Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorials and Petty Celebs

The first few days in May mark the 60th anniversary of the capitulation of Germany and its allies to the American allied forces back in 1945. Only a few now remember a war that had cost millions of lives, caused untold agony, shattering the lives of millions of those remaining, leveled entire cities, and transformed the earth and society. Calendars rarely indicate the event. But, there was a memorial of sorts at the National Gallery (London) that Norman Lebrecht found to be hardly worthy of those momentous war years that inspired such momentous music.

He writes, “no conflict has produced so much art and of such elevated quality as the Second World War… it was Britten’s opera Peter Grimes and Walton’s film music for Henry V; …The great cultural act of remembrance was Britten’s War Requiem, premiered at the reconsecration of Coventry’s bombed-out Cathedral in May 1962.”

Mr. Lebrecht continues, “Even more remarkably, the cultural rebirth contradicted the old adage that when the cannons roar the muses are silent. … If one image prevails it is of thousands of bank clerks, civil servants and canteen staff queuing in their lunch hour to enter a National Gallery, denuded of art and under constant threat of air raids, where the white-haired Myra Hess was to play a piano sonata by Beethoven.

“How pathetic, then, was the travesty that was staged this weekend on the steps of that selfsame National Gallery to mark the 60th anniversary of victory. Pop singers and petty celebs were paraded before rain-soaked veterans in a rose-tinted event, no hint of the creative energies of those great days, no intimation of the numinous. In the anti-elitist mindset of those we have re-elected to govern us, greatness and art are two dirty words.”
(Norman Lebrecht, La Scena Musicale, May 13)

Well said! I have looked at many of our principal cities’ activities and it could apply equally to the “entertainment” on our Memorial Day events.

We despair for ignorance. In the U.S. the May events aren’t even officially recognized. Instead, because we have been embroiled in so many wars since 1775 (10 major conflicts are recognized-not counting the last two), we honor 3,727,423 killed and wounded (!!) in all those wars on a single Memorial Day established in 1868 after the Civil War, on May 30, but later changed to the last Monday in May so that it became a long weekend. In most American cities it has become a seasonal holiday. Its meaning, and “greatness and art” are minimized or forgotten, replaced by sales, races, Curious George, “pop singers and petty celebs”. Unnoticed, a solemn memorial is being transformed into a recreational holiday.

Like Mr. Lebrecht’s lament, much the same could be said of American music born of our wartimes. Look at the productivity of WWII alone, to say nothing of those previous and since that have contributed so much to greatness and art: Barber’s, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Symphony No. 3 , Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Bernstein’s On the Town, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Symphony No. 3, Diamond’s Symphony No. 3, and String Quartet No. 3, Harris’ Symphony No. 6, Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw, Grant-Still’s In Memoriam, R.Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, and the list has barely begun. If any one of these is ever performed on Memorial Day it would be a rare and notable event. All this too is forgotten when their greatness and art could enhance the dignity and remembrance of those historic days in May 1945 as well as those of the other nine wars.

“So what,” you ask? “That stuff is unimportant. We need to deal with the now, man... and I happen to like Puff Daddy.”

Well then, let us despair for the present first, then the future.


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