Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!

(References to man-on-man sex, in very plain language, will slide by every now and then, and I swear a whole fucking lot. I realize that the posting is also astoundingly long, complex, peculiar, and deeply passionate. Still, I plead: Gentles, do not reprehend. / If you pardon, we will mend.)

Once again, my plans for a day’s postings have been utterly defeated through an accident of experience — in this case, what happened to be playing on my night-time Apple Music when I arose very briefly for an old man’s piss break just after midnight on Monday (4/18).

Bright and, oh Jesus, joyous. (Joy is a huge thing in my life, right up there with playfulness and sexual pleasure.) Solid Baroque. Oh, in English, and it seems to be about happiness. Must be Henry Purcell; bright joy was one of his musical things, and he did it magnificently, again and again. (A moment’s pause here to express gratitude for a world that has Purcell in it.)

Yes, of course, The Fairy Queen (or as Purcell had it at the time, The Fairy-Queen; just to note that these fairies might be playful, but they’re also creatures of power). Specifically, the ravishing “They shall be as happy as they are fair”. (In fact, the adjective ravishing came unbidden along with the music, so it’s a morning name for Monday. The adjective puckish would certainly have been à propos, but that didn’t come to me until much later in the day.)

Now: there’s the title of this posting, from Gilbert & Sullivan. Then, after dwelling some more on Purcell I’ll go on to Jeremiah Clarke, Mendelssohn, and Shakespeare, wrapping up with the gay musical Were the World Mine as a bonus — plus a whole lot of stuff about my life along the way.

The title. The finale number from Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, “Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!”, a quick run-through of musical highlights from the opera, culminating in “He Is An Englishman” (which I have been known to sing in public). You can watch a fine performance of the number here (this YouTube clip has the final credits, but not alas the opening  ones, so I don’t have the details of the production).

The adjective ravishing.  From NOAD:

adj. ravishing: delightful; entrancing: she looked ravishing. [note: there’s a strong tendency for the adjective to be gendered, as feminine; consider he looked ravishing]

verb ravish: [with object] 1 [a] archaic seize and carry off (someone) by force: there is no assurance that her infant child will not be ravished from her breast. [b] dated (of a man) rape (a woman): an angry father who suspects that his daughter has been ravished. 2 literary fill (someone) with intense delight; enrapture: ravished by a sunny afternoon, she had agreed without even thinking. [yes, there’s a huge distance from sense 1 to sense 2, and then sense 2 is the base for the adjective]

Henry Purcell. From Wikipedia:

Henry Purcell (c. 10 September 1659 – 21 November 1695) was an English composer. Although he incorporated Italian and French stylistic elements, Purcell’s style was a uniquely English form of Baroque music. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest English composers; no later native-born English composer approached his fame until Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, William Walton and Benjamin Britten in the 20th century. [many details of Purcell’s life and work have been uncertain; see, for instance,  the note below about the score of The Fairy-Queen]

… Purcell worked in many genres, both in works closely linked to the court, such as symphony song, to the Chapel Royal, such as the symphony anthem, and the theatre.

Among Purcell’s most notable works are his opera Dido and Aeneas (1688), his semi-operas Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691), The Fairy-Queen (1692) and Timon of Athens (1695), as well as the compositions Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692), Come Ye Sons of Art (1694) and Funeral Sentences and Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (1695).

… In 1692, he composed The Fairy-Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the score of which (his longest for theatre) was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society.

(#1) Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton: the king and queen of the fairies, plus Puck

To listen to William Christie & Les Arts Florissants performing “They shall be as happy as they are fair”, link here.

And you can link here for a performance of “Hail, Bright Cecilia!”, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1692), by the Gabrieli Consort and Gabrieli Players, directed by Paul McCreesh.

For many years Jim McCawley hosted a celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22nd) — a gathering to play music and sing — at his apartment in Chicago, a pleasant custom that my household continued in Columbus OH for some time.

Jeremiah Clarke. From Wikipedia:

Jeremiah Clarke (c. 1674 – 1 December 1707) was an English baroque composer and organist, best known for his Trumpet Voluntary, a popular piece often played at wedding ceremonies or commencement ceremonies.

… Today, Clarke is best remembered for a popular keyboard piece that was originally either a harpsichord piece or a work for wind ensemble: the Prince of Denmark’s March, which is commonly called the Trumpet Voluntary, written in about 1700. From c. 1878 until the 1940s the work was attributed to Henry Purcell, and was published as Trumpet Voluntary by Henry Purcell in William Spark’s Short Pieces for the Organ, Book VII, No. 1 (London, Ashdown and Parry). This version came to the attention of Sir Henry J. Wood, who made two orchestral transcriptions of it, both of which were recorded. The recordings further cemented the erroneous notion that the original piece was by Purcell. Clarke’s piece is a popular choice for wedding music, and has been used in royal weddings.

So, for some time a much-beloved work by Purcell, except that it wasn’t by Purcell. It is, however, bright, celebratory, and enormously joyful. I’m not entirely rational about the piece, because it was the wedding march that Ann Walcutt Daingerfield and Arnold Melchior Zwicky Jr. went down the aisle to at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton NJ on 6/16/62. It comes with a big dose of happiness.

It is, in fact, a fine piece of music. It’s been set for many different instruments and ensembles, and performed at a variety of tempos; if it’s being used as a wedding or commencement march, the tempo has to be fairly stately, to accommodate the pace of the the celebrants, but when freed from this context  it can be vigorous and sprightly. As in Jonathan Scott’s performance of his solo organ arrangement on the 1911 Forster & Andrews organ of Hull City Hall, which you can link to here.

My man Jacques and I never got the chance to enter into legal marriage, much less a church wedding, but I would have wanted one, in a suitably socially engaged Episcopal Church (I had one in Columbus OH and another only a few blocks away from our house in Palo Alto), and I would have wanted the Jeremiah Clarke music, and J would certainly have gone along with that plan. We would have enjoyed looking handsome in our tuxes together — J was enthusiastic about our appearing as a couple together pretty much anywhere, to display our commitment to one another (because that was a big thing in his emotional life and he knew that it was in mine too).

Two further things. First, in his incredibly sweet way, J sailed through this stuff without realizing that we were constantly making a public political statement; I was the social-protest guy, and he was my top supporter, but he sort of forgot that his presence in these appearances was as potent of mine. So he would have seen our church wedding as just another of our appearances, though 30 years ago it would in fact have been a Big Fucking Deal.

On the other hand, he wasn’t by nature a church-going guy. He went to church with me on special occasions, but mostly the church was my thing. His attitude was probably something he picked up from his mother; Monique was a very model of fierce passionate French anti-clericalism.

(Touching moment: somewhere along the line, there was an impending event — Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s wedding? — that called for J to not only go to church with me but also to take communion with me. Monique phoned me, sobbing, confessing she had done a terrible thing that might now ruin J’s life: at the insistence of her mother, Monique had consented to having the infant J baptized in the Roman Catholic Church — ok, secretly, but still baptized — and wouldn’t it now be an offense against God to take communion in the Anglican Church? Notice that she rejected what was, in her terms, all that Catholic mumbo-jumbo, while still recalling intricate details of ritual and belief. Possibly inaccurately, but that’s not the point.

I told her that J would do whatever he thought was right, and the God that none of us really believed in would just have to deal with it. Which made her laugh, and we went on to chat about her grandchildren. Monique was in many ways a difficult person, but she and I got along well, I think because she realized that I was the only other person in the world who loved her wonderful son J as much as she did.

If Monique and J’s father Bill had reservations about all that flagrant homosexuality — surely they must have — J and I never got the slightest whiff of it. On my side, my dad never in fact had any such reservations — my stepmother did, for a brief period — and welcomed J with open delight as a second son. Every family has its own surprises.)

To wrench this back to Jeremiah Clarke, I am sorry we didn’t get to march to his trumpet voluntary. That would have been an occasion of joy — and, in an odd way, it would have been fun. (We were not above acting like naughty queerboys now and again. Well, we were guys, and we had our guy moments.)

A giant digression. On memory and story-telling, before I get even deeper into the weeds of stories about my life (having just laid out a big chunk about my life with Jacques). Hang on here; this stuff about abstract ideas that I’m about to unload on you really is important to what I have to say.

Story-telling. We are highly social, community-making creatures, rather than primarily solitary ones. Scarcely the only such creatures in the world, but it’s a significant fact about our species.

In line with this, we are highly communicative creatures, deploying vocalizations, bodily gestures, facial expressions, and more to cement our bonds to one another and act in concert with one another. More specifically, we are highly verbal creatures, using complexly structured systems of vocal or manual gestures — languages — as the means of communication. But so much more than communication. Languages are also engines of imagination, ways of bringing to vivid life and reflecting on the remembered past, the on-going present, and imagined futures, as well as making possible wholly fabricated histories that can provide delight, insight into the lives of others, instruction, advice, warning, and much more.

Social plus verbal makes us narrative creatures, storytelling creatures: telling the stories of our own lives, gossiping about the unfolding of other people’s lives, and fabulating tales of lives that never were and never will be.

Yes, we are also — at least — tool-making creatures, worshipful creatures, food-cooking creatures, playful creatures, cloth-weaving creature, war-waging and power-seeking creatures, and sexual creatures (in the sense that for a good part of our lives most of us are almost always open to sexual arousal and sexual connection). All of this stuff (and no doubt other stuff I left off the list) makes us human. Here I’m just clanging on my gong to remind you that storytelling is on the list, and it’s a big deal.

Memory. Ok, so I’m going to tell you some stories of my life. For this I recruit my memories. But memory is, let’s face it, a big fucking mess — well, a kind of wonderful big fucking mess, but still. We are not cameras; we are also not recorders.

To start with, we are actually terrible at the task of just registering the events of our lives — not to mention interpreting these events, registering the significance of those events and their emotional values for us. Our initial perceptions are skewed by selective attention (well, nobody could possibly attend to everything; attention is necessarily selective), expectations set by our experience (again, that couldn’t possibly be otherwise, but our prior experiences do impose huge biases in our perceptions), and a number of other effects.

And then, as I’ve dinged at again and again in my postings on memory in this blog, whatever we registered at the moment erodes, amplifies, and simply transforms itself over time, subject to a collection of powerful effects. And, again, and this is really important, it could not be otherwise; given our bodies and our brains, this is pretty much the best we can do.

And that’s fine: we are fabulously good at making do, at making the best of what we’ve got. But that means we also screw up a lot, and very often we can’t, or won’t, or just don’t, fix things. Life is imperfect, we mess things up, we cope as best we can, we go on.

A side point here. There are people who recognize the general truth of warnings about the fallibilities of memory but believe that for the most part those warnings don’t apply to them: their memories are crystal-clear and thoroughly reliable. If you recall things differently, well then, you are just flat wrong. They are Gods of Memory.

Everybody thinks this way now and again, but a few people think this way habitually, and that’s maddening. Normal people have some appreciation of the messiness of life, realize they might have to negotiate on issues like this, you might be wrong, you should treat other people with respect and generosity, there might not even be a way to ferret out the truth. In my view, believing that you’re a God of Memory is somewhere between a character flaw and a cognitive deficit.

Yes, I speak from personal experience with Gods of Memory, but that’s beside the point here. What is very much to the point is those negotiations about the truth.

History is hard, let’s go shopping. You interview someone about some topic in the course of their lives, say, what growing up in their family was like. You get a story. You interview someone else in their family, you get quite a different story, deviating specifically about the details of what happened when (and of course about the significance of those events and what they felt like to the participants, everybody expects that).

You collect more accounts, and things just get worse. You try to check things from more objectively factual records, and some of your sources seem to be right on some points, and some on others, but on other matters, everybody seems to be demonstrably wrong. And on a lot of it, there’s no way to tell.

It gets worse. You go back to your original source and ask them, perhaps in a somewhat different way, about the original topic. And you get a somewhat different story, with old details left out and new ones put in, and some just different.

Our memories aren’t fixed, but alter over time.

And, in a way, worse still. One of your sources gives you the same story as before, but with almost perfect fidelity to the previous wording. Oh, Christ, you’re not getting a memory for an event, you’re getting a memory of the previous story. This is not fresh data, it’s a rehearsal of the old data.

Some memories are recollections of what you said before.

(And then, of course, some are just reproductions of someone else’s story.)

This is just from trying to work out a relatively recent family history. But these vexations are in fact the vexations of writing history, any history. What do we do with the evidence of Julius Caesar’s stories about his Gallic Wars? What do we actually know about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower of London? (Shakespeare had a story, but, but…)

The storyteller’s craft. More to the immediate point in this posting, what do we really know about my exchange with Monique? Grant me the memory that there was an actual phone call from Monique to me in which she wept about J’s baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. How much would you be willing to bet on the accuracy of any of the other details I wrote just above? Me, I wouldn’t wager a penny, and it was my goddam story in the first place.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’ve told you (parts of) this story at least once before, and I wrote something different. Different details, different significance of the exchange in its context, different emotional values for me. I haven’t gone back to check what I said before, because that isn’t important. I don’t pretend to be reporting hard fact, only a bit of fact (as I recall it — remember that stuff about memory above) as it applies in the current context, and even then, I’m crafting it for my audience.

Because I’m giving a performance for you, much like the performances I used to give in public lectures, including those in lecture courses. Yes, folded into the thing, there’s real scholarship, there are real research findings, in linguistics and in gender & sexuality studies and sometimes more. Yes, there’s a genuine attempt on my part to tell a bit of my autobiography truly. But I’m also giving you a performance, and I’m entirely aware of that.

I mean, I sweat over getting the conversational tone right on the page, trying to reproduce the way I actually talk to people, all the way down to the I means, the yeses, the wells, the the thing ises, the goddams, and the fucks. (Some kind of compromise between following your instincts, just being yourself, tossing stuff off, and calculating effects and details carefully.) This is a craft, and I’ve been polishing it since I was, oh, 15. After twenty thousand hours or so of practice, I got pretty good at it, and eventually I came to feel that on good days I was achieving an art form. Even better, it came to be fun to do, even exhilarating. Best of all, I came to believe that some of what I was doing was good for the world; though that’s not my topic here, I have a fierce sense of moral responsibility, which it pleases me greatly to think I’ve been honoring in my performances.

Fidelity and variety in performance: let ’em riff. My first father-in-law, Keene Daingerfield, was a performer of family stories (and so, after him, was his daughter, Ann Walcutt Daingerfield), a storyteller in a great tradition of Southern verbal art. If you were around him long enough — I got about 25 years of his friendship — you could watch him do a story many times, for different audiences, in different contexts. Sometimes visibly polishing it, but usually only varying it in small ways for the occasion, doing little improvisations on it. Sometimes he even riffed on a familiar story just for Ann and me, for everybody’s pleasure.

I don’t come from an elaborated storytelling tradition. Bits of family gossip, jokes, a lot of What Happened To Me Today. Plenty of talk, not particularly crafted, and low in intensity and involvement. My life was transformed by falling in with (in rough sequence in my life) women, Jews, musicians, Southerners, blacks, writers, actors, culture-mixers, and, oh sweet Jesus, queer guys. (A couple days back — I have actual notes — upon re-reading some of my old postings about the poet Frank O’Hara (MoMA curator of art, extravagantly queer), I speculated aimlessly about whether anyone I knew had tried disco dancing to the songs of Hugo Wolf; that could be a thing, tough to pull off, but it would be a fabulous tour de force, even better if you could somehow work cocksucking into it, à la O’Hara.)

But to return to our muttons. Actual performances of various forms of art — monologues, plays, operas, musical works, whatever  — always come to life though a tension between fidelity to a work and variety in its performance. Of course, scripts and scores are only schemata for performance, they have to be filled out in realization.

Some performers are extraordinarily skilled in achieving the same realization time after time; it’s quite something to see. (Somewhere, I think I remember, there’s a startled review of a late Michael Jackson show in which the reviewer goes back to see the show night after night for some days, to carefully observe how Jackson did his stuff, only to discover that the performances seemed to be absolutely identical in every detail, down to things that were framed as accidental intrusions; the reviewer thought, as did I, that someone who needed that much control must be in a very dark place in their life.)

But then we get variety, twiddles, styling, improvisation, riffs of all kinds. I love riffs. I love it that over some years Glenn Gould did the Goldberg Variations several times in maniacally meticulous performances, but different from one recording to another. They are all revelatory, sometimes quite startlingly so, and none of them is at all the way I’d play the Goldbergs.

When I was still able to play the piano, I loved the Schubert dances; I had a book of Ländler for solo piano, attractive pieces that come with the barest outline on the page. You were expected to riff on what Schubert gave you. The word — probably apocryphal — was that Schubert himself never played anything twice the same way, and that his performances often elaborated extensively on what was in his score. I did my best to emulate the master.

I approach my autobiographical stories in much the same spirit. There’s some core stuff that I hope I get right (though my memory is as fallible as anybody’s), and then I riff. The story of Monique and the Secret Baptism will never be the same way twice, and neither will the stories of my sexual exploits, and neither will the stories I’m soon about to tell you about how Mendelssohn, and Shakespeare (and, eventually, Purcell and Clarke) came to me.

On to Felix Mendelssohn. As it turns out, there’s a good bit of Mendelssohn’s music that I’m not quite rational about. Starting with, yes, the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lenore’s gift. The music was a great gift from my first close female friend, Lenore Barth. The two of us were 8 or 9 years old when she introduced me to the Mendelssohn MND. Lenore — as Lenore Alexander, she died last fall, to my great sorrow — was the oldest of the children of George and Eleanor Barth, who were my family’s next-door neighbors in West Lawn PA when I was growing up. Her family was musical in a way that mine was not.

The Barth family enjoyed classical music, and the kids played instruments, especially the piano; the youngest of the kids, George, is now a colleague of mine, a Professor Emeritus of Music (Teaching) at Stanford, specializing, according to his Stanford faculty profile, in “piano and fortepiano, 18th- through 20th-century performance practice, rhetoric and music, the piano music of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Ives, and Bartók”.

My parents enjoyed listening to popular music, and occasionally dancing in nightclubs, and loved Broadway shows (as a proto-fag, I did get a considerable education in Rodgers & Hammerstein from my parents), but I don’t think either of them ever had anything to do with a musical instrument, and neither of them actually sang. I don’t recall ever hearing my dad sing a note in any context, and only yesterday realized how peculiar that was. My mother was fond of singing kiddie songs to me when I was very young and popular songs to my dad as a sign of affection, but she was notably tone-deaf, so it was fairly painful to listen to, and people didn’t encourage her to sing.

Into this desert of high art came Lenore, with a (78 rpm) recording of the MND music, which she was crazy about. (Over some years, she and I exchanged enthusiasms in music and books. Somewhere in there she taught me the round “Dona Nobis Pacem” and some version of the Hearse Song (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out”); I taught her songs I learned at boys’ camp, about John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt and Dunderbeck with his sausage-meat machine. Meanwhile, my friendship with her was one of the things that got me labeled as a fairy-boy by some of the boys in my grade school, non-sexual friendship with girls being a flagrant violation of the Boy Code.)

The MND music was delicious. And it was part of the Barth package that set me on the path that took me into agitating for my very own piano and for indoctrination into its use, which led me to become a practicing pianist and led to public encounters with Mozart (my guy Amadeus), Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, that whole nest of professionals. Yes, she recruited me, and I slipped into her world with enthusiasm, no longer caring what it might mean for my future and my reputation.

No doubt I would eventually have sought out this world on my own, or found it by some other route. We musicians always find each other somehow.

It was, however, Lenore who happened to give me the gift. Many years ticked by before I came to the sublimity of the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Così, which knocked my socks off when I first encountered it — holy Christ, transcendently beautiful! and astoundingly constructed! (by then I was into analyzing pretty much everything I could get my mind on) —  but she set me on the way.

Arnold Sr.’s gift. So I had the Mendelssohn MND, and quickly found other Mendelssohn to appreciate. But there was MND itself. My World Book Encyclopedia (a gift that my parents made real sacrifices to get for their incomprehensibly smart son) told me about the Shakespeare, only too briefly.

And then I realized that my father had this small cache of gifts laid down for me — well, for his kids, expecting that he would some day have some. A few treasures from his college days, which included the reference text for his freshman composition class and a multi-volume set of the complete works of Shakespeare, with scholarly apparatus included, all the arcane notes (even the ones explaining some of the dirty stuff, but in Latin)

He went to Penn State as a solidly working-class kid whose visibly immigrant parents were pretty much just off the farm, but he had the good fortune of a top-end public high school education. It was still Depression time, so (the first in his family to go to college) he went to Penn State on a scholarship (a football scholarship; he was a varsity soccer player in high school, but he was pretty much an all-round jock, and of course Penn State had football scholarships), to major in dairy husbandry (which could prepare you for a good regular job in hard times, and anyway Dad had been looking after cows since he was a child and genuinely liked them).

By then he yearned to become a writer somehow — that composition book was for him as well as his imagined progeny (the composition book that eventually got swept into my adult life as an authority on grammar, style, and usage), and he’d also carried along a few volumes of writers whose style he admired: O. Henry and Mark Twain, in particular. Of course, in those times, a writer’s life was unimaginable for someone like him, so he had to shelve those ambitions.

But the complete Shakespeare! Just sitting there, when I needed to know about MND. A fabulous gift from my father.

I skim-read the play. Went back, picked out the parts that spoke to me — all the Fairyland stuff — and read them more carefully. Then read those parts one more time, using the scholarly annotations. Remember that I was, like, 9 years old. Forbiddingly idea-smart, and people-smart too, but woefully inexperienced in the ways of the world. And never before confronted with intertwined narrative of the complexity in MND, which is awesome. (Note: I picked the label intertwined narrative out of a hat, because it was the most semantically transparent candidate in that hat. Literary historians no doubt have a label of their own for this cultural form, but since I’m an ignoramus in the field, I have no idea what it might be. I’m making this stuff up as I go along; humor me.)

[Digression. We live in a time when intertwined narrative — with a number of substories running simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other — is a commonplace of popular culture, an everyday format for tv dramatic shows of all sorts, for farces, and so on; we take it for granted. But this was not always so.

Linear and episodic narratives go back to the beginnings of literature, but the intertwined narrative in (for example) Shakespeare and Molière looks like the explosion of creative energy you see in a recently devised cultural form. (I say, with utterly unjustified assurance. I feel on pretty firm ground on the beginnings of literature and on the current state of popular culture. But the Shakespeare and Molière stuff, that could just be bullshit speculation, swaggering guy-talk, factitious authority. Don’t trust me on this! Surely someone has looked at the history, but I’m a dunce in literary history so I don’t know about their work. I need help here.)]

What does the freaky 9-year-old kid do with the Fairyland bits from MND?

One, he tries to enlist his playmates in a performance of them. Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! He turns out to lack both the salesmanship and the executive skills to pull this off, but it at least provides moments of satisfying silliness. I mean, Puck and Bottom, this stuff is roll-on-the-floor funny.

(Well, most 9-year-olds aren’t equipped to appreciate the threat in Puck’s allure, the deep seriousness just under the surface of his playfulness, or the real danger that lives there. I caught the scents of all of that, enough to find Puck both thrilling and troubling, but I got no more than scents, and I wouldn’t expect 9-year-olds to get any of it. And that’s fine. They could come back to it as adults, seeing it with different eyes, and find very different things in it.)

Two, he skim-reads the entire complete works of William Shakespeare. All of it: King Lear (stunning, stuck agonizingly in my mind all my life), Titus Andronicus (bloody, violent, repellent), Timon of Athens (boring, never came back to), Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, sonnets I didn’t understand enough of to understand what it was that I didn’t understand, the whole fucking thing.

I am eternally glad I did that. It was revelatory. Oh god, that language, breaking over me like a tidal wave; and the stories, intricate fever-bright depictions of lives wholly unlike anything in my experience. Plus, I got a kind of crude skeleton knowledge of Shakespeare I could use when I was older: when The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar came along in high school, I had a rough idea of what was coming; and as an adult, I could return to Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear again and again, finding fresh and surprising depths in their stories.

[Side notes. While I was crashing through Shakespeare, I was also embarking on my life of pianism and immersion in music; becoming enchanted by the basics of differential calculus, gleaned from my World Book Encyclopedia (I tried to share my enthusiasm for calculus with my grade school classmates, with no more success than my MND project); spending summer days riding into the woods on my bike to collect wildflowers, which I identified and then preserved in the beautiful Swiss flower press my dad had handed down to me; devising a fabulous peanut butter cake recipe with Lenore; and discovering the erotic potential of the male body, from Stag at Sharkey‘s in that World Book Encyclopedia. At 10, puberty hit me like lightning, and I made the further discovery that nature had given me — surprise! — a hairy body, a powerful masculine smell, and a very high sex drive, things I eventually came to view as gifts, just like all the rest. (The Alpine nose was there all along, and eventually I came to view it too as a kind of gift, an outward and visible sign of my Swissness, which had to be a good thing because I got it from my father and grandfather.)

Just now, reading the bits and pieces of my story that I told you in the last paragraph, I saw how bold, even fearless, that fairy-boy was. He was all that other stuff, and, as it turned out, a genuine faggot, but also one tough kid, a boy you wouldn’t want to mess with. Plus, as virtually every adult he came across sooner or later said to him: unique.

The greatest gifts, the greatest blessings that that weird kid got, however, came from his parents, and not, I think, congenitally, but through their example: empathy and a keen sense of moral responsibility, which led him to believe that everyone is unique (some of us have special talents, but each of us has their own way of being and their own story, and those deserve honor and respect; meanwhile, people with special talents have a responsibility to use them to help others, to give them a hand up).

None of this prepared the kid for the fact of evil; Shakespeare presented him with the problem, vividly and painfully, but offered no explanation and no solution. The kid grappled with it then: he was devastated by the details of the Holocaust as they came to light, and by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in the same years I wrote about above, every fucking thing happens at the same time, all the stories are tangled together.

It never got better. He was a young man when he learned (through Kurt Vonnegut) the very old news of the fire-bombing of Dresden, and that devastated him afresh. He was a man of middle age when he learned the story of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the (many) stories he picked up from his tricks at the gay baths, in this case from a gravely nice young black man Alex (his sex name) had just traded blow jobs with, who had the inside skinny on this much much older news, and when he looked up reports on the event, Alex wept with angry despair at such incomprehensible wickedness.

The thing is, he took it all personally. I take it all personally. How could you do otherwise? I would have saved them if I could.

(I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was going to be in my story, it wasn’t supposed to be part of my performance for you, it just bubbled up, but it obviously must be incredibly important to me, so I’ve left it in.)]

But about Mendelssohn (d’ya remember Mendelssohn?). From Wikipedia:

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847), born and widely known as Felix Mendelssohn, was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period. Mendelssohn’s compositions include symphonies, concertos, piano music, organ music and chamber music. His best-known works include the overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the oratorio St. Paul, the oratorio Elijah, the overture The Hebrides, the mature Violin Concerto and the String Octet. The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is also his. Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words are his most famous solo piano compositions.

A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian

Besides MND, two things of tangential interest to me to note here: Mendelssohn’s Jewishness, and the fabulous String Octet.

Mendelssohn, the Jew (of sorts). He might have been baptized as Christian, but he chose not to slough off his (quite distinguished) family name, credit to him. But whatever actions he took in his life, he would forever have fallen under some version of the harsh One Drop Rule as applied to Jews; in any case a prominent Jewish grandfather couldn’t possibly be overlooked, and the viciously antisemitic Richard Wagner got right on the case. Below, the intro to the Wikipedia article on the topic, which I’m just going to let sit here without further comment, because you really wouldn’t like me when I get angry:

“Das Judenthum in der Musik” (German for “Jewishness in Music”, but normally translated Judaism in Music; spelled after its first publications, according to modern German spelling practice, as ‘Judentum’) is an essay by Richard Wagner which attacks Jews in general and the composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn in particular. It was published under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (NZM) of Leipzig in September 1850 and was reissued in a greatly expanded version under Wagner’s name in 1869. It is regarded by some as an important landmark in the history of German antisemitism.

Being Jew-adjacent (as I now put it). Back in southeastern Pennsylvania, mostly because of my parents’ Jewish friends and business associates (you need to know that I grew up in a working-class suburb with a legal covenant against both blacks and Jews and with a lot of open Roman Catholic hostility towards Jews).

Here in NoCal it’s something quite different, something I have actively come to enjoy. Thing is, the locals — Jews included — are stunningly poor at distinguishing Alpine noses from Jewish noses, so I mostly just get pegged as Jewish. (Well, how many Swiss guys do you think you’d see walking the streets of Palo Alto?)

I’m fine with this, in fact I feel honored by it. It’s no skin off my religious nose, because I’m divorced from church affiliations of any kind and not inclined to hook up with a synagogue (or mosque) instead. And if someone goes for me Wagner-style as a dirty Jew, well, they really won’t like me when I get angry.

The Mendelssohn String Octet. Op. 20, from 1825. To my taste, a masterpiece. Subtle, delicious, deeply satisfying in its surface and in its form. But another musical work I’m not entirely rational about — for reasons made clear in this quote from my 1/16/20 posting “At the rim of the mournful valley, singing”:

The music playing during [Ann Daingerfield Zwicky’s] last moments [of life] was the Mendelssohn String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, which still seems to me to be a work of extraordinary warmth and affirmation, a little miracle.

I was playing that music for her, holding her in my arms as she died. You don’t need to know any more than that.

You can link here to a brilliant (in several senses) performance of the whole thing, by the Son Quartet and Vasara Quartet together, recorded on 5/18/14 at Super String Sunday, the Royal College of Music’s annual celebration of string music. The 1st movement (Allegro moderato) builds to an outbreak of bright joy (which climaxes in the 4th, Presto, movement). And the 3rd movement, Scherzo, looks forward to the Scherzo 2nd movement from Mendelssohn’s MND music. The only thing left to say is that Mendelssohn composed this amazing piece of music when he was 16.

MND. Finally, Lenore’s gift. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake, ca. 1786 (Tate Britain Image) [with Puck looking both fey and a bit diabolical]

At two separate times, Felix Mendelssohn composed music for William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in German Ein Sommernachtstraum). First in 1826, near the start of his career, he wrote a concert overture (Op. 21). Later, in 1842, only a few years before his death, he wrote incidental music (Op. 61) for a production of the play, into which he incorporated the existing overture. The incidental music includes the famous Wedding March.

Four movements: 1 Overture, 2 Scherzo, 3 Intermezzo, 4 Nocturne, 5 Wedding March. The Scherzo is magical, joyous, and playful — the music of Fairyland (with, by the way, the flute solo from hell, if you’re a flautist). You can link here to a performance of the Scherzo by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev.

(You can link here to a performance of the whole thing by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit.)

The Shakespeare. Oh yes, the play that all this has been about. Well, actually, all this has been about joy and playfulness, and the Shakespeare and all the rest has been a vehicle for that. But, from Wikipedia, the nutshell summary:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy written by William Shakespeare c. 1595 or 1596. The play is set in Athens, and consists of [five interconnecting] subplots that revolve around the [wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon queen Hippolyta]. One subplot involves a conflict among four Athenian lovers. Another follows a group of six amateur actors rehearsing the play which they are to perform before the wedding. Both groups find themselves in a forest inhabited by fairies who manipulate the humans and are engaged in their own domestic intrigue. [That is, the action is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon.]

[There have been tons of realizations, versions, and adaptations, including two especially notable film adaptations:]

… A 1935 film version was directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. The cast included James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Joe E. Brown as Francis Flute, Dick Powell as Lysander, Anita Louise as Titania and Victor Jory as Oberon.

… A 1968 film version was directed by Peter Hall. The cast included Paul Rogers as Bottom, Ian Holm as Puck, Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, Ian Richardson as Oberon, Judi Dench as Titania, and Sebastian Shaw as Quince. This film stars the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is directed by Peter Hall.

I have both of these on DVD. The Peter Hall production is really fine filmed Shakespeare. The Max Reinhardt production is a fabulous 1930s HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, with an amazing Hollywood cast (Mickey Rooney was 15 when the movie was made and looks, oh, 10; but he was a seasoned actor by then, and shines in the film) (and, by the way, Jimmy Cagney was a really fine physical actor).

The Reinhardt style. It’s late in the afternoon on 4/20, and I’ve gone back to the Reinhardt for another view (it’s been quite a few years). I was dead-stunned when the overture finished and the action began with Theseus and Hippolyta: the visual style — sets and costumes, and the acting style too — was eerily familiar, from some movies that I’d been re-watching with great pleasure much more recently.

The Flash Gordon movie serials. Theseus and Hippolyta in Athens, Flash and Dale on the planet Mongo.

I realized that in the course of my life, the Flash Gordon serials (featuring a frequently shirtless Buster Crabbe, who served as an early object of sexual desire for me) came first, then, significantly later, the Reinhardt MND. Both in what I must have thought of as generic 1930s Hollywood style.

Flash Gordon on this blog:

— in my 11/14/10 posting “Flash Gordon over the years”

— in my 9/29/19 posting “Musclemen from Mars”, with a section on Flash Gordon

But in fact the Reinhardt came first, and the Athens segments are highly stylized as stage productions (while the working-class actor characters and the fairies have a much more realistic acting style). The Reinhardt MND in 1933 (based on an earlier stage production), then Flash Gordon starting in 1936.

So: did the serial pick up that visual style from Reinhardt, or was that just in the water of the 1930s? I have no idea, just throwing out the question.

I do think, watching the Reinhardt now, that I would have cut the movie differently, would have gone right into the first Athens scenes, without the extremely long introductory part that makes the audience stare at an actionless screen while Mendelssohn’s entire goddamn MND music plays in a dreadful recording — all of this, I assume, is intended to announce solemnly that THIS IS CULTURE, You Proles, It’s Shakespeare and Classical Music, not just Hollywood fun.

I truly hate that initial framing, and the butchery of my beloved Mendelssohn.

The thing is, the movie is truly wonderful Hollywood fun and should be appreciated on those terms. Look, I laughed, I gasped, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

And, anyway, I am a prole, proud of it, a union guy from the age of 17 on; I am also a distinguished university professor and all that other good shit. I was once given the great gift of Shakespeare (who did in fact write for proles) and Mendelssohn too. Oh what a world, that has such wonders in it.

(Oh my god, the wedding scene! My dear, the costumes are not to be believed.)

An MND queer bonus. From my 4/13/11 posting “Were the World Mine”:

This weekend: two more viewings of the film Were the World Mine, a gay musical based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and set in a boys’ school. (I got the DVD many months ago, watched it again on Sunday as is, and then once more all the way through with the film-makers’ comments.) It’s a teen love story and immensely sweet — very affecting for me.

An apology. Yes, I know: tl;dnr. I’m sorry. In my defense: you wouldn’t believe how much stuff got ruthlessly excised from the earlier drafts, really good stuff. But it did take me about 50 hours to assemble this version, so it must be a crushing burden to read. And I do understand how very, um, peculiar this posting is, even for me; I hope you’ve been able to find some entertainment in it. See Puck, up at the top.


3 Responses to “Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Well, I *am* an idiot. Why I am suddenly so exercised about the problem of evil? Because we are, right now, knee-deep in Hitler-level, Stalin-level evil, in the midst of a gigantic human disaster, and there’s little most of us can do. How does someone become so deeply blunted morally that they can zestfully engineer mass murder?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Chamber music enthusiast (and player himself) Bill Stewart writes to recommend this wonderful performance of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s String Octet by the Alexander and Afiara String Quartets (to which he has a complex connection):

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    When I’ve written something — a poem, a short story, a posting — I often go back afterwards and analyze my own work. While I’m writing these things, I try not to overthink what I’m doing, try to just let stuff fall on the page in ways that seem satisfying to me.

    But I’ll happily analyze anything, and that includes my own writings. And then I see things that I didn’t know were there.

    So it was with this posting. One thing I’ve noticed is that the insertions of factual material from Wikipedia articles serve a compositional function as well as the obvious informational one: they provide islands of rest from the intensity of the surrounding material, and they’re carefully placed. Withheld for a long time as the passion of the piece builds to the problem-of-evil intrusion, then, finally: “But about Mendelssohn (d’ya remember Mendelssohn?)” — with its jokey Anna-Russellian parenthesis — to give the reader some space to breathe.

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