January 29, 2020

Shining On: From Mozart to Lennon, Schubert to Kobe

By Stuart Mitchner

If you take the long view, this week begins with the birth of Mozart on January 27, 1756 and ends with the birth of Schubert on January 31, 1797.

If you’re looking for something more passionately immediately here and now, something to give you the energy to break through a writing slump to the other side of the impeachment trial and the mind-numbing miasma of talking heads (on or off pikes), you turn to a song John Lennon composed and recorded in record time 50 years ago, January 27, 1970. At first it’s fun to give yourself up to outrageous fantasies, like blasting Lennon’s relentless, in-your-face message at full bi-partisan volume from a dozen speakers located above the head of the chief justice: “Instant Karma’s gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head, better get yourself together, pretty soon you’re gonna be dead…. Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

What makes the song surpass any of Lennon’s more famous anthems is the inspirational chorus, “We all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun.” Good luck imagining both sides of the Senate chamber of horrors rising en masse singing “We all shine on.” Try picturing Adam Schiff gazing prayerfully over Mitch McConnell’s stone wall singing acapella “Imagine a brotherhood of man” or “Give Peace a Chance.” Speaking for myself, to stand with a group of people at an antiwar protest singing “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance,’” is too much like Oliver Twist in the poor house food line mewling, “Please, sir, can we have another nice warm bowl of peace and understanding, sir, please.”

What you need is a crowd of thousands and Lennon back from the dead on the megaphone leading the chorus in a voice that cuts straight to the emotional marrow even though it’s so deeply, chillingly unsentimental, like the voice of someone calling and crying from a mountaintop with the wind of absolute unimpeded possibility blowing through him. While it’s the message and music that’s made “Imagine” a song for the world, as played and sung in videos of singers and musicians passing it from one to another, the Beatles were already doing it on June 25, 1967, for an audience of over 400 million in 25 countries in Our World, the first global television link, with Lennon singing “All You Need is Love,” the song he wrote for the occasion, telling us “nothing you can sing that can’t be sung,” “nothing you can do that can’t be done,” “no one you can save that can’t be saved.”

In this, the time of year when we’re being asked about the best films and best songs and the books that changed our lives, I’m thinking how unimaginable the sixties would be without the spirit epitomized in that moment, to feel you were sharing the same excitement, absorbing the same music, with millions of other people, all over the world. At that moment in time, whatever you call the emotive force — joy, love, wonder — the Beatles reached and enriched more of us than anyone or anything else.

Shining On

Returning to the long view, it’s Mozart who’s reaching and enriching 19-year-old Franz Schubert, on a June day in 1816,  Schubert’s writing in his diary after witnessing a performance of Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor: “All my life I shall remember this fine, clear, lovely day. I still hear softly, as from a distance, the magic strains of Mozart’s music. With what unbelievable power, and yet again how gently did … the masterly playing impress it deep, deep into one’s heart! So do these lovely impressions, which neither time nor circumstance can efface, remain in the mind and influence for good our whole existence. In the dark places of this life they point to that clear-shining and distant future into which our whole hope lies.”

That was a mere 200 years before I watched a memorial replay of world superstar Kobe Bryant’s farewell game in April 2016. The fact that two such universally inspirational performers as Bryant and Lennon died suddenly and violently in the first year of their forties is a coincidence I was unaware of until I started writing this column. Besides the sheer release of escaping eyes-wide-shut from talking-heads-on-pikes to opening eyes and mind and heart to the spectacle of a great athlete doing the unimaginable, there was the moment when he stood at center court and thanked the multitude of fans (“you guys”) as if they were friends and family. More than that, there was his poem, “Dear Basketball,” with its expression of love, spirit and soul, the way he merged the child and  the man and the game in this stanza:

As a six-year-old boy
Deeply in love with you
I never saw the end of the tunnel.
I only saw myself
Running out of one.

Then to see the child-man idea movingly translated into imagery by Disney veteran Glen Keane in the animated film Kobe wrote and narrated and that brought him the first Oscar ever won by a professional athlete. Then to know that Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter died in the helicopter crash. Then to think of the composer of “Instant Karma” and “Imagine” shot down by a disenchanted fan carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, who died ten years ago today.

With all that in mind, where can you go if you’re a writer who has a tendency to attempt impossible connections? Poetry? Music? Shakespeare? There’s only one answer on the week that begins with a composer of whom musicologist Alfred Einstein once said, “He was a child and always remained one.”

Mozart on the Playground

While trying to figure out why I needed some time off, I searched through hundreds of columns looking for the ones that expressed the spirit of the enterprise, the feeling I needed to break free and write like a writer again. So I’m reprising something close to the heart of what I do — I found Mozart at a long-ago nursery school parents’ potluck where I had the good fortune to sit next to a Princeton music professor who was politely listening to me enthuse about Schubert. Toward the end of our talk he gave me the word. “Listen to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola,” he told me in hushed tones, as if he were revealing a hallowed secret or the location of a passage to other worlds. Actually, his words were more down to earth — “It’ll blow your mind.”

What it did was even better. I lived for days in the Neville Marriner recording on Argo and the music was still haunting me when I did my turn as helping parent on the playground one blustery day. I spent much of the morning tending to an older child, a doomed six-year-old boy (brain cancer) of whom the others were afraid. He needed a lot of attention. He would curl in a foetal position at the bottom of the slide, as if he were paralysed, and I had to half-carry him back around to the ladder so he could slide down and curl up at the bottom again. He kept talking a lot of joyless nonsense and was upset when I was called away to do my turn at the swings where I kept five kids going at once, Masako, Toby, Jonah, ShanShan, and Louise, names still clear in my mind all these years later, perhaps because of the intensity of the morning — the doomed boy’s incoherent agony, the tears for stubbed fingers and bruised knees, the mutilated baby mice Jonah found near the sandbox, the devious movement of the wind, and then the way the screech of the swings and the shrieks and yelps of the kids made a sound like a nursery school band tuning up. Thinking of Quasimodo naming his bells, I named the swings for them: Masako, Toby, Jonah, ShanShan, Louise. And all the while Mozart was a presence because the rich, somber tones of the andante were with me, making the morning glow. In the shrill music of the swings I could hear the violin and viola climbing, winding around one another and then unwinding amid a symphonic crescendo of heartache so beautiful it hurt. Later I could still hear those five untuned violins, soaring in and out of unison as I pushed the swings up and up and up, in awe of the way music written 200 years ago by someone with the manner of a child and the spirit of a master seemed to understand, encompass, and express everything that was happening on that playground.