Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stephen Ambrose - History as an Art

I was fortunate in undergoing an exchange of letters with the celebrated historian Stephen Ambrose(the exchange was all too brief, as Ambrose passed on shortly thereafter).
I once asked him what specific aspect of history he was dealing with at the moment. The letter I received from him was one of great interest to me, as in this particular letter he railed against a rumor from historical revisionists that during the Second World War the British were deliberately starving a number of German war prisoners in North Africa, and he was setting out to demolish that rumor.
The rancor in this letter demonstrated what the pure historian is all about; namely, that the only agenda the historian should utilize is the Truth. Like any performing artist, who seeks the truth from the material being studied in order to render a proper statement , the true historian seeks the same kind of answer. Ambrose, an American historian, is defending the true position of the enemy prisoners, let alone that of the Allies in uncompromising terms, and demonstrates his unequivocal loathing of the baseless rumor projected by the Revisionist, such as demonstrated by the likes of David Irving and Ward Churchill.
Funny; after his tirade in the letter, he becomes the really pleasant, personable man he was, and ends his letter in a surprising way:
"Happy Trails,"
Stephen Ambrose
Shades of Roy Rogers!
If anybody reading this blog had ever gotten a letter from Ambrose, did he sign off the same way?? I'd LOVE to know!

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Isoroku Yamamoto - The Supreme Ironist?

I attach the words "the art of" to virtually any pursuit, if the processes of interpretive imagery and profound thinking are allied in order to communicate the results.
It may seem strange to apply "the art of" to the issue of War; however, in the case of Isoroku Yamamoto, one can, perhaps, see the case for argument:
He was born in Japan in 1884(Isoroku means "56", as his father was that age at the time of birth).
Like Bach, who due to poverty, copied manuscript so that he could read them later, Yamamoto did the same thing with books as a youth. After graduation from military school, he went to America and studied at Harvard, learned to play poker and got to understand and admire the cultural structure of the American. After going to the oil fields of Texas and the automobile industry in Detroit, he warned the leaders of the Japanese military factions that " we would not stand a chance of winning any war with America."
In his brilliant sense of imagery, Yamamoto foresaw sea battles decided by air power, not the great guns of the battleships. This was back in the 1920's.
He came back to America in 1925 as a naval officer of high rank; actually, about one fifth of his career was spent outside of Japan.
His admiration of America was represented by his constant recommendations of works about Lincoln because he was " such a humble man who fought all of his life for freedom."
Yamamoto constantly warned the right wing elements in Japan against disaster if they were to go to war against the U.S., and that the two countries should "do everything possible to avoid a clash." He also stated that Japan should never conclude any agreement with Nazi Germany. It may be difficult to believe, but there were militarists in Japan who were in agreement that Yamamoto should be done away with.
But; above all, Yamamoto saw himself as "a child of the Emperor", and was really made quite unassailable, becoming Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet by order of Hirohito, the emperor.
What an irony! This inveterate admirer of America becomes the planner of Pearl Harbor. His hope was that the blow against the American fleet at Pearl would lead to negotiations with America. "I must do my duty, though I am filled with doubt as to the future."
Remember his prophetic words on Dec.7, 1941, when he learned that although the Japanese attack devastated the the American fleet, no aircraft carriers were there, and with his conviction that air power would decide naval wars, he said "all I'm afraid we've done is to awaken a sleeping giant. and fill him with a terrible resolve". To me, these words from this man on the very first day of the war against America meant that Japan had already been defeated.
Another part of the supreme irony:
On April 18, 1943, Isoroku Yamamoto was the first commander-in-chief to be assassinated by air, when his plane was shot down by American P-38's flying out of the Solomon Islands.
A tale of supreme irony, it seems to me.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On the Passing of Oscar Peterson

As many of you may know, Oscar Peterson passed away yesterday at the age of 82.
Peterson was one of the most powerful and gifted among the jazz and pop pianists of our time.
He was born and raised in Canada, where during childhood his father insisted upon a strict and well formulated piano development in classical music, which Oscar received, and we hear the classical techniques inculcated in virtually everything he recorded throughout his career.
As a pianist, Oscar may well be thought of as second only to the fabled Art Tatum. From my perspective, his finger articulation was essentially equal to Tatum's. The primary difference was that however brilliant Peterson's improvisational passages were, Tatum's were more protracted. Personally, I do not know how Tatum's pianism can ever be exceeded.
But Peterson will always be held in admiration by his followers as one of the true greats.
Both as a musician and gentleman, Oscar Peterson will be missed by his admirers from all over the world.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Varian Fry -a name so sadly forgotten

Varian Fry died in rural Connecticut, known only as a teacher of Latin in the local high school.
What History reveals to us is that he was another Schindler, who in this case saved the lives of some of the twentieth century's most powerful writers ands artists from almost certain death at the hands of Hitler's Germany during World War II.
When Fry, who in 1940 was a journalist in New York, heard of the impending danger the eminent and budding ant-Nazi artists were threatened with, he contacted a private group, called the American Relief Center, sponsored by such distinguished Americans as Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife, and it was arranged, upon Fry's insistence, that he be spirited to France.
Upon his arrival in Marseilles, he immediately opened an office in that port, and through various means of communication, the grapevine let it be known throughout Western Europe that artists, through this office, could find a way to America and safety. Be reminded that Marseilles was in Vichy France, a region not directly dominated by the Germans through an agreement between the two countries after France's defeat in 1940.
Amazingly, within weeks, the result was that hundreds appeared in front of Fry's office seeking emergency exit visas that were made available by the American Relief Center.
At first Fry and his small staff of French and American citizens were overwhelmed; however, the result was, that within a year of Fry's arrival, over 2000 people were saved, some of whom were artists and writers such as Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas), Werfel, Masson, Chagall, Ernst, and Lipchitz.
Their arrival in America resulted in the establishing of the United States as one of the world's leading centers of art in the form of such aspects as writers, sculptors, masters of Surrealism etc.
In short, Varian Fry altered the course of the history of art through his actions.
By August of 1941, however, Fry was forced to move out of France by order of a warning from the Vichy police. He arrived at the Spanish border on August 28, 1941, and reluctantly set sail for America.
He died alone in 1967.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 20, 2007

George Shearing - How did He Learn To Play?

In my young years, I was given the privilege and opportunity to sit down with the great pop and jazz pianist from England.During the conversation, I chanced the question "how did you learn to play the piano?"
He smiled(he must have been asked the same question a thousand times before!), and went on to discuss using distance as a device to find each and every note from where he sat.
Distance, to one without sight, is comprehended in pure terms; that is, in ways those of us who can see could not possibly experience.
It must have been a long and tortuous process, but this approach to process made it virtually impossible for Shearing to play a wrong note, as pure distance led him to discover where the exact center of each note was, which cannot be the case all the time for the sighted pianist, no matter how great he or she might be.
If one watches Shearing play on any video available, it will be seen that indeed(more easily seen in slow motion)Shearing finds the exact center of every note struck.
That conversation was indeed one of the most engrossing I have ever experienced, primarily because it gave me added perspective to the word Process, as it pertained to a unique example actuated by one of the unique musicians of our time.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Tragedy of Beethoven - a letter in 1802

This letter which he wrote to his brothers has been come to be known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament."
In it the full impact of coming deafness, probably first discerned by him in 1798, is given us.
In part, he thinks of the possibility of suicide, but understands the impact of his creative gift, and reasons his way back to the job he must do.
"How humiliating - I must live in exile. When someone stands next to me and hears a flute, and I hear nothing - only my art holds me back from ending my life."
And the letter goes on, demonstrating that suicide is not a choice; as these incredible gifts are so rare, that there is a job to do.
This defining document, therefore, describes the first battle in a life-long war which the fabled composer wins, as is proven by the legacy he left his world.
I will address other aspects of Beethoven's experiences in the near future.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

And He Played Major League Baseball, Too??

Picture a baseball player conversing in Latin to a fellow player during a game.
Picture the same player(he was a catcher at the time)speaking Italian to the opposing batter, who happened to be Italian.
This athlete was the only major league player to have a tuxedo hung in his locker, due to a speaking engagement he would have after the game at some "think-tank" or university.
In Japan(he spoke Japanese fluently), he took pictures with a camera he had hidden underneath his kimono , of military installations in Tokyo - this was BEFORE Dec. 7, 1941, when Americans roamed through Japan as visitors. These photos were then given to American Intelligence for examination. It was thought that some of these pictures became of value to Jimmy Doolittle when in 1942, the legendary Doolittle raid on Tokyo took place.
In Germany(he spoke eloquent German)the Oss(the predecessor to the present CIA)of which this baseball player was an agent(!)had penetrated, by way of this athlete, the inner circle of scientists working on fission, and this catcher posed as a graduate student listening to Werner Heisenberg, Germany's most powerful physicist. This baseball player was there to determine the progress of Hitler's quest for the atomic bomb. It was this baseball player who discovered that we were far ahead of Hitler in the development of the Bomb. He actually had clearance from the OSS to assassinate Heisenberg if it was found that the Germans were ahead of us in the atomic project. Almost unbelievable, but true; the athlete had with him a handgun to do the job - and a capsule to commit suicide, if caught.
He knew Albert Einstein(imagine!), and on one occasion, Einstein said to him "It's sad to realize that you know more about the laws of physics than I know about baseball."
Interestingly, Heisenberg, after the war, remarked in discussion about this remarkable young man that he remembered him, primarily because of the quality of questions projected to Heisenberg concerning nuclear fission.
He graduated Cum Laude from Princeton, spoke at least seven languages, and appeared on radio talk shows demonstrating his enormous intellect, in anything from Indian poetry to the ancient Greeks.
On Opening Day in Washington, President Roosevelt tossed out the first ball, waved at this baseball player, and yelled, "Hi, Moe!" The player replied, "Hi, Mr. President". He had met the president some time before while working for the OSS.
His name was Moe Berg - look him up. He was quite an item.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Power of Music - Incalculable?

On a Christmas Eve, in the trenches, during World War I, the sound of men singing carols drifted over the devastation and was heard by the adversaries.
To encapsulate, I will spare the reader the logistical details.
What occurred is an indelible moment in Man's convoluted history.
The fighting and killing ceased by mutual agreement, and for a brief time the enemies came together in order to sing carols and other Christmas music. There are photographs of the Allies and the Germans singing, some with arms around the shoulders of their sworn enemies.
After a brief period of this surreal peace, the men returned to their positions and resumed killing and maiming one another.
During the first critical years of their existence, the early Christians used music as an intrinsic form of community in order to enhance and strengthen their tenuous grip on existence.
The Nazis used music as a kind of mortar to bind the bricks of their tyranny together in the form, primarily, of the marching bands and parades, along with the music of Wagner, whose music helped transform the young Hitler.
There are many examples of the incalculable power the language of music holds. I invite you to mull over the few examples I have projected.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Strange Bedfellows, Indeed!

Alexander Scriabin underwent, arguably, the most profound synthesis of any of the great composers. He moved, in a relatively short life(1871-1915), from the dreamy, Chopinesque world of late Romanticism to a world of pure mysticism, where, for instance, he described one aspect of his late work, Mysterium, as a place where "bells were hung from clouds."
While in Italy, in 1905, he met a man who spoke five languages fluently, foresaw Revolution in his writings, and who became a great friend of the composer.
They constantly met, arguing primarily about the place of the artist in a political world, and at times demonstrated various levels of anger toward one another; however, their friendship and mutual love of that friendship prevailed.
The synthesis Scriabin had undergone formed an elemental sense of revolt in his music. After playing sections of his Poem of Ecstasy for this man, Scriabin said that "my music reeks of revolt and of the ideals the Russian people pursue". His friend retorted by exclaiming "Haven't I proven to you that the artist cannot simply be suspended in sky-blue ether?"
And so their arguments between dialectical materialism and mystic idealism persisted, but never impaired their friendship, which never diminished.
I might point out to you that this gentleman was Georgi Plekhanov, the brilliant Russian writer and devoted friend of Lenin. Plekhanov was the man who translated "Das Kapital" of Karl Marx - into Russian.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Mozart at Thirteen - the Candescence of Genius

While in Italy in 1769, the boy Mozart and his father visited the Vatican. The papal choir was singing the Miserere by the papal composer Allegri during their visit, and the Mozarts stopped to listen. It is important to note that this composition was the exclusive property of the Papal choir, and never to be copied or played outside of the papal grounds. The punishment of either or both acts would be automatic excommunication.
After the choir finished, the Mozarts left the Vatican and walked out of the Papal grounds, whereupon the young Amadeus Mozart divulged to his father that he loved the music so much that he would copy it out for his own enjoyment(imagine-upon one hearing Mozart had memorized the entire work!). Leopold, the father, took immediate panic, knowing the punishment that could be inflicted upon the Mozart family. And so he escorted his young son back to the Vatican, and after hearing of this amazing feat on the part of Amadeus, a group of the Pope's aides arranged for an immediate audience with the Pope, who conferred upon the young boy The Order of the Golden Spur in exchange for assurance that the composition would never be written down.
I am not sure as to whether Amadeus was a frightened, cowering boy during this occurrence or simply a kid who enjoyed having so much attention given him; at any rate, the result was that this incredible young boy could now end any letter he wrote with 'Chevalier de Mozart', because of the recognition given him by the Pope.

Labels: ,