Today is the 100th Anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. So much has already been said and written, and performed that I have only a little to add. He was the dominant idea of what a musician was for my entire youth, and when I finally got to see him live (with the National Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s 9th Symphony, the “Great C Major), it did not disappoint. He was “all in” in this epic music, which, like him, is immediately appealing, and also profound.
That he was a mash-up of 20th century ideas and drives, musical and otherwise, is the most familiar take: a Broadway star who wrote symphonies, a Jew who set the Mass as one of his greatest works, a happily married man, who lived and celebrated gay love in the last quarter of his life. Contradictions prevailed, but in his work the great through line for me is the alloy he created in of intimate and dramatic. He did this over and over again, in his performances of others’ music, and most of all in his own. That he knows his way around big gesture is clear from the first moments of the overture to Candide say,
But he finds the dramatic embedded in the the intimate, the balcony scene in West Side Story, or the violin soloist’s musings in Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)–an unlikely dramatic source–come to mind, in a way that makes you feel you know something about him, about the characters, and about the journey ahead that is a unique secret. It’s an odd comparison I know, but I think of the private moments in Wagner (to me at least a lot more treasurable than W’s bombast). Wotan saying farewell to his daughter, the fraught and forbidden love of Sieglinde and Sigmund, much of Act II Tristan. Those times when–rare in opera or perhaps even in life–nobody’s lying; they are really simply themselves, as Lenny surely was for his own eclectic, wonderful, sometimes infuriating, and completely inimitable 72 years on the planet.
My listening suggestion to close, a counterpoint to that romp of Candide overture, is his setting of three psalms–his own dramatic mash up of course, a written in 1965 to a commission from Chichester Cathedral. He found the dramatic potential, part intimacy, part frolic, grim discord, and finally a long-breathed a capella moment of peace, with these fitting words for him and for us.
Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity.
Somebody recommended the book (based on a web rant) on Bullshit jobs by anthropologist David Graeber. He outlines the pointless work that seems to occupy so many of us. An elegant review of it (and two other new books on the topic) is in the TLS.
From the essay:
I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.
It’s a polemic with all the virtues and vices of the form, but as he mentions poetry, there were two poets who got here before (as they almost always do). Philip Larkin (a librarian who wrote poetry on the side, evokes jobs as a toad squatting on life).
Toads by Philip Larkin
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.
Lots of folk live on their wits:
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.
I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.
After Working Sixty Hours Again For What Reason by Bob Hicok
The best job I had was moving a stone
from one side of the road to the other.
This required a permit which required
a bribe. The bribe took all my salary.
Yet because I hadn’t finished the job
I had no salary, and to pay the bribe
I took a job moving the stone
the other way. Because the official
wanted his bribe, he gave me a permit
for the second job. When I pointed out
that the work would be best completed
if I did nothing, he complimented
my brain and wrote a letter
to my employer suggesting promotion
on stationery bearing the wings
of a raptor spread in flight
over a mountain smaller than the bird.
My boss, fearing my intelligence,
paid me to sleep on the sofa
and take lunch with the official
who required a bribe to keep anything
from being done. When I told my parents,
they wrote my brother to come home
from university to be slapped
on the back of the head. Dutifully,
he arrived and bowed to receive
his instruction, at which point
sense entered his body and he asked
what I could do by way of a job.
I pointed out there were stones
everywhere trying not to move,
all it took was a little gumption
to be the man who didn’t move them.
It was harder to explain the intricacies
of not obtaining a permit to not
do this. Just yesterday he got up
at dawn and shaved, as if the lack
of hair on his face has anything
to do with the appearance of food
on an empty table.
A poet who grew up around the shop floor and the classics reflects on craft, and lessons from his father.
by B. H. Fairchild
Gesang ist Dasein
A small thing done well, the steel bit paring
the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate
blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight
into darkness until they broke and fell
into a pool of oil and water below.
A small thing done well, my father said
so often that I tired of hearing it and lost
myself in the shop’s north end, an underworld
of welders who wore black masks and stared
through smoked glass where all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
of the clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes
hacking slag, and acetylene flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.
Each day was like another. I stood beside him
and watched the lathe spin on, coils of iron
climbing into dusk, the file’s drone, the rasp,
and finally the honing cloth with its small song
of things done well that I would carry into sleep
and dreams of men with wings of fire and steel.
Bert Fairchild, 1906-1990
Gesang ist Dasein, singing is being, is the title of a poem by Rilke, glossed a while back by Robert Hass in his Poet’s Choice column.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I said unto myself, if I were dead,
What would befall these children? What would be
Their fate, who now are looking up to me
For help and furtherance? Their lives, I said,
Would be a volume wherein I have read
But the first chapters, and no longer see
To read the rest of their dear history,
So full of beauty and so full of dread.
Be comforted; the world is very old,
And generations pass, as they have passed,
A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
The world belongs to those who come the last,
They will find hope and strength as we have done.
The good folks at Chronicle Books have a new kids’ title coming out, What Can A Citizen Do? with text by Dave Eggers and art by Shawn Harris.
Looks delightful and timely.
The Guardian has a story on an effort to bridge literature and the wildly successful game Minecraft. Herewith the lede:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 classic Treasure Island tells of Jim Hawkins’s adventures on board the Hispaniola, as he and his crew – along with double-crossing pirate Long John Silver – set out to find Captain Flint’s missing treasure on Skeleton Island. Now, more than a century later, children can try and find it themselves, with the bays and mountains of Stevenson’s fictional island given a blocky remodelling in Minecraft, as part of a new project aimed at bringing reluctant readers to literary classics.
From Spyglass Hill to Ben Gunn’s cave, children can explore every nook and cranny of Skeleton Island as part of Litcraft, a new partnership between Lancaster University and Microsoft, which bought the game for $2.5bn (£1.9bn) in 2015 and which is now played by 74 million people each month.The Litcraft platform uses Minecraft to create accurate scale models of fictional islands: Treasure Island is the first, with Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom just completed and many others planned.
There’s part of me that goes “cool”–the embarrassing answer of a 50-something former librarian who has never played Minecraft. Interesting to see stories jump genres and stimulate creativity and interest.
I did pause a bit at this bit,
Libraries are particularly interested in the possibilities of multiplayer, Bushell says, adding that one of the future projects will be Lord of the Flies: “In that case, you want all the kids in there playing out a scenario and asking philosophical questions. We hope they do some reading, then play the game, then do some empathetic writing based on what they did in there.”
A multiplayer realtime Lord of the Flies? I’m thinking that runs a little to close to what the story itself embodies, and not sure that philosophical questions are exactly what will be stimulated.
A weekend trip to Richmond allowed me to spend a pleasurable afternoon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an eclectic collection, with everything other than the special exhibits free to the public, 365 days a year.
It is particularly strong in American Art, a favorite of mine. And as is my wont, I went in search of George Inness, finding three canvases. An idiosyncratic painter, and these expanded my sense of him. Many threads come together in his work–painterly values as an American Barbizon painter (rural, often pastoral subjects, rendered with glowing colors, tending towards realism not impressionism), also there’s a hard to fathom spiritual subtext, apparently tied to Swedenborg, a mystical theologian who exerted a fascination on Kant, and also the senior Henry James. And although mostly a landscape painter, Innes apparently made up many of these locations, or at least radically adjusted the details, frequently finishing the work in the studio.
Mostly the paintings seem mysteriously beautiful to me. This started with a pull towards October Noon at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, where everything, including the title of the painting slowly dissolves into something else the longer you look at it.
The three at VMFA didn’t quite evoke that mystery, except perhaps for the ominous trees of Stone Pines; instead they seem quietly epic, like a nineteenth century novel on themes of daily life, where everything hinges on a word or two at sunset.
I will report from my further efforts to see every Inness canvas on view; having a pet artistic quest like this can add a bit to museum going. (See under “all the Vermeers in New York.)
Another thing I am always on the look out for is Raku ware, ceramic tea vessels of sometimes rustic character. The combination of an earthy, almost primitive feel with use in the extreme refinement of the tea ceremony is endless fascinating.
The VMFA’s 300 year old example is a stunner, not the least because it could have been created yesterday.