This interview was originally broadcast on December 13, 2010. Apollo's Angels is now available in paperback.
It is ballet season, which means many companies are performing The Nutcracker for the holidays and preparing their big shows for the winter months. Everywhere you turn these days, you can see toe shoes — but there is a deep and fascinating history to the art form that few people know.
In her new book Apollo's Angels, historian Jennifer Homans — a former professional ballet dancer herself — traces ballet's evolution over the past 400 years, and examines how changes in ballet parallel changing ideas about class structure, gender, costume, the ideal body and what the body can physically do. The book chronicles ballet's transition from the aristocratic courtier world in Europe through its place as a professional discipline in the Imperial Court of Russia, and finally as a technique performed on stages throughout the world.
Ballet's origins, Homans explains, grew out of the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. Dancers would perform at the royal courts — and then invite the audience members to participate.
"It was a dance that was done by courtiers and kings and princes at court in social situations," she says. "It was not a theatrical art set off from social life."
The first ballet dancers did not wear tutus or dance in satin shoes, but they did formalize the footwork patterns — known as first, second, third, fourth and fifth position — that are still used today.
"Louis XIV realized that if his art form was going to be disseminated throughout his realm and even to other European countries, he would have to find a way to write it down," Homans explains. "So he asked [choreographer] Pierre Beauchamp to write some these positions. The positions themselves are the grammars of ballet, they're the ABC's, the classical building blocks of ballet."
In ballet's early days, men were expected to perform the more extravagant and intricate footwork. It wasn't until years later, during the French Revolution, that female dancers became stars.
"During the French Revolution, the aristocratic male dancer was really discredited," she says. "The hatred and bitter animosity toward the aristocracy had direct consequences for ballet. Why should you have this aristocratic art? If you're going to take down the aristocracy, why not take down ballet, too?"
By the 1830s, men were actually reviled onstage, she says.
"They're thought to be a disgrace," she says. "Female dancers take the ideals that existed in the aristocratic art form and turned them into a feminine and spiritual ideal of which they are the masters. Then you get this image of the ballerina on toe, in these more romantic-era ballets of sylphs and unrequited love and the romantic themes that carried ballet into the 19th century."
Apollo's Angels was recently named one of the top five nonfiction books of the year by the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Jennifer Homans performed with the Chicago Lyrica Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet during her career as a professional ballet dancer. She is currently the dance critic for The New Republic, and teaches the history of dance at New York University, where she is a distinguished scholar-in-residence.
On Apollo's relationship to dance
"From the earliest moments of ballet, the idea was to create some kind of Apollonian image — an ideal sort of body. Even the technique allowed you to modify your, perhaps, imperfect proportions. If you're too tall, maybe you would lower your arms a bit — maybe so you don't appear so high up."
On the fear of being dropped
"I never was thinking that, because within the flow of the movement, you have complete confidence in the partner that you're working with, and so those kinds of considerations are not to the fore. Now, if you're working with somebody you don't quite trust or there's a lift that's particularly difficult, then I think there can be a certain tension. And that's something you want to try to get rid of in a performance. One of the great ballerinas once told me, 'When you start to have a dialogue in your head while you're performing, that's when you know it's gone wrong.' In a way, you want to get rid of those words and enter a different way of existing for the time that you're onstage."
On the transition from dance as an aristocratic pastime to a professional discipline
"You start to have a more difficult technique that even the most diligent aristocrats can't keep up with by the end of the 17th century. And then dancers are becoming professionals, and that's when you have more and more separation between the aristocrats who are watching the dance and the people who are performing it. And the dancers at that point are much more exclusively drawn from the lower orders of society. They are learning, in a way, to become aristocrats. On stage, they appear as noblemen, even if in society they're emphatically not."
On dancing en pointe
"It's really the point in which popular traditions feed into a high operatic, high balletic art. Marie Taglioni is the ballerina we most associate with en pointe work. She was working in Vienna at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. These troupes often did tricks, and one of the tricks they'd do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. This kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet. It was given an elevated form, so instead of stomping around, it became an image of the ethereal, a wispy sylph or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This is the time of year when many of us will get to a performance of "The Nutcracker," but you don't have to be interested in ballet to be fascinated by the book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" by our guest Jennifer Homans. It's now out in paperback. Homans' story of how ballet evolved from the 16th century is rich with history about class structure, gender, costume, shifting images of the ideal body and ideas about what the body is physically capable of.
Jennifer Homans used to a professional ballet dancer. She performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She's dance critic for The New Republic and teaches the history of dance at NYU, where she is a distinguished scholar in residence. Terry spoke to Homans last year, when "Apollo's Angels" was released in hardback.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Jennifer Homans, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start with something I found very interesting. You write: Ballet is sexual, but dancers infrequently experience their art as sexual, even when their limbs are wrapped around each other or they are joined in an impassioned embrace. And I will add to that that some of the lifts in ballet require some pretty intimate touching. So why isn't dance experienced as sexual?
JENNIFER HOMANS: Well, I think it depends on who you're talking about. The dancers themselves I don't think experience the art as sexual, and the reason for that is really that it's work. And when you're in a state of high concentration over, you know, are you on the music, is the step being done properly, what is the feeling behind it, even if it's a sexually sort of loaded scene, it's not sexual between the two people who are dancing.
Whether it's sexual or not for the people watching it is another story all together.
GROSS: So during, like, say a lift that's so beautiful and graceful and maybe even sexual to the audience, is the dancer ever thinking, were you ever thinking when you were a dancer: Is he going to drop me?
HOMANS: Well, you know, I never was thinking that because within the flow of the movement, you have complete confidence, hopefully, in the partner that you're working with. And so, you know, those kinds of considerations are not to the fore.
Now, if you're working with somebody you don't quite trust, or there's a lift that's particularly difficult, you know, then I think there can be a certain tension. And that's something you want to try to get rid of in a performance, I think.
One of the great ballerinas once told me: When you start to have a dialogue in your head when you're performing, that's when you know it's going wrong. In a way, you want to get rid of those words and sort of enter a kind of different way of existing for the time that you're on stage. So instead of thinking about...
GROSS: A way of thinking about your music and movement?
HOMANS: That's right. You know, so instead of thinking about what you're going to have for dinner that night, which you could do because dancers know their steps so well, and they are so second nature that your mind can wander. But, you know, to sort of shift into another dimension, as it were, so that you're not thinking about that, but you're in a kind of close synchrony with music.
GROSS: Before we get into how the ideal image of the dancer's body has changed over the centuries, can you just describe what the ideal ballerina's body is considered today?
HOMANS: You know, that's a tough question, and people always ask that because there is the concept of ballet as something that strives towards perfection and towards a perfect body, that you must have, you know, long legs, turned-out hips, arched feet, preferably some people even say a small head.
But I think that's actually really a misunderstanding and a misconception. Dancers do come in all sizes and shapes. Yes, it helps if you have the facility that the technique requires, but the main quality that makes a great dancer is not the perfection of their body but really the luminosity of it.
It's a quality of illumination. You know it when you see it. You know, two dancers doing the same step, one might have a perfect body and perfect technique. The other one might be much less perfect but much more interesting to watch. So it's not straightforward, as it might seem.
GROSS: Nevertheless, if we compared a ballet dancer's body today with a ballet dancer of the 16th or 17th centuries, would we see a big difference?
HOMANS: Yes, we would. The dancers of the 16th and 17th century were, in the case of the women, more - well, they were just, they followed the aesthetic of their own time. And in a way, you could say we do, too. It's a sort of the far end of the extreme of our time, but there are those images of fashion and models and, you know, the ideal sort of elegant and graceful body.
And that's the, I think, the unifying theme throughout so that even the technique allowed you to modify your own perhaps imperfect proportions.
You know, if you're too tall, maybe you would lower your arms a bit so that you don't quite appear so high up. So you might bend them a little bit if they're too long. So you could sort of try to craft your own image.
And the other thing to remember about that is that the dancers in the very beginning, in the 17th century, it was the man, not the woman, who was the privileged performer. It was really a male ideal at the beginning, and it was only come the 1830s that women started to be the central focus of the dance tradition.
GROSS: We'll get back to that in a minute. But, you know, you write about how dance was originally a very aristocratic art. It was performed for kings, and that there was considered to be a connection between posture, nobility and character. So how did that sense of ballet being an aristocratic art affect what was expected of how the dancers looked and how they carried themselves?
HOMANS: You know, ballet began as a social art. It was a dance that was done by courtiers. It was done by kings and princes, not people in the street but aristocrats. So it was done at court by people in social situations. It was not a theatrical art set off from social life.
So, you know, the ways that people moved were - had to do with the ways that they moved in their lives. Like for example, if you have a reverence, a bow, which is still performed today in classical ballet, both in dances but also at the end of most dance classes, that's the same bow that you would see in a painting of courtiers leaving their king. And how far they bow, how deep they go was a sign of respect for the monarch or for the person they were addressing.
GROSS: So when you say ballet was performed by people, you know, in palaces and stuff, as opposed to in theaters, so - but they didn't learn all the kind of complicated steps that we know today.
HOMANS: Well, they did, actually.
GROSS: They did, really?
HOMANS: They did. You know, Louis XIV was himself a wonderful dancer. He worked very hard at his dance, especially in his earlier years. And he practiced on a daily basis and performed regularly in his own spectacles and productions.
So, you know, people did achieve a fairly high level of technique. And it was -a lot of time was spent on mastering these noble forms. And really the reason for that it was proof of your stature. So it was very important to be able to present yourself in these ways convincingly.
Now, the tradition really separates out, and you start to have a more difficult technique that even the most diligent aristocrats can't keep up with sort of by the end of the end of the 17th century. And then dances are becoming professionals, and that's when you have more and more separation between the aristocrats who are watching the dance, increasingly, and the people who are performing it.
And the dancers at that point are much more exclusively drawn from the lower orders of society, which is in itself an interesting thing when you think about it because they are learning, in a way, to become aristocrats. On stage, they appear as noblemen, even if they're, in society, emphatically not.
GROSS: So really, the dancers were drawn from the lower classes of society?
HOMANS: They often were, you know. Once you moved away from the kings who were performing, dancers were drawn from the lower orders of society. In Russia, for example, in the origins of ballet in Russia, the dancers were serfs.
They were serfs on estates, and their owners paid vast sums of money to have them trained in this European, West European dance form so that they could perform for their masters on a, you know, on a summer's evening in the estate. And in this area, especially with women, there was a very close line between dancing and prostitution and...
GROSS: Between ballet and prostitution?
HOMANS: Between ballet and - maybe I shouldn't say prostitution so much, but these landowners would sometimes ask their serfs to take off their clothes at the end of the performance or things like this, where, you know, the line between ballet and art and sex was very thin.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Homans. She's the author of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Homans, and she's the author of the new book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet." She teaches the history of dance at NYU and is the dance critic for The New Republic.
So the five positions of ballet were codified in the late 17th century by Pierre Beauchamp, who was a ballet master who became the king's dancing master in France and was later appointed head of the Royal Academy of Dance. So what are the five positions of ballet, and how did Beauchamp go about codifying them?
HOMANS: Well, the five positions of ballet are the same positions that any child would learn today: first, second, third, fourth, fifth positions, positions of the feet, in this case, in particular. And, you know, Louis XIV realized that if his art form, this great, noble art form, was going to be sort of disseminated throughout his realm and even to other European countries, he would have to learn a way to write it down.
And so he asked Beauchamp to find a way to write it down, and one of the things that Beauchamp did was to write down these positions. He did also invent a notation. But the positions themselves are the grammar of ballet, they're the ABCs, the building blocks of classical ballet. So this was a vitally important moment when they were actually codified and recorded.
What do they do? The positions of ballet are - if you think of first position, it's really a noble position. You stand, in this case the feet were not 180 degrees, they were more sort of 90 degrees. So you're standing at ease, with grace, with control, with a sense of symmetry and precision. This was the...
GROSS: So your heels are together, and your feet are 90 degrees apart?
HOMANS: That's right. That's right, and your arms are in a relaxed but gracious way to the side. So, you know, this is the position of the high nobility. And the first position is a kind of resting place, a stopping point, the tonic, as one would say in music, of ballet.
And the other positions simply map the directions of the body in the ways in which you might travel or move in an efficient and graceful way, without any jarring or awkward movements.
GROSS: So how did dancing en pointe, dancing on your toes, start?
HOMANS: That's one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet because it's really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of high operatic, high balletic art.
Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these sort of Commedia dell'arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.
And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet, most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.
GROSS: There's an illustration in your book of Marie Taglioni en pointe, and you point out that her calf muscles are bulging. Would a ballerina today have those bulging calf muscles?
HOMANS: Ballerinas today have more calf muscles than you might realize and, you know...
GROSS: But would they be bulging, or are they shaped differently?
HOMANS: Not maybe bulging quite the way hers were. And one of the reasons for that is that the early toe shoes were not supported in the same way that the toe shoes are today, so that the technique and the demands on the legs were quite different.
Marie Taglioni's toe shoes actually still exist. There is a pair in the archives at the Paris Opera. And you can go there and hold them. And they're not new shoes, they're old shoes, which is quite important because you can see where she stood, where they're scuffed, how she danced and where she danced.
And the important thing there is that she danced just on the tips of her metatarsals, not quite on the full pointe, the way dancers do today, and that the shoes were soft, very soft like a soft ballet shoe, and darned around the edges, so that she had to support the full weight of her body on this metatarsal with no extra glue or, you know, hardened materials, which is what support dancers today.
So her calves were doing the lion's share of the work. And it's not just her calves. Her entire legs are very beefy. So she's - in spite of her ethereal, fleeting image, she was actually quite hefty as a physical type.
GROSS: So which toes are you on when you're on toe?
HOMANS: You're really on the first two. That's - the main weight is being carried on the first two toes. And that's because when you're standing en pointe, that's the axis straight up through your spine so that you actually have more strength if you're balanced towards those first two toes than if you're sort of edged more towards the pinky toe. If you were on the pinky toe, if you think about, you'd fall off pointe just because your ankle would bend the wrong way.
So dancers are trained to be mainly on those first two toes, maybe three depending on the foot.
GROSS: Now, it's very interesting to read how the role of men and women in ballet changed over the centuries. And yet, you say that early on in ballet - and I guess you're talking 17th century, late 16th century here - men were given to virtuosity while women were expected to exercise restraint. You say the relationship was chivalric. Am I saying that right?
GROSS: With the man performing technical feats in honor of his demure lady. So why was it the man who was taking center stage and being, I guess doing more physical feats than the woman?
HOMANS: Well, I mean, this really goes back to the court origins that we were talking about earlier. I mean, these are the men who are thought to be the highest members of society. And they are the kings, they are the ones in control. And the women are meant to be sort of the same but less.
So the women perform, but they don't do the same kind of extravagant and intricate footwork that the men do. And you can think of it partly as costume, as well. The women, of course, are wearing very long, heavy skirts.
To actually get off the ground or beat your legs or weave intricate steps with your feet would be very difficult in those kinds of costumes, whereas the men have free legs, and you can see them. So all of this worked towards the man having the more prominent bravura role and the women being more demure.
GROSS: So how did ballerinas become stars?
HOMANS: Ballerinas became stars when men, when the male aristocratic dancer was really discredited. And this happened in France. France was the center of the ballet world at this point.
And when the French Revolution came, this was the key moment for women. What happened? Well, the hatred and bitter animosity towards the aristocracy during the French Revolution had direct consequences for ballet, which after all, was an aristocratic art.
And so, you know, the day before the storming of the Bastille, the people of Paris stormed the opera. Why should you have this aristocratic art? If you're going to take down the aristocracy, let's take down ballet too.
So the men who were performing this art gradually became less admired, and they started to become sort of more acrobatic and to pull more and more from popular forms. The technique changed. And by the, you know, 1830s, 1840s, men are reviled on stage. You know, they're thought to be a disgrace.
Well, what steps into the void? Marie Taglioni, other female dancers who take the ideals that had existed in the aristocratic art form and turned them into a feminine ideal of which they are the masters.
And so then you get this image of the ballerina on toe, in these more Romantic-era ballets of unrequited love and the romantic themes that carried ballet into the 19th century.
DAVIES: Jennifer Homans' book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" is now out in paperback. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Jennifer Homans. Her book, "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet," is now out in paperback. It's about how the art of ballet evolved, shifting ideas about gender and the ideal body, and about how kings, courts and revolutions have influenced the development of ballet. Ballet began in the course of French kings.
GROSS: You were talking about the aristocratic basis of ballet. But in the Cold War, period it was Russia that was considered to be the center of ballet. And the Bolshoi Ballet was revered around the world, and even when Russia was America's enemy, the Bolshoi was such a big deal in the United States. So how did Russia, when it was a communist country, reconcile ballet with its aristocratic origins?
HOMANS: Yeah, that's a fascinating moment because, you know, as you say, I mean you've got a court art that is very much associated with, you know, Nicholas II and, who after all, is the - has an affair with one of the dancers. And when the revolution comes, Lenin, actually, takes over this ballerina's house, ransacks it and uses it as his headquarters, as a kind of symbol that, you know, that the court is over and I'm in control. So you would think that ballet would have gone with the Imperial Court. But in fact, it becomes the, sort of centerpiece of cultural life in the Soviet state, or certainly a very important part.
But the other thing is that ballets really did change and they reworked them to the new socialist image. So you had a period where there were lots of what they call tractor ballets. These were ballets about workers with shiny tools remaking the socialist state.
On the other hand, you also had classical ballets, Petipa ballets that were redone. You know, some of the aristocratic etiquette was wiped out, so you didn't have the same kind of emphasis on pantomime and gracious manners, and instead you had more bravura variations, a kind of muscular quality added to these dances so that they would, in fact, reflect the image of the Soviet state.
And, you know, the other thing is that ballet is an art form where you don't need the language in order to appreciate it. So, you know, the Russian leaders, or the Soviet leaders, could take diplomats of all kinds to the ballet. They didn't need to understand Russian in order to be impressed. So the ballet became a place where foreign dignitaries would be entertained and shown the great cultural life of the Soviet Union. When the country finally opened up a little bit and the Bolshoi, as you said, toured to the West, they were an absolute sensation. I mean the lines around the block, the cries of wonder and amazement at this extraordinary art form and at the dancers who performed it was part of the Cold War political story.
GROSS: Now George Balanchine, the great choreographer, who came to the U.S. from Russia, you describe him as the jewel in the crown of 20th century dance. And you say Balanchine saw ballet as the philosophy of an approach to life.
Now you studied at the New York City Ballet, which was founded by Balanchine. What did that mean to you when you were studying?
HOMANS: Well, you know, I was a kid from Chicago and I, you know, had not grown up in a theatrical world. My father was an academic and my mother worked in the university, so I had very little exposure to theatrical people. And when I arrived in New York at Balanchine's school, there I was in this kind of little Russia. I mean they all spoke Russian. Danilova, one of my main teachers, you know, would appear at class, you know, dressed in sort of pastel chiffons and false eyelashes curled and elaborate makeup and hair do's and there was like a kind of very, very old world perfume and etiquette to the life there. So for me it was quite an extraordinary experience.
It was one I struggled with at times because there was also, you know, with that a very, very clear sort of, as I saw it at the time, authoritarian impulse so that, you know, you were really expected to do what you were told and you were not meant to ask questions. And, you know, I remember facing one of my teachers and saying, well, I just can't do it that way because I had some theory about why I couldn't do it that way. You know, and she just looked at me with her stick and sort of just prodded my legs and said, you know, Jennifer, more.
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HOMANS: And that was it, you know? Just do it my way. And so, you know, there was that element to it as well.
GROSS: If there was an authoritarian side to Balanchine's company it sounds like there was also a very spiritual side. He was Russian Orthodox and you say that partly because of his faith, he believed that music and dance were sacred arts and that one finds God through the senses. Did you experience that when you were dancing?
HOMANS: Oh, very much so. I mean that was the - that was the reason to dance, and that's the main thing that one experienced on a sort of daily basis. You know, there is something almost religious about ballet and about being a dancer. It's a commitment, the ritual of going to class everyday, of being with people and performing these great works. And when you work very hard and you achieve a kind of coordination and skill in the body, there is a way in which it sets you free. And, you know, if you're doing these beautiful movements to music and you manage to get it all right, which doesn't happen all the time, but when you do, it is an extraordinary and transcendent experience.
GROSS: Your book ends with you saying, something important really is over. We are in mourning. Classical ballet has always been an art of belief. It does not fare well in cynical times. It's an art of high ideals and self control in which proportion and grace stand for an inner truth, an elevated state of being. Today we no longer believe in ballet's ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill which seem to us exclusionary and divisive.
So do you think it's over and do you think that has to do with the times that we live in?
HOMANS: I do think that something very big and important is over. You know, the whole era that we've been talking about, this great 20th century modernist moment is no more. I mean and, you know, that's not a criticism, it's just a historical fact. I mean a lot of the people who are, who were important to it have died and we do live in a sort of different kind of aesthetic era now.
If you look back over the history of ballet and you see that at certain points in the history, ballet has been really, really central to culture, a kind of very important thing that people talk about, that matters enormously. I think one of the problems is that it is, in fact, more conservative today than it has been in a very long time. You know, we are very concerned today with preserving the classics, with sort of holding on and making sure that they are in good shape and being performed well. That's - there's nothing wrong with that. That's sort of the tradition and we need that.
The problem is that that's not quite enough. And the new work it seems to me, to be very, very overwhelmed with steps, with a kind of athleticism and bravura that doesn't move people particularly and, you know, I'm not sure where the vision is or where it's all going to go. It may pick up and find a new spot, and that's certainly, you know, I will be the first person to be on my feet applauding if that were to happen.
GROSS: You danced until you were 26. Why did you stop?
HOMANS: I stopped because although I still - I mean, I loved to dance. It was an absolute passion with me, and I think I still loved to dance when I stopped, but it was almost a message from my own body in a way. I mean I just -I had had an injury. I, during the injury I had done a lot of reading and I had kind of developed a routine for myself where I would read and write and I had my kind of control of my own time and I had my own schedule and, you know, when I went back to dancing, I just, you know, it was almost like physically I just couldn't do it anymore. I just didn't really want to as much as I loved to dance. It sounds strange but I just kind of reached a brick wall.
And I think part of what was going on was that I was always pulled sort of towards the life of the mind as well as the life of the body, if you want to put it that way and, you know, I knew that I wanted to study and to read more and resume my education. I had not been to college and so, you know, I think I saw it as an opportunity, really that here was a moment where I could stop dancing and I could start something brand new at an age where I was still young enough to be able to make something of it without too, too much difficulty, and so I did that. I have to say that stopping was much harder than I thought it would be.
GROSS: Well, Jennifer Homans, thank you so much for talking with us.
HOMANS: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Jennifer Homans' book "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" is now out on paperback. She spoke to Terry last December. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews some recordings of Wilhelm Furtwangler, regarded as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.