My cousin, David Stacey, was undoubtedly as close as a brother I never had while growing up in England. The son of one of my mother’s younger brothers, he was less than a year younger than I was and his home no more than a mile or so from mine.
David and I loved many of the same things — riding our bikes, going to the pictures (movies) and playing cricket in the vacant field behind our school. As we grew older, we continued to share similar interests except one — David loved classical music and I, well, didn’t have an appreciation for it. While I liked the Beatles, David preferred Brahms. For me there was no one greater than Elvis from Tupelo, while David would rather listen to Caruso from Naples. That was just who he was.
After immigrating to America, I kept in touch with my favorite cousin, and in the late 1960s I returned to England for a summer visit. While staying at David’s house, he asked me to attend a concert with him in London. As he explained to me, it was to be conducted by one of the 20th centuries greatest composers of music, Otto Klemperer. Of course, I agreed to go without ever admitting to him that I had never heard of Otto Klemperer or his music.
The concert was truly magnificent and in just two hours had endeared me to classical music and curiously led me to learn more about the famous aging conductor.
I discovered that Klemperer was not only a gifted musician but also a man determined to triumph over the many misfortunes that overshadowed his life for years.
While living as a Jew in Germany in the 1930s, Klemperer saw his property confiscated by the Nazis and would likely have been sent to a concentration camp had he not managed to escape to the United States.
In time, he became the music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he would conduct the renowned works of both Beethoven and Brahms.
By the 1950s and after conducting the Philharmonic at the famous Hollywood Bowl, Klemperer was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a plum which left him partially paralyzed and in a totally depressive state. Severe bouts of seizures followed leaving him largely incapacitated. It was even reported that he went missing for a time.
Later, however, he re-established his career back in London. Klemperer then suffered another setback from a fall on a visit to Canada. Still he continued conducting but this time only while seated in an especially designed, raised chair. As if that wasn’t enough, while smoking in bed, he suffered multiple burns while attempting to douse the flames causing even more damage to his partially paralyzed body.
Despite deteriorating health issues, at the concert I attended this gaunt old man I had never ever before heard of, conducted a commanding performance from the chair where he was bound. Later I also learned that although he was right-handed, he conducted the entire concert with his left had due to his debilitating paralysis.
I will always remember that it was my cousin David (who now resides in Australia) who introduced me to the beauty and grace of classical music and to a determined man who overcame some of life’s most woeful tragedies, finding a way not only to succeed, but to triumph.
Whether you’re a fan of classical music or not, you must admire such a man as Otto Klemperer.