Just as Good Friday belongs to Bach’s settings of the Passion, so Easter Sunday has a special place for Mahler’s Second Symphony, “The Resurrection.” Mahler brought drama into the world of the symphony in a way attained by no other composer (Beethoven stands a the precursor in his Ninth Symphony). And the Resurrection Symphony presents both death and the Last Judgment in their most compelling portraits (the first movement originated in a tone poem called “Funeral Rites).
The composer’s vision of the last judgment and salvation occurs in the last movement, and the entry of the chorus at the end, materializing out of nothingness, provides a particularly magical instance of writing (the text comes from Klopstock’s hymn as amended by Mahler). I recall a matinee performance I heard in Orchestra Hall conducted by Georg Solti and dedicated to Dwight Eisenhower (who had just passed away). Solti, who was auditioning for the position of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director, outdid himself and earned a very rare standing ovation. But the piece itself commands this accolade, just as Beethoven’s Ninth does. It captures a noumenous essence assuring us that the spirit does indeed endure. We can hear the depth of Mahler’s in these and his other remarkable symphonies, “So long as ears can hear and eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Nothing so much captures the spirit (or grief, if you will) of Good Friday as the two surviving settings of the Passion by J.S. Bach. Felix Mendelssohn first reproclaimed Bach’s genius to the world with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 Berlin at the Sing-Akademie (though Leipzig had featured performances all through the 18th century). I’ve sung the St. Matthew in a famous rendition directed by Joshua Rifkin in 1983. But my favorite Bach Passion remains the St. John, which I have sung as a chorister.
The best performance of Bach’s St. John Passion remains that by Kenneth Slowik, on period instruments with his select group of Smithsonian Singers. It shines and shatters in its emotional impact. How remarkably music enhances the already moving import of the text. The great musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has the last word on Bach’s ability to affect us, writing in 19th-Century Music (paraphrased), “The main thing that nineteenth-century music owed to Bach’s music was the insight that [counterpoint can have vivid character] and that [vivid character need not eschew counterpoint]—that is, that the strict style does not have to produce musical fossils and a wealth of expression does not have to be lawless.”
My father and I played in a small drama during my childhood and adolescence. The lines ran:
“You’ll be surprised to learn that with every passing year your father will grow smarter.”
Today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, and although I realized the truth underlying his casual jest long before he passed away over two decades ago, it continues to grow on me. We didn’t have much conflict over the years, partly because we were so unlike. He was an athlete, I an aesthete. He knew well how to deal with people, I knew how to challenge them. These various talents proved valuable to each in his chosen field, he as a corporate salesman and executive, I as a scholar.
But I learned from him despite our differences, for he appreciated keenly the various qualities people brought to the human endeavor, he observed them closely, and he enjoyed them. His motto, had he written it, would have read simply, “Live and let live.” I benefited enormously from that maxim, for as a gay man he wanted me to have a happy life above all.
Our last conversation on the day of his death (a Sunday) lodges in my memory. He planned to go with my mother to early church, and I commented that he seemed to be quite regular in attendance where he hadn’t been before. He replied laconically, “Cramming for final exams.” His last words to me ran, “I love you, son.” The feeling will always remain mutual.
Yesterday, quite by chance, I stumbled on a movie available through Netflix called Quartet. It concerns a retirement home for aging musicians who mount a gala for the benefit of the home. The actors, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, and Billy Connolly among them, give superb performances as people confronting the process of aging, particularly acute for singers, but also for others. It deserves viewing.
During the end credits, we see that some of the players really did work at one time as quite famous singers or musicians I have on some recordings of the London Philharmonic or the BBC orchestra, and that adds a very nice touch. “Growing old isn’t for sissies,” Bette Davis once said, a line quoted in the film. Here’s to courage.
Though I draft this post in advance, it will appear on a very somber date for me: twenty years ago today Curtis Allen Carey died five days past his 33rd birthday. I shall always feel that he didn’t have time to live his life fully or contribute whatever he could to the world. In this he left many questions unanswered and unanswerable.
How much I have missed him in the intervening time words cannot express. I think of him every day a bit still, I often write remembering him (my first two novels reveal glimpses), and, perhaps most telling, some of the habits he instilled in me when we lived together still linger (yes, Curt, I’m still folding towels the way you wanted). He remains the only person I have loved in this way, so deeply that he engrafted himself into my very being. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts this best in the sixth of her Sonnets from the Portuguese:
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.
Though I would never claim that Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel deserved to win Best Picture, it’s a delightfully whimsical film relating the life of a hotel in central Europe that transforms from a grand resort during the (we are to assume) 1930s to a property under the domination of fascists (Nazis) and then to a drab postwar heap under an eastern-European regime. The picture won four Oscars in various categories, nevertheless, but most viewers will fail to notice that Anderson admittedly lifted the story from the novels of Stefan Zweig. He’s a terrific example of a Viennese author raised with fin-de-siècle sensibilities, and as a Jewish intellectual he had to flee his native land when Hitler took power. Despairing of the world, he committed suicide in exile at the beginning of 1942 when the Allies were losing the war on every front. His literary legacy deserves our attention.
As for the show, which I watch religiously every year, it fell rather flat. Much as I admire Neil Patrick Harris, he lacks the instincts of a good standup comedian (his talent for the theater and for TV are impeccable). The show dragged on interminably, and some of the blame must go to the director, the writers, and the other creative talent. If Harris had better material, I’m sure he could have shone more brightly
Last night I watched the movie of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (which I had not seen on stage). It’s a terrific film, one in the family that includes another favorite, Longtime Companion. Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer and the rest of the cast turned in terrific performances along with the rest of the cast. And the portrayal of those initially confused, then frightening, then somber times summons indelible memories. To memorialize each of my friends who died in Chapel Hill, New York, Washington, and Chicago would take a book that I am unable to write. Closest to the New York experience in Normal Heart was Dean Johnson, assistant director of the New York Gay Men’s Chorus, accompanist for various Broadway stars, and former graduate student. His talent slipped from the world after the arrival of HAART, because it could not reverse the complications he suffered from HIV though it held the virus in check. Somebody asked me once how many of my friends died. That answer is simple: all save one; I and he alone live to tell the tale.
Recently I met by chance a young chorus-line member of a prominent Broadway show, who was discussing an AIDS benefit with another cast member. “I know it’s important to the older generation,” this handsome man opined, “But it seems so far removed from now.” It’s not: the rate of infection in the US has remained relatively constant since 1990, and chances are the he or one of his friends will contract HIV at some point in their lives. A former colleague at Chapel Hill, center of HIV/AIDS research, once told me that every adult in the US between the ages of 13-65 should be tested once a year. For there’s no need to die, and less chance of transmitting the disease if treated. And that bore in on me tragically about three years ago when a very good friend who hadn’t been tested for 7 years died in the space of two weeks from respiratory failure. It’s not over yet; the threat merely lies dormant to take us at unawares.
The Normal Heart shows the beginnings of how our shared tragedy awakened gay activism and the fight for civil rights. But in this case the uses of adversity were not “sweet.” For we may have found “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones” but we certainly did not find “good in everything.”
The packed theater for a local screening of Into the Woods gratified me, even if the audience proved somewhat restive (dine-in theater seems like a good idea until one experiences the commotion it entails). My friends Jim and Ann came with me after the long Christmas weekend, and our general verdict was positive. I preferred the cinematic to the stage version (heresy, but there you have it). The singing, the special effects, the acting were all superior, and then Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen didn’t exactly hurt my eyes. They also played characters that typified the pretty boys I’ve often dated: self-absorbed, demanding, insecure, and constantly whining. I don’t know if that’s Sondheim’s personal experience, but it sums up mine. In The Broken Hearts Club one sage older gay man opines, “Most of us are just average. In the end I think we’re the happiest.” At any event, Sondheim and Lapine deserve credit for teasing out a few of the messages in fairy tales. Did they read Bettelheim? Who knows.
My holiday visit with my terrific sister, Linda, allowed—among visits to some of our favorite eateries and museums—an early viewing of The Imitation Game (an account of Alan Turing’s life and accomplishments). And my friend Pier generously lent me a DVD copy of another Turing cinema biography, Breaking the Code. For the comfort of general audiences The Imitation Game downplayed Turing’s homosexuality (though one could read it there, somewhat encrypted), whereas Breaking the Code spent much more time on Turing’s tortured personal life and also on his views about artificial intelligence (the revolution that enables this blog, along with practically every other technological advance in our 21st-century world).
One could hope that The Imitation Game would have done both, but exhibitors have their limitations, one of which confines most movies to 2 hours unless they address action or fantasy. A true picture of the man emerges only from viewing both movies, and then, my friend and bridge partner Paul reminds me, from reading Hodge’s biography. Still, we rely on mainstream releases to bring the accomplishments of gay men to the public consciousness, and that can’t be bad.
During my recent New York sojourn I was lucky enough to see Bernstein, Comden, and Green’s wonderful On the Town in a spectacular new production at the Lyric (other entertainment included Cabaret with the immensely talented Alan Cumming and the Berlin Philharmonic performing my edition of Schumann’s 4th Symphony in Carnegie Hall).
On the Town was based on Jerome Robbins and Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free, and the musical encapsulates a great deal of dancing as a result. But what interested me was the vitality Bernstein brings to his music as a result of his gay experiences (he was bisexual, but tended toward the homosexual). Clearly he knew something of one-night stands, and the tale of three soldiers on 24-hour shore leave reflects that youthful enthusiasm. I could wish that the sailors had discovered one another (two of the actors are straight, but get a load of Jay Armstrong Johnson, openly gay and appearing on stage in his skivvies, to borrow the argot of a bygone era). This production earned its designation as a Times Critic’s Pick, the music is terrific, and it’s a monument to the accomplishment of a gay composer.