An Endpapers Playlist

For all his devotion to the literary life, Kurt Wolff lived a parallel one rich with music. He was a fine amateur cellist, with a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather who had all been performers, conductors, and composers in the Rhineland—the first two of them collaborators with Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

When I moved to Berlin in 2017 to begin fleshing out the family story, I knew the rough outline that Endpapers would take. But I had no idea how much the narrative would come marbled with sex and drugs and classical music, the rock ‘n’ roll of its time and place. Here’s a soundtrack to the book, in more or less chronological order, followed by annotations that tell how each selection pertains to the story. You can also find the playlist on Largehearted Boy and on Spotify, where I’ve chosen the most appropriate recordings the platform will allow.  

J. S. Bach, Cantata No. 169, “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben,” first movement, Sinfonia. Performed by the Kammerorchester Basel.

Kurt’s father Leonhard Wolff made the study of Bach a central part of his life. In 1913 in Leipzig—where Bach himself worked for nearly three decades before his death—Kurt published his father’s J. Sebastian Bachs Kirchenkantaten: Ein Nachschlagebuch für Dirigenten und Musikfreunde (The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach: A Reference Book for Conductors and Music Lovers). Bach’s most dazzling pieces can have a pulsating, almost enervating quality, but I love the opening of this cantata for its enveloping reassurance.

George Frideric Handel, Messiah, “For Unto Us a Child is Born.”

Sir Andrew Davis leading the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Leonhard was conducting the Handel oratorio in Bonn’s Beethovenhalle on March 3, 1887, when his wife Maria gave birth to Kurt. The title of this famous passage has been a standing family joke ever since.

Johannes Brahms, A German Requiem, Op. 45, fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Leonhard’s father Hermann was forced to leave his position as music director in Krefeld after public disapproval of a performance of this work, apparently too adventurous for mid-nineteenth century audiences. After taking up a similar post in Bonn decades later, Leonhard foisted the same piece on concertgoers there, to a much better reception.

“Abendlied,” words by Matthias Claudius, tune by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz. Sung by Rolf Zuckowski.

When young Kurt would tire of the usual children’s bedtime stories, he asked his mother to sing this lullaby, based on the words of an eighteenth century poet. During a visit with Karl Kraus in Vienna just before World War I, Kurt and Kraus bonded over the Abendlied, beloved by generations of Germans, most of whom know it by its first line, Der Mond ist aufgegangen (The moon is risen). At the request of the deceased, it was sung at the 2015 funeral of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt; during the coronavirus pandemic, Joan Baez posted this performance of it, in German, from her home as she rode out quarantine.

Ludwig von Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight,” final movement. Performed by Elly Ney.

A piano prodigy and the daughter of Bonn’s justice of the peace, Ney lived across the street from Kurt’s secondary school. As a teenager my grandfather would skip gym class to slip into her salon and ply her with requests. If I had been in Kurt’s place, this would have been at the top of my wish list. It’s Beethoven at his most audacious—in its technical and artistic challenges, the ultimate test for any aspiring virtuoso.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem in D Minor, K. 626, Lacrymosa. Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir.

Walter, who performed this many times, fled Berlin in 1933, just as my grandfather had. Two years after that, during their respective exiles, Walter paid a two-week visit to Kurt at his villa, Il Moro, outside Florence. With its D Minor mood and reference to “this tearful day,” the Lacrymosa captures the dread that must have been top-of-mind for two artistic refugees in the crosshairs of fascism. Walter made it to the U.S. via France in 1939; in 1937, on a tip, Kurt fled Il Moro with 24 hours’ notice, after Mussolini began to do Hitler’s bidding by ramping up actions against exiles and Jews.

Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 5, Op. 107, “Reformation,” final movement. Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel.

Kurt’s mother Maria came from a long line of Rhinelanders of Jewish descent, the most recent of whom chose conversion or baptism. Mendelssohn followed the same path, famously celebrating Protestantism with this piece—though that didn’t keep the Nazis from invoking his Jewish roots to ban his music. Since encountering the Reformation Symphony as a cellist in my high school orchestra, I’ve loved Mendelssohn and his soaring, headlong style. But only from working on Endpapers did I learn how many of my great-grandmother’s ancestors had, like Mendelssohn and some 22,000 other Germans during the nineteenth century, “crawled to the cross,” as the convert Heinrich Heine once regretfully put it.

Franz Schubert, “Du Bist die Ruh,” Op. 59, No. 3. Performed by Roland Hayes.

An African-American tenor, Hayes dazzled critics and audiences with his European tours during the twenties. After he embarked on an affair with a Hapsburg countess, her cuckolded husband set her up in a castle in southern France so that she, and the daughter of Hayes’ she would bear, could be kept far from the light of scandal. That’s why the countess was positioned to shelter my step-grandmother Helen, and eventually Kurt too, in the hills outside Toulouse after each was released from French internment camps following the 1940 armistice struck between the Vichy government and the Nazis. During a 1924 concert in Berlin, Hayes had silenced the boos and whistles of a hostile crowd with this Lieder.

Max Bruch, Kol Nidrei, Op. 47. Performed by Pablo Casals and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Landon Ronald.

Thea Dispeker, a Jewish émigré who had fled Berlin during the late thirties, became a successful Manhattan-based agent for classical musicians. She also served as founding director of the Pablo Casals Festival in Pardes, France, which featured the cellist who made this piece one of his signatures. Thea figures in Endpapers twice over. In 1940 she swore out the affidavit that helped lead the U.S. to grant the emergency visas that sprang my grandfather and step-grandmother from Vichy France. Then, during the early fifties, she threw the holiday party at which my parents met. It’s said that the cello comes closest to capturing the sound of the human voice; for the Kol Nidrei, Bruch, though a Protestant, was inspired by the cantor chanting the liturgy on Yom Kippur.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, fourth movement, Adagietto. Performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding.

During exile and the postwar, Kurt carried on a correspondence with the novelist Thomas Mann, whose verdict on German responsibility for the war—“It is impossible to demand of the abused nations of Europe, of the world, that they shall draw a neat dividing line between ‘Nazism’ and the German people”—he concurred with completely. In the Luchino Visconti film adaptation of Mann’s Death in Venice, as plague spreads through the city, Aschenbach is immobilized by his infatuation with the young Tadzio while these ten achingly beautiful minutes of music swell in the background.

Ludwig von Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-Flat Major, Op. 110, final movement, Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro ma non troppo. Performed by Claude Frank.

Left behind in soon-to-be Nazified Germany after Kurt’s divorce from my grandmother in 1930, my father Niko served in the Wehrmacht on two fronts, spent time in an American P.O.W. camp, and returned to the rubble and hunger of Munich for three years before Kurt helped him land a visa to come to the U.S. to study. Within days of Niko’s arrival in August 1948, Kurt and Helen took him to the home of friends in Vermont, where visiting musicians like Frank, a young émigré prodigy who would become a master interpreter of Beethoven, filled the evening air with chamber music. Here a solemn arioso and a defiant fugue spar with each other until, its way cleared by a protective phalanx of chords, the fugue returns in triumph. The composer’s marking in this section of the score—“gradually coming back to life”—constitutes a kind of nod to the refugee. And to someone like my father, who packed a violin when he was sent off to war, this passage evokes the Nazis’ defilement of music, books, and art.

J. S. Bach, Italian Concerto, BWV 971, final movement, Presto. Performed by Rafał Blechacz.

When my father met my mother at that holiday party, Mary Neave was a piano student at Manhattan’s Mannes School of Music. He rushed to her aid after she spilled hors d’oeuvres on the wife of the dean who would soon be grading her finals. Knowing how much I loved this piece, my mother recorded it on a cassette tape during the seventies and gave it to me for my birthday.

Christian Wolff, Exercise 13 from the 2015 album Angelica Music. Performed by the composer on piano and Robyn Schulkowsky on percussion.

By age 16, Kurt and Helen’s son, my half-uncle Christian, had begun studying composition with John Cage and quickly fell in with “the New York School” of avant-garde composers. He’s 87 now, but still composes and performs, affirming the same devotion to das Neue (“the New”) that his father had shown toward cutting-edge literature nearly a century earlier.

Franz Schubert, String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, second movement, Adagio. Performed by the Emerson String Quartet, with Mstislav Rostropovich on second cello.

My late father Niko had a knack for lowering his voice to interact with his grandchildren, who would go rapt to hear what their Opa had to say to them. A decade before his death, listening to a live performance of this quintet, he whispered delightedly to my wife beside him, “They’re taking the repeats!” It’s impossible for me to separate Niko’s love for these fifteen minutes from the way Schubert organizes them, with two almost impossibly quiet passages bookending a turbulent midsection. Such was the arc of my father’s life—peace working both ends against the middle.

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