Friday, February 27, 2015


   When, in 1994, I retired from the University of  Pittsburgh, I asked my good friend John Craig, the editor the the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whether I could do an op ed for them now and then. John was a good friend but even better editor, so he asked me, in reply, to show him some non-academic writing of mine. I complied and he signaled to me and his staff: nihil obstat, though that’s not the way it was put. Since then I wrote 49 op eds for that paper, but left Pittsburgh before managing to push it up to an even 50. I have also abandoned the idea of collecting them all in a book that nowbody will buy.
   But that does not mean that I should refrain from rebroadcasting some of my favorites. Quite a few of those are still in my computer, though by no means the whole bunch. So, while I don’t intend to turn this blog into an account of the past, I will now and then insert an oldie into the stream.
   Starting with one of my favorites:

American Music Really Is American
Rudolph H. Weingartner

            I’ve been listening to music for most of my life—actually listening, not just hearing.  And sometimes I even think about what I heard.  That’s how not all that long ago I made some observations about American music I think are worth sharing.  I am talking about the decades that began around the first World War, when it became meaningful to speak of distinctively American music. 
            Of course the music that was then written built on what had gone before and on its European forebears.  But the changes that were then introduced were so powerful that they dominated American music for quite some time.  More correctly, I should say American musics, in the plural, since there is hardly a single strain.  Leaving aside jazz for the moment, let me identify three genres.  Going from the bottom up—speaking as a snooty member of the cultural elite—there are what are most simply called popular songs; then there are the musicals of Broadway, and, finally, the kind of music played by symphony orchestras, recitalists, and ensembles in the likes of Carnegie Hall, all known by the misleading term of “classical music.”
            Thinking about these, I made a mildly startling discovery.  Three giants who dominated these territories were Jews from Eastern Europe, one actually born there, the other two in Brooklyn not long after their parents’ passage through Ellis Island.  Starting at the “bottom,” it is hard to trump the name of Irving Berlin.  Except that was not the name he was born with, in 1888, in the town of Tyumen, just east of the Ural Mountains (though other sources name different towns), arriving here when he was five.  The son of a cantor, he was then Israel Isadore Baline (that last name an immigration official’s transcription of Beilin), the youngest of a large Yiddish-speaking family.  While I found no record just when Israel became Irving, the move to Berlin came about through a mistake.  In 1906, the eighteen-year-old wrote the lyrics for Marie of Sunny Italy to a melody by a fellow entertainer at the Pelham Café in Chinatown.  But when the song was published, the printer put “I. Berlin” on the cover.  It would have brought bad luck to the author not to keep the name that gave him his first broader recognition.
            Most of us know much of the greater accomplishments that would follow.  What we might not know is that at the beginning of his long career, Irving Berlin succeeded as a wordsmith, and only when he was prodded did he compose the melody of his next song.  That prod lasted.  From Alexander’s Ragtime Rag, Berlin’s first big-time success to, randomly, Always, Anything You Can Do I can Do Better to How Deep is the Ocean and White Christmas (and many, many more), Irving Berlin wrote both words and music.  It is often noted that Berlin never learned to read notes and that a special piano was built for him that could sound in keys different from the only one he knew to play.  But it is also worth observing that the lyrics and melodies he wrote could not be more distant from the Yiddish he spoke as a child and the cantorial and Eastern European tunes on which he was brought up.
             For me, the highlight is Berlin’s hymn-like God Bless America.  I empathize with those who want to make that song our national anthem, as more singable and less belligerent than our current one.  Were that ever to happen, it would be the zenith of the story of Israel Isadore Beilin, begun somewhere in Russia or Belarus.
             Our second innovator who influenced the course of American music managed to steer an unprecedented course between pops and “classical” music and between musical and opera.  Jacob Gershowitz, was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, but his father, who had emigrated from St. Petersburg, soon changed his name to Gershwin; the transformation of Jacob into George somehow followed.  Like Berlin, George Gershwin got an early start, writing a commercially successful song when he was nineteen and made his first big hit with Swannee when he was twenty-one.   The words were by his brother Ira—who came to write the words to much of George’s lyrical output—and the song’s success benefited greatly from being sung by superstar Al Jolson (born in Lithuania as Asa Yoelson).
             Gershwin, who died at thirty-eight, was prolific, with a large output of works for the stage and the concert hall.  As exemplified by the work everyone knows, Rhapsody in Blue (of 1924), Gershwin was the first to combine—perhaps interweave is better—classical compositional techniques with jazz and pop.  Again, no trace of an Eastern European heritage in that unique Gershwin mix.  An anecdote is told both about Ravel and Schoenberg, whom Gershwin was said to have asked for lessons in composition.  “I would only make you a second-rate Schoenberg/Ravel, and you are such a good Gershwin already" was the reply by whomever.
            It is worth mentioning that the jazz—perhaps the most American of musics—on which Gershwin leaned had also been changing, in that it became a much freer, improvisatorial, and solistic than it had been when had still remained closer to the band music, ragtime, spirituals and religious music from which it had sprung.  The three musicians perhaps most responsible for this transformation were also not exactly scions of a WASP elite: Jelly Roll Morton, born in 1890 to a New Orleans Creole couple (the last name probably his stepfather’s name, Mouton, anglicized) and the African-Americans, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (born 1901 in New Orleans) and Earl “Fatha” Hines (in 1903 in our neighborhood, Duquesne).
             That Gershwin was able to elevate the musical to new heights is exemplified in two quite different ways.  Of Thee I Sing, reviewed by Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times as "a taut and lethal satire . . . funnier than the government, and not nearly so dangerous," was, in 1932, the very first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for best American play.  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when the august Columbia University Pulitzer board debated whether or not to take this radical step toward popular taste.
             But Porgy and Bess is Gershwin’s crowning achievement.  It is the only opera by an American composer that has received world-wide aclaim.  That is not a trivial distinction: a “selected” list of operas by American composers posted on the US Opera website comes to 359, if I counted correctly.  Nor is Porgy and Bess a standard opera, whatever that might be.  Gershwin called it a Folk Opera.  It makes copious use of jazzy passages; its cast of characters, almost entirely African-American, consists of ordinary people and not larger than life operatic heroes. American verismo.  The plot moves briskly and the hit tunes tumble one after the other; if they were sung in Italian, they would be called arias.  An international group of collectors of recordings of Summertime claims to know of at least 20,142 public performances of that song of which 13,842 are said to have been recorded.
             A young man, Morris (probably né Moishe) Kaplan was in England, on the way from Lithuania to America, when he anglicized his name to Copland.  Some years later, in 1900, his fifth child, Aaron, was born in Brooklyn and came to grow up to become the most American of American composers, a goal he aimed at almost self-consciously.  His music is American, not simply because he incorporated into it both jazz and blues, making use, as well, of older American tunes—though he did all that.  Nor is his music American because so much of it is devoted to American themes: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, the opera Tender Land.  But even though Copland also wrote many works that derive from European sources, even including atonal music, the core of his output evinces a tonal world that became a kind of paradigm of American “classical” music, strongly influencing a subsequent generation.
             Numerous technical amalyses have been put forward of this Copland—American style.  I will not attempt to insert any of them here, but will confine myself to a few general characteristics.  The themes or melodies Copland invents are relatively simple and concise and when they are more extensive, they are likely to be made up of smaller units.  Copland’s rhythms are often distinctly declamatory and predominantly unhurried.  Perhaps most notably, Copland’s harmony is derived from French rather than German music, most probably by virtue of the fact that he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the first American composer to do so.  And finally, Copland makes a self-conscious effort to orchestrate with great clarity, letting each voice be heard with little or no doubling, making for a more open, less “sophisticated” but also less fuzzy texture.
             Arguably, Copland’s Third Symphony is the greatest American work in that genre.  The first movement makes copious use of themes of the popular Fanfare for the Common Man and throughout its course, it steadfastly maintains its ability to keep the listener fastened to the orchestral progression.  The symphony is only one of a great many of Copland’s works—from chamber music to ballet to operas to scores for Hollywood films—but it serves as good evidence for the claim that Aaron Copland was the greatest American composer of the last century—a century he spanned, since he died in 1990.
             What is the moral of this story about the modern “origin” of American music?   Early on I said that I was mildly surprised that a most important trio consisted of three Eastern European Jews.  Surprised, because that’s not what you expect when it’s American music that you are looking at.  But only mildly surprised, because, after all, it is a fundamental truth of American history—and one that is in danger of being forgotten—that our open society has liberated the newly arrived and first generation Americans to enable them to harness their native talents and energies to advance the themes and tasks of their new homeland.  A recent study, What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution, for whom I also filled out a questionnaire, makes that point.  But it is sufficient to read the obituary pages of The New York Times, to peruse the list of American recipients of the Nobel Prize, or just listen to the accents of the professors who teach the science courses in our universities or to those of the physicians that treat our ailments to be reminded of what the United States can accomplish when it is the land of the free.
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of September 23, 2007

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Short and Glorious Life

   When, in 1939, I arrived in the United States, there were two holidays—meaning no school!—that were certainly new to me. On February 12, my own birthday, the birth of President Abraham Lincoln was celebrated. And only ten days later, February 22, George Washington’s birthday got us another day off. Later on, much later, those two national holidays were combined into a single Presidents’ Day and moved to the third Monday of February so to create a three-day week end.
   I never thought much about those holidays, although my recent “research” showed that neither Britain, France, nor Germany had elevated a historical figure to that status. No national celebration of Napoleon, say, nor of Bismarck—though there is  no surprise about that. The few other countries I surveyed only turned up a Benito Juárez Day in Mexico. The vast majority of holidays are geared to religious events—Christian in the world I looked at—plus a few secular ones, such as Labor Day or Independence Day.
   The question I now want to raise is a narrow one and I have no idea about the answer. Why Washington’s birthday is on the national holiday list is not mysterious. He was the leading general that won the United States its independence; he was the new country’s first president; and, most heroically, he turned down continuing service as president so as not to mimic the defeated British royalty. He was truly the father of our country.
   Perhaps a few unreconstructed Southerners would deny that Lincoln was a great president. That about fifteen thousand books have been written about him surely says a good deal more. His actions and character play an unparalleled role in U.S. history. Still, I wonder whether my birthday would have fallen on Lincoln’s birthday if, instead of being murdered in Ford’s Theater a few days after Lee’s surrender of the Confederate army, he had retired after the end of his second term as president and grown old in his home state of Illinois, perhaps moving from Springfield to the bigger hub of Chicago, doing what retired presidents do, such as writing memoirs and in various ways, subtle and not-so subtle, explain and justify the important measures they enacted while in office, then dying peacefully at the then old age of 68, when a reasonably like-minded Rutherford B. Hayes was in the White House. Does it take to be martyred to have your birthday become a national holiday?
   What brought this question to my mind was not just the occurrence, a bit over a month ago, of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but the following passage in the New Yorker (Jan. 26, 2015, p. 21):
"There are more than six hundred and fifty street names for Martin Luther King, Jr., in the                Untied States, but, perhaps more significant, there are streets, parks, and monuments             dedicated to him in Australia, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Senegal South Africa, and Zambia . . . ."
   Again, except for (probably the same) unreconstructed Southerners, none would deny the greatness of King’s accomplishments, nor the fact that even though he had partners in his fight for civil rights of Negroes (in the language of the day), there was none that was in his class, capable of assuming the leadership of that complex movement—leadership that called for, in equal measure, deep conviction, organizational skills of the highest order, and soaring eloquence. That is what it took to attract and hold followers on a path that was anything but a picnic. The film, Selma, coming half a century later, celebrates King’s achievements.
  MLK was born a couple of years after I was. I’m still around, as he might very well be, perhaps at the head of a church or of a foundation devoted to hammering in and carrying further the changes he brought to the country. It was not to be; he was murdered when not yet forty years old.
  The question I am raising, I say again, is whether you have to be martyred—or at least pass from this world at the apex of your career for your accomplishments to be acknowledged in so signal a way as having the anniversary of your birth become a holiday?
   The classical case is Achilleus. The hero of the Iliad was said to have been given a choice and opted for the short but glorious life and so Homer presents him. Would he have played that starring role if, after the defeat of the Trojans, he had gone home (straight home, not, like Odysseys, wandering all over creation) and cultivated the land of what I’ll anachronistically call his estate? In short, is the brevity of Achilleus’ life an ingredient in his fame? Siegfried is another hero whose life was cut short by a treacherous act of Hagen. Would he be the hero celebrated by Wagner, if he and Brünhilde had settled down to a comfortable old age, hunting in the forest and raising a brood of kids?

   I do not know the answer to these questions and there may here not be a single answer for all such cases one might cite.  Nor do I know what research or what kind of thinking one would have to undertake to come up with answers.  Even so, I don’t think that the question is foolish, because I do believe that those two myths from very different cultures express something that, consciously or subliminally, many believe.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Time Has Really Come for Hilary Rodham Clinton to Declare Her Intentions

   The Democratic Party has chosen the site of its convention, to take place in July 2016. The pick is Philadelphia, which made sense for two reasons: Pennsylvania is probably less sure to be a blue state than New York, so it might help a bit at election time. Probably more significant is a quite practical reason. New York City offered Brooklyn which as a sometime New Yorker I thought was a bum idea, since it makes for inconvenient commutes between that borough and hotel rich Manhattan. In any case, I take the fact that both parties have now picked time and place for their conventions to be something of signal that the overture to the selection of presidential candidates is accelerating.
   Last June, I posted what I hoped was a respectful statement urging Hilary Rodham Clinton not to run for president. I gave two reasons. Her age was the first. If she wins, she would be several months over 70 when inaugurated, the oldest person in US history, with virtually no chance that she could capture a second term in the White House. Equally or even more important, while I had no doubt that in her campaign “she would have new and worthwhile things to say . . . she cannot change her voice and visage.  However new her thoughts, her ideas, they will come across as spoken by a voice from the past.” I further argued strenuously that she should declare her intention no later than the end of the year now well passed.
   That of course did not happen; but it must happen now. While widespread speculation has it that Ms. Clinton will be a candidate, those who really know her intentions aren’t talking. But it greatly matters for political actors in the Democratic party to know what is the case and for the voters to know what to expect.
   Suppose the speculation is correct, and Ms. Clinton declares her candidacy. Bigwig Democrats can begin to be organized into an effective support effort; the money that would be needed can get to be raised definitively, so to speak, and not just tentatively. Moreover, whoever the brave soul or souls might be who would challenge her for the nomination can come out of hiding and begin to give their effort a shot.
   The situation is even more serious if Hilary Rodham Clinton ultimately announces that she will not be a candidate. There are now no obvious alternative Democratic candidates waiting in the wings, ready to emerge promptly if relieved of the duty to be respectful of Clinton’s potential candidacy. If indeed she does not run, there will be—has to be—a lot of jockeying, a sorting out process that will take time run its course and that should not be required to be played out in a rush.
   The Republicans have long since begun that sorting process and I urge all potential voters to look at the cast of characters that are vying to be IT. A couple of them can be seen to be conservatives and not expected to try to overturn apple carts. More of those would-be presidents are radicals and not conservative at all. Please note, dear reader, that radicals are not only to be found on the left, of which we have a shrinking number; on the other hand, the number of radicals on the right—proponents who, rejecting the present, aim to return to past stages, real or imagined—have greatly increased in number and influence.
   But probably even more discouraging than the ideologies of the present Republican would-be presidential candidates is the fact that not one of them has the intellect and character desirable in a president. None is a potential Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, or even George H. W. Bush. I voted for none of these, but have to concede that each did at least a credible job. And Nixon—whom I mostly despised when he was around—will be judged by history to have accomplished much, even if his temperament and manner make that hard for us to see, not to mention that he turned out to be a crook. Given the present roster of Republican papabiles, the pickin’ is slim; I want none of the above.
   And if I don’t want any of the aspiring crew, neither does Hilary for sure. So please, Hilary get moving. The stakes are high. Hilary Rodham Clinton state your intentions now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Is it Ignorance or is it Foolishness?
The Imitation Game and Selma
      These two films that recently made it into theaters treat very different 20th century subjects, both of the greatest historical importance. Both are seriously flawed—the first in multiple distortions or worse of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, while the second is primarily guilty of single, but deeply serious, mistreatment of history. The second deviation from the truth about what happened is considerably more important, since American movie goers ought not to be misled about an episode that took place in their country during their own lifetime or not long before, while getting straight the story of a brilliant British mathematician that took place in Britain during the second World War does not quite have the same urgency.
   For both accounts of what’s wrong with those films, I am indebted to articles in the New York Review of Books and I hope I am not violating copyright laws by referring them to you here; read them. “Saving Alan Turing from His Friends” by Christian Caryl,    
and ‘Selma’ vs. History by Elizabeth Drew,
   There is no way I can summarize the litany of goofs that beset the Turing movie. I myself knew very little about Turing: only that he was (somehow) crucially instrumental in breaking the German code during World War II, that he was the creator of an essential step on the path toward the creation of computers, and that he had been prosecuted for being gay. The film is about Turing’s central role in the successful British effort to decipher messages sent by the German Enigma Machine (see the extensive Wikipedia article with that title)—a cryptographical effort that contributed as significantly to the Allied victory, it is said, as did General Eisenhower.
   This broad point is of course made in the film; without it there wouldn’t be such a one. But little of the way that happened, not to mention the way Turing is depicted, Mr. Caryl convincingly relates, conforms to what is reliably known about Turing and that historical code-breaking effort. No, Turing was not “a dour Mr. Spock who is disliked by all of his coworkers.” Rather, he “was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other brilliant intellects who happily coexisted to extraordinary effect.” The military supervisor of the enterprise, “Turing’s blimpish nemesis, was actually an experienced cryptanalyst with over two decades of experience by the start of the war.” And so much much more: read Caryl’s article.
   One now one must ask why do the creators of this film about an actual person and an important historical passage get it so wrong. One is tempted to rule out ignorance of the man and these events,
since much has reliably been written about both. And yet I can’t quite rule it out, since self-confidence to the point of arrogance is capable of overriding the need search for reliable information. The only other reason I can come up with is the makers of The Imitation Game believe that their “version” of the story will attract a larger audience than what actually happened, because it is more interesting, more engaging, potentially more popular than one that is true to the facts. To that, a one word reply: Bullshit.
   The deviations from the truth in the other recent historical film, Selma, is at once limited to a single issue, but a considerably more significant one. It can be treated quite briefly.
   Elizabeth Drew: “The film suggests that there was a struggle between [Martin Luther] King and [President Lyndon Baines] Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King.” That suggestion is flatly false. The president and King had agreed from the outset that there would have to be voting rights legislation and they agreed about ways in which popular support for such a bill could be generated, so as to push Congress to act favorably. Ms. Drew cites much evidence in support of the thesis that the two protagonists collaborated and completely without friction.
   Why this distortion of history? “in order to make it more ‘dramatic’ and add ‘buzz,’” speculates Elizabeth Drew; and she may well be right. But I suspect a second motive as well: to elevate the stature of Martin Luther King, by having him “win” an argument with the president of the United States about an historically important issue—especially for African-Americans who would be a significant portion of the film’s audience.
   If so, this twisting of history was a deeply misguided move. Being the president’s collaborator is a much greater distinction for King than winning an argument. The truth is that those two leaders together—as partners—brought about a monumental change under difficult circumstances—remember that in 1965 the Senate contained such powerhouses as Strom Thurmond and James Eastland. Being the President’s partner in so important and difficult an enterprise is a distinction that does not even compare with winning an argument.
   What is very sad indeed, as is pointed out in the present article and elsewhere, is that far more people will become acquainted with an LBJ and a MLK that never existed than will be taught by the history books that state the truth. Sad, very sad.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

At the Beginning I was Spoiled
   I listened to Obama’s State of the Union message some days ago. It was a well-stated account of what he proposes to do, Congress going along or (mostly) not. But, given my interest here  in style rather than content, his message was clearly stated and the prose was at various points quite eloquent. Such formal messages are of course not single-author products, but are composed by professional writers and professional helpers of writers. Still, the final version has to be approved by the boss and what is approved is an indication of the approver’s taste. In my view, Obama does OK; he clearly has a sense of style—corroborated by speeches he made in his 2008 campaign, when he was more on his own.
   Obama’s superior prose style, if not outright eloquent, takes me back to my earliest years as a follower of American politics.  I came to the United States early in 1939 at the age of 12. But by the time I was sixteen or so, I became alert to politics and was reading The New York Times in the subway on my way to and from Brooklyn Tech, that paper artfully folded as a narrow vertical strip that made it possible to read it in a crowded GG, as the Queens-Brooklyn train was then called.                          
   Franklin Delano Roosevelt was then president, who not only introduced me to politics, but to
political discourse—by reading about him in the NYTimes, but also by listening to his Fireside Chats on the radio. I don’t remember those “chats” to be rhetorically flamboyant, but they were literate and occasionally truly eloquent. I certainly did not know then that I would never again hear as eloquent—even as literate—presidential discourse. The  only time we came close was with Adlai Stevenson, a candidate for the presidency who never made it.
   Betwixt between, mostly blah—not meaning nonsense, of course, (we’ve not had a stupid president in my day) but, say, prosaic. What makes this noteworthy—if not very—is the fact that any one who makes it to the White House has the wherewithal to buy eloquence; there is no doubt in my mind that they have the resources and staff to employ exactly the speech writers who put out what is wanted.
   What’s to be learned? A couple of things, if  not important ones. First, those recent American presidents have themselves not been particularly articulate. (There is not likely a Pulitzer Prize book on a recent presidential speech to match Garry Wills’s essay on the Gettysburg Address.) So, if you are not very musical you’re not going to pick the best musicians. Perhaps more importantly, candidates of office are mostly not judged for their verbal prowess. Indeed, articulateness may be regarded as glibness and be a handicap rather than an advantage. In short, Americans are suspicious of eloquence, making a Garry Cooper “aw shucks” a quite acceptable mode of discourse.

   All this makes us in the US quite different from politics in Great Britain and France and certainly other countries I am ignorant of, where style matters more or even a lot. There may be studies of the relationship of degree if eloquence to political effectiveness, though I don’t know of any; indeed, I believe it would be difficult to devise such an investigation. Still, it would be interesting to know more about the relationship of (call it) verbal facility and political success.