Wednesday, August 01, 2007

C# Minor

Ingmar Bergman is dead. Will anyone mourn?

A couple of nights ago the family went out for dinner, a bit unusual for us; we normally do takeout. We’re not great at having family conversations. Eating at home allows for an efficient ingestion of nourishment and treats; perhaps some matter of fact discussion about tasks that need to get done, then back the computer or to video games or Harry Potter. Going out is more leisurely with time to burn and now the boys are too old to play “I Spy” – riddlely riddlely ree, I see something you can’t see. So after placing our orders we started to talk.

Soon thereafter my younger son asked – “who was the President who came after Lincoln, in 1860?” Ben usually has a point when he asks a question, but this time I wasn’t getting it at all. I said Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln but that wasn’t till later. Then Ben offered a non-rebuttal rebuttal about Jefferson Davis and followed that with some observation that Lincoln was a Republican but what about the Democrats? Somehow this morphed to me quizzing the family about the presidents since JFK, and then before JFK too. The boys didn’t know LBJ and guessed that Nixon was next after Kennedy. They did know Nixon; interesting what one must do when in high office to be remembered, at least by the Arvan clan. The boys knew Jimmy Carter, but only after a prompt. They struggled with Reagan and Bush père and couldn’t identify their Democratic opponents. (I confess that when my wife brought it up I couldn’t recall whether Geraldine Ferraro ran with Mondale or Dukakis.) They didn’t know Harry Truman. They didn’t know that Adlai Stevenson ran against Eisenhower. We’re from Illinois and they didn’t know Adlai Stevenson, yet their teachers keep saying how well the boys are doing at school. What gives?

I don’t doubt that my kids are bright and can learn quickly and deeply. I’ve seen that in other things they’ve done. But it is clear that history, at least the type of history associated with knowing the Presidents, doesn’t touch them in their own world, even if there are parallels between Viet Nam and Iraq, even if the cocoon in which they reside will burst forth as they enter adulthood. The kids say the Pledge of Allegiance at school, but I’m afraid it is an empty ritual with no meaning for them behind the words, no way to touch them inside with the message. That goes likewise for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. My older kid is in the High School Marching Band and this week he is in band camp. During the rest of the year they do parades, competitions with bands from other schools, and of course they perform at half time of the football games. In their repertoire apart from the Star Spangled Banner, obviously there is Sousa, and then some Rock Classics set to marching band format.

Not having gone through this sort of thing myself as a kid, I played in the concert band for a while but my school didn’t have a marching band, I wonder what the activity instills in the kids who go through the rather intensive effort to prepare as well as what it instills in the broader audience, the fans and the parents. Certainly there is much pageantry in the performance and, since that is by design, one might guess that it is done for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. Perhaps it is meant to instill patriotism, although it seems more likely to generate school spirit than loyalty to country, since most of the pageantry is wrapped around an athletic contest.

* * * * *

These are not topics on which I normally dwell and I wouldn’t have given them any attention whatsoever save for some other happenings.

Last week ran an in depth series on the Pat Tillman incident. There was greater coverage on the ESPN site than on the NY Times site. I was puzzled about why ESPN provided this content; it didn’t seem sports related though I supposed that in an expanded view any news about former pro athletes is sports related, but that didn’t seem enough to warrant making it a feature. A different idea is that currently sports is wrapped up with the debunking of institutions: Barry Bonds home run chase and the Tour de France with steroids, an NBA ref betting on basketball games and possibly fixing those games, and the dog fighting case that feature Michael Vick make for a prominent but incomplete list. Perhaps the Tillman case fits as more of the same.

There is sports punditry just as there is news punditry, but the analysis these sportswriters provide is less driven by ideological fervor. Partly for that reason and partly because, face it, sports is supposed to be entertainment, not life and death, the sports punditry is less heavily scrutinized by other members of the established media, by the fans sure but less so elsewhere. And in the case of ESPN, though part of ABC probably run as a unit independent of ABC News, there is likely less scrutiny than at other sports news groups, which do have ties to the larger new organization. Maybe ESPN featuring the Tillman case is an example of their News unit pushing its boundaries, something they can do --- recall the George Bernard Shaw maxim.

It seems that ESPN is encouraging at least consideration of the idea that Tillman wasn’t killed by friendly fire, but rather he was assassinated by his own troops, witness the headline on this piece, caused by resentment against an overbearing sports star. And if that’s true, the closest tie is with Columbine, where the shootings were similarly motivated. The pageantry we associate with sports has a dark underside, especially in how the “heroes” treat the rest of us. Perhaps that is “the story” of all of sports and so maybe the Tillman case belongs on the ESPN pages after all.

* * * * *

Here is a different thought on the relationship between music and patriotism, coming not from the need to glorify the nation through pageantry but rather from another place entirely, to endure suffering and to do so by having something close that touches the soul, something to cling to and value in spite of all else, something of beauty. Here is Roman Polanski talking about Chopin in reference to the soundtrack in Polanski’s movie, The Pianist.

Fryderyk Chopin's music was an essential part of Wladyslaw Szpilman's repertoire. For us Poles, Chopin symbolizes revolution. It is not surprising that his monument in Warsaw was pulled down during World War II, nor that the wartime struggles led to his music being banned in Poland. His music is our music - it's like mother's milk. It is what gave Szpilman strength and courage. I am proud to be able to reunite them for this soundtrack. I needed a great pianist from Poland to play authentically and honor both men's memories, and Janusz Olejniczak does that.

I’ve written about The Pianist before, so I don’t want to linger on it here (although this piece in the NY Times is intriguing about the particular selection of music in the film). Instead, I’d like to focus on a different film that I watched last week. It is partly about the life of Chopin and in that about some of the ordeal he went through in writing his music. The movie is called Impromptu, in an obvious reference to one type of Chopin’s piano music. But Chopin is only indirectly the main character of the piece. More overtly, the main character is George Sand, the French novelist.

Sand had many of the affectations of a man, in part because doing so gave her greater freedom to pursue her own ends. In the movie, Sand is portrayed by Judy Davis, a performer whom I haven’t seen in many films but who makes a strong impression in those that I’ve seen (A Passage to India is a good example. There she plays the odd and perhaps demented but certainly determined character, Adela Quested.) What Davis does most convincingly is to visually demonstrate earnest and complete pursuit of her own interests, to be totally driven by that rather than to behave in accord with social convention or to perform in a certain way in order to attend to the feelings of others.

In the film Sand’s life was spent in pursuit of scientific truth, as rendered by the artists, musicians, and writers who resided in the sphere in which she operated. Chopin’s music was the embodiment of this truth. Her love for him followed from her love for the music. On multiple occasions in the film Sand is seen lying under the piano while Chopin is playing it, an unlikely place for the rest of us yet the best way to be caught up in the rapture and the beauty of the music. And indeed the music is wonderful.

After watching the movie I did a Google search (chopin piano .mp3) and found this truly delightful repository at There are free recordings (and sheet music too) that are available for download and organized either by composer or by performer. The composer pages provide a biography and sort the music by type. Chopin’s page is interesting to read in its own right and helps in understanding the underlying events in the movie.

Chopin, played by Hugh Grant in the movie in a role that doesn’t fit Grant’s current typecast, is depicted as sickly, timid, and very much concerned with doing things in a proper way. In all of that he is the opposite of Sand. In fact, Chopin had Tuberculosis and died when he was only 39. (My dad had TB; got it before I was born. The consequence was a partially collapsed lung that limited his wind while swimming or playing tennis and that did create the impression that he was not as robust as the rest of us, well after the TB itself was gone.) So the sickly part seems accurate.

The timidity is at first hard to reconcile with the enormous passion that is embodied in the music. Chopin was a magnificent performer, but apparently he preferred to play the piano in the company of a small group of friends over giving public performances. He clearly was not timid in the pursuit of his own ideas but he very well may have been quite shy with others he didn’t know.

The dialect Grant adopts does seem misplaced, but how does one do a native Polish speaker talking in French but performed in English? An interesting part of Chopin’s story is that he was loyal to Poland till the last, but he lived in France and never returned to his home country once the war with Russia began. Much of his music, certainly the Mazurkas and the Polonaise, were written to bring the folk life of the Polish people into the world of piano music. He did this wonderfully.

The biography of Chopin also points out how much of a traditionalist Chopin was and how much his innovations, for example in the Nocturnes, were firmly based on earlier baroque music. Listen to some of those and then listen to some music by Bach, perhaps one of his Toccatas. The rhythm in the left hand is essentially the same. As daring as Chopin was with his haunting melodies, he made them conform to the strict rhythm of the left hand. There is a lesson in that for all of us would be creators, a need to adhere to a discipline even as we try to break the mold.

In the process of my Web surfing about Chopin (I didn’t alight on the sight at first) I learned that Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor was the “theme song” to The Pianist. And in my further surfing to the Wikipedia page on the musical form Nocturne, I learned that some think the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is a Nocturne. Guess what key that is written in.

* * * * *

The Poles have Chopin and Chopin’s music. The music is wondrous. It is so easy to describe the music with the adjective beautiful. At first thought of this I was jealous of the Poles. They have Chopin. We have Francis Scott Key and Sousa. They have love of Chopin’s music and that deepens their love of country. We have our pageantry and that make us endure the music.

But then I had a different thought. We all have Chopin. We all can love beauty and can make its pursuit our truth.

The pursuit of beauty is not talked about much these days as an ideal in higher education; it doesn't find its way into many campus strategic plans. Nor is the pursuit of beauty an ideal talked about much in the arena of national politics. Yet we all have Chopin. Hmmm.

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