There are two great crossing shadows that have darkened the lives of those of us born near the end of the Second World War.
The first was cast by the mushroom cloud. I was one of those elementary-school boys who was herded down to the basement of my school to lean against the wall over the poor crouching girls huddled underneath to protect them from a potential nuclear blast. We had a siren in our town that went off to alert volunteer firemen they were needed, but the siren was also supposed to let us know that an air raid was immanent. Every time the siren went off, kids my age all feared it would be “the big one.”
And I remember watching film on TV of Nevada atomic bomb tests where we would see houses blown away by the shock waves or crumble in flames. It seemed very real and very soon. We all had dreams with mushroom clouds in them and talked about “the A-bomb.”
And there were maps in newspapers and magazines showing circles of destruction if a nuclear bomb hit New York and I looked anxiously to see whether our town was inside the circumference. And it usually was.
It was a background anxiety for most of my childhood and is still there, somewhere at the margins of my psyche.
But the other shadow was the Holocaust. I recently watched all six-and-a-half hours of the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, and I felt the cheeriness drain from my cheeks. And that second shadow all came back. It was something I knew about way too young to be able to process. Now I am 74 and still can’t adequately grasp it.
I remember, from the age of six or seven, when early television was still struggling to find content, and often filled out Saturday mornings with industrial films or films made by the Army or State Department. Particularly a show called The Big Picture, and on it — at that tender age — I remember seeing film footage of the liberation of the death camps and the piles of skeletonized bodies piled up and the hollow-eyes survivors shaking with cold and hunger, and it is a kind of measuring stick I have, morally, on the depth of human evil. Because of how that footage burned its way into me from childhood, I was sensitized to the horror and outrage. It trips a button in me — this is what humans do to humans.
Such scenes are permanently playing somewhere in the back of my head, never too far submerged, and seeing the Burns documentary brought it all back into the front of my awareness.
It is not merely because of the grim nature of the documentary, but because of its historical ripples, forward and back in time. The series tells two different but parallel stories. The first is about Hitler and Nazism and the results of rabid anti-Semitism; the second is about America’s response to all that.
The first is unsettling because of the many resonant parallels between the National Socialist political plan and the current Republican plan — not merely Trump (or “Moose-a-loony” as I call him) (Or as Stephen Colbert called him, “the Count of Mostly Crisco”) — but the whole of the Republican party, which seems to have cynically chosen transparent lies, xenophobia and racism, not as a belief, so much, but as a strategy. There may be a few true believers, but most of them know what they are doing.
The second, perhaps even more disturbing, is the American public’s willingness to absorb these lies, xenophobia and racism. Before World War II, the isolationist mood of the electorate was quite clear, and the rhetoric used is the same as that used today. “America First” is not a new slogan.
The old news photos of Madison Square Garden “America First” rallies are hard to distinguish from Trump rallies. The same flags, the same slogans. There were Nazi supporters in both crowds. The prefix “Neo-“ doesn’t help. Hitler’s National Socialist party didn’t have more than a third of the vote before he became chancellor — it was a minority party when it took power — and now Republicans (Trump with less than a third of the vote) are figuring out how they can get and keep power without majority support.
I grew up in New Jersey, in a place that has half Protestant, half Catholic and half Jewish, and no distinctions were made, anymore than if someone were Irish, or German, or blond or redheaded — just an interesting bit of fact about your friends. And so, the idea that you would murder a few million people because they were Jewish was not simply horrifying, but made absolutely no sense at all. It was crazy, and perhaps the craziness of it was the scariest part: People don’t act through thoughtfulness or rationality, but are easily led to adopt absolutely insane ideas.
And, of course, we’re seeing it all over again with Trump supporters. And seeing it quite literally, not just a faint echo. Word for word.
So, when I speak of “ripples” both back and forward in time, I remember not just the Holocaust, but also the Holodomor, Babi Yar, Katyn, the Armenian Genocide, the massacres of Native Americans, 250 years of race slavery, the Sichuan Massacres in China in 1645, the 100,000 killed by the Spanish Inquisition, Cambodian genocide, Rwandan genocide, not to mention the pyramids of skulls created by Tamerlane or the biblical command to murder all “the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites,” and to “save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” God could sound almost human in his viciousness, as in 1 Samuel 15: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
One of the most important books I have read in the past 10 years is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and the death and devastation under first Stalin and then Hitler. It seems the book has not ended and we see its sequel in Ukraine right now.
History is an endless tale of woe.
And so, at the end of Burns’ documentary, when he tells, again, the story of Anne Frank, and quotes her famous line, “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” the irony is absolutely unbearable.
I think of the lines by Yeats, written in a much lighter context, but still relevant here:
The thought comes over one that perhaps the planet would be better off without the scab of humans on its surface, that perhaps we should just let it run its course, let Putin set off the back-and-forth of our missiles passing his on the way across the oceans to mutually assured destruction. The earth could get on with being the earth — a new start.
But I have a son and a daughter, and two granddaughters, whose lives are cantilevered into the dark chasm of the future, and I cannot wish that on them. Like every generation before, we have failed them again.
In a 1993 interview on the Charlie Rose show on PBS, author David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) talked about his childhood. “We are creatures of our background and environment,” he said. “We are very quickly made in life. The first few years seem to be determining who we are for years and years afterwards. You look for explanations for yourself and you go further and further back and wonder if you ever changed or ever developed.”
When we look at a life as a story, with a single trajectory, and rather like a novel that we tell ourselves about ourselves, one way to organize the narrative is in chapters, and those chapters are the houses we have lived in.
Each house has its particular memories, its particular emotional resonance and its beginning, middle and end, an end leading to the next chapter, the next home. Some chapters are short, some are long. There are even those among us whose lives are told in a single long chapter — a house they were born in, raised in, married in, inherited from parents and eventually died in. Such continuity is rare; most of us have many chapters.
Until I was about three, I lived with my mother and father in a house in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, about a block from the New York Central rail line. There were six tracks alongside each other back in 1948. The rails are gone now, chewed up by langoliers but left in memory.
The novel I have internalized begins there, with the sight of sunlight striping the walls in the room where I sat in my playpen. I then added to Chapter One the soot and roar of the steam engines that ran on the tracks a block away. Little else remains; I was two when we moved.
We moved then to the house my grandmother owned in Teaneck, N.J., only a few miles away. It was a tall, old house where we shared the lower floor and my grand-aunt and her husband shared the top floor. I have been back to see that house. It is much changed. The vacant lot next door is now an apartment building. The driveway is seeded over with grass. It’s been repainted many times.
It was in that house that I watched my grandmother make applesauce from apples gathered from the tree in the back yard. It was here that my great-grandmother died in my bed, while I had to move temporarily to a bed in my Nana’s room. I remember my great-grandmother only vaguely, as a very shriveled old woman confined to my bed and then, one day, not there anymore. No one spoke about it much. She just wasn’t there anymore.
I can piece out the floorplan of the house, with the living room stretched across the front of it, the dining room at right angles running back toward the kitchen — the kitchen in most houses almost always at the back — with two swinging doors, one on each side of the room, almost like the kitchen doors of a restaurant. Parallel to the dining room ran a hall that connected three bedrooms, and the bathroom, with a great animal-claw bathtub which fascinated me. The front bedroom was for my parents, the middle for my grandmother, and the back for me, and later also for my baby brother.
Behind the kitchen was a pantry with the house’s back door and the stairs that ran down to the basement.
Houses are said — by fantasists and psychologists — to be metaphors of our selves, and the dark basement, with its golem-like furnace and the thick, insulation-coated pipes and duct-work, was the animating presence in the house. I played with my toy rocket ships down there almost as much as I played outside in the vacant lot.
There was another dark place in the house, an under-stairs closet left unfinished with lathe and plaster walls. The public rooms, that is, the living room, dining room and kitchen, were all light and airy, but I was drawn to the shadowy parts of my universe.
I walked a mile to school to kindergarten and first grade, passing a friendly old policeman who stopped traffic on the main street so I could cross.
Not all of the houses I’ve hunkered down in have left a psychological mark. Maybe only three of about twenty, but the Teaneck house was the first and gave me a profound sense of place, of what architecture means emotionally. Thus ends chapter two.
The summer before entering second grade, we got ready to move to a new house my parents had built. It wasn’t quite finished yet, and so we spent the summer living with my mother’s sister and her husband in New Milford. Where Teaneck had an urban feel, this summer had that suburban, tract housing feel. Mostly what I remember from then is that the tap water smelled very strongly of chlorine. It was a brief residence, but I made close friends with the boys who lived next door and went to Catholic school — something that seemed absolutely exotic to me. “Glory, glory hallelujah, Sister hit me with a ruler.”
Chapter Four was a split level in the then-rural township of Old Tappan, on the border with New York’s Rockland County. It was a house my parents had built on a half-acre lot they bought with a stream running through it and woods on three sides. For a kid it was idyllic. In the years I lived there, I saw the town grow into a suburban bedroom community. Busses to New York City stopped by every hour on the street corner. Bits of woods everywhere were turned into housing developments, but the woods around our house remained wild.
The house zigged and zagged from floor to floor, as if cut down the middle and half raised up between floors. On the bottom was a cellar, next up to the other side, the garage and laundry rooms, zag back to the other side and up the stairs and you get the living room, dining room and — at the back of the house — the kitchen. Back the other way and up a flight were the bedrooms and bathroom. By now I had two brothers and we all shared the same room. But up still another set of steps and you had my grandmother’s apartment, with its own living room, bedroom and bath.
It’s a house plan not much favored today, but a split-level was the height of suburbanocity back then. From second grade through high school, I watched the town fill up, tract housing explode and farms and woodlands disappear. All that happened just as I was becoming rebellious and angry at my middle-class life. It was the Holden Caulfield syndrome, and I despised everything middle class, suburban and bourgeois. I couldn’t wait to get away to college.
Next chapter was Cox Hall, a dorm at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. My rude introduction to the American South came on my first day, when I faced my dorm and saw a giant banner hanging from the third floor that said, in crude handwritten letters: “Forget? Hell!!” I didn’t know what those words meant, but I quickly came to understand.
Cox Hall was built before World War I, and was quite seedy, with wobbly wooden floors and thick plaster walls. I was dumped into a room with a proudly redneck bully and an ineffectual milksop, neither of whom had any academic interest. Mostly they were after poontang and Everclear. (Everclear, for the uninitiated, is a brand of pure grain alcohol of especial toxicity. Wikipedia tells us that it “is also used as a household ‘food-grade’ cleaning, disinfecting, or stove fuel alcohol.”)
I got moved to a two-person room, but my roommate quickly dropped out of school, and I had the room to myself. It was heaven, just me and my books and my Sears Silvertone phonograph on which to play my pile of classical music LPs.
For my sophomore year, I was moved to the more modern and quite faceless Milner Hall, which might as well have been designed as a prison — all brick and tile and fluorescent lighting. There was a communal bathroom and showers arrangement that echoed like a cavern.
I hated dorm life; it was riotous, noisy, crowded and cramped. I petitioned the dean to let me live off campus and eventually, because I was such a thorn in his side (over many a social issue, like women’s rights and integration), he let me go.
And I moved with my friend, Hank, into the home of a sociology professor and his wife. They had an addition at the back of the house with its own entrance and two bedrooms and a bath, and it was only a block from campus. It became a meeting place for all the other disaffected “hippie” students of 1969, and one night we threw a grand party when about 80 students showed up, most of them not invited, and the party lasted till dawn and left the back yard covered in beer cans. It did not ingratiate us with our landlords.
But by then, I had become engaged to be married, and my new wife and I moved to our own rental house. It was the second floor of a duplex and our entrance came with an outside staircase, which in winter was a treachery of ice. Rent was $50 a month.
There are three times in life when a home becomes mythic. Obviously, first when you are a child and the entire world has that glow and the house is the axis of the universe. Every corner and cornice has meaning.
The second is when you first consider yourself an adult, have gotten married and must make a life for yourself. The world has a lesser glow, but it is renewed, a decent echo of the magic of your childhood home. And this old house, with its tiny kitchen with enameled metal cabinets, became the projection of my inner state.
It was 1969, and I painted the living room burnt orange, with avocado green trim. It was a testament to the zeitgeist, but so was I.
Like so many houses built in the nineteen-teens and -twenties, it had a central hallway with rooms off each side — what architect Frank Lloyd Wright excoriated as “boxes inside boxes.” When you entered the house from the outside steps, you reached the living room. At the back of the house was the kitchen. On the other side of the hall were two bedrooms and the bathroom.
There was a vacant lot behind the house with a felled apple tree that continued to produce fruit, even while horizontal.
The house had no heat except for a kerosene stove in the living room. In the winter, I would have to walk down the icy stairs to get a gallon of kerosene from a 50-gallon drum of fuel in the back yard, carry it up, pour it into the reservoir at the back of the stove, crumple up some paper, let it soak up some kerosene, throw a match in and slowly let the kerosene heat up and vaporize so it could catch fire. Sometimes the heat would be so intense as to turn the stovepipe cherry red and begin shaking violently, and I would have to swivel the damper to discourage the fire. This too, is a metaphor.
We moved to a new house shortly before we broke up. It was about mile away and was another duplex. It would remain my home for the next seven years and the next “permanent” relationship. It was also an old house, and even more of a mythic Eden than the last. This was Chapter Eight.
There was a front door, but we hardly ever used it. We entered the house from the back, through the kitchen and into living room beyond. There was also a back bedroom — a guest room — and the master bedroom at the front of the house. What made the house such an Eden was the grounds; a great black walnut tree in the front yard, a pecan tree in the back. A vacant lot to our side and a patch of woods behind us. All year long, new weeds would blossom — I called them wildflowers. I counted once and found 190 different species of plant in our yard and the lot next door, including a pear tree. We grew a vegetable garden in the front yard and there were a couple of fig trees that gave us fresh figs to eat. This counts as one of the high water marks of my life. I was happy.
At least until my partner told me one day that she was getting married — to someone else. Eden was gone and so was my Eve. I was in shock. I sold most of what I owned and took the train from North Carolina to Seattle, where I moved in with a friend on Phinney Ridge, sharing a house with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man.
Chapter Nine was a small house and I made a room for myself in the coal bin in the basement. Upstairs, there was a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, bath, and a kitchen at the back, where we took turns cooking, almost always with hot peppers. I got work at the zoo and spent my days in an iron box selling popcorn, hot dogs and cokes. In the chill gray air of Seattle, the hot dog steamer filled the box with a Dante-esque steam-fog which condensed on every surface. The smell of those dogs and the chemical popcorn butter have put me off both for life.
A short but ecstatic relationship came crashing down and I found myself moving back to North Carolina, where my best friends from college offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, just north of Greensboro. I was a mess; I was not over the heartbreak that had shattered my selfhood. I had no job, no money — if they hadn’t given me a place to stay, I would have been homeless. I spent the next year and a half there, doing the cooking and maintenance work and feeling the comfort of a surrogate family.
The house was an old farmhouse, with a barn, or shed in the back. My room was on the ground floor with the kitchen-dining area, which were combined in one space, with the wood stove, which was the only heat in the house. In the winter, the stove was kept going constantly, and we spent almost all our time in that room. When I woke up in the morning, a glass of water would be frozen solid next to my bed. I chopped a lot of wood during that year and a half. If you have never done so — a more modern life being what it is — you will not know the calming power of splitting logs. This is the third time when life became mythic: I was hyper-aware of being the protagonist in an epic that was my own life. The world had an inner glow and throb and I recognize now that I am old, that I was not quite in my right mind.
It was while trying to regain my balance that I began writing. There was an old tree stump in the back under an ancient oak tree. I put my aqua green portable typewrite on the stump and typed away, writing letters to everyone I knew. One was 50 pages long.
I was saved when the woman I would spend the next 35 years with wrote me and asked me to come and visit her in the mountains. I visited but never left.
And so, Chapter 11 ended my psychic bankruptcy and I moved to a house on a bluff overlooking the New River in Ashe County, North Carolina. It was a new house, with a living-dining area, a bedroom and a kitchen at the back, with a basement and another bedroom for the teenage daughter that I acquired. Off the kitchen was a porch that hung out over the bluff looking down at the river, a hundred feet below us. From the kitchen window, I could watch the shifting weather on Mount Jefferson as I washed dishes. Mt. Jefferson was the central mountain in Ashe County and it changed constantly as the sun and weather shifted.
It was a long drive on a snowy winter day to the schools where my new lady was teaching, and so we moved closer to Boone, in Watauga County and found a small house in the community of Meat Camp. The house sat on a creek just below the hill on which one the schools she taught in sat.
The house had two floors, the first with a living room in front and a dining room and kitchen in the back. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, with angled ceilings under the roof. Both were small and the one we didn’t use became just storage. In the summer heat, I could lie in the creek in the icy water and cool down.
Unfortunately, the Watauga school system shut down several programs, including the art program and we needed to find other jobs. I had taught a class part time at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., and Carole found a job teaching art in the Norfolk School system. And so, we moved everything down to an apartment building on a cul-de-sac about a half mile from the ocean. Our apartment was next door to my brother’s. He was a fulltime teacher at the school.
It was a building with 10 apartments, side-by-side, two stories each. In ours, the kitchen was at the front, with a window that looked out on the street. Behind it was the living-dining area. Upstairs were two bedrooms. The art faculty at the school all became great friends and we held great dinner parties together. We lived there for six years.
Then my wife got a job offer from her old boss, who had moved to Phoenix, Ariz. and we decided it might be fun to live in the desert. We imagined a little adobe house with a white picket fence. Never did get that.
Instead, we had four different houses over a period of 25 years. We had packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, towing our car behind us. We didn’t have a place to move to, but came completely unprepared. We pulled into the street where her new boss lived, and stayed there a few nights. It turned out the house next door was for rent and we moved in.
It was a small place, with its kitchen rightfully in the back again, with two bedrooms and a combined living-dining area. It was on the corner of Seventh Street, which is probably the busiest street in all of Phoenix — probably all of Arizona. It was like living by the ocean, with the constant roar of the surf — i.e., traffic — and, while you sort of get used to it, it also wears on you long term. We had to get out.
We found a flat-roofed faux adobe house on 13th Street, a quiet back street closer to downtown. It was owned by an artist who was covered in tattoos — we called her the “dragon lady,” and who had painted the stucco on the front of the house in a trompe l’oeil imitation of crumbling adobe, revealing its bricks. Across the front of the house was a living room, which led to a hallway kitchen, to another hallway with more than 20 built-in cabinets — more storage than I have ever had or seen in a house — and a glassed-in drop-down family room with a view of a lily pond. At the back of the house was the bedroom and bathroom.
Both of our first homes had no air conditioning. In Phoenix, that is a problem. They had swamp coolers, which work beautifully in the spring and early summer, when the humidity is non-existant, but fail to cool anything in July when the monsoon humidity hits, leaving everything hot and sweaty.
That’s when my wife’s best friend offered us her place. She was moving to Hawaii and needed a tenant for her house, on Cheery Lynn Road (which everyone mistook for “Cherry Lane”). For the first time since living in Greensboro, the yard was an Eden of trees, flowers, plants and roses. Ivy devoured the entire western half of the house and the front was covered by a great tree.
Inside, the living room gave way to a kitchen behind, with a dining room jutting off it, which was actually a converted garage, tutted up with lots of added windows. Three bedrooms under the ivy half of the house, one of which became my office. We lived there for seven years. Then our landlady moved back to Arizona.
And so, we moved into the shadow of Camelback Mountain, the most familiar landmark in the city — a 2700-foot mountain on the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale in the double-hump shape of …
It was the most suburban house I had lived in since my childhood and I felt almost as if I had sold out. It was a sprawling ranch house with a drop-down living room, a huge kitchen with a fireplace and three bedrooms. And there was a swimming pool in the back yard. In Phoenix, the swimming pool usually runs a constant temperature of about 95 degrees in the summer, but feels downright chilly compared with the 110-degree air.
The house was exactly the time of one Haydn symphony to work, and so, I listened to all 104 of them, two a day going and coming, for 52 days. The commute was the highlight of my day.
Ah, but there’s always a worm in the apple and my worm was named Gannett, the newspaper chain that bought The Arizona Republic, where I worked, and everything changed from “our responsibility to our readers” to “our responsibility to our shareholders,” and there were layoffs, management stupidities, a lowering of standards, and a general dumbing down of the paper. Many of the staff were horrified, and when, at age 65, I was offered a buyout, I knew I had to take it. I loved my job, but it was dissolving in front of me. Leaving was the only rational option.
After 25 years in the desert, we moved back to North Carolina, where our daughter was living, in Asheville, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville is a blue city in a red state, full of art, music, hippies, restaurants and craft breweries.
We found a house in a quiet neighborhood with the best landlords we’ve ever had. The house sits on a hill, with a kitchen at the back, and three bedrooms, one of which is my office. I have now been here 10 years, which is longer than anywhere else I have lived. My wife of 35 years died five years ago and my daughter moved away.
I am now approaching 75 years old and am writing Chapter 18, and through one of the oddest series of circumstances, I am now reconnected to my first wife, who I had not seen or spoken to in 50 years. She has moved in and we share this house. We are not planning to move anywhere else. Oddly, I am not at all the same person I was, but because through all the chapters, I was me, there is an equally odd continuity.
Cornwell, on that TV show I mentioned at the top of this mountain of words I have written, called life a “dangerous journey of introspection.” I first became aware of that fact as a student in North Carolina. Over the course of that life I have lived in all four corners of this continent and have, in the end, returned to North Carolina. And I wonder at how much I’ve changed and developed.
It has been now perhaps 30 years since what was once called the “original instrument” movement in classical music took solid hold. Now usually referred to as the “historically-informed performance practice” movement (what a bureaucratic sounding phrase; I loathe it; there must be something better to call it), it has permeated not only the small bands of re-enactors (like Civil War re-enactors, really), but the mainstream classical music culture as a whole. Even when playing on modern instruments, performances are likely to be inflected by the historical re-enactor crowd.
And so, you get bouncy Beethoven and manic Mozart, often played with two or three fiddles to a part. It all sound anemic to me.
But I’ve been listening to the perfect antidote. I recommend you listen to the 1968 recording of The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, played by the combined brass sections of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago orchestras. It is absolutely glorious and I cannot imagine anyone coming away from listening to these choirs and not thinking “Wow!” and wishing they instead had heard the music on wheezing sackbutts and cornetts. (Sample here).
Or Glenn Gould in his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a disc that can still shock a listener with its energy and life. The re-enactors insist Johann Sebastian should only be played on a harpsichord, but there is no keyboard more prone to monotony of tone and expression than the clangy jangly ear-assault of a harpsichord. Give me Bach on a piano any day, whether Gould or Rosalyn Tureck or Daniel Barenboim or Jeremy Denk. (Sample Gould here).
Just listen to Hélène Grimaud play the Busoni transcription of the chaconne from the Bach second violin partita, listen to it build to a glorious climax, with such brilliant pianism. This is music. (Link here).
Now, before you go away thinking I am a cranky old codger refusing to move with the times, I assure you I recognize the benefit to humankind wrought by the young whippersnappers. As far back as 1978, I got on board when I purchased an LP set of Handel’s Op. 6 concerti grossi led by Franzjosef Maier with the Collegium Aureum. It was bright, energetic, forceful and clean. For me, it was a revelation, compared with those soggy older recordings I had on Nonesuch or Turnabout. Handel was freed from the concrete shoes he had been wearing since the 19th century. It was liberation.
Many a composer has benefited from the historically-informed performance practice and many of the old works have been rediscovered. Vivaldi, Telemann, Geminiani and others have been reborn with new interest in their works. Beyond the Four Seasons, we now have scores of recordings of Vivaldi’s operas and vocal works. And a host of French work by Lully, Couperin, Rameau.
It wasn’t all peaches and roses, however. Under the mistaken idea that “original instruments” would refresh just about anything, I bought another LP, this time of Handel’s Water Music played by La Grande Ecurie and La Chambre du Roy under Jean-Claude Malgoire. What a horrible sound they made, scratchy, whiny, out of tune and struggling with the notes. The horns in the minuet, about 20 minutes in, is enough to make your eyes water. It didn’t just put me off original instruments, it put me off my soup. (Sample the opening of the Royal Fireworks Music here).
Of course, in those prehistoric-instrument days, string players were way ahead of wind players, who had not yet quite figured out how to play the old hautbois and chalumeaux. Things have improved greatly since then and many old-music specialists have become quite virtuosic. Nowadays, you can buy a CD of some obscure Baroque composer and feel sure you’re getting the real goods.
But, of course, while the re-enactors have gotten better, there has been a down side, also. When you find a new plaything, you want to daub it everywhere, and so, we even now have “historically informed” Berlioz, Wagner, even Bruckner. Like mustard on watermelon.
The tenets of the historically informed have become a kind of dogma and doctrine, and it gets applied to everything. A recent recording of a Beethoven symphony had four first and second violins, two violas, two cellos and a single bass. That might work well for Vivaldi, but for Beethoven it is a travesty. When he had the opportunity, Beethoven himself preferred 20 first and second violins. Brahms, who is now offered with chamber orchestras (because he once did that at Meiningen), actually much preferred the Vienna orchestra with 68 string players.
A recent recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was released, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, according to “historical” practice. All the rules were followed. A reviewer lauded the performance, writing, “Thanks to Roth’s fleet interpretation — he seems intent on freeing Mahler from excess romantic baggage — we hear details usually buried under bulbous bellows and portamento-laden strings.” I had a good laugh: Mahler went to great lengths to put that romantic baggage into the work.
I wonder if next we can expect an edition of Mark Twain with all the excess humor taken out, or perhaps a Picasso run through a computer program to rearrange those Cubist faces back into something more like a passport photo. The portamentos are written into the score, after all.
As far as it being performed according to historical principles, well, one has to wonder what principles these might be. Roth could, for instance, have checked with the recordings of at least three conductors who actually knew Mahler, and two who actually conducted with him. Perhaps they might have some insight in the way the Fourth Symphony is supposed to sound and what true historical performance practice was. Check with Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, or Willem Mengelberg (who performed the Fourth for Mahler and got his direct approval and appreciation — and there is a recording to check.) Note: They all play with vibrato. Roth’s twin vices of arrogance and ignorance are astonishing.
But, of course, Roth isn’t really interested in the composer’s intent. The movement has given up all pretense that they are recreating the music the way it was first heard. (“We’re trying to show what the symphony would have sounded like when Beethoven first heard it.” “But Beethoven was deaf.”) Because the actual driving force behind the movement isn’t historical accuracy, but rock and roll, popular music, which privileges — as do the HIPP performers — rhythm, beat, and energy over harmony and melody. “Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar.”
Younger musicians have grown up with rock music, with heavy metal, with the drive of rhythm guitars (i.e., the continuo), and the pounding beat of drums. And as with rock music, there creeps into HIPP performances a kind of sameness — the mustard on the melon.
And so, Roth, like the other re-enactors, is interested in making the music sound like all the other HIPP performances — whether Handel, Berlioz or Bruckner. Thin strings, clipped rhythms, rushed tempi.
Modern conductors now too often have ideas where their ears are supposed to be. And so, instead of a performance of music, you get a lecture on how the music is “supposed” to be played.
It reminds me of film director Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 film movement and its “vow of cinematic chastity,” where a filmmaker was required to adhere to a series of “dogmas:” required to shoot on location, not on a constructed set; to avoid using music unless it was being played onscreen as part of the story; to use no artificial lighting; to make no film not set in the present time, no costumes but what the actors bring with them … and a host of other rules restricting the “artifice” of moviemaking. It was a set of rules so puritanical that even von Trier had to give them up eventually.
The period re-enactors of classical music have their own manifesto: To avoid vibrato; to observe strictly the composers’ metronome markings (even when Beethoven specifically tells them not do to so); to phrase in short, often two- and three-note groups; to hit the rhythms by barline with a sledgehammer; to use small instrumental groups; to employ countertenors when possible (given castrati are no longer available); to employ valveless trumpets and horns; to use old instruments or recreations of old instruments, with fewer keys, and wooden flutes, or recorders. And please, no pianos allowed; harpsichords or vintage fortepianos only.
The result, too often, is music in a strait-jacket. We know that Beethoven complained harshly about the restrictions of instruments available in his day, and that future instruments would be better able to express his intentions. In essence, some of the peculiarities of Beethoven’s orchestration are because of the limitations of instruments in his time.
As Donald Francis Tovey once observed, “Scholarship itself is not obliged to insist on the restoration of conditions that ought never to have existed.”
Which brings me back to Gabrieli and the great brass players of the big American orchestras. This is music as a glory, as joyous, as sheer pleasure. Is it what Gabrieli would have heard in Venice in 1597? No, but I’m sure he would have loved it. It was meant to be music, not a treatise.
The current dogma forgets one important fact: The music doesn’t belong to Gabrieli; it belongs to us. The same with Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, or Mozart. They are dead and the music survives. And it is we who now own it. The sheet music is an artifact that needs musicianship to bring it to the ear and musicianship is now and always has been more important than scholarship.
Imagine if we insisted that Shakespeare be performed only outdoors, with boys dressed up in the women’s parts, and all declaiming their lines loudly enough to be heard in the back rows, and no breaks into acts and scenes. Interesting as an experiment, to understand the theater of Shakespeare’s day, but hardly an ideal way to do Hamlet. Could we now take seriously Romeo making love to a Juliet in drag?
You can now find Mozart, for instance, played by John Eliot Gardiner or Roy Goodman or Frans Brüggen and it zips along almost like a mechanical clock, fleet, crisp and rhythmic. All the notes are there, and the instructions in the score are obeyed. But something vital is missing. Something human.
And so, I turn to hear Mozart played with humanity and and emphasis on songfulness, not metronome markings and I hear Bruno Walter’s Mozart, or Pablo Casals’.
I used to have the complete Mozart symphonies played by Charles Mackerras, in period style, but I gave them away and got Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic. Böhm understood the style, the music, and what the music meant. There is nothing really wrong with Mackerras — he was a wonderful conductor — but his Mozart imitates the period-re-enactor esthetic and turns what should be warm melody into a patter-song. I have given up on historically-informed Mozart.
(I make a slight exception for the early symphonies performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but then Harnoncourt, aka “the Wild Man of Borneo” was sui generis — not really original instruments as much as the original Harnon-world. He was never afraid of bringing his Harnon-personality to the performance. Harnoncourt is always full of personality, albeit, sometimes you scratch your head.)
One of the seeming goals of period-re-enactors is to erase the musician from the music. They complain, for instance, that Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart is more Bernstein than Mozart. Well, of course — it is meant to be Mozart filtered through the sensibility of a performer. The notes on the page are neutral. The performance should not be. The musician puts the blood back into the notes. The score is only a skeleton.
I’m not making a case here particularly for Bernstein’s Mozart; he was never as trenchant in Mozart as he was, say in Haydn, where he was magnificent. But rather making a case for interpretation. The re-enactors say they don’t want their music “interpreted,” but merely played.
Someone once said that reading a cookbook doesn’t make you a good cook. Period-re-enactors want us to enjoy the raw ingredients — the mise en place — without the actual cooking. Really, more like eating a cookbook.
I don’t wish to proscribe historically-informed performance practice. After all, it revitalized Baroque and earlier music. But I should point out that we can’t actually know what the music sounded like back then. It is guesswork. The sources for period performance practice are not in agreement. Some 18th century writers tell string players not to use vibrato; others instruct the opposite. Which pedagogue do you believe (obviously, the one that makes your music sound more like rock and roll).
Further, the fact that some of the old teachers instruct their students not to use vibrato is actually evidence that they were bucking the system, that, in fact, most fiddlers back then really were using it and needed to be told to give it up.
Even if re-enactors can re-animate the forgotten Baroque composers, and make us understand Handel and Vivaldi in a newer, brighter way, musicianship is still more important than scholarship. I cannot stand the revisionism applied to Bach. The two- and three-note phrasing makes hash of Bach’s long line, and ignores the intricate play of harmonies in order to emphasize the forward drive — the relentless bang-bang-bang.
But most of all, I miss the personality of the performer in the re-enactors. When I listen to Bach by Gould or Tureck or Martha Argerich, I hear the music as the melded expression of both composer and performer — someone making sense of the notes. And that sense changes over time and place. It cannot be fixed in an imaginary historical moment. It is ours to parse out. Mozart has no say in it, and obviously, cannot.
And so, if we get Walter’s Mozart on one night, we get Harnoncourt’s on another. Or the warmth and humanity of Pablo Casals. (Bruno Walter’s Mozart Symphony No. 39 here). Each version is valid, but the music is waiting there for yet another. Of course, HIPP is an interpretation, too. John Eliot Gardiner brings his personality to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Unfortunately, it is the personality of an accountant.
The story of Galileo isn’t what I thought it was. It usually gets written about as if the enlightened astronomer were persecuted for being right about the sun, earth and planets, while the Catholic Church was the Evil Empire mired in reactionary ignorance.
But we often get history wrong — or at least mixed up. I’ve spent a month or so looking into the Galileo case and it turns out to be rather different from the common understanding. Some of it, of course, we get right.
Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei was born in Pisa (then part of the Duchy of Florence), Italy, on February 15, 1564, in the same year as Shakespeare and on same day that Michelangelo died. He was the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist, composer, and music theorist, and Giulia Ammannati, who had married in 1562.
He was a smart kid, went to school, did well, went to university.
By 1580, he was studying medicine at the University of Pisa where he had his first scientific insight. While attending a lecture, which seems to have bored the young man, his attention wandered and he noticed that a chandelier, swaying back and forth in a breeze, would swing wider or lesser depending on the force of the wind. More importantly, he timed the swinging with his pulse and to his surprise, whether the chandelier swung wide or narrow, the rhythm didn’t vary: A long swing took exactly the same time as a short swing.
At home, he made an experiment with a pair of identical pendulums and set them in motion, one in a wide sweep and the other in a short one and discovered that they remained in synch.
Galileo was born at a propitious time. It was the beginning of the Age of Reason, begun in the previous century when the Aristotelian explanations for the natural world had begun to come into question and a range of scientists, such as Francis Bacon, urged that we search for truth empirically.
It was a special age in Italy, which produced not only Galileo, but the philosophy of Giordano Bruno; the sculpture of Bernini; the music of Monteverdi; the poetry of Torquato Tasso and reams of painters.
With the need to make a living, he became an inventor to subsidize his small income as a teacher. In 1586, he invented a hydrostatic balance to measure the relative weights of metals in an alloy, and wrote an essay about the center of gravity in solid bodies. He later developed the thermoscope, an early version of the thermometer.
Later, as chair of mathematics at Pisa, he affirmed the indestructibility of matter, formulated the principles of the lever and the pulley, showed the speed of freely falling bodies increases at a uniform rate, experimented with inclined planes, argued that an object rolling down one plane would rise on a similar plane to a height equal to its fall, outside of friction and concluded the law of inertia — Newton’s first law of motion — that a moving body will continue indefinitely in the same line and rate of motion unless interfered with by some external force. He was on a roll. He proved that a projectile propelled in a horizontal direction would fall to the earth in a parabolic curve. He reduced musical tones to wave lengths of air, and showed that the pitch of note depends upon the number of vibrations made by a struck string in a given time.
And he posited that only those properties of matter belonging to mathematics could be objective, and all other properties sounds, tastes, odors, colors and so on “reside only in consciousness; if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”
There is little question that Galileo was a genius. And he was recognized as one even then. He was someone on the same exulted level as Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein.
And all that was before what he was later most famous for: his astronomy. He didn’t invent the telescope, but he improved it in 1609 (not initially for studying the heavens, but for commercial use on merchant ships). And when he turned its glass eye on the stars, he discovered startling things. And that’s when his troubles began.
In the usual version of the story, Galileo came to realize that Copernicus had been right. Centuries of belief that the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun and planets revolved around the Earth was turned around and Copernicus put the sun in the center and demoted the Earth to a mere planet, like all the others, spinning around the central sun.
The church — and pretty much everyone (although the church pretty much was everyone) — had assumed the obvious: The earth didn’t move under their feet and the sun rose each day in the east and set in the west “and hastens to the place where it arose,” as Ecclesiastes had it in the Bible. It was not at all clear that Copernicus got it right. After all, Aristotle was the smartest man who ever lived, and Aristotle taught the sun spun around the earth. Who can argue with the smartest man who ever lived?
Galileo’s record of Jupiter’s moons in orbit
When Galileo was 45 and playing with his new telescope, he discovered the four large moons of Jupiter. “These new bodies, moved around another very great star, in the same way as Mercury and Venus, and peradventure the other known planets, move around the sun.”
That and other things proved to Galileo what he had long believed, that Copernicus had it right: The earth revolved around the sun, along with the other planets. Other bits of evidence began to turn up.
Critics of Copernicus had argued that if Venus revolved around the sun, it should show phases like the moon. Then, in 1610, Galileo’s telescope revealed such phases. Later, he discovered the rings of Saturn. In 1611, he he showed the existence of sunspots and argued they proved the sun rotates.
Galileo recognized that his opinion varied from church doctrine and knew he needed support from powerful people if he was going to stay out of hot water. He sought the patronage of the powerful Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He moved to Florence and cleverly named the four moons of Jupiter the Sidera Medicea, after Cosimo’s family name, Medici. There he published his astronomical findings in a book he dedicated to Cosimo called the Sidereus nuncius, or “The Starry Messenger.” So far, so good.
Galileo was also friends with several Vatican bigwigs. And this is where the familiar story starts to fray. These powerful men of the cloth were among the brightest and most educated and forward looking of their age. They were not knuckle-dragging troglodytes attempting to destroy the honest astronomer. In fact, they gave him every opportunity to teach his ideas — as long as he didn’t insist he was right and everyone else was wrong.
And the Church was fine with him presenting his case as just that, an alternative interpretation of the facts. Just not OK with him saying it was the absolute truth. He could explain the Copernican theory, since it made celestial navigation easier to compute. And, they said, if ever he could provide actual proof of heliocentrism, then they would be forced to reinterpret the biblical citations. As Cardinal Bellarmine put it, he had asked only that until proof was at hand, astronomers refrain from making strong truth claims and present their results merely hypothetically.
In effect, the Church was willing to bend over backwards to tolerate the haughty astronomer.
We forget that Galileo had no proof for his ideas. He had inferences and metaphors. The fact that he got it essentially right and the Church was wrong was not provable at the time. Galileo had an alternative way of understanding the facts and observations. Proof of the earth’s rotation, for instance, wasn’t available until 1851 and Leon Foucault’s pendulum experiment. So, Galileo was defending a theory that had no direct evidence. We know now he was right; but he had only the weight of his belief. It was belief vs. belief at the time, not simply truth vs. superstition.
We forget also that Galileo ran into trouble with the Church not in one big trial, but twice, and for different reasons.
The first, in 1615, when he was 51, and a group of clergy brought before the Inquisition charges against the astronomer. The charge brought was not that he was teaching heliocentrism, but rather that in defending it, he was re-interpreting several verses from scripture.
Pages from Galileo’s notes
Yes, Galileo originally did not argue with the church over scientific principles, but rather the fact that he attempted to prove that his science did not conflict with the Bible. The Council of Trent in 1563 had forbidden individual interpretations of scripture, saying that “no one relying on his own judgement shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother Church… has held or holds.” And Galileo was attempting just that. It struck the Inquisition as “dangerously close to Protestantism.”
The Inquisition was a subset of those in the Vatican, and made up of the more reactionary elements. When you were denounced to the Inquisition, you had to defend yourself and Galileo did that, again but disputing the meaning of passages in the Bible. This was not a good tactic with these priests. It was exactly what he was being charged with.
He could have been imprisoned or even executed for his “crime,” but the Inquisition showed deference to his eminence and reputation and merely forbid him from teaching or writing about the Copernican system. The judgement in February, 1616, Galileo was ordered “to abandon completely … the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
By 1623, Galileo’s friend and supporter, Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini, had been elected as Pope Urban VIII and Galileo apparently felt the pressure was off and decided it would be OK to write again about heliocentrism. Barberini had opposed the admonition of Galileo in 1616, and later, as pope, had given permission to Galileo to write a book presenting arguments for and against the Copernican system. Galileo’s resulting book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission. But then, they read the book.
It was a conversation among three supposed points of view, one in favor of Copernicus, one against it, and a third as disinterested third party to ask questions of the other two. Unfortunately and immoderately, Galileo named the anti-Copernican Simplicio, or “Dunce,” and put into his mouth several ideas and phrases that had previously been uttered by Urban. Not a good idea to insult your primary supporter.
Worse, Urban was facing backlash as pope from more reactionary elements, and so the pope felt political pressure not to forgive his erstwhile friend. The pope had bigger fish to fry and Galileo was a minor irritation in the big picture.
Galileo had a long history of arrogance and Galileo’s very personality made things much worse for him than they needed to be. He was a cussed pig-headed man who unnecessarily insulted the powerful people who had the power over his fate.
He wrote that “philosophy had “gone to sleep in the lap of Aristotle.” In the margin of a book by Jesuit Antonio Rocco defending the Ptolemaic astronomy, Galileo wrote “Ignoramus, elephant, fool dunce … eunuch.”
He wrote a letter to Johannes Kepler in 1596 and said in it that he feared being “ridiculed and condemned by countless people (for very great is the number of the stupid.”)
All of may have been true, but it was surely impolitic of Galileo to point it out when they had power of life and death over him.
One of his supporters, Jesuit Father Grassi, whom Galileo had once made fun of, wrote, “Many resented his arrogant tone, his presumption for speaking on theological matters, and for crossing over from the world of mathematical astronomy into the world of natural philosophy.” And later, “I have always had more love for him than he has for me. And last year at Rome [during the trial] when I was requested to give my opinion on his book on the motion of the earth, I took the utmost care to allay minds harshly disposed toward him and to render them open to conviction of the strength of his arguments, so much so, indeed, that certain people who supposed me to have been offended by Galileo . . . marveled at my solicitude. But he has ruined himself by being so much in love with his own genius, and by having no respect for others. One should not wonder that everybody conspires to damn him.”
And they did. In 1633, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world” against the 1616 condemnation, since “it was decided at the Holy Congregation … on 25 Feb 1616 that … the Holy Office would give you an injunction to abandon this doctrine, not to teach it to others, not to defend it, and not to treat of it; and that if you did not acquiesce in this injunction, you should be imprisoned.”
He was interrogated and, according to the directives of the Inquisition to be “shown the instruments of torture” to encourage his acquiescence. Galileo was found “vehemently suspected of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” those opinions.
He was sentenced to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life, and his books were banned, including any new works he might write. (His books remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was formally removed in 1835.)
Galileo’s drawing of the moon
While under house arrest, he managed to surreptitiously write a new book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences, which was published in 1638 in Holland, outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The book concerns mechanics and physics, not astronomy.
The astronomer was 69 when he was sentenced. His health declined, and five years later, in 1638, he went blind. He died in 1642 at the age of 77.
There is a common story that as Galileo was led away after his condemnation for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, he muttered under his breath, “E pur si muove” — “And yet, it moves.” Unfortunately, he likely never said it. The earliest attestation for the quote comes from 1837, more than 200 years later.
“E pur si muove”
—Galileo Galilei, 1633 (maybe)
Yogi Berra, source of many notable quotes referred to as “Yogi-isms,” (“When you get to the fork in the road, take it” or “It gets late early out here”) also said, “I never said all the things I said.”
The world is full of famous quotes, and it is appalling how many of them never happened. Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” Gandhi never said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And Sigmund Freud never said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
These misquotes come in several varieties. A lot of historical ones come from later rewritings of less succinct utterances. Some are just wishful thinkings — wouldn’t it have been great if Galileo actually did say, “Yet it still moves.” But it is most likely he never did.
Queen Victoria never said, “We are not amused.” In reality, according to those who knew her, she was quite easily amused.
Niccolo Machiavelli never wrote, “The ends justify the means.” He may have meant that, but the closest thing he actually wrote says, “One must consider the final result.” Not quite so ringing a quote.
George Bernard Shaw never said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” The closest actually comes from Oscar Wilde, who wrote in The Canterville Ghost, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”
In their book, They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, authors Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George write: “There have always been people who liked to liven up what they were saying with appropriate statements from the writings of others. This was true even in ancient times; Plato used quotations freely, and Cicero’s letters are full of quotations. Today, however, quotations tend to be polemical rather than decorative. People use them to prove points rather than to provide pleasure. … What has been called ‘quotemanship’ (or ‘quotesmanship’) — the use and abuse of quotations for partisan purposes — has during the past few decades become a highly refined art in this country.”
The internet is awash with meme-quotes, almost always attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein or Mohandas Gandhi. But Mark Twain, who said more quotable things than anyone after Shakespeare, never commented on Microsoft Word, despite the quote put in his mouth on FaceBook.
These things come in at least three forms. The first and easiest are the misquotations — close but no cigar.
Leo Durocher never said, “Nice guys finish last.” He did say, “Nice guys finish seventh in the National League.” Near miss.
Financier J.P. Morgan never said, “If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.” He actually said, “You have no right to own a yacht if you ask that question.”
Often these are notable sentiments originally expressed in less memorable language and later cleaned up, rewritten and made pithier.
The second source of bad quotations come from crossed, or misappropriation. Sometimes a nobody says something clever and we would pay more attention if we pretend Mark Twain said it. Or Shakespeare.
Winston Churchill did not say, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they tried everything else.” In reality, it was said by Frederick Edwin Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead, a British Conservative politician. But I doubt you’ve ever heard of him.
Marilyn Monroe is often quoted for saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” but it wasn’t her; it was Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who was amused by its spread. “It was a weird escape into popular culture. I got constant e-mails about it, and I thought it was humorous.”
“There’s a sucker born every minute.” is usually put in the mouth of P.T. Barnum, but the real quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute, but none of them ever die” actually came from rival circus owner Adam Forepaugh. And even he probably stole it from famous con-man Joseph (“Paper Collar Joe”) Bessimer. And it likely predates even him. In 1930, novelist John Dos Passos attributed it to Mark Twain, one in a long line of quotes put in the mouth of Twain, who “never said all the things I said.”
The need to find a famous name to give weight to a pithy saying is enormous. It is on one hand a vestige of the Medieval “argument from authority.” If you have a recognized celebrity say it, it must be true.
And so, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” is all over the internet attributed to the incontestable moral authority of Nelson Mandela, but was really said by New Age flake and air-headed inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson.
“Success is not final, Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts” shows up as Winston Churchill, but really owes to football coach Don Shula.
And speaking of football coaches, the most famous football quote of all times — “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” wasn’t coined by Vince Lombardi (he did repeat it, but did not originate it.) It was first said by UCLA coach Red Sanders, who also said about football, “It’s not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that!”
The final group are those that are completely bogus. At least the source has never been identified. They are usually ascribed to one of the usual suspects, but those suspects never said or wrote the quote. And so:
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Not said by, but given to Mark Twain, or Jack Benny, or Muhammad Ali.
“Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” Einstein never said it.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Not found anywhere in the writing of Edmund Burke.
Mark Twain never said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Nor: “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.” Nor: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” And he did not say, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” That last didn’t occur anywhere until 1970, long after Twain’s demise. (And he never said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”)
Einstein never said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And neither did he say: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” And the supposed quote, “Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart” doesn’t appear anywhere until 1999, when it surfaced online.
On the internet, you can make anything up and put someone’s name under it, and within a week, you’ll see it reposted a hundred times — and often with some other name given as its author. It’s a great big mix ’n’ match.
There’s an old saying in journalism. “If you mother says she loves you, check it out.” It has been credited to Chicago editor Arnold A Dornfield. But an enterprising reporter checked it out and discovered it was really said by another Chicago editor, Edward H. Eulenberg, and what he actually said was, “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.” Has a bit more oomph.
And so, to quote Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Trust but verify.”
Yesterday, I accidentally came across a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which is one of the composer’s bounciest, most ebullient movements, and therefore one of the bounciest, most ebullient in all music. And I was transfixed: After a tiny initial tempo beat with the baton, the conductor dropped his arms and stood there, letting the orchestra play the entire movement, indicating directions entirely with facial expressions. (Link here).
He was conducting with his face. It was brilliant. Every fleeting emotion played across his face, as if he were the music. And each expression came a half-second before the orchestra reacted, so Bernstein wasn’t following the music, but leading it. Extraordinary. It was one of the best performances of that finale I’ve ever heard, with a naturalness and clarity, but more important, a joy and spontaneity.
I go back a long way with Lenny. When I was a mere bairn, I watched him on the Young People’s Concerts and I remember his explanation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Omnibus TV show. I was just six years old in 1954, so I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember the set, with the score of the symphony on the floor, so he could position his players on their staffs to show what they were doing. I was fascinated.
Since then, Lenny has been a part of my life. Sometimes a small part, in the background, sometimes I spent extra money to buy one of his recordings over a cheaper Turnabout or Vox recording, with the trust that I would be rewarded by something special. I usually was.
I heard Lenny conduct at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall — it changes as much as the names on ballparks). I remember a rousing version of Debussy’s La Mer with the New York Phil. But mostly, I heard Lenny via recordings, first LP and then CD. There were also videos and TV presentations.
I don’t deny that Lenny talking could be hard to take, with that resonant basso voice that he seemed to be in love with, and sometimes a ham actor’s thesbianicity. But if you can get past that surface, what he says is almost always revelatory, precise, and true. I listen to his Harvard lectures over and over, and despite some tedious Chomskian linguistic folderol, really insightful. (He drops the Chomsky in the latter lectures, thank god).
But it is the music that really counts. For many, Bernstein was the great podium presence of the second half of the 20th century. The singer Christa Ludwig, who performed with Lenny often, once said she worked with three truly great conductors: Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Bernstein, but the difference was, she said, “Bernstein was a genius.”
Others have commented that when he conducted, he “became” the music. A member of the Vienna Philharmonic told my old friend, the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “Name one other conductor who, just by standing in front of the orchestra, could make them play better than they thought they could.” Bernstein seemed to have a special relationship with the Vienna Phil, and many of his later recordings were with them.
Lenny had his detractors, who thought he was showing off in front of the audience and orchestra, or that he exaggerated details, or — especially later in his career — dragged tempos. But, as critic David Hurwitz has said many times, “Every time I think Bernstein has distorted something, I look in the score and see that it is exactly what the composer had notated. He was truer to the score than almost any other conductor I know.”
It is true that for Lenny, as for Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” But the best recordings have something to give that few others can match: commitment, power, emotion, persuasiveness.
I have chosen 10 of Lenny’s recordings that for me summarize his best. There are many others. He was especially great with Haydn, with Beethoven, with Mahler, with Stravinsky, with Shostakovich. And Modern music — if it was tonal or polytonal, like Milhaud — he made it all just bounce.
We’ll start with Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, that is symphonies Nos. 82-87, including “The Hen” and “The Bear.” It is pretty well consensus that Bernstein’s Paris Symphonies are the reference recordings. Sprightly, bright, witty, energetic and beautifully played. Bernstein was always good in Haydn, and I would have listed his Creation here, or his Nelson Mass or Tempore Belli Mass. You can’t go wrong with Bernstein and Haydn. In comparison, almost everyone else just feels soggy.
In roughly chronological order, we come to one of his most controversial recordings ever: the live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for Schiller’s “Freude” (“joy”) in the finale, caught up in the moment’s exhilaration over the fall of East Berlin and Communism. Actually, he only does it once, and later reverts back to the original. But it is jarring when you hear the baritone intone it at the start of the finale. Yet, I am listening to it now as I write this and it is an absolutely thrilling version of the Beethoven’s greatest symphony. Members of six different orchestras came together and meld perfectly under Lenny’s baton. It is my go-to version of the symphony. It is a symphony played so often (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it live) that it has lost some of its magic as occasion, but here, it magnifies that sense of occasion. Despite the mutilation of the “Freiheit,” but because of the intensity and emotional engagement of the 20-minute Adagio — more like a prayer than anything else. (Roger Norrington takes it in 10 minutes of throw-away carelessness.)
Then, there’s Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts, or Requiem. There are few decent recordings, and most fail for exactly the same reason: They attempt to make sense of the thing, toning it down into something “normal.” That is the issue with Colin Davis’ version. But Lenny lets it all hang out. What is fevered and hysterical, comes across as fevered and hysterical, just as Berlioz wrote it.
If there is any symphony from the 19th century more Haydnesque than Bizet’s Symphony in C, I have yet to discover it. It is fresh, bright, tuneful and unendingly happy. The composer wrote it in 1855, when he was 17, and it remained unplayed until 1935 and I feel pity for all those audiences who, for 80 years could have been enjoying it, but never had the chance. Lenny was the perfect conductor for its joie de vivre and rhythmic snap. It is as if Bizet wrote it with Bernstein in mind.
Lenny recorded Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony at least twice, once with the New York Philharmonic, in 1964 for Columbia, and then again in 1987 for Deutsche Grammophon, with the same orchestra. What a difference. The first — an excellent version — takes about the usual 45 minutes. The second comes in at just a chip under an hour. Most of that extra time comes in the finale, which in the second recording is wrenching and heartbreaking. One critic wrote that it “devastates the emotions. … At the end of the last movement, the despair is complete.” Of course, the performance has its detractors, with some finding it distended and, as one always hears the complaint against Lenny, “is more about the conductor than the composer.” Poppycock. This is Tchaikovsky titrated and distilled into pure essence.
Lenny recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring many times, also, but there is no quibbling about the one to go to. It is his first, from 1958 with the New York Phil. When the composer first heard the recording, his only response was “Wow!” Lots of conductors have the measure of the Rite, but there is a rhythmic vitality, a violence and explosiveness to the 1958 recording that has never been matched, even by Lenny.
Just seven years after Stravinsky’s blast, came Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which he says he wrote as “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.” It is a piling up of Brazilian tunes, in several keys at once, and is as bright and toe-tappy as anything. Indeed, it becomes an ear-worm and you will be hearing its tunes over and over in your head for the rest of the day. The Bernstein recording also features La Création du Monde from 1923, which is a fully realized jazz composition for a ballet about an African creation story. This is Lenny in his element. You can just see him dancing on the podium with happiness and joy.
Then, there is another highly controversial recording — his DG performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lenny, playing the piano part himself, plays it not as a jazz riff, but as if it were, from bottom-to-top, a classical piano concerto, rather like Ravel’s Concerto in G. Critics miss the easy jazzy element of famous performances by Earl Wilde or Oscar Levant, but Bernstein’s version seems to those who adore it (as I do) as a perfectly genuine alternate view. And it is gorgeous. Did I mention that? Absolutely gorgeous.
Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his massive Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” during the German siege of that city in 1942. It is a piece that defeats many orchestras and conductors; it is very difficult to keep it from diffusing into long, undigested sections. Lenny keeps it going as a single directional line from beginning to glorious end, and the Chicago Symphony has the cojones to perform what is asked of them. Almost everyone agrees, this is the Leningrad Symphony to hear.
Finally, I’ve kept last (and out of order), Mahler, which sometimes seems like Bernstein’s personal property. It isn’t, of course, but he brings something special to his Mahler performances, and none more so than with the Ninth, which he recorded at least six times (1965 NY Phil; 1971 Vienna Phil; 1979 Berlin Phil; 1979 Boston Symphony; 1985 Concertgebouw; 1985 Israel Phil). It is perhaps the Mahler symphony Bernstein felt closest to. Only four of these are genuine releases, not bootlegs, and among them it is hard to choose, but I suppose I migrate to the late Concertgebouw recording. Berlin has the intensity, but there is a major cock-up in the finale when the trombone section failed to play in the climax (apparently an audience member had died of a heart attack directly behind the brass section and there was some commotion that distracted the players). But listening to any one of them seems as if the music becomes more than music; it is a direct communication from one soul or heart to another. There are other great performances of the Ninth — it seems to draw out the best in most conductors — but there is something extra in the Bernstein versions, something more immediate, more direct.
That is a list of 10 (or more), but I feel I’ve left out so much. There’s his Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; there’s two complete surveys of Beethoven symphonies; there’s his Copland, his Ives, his Schumann, his Sibelius. And so much more. But I believe the 10 I’ve chosen are not just great, but peculiar to Lenny — and I choose the word carefully. He was an idiosyncratic conductor, but all the personality that went in to his performances meant they are often memorable in a way more straightforward ones are not.
Many moons ago, when I was a snotty college kid, I went through a period of disdaining Lenny. I bought the canard that he was shallow, heart-on-sleeve and bombastic. I wuz a idjit. One should never let the opinions of others block your ears. There is a world of difference between words and sounds, and the sounds are always more meaningful. I am older now, have experienced a great deal more of living, discovered depths in myself I hadn’t understood, and now Lenny’s insistence on finding the marrow is what I value. My ears are opened to what is gifted to me.
There’s a lot of cynicism creeping around currently. And a good deal of it is earned. Politicians, especially, seem to lie with faces so bald an eel could slide across them. I mean, hypocrisy used to be something to be ashamed of, now it is simply coin of the realm. Yes, there has always been lying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t especially galling now. After all, they used to pretend they were telling the truth, while now, they don’t care how obvious it is. They will lie about the the sentence they have just spoken, denying they ever said it — even while it is there on the videotape. Truth used to be paid lip service, now, among a Trump-infested lot, there is a pretense that truth is whatever has just been said.
So, I get it. Ever since Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam and Robert McNamara cooked the numbers for him, and even since Richard Nixon proved that “I am not a crook” was “no longer an operable statement,” national faith in institutions has dwindled. So, as I say, the cynicism has its share of being earned. No wonder faith in government and institutions has never been lower.
And yet. And yet, all that runs counter to my actual experience. After all, when I have come in contact with government, I deal with the day-to-day bureaucrat, the ordinary working Joe or Joan. I’ve never actually dealt with a cabinet secretary or a senator. And when I’ve gone to my local Social Security office, the person on the other side of the desk has invariably been solicitous and helpful, if harried (even if I’ve had to wait half a day to get to the desk — I don’t blame the SS worker for that).
Critics complain about “faceless bureaucrats,” but that’s only because they’ve never faced them.
My experience with government — the part I actually deal with, rather than the part I yell at the TV screen over on the nightly news — is that the poor schlub is earnest, hard working and serious about the job. The government I actually have to face is the postal worker behind the desk selling me Forever stamps and talking about the weather, or the Social Security clerk, or the cashier I joked with when paying a traffic fine. Regular people doing their jobs.
I first came to realize how seriously people took their civic duty when on jury duty. I’ve served on six juries in my life so far and in every single one of them each juror approached the responsibility with utter sincerity and a sense of the importance of getting it right. And that was true for all the cases, from a simple traffic case to a multiple murder case. Each time I came away with a pride in my fellow citizens, who didn’t complain or blow off the task.
And, of course, I used to be a journalist. Boy, how people love to hate on journalists. Now, I wasn’t a regular reporter, I was an art critic and I had my own, minor, forms of abuse to suffer, from artists and their mothers. But occasionally I was pulled in to the bigger newsroom.
I remember the day Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Ariz., and our newsroom in Phoenix went into high gear. The entire staff was pulled in and I was assigned to rewrite — taking phone calls from our reporters in Tucson and turning their notes into coherent stories. The place was frenetic with reporters and editors, tracking down information, interviewing witnesses, checking out leads.
For those who don’t remember: On January 8, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others were shot during a constituent meeting held in a supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Ariz., in the Tucson metropolitan area. Six people were killed, including federal District Court Chief Judge John Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, one of Giffords’s staffers; and a 9-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. The scene of the shooting at the time, as you might guess, was chaos.
Those who know nothing and cheerlead the complaining can not fathom just how seriously all the journalists took their jobs and the need to get everything right. Even the spelling of a “Smith” had to be checked and double checked. When the shift was over, I felt a genuine sense of pride in my profession. Not in my tiny role, which, rightly, could have been filled by a well-trained chimpanzee, but in the rigor, honesty, earnestness and work that the entire newsroom put in. Get it right. We didn’t know if she were dead or alive, how many shooters there were, how many in the crowd, if anyone else had been shot, or if the police were on the scene or if the shooter were caught, alive or dead. All that had to be determined, and had to be gotten right. No speculation; just facts.
I burn with anger at those who believe journalists are dishonest. I don’t speak here for TV pundits, or for the editorial boards, who are hired for their opinions, but for reporters. It may be true that journalists, personally, tend to be liberal (And, as it is often said, reality has a liberal bias). But they also go out of their way to avoid letting their personal beliefs color their reporting. Facts first, then think about them. The first draft of history has to be as accurate as humans can make it.
It is easy, maybe required, to complain about Washington, but the fact is that little that happens there actually affects our daily lives. Most of our lives happen in our communities and even more, in our homes. Those decisions, by mayors, councils, police, neighbors, spouses and children, make up 98 percent of what we deal with. It may be that in the long run, tax credits or tariffs make a dent in our lives, and that we should worry about refugee camp devastation and cops killing unarmed black men, and we should do what we can to ameliorate these outrages. But when it comes to cynicism, all the screaming at the TV is energy wasted on what accounts for little. Cynicism will fix nothing.
There are terrible things in the world, and terrible people. I’ve met a small share of them. And I don’t mean to downplay the immensity of the horrors that so many face in the world. But for most Americans, they have little effect on daily life.
And in the little things that matter, I am again and again reminded that most people, most of the time, are decent.
Anne says, “There must be a word in German for it.” There probably is, but I don’t know it.
But it is something I have begun feeling, often, now that I am three-quarters of a century old — or in another way of looking at it, at a point where the fraction of life I’ve lived has a numerator quickly rising to equal the denominator.
I frequently go out my front door to watch the treetops wave in the breeze, to see the birds wheel in a sky filled with brilliant white cumulus clouds, bees and butterflies dip from flower to flower, the palette of multiple greens in the garden leaves leave almost a taste in my mouth, and I think it is all beautiful. Unutterably beautiful. I feel in love with the things of this world.
But I know, as my body tells me every morning, that I am coming to my own end, that even if I live a long life, there is still only the tail end of it remaining, and I feel a confusing sense both that I will miss all this so dearly when I am gone, and that when I’m gone, I won’t be around to miss anything.
And so, I am having a kind of premature sense of loss for what I have not yet lost, but know I will lose — and yet, know I will not miss it when I do, because I will be annihilated and will not exist to miss what I already know I must miss.
Do you get the paradox of all this? And this is what there must be some German compound-word for: the sadness of loss you know you would suffer if you could, but know you will not be able to. As Keats has it, “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu.”
Perhaps Vorausschauendsehnsucht is the word I’m looking for. It is long, impressive and German. Whether it is or not, and whether it even exists outside my construction of it from parts, the emotion is very real for me.
It is said that humans are distinct from other animals in that they know they will die. And this awareness must make everything in our lives seem both fleeting and dear. For me, the closer I get to the great blackening halt, the dearer it all gets, and the faster it flies.
And so, I walk out the front door with no other purpose than to watch the treetops wave in the breeze, to see the birds wheel in a sky filled with brilliant white cumulus clouds, bees and butterflies dip from flower to flower, and enjoy the palette of multiple greens in the garden that leave almost a taste in my mouth. And I think it is all unutterably beautiful.
When piano sonatas first became popular, in the 18th century, they were primarily written for home use, for talented amateurs to play for evenings with the family. Some sonatas were obviously more difficult than others, and a few by Haydn or Mozart, required a professional level of ability, and indeed, were written for the composers themselves to show off their performing abilities. But most were written to be sold as sheet music, and that’s how their composers made their livings.
At the time, there were no public piano recitals to attend. There were private performances given for the aristocracy. Public concerts tended to feature concertos and concert arias, with maybe a little symphony or two thrown in. But no one bought tickets to hear a piano sonata — why? when you could play them yourself at home after dinner.
Then came Beethoven.
Piano sonatas also used to run from perhaps 10 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. Mozart’s C-major sonata (K. 545) comes in three movements. The first runs a tad over two minutes; the second just under four minutes; and the finale about a minute and a half. The bigger sonatas, such as his Sonata in A (K. 331) with the famous Ronda a la Turca, comes in at about 14 minutes, as played by pianist Mikhail Pletnev.
Then came Beethoven, the revolutionary pounder of the keyboard, who shocked his contemporary listeners with the power, difficulty and length of his piano sonatas. The Appassionata Sonata of 1805 is devilishly difficult and a bit over 21 minutes.
Then there’s the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, which is twice as long (Barenboim’s most recent recording takes 50 minutes) and 10 times more difficult, ending with a giant double fugue that confused his first listeners. What the heck is going on? It’s the original knucklebuster. Just look at that pile of notes:
Things changed after Beethoven. The 19th century saw fewer piano sonatas, but much bigger and more difficult specimens. You could say that Beethoven seems to have presented a challenge to all those who came after him: how to live up to his example.
And the example he gave was for a longer, more complicated sonata — a kind not to be played by prosperous daughters of the middle class after dinner, but by traveling virtuosi giving piano recitals to a paying public. Franz Liszt began the practice, but the long, knucklebusting piano sonata was established.
There were less ambitious works written, and the standard for most of the 19th century was the character piece, not the sonata. These were short catchy pieces sometimes singly and sometimes strung together in a suite, such as Schumann’s Carnivale or Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.
This was the heyday of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of Brahms’ intermezzi and capriccios.
And when there were sonatas, they went big. They became symphonies for the keyboard.
I’ve chosen six of these knucklebusters as exemplars. There were more, but they haven’t joined the repertoire of regular performances. But these six as regulars of the recital hall.
I’ve also appended a list of my favorite recordings of these sonatas. Notice, I did not say “best.” There are too many CDs out there and I haven’t listened to them all (although I have come close with the Hammerklavier — I once owned 21 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and another five sets of the late sonatas by themselves, so I’ve heard quite a few). I’ve only listed recordings I have listened to.
Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, opus 106, “Hammerklavier”
Beethoven was at the height of his fame after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, but the years that followed were thin ones for the composer. He was tied up in endless legal difficulties over his nephew, Karl, and was suffering from endless bouts of gastritis. He produced little between 1813 and 1818. But then came the final flourishing of late quartets, late piano sonatas and, of course, the Ninth.
The first big explosion was the “Hammerklavier” sonata, that giant monstrosity of pianistic torture. It begins with a grand military fanfare, makes fun of the same in the teensy second movement, reaches the heart of things in a 20-minute adagio and concludes with a monumental fugue which demonstrates every trick in the book of fugue writing —- play the tune upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, slow it down upside down, speed it up backwards and end it all with an explosion of hiccups and trills.
It was the longest piano sonata written to that point and still one of the most challenging.
It is the adagio that holds the key and the emotional power of the sonata. It has been called a “mausoleum of collective sorrow,” and “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” It is that rare sort of music that you inhabit rather than simply listen to.
My favorite recording, since I first heard it 50 years ago is also the first recording made, in 1935, by Artur Schnabel. It has been in print since it was first made and despite being in rusty sonics, comes across clearly as music of the most profound sort.
If you want more modern sound, I recommend the 1970 recording by Rudolf Serkin. In completely modern sound, I love — especially the adagio — by Daniel Barenboim in his 2012 release of the complete sonatas.
Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, op. posthumus, D. 960
When Franz Schubert reached the age when Mozart had died, he’d been dead for four years already. Mozart died at age 35 and mourned as a genius who died too soon. Schubert died at 31 and we can only mourn the lost of what he could have written in those missing four years, to say nothing of what we could have had if he had lived a normal life span.
As it was, in the last year or so of Schubert’s life — when he knew he was dying — he produced a stunning series of works of such profound depth and beauty, it can only be called a miracle. There were the final three string quartets, the C-major Quintet, and the final three piano sonatas. If all we had from Schubert were these works, he would be given a first-class ticket at the front of the bus with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The final sonata, in B-flat, is one of the longest written by that time, rivaling Ludwig’s “Hammerklavier.” It, too, has a central slow movement of intense emotion. Arthur Rubinstein, who played the sonata as well as anyone ever has, said of the adagio, “This movement is like death. There is nothing else as close as this music that shows us what death feels like.”
Rubinstein recorded it twice, only a few years apart, but it is his first, from 1965, that I think is the best ever. There is a gracefulness and a humanity in the playing that is uniquely Rubinstein’s.
There are tons of other performances, from everyone from Horowitz (a bit clangy) to Alfred Brendel (a bit stodgy). But I also recommend the versions by Radu Lupu and by Mitsuko Uchida.
Liszt Sonata in B-minor
Franz Liszt is the guy who invented the piano recital: people paying good money to hear a pianist on stage all by himself, amazing them with his showmanship and technical brilliance. Liszt was the equivalent of a rock star in his day. Oh the women! Oh the humanity!
A lot of what Liszt wrote is surely just showboating — “Look what I can do!” But he wanted to establish his bona fides, also, as a great composer, and among those things he wrote of more serious intent is his gigantic Piano Sonata in B-minor.
Written in 1853, it divided the listening audience in two, half hating, half loving it. Brahms fell asleep while hearing it. The critic Eduard Hanslick said “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Another German critic, Otto Gumprecht, referred to it as “an invitation to hissing and stomping.”
Liszt sent Clara Schumann a copy of the sonata. In her diary she described the sonata as “a blind noise … and yet I must thank him for it. … It really is too awful.”
Yet, the more avant-garde audiences found it thrilling, adventurous and exciting. Richard Wagner loved it. And today, it is a staple of the concert repertoire. I have heard two great live performances of it, first by Emil Gilels and more recently by Andre Watts — both overwhelming experiences.
My favorite performance is by Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Too many upstanding and earnest pianists have attempted to overcome the showmanship and flash in Liszt to, supposedly, “find the music.” But Liszt without the dash and flash isn’t really Liszt. The exhibitionism is built into the score, and Lisitsa’s Liszt (not just in the sonata) is the perfect presentation of what Liszt is supposed to be. It’s louder, faster, more dazzling. (Hence, Lisitsa is sometimes pooh-poohed by the snobbier critics).
If you don’t mind a slightly older audio sound, you also can’t go wrong with Vladimir Horowitz, who also knows what this music is about. Finally, I treasure the CD of Watts playing the sonata, with panache and taste, which reminds me of hearing him do it live.
Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F#-minor, op. 5
We think of Brahms as the old man with the beard spattered with cigar ash, but he was young once, full of piss and vinegar, and at the start of his career he wrote three monumental piano sonatas, opuses 1, 2, and 5. Each busting knuckles with the best of them. They are big, even by the standards of the time.
The third is the one that caught on. He wrote it in 1853, the same years as Liszt wrote his sonata, and when he was just 20. It is vast, passionate, and gawky. It’s aggressive opening uses the whole length of the keyboard from booming bass to tintinnabulating treble. The second movement is tender andante inspired by a poem about pale moonlight and love. A rumbling scherzo follows and then an extra movement thrown in — a “recollection” or “remembrance” (“Rückblick”) that recalls the sweet andante with sweet nostalgia. (Did I mention that through all five movements, there is also a subtle recollection of the Dah-dah-dah-Dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — a ghost in the mechanism). Finally, an agitated rondo finale. The contrast between the more assertive segments and the more quiet, thoughtful parts give this sonata a sense of encompassing the range of human thought and emotion.
No one plays Brahms better than Arthur Rubinstein. Period. Brahms is his mother tongue and compared with him, every other pianist, no matter how good, is speaking a second language in Brahms idiosyncratic keyboard style — the opposite of the natural pianism of, say, Chopin. But Rubinstein makes it flow and sing.
He recorded it twice. The more recent, from 1959, is in better sound, so it is my first choice, but I have to put the 1949 version in as my second choice. There are many other good recordings of the sonata, but the only one which comes close to Rubinstein (that I have heard) is by Helene Grimaud.
Ives Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860”
England has a centuries-long tradition of eccentrics, but America, in contrast, has its crackpots. Charles Ives was one of them.
He began writing his second piano sonata in 1904, but didn’t finish it until 1915. I use the word “finished” provisionally, because after it was published, in 1920, Ives continued fiddling with it, rewriting it and republishing it in 1947. It was not performed, in full, before a paying public until 1939. And each performance after was slightly different, partly because there are ad lib sections of the score, and partly because Ives kept jiggering with it. He said it was never meant to be finished, but always to be a work in progress.
Oh, and it comes with a 120-page preface, called Essays Before a Sonata, in which he discusses not just the music, but the whole of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 19th century.
Ives wrote the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”
The first movement, “Emerson,” is quite craggy, but there is humor in the following “Hawthorne,” and quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth, played after dinner on a parlor piano, in “Alcotts,” and finally a quiet, moody reflection of Nature, with a capital “N” in “Thoreau.”
I got to hear Jeremy Denk play the Concord Sonata at Zankel Hall in New York, in a program that also included the “Hammerklavier.” Back to back in the same recital was more than impressive: It was like watching someone run a marathon in the morning and after lunch complete an iron man competition. It was exhausting. For a recording of the sonata, Denk is my man.
But I also have a soft spot for a recording I have cherished for almost 50 years, first on vinyl and now on CD — Nina Deutsch in a Vox Box with a host of other Ives piano music. She brings a slightly softer edge to the Ives. And there is the original recording, made in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, who first championed the piece.
Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, op. 83
Schubert had his final three sonatas; Brahms had his first three. Knucklebusters seem to like coming in threes. Serge Prokofiev wrote his group of three during World War II, and are hence often grouped as his “War Sonatas.” Each is a job-and-a-half to tackle, and any of them could be chosen to represent Prokofiev as a knucklebuster. But the one that has become popular is the Seventh, in the middle of the trio.
The sonata is usually seen as a reflection on the war, but, like so much Soviet music of the time, it holds an unspoken reference to the terror under Stalin. Prokofiev was friends and working colleague with theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the NKVD in 1939. Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was stabbed 27 times in her apartment after Meyerhold’s arrest, also by the NKVD. Prokofiev (like Shostakovich) constantly feared they might come for him, also. He wrote a panegyric cantata “To the Glory of Stalin” for the dictator’s 60th birthday, in hopes to be left alone, but also wrote this piano sonata, in a more personal style, to maintain his self-respect.
The first movement is a rough and tumble Allegro Inquieto. The second movement, Andante Caloroso, quotes a song by Robert Schumann, with lyrics that read, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well … everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song.” It is one of the most beautiful moments Prokofiev ever wrote.
That is all followed by the toccata-like finale, Precipitato, which explodes and doesn’t relent until the final pounding chords. It is an angry, propulsive moto perpetuo, with an obsessive repetition in the left hand of a figure in the odd time signature of ⅞. It beats and crashes over and over till audience and pianist are exhausted.
I heard Maurizio Pollini play the Prokofiev Seventh in Los Angeles many years ago in another monumental program (which also included all the Chopin Preludes and ended with Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka). Pollini was great.
But my first choice remains a dark horse: Barbara Nissman, on a disc with all three of the War Sonatas. Nissman makes the music less brutal, more musical, and I have loved this disc since I first got it in 1989. Nissman was the first pianist to record all the Prokofiev sonatas on CD. The first recording of the Seventh Sonata, by itself, was by Vladimir Horowitz, and it is still a show-off piece. And there is also a great recording by Pollini.
Not on the list
These six pieces hardly exhaust the 19th century’s love of the big and difficult piano piece. I stuck with sonatas. I could have included Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, which could be considered a sonata. I could have included Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue, which could also pass as a sonata incognito. Or either of Serge Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas, which are clearly knucklebusters — but not so firmly established in the repertoire as the pieces I have chosen. Some will complain I didn’t include Alkan, but his music will probably never be generally popular.
You may have your own candidates, either for compositions or performances. These are mine.
I was watching TV tonight and had a momentous realization: It is not possible to go slumming anymore.
When I was a younger man, it was possible to enjoy various lowbrow entertainments. Professional wrestling was fun, in small doses. There was Haystack Calhoun and Wahoo McDaniels. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, and you could watch them on the television between commercials for safety razors and beer.
Or, as in college, an afternoon between classes could be spent with Ryan’s Hope or All My Children. There was no guilt attached to watching what we knew — what pretty much everyone knew — was empty and meaningless. But fun, in a mindless kind of way.
You could sometimes go to the movies to watch junk, and enjoy it for its junkosity. You could read Sidney Sheldon at the beach or have a blast with the Monster Mash.
To go slumming was not to look down on those involved. Far from it. In that part of American cultural history, before it all went meta, there was an acknowledgment of the differences between highbrow, lowbrow and even middlebrow, and people would gravitate to their respective level and there was no shame in that — not everyone needed to be the same, and it was just fine if you were a plumber, just as it was fine if you taught physics at Columbia (I had friends whose fathers did both). Society needed both.
My own parents were solidly middlebrow (my mother read every Sidney Sheldon book as it came out) and I gravitated to a brow a few grades more rarified. That was my natural “specific gravity” and I sought it as naturally as a hatched sea turtle waddles to the ocean.
It was a stratified culture, and aside from the haughty censure of a few snobs, that fact seemed both acceptable and, in fact, normal to most of us.
But, as I was watching tonight, I recognized promos for TV shows that reveled in what one old-timer used to call “meatball culture” — that is, adolescent testosterone-inebriated arrested development stupidity. And I realized that all the brows had been swirled together into one agglomerated goo of meatballery.
We’ve even added a drunken frat boy to the Supreme Court.
I think I first noticed this change with the advent of Beavis and Butt-Head in 1993. Since then, the number of shows, cartoon and live-action, in which all the characters are slovenly and imbecilic has metastasized.
If you compare it with The Simpsons, you can see the difference. The Simpsons is a well-populated series, with all levels of intelligence and aspiration accounted for. Homer may be a dunce (but good hearted), but Marge is solidly middle-class, Lisa is highbrow, Bart is lowbrow. Each has a place in the well-greased family dynamic.
But, look at Bob’s Burgers now, where everyone is a marginal cretin.
The Simpsons also was consistently witty, with sharp writing, social observation, character-driven gags. It was written by a gang of really smart people and meant to appeal to every level of society and education.
Now, the general pitch level is for Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. How else do you explain the multi-season broadcasts of Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, The Masked Singer, Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, Drunk History, The Batchelor and Batchelorette, Love Island, The Kardashians, Cops, Pawn Stars, Judge Judy, Toddlers and Tiaras, Sister Wives, The Apprentice — You can continue the list. I haven’t the heart.
To say nothing of so-called “Trash TV,” and the fist-fight, chair-throwing, bleep-rhythmed shows like those with Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, Geraldo. And all the other faux courts and dating shows. Low culture is now all culture.
Quiz shows used to ask substantive questions (Jeopardy was the last to give in to pop-culture references, although it still asks many hard questions), but when we get to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, we get questions more akin to “What color dress did Adele wear to the 2020 Emmy awards?”
And I shouldn’t have to mention that a professional wrestler has had his turn as governor of Minnesota, or that a reality TV star has occupied the White House.
Our culture now sees no difference between Jackass and Jackson Pollock. Even academics now consider Duck Dynasty worthy of a Ph.D. thesis, while at the same time castigating Rilke as dreadfully elitist.
Film has become an endless assembly line of multiverse superheroes. I cannot begin to count the number of different Batman actors have put on the suit. Michael Bay sells tickets. Blow stuff up real good.
Even classical music has been taken over by the so-called “historical performance practice” people, whose claim to be inspired by the way music used to be played when originally composed (which nobody really knows — it was centuries ago, before recordings), but to be honest, that is mere self-delusion. It is really the propulsive rhythmic drive of rock and roll that makes them rip through the classics. Beethoven à la speed metal.
I believe that the rise of a universal meta has come to us partly because of this meatball culture. Brains come in various capacities, and just as some people are taller than others, some more athletic, some more talented, some people are more intelligent than others. We’ve made a horrible mistake in the past by ranking intelligence with value. Taller people are not “better” than short people. Brown eyes are not better than green. And we shouldn’t think that intelligence makes anyone better than anyone else.
There have been some pretty horrible people in the world with tremendous IQs.
But neither should we think that we are all the same, that one size fits all. Smarter people and those better educated (different from simple intelligence — plenty of really bright people never went to college) get more easily bored by simple entertainments. It is why highbrow culture exists — it is really just more complex material that keeps an intelligence engaged.
And so, with the level of culture in general aiming lowbrow, the intelligent mind, on the edge of boredom without more nuanced material, looks for some way to occupy itself and spins wheels with invented complexity: theory, deconstruction, post-structuralism — all ways to make the simple seem more complicated, more rigorous and more worth our time and thought.
And so, here come the graduate classes in “post-dynamic power relations in multiracial subtext in 21st century television comedy.” Not that something like that isn’t worth investigating, but rather that bored minds will go to great lengths to occupy their capacities. Great poetry, dance, symphonies, literature all used to do that. Now there is only Hillbilly Handfishin’ to feed on.
Which brings me back to my original thought. It is now pretty close to impossible to merely sit back and enjoy a guilty pleasure. Slumming has become ironic.
Anyone following this blog will recognize that I have begun a series of entries that I am calling my “alphabestiary.” I thought I might explain what I am doing.
I am currently researching and writing the seventh entry in the series, a piece about Galileo Galilei. Such a thing takes a lot of time and effort — more than you might imagine. I am about two-thirds of the way through and trying to work out a knotty problem: how to explain his trial and confinement without getting boggled up in the minutiae of 17th century Roman Catholic doctrine and Vatican law. It’s daunting.
And so, while I am working on the research and the de-clogging of that, I thought I might explain what brought all this on.
Since I was given this blog on my retirement from The Arizona Republic in 2012 — given to me by my colleagues on my leaving — I have written nearly 700 entries, which means I have written almost as much in retirement as I did when working. (As I have often said, writers never really retire, they just stop getting paid for it.) It’s an addiction. If you are a writer, you write just in the same way as how you breathe. You can’t stop or you die.
And it’s not that I have run out of subjects to write about, but after 688 blog essays (this is No. 689), I sometimes have to program a plan for coming up with new pieces if one doesn’t present itself automatically. And so, I have started the occasional alphabestiary piece.
The idea came to me after reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a hefty book from 2007 in which James writes about historical and literary figures and arranges the biographies in alphabetical order. He covers 106 figures in the 876-page book, which is subtitled: “Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.”
James, for anyone who is unfamiliar, was an Australian-born London-based essayist, poet, TV-presenter and critic who was a ubiquitous public intellectual in England until his death in 2019. His style was distinct, breezy, witty and with many a clever turn of phrase (“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,” he wrote about writing).
The essays in Cultural Amnesia each come in two parts: The first is fairly straight-forward potted biography, then, separated by a quote from the first part, comes an essay by James about something suggested by the biography. It might be only tangentially related, but writing about whichever person has tickled his imagination to find a buried connection.
I liked this plan a lot. I’ve read great wads of James, his TV criticism (which first brought him fame), his poetry (which is surprisingly good, even if most of it rhymes), his critical and political essays, and even when I might disagree with him, he is always an absolute pleasure to read.
And so, I stole a bit of his idea and modified it. If I have a momentary lapse in inspiration for the blog, I move to a new letter of the alphabet and find myself a subject. Inspiration, after all, doesn’t come from angels tapping you on the noggin with a magic wand — it comes from typing. Get started and the daimon swoops in unnoticed to guide your fingers on the keyboard. Inspiration is the doing, not the waiting.
In my version, I planned a single subject per alphabet letter, not the multiples that James has in his book. And I thought, to make it just a bit more interesting for me, let’s only choose names where the first and surnames begin with the same letter. AA, BB, CC, etc.
And so, I began with Ansel Adams, followed with Betty Boop, Caryl Chessman,
Denis Diderot, Edward Elgar and Federico Fellini. And I am now hard at work on Galileo Galilei. It should pop out sometime in the next week.
And so, chug, chug, the old writer keeps on moving forward, unable to stop.
As a kind of footnote, I thought I should append a list, to show just how variable the alphabet is in spitting up potential subjects. Some letters are filthy with choice, others are deserts. And while you might guess that finding an “X” could be somewhat rare, it still surprised me, making up my list of potentials, that while there are many, many “M” names, there are surprisingly few “N” possibles.
I made my list from a passel of sources. No one place online had all I needed. I searched “alliterative names” and found some, but I must have waded through a dozen sites to compile my list, which, to be honest, includes quite a few names I had never heard of — and you probably haven’t either.
I thought you might find the list entertaining, in that way lists can be. And if you can help me out by adding some I’ve missed, by all means, add them in the comment section. You may save me from having to write an essay about Qozidavlat Qoimdodov (yes, he’s real).
And so, here is my listilicious roster of names. Help me add to them.
Ansel Adams, Amy Adams, Abigail Adams, Andre Agassi, Alan Alda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Aziz Ansari, Adam Ant, Alan Arkin, Arthur Ashe, Amedeo Avogadro
Barbi Benton, Barry Bonds, Betty Boop, Brian Blessed, Backstreet Boys, Bilbo Baggins, Brigitte Bardot, Bob Barker, Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, Ben Bernanke, Bernardo Bertolucci, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Bixby, Ben Bradlee, Bill Bradley, Benjamin Bratt, Bugs Bunny, Billy Burke, Barbara Bush
Caryl Chessman, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chan, Christopher Columbus, Calvin Coolidge, Carlos Castaneda, Coco Chanel, Carol Channing, Cesar Chavez, Chris Christie, Charlotte Church, Cassius Clay, Chelsea Clinton, Claudette Colbert, Charles Colson, Courteney Cox, Cindy Crawford
Denis Diderot, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day, Dana Delany, Don DeLillo, Drea De Matteo, Dorothea Dix, Dr. Demento, Don Draper, David Duchovny, Daisy Duke
Edward Elgar, Emilio Estevez, Eddie Edwards, Eddie the Eagle, Erik Estrada
Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Grace Gummer, Galileo Galilei, George Gershwin, Gal Gadot, George Gallup, Gabrielle Giffords, Gilbert Gottfried, Graham Greene, Germaine Greer, George Gobel
Harry Houdini, Humbert Humbert, Helen Hayes, Harriet Hosmer, Howard Hawks, Hugh Hefner, Henry Heimlich, Henry Hudson, Heinrich Himmler, Hulk Hogan, Hal Holbrook, Herbert Hoover, Howard Hughes, Hubert Humphrey, Holly Hunter, Helen Hunt, Heinrich Heine
Itziar Ituño, Ivan Illich, Ilya Ivanov, Ilya Ivashka, Ivan Ilyin
Jim Jarmusch, James Joyce, Janis Joplin, Janet Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Jesse James, John Jay, Jasper Johns, James Earl Jones, January Jones, Jennifer Jones, Jim Jones
Kim Kardashian, King Kong, Kevin Kline, Killer Kowalski, Kato Kaelin, Khloe Kardashian, Ken Kesey, Klaus Kinski, Kunta Kinte, Keira Knightley, Kris Kringle, Kublai Khan
Lois Lane, Linda Lovelace, Louis L’Amour, Lucy Lawless, Lucille Le Seuer, Lee Liberace, Laura Linney, Lucy Liu, Lara Logan, Lindsay Lohan, Lyle Lovett, Lucky Luciano, Louis Lumiere, Loretta Lynn, Loretta Lynch
Marilyn Monroe, Mercedes McCambridge, Malcolm McDowell, Mad Max, Mary Magdalene, Moses Maimonides, Marilyn Manson, Mickey Mantle, Meghan Markle, Marky Mark, Mary Martin, Melissa McCarthy, Matthew McConaughey, Mitch McConnell, Mark McGwire, Margaret Mead, Mickey Mouse, Martin Milner, Mini-Me, Margaret Mitchell, Maria Montessori, Mandy Moore, Marianne Moore, Mary Tyler Moor, Michael Moore, Marion Morrison, Mike Myers, Michelangelo Merisi
Ozzy Osbourne, Olive Oyl, Oona O’Neill, Olive Oatman, Olusegun Obasanjo, Olivia O’Brien, Özge Özpirinçci, Olivia Olson, Oliver Onions, Olivia Ong, Olga Ostroumova
Pablo Picasso, Parker Posey, Pete Postlethwaite, Pauley Perrette, Peter Parker, Pawel Pawlikowski, Peter Pan, Pink Panther, Pol Pot, Pope Pius IX, Paula Poundstone, Prince Philip, Punxsutawney Phil
Qin Qin, Qu Qiubai, Qi Qi, Qozidavilat Qoimdodov
Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers, Ricky Ricardo, Robert Redford, Ralph Reed, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Rice, Robert Ripley, Richard Rodgers, Robert Rodriguez, Ray Romano, Rebecca Romijn, Ruby Rose, Rosie Ruiz, Rene Russo
Steven Spielberg, Susan Sarandon, Simone Signoret, Sissy Spacek, Sylvester Stallone, Sam Shepard, Sheryl Sandberg, Stephanie Seymour, Sidney Sheldon, Sarah Silverman, Shel Silverstein, Sirhan Sirhan, Severus Snape, Steven Soderbergh, Suzanne Somers, Stephen Sondheim, Sonia Sotomayor, Sam Spade, Splendid Splinter, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sri Srinivasan, Saint Sebastian, Sharon Stone, Sutan of Swat
Tina Turner, Ted Turner, Tiny Tim, Terry Thomas, Tim Tebow, Tiffany Trump
Umit Ulgen, Usha Uthup, Udo Ulfkotte, Ugyen Ugyen
Vince Vaughn, Vivian Vance, Vincent Van Gogh, Vidya Vox, Victor Valdes, Val Valentino, Virginia Vallejo, Ville Valo, Victoria Vetri, Victor Vasarely, Violetta Villas, Vito Volterra, Violette Verdy, Via Vallen, Vanessa Vadim
William Wyler, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Wilson, William Wallace, Wil Wheaton, Walter White, Wicked Witch of the West, Wendy Williams, William Carlos Williams, Willy Wonka
Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl, Xuxa, Xu Xin, Xie Xinfang, Xia Xuanze