54. Ed Schafer And Three Chopin Barcarolles

Ed Schafer and Three Chopin Barcarolles


What follows will be neither a scholarly appreciation of the achievements of Edward H. Schafer (1913-1991), sinologist and specialist in Chinese material culture, medieval history, Daoism, and poetry, nor a short bio of this remarkable man—both are projects far beyond what I want to undertake. What I write will be no more than a loosely-strung series of memories of Ed Schafer, as they come to me when I think about him, recalling the years he was my teacher and friend , from my studying with him in 1948-50 until his death in 1991.


Returning to U. C. Berkeley after my time in the Army (see no. 49 above, "Music in Korea") I enrolled as an Oriental Languages major, specializing in both Japanese and Chinese. Schafer was teaching Chinese reading courses, a "bibliography of sinology" course, and others. He was a fervent disciple of Peter Boodberg and a great admirer of Berthold Laufer, and thus dedicated to abstruse investigations of both China's language and its material culture. I was studying with enthusiasm but no clear direction, mainly with Boodberg, Schafer, Ch'en Shih-hsiang, and Denzel Carr, and meanwhile engaged in a number of other projects—doing the weekly radio program of French music on Station KPFA, working at Creed's Book Store, writing with Gordon Cyr our comic chamber opera and performing it, and so forth. All this is the stuff of another Reminiscence, to be written. As the time of my B.A. graduation neared and I still had no clear idea of what I would do afterwards (except a vague intention of proceeding into a graduate program), it was Ed Schafer who pointed out to me, in the back pages of a Journal of the American Oriental Society, the announcement of a Hackney Scholarship for the study of Chinese painting—he knew this was one of my enthusiasms. I applied—the first qualified applicant to a scholarship already five years old, and so the first holder of it—and went for a year to the Freer Gallery, then U. MIchigan, and so on.


During my fifteen years away from Berkeley I would visit Ed Schafer whenever I came back, which was fairly often. In 1949-50 the university was hit by the terrible loyalty oath—the regents, responding to rightist political pressures, imposed a demand that all faculty members, to keep their jobs, had to sign an oath of loyalty to the U.S., and of non-membership in any subversive organization. Quite a few notable professors refused and left at this time—Harvard and others took advantage of Berkeley's disaster to recruit them. The Oriental Languages Department faculty, led by Boodberg, decided that in order to keep the department strong and its teaching program going, only one of their number would refuse to sign, representing the others. Ed Schafer was the one who refused. The Department supported him with research grants and in other ways until the oath was struck down and he was reinstated.


The wide spread of Ed's interests and accomplishments was always remarkable. I would learn from a Berkeley correspondent that he was playing Old Merrythought in the Golden Hynde Theater's production of "The Knight of the Burning Pestle," singing that drunken comic's song "Nose, nose, jolly red nose, And what gave thee that jolly red nose?" He was collecting books illustrated by Arthur Rackham. He was a deeply dedicated and highly knowledgeable bird-watcher. He was doing research and writing on a wide range of topics in Chinese history and material culture. Visits to Boodberg and to Schafer were for me like re-charging batteries.


When I came back to Berkeley as a professor in 1965, some of my old teachers were still active there, and I joined them as a junior colleague. Schafer had published The Golden Peaches of Samarkand in 1963 and was working on its successors. When I asked why he chose to move to London for a sabbatical to write one of his books, he explained that being in the city of Arthur Waley and others of his heroes made him a better writer, as he absorbed their lingering influences, so to speak, through his skin. He himself became a hero to prominent poets and others of the Bay Area counter-culture such as Gary Snyder, who took his classes or sat in on them. Along with two other Oriental Languages professors, Cyril Birch and Douglas Mills (Japanese literature, later returned to England) he had become involved in Faculty Club Christmas party performances, and they drew me in. For 1965, when the Free Speech Movement was the topic of the time, we presented a "Cantata Regulata" in which the new campus regulations on time, place, and manner of public gatherings and speeches, much argued and so in everyone's head, were set to operatic arias. In 1966 it was a program in the British music hall tradition, based on performances Cyril and Doug had engaged in while they were at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies at London U.); Ed and I did a recorder duet, among other things. And in 1967 it was our most ambitious production, "Dan Destry's Dilemma, or Publish or Perish, or Both," using songs from Gilbert and Sullivan, in which Ed Schafer played and sang the part of Phoebe Grindsby, the Oldest Graduate Student in the Department. (See CYCTIE 1 for a summary of this, with the songs I wrote for it.) Ed also composed one of the songs for Phoebe to sing, on the tortures of preparing for one's doctoral oral exams, based on "This is the Ghosts' High Noon" from Ruddigore. And he invented most of the names for our characters (the Chairman, for instance, was H. Luddendorff Threep.). Even in these later years of his life, his acting and singing, like everything he did, were charged with inner energy, expressed outwardly in his eyes constantly shifting direction,, his head never still.


One might wonder how anyone of such diverse achievements could continue to surprise; but he did. During one summer we got messages from Ed that he and Phyllis, both married at the time to other people, had gone off together and were going to marry, as indeed they did. They made long trips to strange and exotic places to see rare birds. Ed spent one summer, late in his life, learning to read Arabic—because, he told me, there was poetry in that language that he wanted to read in the original. He was making, for private distribution, a supplement to the Matthews Chinese Dictionary, with his own renderings of Chinese words--often, like Boodberg's, rare terms or even neologisms, which were nonetheless, for him and his followers, the "right" ones. I organized an evening for my grad students and a few others in our living room that climaxed with the playing of the great original live recording (Bruno Walter, Vienna Philharmonic) of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde"; leading up to this, Ed spoke to us on how the texts for the songs came into being, as much-altered German translations of Judith Gauthier's already loose French renderings of Tang poems. Ed once invited me to come with him to a Faculty Club lunch for the campus's Medieval Society, for which he (as a non-member) was giving a talk titled "China Invented the Middle Ages," telling these European specialists how many crucial inventions that shaped the history of that period in their part of the world—the compass, the stirrup that allowed knights in heavy armor to ride horses into battle, the gunpowder that shot them off their horses and ended their "era of chivalry," and so forth—all came from China.


Ed never went to China, even after it was opened in the 1970s to scholarly delegations; he refused to join any of them, wanting to organize his own and visit only places of his choice associated with Chinese poetry—no tractor factories, no collective farms--in the company of people also of his choosing. No funding organization would sponsor such a delegation. When I chaired an Old Chinese Painting delegation in 1977, I had the ACLS committee that sent us invite Ed to come with us as the "China scholar," the person from a different field of Chinese studies who went along with delegations to help interpret what they saw. Ed turned down the invitation, and later I read, by chance, his letter to the committee in their files, saying that he could not imagine spending a whole month in the company of art historians, deprived of all intellectual stimulation.


Last, and best, is the story of the three Chopin Barcarolles. My daughter Sarah, a world-class pianist (see sarahcahill.com on the internet), was playing dinner-music piano in evenings to make money at the Café Metropole, a restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. She played classical repertory, choosing pieces of substance but of a lighter kind, avoiding any that demanded listener attention and so would interrupt conversations. Ed Schafer was there one night, and recognizing her, came over to the piano between pieces. She asked whether he had a request, and he answered "You'd better be careful—I might ask for the Chopin Barcarolle." This was his favorite piece of music, a powerfully moving, extremely demanding work judged by many, including Adnré Gide, to be Chopin's masterpiece. Sarah then had one of those moments one lives for, and is blessed with only a few times, at best, in a lifetime: she was able to say that she couldn't play it there, but if Ed would come to the concert she was giving at Hertz Hall on campus next month, that was one of the pieces on her program. . . Ed came to the concert, Sarah played it (superbly), Ed was very happy.


Then came the terrible time when we heard that his cancer had come back, especially badly, and he had only a few days to live, and knew this. I was completely useless: I phoned to talk with him but couldn't finish a sentence without breaking down. Sarah went, with her new husband John Sanborn—who is, like her, very good in situations of this kind—to visit Ed and talk with him. And at his request she played, on their less-than-ideal upright piano, the Chopin Barcarolle. Ed gave her a copy of Golden Peaches, inscribed: ""To Sarah, a golden peach I have always admired. With the love of Ed Schafer." (Sarah told me this only recently, in connection with a similar incident involving another older colleague, commenting: " I guess there's nothing wrong with being flirtatious right up to the very end!"--and inspiring the present reminiscence.)


Skip now to the afternoon memorial service held for Ed at the Faculty Club. There were a number of speakers. Gary Snyder was there, and told me afterwards that he had composed a poem for the occasion, but unhappily the word didn't get through to the organizers and no one asked him to read it. I delivered some informal reminiscences, like these, adding a memory that had come to me as I walked across campus to the Club: When an exhibition of full-size copies of Tang tomb wall paintings was on view at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco, Ed was invited to talk about them, in the gallery, for a TV program. And as he is describing one of the paintings, he suddenly points up and says, excitedly, "Look! That bird flying up there—that's a hoopoe bird!" And, completely carried away, he goes on to talk of the prominence of that bird in Tang poetry, and about the etymology of its name, and begins to recite a poem about it in the original Tang pronunciation—and the announcer says "Yes, very interesting Professor Schafer, and now our next speaker is . . ." or something like that. Others spoke, and Sarah played, a third time, Chopin's "Barcarolle." Some of those who were there may have known that it was Ed's favorite piece, but very few knew the whole story.


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