Thomas Quasthoff -- Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels
October 2, 2006 8:17 AM   Subscribe

“The leader of the jury looked at his papers and said in the first round: ‘I know a disabled person is coming. I want the jury to close their eyes. I don’t want them to be touched in any way.’ ”
As if, of course, one needed to know about Thomas Quasthoff's Thalidomide-related severe physical handicaps to be moved by the sound of his voice. He goes seamlessly from pianissimo to fortissimo, in his recitals a single Lied becomes "a major, stunning drama playing out in a few minutes". He sang jazz to support himself in university and it remains a passion (he likes to sing Paul Robeson or even Frank Sinatra encores), but he's famously leery of crossover artists like Andrea Bocelli. Just don't cough during his recitals -- "because I love this music so much". He doesn't like to talk much about his nightmarish childhood and teenage years, plagued by surgeries and body casts -- "I have in my past time had very difficult years, very difficult years" is all he'll usually say -- so please try not to consider him a victim, because he doesn't see himself as such: "I don't think people are moved because I am disabled. I think it's because I have something to say." More inside.
posted by matteo (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever Thalidomide is mentioned, I guess all of us -- especially our American readers born in the early 1960s -- should thank Frances Oldham Kelsey, that unsung heroine of the twentieth century.
posted by matteo at 8:19 AM on October 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is an absolutely great post.
posted by Lord_Pall at 8:20 AM on October 2, 2006

and if I'm allowed to add a personal memory -- I heard Quasthoff sing Beethoven's Ninth at La Scala last December, the great Daniel Barenboim conducting, and there were so many things to remember, it was one of those nights -- maestro Bruno Casoni's chorus, the scarily good La Scala orchestra, Barenboim's hypnotically elegant conducting. But the most vivid memory -- it was that night's finest moment for me -- is of Quasthoff's phrasing of "feuertrunken", "drunk with fire". A bit of a Beethoven 9 nut, I had nonetheless never heard it sung that way, and it really illuminated the entire symphony for me. That, and Quasthoff's smile.

It was just nice to see that famously difficult -- to say the least -- audience give a ten-minute long standing ovation. I like to think that a nice chunk of those ten minutes were especially for Quasthoff.
posted by matteo at 8:37 AM on October 2, 2006

This is great, matteo. Yesterday's piece in the Times really moved me. I guess I know what I'll be busy with for the rest of the evening.
posted by felix betachat at 8:38 AM on October 2, 2006

jeez, I just saw your title. Spot on, my friend.
posted by felix betachat at 8:43 AM on October 2, 2006

I play a pretty mean ukulele, despite the fact that effemerol made me a scanner.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:52 AM on October 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wonderful post as usual, matteo. I've been interested in Mr. Quasthoff since seeing a good interview with him on 60 Minutes. It must have been quite something to see him live. (Here's some lovely jazz if you'd like to see another side of his artistry as the NYT article mentioned.) Thanks very much for this.
posted by melissa may at 9:23 AM on October 2, 2006

especially our American readers born in the early 1960s

Or Canadian--I'm part of that cohort ('61) and not infrequently encountered afflicted kids growing up. My mother was offered Thalidomide by her doctor *shudder* but fortunately refused.

Great post.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:11 AM on October 2, 2006

That's ephemerol Astro Zombie. Note one of ephemerol's side effects is the inability to Google before posting.

On another note... Thalidomide is now being used to treat Leprosy.
posted by Gungho at 10:24 AM on October 2, 2006

What an amazing talent. It's not common to hear someone who can switch back and forth between Lieder and jazz improv so seamlessly. Great links, matteo and melissa may.
posted by the_bone at 10:30 AM on October 2, 2006

(Makes Gungho's head explode.)
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:36 AM on October 2, 2006

Or Canadian...

...or English, as in one of the hosts of my current favorite podcast.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:47 AM on October 2, 2006

I saw him in Bach's Mass in B Minor some number of year's ago. It's funny, but the article got it right on. The first thing I noticed was his stature, but when he started singing, his voice was all that mattered... in the entire ensemble.
posted by noble_rot at 11:02 AM on October 2, 2006

Can anyone tell the idiot (me) which link would be a good place to start for someone who has never heard about any of what is discussed in the thread?
posted by Vindaloo at 11:18 AM on October 2, 2006

Magnificent post, thank you!
posted by Skorgu at 11:18 AM on October 2, 2006

On another note... Thalidomide is now being used to treat Leprosy

Indeed, which spawned a tragedy all of its own: in brazil, I believe it was, the thalidomide was to be prescribed only to men, and a logo was placed on the side of the package (along with lengthy text warnings) -- the logo showed the silhouette of a pregnant woman, in a circle, with a bar through it. "Not to be taken by pregnant woman", was, sadly, interpreted by the illiterate as 'prevents pregnancy". So there is a second wave of Thalidomide children in Brazil. also.

I went through elementary school with a girl, Colleen, who was a thalidomide baby -- tiny arms, fingers really atatched to her shoulders. She sat on her desk and wrote with her feet. Her cheerfulness and vivacity was, especially in retrospect, stunning and inspiring. (Hi, Colleen.)

Anyway, the post is great, and, it should be noted, not really about Thalidomide but about a talented artist whose work I will now seek out. Thanks Matteo.
posted by Rumple at 11:57 AM on October 2, 2006

Brilliant post, I jumped to favourite it, and I've dug up as much Quasthoff as I can find on Rhapsody.

(matteo, there's a typo in the tags where you've spelled Quasthoff as Quathoff.)
posted by rosemere at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2006

rosemere: thanks! fixed
posted by matteo at 4:40 PM on October 2, 2006

Saw Q live, singing Lieder; better than any I know.
I think people right in front got some spit on them.
posted by jouke at 10:02 PM on October 2, 2006

awesome - thank you, matteo!
posted by madamjujujive at 11:35 PM on October 2, 2006

i saw him a few months ago live.

quasthoff live projects such a solid concentration of force and stature, which is devoid of any sense of shame or self-consciousness from his disability.

and the best for me is that from the performance, i only remember his powerful and controlled voice, his 'all-business' expressions, and his constant movement. i don't remember at all how he got on and off the stage, or how he sat, or how he walked, or how he fit into his suit, etc...i remember nothing about his physicallity except his face and his voice. which is exactly what is so special about him. he is so extrodinary, that the last thing that registers is the fact that he is disabled.
posted by naxosaxur at 9:42 AM on October 3, 2006

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