Mozart and the Beasts: Bargemusic Floats Me
History Happens, Brahms Sustains; Now Let Me Rant About Kissinger
Last Thursday evening, Oct. 25, was warm and fine. Bargemusic was offering a very attractive program: Mozart’s E-flat Piano Quartet, Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A and Schumann’s Op. 47 Piano Quartet, played by Anne-Marie McDermott, Daniel Phillips, Paul Neubauer and Ronald Thomas. One doesn’t very often get to hear music of this transcendent greatness played by musicians of this caliber, so we strolled down to Fulton Pier, to the monument Olga Bloom has built to the higher angels of our nature. Frankly, as I’ve written before, Bargemusic is one of the true treasures of the city-especially now, at a time when there’s not a soul among us that can’t use the kind of repair work only the greatest music can perform. Anyone who doesn’t make a point of getting to the barge at least once a month must be on the cultural equivalent of a hunger strike.
As the music soared and the lights of lower Manhattan came up behind the stage, the altered skyline still glorious (but never at such a cost!), it was a time for thinking long thoughts.
About transience and permanence, mainly. The Mozart was composed in 1786; it’s safe to presume that it was being played somewhere in Europe even as the guillotine did its bloody, bin Laden–ish work in Paris during the Terror. Schumann’s quartet dates from 1842, and the Brahms violin sonata from exactly a century later than the Mozart, 1886. Think of what horrors have been visited on mankind, by nature and by himself, within the unending performance lifetime of these pieces: pogroms, genocides, purges, earthquakes, cyclones, coastal floods, hurricanes, revolutions, famines, epidemics. Gettysburg and the Somme; Smyrna and Warsaw; San Francisco and Bangladesh; Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China. We can be sure someone was playing one of these pieces somewhere in the world on Aug. 6, 1945, when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima and launched the long process of which we may just now be starting the endgame. Rise and fall, death, disease and destruction: season upon season upon season. And still the music endures. Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes must have been a chamber musician.
Taken all in all, it was the kind of evening that makes incarnate the famous passage from The Tempest :
Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father’s
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air.
And so it was for me, at least for most of the evening-until, in the lovely Andante cantabile third movement of the Schumann, just at the point when cellist Ronald Thomas had played the heartfelt, aching bejeezus out of his instrument’s yearning exchange with Daniel Phillips’ violin, I found myself reflecting on how much I hate Henry Kissinger.
What odd, unworthy thoughts for such a moment! And, of course, hateful and despicable as he is, I don’t hate Mr. Kissinger personally, although I loathe what he stands for, and what the class or group he symbolizes stands for, and what that class or group has done and continues to do to this country and the world. I think it is possible to trace a direct cause-and-effect line back from ground zero to the policies of Mr. Kissinger and those he influenced, who were mainly persons either neurotic or stupid whom fate, inheritance or (in Nixon’s case) Eugene McCarthy had thrust into positions of great public and private resonance. When the 70’s comes finally to be recognized for its catastrophic effect on the American Enterprise, you will find Mr. Kissinger’s fingerprints all over that disastrous, defining decade’s worst parts: OPEC, Vietnam, Watergate.
I suppose Mr. Kissinger was in my mind because that morning’s Observer carried a story that a Kissinger assistant had telephoned CNN on or around Sept. 11 to report that the boss was marooned in Germany and relying heavily on CNN to keep abreast of the news. This being a man who does nothing without calculation, a man to whom nothing occurs that is not fodder for personal aggrandizement or profit, it took little wit to read between the lines and interpret Mr. Kissinger’s enthusiasm for CNN as a pretty bald indication to Paula Zahn et al. of the former Chief Liar’s availability should the cable network feel that he might have something perceptive or pertinent to contribute on camera. I have to say that it was pretty entertaining to think of Henry wetting his pants with rage at the realization that while he was stuck in Hamburg or wherever, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Fouad Ajami and such were limo’ing around Manhattan and Washington catching face-time with Wolf Blitzer. Well, at least he could console himself that he has a Brook Club tie and they don’t.
The man himself soon passed from my contemplation, and I found myself pondering the nature and origins of hatred-mine and others. I think people “come” to hate, that it is a learned, or acquired, animus. I don’t think we’re born hating. I do think that, at some point in the course of human events, some lesser antipathy or resentment, unless checked culturally, socially or economically, metastasizes into the full-blown seething fury against man that sends airliners crashing into skyscrapers filled with people going about an innocent day’s work or blows up buildings containing day-care centers.
I have felt surges of that venomous, lethal emotion myself, and I’d be surprised if readers of this column haven’t now and then felt that way themselves. I hate what has become of the world I grew up in, and therefore I harbor frighteningly strong feelings about those I hold accountable for that change: both the barbarians who trampled through the gates, and those who-for money-left the gates unlocked.
Does this make me some kind of emotional sibling of Osama bin Laden, another child of privilege who saw his world corrupted by a sudden influx of wealth and as a result “got religion”? I suppose, in a way, it does. I had only to read last Sunday’s Page Six item about the antics in the Prada luxury store of the Manhattan-dwelling bin Laden siblings to begin to understand more than I had. Ends don’t justify means, but effects tell us something about causes. To take it a step further, extrapolate the antipathy felt by the Maidstone Hamptons, or the Bonacker Hamptons, for the Lizzie Grubman Hamptons to the millionth power, and what do you get? Very likely an impulse to do terrible personal violence.
A containable impulse, however. Containable because, in this country, life-the individual life, often almost too much at the expense of collective or communal life-means something. That’s the great paradox. Because life has to mean something, and not only to oneself but to someone else, and not just in Western democracies. These terrorists aren’t bred in Islamic madrassas or church schools; they are educated on Western models. And yet, as we have thumped our way around the world commercially, from contextless moment to contextless moment, boasting of our entertainment exports (including numberless mindless movies showing acts of incalculable violence and property destruction), we have paid precious little attention-that is, we’ve given precious little indication-that the life of anyone anywhere else on earth means bupkis to us, just as long as we extract our profit.
For decade after decade, this nurtured resentment around the globe, until ultimately-as any idiot could have predicted-patience was overcome, people got tired of waiting for their small share, and demons rushed in to fill the void with hatred. When Adam Smith says that there’s “a deal of ruin in a nation,” a formulation rejected by the Kissinger-Wriston-I.M.F.–Trilateral Commission–Davos School of Geopolitical Economy, he might just as well have written “a deal of patience”-since when the supply of the latter runs out, so, it seems, does the supply of the former.
That’s why, back in June, I wrote a column urging the administration to “de-tin” its Texas ear and listen to the sounds of anger on the desert wind. Maybe I wrote that because I know something of hatred myself, and can therefore imagine how incendiary it can become, how catastrophic. Of course, nobody reads this paper except to steal its writers’ ideas and repeat them uncredited, and so life went on until, one morning, we woke up and it was Sept. 11-and now, on every side, drums are being thumped to rhythms this column has been laying out for years. And now we are at war, and we are going to have to learn to hate back, at least “for the duration”-which I expect was the most-used phrase of World War II and must become so again.
Let me end this sermon with a quotation that seems relevant. As an antidote to the way we live now, I have been reading the life, published in 1944, of the Reverend Endicott Peabody, the legendary founder and rector (headmaster) of Groton School, by Frank D. Ashburn, first headmaster of the Brooks School, which Peabody also midwived. It’s a book I find inspiring and (as I say) “antidotal,” thanks to its iteration-its celebration-of the hegemony in our national life of certain New England values that seem to me a great deal better than anything that has subsequently been installed in their place. Values that the Bush family elected to trade for a mess of Lone Star pottage-which is, I fear, beginning to come through loud and feeble.
4″Every endeavor will be made to cultivate manly, Christian character, having regard to moral and physical as well intellectual development.” This was Peabody’s statement of purpose, practically every word of which is politically incorrect by today’s standards: exclusionary, gender-biased, non-self-referential, unicultural, unlikely to stand up under 30 seconds’ scrutiny by the Supreme Court.
And yet ….
Well, here’s this week’s scripture, from a letter to Peabody by his old friend and cohort Bishop Lawrence, written around 1943, not long before both men died: “I see no other course than to quietly, firmly, grimly if necessary, prepare for war, its sacrifices, taxes, loss of friends and family if need be, its ghastly, horrible, insane destruction of almost everything that has made our civilization and our happiness. Every man, woman, boy or girl in this democracy is subject to call by the nation for service, for any kind of service, and for any length of time. We are bought with a price. It is the price of liberty.”