest baritone arias in all of opera and, as Eddie McArthur knew well, Friedrich Schorr sang it better than anyone. At a nod from McArthur, Schorr, who’d been helping to tie up the scow, took a deep breath and began to sing. His deep, vibrant voice increased in power as he continued through the entire aria until, finally, as he struck the wooden float three times with a canoe paddle that by now was surely Wotan’s magic spear, it soared across the lake and surrounding hills. Leb’wohl, Leb’wohl, Leb’wohl. (Farewell, Farewell, Farewell.)

When he came to the end, I remember wondering why everyone was crying. Even, as I recall, Eddie McArthur. On the other hand, whenever I have the rare opportunity to hear that aria today, there’s no way I can avoid tears, myself. I’m not sure if it’s the beauty of that particular aria or the memory of a special long-ago New England summer of music.

Probably both.

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When Richard Wagner Came to Camp On A Scow

Updated Monday, August 1st, 2011

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