Bach around the clock

There are big celebrations going on right now in the music world as a major anniversary rolls around.  Composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born 333 years ago this week in the little town of Eisenach, Germany.  Of that event, columnist and Bach aficionado William F. Buckley, Jr. said Bach’s birth was “as though God had decided to clear his throat to remind the world of his existence.”

In the genre of what we usually (if a little misleadingly) refer to as classical music Bach is without equal.  I once saw him described as the “Homer of music,” equating his role in music history with that of the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey in western literature.  His output was nothing short of incredible:  several record labels have issued sets of his complete works that run to over 150 CD’s.  He also composed in a dazzling array of styles, from solo pieces to small chamber ensembles to big choral works, writing both religious and secular music.  Few works of art of any sort touch both the rational and the spiritual in the way Bach’s music does.  Some of his music has what can only be considered a mathematical precision about it, with independent, impossibly intricate lines weaving in and out of each other, somehow never coming unmoored from the key.  Yet to hear one of his transcendent organ or choral works in a sanctuary is to hear intimations of the holy.

Composer Claude Debussy, born nearly 200 years after Bach and whose style one could accurately describe as anti-Bach, nevertheless called him “a benevolent God to whom all musicians should offer a prayer before starting work.”  Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma burst upon the world’s consciousness with his luminous recording of Bach’s famous cello suites.  In 1955, a 22–year-old piano wunderkind named Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and it made him a superstar in the classical world and pretty much everywhere else.

(Excerpt from Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto)

Many of Bach’s pieces are perfect for learning music, too.  My friend Sara Stephens Kotrba has been teaching piano for 30 years and was the one who first introduced me to the Goldberg Variations back when she and I were playing in Austin together.  She considers him “the most important pedagogical composer in keyboard repertoire. The ability to internalize more than one voice is the critical skill that one develops from studying and listening to Bach.”  Countless piano students throughout the ages have taken giant steps toward proficiency by mastering a portion of his sprawling 1722 work known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

In 2010 a cellist named Dale Henderson began playing Bach on New York City subway platforms.  A year later on the composer’s birthday, he issued an open invitation to other musicians to do the same thing, not for money but just to play his music for people where it wouldn’t usually be heard.  He called it “Bach in the Subways Day,” and a movement was born.  This week, thousands of musicians, from Anchorage, Alaska to New Haven, Connecticut, and from Hong Kong to Oslo will be playing Bach’s works not just in subway stations, but in public parks, malls, zoos, restaurants, and coffee shops.  (Here in Texas, however, only musicians in Lubbock and Austin have registered their participation.  Maybe others will be doing so.)

San Francisco Chronicle music critic Octavio Roca once observed that Bach “gave us a series of compositions through which—not merely in which—there arises a vast, humanistic vision of eternal truths.”  Nowhere else but in the greatest expressions of art could we hope to gain such insight.  Happy Birthday, indeed.

(J.S. Bach statue at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany)



Accomplices in Killing the Center

If you want to see vivid proof of the collapse of the center in American politics you don’t have to look any further than the ballots the small percentage of us filled out for the election that took place yesterday. Traces of this destruction were not to be found in the names of the candidates, however. Because it was a primary election and voters indicated beforehand whether they wanted to fill out a Republican or Democratic ballot, many of the names were familiar from a party affiliation while some weren’t. But there was no evidence in any of the names that any candidate was lacking in the ability to deal with the complexities of real life.

Not so in other parts of the ballot. It was in making that choice of Republican or Democrat that one was also directed to vote Yes or No on a particular slate of propositions that the parties were each putting forth for the approval or disapproval of their voters.

The returns from these are shocking in what they reveal. Each of the propositions on the Democratic slate passed by margins typically of 97% to 3%. Some of the Republican margins of approval were less stark, but only by comparison.   Here, too, one found returns on the order of 96% to 4%, making the occasional 87%-13% look like a nail-biter. Of all the propositions proffered to Democrats for their approval, none received less than 92% support. There was even a 99% support for one, a number that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a ballot that didn’t have Saddam Hussein’s name listed as a candidate. Republican opposition never rose above 35% and that only once. Most opposition was in the single digits.

What’s immediately evident here is the skill with which the drafters of these propositions know their audience and can manipulate the responses they want to receive from voters.

What’s marginally less evident—but not by much—is that on both sides this is a perfect example of political positions being crafted to avoid nuance, subtlety and complexity, to avoid voters thinking about their responses and cement in them a surety of purpose and righteousness. I know this is the case from the Republican propositions I saw; the numbers of approval for the Democrat ones indicate that for those it was even more so, which is something I couldn’t have imagined while I stood at the voting machine, reading the Republican offerings, dumbfounded. Each had the vacuous clarity of “Should bad people be punished when they do bad things?” or “Should the state keep people safe?” I’ve never been as egregiously insulted in a voting booth.

The real issues weren’t these of course; they referred to other more controversial and complex issues that were nevertheless phrased in a way to get the response that would fire up the base, as they say.   There were 12 propositions on the Democrat side and 11 on the Republican side, and it’s hard to believe that you’d ever get such near unanimity on a dozen contentious issues from a diverse population if the purpose of the ballot were not to throw complexity overboard and play to everyone’s basest instincts. It is clear that neither party wants voters thinking deeply about any of the issues. That is to say they want no room on the political spectrum for anything less than unanimity, a desire fitting only if you want people to believe all their political opponents are against things like keeping people safe.

On both the right and the left, the purpose was to create polarization and to preclude compromise. This is not how democracy works. This is how totalitarians manipulate their way into power.

(A version of this column appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Thursday, March 8, 2018)

FDR on Washington’s Memory in Wartime

On February 22, 1943, during the darkest days of WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt used the occasion of George Washington’s Birthday to give a radio address that he hoped would inspire Americans to continue the tough fight against the Axis powers.  Here is what he said…

Today this Nation, which George Washington helped so greatly to create, is fighting all over this earth in order to maintain for ourselves and for our children the freedom which George Washington helped so greatly to achieve. As we celebrate his birthday, let us remember how he conducted himself in the midst of great adversities. We are inclined, because of the total sum of his accomplishments, to forget his days of trial.

Throughout the Revolution, Washington commanded an army whose very existence as an army was never a certainty from one week to another. Some of his soldiers, and even whole regiments, could not or would not move outside the borders of their own States. Sometimes, at critical moments, they would decide to re. turn to their individual homes to get the plowing done, or the crops harvested. Large numbers of the people of the colonies were either against independence or at least unwilling to make great personal sacrifice toward its attainment.

And there were many in every colony who were willing to cooperate with Washington only if the cooperation were based on their own terms.

Some Americans during the War of the Revolution sneered at the very principles of the Declaration of Independence. It was impractical, they said- it was “idealistic”—to claim that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights.”

The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government. They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.

You know; they are like the people who carp at the Ten Commandments because some people are in the habit of breaking one or more of them.

We Americans of today know that there would have been no successful outcome to the Revolution, even after eight long years—the Revolution that gave us liberty—had it not been for George Washington’s faith, and the fact that that faith overcame the bickerings and confusion and the doubts which the skeptics and cynics provoked.

When kind history books tell us of Benedict Arnold, they omit dozens of other Americans who, beyond peradventure of a doubt, were also guilty of treason.

We know that it was Washington’s simple, steadfast faith that kept him to the essential principles of first things first. His sturdy sense of proportion brought to him and his followers the ability to discount the smaller difficulties and concentrate on the larger objectives. And the objectives of the American Revolution were so large—so unlimited—that today they are among the primary objectives of the entire civilized world.

It was Washington’s faith—and, with it, his hope and his charity- which was responsible for the stamina of Valley Forge—and responsible for the prayer at Valley Forge.

The Americans of Washington’s day were at war. We Americans of today are at war.

The Americans of Washington’s day faced defeat on many occasions. We faced, and still face, reverses and misfortunes.

In 1777, the victory over General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga led thousands of Americans to throw their hats in the air, proclaiming that the war was practically won and that they should go back to their peacetime occupations—and, shall I say, their peacetime “normalcies.”

Today, the great successes on the Russian front have led thousands of Americans to throw their hats in the air and proclaim that victory is just around the corner.

Others among us still believe in the age of miracles. They forget that there is no Joshua in our midst. We cannot count on great walls crumbling and falling down when the trumpets blow and the people shout.

It is not enough that we have faith and that we have hope. Washington himself was the exemplification of the other great need.

Would that all of us could live our lives and direct our thoughts and control our tongues as did the Father of our Country in seeking day by day to follow those great verses:

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil:

“Rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth.”

I think that most of us Americans seek to live up to those precepts. But there are some among us who have forgotten them. There are Americans whose words and writings are trumpeted by our enemies to persuade the disintegrating people of Germany and Italy and their captives that America is disunited-that America will be guilty of faithlessness in this war, and will thus enable the Axis powers to control the earth.

It is perhaps fitting that on this day I should read a few more words spoken many years ago—words which helped to shape the character and the career of George Washington, words that lay behind the prayer at Valley Forge.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

Those are the truths which are the eternal heritage of our civilization. I repeat them, to give heart and comfort to all men and women everywhere who fight for freedom.

Those truths inspired Washington, and the men and women of the thirteen colonies.

Today, through all the darkness that has descended upon our Nation and our world, those truths are a guiding light to all.

We shall follow that light, as our forefathers did, to the fulfillment of our hopes for victory, for freedom, and for peace.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



President Chester Arthur on George Washington

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation
Whereas both Houses of Congress did on the 20th instant request the commemoration, on the 23d instant, of the one hundredth anniversary of the surrender by George Washington, at Annapolis, of his commission as Commander in Chief of the patriot forces of America; and Whereas it is fitting that this memorable act, which not only signalized the termination of the heroic struggle of seven years for independence, but also manifested Washington’s devotion to the great principle that ours is a civic government of and by the people, should be generally observed throughout the United States:

Now, therefore, I, Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States, do hereby recommend that either by appropriate exercises in connection with the religious services of the 23d instant or by such public observances as may be deemed proper on Monday, the 24th instant, this signal event in the history of American liberty be commemorated; and further, I hereby direct that at 12 o’clock noon on Monday next the national salute be fired from all the forts throughout the country.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done this 21st day of December, A. D. 1883, and of the Independence of the United States the one hundred and eighth.


By the President:


Secretary of State.

General George Washington Resigning his Commission, John Trumbull, 1824, oil on canvas, US Capitol Rotunda

On George Washington’s Birthday

Because Presidential history is one of my fields of study, I’m often asked who is my “favorite” President or who I rank as the “best” President.  George Washington is my answer to both, and we downplay his significance at the cost of understanding what the Presidency really is, and what it could have been if Washington were different.  I wrote a version of this piece a couple of years ago on his birthday to explain my thoughts more fully.

Do you know what day it is? Other than Thursday? It’s George Washington’s birthday. Yes, President’s Day was last Monday, but today is Washington’s real birthday. Since we’re in a heated political season (but when are we not, these days), the presidency is something we think about almost continually, but today especially we owe it to ourselves to reflect a bit on Washington.

“He didn’t do anything special, he was just the first,” is what you often get from people these days about Washington, reflecting the general diminution of him and his legacy in the popular mind. He’s the guy on the quarter and the dollar. Didn’t he chop down a cherry tree once, too? And have wooden teeth? He’s almost all caricature. But downplaying George Washington is emblematic of a thousand different things our contemporary culture does that keep us from having a proper relationship with our history. Without such a relationship it is as though we as a nation awaken anew each day with only a dim recollection of the knowledge we gained the day before.

But the American Revolution took the course it did, and the United States emerged as it did, largely because of Washington. The presidency over which we fight today didn’t have to be established as it was. It was, in fact, a very experimental thing and many people suspected it might evolve into a king. Washington being the first president, and even more, his willingness to step aside after just eight years were crucial to its lasting success. Poet Robert Frost said that George Washington was “one of the few people in the whole history of the world who was not carried away by power,” and Washington is notable because he dedicated himself to a cause more interesting to him than his own self-interest, a cause bigger than his own ambition. In a sense he was more important for what he didn’t do, for the actions he chose not to take, and for denying any personal ambition. That’s a much more difficult thing to celebrate but it’s a far more important quality in a politician than we admit these days when our candidates promise endless action.

In the larger sense, it’s good to remember that America didn’t just happen in a predestined path. It was created—its institutions were thought out by people with a certain set of political and social convictions, not to mention personal character. As much as anything, it should be from a sense of gratitude that these convictions were what they were (instead of something else: the convictions of Napoleon, for instance) that we should celebrate the birth of certain people. But instead we often water down the idea of character and conviction as though we ourselves shy away from such a standard.

Lumping George Washington into a bland “President’s Day” instead of allowing ourselves time to reflect on his unique position does a disservice to everyone, in addition to the institution of the presidency itself. In part we remember and honor Washington because in some important way his ideas have a value that transcend time and individualism, and are convictions that we ourselves—not to mention our contemporary politicians—would do well to set our course by. It’s about honoring an individual and being thankful that he allowed himself to be guided by some things and not others, and the distinctiveness with which such an allowance marks very few individuals in history. That these things can be said about Martin Luther King, Jr. just as certainly as about Washington speaks to the justification of celebrating them both independently of those who happened to share the same vocation. Benjamin Harrison—a fine fellow in his own right, I’m sure—was nevertheless no George Washington in the same way that Jesse Jackson, say, was no Martin Luther King. We celebrate something unique when we celebrate particular birthdays like these.

The future depends on our having and nurturing a proper relationship to our history, one that is itself living and emotional. Without such an attachment, our very future as a nation is subject to erosion by a thousand competing winds. As we survey a global landscape potted with what we now clinically call “failed states” we ought to pause to appreciate our success. For just as in its creation, the maintenance of the United States doesn’t just happen either, although some people seem to think otherwise. Our memory has a purpose, and it ought not to be diluted. Preservation happens through our remembering specifics. Specific events, specific people. Not simply “Presidents.” The memory of George Washington deserves better than that. So do we as a nation.