Monday, April 30, 2012

Quote of the Day:

    The Harris:  And everyone knows that the British gave the Zionists the option of building Pikesville in Uganda, instead of around the great Al's Slade Av Mosque! 
Where Mohammed ascended the  escalators to the bedroom fittings to get great great discounts on headboards!

Simon Rattle rehearsing inner city Philadelphia Kids

I kind of teared up during this. How many conductors have ever given back to communities the way Rattle has? Too few classical musicians are real moral leaders who use their music-making to make the world a better place, but Rattle has consistently proven himself a leader who believes that music has a greater power than the merely aesthetic, which can and should be used to better people's lives.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

800 Words: A Mosque in Pikesville! Part 1

This week was Yom Ha’atzma’ut – the Israeli independence day on which David Ben-Gurion gathered an entire congress into a swelteringly hot Tel Aviv room and declared Israel a free and independent state.  Upon that same day (called the Naq’ba – or ‘the catastrophe’ by many others), eleven separate armies declared war on Israel and invaded immediately: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the Holy War Army, the Arab Liberation Army, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the war, half the Palestinian population was displaced (by whom? Does it matter?), and 1% of the Israeli population was killed and another 2.5% of the population wounded.

I have two interests in Yom Ha’atzma’ut/The Naq'ba:
1.      1. It provides a spate of concert dates for the choir I conduct, and we get to go around the Greater Pikesville Area, singing to audiences who care much more about this holiday than I do.
2.      2. The opportunity to offend highly privileged people who take this day so seriously.

It was after our gig this morning, as my chorus members were munching on bad falafel, that one of them told me something that made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I’m not sure I’ve discovered comic gold this fantastic since 9/11.

The Slade Avenue Mansion is going to become a Mosque. Now for the interests of clarity, allow me to explain a few things about the Slade Avenue Mansion; I have no idea what the Slade Avenue mansion once was before it was an unsuccessful assisted living home for the elderly – I vaguely remember my father telling me something about it being the house of department store owners, and that makes sense, no rich goy would have lived that close to a Jewish country club before 1970, and the only Jews who’d had enough wealth in the early twentieth century to afford the Slade Avenue Mansion would have been department store owners. What I do know is that it was suggested by a couple people in real estate that my family firm - Deronda Corp - buy the Slade Avenue Mansion and try to find occupants to rent. I was not at the meeting, but I do recall that my father’s response was “Hell No.”

I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about the plans for a Mosque much, much sooner than I did. People in Pikesville real estate were clearly desperate to sell it, I’d gotten vague queries from multiple friends about strange goings on in Pikesville which I knew nothing about, and the gossip mill of this town runs more efficiently than any Nazi train system.

The Mosque will be located at Park Heights and Slade Avenue, barely a block from the very epicenter of Jewish Baltimore. It will be across Slade Avenue from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and its Day School – the very oldest Jewish congregation in Baltimore. It will be diagonal from Temple Oheb Shalom, whose sanctuary was designed by the great architect Walter Gropius. Across Park Heights Avenue will be the Suburban Club, a 100 year old Jewish country club. Within a mile of it will be Chizuk Amuno Congregation and my ‘almamater’, the Krieger Schechter Day School which it houses, Beth Tfiloh Congregation and its day school, and Beth El Congregation. Those are three of the world’s largest synagogues. Within a mile and a half is the Seven Mile Market, which recently expanded to become the single largest kosher supermarket in the world. Within a two mile radius will be dozens and dozens of small orthodox congregations, dozens of Jewish retirement homes, the Ner Israel Yeshiva, Sol Levinson & Brothers Funeral Home, Sinai Hospital, The Suburban House, Lenny’s and Miller’s Delis, and roughly ten kosher restaurants. It is a Mosque located at the absolute center of Jewish Baltimore. For nearly half a century, no new church dared open its doors near Upper Park Heights Avenue for the knowledge that that attracting new membership would be a fool’s errand. It is perhaps the sole place in America whose commercial districts are guaranteed not to have Christmas decorations in the winter.

Many Jews view it as a special Jewish paradise, sheltered not only from the problems of 2000 years of bigotry and violence the world over, but from the problems of contemporary America as well. It is an artificial 1950’s, preserved by a self-policed omerta that omits from view the terrible urban blights which exist a mere thousand feet away from Pikesville’s border. If you ever want to be truly shocked, go around the Pimlico racetrack and look across Northern Parkway. Across that iconic Baltimore street lies gorgeous houses and pristine buildings, new development aplenty and special blue lights as far as the eye can see. Look the other way and you’ll see nothing but dilapidation, desiccation, and decay. Whether its residents realize it or not, Pikesville is a delicately balanced antique, a ballet troupe dancing on a volcano that has perpetually been on the brink of eruption for the entire time that it was Jewish. And like all delicate balances, all it takes is a single gust of mild wind to let something so fragile crash to the ground in ruins. While I’d certainly have concerns if the whole balance came down, I would in no way view the end of an exclusively Jewish Pikesville as a tragedy, but there are many who would, and will do everything within their power to ensure that it does not happen – mostly within the law, but sadly, all it takes is one…

Like everything else about this white picket shtetl of my origin, a mosque in the center of town is a contradiction like every other contradiction. Pikesville may border Baltimore City, but it is a small town like any other small town, with all the lack of privacy, gossip, mistrust, and envy which that implies. Yet within that small town is a virtual America in miniature of Jews, with as many separate ethnic groups, religious creeds, and education levels as exist in the entirety of America – the only difference being that everybody is Jewish. There are even poor Jews in Baltimore (!), but most of them are Orthodox and are supported by the Ner Israel (Light of Israel) Yeshiva.

(Just watch.)

It’s one of the more noxious ironies of Pikesville that so many of the people who oppose social welfare and public housing for minorities have feelings bordering on affection for a welfare system every bit as blatant and of more dubious social value.  We Jews are commanded to devote our lives to the Torah, and some Jews take that command extremely literally. Men are discouraged from having jobs and instead become acolytes to their Rabbis, the more intellectually capable men study the Torah every day, devoting all the hours of their adult lives to studying the books of the Bible and the 2000 years of commentary accumulated around them. The less intellectually capable spend their days raising money, trying to pester other Jews into coming back to orthodoxy, and patrolling the streets for ‘undesirables’ during the neighborhood watch. Their women exist merely as vessels to birth more Jews, and the average ultra orthodox family currently births roughly 7 children per household. If they need money, it is the woman, not the man, who is expected to earn a living in addition to raising her children.

(Everyone should watch Kadosh – the film that many experts believe began the Israeli cinema revival. It is a movie about the repression inherent in today’s Ultra-Orthodox community)

The current ultra-orthodox lifestyle is like most modern fundamentalisms - one of medieval belief married to modern means. Very few Jews in history who weren’t rabbis themselves had the privilege of devoting a mere few years of their lives to Yeshiva study. But with subsidies that come from a diverse number of places - including charitable foundations who’ve found a way to make tax-free write-offs, and even the State of Israel itself – they’ve found it reasonable to build a community whose sole purposes are to study Torah ad infinitum, and to make babies by the dozens who will one day study more Torah.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hold on to Me by Theresa Andersson

h/t Le Malon

Quote of the Day

Le Malon: i want to be joe biden's chief gaffe strategist

Friday Playlist #13: Sight and Sound Movie Poll Edition

Every ten years, critics and directors send their choices to Sight and Sound's Greatest Films poll, which then tallies up the results and declares some movie to be the greatest of all time. Once again, I was not asked, and as a protest, here is my list. Since 1962, this honor has time and again gone to Citizen Kane. Kane lover I may be, but count me as someone who thinks this to be the decade The Godfather topples it.

1. The Rules of the Game - 1939. dir. Jean Renoir

Click here to watch.

One day, when I am gathered together with my foreskin, I will be buried with a DVD of this movie. The greatest work of art, ever made. Humanity portrayed exactly as it is.

2. Tokyo Story - 1953. dir. Yasujiro Ozu

The greatest movie ever made about family, the passing of time, and our inability to truly know the people we should know best.

3. The Decalogue - 1989. dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Ten roughly hour-long movies about The Ten Commandments. We're never going to figure out what's moral and what isn't, but these movies got us closer than we were before.

4. Fanny and Alexander - 1982. dir. Ingmar Bergman

If Tokyo Story is the greatest movie about family, then Fanny and Alexander is a close #2. It's the greatest movie about childhood, its terrors, its hopes, its dreams. The Tree of Life didn't even come close.

5. Rear Window - 1954. dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Of all the great Hitchcocks, this is the most fun, and the most relevant. A modern myth from the first era in human history when we don’t know the people who live closest to us.

 6. The Godfather - 1972. dir. Francis Ford Coppola

 What is The Godfather ultimately about? All I can say is that no movie I’ve ever seen did a better job explaining why there will always be a place for evil in the world.

 7. His Girl Friday - 1940. dir. Howard Hawks

 Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play out the mysteries of love more articulately than anyone in film history, and do it at breakneck speed. Here is a couple addicted to each other, that cannot be torn apart no matter how hard they try to tear themselves away.

 8. Before Sunrise - 1995. dir. Richard Linklater

Yes, it does belong here. If His Girl Friday is about the mystery of love, then Before Sunrise is about the mystery of romance - and the rare confluence of chemistry, good timing, and future doubts which it takes to create it.

 9. The Producers - 1967. dir. Mel Brooks

 The Greatest Joke Ever Told. Only the original, accept no substitutes.

10. F for Fake - 1974. dir. Orson Welles

Welles's last movie, better even than his first. By the end, everything you think you know about the world is turned entirely upside down.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quote of the Day

Jordan (on the phone with La Pinson): What's my spirit animal?
Me: Mine's an Emperor Penguin.
Jordan: Evan says his is an Emperor Penguin with a monocle.
Me: I didn't say monocle.
Jordan: It fits you!

800 Words: Homeland - THE New Show, Part II - The Misfiring Intelligence of Carrie Mathison

Other contemporary shows derive their power from daring to be more extreme: more violent, more disgusting, more sexy, more detailed in production value. It is so easy to realize any vision on contemporary television that its makers are limited by their imaginations. The subtlety we saw in great shows that ended only five years ago is largely missing from the new fare. Once Mad Men ends, will American TV join our movies as an artform in which the best shows derive their power from blunt force?

Among the new batch of hit TV shows, Homeland is a particularly intense, sometimes unpleasant one  – it has almost none of the humor one finds in Mad Men or The Sopranos, yet all of The Sopranos’ oppressive dread. But Homeland is unique among new hits in that the show derives its power from its subtlety. In so many ways, it’s more intense than shows that are much more graphic. It dares to let loose a fully 3-dimensional female character on the screen to an intensity not yet seen on television.

Carrie Mattheson is perhaps the most complex woman the small screen has ever seen. In a performance from Claire Danes as great as any in screen history, we watch as Carrie Mathison bullies, cajoles, deceives, pleads, pesters, seduces, browbeats, blackmails, baits, and bribes her way through the maze that is Washington bureaucracy – yet we know fully well that only a deeply unhealthy compulsion could drives her so hard to succeed in a town where the appearance of complete mental health is always demanded. The tension, the constant danger of watching an Alpha Female negotiate her way through Washington, the ultimate man’s city, is far more intense - and far hotter - than all the sex and violence in Game of Thrones. Next to watching a plausible female character risk constant humiliation, all that extreme graphicness feels positively tame.

As I watched Carrie Mathison single-handedly raise up the CIA (or bring it down, depending on your point of view), I was immediately put in mind of Hedda Gabbler; Henrik Ibsen’s (in)famous anti-heroine,  daughter to a Norwegian general and married off to a mediocre academic; given no other outlet for her inner life than to ruin those of the friends and lovers around her– was she born to be destructive, or did her circumstances create her? Had Hedda Gabler lived 125 years later, I’d imagine her being almost exactly like Carrie Mathison. Lots of feminists would have us believe that Hedda is a victim of her society, an intelligent woman trapped in her surroundings and lashing out merely because revenges against the world are the only options available to intelligent bourgeois housewives. Other critics, older critics, would have us think of Hedda as a psychopath concealed in Jane Austen garb – plotting the ruination of others merely because she can. Neither interpretation is true, though perhaps both are. The whole tension of Ibsen’s play comes from the fact that we have no idea why Hedda acts as she does, only that she commits terribly destructive acts. Perhaps (I think Harold Bloom said this), if Hedda were a man, she’d be another Napoleon, but maybe she’d be a regular person – with all her (his) will to destruction satiated by getting a fair chance at achievement in life. All we can be certain of  is that somewhere in Hedda’s psyche lurks an instinct towards reckless destruction.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, or maybe she’s just nuts.

It’s probably a simple matter of time before many feminists would coopt Carrie Mathison is a feminist heroine/victim, just as they have with Hedda Gabler. Carrie Mathison is many wonderful things, but she is no heroine, and how boring she would be if she were. Don’t misunderstand,  the fact that a character like her exists on television is a huge triumph for feminism (and the men who support it), but to if she were simply a hero who rises above the glass ceiling to be a hero to her country would place her in a ghetto every bit as confining as the glass ceiling itself. The irony of Carrie Mathison is that here, finally, is a woman placed in the highest echelons of government policy-making. But the only reason she is accepted by men is because she is so unstable, and that makes her more unscrupulous, more reckless, more ‘masculine’ than any man in the CIA. If war is nothing more than a game of chicken, then Carrie Mathison would win every battle. She is a limited person of limitless willpower who would sooner sabotage everything for which she fights than to fight by other people’s rules. Like all sorts of alleged political heroes from Winston Churchill on down, she’s a dangerously insane figure that has the great luck of her delusions being correct. People like Carrie are much more likely to be wrong than right, and a large part of the show’s power comes from the fact that it’s probable she‘s exactly as insane as she seems. But insane situations call for insane people.

No Aaron Sorkin script, no Gore Vidal novel, no Oliver Stone movie, comes even close to understanding how Washington works nearly so well as Homeland (only The Daily Show comes close). Washington is run, truly run, by people like Carrie Mathison. The façade of Washington power is based on bland, petty flakes like her boss, the Deputy CIA director David Estes, who has no interest in doing his job well or in anything else except jockeying for a chance to be CIA Director. Whether Carrie is right or wrong, whether people like her make America a more or less dangerous place, at least she cares about the quality of her work. The David Estes of DC desperately need the Carrie Mathisons, because somebody has to take the responsibilities they’re not willing to take. If Washington were left to people like David Estes, it would be guaranteed to incinerate in a day, and people like him know that. Carrie Mattheson might incinerate Washington too (and quicker), but at least she’d try to save it.

A whole third post could be done about the show’s amazing political fairness. There is neither the ersatz liberal idealism of The West Wing, nor the authoritarian justifications of 24. It does not have Boss’s cynicism about the evil acts it takes to get things done, nor does it have The Wire’s axe to grind. The government of Homeland is a government we can recognize; in which deeply flawed public servants have deeply flawed motives, but every one of them has their reasons for acting as they do. Homeland makes no equivocation about the fact that there are people throughout the world who would visit as much evil on Americans as they possibly can, nor does it ever excuse the Americans who would do evil in their battle to save American lives.

Like all these new shows, Homeland's daring comes at a price. It's flaws are enormous. As yet, Saul Berensen has little purpose on the show but to act as a father figure for Carrie. Clearly, he’s meant for something more, and the odds are 10 to 9 he’s Abu Nazir’s government mole. The ultimate explanation for Sgt. Brody’s behavior is far too neat, and was revealed far too soon. Writers should never give a character that many reasons for acting irrationally only to finally give him a rational reason to act as he does. But no TV show in the 21st century speaks as clearly to our world's fears. And no new TV show has a character nearly as alive, as plausible, as fascinating, as the misfiring intelligence of Carrie Mathison.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Quote of the Day:

Le Malon (in relation to the post below): For the was Fredericksburg. And we actually had every intention of watching the opera until we saw the price. It wasn't until after we left you that we randomly decided to drive to Fredericksburg. Where we spent our time at the Wal Mart, buying Bud Light, tube socks, and snacks for the Best Western Hotel. 

800 Words: In Search of Boris Godunov - Before the Prologue

Overture (technically there is none):

Late January, 2005. I’m a college senior. In August of the year before, I spent an absolute fortune (sixty-five dollars!) to see the Mariinsky Opera perform Boris Godunov on tour at the Kennedy Center in a production conducted by Valery Gergiev. I have been looking forward to this all year – even if I knew it would be a cold day in hell before I could get anyone to go with me. Getting anyone to come with me to the Kennedy Center is enough of a pill, but for sixty five dollars, I might as well tell them their money would be siphoned to Jack Abramoff (remember him?).

A week beforehand, I get a surprise IM from Il Giovine. He is about to leave for eight months in Australia, but before he leaves, he wants to come down to DC with some friends of his from New Jersey, and our pledge to enable our corner apartment in Connecticut Heights to put on one last legendary party before he leaves. Against some resistance, I insist the party has to be Friday night so that I can go to the opera Saturday. I’ve looked forward to that night for too long to have any conflicting plans.

Il Giovine comes down Thursday night with a number of friends who have since become my friends, and the plans are firmly in place. The party is, true to form, as legendary as any college party thrown by cripplingly awkward nerds can be. Fifty-odd guests crammed into our tiny corner apartment, no noise complaints, and some hilariously wrong hookup stories. Three hours after the last guests leave, two hours after Der Schreiber and our houseguests have fallen asleep, Il Giovine and I are still drinking Sambuca at ten in the morning.

I awaken at three-thirty in a sweaty frenzy and make a beeline for the toilet. The results are precisely the color of that Sambuca, and even afterward I feel like microwaved death. I have four hours to get to the opera, and am in no humor to either walk to the Van Ness metro station or to the Kennedy Center from the Foggy Bottom station. I have no appetite for food and I make a plea to Il Giovine to drive me to the Kennedy Center, but he’s as hung over as I and has dinner plans. “Come to dinner!” he says, “You know I can’t.” I reply. I call Le Malon to ask him for a ride to the Kennedy Center, but he too has other plans. He, Il DeAngelo, and The Kanneth, having recouperated the night before at Le Malon’s apartment, are about to leave for a spontaneous roadtrip to Leesburg, Virginia. “Come with us!”, they entreat. “I wish I could,” I reply. “Can you wait an hour and take me to the Kennedy Center?” They oblige me, and when I suggest they see about getting tickets, they even oblige that, only to find that all the remaining seats are over $250.

At seven-twenty, I am in my seat, breathlessly waiting for the beginning of this performance I’ve anticipated so devotionally. The man in the seat next to me starts to talk to me, he’s an operaphile too who is quite happy to make the acquaintance of a fellow Mussorgsky-lover. “You realize it’s the 1869 Boris Godunov, right?....”

“Oh shit…” I think to myself.

“…So there’s no intermission.”

“No, I hadn’t realized that.”

The lights grow dim, and the tonsured visage of Gergiev can be seen, already mounted on the pit’s rostrum. The plaintive C-Sharp Minor bassoon solo is the last thing I remember…
140 minutes later, I awaken to a tumultuous, deafening ovation. The man next to me turns and exclaims…

“Wasn’t that the most incredible performance you’ve ever seen?”


The Performer:

The Golovanov Boris Godunov is a travesty of a travesty. Nikolai Golovanov inserts hundreds of unwritten changes in dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation into what already is a bastardization of Mussorgsky’s original opera – in which Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov changes the orchestration, rearranges the harmonies, and sometimes rewrites whole scenes. This recording has all sorts of playing and singing that is shaky, shrill, imprecise, and out of tune. Yet this 1947 recording is one of the absolute cultural glories of the 20th century – the only recorded performance that does Mussorgsky’s vision true justice and coming as close as any document ever has to explaining the Russian Soul to those of us fortunate enough not to understand it.

It was 1947, 27 million Russians had died in The Great Patriotic War (World War II) in addition to the 10-20 million Stalin had already killed without Hitler’s help. By the end of the year, Stalin would begin his purges anew, and still more millions would be fed to Stalin’s meat grinder. And if that weren’t enough, the Soviet people already lived every day under the threat of nuclear attacks from America, a future only made more likely by Stalin’s announcement in that year that the Soviets too had built an atomic bomb.

By the early 1940’s, all the great Soviet writers and painters were either dead, imprisoned, or in internal exile. All that was left to Russia was its music, and through the work of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev spoke all the sentiments which no person in the regime dare say out loud. The freedom of musicians was limited, but compared to the scores of other artists killed for speaking their minds, their freedom was limitless. No Soviet bureaucrat could accuse a piece of music of being about Soviet oppression simply because it’s written in a minor key, or sounds angry. The Soviet authorities used to append meanings to the music of their greatest composers that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian people got very different messages.

If you ask most culturally aware Americans to name the great Russian performing organizations, they’ll know only one answer: The Bolshoi. That answer is over twenty years dated, and they probably think it’s only a ballet company, and not a 236 year old theater company with a 180 year old theater that produces ballet and opera. They won’t know that the Bolshoi is a mere nub of its Soviet self, while its historic rival, the Kirov/Mariinsky, has been fully restored to its pre-Soviet glory. They might have heard of one or two of their dancers: Barishnikov and Nuryev of course – but the names of singers like Chaliapin, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, Kozlovsky, would draw complete blanks. If they’re classical music lovers, they may have heard of the Mariinsky’s current, and perhaps greatest, director, Valery Gergiev. But they won’t know the name of the Bolshoi’s greatest modern director, Nikolai Golovanov.

It’s an unfortunate fact of classical music that even the very greatest musicians are only at their very greatest in a small sliver of their repertoire. Just as the greatest theater actors have roles they do less well, no musician, however extraordinary, can be so authoritative that (s)he can have equal ability in their entire repertoire. Pavarotti could do extraordinary things in Italian roles for lyric tenors, but was rather incompetent outside his specialty. Vladimir Horowitz was a super-virtuoso who made audiences believe that Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin wrote their piano music specially for him, yet in more self-effacing composers like Beethoven and Brahms, all his hair-raising effects sounded hopelessly narcissistic – though he was trying to put the focus back on himself.

Even to fanatical classical music lovers, Nikolai Golovanov is a conductor not much known today – it’s a shame, since even when his recordings suck, they are fascinating. Most recreative musicians are complacent and simply produce a rough approximation of what the composer writes on the page, and they disguise their intellectual laziness with technique good enough to cover up their flaws. They give little thought to why they do what they do, and they’re not artists, they’re merely artisans. But a greater class of musician knows better than to stop at the water’s edge. When a talented artist gives a unique performance,  many have negative reactions to them, some even feel threatened – as though their precious preconceptions will be shattered forever and no one can put them back together. But no one can possibly find such artists bland. Nikolai Golovanov is this higher class of artist to the n’th degree.

I can think of at least three times as many performances conducted by Golovanov that are weird beyond description than I can of his performances that I treasure. Few conductors would have the nerve (let alone the stupidity) to conduct a Mozart Requiem in which some movements (though not all) are in the wrong key, and the tempos usually change from bar to bar. Yet from a musician that unique, there is always something to be learned – even if it’s something we don’t want to.

If an artist as challenging as Golovanov were in any line of work but music, he’d have wilted. But Golovanov was the most original conductor in a time and place in which music was virtually the soul’s only outlet, and he was feted accordingly – four-time recipient of the Stalin Prize, director of Orchestral and Operatic activities at the Moscow Conservatory for 23 years, 8 years as conductor of the Bolshoi Theater’s radio orchestra, 16 years as conductor of the USSR’s state-sponsored radio orchestra. And finally in 1948, at the age of 57, he reached  the very top of his profession - he became music director of the Bolshoi.

Golovanov made this recording in the year before he became the Bolshoi’s director, but the problems which proved his undoing are already there in this album. This recorded performance has two editions, one starring the bass, Alexander Pirogov, in the titular role of Boris Godunov – the third Czar of All Russia. The other starred Mark Reizen in the same role. Golovanov preferred Reizen as Boris, but Reizen was Jewish, and Stalin preferred Pirogov.

One would think that the Generalissimus of the Soviet Union would have better things with which to concern himself. But according to the autobiography of one famous singer, the battle of the Borises was waged all throughout Golovanov’s five-year tenure. Every time Boris Godunov was performed, there was a tense question as to whom would assume the title role. Eventually, the Kremlin tired of this contest of wills, and in 1952, Golovanov was barred from the very premises of the Bolshoi. By the next year, he was dead, and according to the same autobiography, he simply died of humiliation.

Had he lived just six months longer, Golovanov would have outlived Stalin and would likely have been completely rehabilitated. But like Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky, perhaps like Russia itself, Golovanov was the victim of terrible luck – and we can only speculate as to the glories that might have been had history taken a completely different turn. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

800 Words: Homeland, THE New Show - Part 1

A bit more than a year before he died, Christopher Hitchens wrote a long article for the City Journal lamenting that there has never been a single novel that truly does justice to complexities of his adopted hometown, Washington DC. Hitch would regularly declare that he was able to read so much because his house had no TV, but last fall while Hitch lay on his deathbed, the first book of a new novel was unearthed that might precisely be what he was looking for. Unfortunately, the novel was on TV, so Hitch probably never had a chance to watch.

Literary fiction no longer holds a place in American life’s mainstream. With the death of J.D. Salinger, we lost the last literary author read by ‘everyone,’ and his books were all a half-century in the past. It’s still within living memory that American authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Fitzgerald, Booth Tarkington, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Faulkner were writing complex works for a general, middlebrow public. In 1945, if you had cultural aspirations, you dare not go without reading these authors. You dare not even go without reading the American fiction writers of the previous generation or two either: like Mark Twain, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, O Henry, Jack London, Ring Lardner, Edith Wharton, and Sherwood Anderson. And those who truly loved literature could trust that there would be a whole new generation of authors with entirely different voices who could sustain their interest just as well when the giants stopped writing books – the only problem was that so many writers were inspired to write great fiction that no two readers seemed to agree on which were great. It’s a list that contained every special interests - from Jewish authors like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller, to black authors like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, to southern authors like Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy, to southern women authors like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, to Jewish women authors like Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick, to politically committed women authors like Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, to journalistic authors like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer (no matter how differently they viewed themselves), historical fiction authors like Gore Vidal and William Styron and E.L. Doctorow, regional northeastern authors like John Updike and William Kennedy, and this list does not include the non-fiction, the poetry, the foreign authors. By the late 60’s, no two Americans could agree on who the great authors were, and reading became -in every sense- a truly solitary activity. American literature had  balkanized into a cornucopia of niches – something for anyone, very little for everyone. And since no two intellectuals could agree on what authors should be read, the general public retreated to paperback fiction and genre pot boilers.  The end result was all too foreseeable, the literary American novel itself has long since become a niche commodity, even the most feted and successful contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace and Phillip Roth are only read by small subsections of America’s intellectually curious public. And in place of the novel grew other things about which everyone could agree what was great.

If our grandparents grew up in the golden age of American fiction (and their parents in the golden age of American poetry), then our parents grew up in the golden age of American movies. In 1975, if you had cultural aspirations, you dare not absent yourself from a movie theater for more than a week at a time: hundreds of movie theaters existed every city of note, and they catered to every special interest. Special movie theaters existed for new movies, classic movies, foreign movies, B-movies, exploitation movies, and pornographic movies. But what amazes is that intellectually curious people were expected to see it all: not just exciting new American directors like Kubrick, Lumet, Peckinpah, Cassavetes, Bogdanovich, Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Altman, but the classic movies of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Howard Hawks and John Ford, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and Vicente Minnelli, Billy Wilder and Nicholas Ray; self consciously “bad” movies by Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, Ossie Davis and Melvin van Peebles, George Romero and John Carpenter, Larry Cohen and John Waters; and not to forget – foreign stuff by Bergman and Fellini,  Antonioni and Bertolucci, Godard and Truffaut, Kurosawa and De Sica, Bunuel and Ophuls, Herzog and Fassbinder. But then came the 80’s, with its multiplexes and VCR’s and pursuits of bottom line profits, and suddenly, movie theaters were no longer exciting places to be. No longer were the movies fundamentally a place where people went to watch other people, the movies became a place where we went to watch machines. Whether it was the special effects extravaganzas of George Lucas, or the spiritually charged machines of Stephen Spielberg, or the artful background tapestries of Ridley Scott, or the superimposed historical backdrops of Robert Zemeckis, or the gigantic new worlds created by James Cameron, or the human, anti human machines of half a dozen horror auteurs, the world of American movies had Balkanized – its Golden Age definitively and clearly over. By 1990, American movies inspired a hollow shell of the passion in Americans which they used to. Where did that passion go? Well, if you’re not reading this article, you’re probably watching television.

And if cinema was the language of our parents, then TV is our language. No longer can TV be condescended to as an inferior artform, there’s simply too much contrary evidence. There was plenty of evidence of TV’s emerging quality in the 80’s and 90’s. But just imagine how different the last twelve years of our lives would be if we’d never seen The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, South Park, Chappelle Show, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, Fringe, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Office, 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, Malcolm in the Middle, Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks, Futurama, Family Guy, Friday Night Lights, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother, Everybody Loves Raymond, Big Love, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, Entourage, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, True Blood, Oz, Dexter, Weeds, The West Wing, House, Glee, Nip/Tuck, The Shield, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Powerpuff Girls, Spongebob Squarepants, and yes, 24. More than any book or movie, to know what these above titles signify is to understand what it means be an American in our time. You may not have seen all of them, but you have an opinion on most. And in the back of your mind, there lurks a part of you that wants to plunk down on the couch and see every f-cking episode of them all.

And now, as the era of television draws closer and closer to its end, we have a new show that could well be as earth shattering as any of them. In all probability, television already hit its all-time high point, probably around 2005 when The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, South Park, and The Daily Show were all operating at their absolute peak. We’re beginning to see American television balkanize just as American literature and movies did before them. There are more networks than ever before, and all of them want to create their own original programming. But in such an environment, even networks as daring as HBO, Comedy Central, or Fox (and they are extremely daring) can’t necessarily hold their own. Today’s best TV shows have to be ballsy as never before. To distinguish themselves, they have to take on entire worlds of ideas and characters and leave any reservations at the door. Next to the Grand Guignol fest of Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos makes mafia violence look like a tasteful phenomenon. Next to the earth-scorching indictments of local politics made in Boss, The Wire was positively even-handed. Next to Louis CK’s lacerating self-humiliations in his eponymous show, Curb Your Enthusiasm seems like a shrine of self-love. In contrast to the formal perfection of the best from ten years ago, the excess of ambition seen in today’s best new shows makes them seem comparatively sloppy. To equal the daring of these older shows, the ambitions have to be still bigger. And one can feel the showrunners struggling against their limitations: Casting directors are not accustomed to hiring so many many actors as it has to for Game of Thrones, or auditioning actors to sing, dance, and act for the camera as they must for Glee. Network public relations are not accustomed to to explaining the necessity of animal death so that they can make a show like Luck,  nor can they find a plausible explanation about why Outsourced, the first fictional American TV show about the contemporary Asian experience, resembles nothing so much as a Minstrel Show.

We’ve reached TV’s Golden Age, and there’s simply nowhere to go from here but down. It’s been a nice ride, but in ten years we’ll all disagree about what TV shows are worth watching – and reality TV’s triumph over quality programming will be complete. Quality on TV will once again be the exception rather than the rule, but with the added tragedy that we’ll remember a time when it was not so. We’ll probably either view video games or internet videos with the seriousness we currently give to television. Neither prospect fills me with much excitement, but then again, we probably haven’t yet seen the most exciting things yet which either can do.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Playlist #12: Great Classical Violinists Play Things Really Fast Edition

In honor of my Uncle Nochem being in town this week from Argentina. Paganini: Caprice #24 played by Jascha Heifetz Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy played by Midori Vivaldi: Summer (3rd movement) played by Nigel Kennedy Wieniawski: Scherzo Tarantelle played by Yehudi Menuhin Novacek: Perpetuum Mobile played by Henryk Szeryng Sarasate: Ziegeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) played by Pablo de Sarasate in 1904 Honorable Mention: Levon Helm (1940-2012) Advanced Playlist: Bruckner Symphony no. 8

Thursday, April 19, 2012

For Levon Helm (1940-2012)

I've never been all that big on The Band. The very real musicianship was always balanced by a kind of Southern Comfort style which I can neither relate to nor find anything but a little creepy (listen to the above song). As I commented to Le Malon, The Band was a bit like Dave Matthews Band twenty-five years earlier - good musicianship put into the service of lazy comfort listening. The result is certainly much better than easy listening, but I can't quite call it truly world class music either.

800 Words: Bad Culture Part 2


I love the idea of coffeeshops, I just hate most of them. The moment you find one, you’ve already shot your wad with excitement because you’ve found a place that isn’t Starbucks – the excitement is all downhill from there. You go in and you see that the coffeehouse has a single sad bookshelf with some giant art books on it and a bunch of forgotten political hack-books from 2004 with titles that double as leftist catchphrases. If you’re lucky, you can get a good but overpriced smoothie and an apple-brie sandwich with a waxed apple and cheese that’s melted enough to make you forget that it’s a month old. At your table, you’re surrounded on both sides by grungy white chicks with dreads and nose-piercings who’ll probably inherit more money than you’ll ever make in your own lifetime. Once upon a time, you may have even found those girls attractive, but you quickly realized that they don’t find you attractive. Instead, they go for the super-sensitive pony-tail dude sitting in the corner with a guitar, a microphone, and a triangular beard. He’s playing his bumper-sticker addled guitar and singing a bad song he just wrote yesterday about the plight of a migrant worker he once met during his month-long trip to Central America on which he really got to know himself. In the other corner sits a group of black girls who look at you conspiratorially as you walk by, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, we know you’re not all like them.’

I don’t even like coffee, it gives me indigestion. But the very idea of a coffeehouse seems to me like the most incredible social gathering place the world has yet thought up. For hundreds of years, the coffee-house has been the very apex of civilization. Bars are designed to take us out of ourselves, coffeehouses are designed to make us more ourselves than we ever were. Bars are meant to be places where we create diversions for ourselves and indulge in trivialities, coffeehouses are places where we’re supposed to be surrounded by books and newspapers, discussing the most fundamental questions of existence in both the actual world and the eternal one. Bars serve drinks that make you slower, duller, dumber. Coffeehouses serve drinks meant to heighten your senses and make you more cognizant and interesting. Except in various parts of the Middle East, the coffeehouse seems to have ceded its primacy in our lives to the privacy of our own homes, our televisions, our computers. Even if we live in cities, we now live in suburbs in which a journey to socialize with others often seems more work than it’s worth. With so many potential ways to communicate, what purpose is there for the coffeehouse?

Nothing lost is nothing gained, and the contradictions of coffeehouse culture are such that perhaps it had to end. There are plenty of reasons to declare that perhaps its disappearance was necessary – and if the dysfunction of the Middle East isn’t evidence of that, what is? The bonds created through conversation can be so powerful, so lasting, that all of us can easily sooner believe anything a friend tells us rather than to come to our own conclusions. Rather than consider other points of view, the coffeehouse can become a kind of insular clubhouse in which rumors and conspiracy theories spread from person to person are automatically considered more truthful than anything one can read from an expert source. For centuries, coffeehouses were meant to be places where people can aspire on their own towards great learning, yet it may have imprisoned human beings in precisely the insular bubble for which they were created to liberate us.


 There are all sorts of reasons that I’ve always been a terrible student, but there is no one who ever wanted to be a good student more than I. Yet somehow the powers of concentration and patience which methodical study requires never came to me. Any education I appear to have gotten was purely from curiosity and dumb luck – not that I have any more higher education than a bachelor’s degree from a mediocre music program. For reasons I can’t seem to understand, there is a quota against bad students getting into good schools.

Well, if top-tier universities didn’t want people like me, screw them. If a better school than American University had ever let me in, they’d have done right well by me. I’m smart, I love to write, I have good ideas, and I fetch slippers on command. But they’ll never know what they missed. If a kid as intellectually curious as me couldn’t get into a first-rate school, the schools probably aren’t that good to begin with. I have hundreds of acquaintances who graduated from top tier schools, and about 50% of them are morons. Brilliant morons in some cases, but morons nonetheless.

Why are they morons? Well, some people can’t form a coherent sentence that isn’t on a test, others can write beautiful prose in support of the most dangerously mindless concepts. Some people can cram and study as though it’s the only thing in the world that matters, yet once the test is over you realize that there’s little but wind between the two ears. Since their entire childhoods are made up of no experience except for studying what teachers tell them to learn, it’s in their programming to believe everything they’re told. They develop no real critical faculties, just a reflexive conditioning that tells them to parrot what they hear. And it’s thanks to many of these overachievers that such intellectually simplistic drivel as supply-side economics, originalism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, libertarian socialism, transhumanism, and anarcho-capitalism have the intellectual credibility they clearly don’t deserve.

Of our current Supreme Court – perhaps the most conservative since the Taney court of the 1850’s – there is not a single member who did not attend Harvard or Yale Law (in fairness, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law to be near her husband). No doubt, when the Individual Mandate of the Affordable Care Act is shot down – and is there any real doubt it will be? – there will be a persuasive justification by Antonin Scalia in immaculate prose, demonstrating exactly why the very idea of such a mandate is offensive to the United States Constitution. And many people, many intellectually ‘serious’ people, will believe him – forgetting that every one of his arguments are based on a paper-thin fundamentalism that can be explained in a single sentence fragment (‘it wasn’t in the original constitution’).

And why is this the case? Because conservatives possess the secret liberals have long since forgotten – the battle of ideas is only won when it’s fought. Liberals were obscenely lucky that John Paul Stevens stayed on the court until his ninetieth year, Stevens was a writer of Scalian stature and a far more compelling thinker. But once Stevens finally retired, a problem was made abundantly clear: why did the Supreme Court’s liberal side have no figure of Scalian gravitas (no fat joke intended) in his generation? Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s writings are apparently functional, nothing more. Stephen Breyer’s are apparently far better written, but Breyer is not given to waging open conflict, his sunny temperament being almost the polar opposite from Scalia’s combativeness. Many people said that Scalia’s true match was Richard Arnold, Scalia’s classmate at Harvard Law who beat him out to be first in their class and would have been nominated by Bill Clinton had he not already been diagnosed with the lymphoma which would kill him a decade later. But if there were no Antonin Scalia, there would have been a dozen more judges exactly like him who could fulfill his role (the Supreme Court already has one in Samuel Alito). But after Richard Arnold was no longer capable of serving on the court, there was no liberal equivalent to be found.

What can explain this except the fact that there has been a divorce between liberal ideas and the public for which their ideas are meant? Liberal intellectuals spent the sixties occupying college buildings, and in many ways never left those buildings. It’s difficult to imagine how many promising academics with liberal views have wasted their talents on obscure doctoral theses and pedantic articles of no interest to anyone except (allegedly) to their colleagues in the same obscure specialization. The supremacy of liberal, progressive, and/or leftist views in higher education is absolutely unchallenged, yet it’s conservative ideas which capture the imaginations of the public. The answer to why this is is all too simple…

Having felt ostracized in higher education, conservative intellectuals had to take their arguments to the citizen public if they wanted to be taken seriously at all. Whatever American Conservatism’s defects, their intellectuals are bankrolled by patrons for the express purpose of justifying policies in a manner that wins over a general audience. Many conservatives were denied the respectability of writing obscure journal articles that nobody reads, and in their place they had to write for a general public in prose that can be readily understood. If Scalia’s ideas weren’t rendered in entertaining, conversational prose, nobody would take them more seriously than a John Birch Society Newsletter. Unfortunately, he is as great a writer as an American political figure has ever been, and there is as yet no liberal to counterweigh him with better ideas in equally great prose. It’s true that the necessity of entertaining readers can destroy scholarship, and no greater argument exists for that point of view than the eminence of Antonin Scalia. But it’s not nearly as destructive as writing as though nobody will read what you write except for other professors who write in the exact same manner as you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sitkovetsky plays Khachaturian

Simply amazing. Khachaturian may deserve a playlist of his own this week...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Quote of the Day:

Uncle Nochem: If Wagner were really an anti-semite, he'd have stipulated that Parsifal can only be performed in synagogues.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

800 Words: Bad Culture - Part 1


I’d have rented my current apartment anyway, but I was in love with it for an exceptional reason. Once one walks into this apartment, the first thing to be noticed (at least when its bare) is the two built in bookshelves on the corner wall. I quickly imagined those bookshelves filled with all the books I could read and never finish, or pretend to read. I have no idea whether or not this is an apartment begging to be rented by a bookworm, but it’s certainly the perfect apartment for someone with aspirations to bookworm-dom that may never be fulfilled.

On my living room coffee table currently sit Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera, From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, the score of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, an anthology of Jewish Poetry, Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter, and an anthology of music criticism by George Bernard Shaw; and that isn’t even counting the books on my dining room table or my bedroom nightstand (which include a book I bought since beginning this post). I don’t mention this to brag, quite the opposite. I can say with absolute certainty that there is only a single one of them of which I’ve read every page (it’s not the Mozart), the rest of them dwell in various states of incompletion – anywhere from 90% complete to 9 words read. I’ve long since reached the point when the idea of methodically reading books provokes more anxiety than pleasure. I’m 30 now, and can finally admit that there are plenty of ‘great books’ that are either beneath my intelligence or beyond it.

No matter how stupid, dangerous, bereft a place or time seems of reason, there will always exist places within it – homes, libraries, coffeehouses, coffeetables – where something approaching the life of the mind seems possible outside of a school. These places are inevitably more fun than school: we become less encumbered by requirement to parrot received opinions, we become freer to speak whatever heresy we wish, and most importantly, we have greater liberty to seek out learning on whatever far-flung subject we like. Education no longer seems like something that ends in your early 20’s, rather, it’s something that only begins then. There is no cramming for a test and no worry that what you’re learning is useless so long as it’s useful to you. It’s only after the official education is over that the good stuff begins.

All too few people understand that. Most people are so ground down from years of school that they want to have nothing associated with learning for the rest of their lives. My brother Ethan set the gold standard for this approach when he was six. He said that he would only come on a trip my parents were planning so long as there would be ‘NO LEARNING!’ Thanks to the greatness of American education, that’s the mantra of most adults too. Some people go to the opposite approach, and go through deacades of additional schooling merely so they can stay close to books – never mind the dullness of the classes, the inevitably narrow specializations they have to choose, the decades of student loan debt, the paucity of jobs in a career of the mind, the stress of trying to keep them, and the constant bombardment of intellectually worthless jargon which intellectuals are expected to write on a daily basis. In contemporary America, being stupid sucks, but being smart isn’t much more fun.


Surely, in this as in all other things, there has to be a balanced middle ground. Yet few ever find it. Have I? Well…keep reading.

There were times and places in history when aspiring to intelligence were considered honorable pursuits. Really, there were. Is this one of them?..... Need I really ask?

Nevertheless, it’s not as dishonorable as it could be. As an example, let’s briefly consider my own case: I am what some might call a businessman (others, a ‘professional idiot son’) in Baltimore in 2012 from a “newly” upper-middle class (the last 40 years) immigrant family. For twenty-five years I have been obsessed with classical music and in the last five I worry that I’ve developed a similar one for TV. I have abiding loves for movies, literature, painting, poetry, politics, and history. For lower brow pursuits, I love baseball as much as any sane Orioles fan can, I’ve always loved sitcoms, and I think I at least know more about popular American music it than the average American philistine (though without the depth they devote to their narrow slivers I’m afraid). I’m beginning to read comic books and graphic novels, and maybe one day I’ll start playing video games and start doing LARP’s (live action role playing). I wish I knew more about math and science, and I wish I could do more than be the disaster I am in the half-dozen foreign languages I’ve tried to learn over the years. I hope that one day I can find a way to teach myself these more technical pursuits, and I’ve hardly given up hope. I’ve had the great fortune of being born to a family that values learning and encouraged my pursuits in this regard, even though (especially because?) I was a disaster of a student. I’ve found many friends over the years that put a similar value on life-long education (though I wish that 17-year-old me would have known that). I may be from Baltimore, but I grew up in the county and most of my friends from there have long since moved to DC anyway. Baltimore is still a new city for me, but I recently held a weekend-long 30th birthday party with roughly 40 guests over the course of it, some of whom virtually traveled across the country to attend. I’m currently sitting on my living room couch on a Saturday night, but that bothers me far less than it would have when I was fifteen. All the same, this is certainly not the optimal life for a person like me. I’d rather make my living as a writer, whether of words or music, and I’d rather not have to go 50 miles out of my way to see the majority of my friends in Washington, as I usually still have to do. I have no doubt that even in optimal circumstances for 2012 Baltimore, someone like me would find a far more sympathetic environment in Washington DC or Boston, still more sympathetic in New York or Chicago, and probably still more so in a European capital. But for now, I have more than enough reasons to stay that I’m not going to run screaming to any of those cities for at least a bit longer.

Better yet, perhaps it would be nicer to stay in Baltimore and simply rewind the clock by about 50 or 60 years. When you tell most people in my generation that ‘culture’, or at least ‘highbrow culture’, was as late as the 1960's a genuine middle class aspiration, their usual reaction is amused disbelief. You don’t even have to scour youtube for all the evidence of prime time documentaries and opera on network television. All one has to do is look at a few old copies of Time or Life Magazines. Everybody knows that Time Magazine is a shadow of its former self, yet few people actually know what that means – not only were the articles longer (and better informed), but they used to cover a shockingly wide range of global cultural events. In an issue from the early 1960’s one might find everything from speculation about the next director of the Boston Symphony to profiles of the up and coming Spanish language authors from Latin America. It routinely commissioned articles from the world’s top writers, not only non-fiction but fiction as well. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was a Life Magazine Publication. The closest modern-day equivalent to either Time or Life is our era's incarnation of The Economist. But whereas The Economist has anonymous authors and a world-wide circulation of 1.5 million subscribers, Time and Life at their height had between them national circulations of roughly thirteen million. Imagine, there was a time not long ago when a general American public numbering up to thirteen million people were interested in all those ‘high-minded’ pleasures which seem to interest million and a half people worldwide today – the English speaking ones anyway. And this was at a time when America’s population is half of what it currently is!

When we talk about the decline of small town America, it’s highly probable that the decline of this ‘middlebrow’ culture had as much to do with it as any number of closed factories. When mass media stopped being interested in high culture, it became that much harder for someone from small town USA have any idea of how weird and large the world can be.

Of course, they can…all one has to do is be one of the 20 million Americans who listens to NPR, or the 3 million Americans who subscribe to HBO, or live near an artfilm theater, or study at decent schools. In some ways, our contemporary scenario is preferable. We live in a seeming infinity of cultural choices, with the ability to watch hundreds of television stations and to see things on the internet only limited by our imaginations (rule 34…). To paraphrase the critic Terry Teachout – without whom this post would be impossible – there is something in today’s America for anybody, but there is nothing in America for everybody. With so little common currency among today’s Americans, is it any wonder that Red and Blue America seem to speak two different languages?

It’s not helped by the fact that there are many intelligent people in ‘Blue America’ who would say that there is nothing inherently superior about ‘high’ culture except for its snobbery. There is no reason, in their estimation, why Van Gogh would be considered a superior artist to Banksy. Perhaps they’re right, there is no truly objective criteria which says that one has to be ‘better’ than the other*, but there are subjective preferences, and every one of us has them. History has far too many examples of what happens to societies which drop their standards without installing new ones, however arbitrary. Liberality and anarchy are very different things, and nature abhors a vacuum. If a liberal regime does not uphold a certain standard, in aesthetics as well as politics, an illiberal one might seize the opportunity to uphold its own.

*much as der Koosh would disagree


“They belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and the style of a civilized and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures, like Mirabeau, Charles James Fox, Franklin Roosevelt, who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalizing future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being.”

These words were uttered by one of my personal heroes, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin – the great political thinker of the twentieth century (whose work I’ve read). The best periods of history have people like Roosevelt at their vanguard, ‘great men’ who ushered in periods of greater freedom as though it were their personal gift. Social classes exist, now as much as in the 19th century. And while people certainly get more opportunities to ascend or descend than they did in 1900, it’s probably more difficult now to ascend to America’s next rung up, yet easier to descend, than at any point since before the GI bill. To a certain extent, we all (at least those people reading this blogpost) have privileges and opportunities which make us privileged above 99% of the world population. But rest assured, there are still higher echelons of privilege that will never open to those of us who couldn’t get into first-rate universities, or those (thankfully not me) who ran up hundreds of thousands in student loan debt, or those who didn’t get the right boss, or those who didn't marry into money. The ultimate arbiter of social mobility is not merit, it’s luck. Occasionally there are wunderkinder who stun the world with their talents, but even they have to be noticed. We do not choose what family we are born into, nor do we choose what opportunities present themselves to us. All we can do is work as best we can at we do and hope that a capricious whim from a more privileged person distinguishes us from the thousands of deserving others who have precisely the same ambitions, capabilities, and drive which we do. And even when their winds blow in our direction, they blow but a few times in the entirety of our lives, and if we do not strike with full force to keep their direction affixed on us, those particular winds will probably never blow again, and few other winds ever will.

To an extent unknown to our parents, we are stuck exactly where we were born, and nothing but the always inconsistent generosity of more privileged people will ever get any of us to realize higher ambitions than precisely the ones our parents already realized. Most people reading this are the middle class, and the only opportunity to move into a higher echelon which most of us will ever have is by kowtowing to the arbitrary desires of those with greater power than we shall ever get. If we find ourselves unable to do that, we must surrender ourselves to the fact that we will one day retire in middle management; this is even truer now than it was for our parents. Social mobility is all too rare in the best of times, but the best of times for America is forty-five years in the past. We are now a country in unmistakable decline, and the family of every person to read this post probably exists –at best – in the exact same social class it was in thirty-five years ago. The ‘elite’ still exists, and is more exclusive in 21st century America than it was for most of the 20th. Whether ‘high culture’ is embraced or decried by those with the financial means for access to it, it is increasingly their exclusive property. Those who enjoy special privileges never enjoyed by most of us are rarely ever cognizant of the daily difficulties incurred by those without their privileges. And of those few who are aware, still fewer have any desire to help those without it, lest their own privileges be compromised.

History does not happen from the bottom up unless it has to. In most historical periods, powerful people are there to turn the spigots of opportunity on and off at will, and whether they decide to do so often depends on what side of the bed they wake up. Some of these powerful people are remembered by history; others (perhaps most) are forgotten. But in today’s cultural environment, few powerful voices in ‘high’ culture will ever be remembered. It’s not a terrible fate: so long as a person lives an enjoyable life that leaves the world a better place than (s)he found it, who cares whether they once gave a great performance of Coriolanus or Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, or wrote a great scholarly article on the use of turn-of-the-century Irish slang in Finnegan’s Wake? History has little use for such contributions, and even the work of the very best performers, critics, and scholars must disappear in the sands of time. But many of the figures who will be remembered for many centuries afterward are not those who helped their times, but rather those who hurt them. There is a special place in history for those who were so blind to their times, so tone-deaf to the feelings of those beneath them, that they were rebelled against. There should be little doubt that John Rawls will be forgotten, even though he was mostly right. There should be equally little that Francis Fukuyama will not be, even though he was almost totally wrong. The former speculated that liberalism is a relative concept that can make periodic gains through increments, the latter one declared that liberal democracy was the singular end of history. One was a genuinely powerful thinker, the other a grotesque parody of a thinker. Yet it will be Fukuyama who will be remembered. He may one day have new champions, but he will fundamentally be remembered as an historical joke whose thesis was disproved at virtually the moment it was published.

In this same way, there are literally hundreds of figures throughout our world’s cultural debates who are opening themselves up to this sort of risible posterity. Rather than being remembered as the Franklin Roosevelts of their fields, they will be remembered as the Herbert Hoovers (or the Czar Nicholas's), and are either blind to the developments of their time, or unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to turn the tide. The rebellion against high culture has been happening for nearly a century. But for a century, all these art forms have been hobbling along, contenting themselves with consistently diminishing returns.

At what point do these problems reach critical mass? At what point does not even a sustainable portion of the public think the rewards of music of Wagnerian size, novels of Tolstoyian dimensions, poetry as difficult as the symbolists, philosophy of Hegelian density, and Ibsenite drama, are worth the sustained difficulty, training, money, and commitment it takes to properly understand them (in many of these cases, I’m frankly not sure myself)? Is it truly beyond the realm of possibility that all these post-Romantic behemoths will simply be swallowed by history’s tide within our lifetimes? And if they are swallowed up, is there not an equally large chance that smaller works, works merely of Mahlerian, Flaubertian, O'Neillish dimensions could soon follow? And what after that?... And let's be even more far-fetched. If all this comes to happen, could there be a new period that will arise, perhaps in our children’s lifetimes, in which people try to revive appreciation of precisely these works?

And if that last speculation is true, isn’t it highly possible that the break in the interest, money, and training it takes to properly understand these works will be insurmountable? Massive undertakings require massive commitments, and if there isn’t enough commitment from today's public to understand why people once loved this stuff, will there ever again be sufficient interest in these works to produce them, to even study them on a college campus? And if these works are lost to history’s dustbin, won’t their future unemployed advocates remember the names of the institutions, critics, arts administrators, and even some practitioners who did not advocate forcefully enough for why this which it takes to maintain interest in these loose baggy monsters?

Furthermore, unlikely as it seems, if all of these speculations turn out to be accurate, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cultural figures who are opening themselves up to fates still worse than being forgotten by posterity. They will be remembered, and not at all fondly – their names as asterisks next to Wagner’s and Tolstoy’s as explanations as to why we people will never see a grand opera again, or why people no longer have the attention span to read a long work of fiction.*

And still furthermore, if all this rampant speculation is correct, perhaps it will turn out to be a good thing which they’ve allowed, because all the huge resources these art works demand will now be free for other pursuits. Perhaps the ground will be cleared so a greater art can spring up in its place. But history shows that that's bloody unlikely, small instabilities are usually followed by greater ones. Chaos spreads inexorably until a universal standard is set again, at a price that is typically too great to countenance until it happens. And that's as true for the arts as it is for any other of life's aspects. When order fails, a new order does not automatically spring up to replace it; but when it does, the new order imposed is that much more militant because of the years wasted by anarchy.

But no matter what occurs in the wake of a new world order, that will not change the fate of those who let it happened. The current elite of tastemakers will be remembered as the last generation of the Ancien Régime, and more importantly, they will be remembered as a generation of privileged elite so spoiled, so decadent, that they were utterly blind to history’s tide and let fall so many of the hallowed traditions which propelled them to such gorgeous supremacy in the first place. It won’t matter whether they were repressively conservative or merely limousine liberals who used pop music and indie film as ways to slum, they will all be grouped together as the people who let some of the most hallowed of old traditions fall into history’s cracks. And whether that matters to the rest of us, it should probably matter to them.

*admittedly, if humans become no longer capable of reading long books, there will probably be no asterisks in books either.

Quote of the Day:

Random Woman in Hamden: Hey! If you're driving, can you give me a ride to my house?

Random Man: Where is it? Hell?

Donna Clara by Heinrich Heine

In the evening through her garden
Wanders the Alcalde's daughter;
Festal sounds of drum and trumpet
Ring out hither from the castle.

"I am weary of the dances,
Honeyed words of adulation
From the knights who still compare me
To the sun,--with dainty phrases.

"Yes, of all things I am weary,
Since I first beheld by moonlight,
Him my cavalier, whose zither
Nightly draws me to my casement.

"As he stands, so slim and daring,
With his flaming eyes that sparkle
From his nobly-pallid features,
Truly he St. George resembles."

Thus went Donna Clara dreaming,
On the ground her eyes were fastened,
When she raised them, lo! before her
Stood the handsome, knightly stranger.

Pressing hands and whispering passion,
These twain wander in the moonlight.
Gently doth the breeze caress them,
The enchanted roses greet them.

The enchanted roses greet them,
And they glow like love's own heralds;
"Tell me, tell me, my belovèd,
Wherefore, all at once thou blushest."

"Gnats were stinging me, my darling,
And I hate these gnats in summer,
E'en as though they were a rabble
Of vile Jews with long, hooked noses."

"Heed not gnats nor Jews, belovèd,"
Spake the knight with fond endearments.
From the almond-tree dropped downward
Myriad snowy flakes of blossoms.

Myriad snowy flakes of blossoms
Shed around them fragrant odors.
"Tell me, tell me, my belovèd,
Looks thy heart on me with favor?"

"Yes, I love thee, oh my darling,
And I swear it by our Savior,
Whom the accursèd Jews did murder
Long ago with wicked malice."

"Heed thou neither Jews nor Savior,"
Spake the knight with fond endearments;
Far-off waved as in a vision
Gleaming lilies bathed in moonlight.

Gleaming lilies bathed in moonlight
Seemed to watch the stars above them.
"Tell me, tell me, my belovèd,
Didst thou not erewhile swear falsely?"

"Naught is false in me, my darling,
E'en as in my bosom floweth
Not a drop of blood that's Moorish,
Neither of foul Jewish current."

"Heed not Moors nor Jews, belovèd,"
Spake the knight with fond endearments.
Then towards a grove of myrtles
Leads he the Alcalde's daughter.

And with love's slight, subtle meshes,
He hath trapped her and entangled;
Brief their words, but long their kisses,
For their hearts are overflowing.

What a melting bridal carol,
Sings the nightingale, the pure one!
How the fire-flies in the grasses
Trip their sparkling, torch-light dances!

In the grove the silence deepens;
Naught is heard save furtive rustling
Of the swaying myrtle branches,
And the breathing of the flowers.

But the sound of drum and trumpet
Burst forth sudden from the castle.
Rudely they awaken Clara,
Pillowed on her lover's bosom.

"Hark, they summon me, my darling.
But before I go, oh tell me,
Tell me what thy precious name is,
Which so closely thou hast hidden."

And the knight, with gentle laughter,
Kissed the fingers of his donna,
Kissed her lips and kissed her forehead,
And at last these words he uttered:

"I, Señora, your belovèd,
Am the son of the respected
Worthy, erudite Grand Rabbi,
Israel of Saragossa!"

h/t Dad

a little obvious, but I must say...a lot more entertaining than Goethe.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Quote of the Day:

Der Koosh: I don't mind being a golem
I hear they have great health benefits
me: hehe, but they're hard to make
Der Koosh: just means there's more human/golem capital invested in them

1 John 4:16 by The Mountain Goats

h/t Der Fersko

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Early Friday Playlist (#11): Passover Hallel Edition

Posted a day and a half early so that any Shomerei Mitzvot people who might be interested can listen before Shabbat/Yom Tov.

The Hallel is a group of prayers chanted by Jews on every Passover (albeit in truncated form on the last two days) and a number of other holidays. It is in fact familiar to all Christians as well - as the prayers are simply Psalms 113-118. So here are the Hallel prayers and some of their Christian equivalents.

Patrick Doyle: Non Nobis Domine (Psalm 115: Lo Lanu Adon-i)

Cantor Berele Chagy - Birkat Hallel (each of the following cantors is doing a different selection and melody...if I went into the details of which part/melody each is based on, it would bore you to sleep.)

Bach: Tonus Peregrinus (Meinen Seel erhebt den Herren/Psalm 114: Betzeyt Yisrael)

Cantor Moshe Oysher: Hallel

Monteverdi: Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (Psalm 116: Ahavti, ki yishma Adon-i)

Cantor Mordechai Hershman: Birkas Hallel

Advanced Playlist:

Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gas Gas by Goran Bregovic

I'll refrain from sophomoric jokes about the under-cooked omelette I made today.

800 Words: A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks: Felix Mendelssohn

Click Here for Part 1 of this series.

Click Here for Part 2.

It's impossible to listen to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture or the Octet for Strings and realize that he wrote them when he was sixteen and seventeen. How could anyone that young write this music and not eventually be a composer to dwarf even Mozart and Beethoven? Yes, Mendelssohn was in some senses a spoiled kid whose parents bought him his own orchestra to conduct his own compositions. If he needed feedback, he could simply ask the family friends who happened to be the leading German intellectuals of the age; like Ignaz Moscheles, the Humboldt Brothers, or even Goethe (who was himself a fine musician and revered Mendelssohn’s talent even over Mozart’s). Some people have all the advantages life can bestow, but only a genius can take advantage of them in the way Mendelssohn did.

(A Wagnerian orchestra, made with only 8 string instruments by a 16-year-old kid.)

Mendelssohn was the kid you are simply desperate to beat up. He was the son of a rich banker and the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the most influential and significant philosopher of the German Enlightenment. His parents created the perfect environment for him, and he not only displayed astonishing skill in composition but also displayed astounding gifts for the piano, organ, violin, drawing, painting, languages (ancient and modern), literature, philosophy, poetry, prose, mathematics, gymnastics, and fencing, all with near-equal precocity. There was not a German intellectual of his childhood’s epoch who did not pass through the Mendelssohn’s drawing room. He was the son of a family with enough means to educate him in whatever his mind desired. If it is only Nature herself which designates true aristocracy, then fate finally bequeathed one of nature’s aristocrats with a proper upbringing.

(Mendelssohn’s incredibly exciting First Piano Concerto, surprisingly seldom heard in concert halls, but played by virtually every advanced piano student of the last 150 years as their first romantic piano concerto.)

But rich and entitled does not imply undisciplined. Every day of his childhood, Mendelssohn was ordered to arise at 5 in the morning so that he would work at all his cultural pursuits throughout the day – and throughout his life, he maintained this truly Protestant work ethic. In retrospect, his music is precisely what one should expect from a rich genius afforded every opportunity; exquisitely crafted music which shields its listener from most of the darkness to which life subjects its less fortunate subjects. There is barely any sense in Mendelssohn of boundaries being broken, or even of a desire to break them. The closer Mendelssohn gets to middle age, the less striving there seems to be toward anything transcendent. The harmonic language may be Beethoven’s, but the proportions are as classic (if not more) than Mozart, and his part writing is pure Bach. As he matured, his music increasingly seemed to go through the motions of impeccable technique – a virtuoso display of pure musical mathematics but with less urgency summoned from one piece to the next.

(The Hebrides overture. He was just 20…)

On the one hand, the music of Mendelssohn is of an intelligence and cosmopolitanism to which we should all aspire. It is also music that is narcissistic as only privileged people can be. To take one obvious example, listen to Mendelssohn’s famous Hebrides overture – said by some people to be the first ever ‘Symphonic Poem’; it’s a pictorial depiction of Mendelssohn’s impressions of Fingal’s Cave, a natural wonder in Staffa, an island off the West Coast of Scotland. Like all gentlemen of means, he went on a long ‘grand tour’ of Europe as ‘finishing’ to his education. When he reached the cave, he was inspired to sketch both a drawing of what he saw and the first twenty bars of the overture, which he immediately mailed to his parents. There are so many exciting musical moments in this piece, of stupefying craft, of a genuine sense of maritime atmosphere, and of natural awe, that it is clearly a work conceived at the highest level of genius. But on the other hand, are we listening to anything more profound than the travel diary of an entitled rich kid? If so, then we get it, the cave’s a nice place. But is there any human sentiment in this music or is all this Romantic nature-worship simply a substitute for experiencing human emotions? The kid may be a genius, but he’s still just a snot-nosed rich teenager who thinks the world is interested in his every thought (note), no matter how trivial.

(Pure erotic energy. The last movement of the Italian Symphony, said to be Mendelssohn’s impressions of a girl in Rome dancing the Salterello with a Tambourine.)

On the other hand, Mendelssohn’s music speaks a language that transcends the typical boundaries of Romantic artists. In an era when musicians, artists, peoples, were balkanizing into competing Nationalisms, Mendelssohn sounded a note of interests in other cultures and for international understanding. Perhaps one had to be rich to feel cosmopolitan in the 19th century, but there is something truly inspiring about Mendelssohn’s ability to find value in sources far afield. Whereas Wagner makes claims for Germans to strive for greatness alone to the exclusion of all other peoples, Mendelssohn’s work makes what amounts to a plea for internationalization. Nobody should mistaken Mendelssohn for anything but a conservative, but Mendelssohn’s conservatism is a liberal conservatism that at least allows for the possibility of greatness from any place, any era, any epoch. For all its problems, Mendelssohn’s stodgy over-reverence is far more appealing than Wagner’s fanatical authoritarianism, which has so often, and dangerously, been misconstrued as progressive.

(The Fair Melusine Overture. Without the example of this piece’s opening, Wagner could never have composed the beginning of The Ring Cycle.)

Indeed, few people in history wanted to beat up a rich genius a more badly than Wagner wanted to beat up Mendelssohn. Wagner viewed Mendelssohn a bit like Abel to his Cain (or Fasolt to his Fafner) – blessed by God with a flock of sheep while Wagner had to toil the ground and grow his full creative fruits only after Mendelssohn had passed away. No doubt, Wagner’s animus toward Mendelssohn was as much class-related as racial. Wagner was the stepson (and probable son) of an itinerate actor who may or may not himself have been Jewish. Throughout his life, Wagner had to hustle and bully his way into the cultural eminence Mendelssohn was assured from birth. But the first thing that strikes one about Wagner’s anti-semitism is not how vituperative it was, it’s how stupid.

(Would Wagner have ever exhibited such masterly use of the Horn section without Mendelssohn’s example from the Nocturne of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?)

In his article, ‘Judaism in Music’ (which, class act he was, he only allowed to be published anonymously for the first twenty years of its circulation) Wagner declared himself a firm believer that Jews were constitutionally incapable of creating any great art of value or originality. Wagner saw Jews as rootless cosmopolitans, who are therefore incapable of speaking languages as native-rooted artists do, and thus cannot create literature or songs properly (whatever that means). As supporting evidence, he cites Mendelssohn’s lack of depth and Meyerbeer’s pompous vulgarities. Well, even if the accusations against both composers are true (and to a certain extent, they are), it is not their Jewish origins which inhibited them, it was anti-semitism itself. A light-hearted success like Mendelssohn or a popular success like Meyerbeer’s were the only avenues for musical greatness open to Jews of their time – who even in this relatively enlightened era had to be careful not to challenge accepted boundaries. A great, challenging composer of the Beethoven or Bach (or Mahler) variety would still have been squashed by anti-semites for his effrontery long before he was allowed to flourish in full plumage.

(Hark the Herald Angels Sing…yes, Mendelssohn wrote it)

Furthermore, there was one small problem with Wagner’s blaming Mendelssohn…Mendelssohn was not Jewish; not by religion at least, only by origin (not that that would have mattered to Hitler…). His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was one of the richest men in Germany, yet even he had to flee French-occupied Hamburg in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, with his young children in tow. Abraham feared a coming vendetta from the Napoleonic government for his role in financing a breech of the Napoleonic blockade against the British. And as a man of Jewish origin, he had that much more reason to fear the extremity of French animus. When he settled in Berlin, he opened what became the final version of Mendelssohn and Co., a bank that would become the largest in Germany until Hitler ‘Aryanized’ it in 1939 by forcing it to sell all its assets to Deutsche Bank, all this in spite of the fact that there was hardly a single Jewish Mendelssohn in over a century.

(The opening chorus from Mendelssohn’s EXTREMELY Christian oratorio about St. Paul, Paulus)

Abraham Mendelssohn was nearly as militant in his pro-secularism as his father, the great Moses Mendelssohn, was determined to balance secularism with Judiasm. To his mother-in-law’s distress, he refused to circumcise his sons and added a second last name, ‘Bartholdy’, to his given surname (presumably after the Apostle Bartholomew, who spent the rest of his life preaching Christ to heathens). In a letter, he famously stated that ‘there could no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there could be a Christian Confucius.’ In 1816, Abraham had his children baptized in the Lutheran faith, and did so in secret in the distant city of Frankfurt so that he could avoid the suspicions of Jewish family members. Six years later, he was baptized as a Lutheran himself. Abraham Mendelssohn was determined that his family be accepted as fully German, an acceptance which would prove impossible after more than a century’s worth of attempts by the Mendelssohn family. The more achievements their family won for Germany, the more resented they were by the people for whom they strove.

(The finale of the Reformation Symphony, in which Mendelssohn incorporates Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, as the principle theme.)

This desire for acceptance is all the more tragic when one realizes that Mendelssohn’s cautious conservatism, his veneration for everything establishmentarian, his evangelism for Music as a Public Virtue, made him an ideal fit for the rigid moralities of Victorian England – a country to which he journeyed nine times over the course of his short life. He was a close personal friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and even wrote four-hand piano music specifically meant for the Queen to play with him. Mendelssohn’s temperament, with its twin horrors of empty showmanship and original daring, would have found a natural home in the England of Disraeli. In his veneration for older models, he was in some ways a musical equivalent of Keats. In his reluctance to challenge middle class sensibilities, he was much like Dickens.

(Mendelssohn’s band. The still extant Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which Mendelssohn lead for twelve years and built into the best in Europe.)

Mendelssohn was perhaps the first true musical classicist (in the University sense), who had no patience for his own day’s vulgarities, and sought to bring better, nobler, higher-minded music to the public than the tastes which fashion dictated. From his conducting originated the idea that the orchestra’s primary goal was to act as a preserver of music’s greatest literature – education rather than entertainment. As a conductor, he programmed not only his finest contemporaries, not only the ‘classics’ like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (and a great deal more besides), but also the ‘ancients’ like Palestrina and Lassus (Hector Berlioz, Mendelssohn’s musical antipode in so many ways, loved Mendelssohn personally but said that he was ‘a little too fond of the dead.’). In Mendelssohn’s chamber music, he strove to create chamber music for middle class homes that could act as a kind of self-betterment – never vulgar, never garish, limpid, beautiful, pastoral music for idyllic settings. It can be argued that the Golden Age of ‘classical music’ itself ended in 1829, when the great young hope of classical music introduced the great elder statesman in his grandest work: the St Matthew Passion of Bach. The next year, Berlioz first presented his Symphonie Fantastique, and from those two moments onward, the dichotomy was set in classical music, forever pitched in a battle between the preservation of the past and innovation for the future; a battle that still shows no signs of resolving…

(The Second Cello Sonata. Mendelssohn in typically exuberant mood.)

If Mendelssohn had lived to see the 1848 revolutions, he’d have been adrift. He was blind to the seismic undercurrents beneath him and ill-equipped to understand the era that followed him. Then as now, many viewed the rigidities of middle class sensibilities as a prison, and revolutionaries viewed Mendelssohn as the musical jailer. But had he lived longer, this very ill-adeptedness might have turned Mendelssohn into the great musical conservative of his age – the perfect rival which Wagner lacked. Mendelssohn’s temperament may have seemed untroubled, but it was not naturally so. As a conductor, Mendelssohn came again and again against those who would block his vision of making the greatest possible music, and as so many conductors have throughout history, his temper would raise the roof in response to his authority being questioned. Few composers ever worked harder than Mendelssohn, and no composer made as great an effort to travel further so that he could carry out his responsibilities. Merely as a conductor, Mendelssohn had official capacities all over Germany and England, and was a much sought after guest in Italy and France besides. In the 20th century, such travel is expected of top musicians, in the 19th century it was nearly impossible. This reckless travel schedule had to be honored in addition to his full schedule as a composer, his need to stay in shape as a pianist and organist, and his duties as a father. In those last few years, his music became more and more fraught with anexiety, stress, and emotional weight. Mendelssohn was finally composing like an adult. But it was too late for him to write a more sizable amount in this newly sober vein of his. The stress and strain of his workload no doubt contributed to the series of strokes which killed him in 1847.

(Minor-key Mendelssohn, his final string quartet. A completely different composer emerging?)

Furthermore, there is a new rumor that Mendelssohn, seemingly the happiest, most well adjusted of all composers, might have killed himself in response to the end of an extra-marital affair. An affidavit has apparently surfaced from the cuckolded husband, in which there is sworn testimony that Mendelssohn begged the revered Swedish Soprano, Jenny Lind, to elope with him to America, and threatened suicide if she didn’t. Like Mendelssohn, Lind was a deep artist above reproach, prized as much for her morality and the spiritual quality of her music making as for her general musicianship. Mendelssohn died barely a year or two after the letter was written, but it still feels like a conspiracy theory, an apocryphal theory like the kangaroo court which told Tchaikovsky to kill himself. But it does change our view of this composer – who is now revealed to be a suffering artist, and given to all the same hypocrisies as every other Victorian gentleman.

(Hear, Israel. A soprano aria from Elijah, written for Jenny Lind. The hypocrisy is a little thick…but a powerful aria anyway. Proto-Brunnhilde?)

Mendelssohn did not commit suicide, he had a series of strokes. He suffered from a family condition called “Mendelssohn Brain” first documented in his grandfather, in which the hyper-brilliance of their minds made them especially prone to aneurisms. No doubt, the stress of his affair might have contributed to the strokes, but so might have the death of his beloved sister Fanny from a similar stroke. Fanny might have become a still greater musician/mind than Felix had either her brother or her father approved of her developing her talents as anything more than an amateur pursuit. But as a female Mendelssohn, it would have caused a scandal had she become a professional musician, and while she suffered an additional indignity of not being allowed to pursue her gifts after the manner of Felix, she shared Felix’s hyperactive mental acuity, and suffered from its same imbalance.

(The most beautiful – and darkest – thing Mendelssohn ever wrote? The slow movement from the second string quintet.)

The music of Mendelssohn’s final years show a different composer emerging, using his natural genius to reflect emotions deeper than the typical light-hearted classicism Mendelssohn generally pervaded. A potentially new Mendelssohn, middle aged and bitter, is highly noticeable in his final works. After some failed early attempts, Mendelssohn had retreated all his life from attempting the Grand Metaphysical Statements of Beethoven. He simply lacked the nerve for daring vision. Even his Lobegesang Symphony (with its 40-minute long choral finale) and Paulus play by tasteful rules established long in the past, often seeming more like imitations than original compositions. Yet in his late oratorio, Elijah, a new Mendelssohn emerges. Like his other large-scale choral works, Elijah is a conservative work in every sense – a turgid monsterpiece filled with uninspired padding and lighter, sweeter moments than should probably occur in a dramatic oratorio. Yet there are passages in this oratorio of such heart-stopping drama that they seem far more like the greatest music of Wagner than like Mendelssohn.

(Click here for the Magnificence of Elijah in Full Cry)

Here is Mendelssohn, fully mature, finally ready to take on the metaphysic mantle of Beethoven. But whereas Beethoven’s message is essentially liberal, to embrace the masses and storm the Bastille; Mendelssohn’s message is fundamentally conservative, that those embraced millions have grown sinful and indolent, and therefore must repent. Beethoven found choral inspiration in Schiller’s poetry and the Catholic Mass, Mendelssohn found his inspiration in the Old Testament Prophets. Mendelssohn may not have been Jewish, but he had a Talmudic cast of mind and a Rabbinic sense of mission. It might be said that at the end of his life, in the midst of crises from which privilege previously shielded him, he finally composed with true purpose; a purpose found within the texts which his grandfather so valued.

(Psalm 2: Why Do The Heathen Rage?)

Mendelssohn may not have been Jewish himself, but the values he inherited were Jewish to the marrow: a fearsome if imperfect commitment to ethics, knowledge, community, family, and rule of law. And whether rightly or wrongly, Mendelssohn saw his values as being rejected by his era's revolutionaries. The full promise of Mendelssohn’s genius was not to be contained in his actual achievements, but Elijah and a few other works from his final years give us a glimpse into the man which his earlier work never allowed. In choosing to write an oratorio about Elijah, Mendelssohn seemed to compose a declaration of intent – no longer would he be the passive, benevolent builder of public virtue. From the premiere of Elijah onward, he seemed to announce an intent to be the militant defender of righteousness’s cause – composing not with pen, but with a sword every bit as steely as Wagner’s, used to defend the glories of his Jewish and German heritage, both of which had given him so much. Given ten more years, Mendelssohn might have become a very different composer than the one we know; perhaps he'd have become an heroic spiritual leader after the manner of Beethoven, ready to do battle with Wagner's revolution so that he might preserve Beethoven's. Or perhaps he'd have calcified into every bit the fanatical purveyor of nationalist bombast (unlikely as much of his music makes that sound) which Wagner was. In theory, Mendelssohn was the fanatical defender of an Old Germany which allowed Mendelssohn’s ancestors to flourish while Wagner was the fanatical promulgator of a New Germany which would allow his descendents to flourish just as greatly. But Mendelssohn died, and Wagner, with his completely different (inverse?) goals, assumed the mantle of Germany’s Greatest Living Composer. He assumed this mantle in reaction to a Germany shaped by the first generations of emancipated Jews as a way of curbing their influence to restore Germany to a more glorious, united, and pure past. Yet the Germany of Wagner was not so different than Mendelssohn’s Germany. In their different ways, they exhibited precisely the same uncomplicated love of a national ideal which only a true outsider can possess. Wagner believed that the German past would only be saved by supporting the 1848 revolutionaries, Mendelssohn (would have) believed that that same past would be saved only by opposing them. But they shared a goal of a united Germany, with a truly German music to inspire her. Even Wagner’s greatest achievement, the Ring Cycle, began as an idea Mendelssohn had for his first adult opera. Perhaps Wagner merits a chapter of his own in A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks. I don't doubt he'd love to have one.