Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Hundred Years of Plenitude: Dr. Herman Ash (1909-2009)

Remembering A Fellow Book Lover, Musician, Mentor and Friend on His Birthday

A DISCLAIMER: For those of you with Marquezian sensibilities, I offer a mild, yet unencumbered apology for masquerading with this title. But the reason is for a good literary cause and decent tale of this raconteur.

It was one hundred years ago this day--August 4th (if I've gotten it right, since it was always a little secret)--that my dear friend, musical mentor, and bibliophile-in-arms, Dr. Herman R. Ash (1909-2006) was born. Though a century later, the details of his miraculous birth are unknown, and have entered no annals of congenial merit or religious hyperbole, he was likely delivered in a slightly darkened room, during the day or early evening into the cultured belly of the pre-Weimarian Deutsches Kaiserreich . The suave Hapsburg-era woven cloth curtains slung back with a sash, a wet-nurse, and an abundantly ample professional trained in midwifery standing clear from the birthing bed. And an anxiously pacing Berliner father casting his glances into a puddled street below.

Of course, who knows if anything happened this way. What we do know is that he was from a musical family--his mother was an accomplished concert pianist, who played with the preeminent Berlin Philharmonic and other musical institutions. And we know that he was steeped in some of the most cultured ways of early 20th century Germany and the waning shadow of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the very atmosphere inhabited by writer and critic Karl Kraus, architect Adolf Loos, writer Robert Musil, and of course our sex-scratching Sigmund Freud. And we can only imagine that not far away were the likes of Schoenberg, Mahler, and a Strauss or two, scribbling away at some 12-tone or diatonic compositions for posterity. Even the cardiological orb inhabiting the mystical cavities of Alexander Scriabin would be functioning for another 6 years. Now for me, the temporal association with historical figures of certain significance, who by sheer physiological luck, at one point end up sharing a temporal space with little me, is a phenomenon that I often overreact to. For instance, the fact that my teacher studied violin with the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1910s, who in turn ran in the circles of Hungarian Piano master Franz Liszt not two decades earlier, just seems rather extraordinary. But the fact remains, even though Dr. Ash lived to be 96, today's reflection back 100 years and what that time period covers is still astonishing to me and hard to conceptualize considering the great changes that have enhanced or befallen society.

Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922)

By the time young Herman (not yet "Dr.") was able to walk about the cobbled streets of his once beloved city, he already knew the name of Arthur Nikisch, who became principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1895. Nikisch (originally born in Hungary with the name Lebeny Szentmiklos) was a preeminent interpreter of both the late Classicists and late Romantics. It is hard to imagine my young teacher standing on the same street with this man and his domineering gaze and crab-snapper mustache. But it could have happened! Herman would have been 12 years old when Maestro Nikisch died in 1922, enough to have remembered such a character with a fair degree of accuracy.

"You're not Going Anywhere Young Man!"

Now that the flavors of the early Modernist period are in your mouth, I'm sure you have a better sense of where we are coming from. Perhaps one of my favorite stories of Dr. Ash as a young man came in the form of an early childhood memory with his mother. She had taken the young boy--as young as four or five--to see the local (likely Berlin) premier of a crazy new and young composer named Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), pictured at left. This Russian firebrand's most controversial works were just hitting the concert halls at the time when young Herman was transitioning from diapers to cotton trousers, speaking German like Kafka, and entering into a tender relationship with the violin. At one of these concerts, just as the Stravinsky piece was being performed (whether Rite of Sprint, Petrouchka, or the Firebird Suite), half of the audience gasped and walked out. Herman's mother turned to him with the sternest of looks, grabbed his boyish wrist, and growled: "You're not going anywhere young man!" Imagine the shock and surprise! The poor boy! Yet, till his last days, he was more of a pre-Brahmsian fan (though, he did like Brahms, especially his piano chamber pieces). He did, of course, allow for an occasional flute piece by Arthur Foote (1853-1937) and was intrigued by an obscure composer named Elia (b. 1974), whose chamber works he both enjoyed and championed among his viola-wielding friends. Nonetheless, I wonder how much this momentous musical event ruptured his taste for "the Modern" in the final wink and breath of Habsburg Europe?

Schinken, Bombs, and Books

World War I was raging throughout Dr. Ash's childhood--from 1914 (as a 5 year old) to 1919's Treaty of Versailles (as a ten year old). As the story goes, especially toward the end of the war, there was a great paucity of food and other items. A housekeeper, whose name I no longer remember, would often smuggle choice cuts from the country into the house under her apron and rotundity! She was a great big lady, he'd say, and she'd hide whatever goodies she could "on her person" to bring into the family's home. One Sunday, he recalled her stuffing a great big "Schinken" (ham) under her dress. It was a delicacy so coveted during the war that they ate the thing right up. Toward the end of the First World War, the Berlin of young Herman's mind was a Berlin of partisan fighting. He told stories of looking out onto his family's balcony, while partisan fighters would hurl mortar shells above the apartment buildings, then wait for the volley back from the paleo-communisits on the other side! He'd then retreat into the inner sanctums of his home, to the shelves and piles of books. (Books and war!) I do remember him saying something like "Oh, they were crazy, those people. But we had very little during that time, because nothing could get in or out." Somehow he nor his family were ever wounded in this parade of bellicosity. But he was in a home bountifully arranged with books, especially the German classics and poetry, which endured through the firestorms, bombs, and smoke.

The String Quartet as Text

Perhaps because of Stravinsky's scandalousness and perhaps because of the simplistic beauty of the Mozartian era, Dr. Ash seemed to be drawn to the compositional materials spanning the hundred years between 1756-1856: the year that Mozart was born and the year that Schumann died. This is not to say that in that extraordinary and peculiar musical century Dr. Ash stood unmovable. To the contrary, he moved freely on the margins of such an era, even potentially defiling classicism for some with the 20th century that birthed and reared him through the epochal Bartok or Hindemith. Dr. Ash played in many musical circles and arrangements, from symphony orchestras to solo performance, but the real venue and conversation took place in the quartet ensemble. It was the "realest of conversations" and optimal configuration for the most beautiful and potent musical voice: crisp, direct, sublime. The text of the quartet was, in many ways, his own book of life. The conversational and dialectic principles of the string quartet promoted not simply interaction, but a pedagogical playfulness that was very much serious and endearing. He taught chamber groups, "kiddie quartets," and other ensembles, directing them in the fine art of interaction, both spatial and temporal motion. My own introduction and early violin lessons with Dr. Ash are examples in their own way: I was barely 15 or 16-years-old when I bought my first violin--indeed, late, but not too late to enjoy the benefits of a stringed instrument. My mother had invited him over to show me a few things about the violin. It was a red-lacquered starter violin I had purchased for $110. I'm not sure it was really worth it, but I wanted it. Dr. Ash later on had said I needed a better instrument and took mine to give to a young child, in turn he gave me one of his better instruments, which had a more professional look and wood finish, but more importantly had a finer sound. At the end of my "first lesson," he departed our home and said: "You can call me and I will show you more...," and then proceeded to tell me his telephone number in German (because I was studying it in school)... "...acht, sieben, eins, vier!"

For the next 2 1/2 years, I went to his home weekly to study violin, learn about music and performance history, speak about the arts, and learn proper string technique. And the most curious thing was that he never charged me a cent! Early on we must have come to an unspoken agreement, as friends, that it was more of a partnership. I would often mow his lawn, help him weed, or drive him if he wasn't up for it (he drove till he was about 94). But he also cultivated my curiosity in musical composition, my own little garden plot of intrigue, which he invited me to write for his coterie of musicians that constantly passed through his FDR-era kitchen complete with drop-lock handle fridge that had been converted from an actual ice-box! I began composing duets and trios and eventually a couple quartets, which he and his friends played. The world that was created among the cork-walled paneling and dark shades of his home on Main Street included no less than some of the world's greatest chamber musicians, professors of piano, and Dutch flautists. There were other "old worlders" there, including an interesting German expatriate, whose father had been the Consul General of Romania in the 1930s. They spoke English, German, French, and sometimes Russian, and told jokes in these languages, sometimes leaving my pubescent intellect in a shadowed ruin, but giving me the incentive to get myself in gear to learn, learn, learn!

My move from violinist to composer was likely pushed in such a direction, because I wasn't the best of violinists. In fact, I wasn't even a "good" violinist. For almost the first four months of study with Dr. Ash, he would have me follow him around his music room--which was a low-ceilinged room on the second floor of his home, jam-packed with books and musical scores and makeshift music stands--and imitate his right arm bow motion, moving my arm up and down in a fluid manner. This was meant to train my arm and bow technique. I spent scores if not hundreds of hours doing this, an action that many would likely consider on the verge of insanity, or simply compulsive. But it was this old-style technique, like a lost art that I might now imagine Arthur Nikisch himself doing 130 years ago in Berlin. When it came to actually playing the instrument, Dr. Ash would say "More Bow! More Bow!" or sometimes "Mehr Bogen! Mehr Bogen!" And thus, I learned.

"Fullest wieder Busch und Tal...!"

When it came to books, Dr. Ash's home was full of them. And books of various shapes, sizes, and topics. He had books in English, French, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew scattered about, and read them all frequently. He would lend them to me and we'd talk about them when I was finished. When I'd visit, I'd notice he'd have a play by Shaw open or the journal Foreign Affairs bookmarked. He still maintained a fine collection of classical literature and poetry. And it was among these great bookshelves and piles of history that I first met the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose poetry I began to read and learn by heart, from a book I had borrowed from Dr. Ash. One of my favorite, whose cadence and tempo I simply delighted in, and still actually remember (part of!) is the following:

Fullest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Losest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz.
Breitest uber mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick...

The Doctor's Books

Dr. Ash began giving me many of his books shortly after I first met him. In fact, he was on the verge of retirement from the medical profession after 60 (yes, SIXTY!) years, and decided to give me almost the entirety of his medical textbook collection. Of course, old medical textbooks are interesting, and these were curiosities of the highest order (I was intrigued by the gruesome 19th century portraits of Elephantitis and Tubercular horns growing out of "Patient X's" cheekbone). But what was interesting to me was the historical route of these books: they had been given to Dr. Ash by another local doctor, his predecessor, Dr. Hugh Chidester, in the late 1930s. It turns out, Dr. Chidester built the home my mother lives in, which was completed in 1935! So the books were "coming home!" Dr. Ash had studied medicine first in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but left by 1933 when it was simply impossible under Hitler's regime. He continued in Bern, Switzerland, where he recounted his physics class as consisting of "how to use a microscope!" In 1935, he and his then girlfriend (later wife) would travel to British Palestine, where he lived in Haifa for two years, and attended to local Arab communities. He used to tell the story of how he was on duty to administer shots or injections, and the Arab men wouldn't allow him to give the women the shots, so he had to (in his words) "shoot the shot through their dresses." He came to the United States a few years later, settling in the Hudson Valley, because it reminded him of the Rheinland in Germany. He rented his house from two old widows named Lamb, dressed out of the Victorian age with bonnets and frills. Eventually, he bought his home, and practiced out of there for the next 54 years. In that time, he'd served in the US military during World War II and was taken for a German spy (with his thick accent!) somewhere inside of Bohemia or Moravia. But he was released and went back to prescribing alcohol to GIs in need of some stress relief. Back in New York, he continued his quiet and passionate craft of teaching chamber music to youth on the side. As the local public school programs degenerated and found no use for string ensembles, Dr. Ash quietly filled the gap for those who had the interest. He continued to play and read and teach. It was not till late in his life, that I discovered he'd been teaching non-English speakers, as well as illiterate adults how to read and write. All for the quiet satisfaction of helping another person. The fullness of the lessons of life were never so profound as in the subtleties of Dr. Ash's own life and what he did each and every day. Whether opening up the universe of literacy to one who can't read or introducing me to the spaetzled prose and poetry of Goethe, we today remember one hundred years of plenitude: the fullness of life that has gone on, and continues to go on after our good friend has walked the earth.


  1. This is a magnificent and moving tribute to a man the community loved so well. Thank you so much for your words.

  2. I am unable to view several of the pictures that you have in your article on Dr. Ash.
    Would you please post them again? Thanks.

  3. Hi, I can't view some of the photos. Could you post again?
    Thank you.