John Newmark: Pianist, Mentor

The year 2004 marked the centenary of the birth of pianist John Newmark (1904-1991).

Along with Michael Raucheisen, Gerald Moore and Paul Ulanowsky, Newmark is known as one of the foremost Lieder accompanists of the 20th century. He was an intimate friend of and advisor to the great contralto Kathleen Ferrier, and an associate of Danish tenor Axel Schiotz, soprano Elizabeth Schumann, the cellist Paul Tortelier, and many others of similar renown.

Oct. 8, 1953 marked the 50th anniversary of Kathleen Ferrier’s untimely death. In her memory and in that of John Newmark’s, here is an interview with the antiquarian Michel Bourda, a personal friend of John’s for more than 30 years.

The interview was conducted at Montreal, in stages, between October 2001 and 2003.

Born in 1904 in Bremen, Germany, to a family of Jews who had converted to Protestantism in the late 19th century, John Newmark’s real name was Hannes Neumark. He was a Greek scholar, a devotee of Homer, and something of a musical sensation in his youth, studying first under Karl Boener at Bremen, and then at Leipzig, under Ann Eisele. In 1939, Newmark fled Germany and the Nazis, going first to Holland on a fishing boat, and, by roundabout routes, eventually to Canada, where he was interned in a camp at Frederickton. Many of the other “enemy aliens” in the camp were musicians, with whom he straightaway began to work.

Newmark was released in 1944 and struck out for Montreal, then a major center for Jewish emigration. Amongst the countless refugees, he met up again with fellow musicians, notably the Joachim brothers Walter and Otto, as well as Helmut Blüte and Franz Kramer. An irreparable loss to Germany and Austria was the New World’s great gain, and these émigré musicians were to raise the intellectual life of Canada to a higher plane.

How did John Newmark contribute to the advancement of classical music in Canada?

Huguette Paré, who produced the program “Les musiciens par eux-mêmes” and the recorded-music review for Radio Canada, has said that, “Before him, there was nothing.” It was John, she wrote, who taught us the love of music, and broke the ground for study of the German Lied.

Indeed, before John reached Canada, Lieder were sung either in French or in English. Thanks largely to his efforts, and to other German-speaking musicians who came here as refugees, the Lied became known in Canada.

John also devoted a recording to Max Reger, a German composer he believed should be better known in North America.

He excelled in the French repertory, which he would often perform. It was John who guided Kathleen Ferrier in her study of the Poème de l’amour et de la mer by Ernest Chausson, which she later sang with Sir John Barbiroli.

John’s role in encouraging young composers was very significant. They would draw on his broad experience, just as he pushed them to write. He also helped to make their work known by insisting that it be performed at his recitals. With Maureen Forrester singing, many such works were given their first public performance.

Would that all the [Newmark] recordings in Radio Canada’s archives, and those abroad as well, were soon published! And would that German and English translations of his biography by Renée Maheu, Un Piano sur la Mer, were soon to appear!

Why did John choose to remain at Montreal, rather than move to New York, for example, where musical life was far more intense?

As a German Jew, John felt a strong bond with Montreal, a city that had given him so spontaneous a welcome. Thus it was that he turned down proposals far more attractive, from a financial standpoint, at New York and London. Gratitude to the city that had taken him in outweighed his personal interests. That was typical of his nature.

On the North American continent, Montreal, a city both French and international, was the only one that recalled Europe to him. That is what counted, and [Montreal] is where he felt at home. He made his mark there quickly, nor was the city far from the great North American metropoli.

John gave countless recitals in Montreal, not to speak of radio and television programs. His field of action was greatly enlarged when the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada entrusted to him the country’s most promising elements. That is how he came to accompany Maureen Forrester at the Salle Gaveau for her first Paris recital, and Joseph Rouleau at Wigmore Hall in London, making their names first in Europe, and then worldwide.

As Maureen Forrester’s accompanist for a quarter-century, he travelled to every continent. He was a brother to her, and it was thanks to John’s help and that of her singing teacher, Bernard Diamant, that she became so incomparable an artist.

What was his background in Europe?

John began to study music at Dresden, and then with the Swiss professor Ann Eisele, who had herself been a disciple of Alfred Reisenauer, the latter, in turn, a disciple of Liszt.

John’s family was remarkably musical, by his father, his mother, and both uncles. From an early age, he showed great skill and an innate musicality.

“Every Thursday, in the evening, and for over 35 years, my father, who was a splendid pianist, his brother, a medical doctor mad keen on his violin on which he practised every day, and my uncle, a cello-playing architect … would play trios. They had begun very young, and had never left off, both for their own pleasure, and that of others. These were true amateurs, that is to say, that they adored music, and could read at sight through the entire trio repertory. …

“In summer time, music floated through the gentle night into the streets. The following day, the neighbors would stop my father in the street, to thank him for the serenades they had hung upon the night before. …

“Such was the environment in which I grew up. … It was Brahms who would, as a rule, wake me from my childish sleep. By the time I was ten, my father had me turning pages for him, at twelve, he’d let me take over the left hand, and then one day, he stole away from the piano stool, to allow me to finish the movement with his brothers. Glued to the page of the score, my uncles would invariably be startled to discover that it was their nephew who had been at the piano all along.”

[Unpublished memoirs, by John Newmark, in John Newmark et son Temps by Renée Maheu, Les Intouchables (Montréal), ed.]

John could never play without having the score before him, but was most fortunately endowed by nature with sight-reading skills that left speechless every musician he would ever work with. As though by instinct, he knew, even in works he’d never seen before.

“He glances over the score, sits down at the piano, and begins to play, in precisely the tempi, nuances and style that both the composer and the poet would have demanded,” recalls the bass-baritone Gaston Germain. Walter and Otto Joachim, Helmut Blum, the flutist Mario Duschesnes and the tenor Léopold Simoneau tell a similar tale.

Did he miss life in Germany?

Germany was always his fatherland. He was devoted to its culture, its theatre, and the deep interest its people had always shown in music. Until 1933, he had enjoyed a real reputation there.

Later, he returned to Germany to visit his half-brother, Richard, his new sister-in-law, and the children from a first marriage, who lived at Bremen. From there, he would sail to Helgoland, where he had spent his holidays in childhood and youth.

During one such trip, he played for Berlin radio, and then, in the Fifties, he gave a radio recital at Cologne with Maureen Forrester.

What were his interests, other than music?

Everything that had to do with art, in all its forms, was of concern to John. During his travels, he was wont to visit all the museums, and he made some very pretty photographs as well.

He was keen on the theatre, and spent a good deal of time drafting his memoirs, although they have, regrettably, not yet been published. That being said, some of those pages have been reprinted in Renée Maheu’s biography.

Very much a city-dweller, country life held no charms for him, but he was nonetheless fascinated by trees, and also by plants, which he would tend carefully at home. He was easily amused by droll stories, and would either listen spellbound, or recount them himself, being the wittiest of hosts.

John was very fond of birds and flowers. Dark red peonies entranced him, and indeed, they would flower just round about his birthday. Until the day he died, I would send him as many peonies as he had had years on this earth. For his last birthday—June 12, 1997—he received 87.

In everyday affairs, he was quite fastidious, and kept his scores, notebooks, old programs, reviews, and so forth, in astonishingly good order, and to a degree that the civil servants at the National Archives had rarely seen in any artist.

John was fascinated by abstract painting, and, over a five-year stretch, painted over 250 colored works, bathed in light, the paint being laid on with the spatula only, not the brush. Most are now in collections belonging to musicians and music-lovers. Curiously though, he would never apply the color green.

In the midst of so agitated an existence, it was always the ocean, at Maine, that he turned to for solace.

Outside of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, few study German today, and many singers know only enough to translate a song text. What did John think of the relationship between the poem and the score?

In John’s memoirs, one reads: “I have invariably found that the greatest interpreters will first seek to get across the text, and that the words, will prevail over the music.

“As I see it, the poem is the flower, the music, the vase.”

Kathleen Ferrier?

John loved Kathleen Ferrier above all. He fell under the spell of her singular and magnificent voice, just as he admired her incredible musicality. No less singular was the character of this transcendental human being. John saw in her an angel “taken from us before her day.”

At her death, he was struck down by a sorrow that would never leave him. Kathleen Ferrier had insisted that John, rather than Josef Kripps, travel to accompany her, which is how she and John received the Académie Charles-Cros de Paris award for their interpretation of Frauenliebe und Leben, and Brahms’ Vier Ernste Gesänge.

When she once realised that she was so gravely ill, that she would no longer be able to travel to America and tour with John, she wrote: “I shall miss your lovely, lovely playing more than I can say. —K”

John was also very taken by the amplitude of the deep, warm voice of George London, while the latter was entranced by the pianist’s musicianship. For many years, they toured the United States together.

During one of those tours, Kathleen Ferrier’s accompanist suffered a nervous breakdown, and she asked whether John might step in to accompany her. George London, who had begun to hear much of Kathleen through other singers, generously told John that he had no objection at all to his taking the first flight out to join her. John never forgot that gesture. Any reference to George London’s early death in his presence—like that of Kathleen Ferrier—would bring tears to his eyes.

John’s Clementi fortepiano (built in the first half of the 19th century) has been donated to a foundation, I believe?

As with all great musicians, John wanted others to play upon his instruments after his death.

His piano, a Steinway, was given to the Orford Arts Center, cradle of the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, where, thanks to a foundation set up by anonymous benefactors, the John Newmark Studio is available for students who come in from round the world to study with Canadian and foreign professors.

The Clementi fortepiano has been given to the Musée de la Civilisation at Hull, near Ottawa, where it will be used for special recitals.

At Ottawa, in the National Archives, will be found many of John’s scores, his correspondence with musicians, personal notebooks, and many photographs. Under his will, his scores of vocal music were given to Maureen Forrester, his piano and chamber music scores to Marc Durand, and his library to McGill University.

Thanks to the Amis de l’Art fund, a John Newmark prize is given each year in June, on the occasion of the Prix d’Europe competition.

What did John expect from his collaborators?

John expected his fellow musicians to have a true musical sensitivity, to be utterly professional, to work seriously and without cease, and to study foreign languages.

What he despised was amateurism. He loathed all idleness, and would not put up with people who came poorly prepared to a recital, while he was the most patient of men with those entirely devoted to their art.

“If one would become an outstanding accompanist, one must, as I see it, be possessed of a great many talents. One must be well-acquainted not only with a vast repertory, but with poetry, history, mythology, and many other arts. One must know the relevant languages, as well as the styles inherent to each epoch. One must be extraordinarily quick at sight-reading and transposition. …

“How hard it is, to express the unbelievable joy one experiences as one works and rehearses with other musicians—the voyage of one’s own mind in the thoughts of a fellow human being, the exhilarating discovery of fresh details, as well as the fact that often, one may be able to aid and understand another’s thought-process.

“And what shall one say of one’s ability to hear! One must hear, one must apprehend, each breath taken by a singer, each bow-stroke, and that, within a fraction of a moment. One must be aware of the slightest shift or variation in the sound produced by our partners—and bring to it exactly the wanted touch and intensity at the very moment an unexpected change occurs.”

[Unpublished memoirs of John Newmark, in John Newmark et son Temps]

Katharine Kanter

Katharine Kanter is a Paris-based journalist. She contributes to various European publications, and is the editor of a Website on classical dance,