Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Wednesday
May252011

WHY  BEETHOVEN?

By Leonard Bernstein

 

[When Bernstein wrote this dramatic dialogue in the late 1940's, he was one of the prominent young composer/pianist/directors in the United States.  He was conductor to the New York City Symphony.  Ahead were West Side Story, Candide, his role as music director for the New York Philharmonic, many compositions, many honors, and a tortured personal life.           

[Why Beethoven? is one of my favorite reads.  As a dramatic dialogue, the original Why Beethoven? included a character called "Lyric Poet".  From Meryle Secrest's biography of Bernstein, I discovered that the dialogue was not imaginary.  It happened during a trip through the Southwest and the Lyric Poet was Stephen Spender.  For clarity below, I identify Spender as SS, rather than LP, as Bernstein did.]

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SCENE:  (Somewhere in New Mexico.  Three of us are motoring at ridiculous speed to a destination, as yet unknown, in the Mad Mountains, Picasso Pass, or what you will.  Younger Brother, sixteen, a licensed pilot and the world's authority on nuclear physics, is at the wheel, intent on overtaking every car on the road.  Lyric Poet, on my left, is taut with terror and, I feel, is praying continuously for an immediate arrival, anywhere.  He must live long enough to finish his current volume.  SS is a poet's poet from Britain, and one of those incredible people who are constantly involve in politics, love, music, and work ideals that, despite their established success, they often find themselves embarrassed in the presence of a laundry bill.  When SS speaks, he is oracular; when he is silent, he is even more so.)

SS:  (with a certain frozen evenness)  My dear YB, I suspect you have forgotten the fact that our tireburst yesterday was caused by just such driving as you are now guilty of.

YB:  Don't end your sentence with a preposition.

(But YB is impressed enough to reduce speed considerably – though gradually enough to preclude the suspicion that he has yielded a point.  Few can impress hardboiled YB, but even he is not immune to the oracle.  Some minutes pass in relieved silence; and, with the tension gone, SS may now revert to the basic matter of all trip talk:  the scenery.)

SS:  Those hills are pure Beethoven.

(There is an uneventful lapse of five minutes, during which SS meditates blissfully on his happy metaphor; YB smarts under the speed restriction, and I brood on the literary mind which is habitually forced to attach music to hills, the sea, or will-o'-the-wisps.)

SS:  . . . pure Beethoven . . .

LB:  (ceasing to brood)  I had every intention of letting your remark pass for innocent, but since you insist on it, I have a barbed question to put.  With so many thousands of hills in the world – at least a hundred per famous composer – why does every hill remind every writer of Ludwig van Beethoven?

SS:  Fancy that – and I thought I was flattering you by making a musical metaphor.  Besides, I happen to find it true.  Those mountains have a quality of majesty and craggy exaltation that suggest Beethoven to me.

LB:  Which symphony?

SS:  Very funny indeed.  You mean to say that you see no relation between this landscape and Beethoven's music?

LB:  Certainly – and Bach's and Stravinsky's and Sibelius' and Wagner's – and Raff's . . . So why Beethoven? 

SS:  As the caterpillar said to Alice, "Why not?"

LB:  I'm being serious, SS, and you're not.  Ever since I can recall, the first association that springs to anyone's mind when serious music is mentioned is "Beethoven".  When I must give a concert to open a season an all-Beethoven program is usually requested.  When you walk into a concert hall bearing the names of the greats inscribed around it on a frieze, there he sits, front and center, the first, the largest, the most immediately visible, and usually gold-plated.  When a festival of orchestral music is contemplated, the bets are ten to one it will turn out to be a Beethoven Festival.  What is the latest chic among you neo-classical composers?  Neo-Beethoven!  What is the meat and potatoes of every piano recital?  A Beethoven sonata.  Or of every quartet program?  Opus one hundred, et cetera.  What did we play in our symphony concerts when we wanted to honor the fallen in war?  The Eroica.  What did we play on V-day?  The Fifth.  What is everybody's farewell concert?  The Ninth.  What is every Ph.D. oral exam in music school?  Play all the themes you can from the nine symphonies of Beethoven!  Beethoven!  Ludwig v--

SS:  What's the matter, don't you like him?

LB:  Like him?  I'm all for him.  In fact, I'm rather a nut on the subject, which is probably why I caught up your remark so violently.  I adore Beethoven.  But I want to understand this unwritten proscription of everyone else from the top row.  I'm not complaining:  I'd just like to know why not Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann–

YB:  Anybody want a piece of gum?

SS:  Well, I suppose it's because Beethoven – or rather there must be a certain tra-- that is, if one thinks through the whole . . .

LB:  That's just what I mean:  there's no answer.

SS:  Well, dammit, man, it's because he's the best, that's all!  Let's just say it out, unashamed:  Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived!

LB:  (who agrees, but has a Talmudic background)  Dinks dir das?  May I challenge you to a blow-by-blow substantiation of this brave statement?

SS:  With pleasure.  How?

LB:  Let's take the elements of music one by one – melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, orchestration – and see how our friend measures up on each count.  Do you think it an unfair method?

SS:  Not at all.  Let's see melody . . . melody!  Lord, what melody!  The slow melody of the Seventh!  Singing it's heart out –

LB:  It's monotone heart, you mean.  The main argument of this "tune", if you will recall, is glued helplessly to E natural.

SS:  Well, but that is intentional – meant to produce a certain static, somber, marchlike—

LB:  Granted.  Then it is not particularly distinguished for melody.

SS:  I was fated to pick a poor example.  How about the first movement?

LB:  Just try whistling it.

SS:  (Makes a valiant attempt.  Stops.  Pause.)

LB:  (brightly)  Shall we move on to harmony?

SS:  No, dammit, I'll see this through yet!  The—the—I've got it!  The slow movement of the A Minor Quartet!  The holiness of it, the thankfulness of the convalescent, the purity of incredibly sustained slow motion, the . . .

LB:  The melody?

SS:  Oh, the melody, the melody!  What is melody, anyway?  Does it have to be a beer-hall tune to deserve that name?  Any succession of notes – YB, you're speeding again! – is a melody, isn't it?

LB:  Technically, yes.  But we are speaking of the relative merits of one melody verses another.  And in the case of Beethoven–

SS:  (somewhat desperately)  There's always that glorious tune in the finale of the Ninth:  Dee-da-da–

LB:  Now even you must admit that one is pure beer-hall par excellence, don't you think?

SS:  (with a sigh)  Cedunt Helvetii.  We move on to harmony.  Of course you must understand that I'm not a musician, so don't pull out the technical stops on me.

LB:  Not at all, Lyric One.  I need only make reference to the three or four most common chords in Western music.  I am sure you are familiar with them.

SS:  You mean (sings)  "Now the day is o-ver,

                                    Night is drawing nigh:

                                    Shadows of the eeee-v'ning—"

LB:  Exactly.  Now what can you find in Beethoven that is harmonically much more adventurous than what you have just sung?

SS:  You're not serious, LB.  You couldn't mean that!  Why Beethoven, the radical, the archrevolutionary, Napoleon, all that—

LB:  And yet the pages of the Fifth Symphony stream on with the old three chords chasing each other about until you wonder what more he can possibly wring from them.  Tonic, dominant, tonic, subdominant, dominant--

SS:  But what a punch they pack!

LB:  That's another matter.  We were speaking of harmonic interest, weren't we?

SS:  I admit I wouldn't advance harmony as Beethoven's strong point.  But we were coming to rhythm.  Now there you certainly can't deny the vigor, the intensity, the pulsation, the drive—

LB:  You back down too easily on his harmony.  The man had a fascinating way with a chord, to say the least:  the weird spacings, the violently sudden modulations, the unexpected turn of harmonic events, the unheard-of-dissonances—

SS:  Whose side are you on, anyway?  I thought you had said the harmony was dull.

LB:  Never dull; only limited, and therefore, less interesting than harmony which followed his period.  And as to rhythm – certainly he was a rhythmic composer – so is Stravinsky.  So were Bizet and Berlioz.  I repeat – why Beethoven?  Are his rhythms more intriguing than the others?  Did he introduce any new ones?  Doesn't he get stuck on a pattern for pages, like Schubert, hammering it into your insides?  Again I ask – why does his name, lo, lead all the rest?

SS:  I'm afraid you're begging the question.  Nobody has proposed that Beethoven leads all the rest solely because of his rhythm, or his melody, or his harmony.  It's the combination—

LB:  The combination of undistinguished elements?  That hardly adds up to the gold-plated bust we worship in the conservatory concert hall!  And the counterpoint—

YB:  Gum, anyone?

LB:  -- is generally of the schoolboy variety.  He spent his whole life trying to write a really good fugue.  And the orchestration is at times downright bad, especially in the later period when he was deaf.  Unimportant trumpet parts sticking out of the orchestra like sore thumbs, horns bumbling along on endlessly repeated notes, drowned-out woodwinds, murderously cruel writing for the human voice.  And there you have it.

SS:  (in despair)  YB, I wish I didn't have to constantly keep reminding you about driving sanely!

YB:  You have just split an infinitive.  (But he slows down.)

SS:  (almost in a rage – a lyrical one, of course)  Somehow or other I feel I ought to make a speech.  My idol has been desecrated before my eyes.  And by one whose tools are notes, while mine are words – words!  There he lies, a bedraggled, deaf syphilitic; besmirched by the vain tongue of pseudocriticism; no attention paid to his obvious genius, his miraculous outpourings, his pure revelation, his vision of glory, brotherhood, divinity!  There he lies, a mediocre melodist, a homely harmonist, an iterant riveter of a rhythmist, an ordinary orchestrator, a commonplace contropuntist!  This from a musician, one who professes to lift back the hide from the anatomical secrets of these mighty works – one whose life is a devotion to the musical mystery!  It is all impossible, utterly, utterly impossible!  (There is a pause, partly self-indulgent, partly a silence befitting the climax of a heartgiven tribute.)

LB:  You are right, SS.  It is truly impossible.  But it is only through this kind of analysis that we can arrive at the truth.  You see, I have agreed with you from the beginning, but I have been thinking aloud with you.  I am no different from the others who worship that name, those sonatas and quartets, that gold bust.  But I suddenly sense the blindness of that worship when you brought it to bear on these hills.  And in challenging you, I was challenging myself to produce Exhibit A – the evidence.  And now, if you've recovered, I am sure you can name the musical element that we have omitted in our blow-by-blow survey?

SS:  (sober now, but with a slight hangover)  Melody, harm – of course!  Form.  How stupid of me to let you omit it from the list.  Form – the very essence of Beethoven, the life of those magnificent opening allegros, those perfect scherzos, those cumulative –

LB:  Careful; you're igniting again.  No, that's not quite what I mean by form.  Let me put it this way.  Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues.  Some composers can orchestrate the "Horst-Wessel Lied" so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved.  But this is all mere dust – nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all:  the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be.  Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all painting in the rear guard.  When he really did  it – as in the "Funeral March" of the Eroica – he produced an entity that always seems to me to have been previously written in Heaven, and then merely dictated to him.  Not that the dictation was easily achieved.  We know with what agonies he paid for listening to the divine orders.  But, the reward is great.  There is a special space carved out in the cosmos into which this movement just fits, predetermined and perfect.

SS:  Now you're  igniting.

LB:  (deaf to everything but his own voice)  Form is only an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability.  A composer can write a string of perfectly molded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form.  Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness.  Rightness – that's the word!  When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven.  Melodies  -- fugues – rhythms – leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels.  Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish:  Something is right in the world:  There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently:  Something we can trust, that will never let us down.

SS:  (quietly)  But that is almost a definition of God.

LB:  It is.

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Wow.

Does Bernstein's blasphemy bother you?  It needn't.  He's being honest.  I've known many brilliant agnostics, and often they have great craving for certainty.  That craving is real.  And we can be tolerant of each other's gods.  For each of us, our god is what we see as our source of help.  Any spiritually sensitive person is seeking, and we are restless until we discover our true Source.

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Note that Shaw on Shakespeare and Bernstein on Beethoven have parallel insights about genius.

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Purpose of this blog is to collect a book of writings for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

No copywright.  Why Beethoven? was copied from 7 Arts, #2, selected and edited by Fernando Puma, Permabooks, a division of Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, NY, 1954.  According to the first page, this Bernstein dialogue on Beethoven was first published in 7 Arts, #2.

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